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'Apocalvpse From Below`
Joshua Robert Gold
But this I say, brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both
they that have wives be as though they had none; And they that
weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they
rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And
they that use this world, as not abusing it: Ior the Iashion oI this
world passeth away.
1 Corinthians 7:2931
To strive Ior such a passing awayeven the passing away oI those
stages oI man that are natureis the task oI world politics, whose
method must be called nihilism.
Walter Benjamin, 'Political-Theological Fragment¨
I have no spiritual investment in the world as it is.
Jacob Taubes, The Political Theologv of Paul
Philosopher, rabbi, religious historian, Gnostic: who was Jacob Taubes
and what is at stake in his works? To begin answering this question, it is
useIul to consider his writings in conjunction with those oI Carl Schmitt,
with whom he shared an interest in the theological background oI modern
politics. Although Taubes made the acquaintance oI such thinkers as Ger-
shom Scholem, T. W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, and Jacques Derrida, this
complex history with Schmitt has been the best known and most notori-
ous oI his relationships. Though never blind to the legal theorist`s
political past, Taubes acknowledged his intellectual debt to Schmitt in
JACOB TAUBES. 'APOCALYPSE FROM BELOW` 141
several statements that he made towards the end oI his liIe.
cards out on the table in a lecture given in 1985, he remarked: 'Carl
Schmitt spoke to me as an apocalypticist |Apocalvptiker| oI counter-revo-
lution. As an apocalypticist I knew and know myselI related to him. The
themes |pertaining to the relationship between theology and politics| are
common to us, even iI we draw contrary conclusions.¨
In the same talk
he added, 'Carl Schmitt thinks apocalyptically, but top-down, Irom the
powers that be |von den Gewalten|; I think Irom below |von unten her|.
But what is common to both oI us is the experience oI time and history as
a respite, as reprieve |als Frist, als Galgenfrist|. That too is originally a
Christian experience oI history.¨
Slyly moving between diIIerentiation
and identiIication, this last comment illustrates how Taubes, like Schmitt,
is a theorist oI bordersthough one concerned with complicating rather
than upholding them.
Yet how is one to understand the expression 'apocalypse Irom
below¨? A part oI the answer is to be Iound in Jan Assmann`s observa-
tion that political theology can investigate the relationship oI theology
to hierarchv and order imposed Irom above; or it can consider the role
oI religion in constituting the identity oI a community.
this schema, something like Schmitt`s preoccupation with the doctrine
oI the katechondescribed in The Nomos of the Earth as 'the restrainer
1. For autobiographical accounts oI Taubes` relationship to Schmitt, see Taubes, The
Political Theologv of Paul, ed. Aleida and Jan Assmann, trans. Dana Hollander (StanIord,
CA: StanIord UP, 2005), pp. 97105. See also Taubes, 'Carl Schmitt: ein Apokalyptiker
der Gegenrevolution,¨ in Ad Carl Schmitt. Gegenstrebige Fùgung (Berlin: Merve Verlag,
1987), pp. 730. These volumes also include letters by Taubes to Armin Mohler as well as
to Schmitt himselI and provide invaluable documentation pertaining to the history oI this
2. Taubes, 'Carl Schmitt,¨ p. 16. All translations in the Iollowing pages are mine,
with the exception oI The Political Theologv of Paul and those articles that Taubes Iirst
published in English. I would also like to thank Nils Schott oI the Humanities Center at
Johns Hopkins University Ior his helpIul comments.
3. Ibid., p. 22.
4. As Aleida and Jan Assmann and WolI-Daniel Hartwich note oI Taubes: 'In his
thinking the limit does not have the Iunction oI keeping two areas apart, but rather the
reverse: it plays them out against each other or blends them into one another.¨ Taubes,
Jom Kult :ur Kultur. Bausteine :u einer Kritik der historischen Jernunft, ed. Aleida und
Jan Assmann, WolI-Daniel Hartwich, and WinIried Menninghaus (München: Wilhelm
Fink Verlag, 1996), p. 8 (my translation).
5. Jan Assmann, 'EinIührung: Politische Theologie`: RedeIinition eines BegriIIs,¨
in Herrschaft und Heil. Politische Theologie in Altàgvpten, Israel und Europa (FrankIurt
a. M.: Fischer Verlag, 2002), pp. 1531. See also WolI-Daniel Hartwich, Aleida Assmann,
and Jan Assmann, 'AIterword,¨ in Taubes, Political Theologv of Paul, pp. 13842.
142 JOSHUA ROBERT GOLD
|who| holds back the end oI the world¨would Iall into the Iirst
ExempliIying the alternate interpretation oI political theology
would be Taubes` reading oI Romans 911, which stresses Paul`s identiIi-
cation with Moses as the Iounder oI a new nation and the representative oI
a new law.
From this perspective, 'apocalypse Irom below¨ would be
consistent with Assmann`s call to address the 'horizontal¨ axis oI polit-
ical theology along with its 'vertical¨ one.
However, Assmann`s remark, though perspicacious, brings into relieI
only one aspect oI Taubes` conception oI apocalypse, albeit a crucial one.
Taking his philosophical relationship to Schmitt, Benjamin, and others as
points oI reIerence, the Iollowing pages argue that Taubes transIorms the
theological concept oI apocalypse into a critical category, and that he does
so by thinking through the political and ethical implications oI the claim
that there is an end to time. According to Taubes, this claim represents a
breakthrough in human thought by emancipating consciousness Irom its
subservience to the endless repetition oI natural cycles. However, while
apocalypse takes humanity out oI the realm oI necessity and nature and
places it within the sphere oI Ireedom and history, the apocalyptic quest
Ior total liberation courts potential cataclysm. Consequently, Taubes
argues that apocalypse must guard against its own destructive impulses
without relinquishing its antagonism towards proIane authority. Therein
consists the reason Ior his concern with the passive aspect oI the apoca-
lyptic comportment; therein too consists the reason Ior his account oI
Gnosticism as a turning inward oI apocalypse. Nonetheless, as his inter-
pretation oI Paul shows, Taubes regards apocalyptic thought as a gesture
oI protest against the law whose nihilism precludes any accommodation
to the prevailing political establishment. Thus, Iar Irom uncritically
embracing apocalypse as a gesture oI revolt, Taubes` writings represent a
sustained eIIort to distinguish the oppositional elements contained in this
concept Irom its potentially regressive tendencies.
6. Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth, trans. G. L. Ulmen (New York: Telos Press,
2003), pp. 5960. Jürgen Ebach has elsewhere argued that there is a certain aIIinity
between the katechon and apocalypse. See 'Zeit als Frist: Zur Lektüre der Apocalypse-
Abschnitte in der Abendländische Eschatologie,¨ in Abendlàndische Eschatologie. Ad
Jacob Taubes, ed. Richard Faber, Eveline Goodman-Thau, and Thomas Macho
(Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2001), pp. 8586 (hereaIter cited as Ad Jacob
7. See Ior example Taubes, Political Theologv of Paul, pp. 3940. For Assmann`s
own remarks on the relevance oI Taubes` exegesis oI Romans to the 'horizontal¨ axis oI
political theology, see Herrschaft und Heil, p. 286n42.
JACOB TAUBES. 'APOCALYPSE FROM BELOW` 143
Taubes regards apocalypse as a turning point Ior human conscious-
ness because it coincides with the coming into being oI history. 'The
question oI the essence |Wesen| oI history is being posed,¨ begins his
study Abendlàndische Eschatologie (Occidental Eschatology). 'The ques-
tion oI the essence oI history does not concern individual historical
eventsbattles, victories, deIeats, contracts, political occurrences, eco-
nomic integration, artistic and religious Iormations, the results oI
scientiIic knowledge. This question turns away Irom all oI this and looks
out on the only thing that matters: how is history possible in the Iirst
place, what is the suIIicient Ioundation |der :ureichende Grund| on which
history as possibility rests?¨ In summary he writes, 'occurrences
|Geschehnisse| must be disregarded and it must be asked: what makes a
happening into history |was macht ein Geschehen :ur Geschichte|? What
is history itselI?¨
As this passage indicates, history Ior Taubes does not
merely accumulate Iacts about the past; rather, it is an arena, a site oI
agon, 'the place upon which the substance oI time and the substance oI
eternity, death and liIe cross paths.¨
Apocalypse is signiIicant in the con-
text oI this struggle because it testiIies to the triumph oI eternity and the
overcoming oI time: it promises the passing away oI transience.
According to Taubes, the notion that time is limited is Iundamental to
history, Ior the alternative to apocalyptic temporality is the endless repeti-
tion that characterizes the realm oI nature. Human beings, in thrall to
nature, remain unaware oI their capacity to intervene in the course oI
events; instead, they are entirely subservient to the predictable patterns oI
natural cycles that conIront them as alien, uncontrollable Iorces. It is Ior
this reason that Taubes, like Walter Benjamin, associates nature with the
mythic power oI Iate.
For consciousness that remains entangled in the
web oI myth, writes Taubes, 'everything occurs with that strange imper-
sonality and indiIIerence oI the dream.¨
Consciousness Iinds itselI
trapped in 'the circle oI liIe,¨ 'the eternal recurrence oI the same¨ in
8. Taubes, Abendlàndische Eschatologie (München: Matthes & Seitz Verlag, 1991), p. 3.
9. Ibid., p. 4.
10. For one oI Benjamin`s best-known and most IorceIul accounts oI the mythic char-
acter oI nature, see Goethes Elective Affinities, trans. Stanley Corngold, in Benjamin,
Selected Writings, Jolume 1. 19131926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings
(Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard UP, 1996), pp. 297360. For a discussion oI
Taubes` relationship to Benjamin that Iocuses on his exegesis oI the 'Theological-Political
Fragment,¨ see Günter Hartung, 'Jacob Taubes and Walter Benjamin,¨ in Ad Jacob
Taubes, pp. 41329.
11. Taubes, Abendlàndische Eschatologie, p. 58.
144 JOSHUA ROBERT GOLD
which 'the same Whence and Whither coincide,¨ thereby Iorming 'the
center oI the mythic world.¨
In contrast to this condition, history puts an
end to humanity`s subservience to nature, and not simply because it intro-
duces change where there was Iormerly repetition. More to the point,
Taubes links history to Ireedom, which 'Iirst raises humanity out oI the
circle oI nature into the empire oI history.¨
History and Ireedom are
intertwined because change results Irom the eIIorts oI human beings to
transIorm their worldin other words, history is the domain oI Ireedom
on account oI the inherent negativitv oI human activity, which alters the
world instead oI accepting it as is.
Yet the revolutionary aspect oI apocalypse Ior Taubes not only has to
do with the way that it breaks the hold oI myth over humanity; by positing
an end to time, it also conIers signiIicance to the act oI decision. Taubes
suggests as much in Abendlàndische Eschatologie when he writes: 'In the
order oI eternity Being is sublated by time |als Zeit aufgehoben|. Endless
inIinity characterizes indiIIerent happening |das gleich-gùltige
Geschehen| that does not call Ior decision. History separates itselI Irom
this indiIIerent happening by placing one into the decision Ior truth
|dadurch, daß sie in die Entscheidung um die Wahrheit stellt|.¨
are thereIore two ways in which the apocalyptic structure oI history
makes the act oI decision unavoidable. First, it conIers upon decisions a
12. Ibid., p. 11. In a move that also recalls Benjamin, Taubes argues in later essays that
modernity has witnessed the resurgence oI mythic repetition, and he takes Nietzsche`s
notion oI 'the eternal return oI the same¨ as well as Freud`s notion oI 'the return oI the
repressed¨ as evidence oI the archaic tendencies within modernity. See Taubes, 'Religion
and the Future oI Psychoanalysis,¨ Psvchoanalvsis 4, no. 4/5 (1957): 13642; Taubes,
'Religion und die ZukunIt der Psychoanalyse,¨ in Jom Kult :ur Kultur, pp. 37178; and
Taubes, 'Zur Konjunktur des Polytheismus,¨ in Jom Kult :ur Kultur, pp. 34051. See also
Taubes` remarks on Nietzsche in Political Theologv of Paul, pp. 7688. One should hasten
to add that Taubes` relationship to both Nietzsche and Freud is Iar Irom mere dogmatic
rejection. In Iact, Taubes sees in Nietzsche`s critique oI Christianity 'a deeply humane
impulse against the entanglement oI guilt and atonement, on which the entire Pauline dialec-
ticbut even already that oI the Old Testamentis based. This continually selI-perpetuat-
ing cycle oI guilt, sacriIice, and atonement needs to be broken in order Iinally to yield to an
innocence oI becoming (this is Nietzsche`s expression).¨ Ibid., pp. 8788. In addition, while
he views the return oI the repressed as a modern maniIestation oI mythic thinking, Taubes
also argues that psychoanalysis is indebted to Christianity with regard to its emphasis on
guilt, and that Freud ultimately identiIies himselI with Paul. Ibid., pp. 8895. For a discus-
sion oI Taubes and Nietzsche, see Andreas Urs Sommer, 'Eschatologie oder Ewige
Widerkehr? Friedrich Nietzsche und Jacob Taubes,¨ in Ad Jacob Taubes, pp. 34154.
