Jesus in the Politics of His Day (by John Frye)

“The gospel tradition is full of conflict.  Often the conflict is violent.  All three synoptic Gospels begin and end with conflict, the most prominent being the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans, followed by his vindication in the resurrection.  … Far from avoiding or transcending such conflicts, however, Jesus himself enters into them and even exacerbates or escalates them” (Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine, page 156).

Against the popular myth that Jesus as the Good Shepherd wandered around Galilee, Samaria and Judea with a Breck Girl hairdo and a laid-back, peaceful, agrarian demeanor, Horsley, who has paid scholarly attention to the violent socio-politico-religious environment of the “holy land” during the time of Jesus, paints a far more turbulent picture.  Horsley compellingly presents a Jesus living in, facing, and standing against the terrorist realities of his day.  Jesus, in a sense, woke up every day to the sound of bombings, not to soft musical favorites all the time, all day long.

When the angels sang about “peace on earth” at Jesus’ birth, they did not see a gentle Bethlehem stable with soft snow on the ground and bright stars twinkling.  They saw blood running in the streets of Jerusalem.  Heaven was aware of the hate-driven plots of many Jews to retaliate against the inhumane oppression of Rome.  Not too long after Jesus was born, the blood of infants flowed in the streets of Bethlehem as Herod viciously sought to kill the new rival “king.”  John the Baptist was capriciously beheaded.  Jewish dissidents were crucified by the hundreds yearly.  Assassinations of Roman soldiers and Jewish compromisers with Rome by Jewish sicarii during the Jewish great feasts in Jerusalem were common and expected.

Reading our own culture’s “separation of church and state” into the Gospels is a serious interpretive error.  Every religious thing Jesus did and said was highly politically-charged with resistance to the Jewish abandonment of their hope in and purpose for God.  Rome cautiously tolerated Israel’s quirky theocratic ways, but Jesus did not.  Jesus’ assault on the Temple was equivalent to protesting the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.  Jesus as the Shepherd walked in the valley of the shadow of death every day of his life.  Green pastures and still waters were a national memory and a desperate hope, not a daily option.

In the midst of all this, the Essenes chose a cottage village by the lake (escapism).  The zealots chose the bloody sword.  The Herodians and Sadducees chose traitorous compromise “with the powers that be.”  The Pharisees narcotized themselves on endless religious minutiae.  Rome chose intimidating military power.  Wading neck deep into it all, Jesus chose self-giving love.

The love of God in Jesus Christ is the greatest threat to terrorists and escapists and compromisers and religious nitpickers and imperial power brokers.  God’s love was their only hope; our only hope; my only hope.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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