13. Taubes, Abendlàndische Eschatologie, p. 5.
14. Ibid., pp. 1415.
15. Ibid., p. 4.
JACOB TAUBES. 'APOCALYPSE FROM BELOW` 145
gravity that the realm oI nature can aIIord to do without, owing to the
repetitive character oI mythic temporality. For naturalized consciousness,
decision lacks all sense oI urgency; Ior historical consciousness, however,
the inevitability oI the end prohibits a casual approach to decision. As
Taubes noted oI apocalypse in a 1987 interview, 'Whether one knows it
or not is entirely irrelevant, whether one takes it Ior Iancy or sees it as
dangerous is all uninteresting in view oI the intellectual breakthrough and
experience oI time as respite |daß Zeit Frist heißt|. This has consequences
Ior the economy, actually Ior all liIe. There is no eternal return, time does
not enable nonchalance |Làssigkeit|; rather, it is distress |Bedràngnis|.¨
Thus, the apocalypticist recognizes that all time is borrowed time. More-
over, iI history constitutes a process that culminates in the revelation oI
truth, then it is impossible to disregard how one stands vis-a-vis this pro-
cess; the end not only prohibits indiIIerence towards decision, it also
prohibits indiIIerence towards the meaning oI history itselI. This points
towards the implicitly paradoxical character oI history Ior Taubes: it does
not allow the luxury to deliberate whether or not to opt Ior the truththe
imperative to decide is forced upon us as historical subjects.
Taubes` claim that historical existence entails urgency or duress
points towards another parallel between his thinking and Benjamin`s.
The appropriate point oI reIerence here is the latter`s well-known remark
that 'the state oI emergency` in which we live is not the exception but the
rule,¨ a comment that resembles Taubes` observation in Abendlàndische
Eschatologie that apocalypse possesses 'knowledge |ein Wissen| oI what
is crisis-like in time |ein Wissen um das Krisenhafte der Zeit|¨ because
'apocalyptic chronology assumes that time is not a mere sequence
16. 'Jacob Taubes,¨ in Denken, das an der Zeit ist, ed. Florian Rötzer (FrankIurt a. M.:
Suhrkamp Verlag, 1987), p. 317.
17. One might also take note oI certain aIIinities between Taubes` preoccupation with
apocalypse and Heidegger`s preoccupation with Iinitudethough Taubes himselI situated
his concerns beyond individual Dasein. As he remarked apropos oI Heidegger: 'He
indeed understands time in view oI existential and individual experience, whereas I
believe that it is also about collective experiences.¨ Nonetheless, Taubes also makes it
clear in the same interview that he regards Heidegger`s work as something oI a break-
through in philosophical thought: 'Already I regard the very title oI Heidegger`s Being
and Time, beyond its content, as a dramatic reversal oI the classical philosophical tradi-
tion. In itselI the layman or even the average philosopher associates Being with something
that is eternal, with something stable and eminent, yet there`s nothing more Ileeting than
time.¨ 'Jacob Taubes,¨ p. 317. For Taubes` attempt to relate Heidegger to Gnosticism, see
'Vom Adverb nichts` zum Substantiv das Nichts`¨ in Jom Kult :ur Kultur, pp. 16072.
146 JOSHUA ROBERT GOLD
|Nacheinander| but moves towards an end.¨
These two comments
deserve to be read in conjunction with one another, and not simply
because Benjamin`s description oI history as a 'state oI emergency¨ (Aus-
nahme:ustand) bears witness to a common interest in Schmitt. Rather,
what is striking in both instances is Benjamin`s and Taubes`s respective
attempts to read history against the grain oI historicism, which contents
itselI with observing the unIolding oI events through what Benjamin des-
ignates as 'homogenous, empty time.¨
In contrast, the understanding oI
history as an ongoing crisis'a pile oI debris,¨ 'one single catastrophe,
which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage,¨ as Benjamin Iamously put
itis an act oI vigilance that disavows whatever consolation the idea oI
progress has to oIIer.
In contrast to oIIicial assurances that 'the situation
is improving,¨ Benjamin and Taubes share the same militant pessimism
that recognizes in history a legacy oI cataclysm.
For Taubes the crisis character oI history means that the act oI deci-
sion assumes an ethical character. To be sure, there is an ethical
dimension to Benjamin`s claim that 'our task is to bring about a real state
oI emergency¨ in order to 'improve our position in the struggle against
However, Taubes never draws upon the vocabulary that gives
'On the Concept oI History¨ its Marxist inIlection (e.g., 'historical mate-
rialism,¨ 'class struggle,¨ 'proletariat,¨ and so on).
immediate point oI departure is Schmitt`s observation that parliamentary
debate evades conIlict and 'permit|s| the decision to be suspended Ior-
ever in an everlasting discussion.¨
Thus, shortly beIore his death,
Taubes noted that 'the problem oI time is a moral problem, and deci-
sionism means saying that it`s not going on indeIinitely.¨ It is precisely
because time is not inexhaustible that 'the parliamentary process must be
settled,¨ and regardless oI how much politicians talk, 'they converse in
time, and at some point they must act. And whoever denies that is
18. Taubes, Abendlàndische Eschatologie, p. 33. See also Walter Benjamin, 'On the
Concept oI History,¨ in Selected Writings, Jolume 4. 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and
Michael W. Jennings, trans. Harry Zohn (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard UP,
2003), p. 392.
19. Benjamin, 'On the Concept oI History,¨ p. 395.
20. Ibid., p. 392.
22. This is not to say that Marx is absent Irom Taubes` concerns. See Taubes, Abendlàn-
dische Eschatologie, pp. 16391, as well as the essay 'Kultur und Ideologie,¨ in Jom Kult
:ur Kultur, pp. 283304.
23. Schmitt makes this comment in the context oI a discussion oI the conservatism oI
Donoso Cortes. See Taubes, Political Theologv of Paul, p. 63.
JACOB TAUBES. 'APOCALYPSE FROM BELOW` 147
immoral, namely he does not understand the human situation, which is
Iinite, and because it is Iinite, one must separatethat is, one must decide
|scheiden muß, d. h., entscheiden muß|.¨
These remarks are striking Ior
the way that they attempt to reveal the ethical implications oI Schmitt`s
position by transposing it into a discussion on temporality. From this per-
spective, to postpone decision is not simply a political Iailure arising Irom
the limitations oI parliamentary democracy, but an existential one that
results Irom a reIusal to acknowledge the claims oI Iinitude upon our
identities as agents who must act in the world. In short, Taubes` account
oI apocalypse involves a notion oI responsibility that is based in historical
existence itselI: once it is accepted that time is running out, the need to
decide acquires urgency.
There is no choice but to choose, and any claim
to the contrary is merely an attempt to evade this condition.
At the same time that he argues that apocalypse reveals history as
crisis, Taubes also acknowledges that apocalyptic thought must guard
against its own destructive inclinations. For this reason his emphasis upon
the priority oI decision never leads him to treat it as evidence Ior the supe-
riority oI 'the power oI real liIe¨ over mere convention, as does Schmitt.
True, Taubes describes apocalypse as 'revolutionary,¨ and not because it
aims 'to replace an existing social order with a better one¨; rather, it
strives 'to oppose to the totality |Totalitàt| oI this world a new totality
that comprehensively Iounds anew in the way that it negates |verneint|
namely, in terms oI the basic Ioundations |Grundlagen|.¨ Yet observing
that apocalypse entails 'a Iorm-destroying and a Iorming power,¨ he
warns: 'II the demonic, destructive element is missing, the petriIied order,
the prevailing positivity oI the world cannot be overcome. But iI the new
covenant` does not shine through, the revolution inevitably sinks into
Lest this 'empty nothingness¨ prevail over this
other, Iormative principle, the apocalypticist must assume 'a passive atti-
tude towards the happening oI history.¨ Taubes continues: 'All active
24. Taubes, 'Aus einem Streitgrespräch um Carl Schmitt¨ |'From A Polemical Dis-
cussion on Carl Schmitt¨|, in Ad Carl Schmitt, p. 62.
25. As Maria Terpstra and Theo de Wit write: 'Basically Taubes opposes every Iorm
oI abstract normativisma way oI speaking that judges history instead oI Iirst seeing and
understanding what happens. Like Schmitt, he mistrusts every pure` theory, every theory
that denies its connection to historical reality. And to deny historical and thereIore finite
human reality is equivalent to overlooking how one must always decide within a particular
condition.¨ 'No spiritual investment in the world as it is`: Die negative politische Theolo-
gie Jacob Taubes,¨ Etappe 13 (1997): 82 (my translation).
26. Taubes, Political Theologv of Paul, p. 15.
27. Taubes, Abendlàndische Eschatologie, p. 10.
148 JOSHUA ROBERT GOLD
behavior recedes. The Iate oI world history is determined Irom the outset,
and it is senseless to want to guard against it.¨ This orientation also char-
acterizes apocalyptic writings, the style oI which 'predominantly applies
the passive. In the apocalypses no one acts,` rather everything hap-
In short, regardless oI how eagerly he awaits the passing away oI
this world, the apocalypticist must eschew the temptation to Iorce the
course oI events.
One example oI the passive comportment that the
apocalypticist must assume in order to avoid the selI-immolating Ilames
oI eschatological intensity is the act oI interpretation, which Taubes dis-
cusses in Abendlàndische Eschatologie. 'All apocalypse tells oI the
triumph oI eternity,¨ he writes in the introduction. 'This telling is an inter-
cepting oI the clues oI eternity. What is complete is Iirst glimpsed in the
Iirst sign, and what is glimpsed is put into words in order to gesture ahead
oI time towards that which is not yet IulIilled.¨
This is a noteworthy pas-
sage, Ior while it reIers to the 'triumph oI eternity,¨ Taubes also suggests
here that the end oI time is only accessible to the apocalypticist through
the mediating process oI reading. 'Clues¨ (Winke) and 'sign¨ (Zeichen)
reveal the need Ior hermeneutic skill in addition to revolutionary Iervor,
and the expression 'to put into words¨ (ins Wort :u stellen) indicates that
the ability to communicate interpretations is equally indispensable. Taken
together, this vocabulary shows how the apocalypticist must give himselI
over to a twoIold process oI reading and speaking. Not only does this
gradual movement counteract the demonic side oI apocalypse; more cru-
cially, Taubes` claim that the apocalypticist gestures towards a turning
point 'ahead oI time¨ (voraus) ascribes a distinctly proleptic character to
his orientation. This condition oI indeIinite postponement stems back the
violence oI apocalypse by interposing itselI between the desire to termi-
nate time and the apocalyptic event itselI. In short, this second,
hermeneutic moment must accompany the revolutionary impulse oI apoc-
alypse in order to balance the blindness oI enthusiasm with the lucidity oI
reIlection. As Taubes remarks in the conclusion oI Abendlàndische
Eschatologie, this 'deIicient¨ (dùrftig) time between 'the No-Longer oI
28. Ibid., p. 33.
29. Consistent with this ideal oI apocalyptic passivity, Taubes remarked how 'it is one
oI my greatest sorrows that the resistance Iighters oI the Warsaw ghetto are singled out
while the millions who went to their death like sheep to be slaughtered . . . are viewed with
contempt because that isn`t heroic. This new heroism that is coming into Iashion, I Ior one
am not receptive to it, but am one oI those who want to live and die with this mentality.¨
Taubes, Political Theologv of Paul, p. 27.
30. Taubes, Abendlàndische Eschatologie, p. 4.
JACOB TAUBES. 'APOCALYPSE FROM BELOW` 149
what is past and the Not-Yet oI what is coming¨ requires 'holding one`s
selI open Ior the Iirst signs |Zeichen| oI the coming day¨ and 'interpreting
|deuten| the clues |Winke| oI what is coming.¨
Drawing upon the inter-
pretive act in this way, the language oI apocalypse provides its own Iorm
Taubes` later works exhibit a similar concern with stemming the
demonic powers oI apocalypse, though they Iocus on the phenomenon oI
Gnosticism rather than the act oI interpretation. The editors oI the
anthology Jom Kult :ur Kultur have pointed to Gnosticism as 'the red
thread¨ running through Taubes` thinking insoIar as the Gnostic emphasis
upon the absolute separation between the divine and the proIane is consis-
tent with the motiI oI distinction that is discernible in his works.
observation is true, but one hastens to add that the signiIicance oI this
Gnostic theme Ior Taubes` thinking also concerns the way that it implies a
radical devaluation oI the world that recalls Nietzsche`s notion oI 'active
nihilism.¨ Such a gesture admittedly characterizes the concept oI apoca-
31. Ibid., pp. 19293.
32. It is only appropriate to add here that Taubes inherits this theme as well as this
vocabulary Irom the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (17701843), whose works name a
similar need to oIIset eschatological urges with the sobriety oI interpretation. Thus, the
term Zeichen plays a considerable role in his poetry: Ior example, in the eighth stanza oI
the elegy 'Brod und Wein¨ ('Bread and Wine¨), the speaker oI the poem notes that the
departed gods have leIt the sacrament 'as a sign that once again they have been down here
and once more would/ Come¨ (Ließ :um Zeichen, daß einst er da gewesen und wieder/
Kàme). 'Clue¨ recalls a Iamous gnome Irom the unIinished ode 'Rousseau¨: 'clues are/
From time immemorial the language oI gods¨ (Winke sind/Jon Alters her die Sprache der
Gòtter). The characterization oI the present time as 'deIicient¨ (dùrftig) evokes Hölder-
lin`s Iamous question Irom 'Bread and Wine,¨ 'to what end are poets in deIicient times?¨
(wo:u Dichter in dùrftiger Zeit?). Finally, the reIerence in the conclusion oI Abendlàn-
dische Eschatologie to 'the No-Longer oI what is past and the Not-Yet oI what is coming¨
(Nicht-Mehr des Jergangenen, Noch-Nicht des Kommenden) is a direct citation oI Heideg-
ger`s essay 'Hölderlin and the Essence oI Poetry,¨ which describes how Hölderlin was con-
demned to live 'in the No-Longer oI departed gods and the Not-Yet oI what is coming¨ (im
Nichtmehr der entflohenen Gòtter und im Nochnicht des Kommenden). The Ioregoing
citations are modiIied versions oI Michael Hamburger`s translations in Hölderlin, Poems
and Fragments, 4th ed. (London: Anvil Press, 2004). See also Martin Heidegger, Elucida-
tions of Hòlderlins Poetrv, trans. Keith Hoeller (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000),
p. 64. Hölderlin`s poetry names the perils incurred by those humans who, in their rush to
embrace the divine, disregard the necessary separation between the sacred and the pro-
Iane. From this perspective, the process oI reading serves as a means oI counteracting the
potentially destructive consequences oI this deluded identiIication with the gods. For a
diIIerent approach to the question oI Taubes` relationship to Hölderlin, see Thomas
Schröder, 'Eschatologie oder Geschichtsphilosophie: Das Fehlen Friedrich Hölderlin in
den Texten Jacob Taubes,¨ in Ad Jacob Taubes, pp. 289300.
33. Assmann et al., 'Einleitung,¨ in Taubes, Jom Kult :ur Kultur, p. 8.
150 JOSHUA ROBERT GOLD
lypse in Abendlàndische Eschatologie, which uses the terms
'apocalyptic¨ and 'Gnostic¨ almost interchangeably.
By the time oI
Taubes` essay 'Noten zum Surrealismus¨ ('Notes on Surrealism¨), the
term 'Gnosticism¨ has come to designate the religious system that holds
God to be 'the antithesis |Gegenprin:ip| to the world,¨ and which names
the divine according to 'negative principles¨: 'unknowable, unnameable,
unspeakable, boundless, nonexistent.¨ Such characteristics 'are to be
understood as negation oI the world and polemically determine the oppo-
site oI the transmundane God to the world.¨
What is crucial about this
characterization is that the radical and irreconcilable opposition between
God and the proIane excludes the possibility oI realizing the divine in the
here and now. Precisely because Gnosticism Iorecloses Irom the outset
any possibility that human activity can inIluence the end oI history,
Taubes considers it insurance against apocalyptic excess.
Repudiating the world, Gnosticism repudiates history as well
though it does not merely revert back to nature and Iate. To be sure,
Taubes regards Gnosticism as a Iorm oI mythic expression, but one suited
to a Iorm oI consciousness that inhabits a world in which the divine com-
municates itselI through revelation instead oI maniIesting itselI
immanently in nature. In short, Gnosticism is the Iorm that myth assumes
in a world that monotheism has disenchated. Another term Ior this way oI
thinking is what Taubes calls allegory, a 'Iorm oI translation¨ that appro-
priates the content oI mythits imagery, topoi, and motiIsand
transposes them into conceptual language.
Mythology arising in the
aItermath oI monotheism, Gnosticism takes as its Iocus neither nature (as
was the case in polytheism) nor history (as is the case in monotheism) but
'the interior oI man: soul, spirit, pneuma.¨ Turning inward, Gnosticism
addresses 'the path oI the soul through the multiplicity and conIusions oI
worlds and eons, the toll stations oI the archons that the soul has to endure
in order to succeed to the supra-mundane |ùberweltlichen|, or more
34. Thus, Taubes claims that Ior apocalyptic thought the world is 'a totality |Totalitàt|
that marks itselI oII against the divine,¨ 'the counter-divine¨ (das Gegengòttliche), while
God is 'the counter-mundane¨ (das Gegenweltliche). Consequently, 'To the extent that
God appears in the world, he is new to it. The new God` is the unknown God, Ioreign to
the world. God is non-existent |nicht-seiend| in the world.¨ See Taubes, Abendlàndische
Eschatologie, p. 9. Taubes` use oI the terms 'apocalypse¨ and 'Gnosticism¨ in Abendlàn-
dische Eschatologie has not gone unnoticed: see Ebach, 'Zeit als Frist,¨ p. 83 and Carsten
Colpe, 'Das eschatologische Widerlager der Politik`: Zu Jacob Taubes` Gnosisbild,¨ in
Ad Jacob Taubes, pp. 11929.
35. Taubes, 'Noten zum Surrealismus,¨ in Jom Kult :ur Kultur, p. 138.
36. Taubes, 'Der dogmatische Mythos der Gnosis,¨ in Jom Kult :ur Kultur, p. 100.
JACOB TAUBES. 'APOCALYPSE FROM BELOW` 151
exactly counter-mundane |gegenweltichen| Godto that unity that lies
beIore all division and Iragmentation in worlds and eons.¨
emphasis upon the soul, as well as reliance upon allegory, accounts Ior the
modern, indeed untimely character oI Gnosis.
Needless to say, this concern with the soul places Gnosticism at odds
with apocalypse. Although Taubes himselI summarized Gnosticism as a
response to a crisis in apocalyptic thinking ('when apocalypse Iails¨), it
would be an oversimpliIication to suggest that he reduces this phenom-
enon to mere disillusionment with thwarted promises oI redemption.
Rather, he sees in the Gnostic rejection oI history and society a powerIul
counterweight to the destructive aspects oI apocalypse. Here it is instruc-
tive to recall the article 'The Price oI Messianism,¨ which calls into
question the traditional opposition established between Judaic law and
Christian belieI. In a typical move that characterizes his style oI reading,
Taubes undermines this static polarity by demonstrating how Christian
critique oI the law arose out oI a Iissure within Judaism itselI, between
rabbinic law on the one side and messianic antinomianism on the other.
However, among the noteworthy aspects oI this essay is how cautiously
Taubes approaches this second, messianic tendency in his conclusion,
noting that the Messianic idea in Judaism must be 'interiorized¨ iI it is not
to 'turn the landscape oI redemption` into a blazing apocalypse.¨ 'II one
is to enter irrevocably into history, it is imperative to beware oI the illu-
sion that redemption (even the beginnings oI redemption, athalta di
geula') happens on the stage oI history,¨ he continues. 'For every attempt
to bring about redemption on the level oI history without a transIiguration
oI the Messianic idea leads straight into the abyss.¨
These remarks do
not name Gnosticism as such, but the inwardness that Taubes elsewhere
attributes to Gnostic thinking corresponds to the kind oI interiorization
37. Ibid., p. 105.
38. For an example oI how Taubes describes the 'modern¨ traits oI Gnosticism, see his
comparison between Gnosticism and Surrealism in 'Noten zum Surrealismus,¨ pp. 13840.
39. 'Das stahlerne Gehäuse und der Exodus daraus, oder Ein Streit um Marcion, eisnt
und jetzt,¨ in Taubes, Jom Kult :ur Kultur, p. 181. This Iormulation is Taubes` paraphrase
oI Leo Festinger`s description oI apocalypse as the next step 'when prophecy Iails.¨
40. Taubes, 'The Price oI Messianism,¨ Journal of Jewish Studies 33, nos.12 (Spring
Autumn 1972): 600; Taubes, 'Der Messianismus und sein Preis,¨ in Jom Kult :ur Kultur,
p. 49. In a diIIerent reading, Johannes Reipen argues that this citation must been seen in
the context oI Taubes`s critique oI Schmitt. See Reipen, 'Gegenstrebige Fügung`!? Jacob
Taubes ad Carl Schmitt,¨ in Ad Jacob Taubes, pp. 50929.
152 JOSHUA ROBERT GOLD
that that 'The Price oI Messianism¨ names as a necessary counterpoint to
uninhibited apocalyptic Iervor.
Yet Taubes` preoccupation with containing the destructive potential
oI apocalypse never prevents him Irom recognizing in apocalyptic
thought an unwavering reIusal to reconcile itselI with the dominant polit-
ical and legal order. To the extent that it regards the proIane sphere as
ephemeral and Iinite, apocalypse consigns this world to oblivionor as
Taubes writes, it 'negates |verneint| the world in its Iullness,¨ 'brackets
the entire world negatively.¨
Inasmuch as the law is no exception to this
overall devaluation, such nihilism invariably places apocalypse in an
antagonistic relationship to proIane powers.
Describing this apocalyptic
antinomianism in Abendlàndische Eschatologie, Taubes argues that apoc-
alypse does not simply oppose the law but transvalues it. 'Law and
destiny are the Ioundations oI the cosmos,¨ he writes. 'But since antiquity
cosmos has always meant harmonious structure |harmonisches Gefùge|.
But because order and law dominate in the cosmos, because Iate is the
highest power in the cosmos, for this reason, concludes apocalypse in
monstrous reversal, the cosmos is an abundance oI that which is bad.¨
According to this account, then, apocalypse undermined the prevailing
Hellenic-Roman values oI harmony and order. Unmasking these ideas as
41. This is not to equate Gnosticism with quietism or acquiescence; on the contrary,
Gnosis preserves an anarchistic impulse at the same time that it directs messianic intensity
inward. Addressing a similar theme in his essay on Surrealism, Taubes describes how the
Gnostic, in detaching himselI Irom the law and traditions oI this world, arrives at 'a new
idea oI Ireedom, which in terms oI its mundane consequences leads to ethical |sittlichen|
anarchism and libertinage. Pneumatic man is a homo novus, Ior whom the law and wisdom
oI the world are not binding.¨ Taubes, 'Noten zum Surrealismus,¨ p. 139. Thus, proceed-
ing Irom the assumption that the law conIirms the worthlessness oI the proIane, the Gnos-
tic does not conclude by withdrawing Irom the world but by challenging the conventions
that govern moral liIe.
42. Taubes, Abendlàndsiche Eschatologie, p. 9.
43. Terpstra and de Wit do a noteworthy job oI Ioregrounding this aspect oI Taubes`
works. Designating his position as that oI 'negative political theology¨ (negative poli-
tische Theologie), they note how his work aims to elaborate 'a theological delegitimation
oI political power as a whole¨ (eine theologische Deligitimierung sàmtlicher politischer
Macht). Further on in their article they argue that 'a positive (or right`) political theol-
ogy¨ (eine positive (oder rechte) politische Theologie) provides 'a spiritual justiIication
oI proIane power¨ (eine geistliche Rechtfertigung einer weltlichen Macht), while 'a nega-
tive (revolutionary, critical, or leIt`) political theology¨ (eine negative (revolutionàre,
kritische oder linke) politische Theologie) provides 'a spiritual justiIication oI the under-
mining oI proIane power¨ (eine geistliche Rechtfertigung der Unterminierung weltlicher
Macht). Terpstra and de Wit, 'No spiritual investment,¨ pp. 77, 86 (my translation).
44. Taubes, Abendlàndische Eschatologie, p. 9.
JACOB TAUBES. 'APOCALYPSE FROM BELOW` 153
Iurther maniIestations oI a naturalized consciousness that harnesses liIe to
Iate in the name oI order, apocalypse revealed the hidden complicity oI
law with myth.
The thinker whom Taubes holds most responsible Ior this overcoming
oI the law is Paul. Already in Abendlàndische Eschatologie he describes
how Paul`s teachings break with the Roman order and envision a collec-
tive whose members 'have Ireed themselves Irom all natural, organic
attachmentsIrom nature, art, cult, and stateand Ior whom emptiness
and alienation |Entfremdung| Irom the world, as well as the separation
|Ent:weiung| with secularism, accordingly reached a high degree.¨
Rejecting all legal-political determinations oI identity (state, law, etc.),
Paul sees a hitherto unknown spiritual nation coming into existence, one
based upon 'the pneumatic We.¨ To cite Taubes once again: 'In contrast
to the old, Iully-grown attachments, the Christian community |Gemeinde|
is an inorganic, subsequent, pneumatic` togetherness |Zusammensein| oI
In short, Taubes interprets Paul`s works as an attempt to
provide an alternate model oI community that does not rely upon worldly
authorities as sources oI legitimation.
The Political Theologv of Paul pursues this line oI thought and elabo-
rates Paul`s critique oI the law by reading Romans 911 in the context oI
the Jewish messianic tradition. Designating Pauline theology as a
'transvaluation oI values,¨ Taubes proclaims Paul to be an 'illiberal¨
thinker opposed to the culture oI consensus upheld by the Roman nomos.
As this last remark suggests, the relevant touchstone Ior this interpretation
is not only Nietzsche but Schmitt, since Paul rejects the imperial law as a
45. It is worth pointing out here that the hostility oI apocalypse towards law illustrates
the way in which Taubes understands the diIIerence between theology and philosophy on
the one side and jurisprudence on the other. For the jurist, unlike the theologian or the phi-
losopher, seeks 'to legitimate the world as it is¨a task that is 'part and parcel oI the
whole education, the whole idea oI the oIIice oI the jurist.¨ Schmitt is no exception to this
tendency: as 'a clerk¨ he 'understands his task to be not to establish the law but to inter-
pret it¨ in order to insure 'that the party, that the chaos not rise to the top, that the state
remain. No matter what the price.¨ See Taubes, Political Theologv of Paul, p. 103.
46. Taubes, Abendlàndische Eschatologie, p. 64.
48. For a discussion oI the inIluences upon the reading oI Paul in Abendlàndische
Eschatologie and the relationship oI this reading to Taubes` other works, see Christoph
Schulte, 'PAULUS,¨ in Ad Jacob Taubes, pp. 93104; and Martin Treml, 'Die Figur des
Paulus in Jacob Taubes` Religionsphilosophie,¨ in Torah-Nomos-Ius. Abendlàndischer
Antinomismus und der Traum vom herrschaftsfreien Raum, ed. Gesine Palmer, Christiane
Nasse, Renate HaIIke, and Dorothee C. v. Tippelskirch (Berlin: Verlag Vorwerk 8, 1999),
154 JOSHUA ROBERT GOLD
'compromise Iormula¨ that guarantees the stability oI the empire.
oI these diIIerent religious groups, especially the most diIIicult one, the
Jews . . . represented a threat to Roman rule,¨ writes Taubes. 'But there
was an aura, a general Hellenistic aura, an apotheosis oI nomos. One
could sing it to a Gentile tune, this apotheosisI mean, to a Greek-Helle-
nistic tune, this apotheosisone could sing it in Roman, and one could
sing it in a Jewish way. Everyone understood law as they wanted to.¨
Taubes` account thereIore draws an implicit but direct parallel between
imperial law and liberal democracy: both represent Iorms oI governance
that draw upon the language oI pluralism in order to sidestep or neutralize
potential political antagonisms.
In contrast, Paul is 'a Ianatic,¨ 'a zealot,
a Jewish zealot¨ who 'clambers out oI the consensus between Greek-
He does so, argues Taubes, by
proclaiming the cruciIied Christ to be the representative oI a higher order
than that oI the reigning political and religious institutions. Therein con-
sists the transvaluation that Paul`s thought accomplishes: drawing upon
the 'messianic logic¨ oI the negativeor as Taubes also calls it, 'the
messianic concentration on the paradoxical¨the image oI 'the son oI
David hanging on the Cross¨ brings about 'a total and monstrous inver-
sion oI the values oI Roman and Jewish thought.¨
'It isn`t nomos but
49. As the expression 'transvaluation oI values¨ implies, Taubes sees a certain resem-
blance between Paul and Nietzsche. In this regard, his study anticipates more recent work,
in particular Alain Badiou`s book Saint Paul. The Foundation of Universalism, which
argues that Paul`s thinking is in certain respects identical to Nietzsche`s. As Badiou writes:
'Nietzsche is Paul`s rival Iar more than his opponent. Both share the same desire to initiate
a new epoch in human history, the same conviction that man can and must be overcome,
the same certainty that we must have done with guilt and law.¨ See Saint Paul. The Foun-
dation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (StanIord, CA: StanIord UP, 2003), p. 72.
However, while Taubes does not hesitate to apply the term 'transvaluation¨ to Paul`s
works, his approach diIIers Irom Badiou`s insoIar as he sees Paul`s inIluence upon
Nietzsche in purely negative termsthat is, Nietzsche understands his philosophy as an
attempt to reverse the ascent oI Christianity and restore the dominance oI antique values.
50. Taubes, Political Theologv of Paul, p. 23.
51. Like Taubes, Badiou views Pauline theology as a challenge to the leveling eIIects
oI pluralism; see the chapter 'Paul: Our Contemporary,¨ in Saint Paul, pp. 415. Here it is
worth noting Giorgio Agamben`s interpretation oI Romans, which explicitly takes issue
with Badiou`s description oI Paul as a universalist. This is not to say that Agamben simply
Ialls back upon the language oI pluralism; according to his reading, Paul`s messianism is
radical because it introduces a Iissure or 'cut¨ into such collective identities as 'Jew¨ and
'gentile.¨ The result is an alternative model oI community as a remainder or remnant. See
Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains. A Commentarv on the Letter to the Romans,
trans. Patricia Dailey (StanIord, CA: StanIord UP, 2005), pp. 5253.
52. Taubes, Political Theologv of Paul, p. 24.
53. Ibid., p. 10.
JACOB TAUBES. 'APOCALYPSE FROM BELOW` 155
rather the one who was nailed to the cross by nomos who is the imper-
ator!¨ exclaims Taubes, describing Paul`s revolt against the imperial
order. 'This is incredible, and compared to this all the little revolution-
aries are nothing. This transvaluation turns Jewish-Roman-Hellenistic
upper-class theology on its head, the whole mishmash oI Hellenism.¨
Another conception oI universalism arises under the sign oI this murdered
God, 'one that signiIies the election oI Israel,¨ to be sure, but a 'transIig-
ured¨ Israel that has rendered more capacious the concept oI the chosen
Instead oI modeling itselI along the lines oI empire and nomos,
this inclusive 'pas Israel¨ is open to all who obey but one commandment:
'Love your neighbor as yourselI.¨
As Taubes notes, Paul claims that the triumph oI Israel over empire
will come through the eschaton rather than by Iorce oI arms. This obser-
vation is consistent with Taubes` observation in Abendlàndische
Eschatologie that apocalypse considers the end oI history to be 'not in an
indeterminate Iuture, but entirely proximate.¨
Paul shows himselI to be
no diIIerent in this regard when he assures his brethren that 'Salvation is
nearer to us now than when we became believers.¨ As a consequence oI
this conviction he never calls Ior open rebellion, and Taubes summarizes
Paul`s advise as 'Demonstrate obedience to state authority, pay taxes,
don`t do anything bad, don`t get involved with conIlicts,¨ since 'under
this time pressure, iI tomorrow the palaver, the entire swindle were going
to be overin that case there`s no point in any revolution!¨
point here is that Taubes interprets this apparent acquiescence to
authority as an indication oI Paul`s radical nihilism: Iar Irom ascribing
endurance to the law, this call to obedience is indicative oI Paul`s under-
standing oI Creation, which Taubes describes as 'decay . . . without
hope,¨ a realm that 'groans |and| sighs under the burden oI decay and
54. Ibid., p. 24.
55. Ibid., p. 25.
56. Here it is important to note an unexpected twist in Taubes` reading. Commenting
on Paul`s remarks on love in Romans 13, he notes that this text must be interpreted as 'a
highly polemical text, polemical against Jesus,¨ Ior whom the commandment 'love your
neighbor as yourselI¨ takes second place to 'You shall love your Lord with all your strength
and your soul and your might.¨ According to Taubes, Paul, in describing love as 'the IulIill-
ing oI the law,¨ succeeds in condensing two commandments into one; consequently, 'it is the
love not oI the Lord, but oI the neighbor that is the Iocus here. No dual commandment, but
rather one commandment.¨ See Taubes, Political Theologv of Paul, pp. 5253.
57. Taubes, Abendlàndische Eschatologie, p. 10.
58. Taubes, Political Theologv of Paul, p. 54.
156 JOSHUA ROBERT GOLD
From this perspective, the law is in decline, Ior like all proIane
phenomena, terrestrial power is destined Ior oblivion, regardless oI how
splendid its appearance.
The law is in decline: this is the secret knowledge promised by apoca-
lyptic thought that worldly authority would preIer to pass over in silence.
For Taubes, the Iragility oI the law could only come to light through the
passage Irom nature to history, which reveals the world in its ephemer-
ality. Yet he did not restrict himselI entirely to analyzing the political
implications oI transience; rather, there are moments when his writings
appear to open themselves up to another, uncanny condition that is best
illustrated by the Iollowing passage Irom Abendlàndische Eschatologie:
'Paul determines the time between the death oI Jesus and the parousia oI
Christ as the kairos, which is characterized by the crossing over oI the still
natural and the already supernatural states oI the world |das Ineinander
des noch natùrlichen und des schon ùbernatùrlichen Welt:ustandes|. With
the death and resurrection oI Jesus the change |Wende| has been met: the
Iashion |Wesen| oI this world passes away. But the Iashion oI this world is
Touching upon this moment oI transition when one state is
Iading away and another is coming into existence, these words ask us to
consider whether there is not a mode oI temporality that is unique to the
political. To understand what constitutes such a temporality is among the
most Iormidable tasks that Taubes has leIt to posterity.
59. Ibid., 72, 73. Note that Taubes puts Iorth this description in discussing the inIlu-
ence oI the Pauline understanding oI nature on Benjamin`s 'Theologico-Political Frag-
ment.¨ See Taubes, Political Theologv of Paul, pp. 7076.
60. Taubes, Abendlàndische Eschatologie, p. 67. In a similar vein, Agamben discusses
the uncanny quality oI messianic time as an intermediary mode oI temporality, 'the time
that remains between time and its end.¨ Agamben, The Time That Remains, p. 62.