Was Jesus a Seditionist?

Was Jesus a Seditionist? May 8, 2013

A recent article by Fernando Bermejo-Rubio in The Bible and Interpretation raised the question of whether Jesus was a “seditionist” – which he defines as “The hypothesis that Jesus of Nazareth and his followers were in fundamental sympathy with the principles of the members of the anti-Roman resistance groups, the use of violence not excepted on principle.”

This is a great example to look at in relation to my recent discussion about the historical Jesus, scholarly innovation, consensus, and of course the possibility that it is all futile.

Bermejo-Rubio does a good job of noting some details that readers of the Gospels have often found uncomfortable, some of which also suffer from scholarly neglect. For instance, I’ve often wondered whether Jesus’ story might have unfolded differently, had one of his disciples not sliced off an ear.

But there are other things which do not sit well with the proposal.

This helpfully illustrates why there are so many different depictions of Jesus. If you exclude certain evidence, then what remains can be understood in ways that the excluded material might make impossible. And historians do need to exclude some material, as more likely fabricated or at least significantly reinterpreted later.

But in this case, it seems as though too much needs to be excluded. Love of enemies. Turning the other cheek. Foreigners coming from the East and West to take their places at the messianic banquet.

This topic provides a nice illustration of a point I have made before. Historians need to discuss “Was Jesus a seditionist?” and “Did Jesus exist?” and “Was Jesus married?” and any other possible question, including ones that tend to be relegated to the fringe.

But discussing them, and even exploring possible alternative answers, does not automatically mean that those answers should be adopted.

At the end of the day, the question still has to be asked, “Is this answer more likely to be correct that another?” And it must also be asked whether it is less likely to be correct than others.

In this case, I think that too much evidence that is likely to reflect the gist of Jesus, if not his actual words, has to be excluded in order to make it seem plausible that Jesus was a seditionist of this sort. That he may have expected that God would intervene in history and bring all merely human kingdoms to an end is a different sort of outlook than Bermejo-Rubio is talking about. But did he envisage his followers taking up arms to bring that new state of affairs about? I don’t think so.

But I am open to reconsidering this, as one ought to be when it comes to any historical question. And so if you are inclined to disagree, please do so in the comment section!

For me, a more significant historical question is whether Jesus thought of non-retaliation as something to be adopted on principle, or merely as a postponing of violence into an apocalyptic future. What do readers of this blog think?

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  • Ian

    Some (amateur) thoughts.

    In Bermejo-Rubio’s paper, his list of features gets tenuous quite quickly, and I’m generally inclined to distrust John for a good portrayal of what Jesus taught or thought.

    But the first few are important: armed disciples encouraged by Jesus, the purging of the temple, crucifixion, King of the Jews, Jesus/JBap and Herod. And, given that these threads are ignored and minimized at a very early stage, this suggests that they may be an older or more known tradition, one that is more inconvenient to remove, even though they are not put to much theological use (except the Messianic idea).

    Apropos of Dale Allison,, we should have greater doubt about the content of sayings material, over events (not the detail of events, but the events themselves), even if we can accept the general tone of sayings. And the core of the loving enemies content is from the Sermon on the Mount/Plain. Which sounds suspiciously literary to me. And we must also take account on ‘tone’ that Jesus is often portrayed as being verbally violent to his enemies.

    So, while I don’t presume to set out a stall with Bermejo-Rubio, or have a strong opinion in any direction. Positions nearer his end of the spectrum ring more true to me than those that privilege peace-loving non-retaliating Jesus and bury the seditious content. The NT writers would have surely had more grounds to accentuate the former, and minimize the latter.

    Where am I going astray?

    • I certainly agree that there was reason to downplay the politically subversive or revolutionary elements. But I’m not sure (1) whether a figure who was seeking to raise an army to revolt against Rome could have been so effectively transformed into a figure who seems so different in our sources, and (2) whether the followers of such a figure would have, whatever their religious experiences after the crucifixion, had a basis for continuing the movement in this radically different direction. But there may be other examples from history where something similar occurred, and so if you know of any, please share them.

      My own view is that the NT authors emphasizes some things and downplayed others, but were not completely transforming the figure of Jesus from one sort to a completely different one, at least at first. Of course, eventually such transformations do indeed occur, but it is the very fact that they do not immediately that makes me think that the earlier sources are closer to the historical reality.

      • Ian

        But I’m not sure (1) whether a figure who was seeking to raise an army to revolt against Rome could have been so effectively transformed into a figure who seems so different in our sources,

        No, phrased like that it does sound far fetched. But that’s excluding the middle, surely. Of the range of possible Jesuses who were seditious, a wannabe general is surely not the most likely. The events of his life suggest (if we go the seditious route) he was more likely about agitprop and speaking truth to power than leading an army, surely. Again, using Allison’s idea that the general is likely to be true, when the details cannot be relied upon. That’s how I read ‘sedition’ anway.

        But my intuitions just end up floundering in a lack of specific knowledge and the fuzzy mire of endless possibilities that Jesus could have been. You’re right that I can’t think of any corresponding figures. But I can’t think of any corresponding figures for non-violent Jesus either 🙂 My vocabulary of messianic figures is rather small (Cyrus, Judas Maccabeus, Jesus, Menahem and Simon Bar Kokhba) and war-biased, unfortunately!

        • I suppose that I may have been reading more into sedition than you were.

          The fact that Jesus was executed under the charge “king of the Jews” suggests that he was executed for sedition. But John Dominic Crossan suggests that the fact that his followers were not rounded up or at least pursued, as far as we can tell, suggests that he appeared to those in authority to be different from other war-biased figures.

          • Ian

            Yes, that is interesting. Thanks.

            That does seem to make it more likely that the ultra-non-violent sayings are inventions of the Q source to distance Jesus and them from accusations of insurrection, making the threads of sedition we do see more likely to be historical.

            All very interesting. I think I should re-read Crossan’s Historical Jesus, because it has been a while. I read it and Sanders back to back, and found them both extraordinary. But now I can mostly remember the extraordinariness, without any of the actual detail!

          • Good books need to be read and reread, and reading the new ones interferes with rereading the ones that deserve a second (or third, or fourth) look! 🙂

          • Dan Ortiz

            Quick question, since his disciples were not rounded up, did that mean the Romans were not aware of who his disciples were? (sorta secret society)

          • Not necessarily. It could just mean that, like John the Baptist also, one presumes, there was concern about a figure who was too influential and could be a problem, but not a sense that the individual had been training others to engage in rebellion in a manner that made them comparably dangerous.

        • I don’t see how this can possibly be a historical question rather than a theological one.

          As our earliest source didn’t know Jesus when he walked the earth as a man, the direction in which Paul took the movement needn’t have been constrained at all by what Jesus said or did during his life, much less what he thought. The communities that Paul founded could have been completely free to create a Jesus that suited their own purposes.

          The mythologization of George Washington as the noble embodiment of everything the new nation stood for began during his lifetime and Parson Weems’s hagiography represented the established understanding within a decade or two of his death. In that case, you had a man who was widely known and remembered.

          Had Jesus’s message been a military one rather than a religious one, it is easy to imagine that most of his followers would have lost interest in the movement, leaving the handful who experienced some sort of post-crucitixion revelation free to take the movement in any direction they wished and free to reinterpret Jesus’s life and message to suit their own needs.

          • Ian

            It clearly is a historical question. Nobody is asking whether Jesus Christ, the figure of devotion, should be considered violent or not.

            Whether it is a solvable historical question is another matter.

            The idea that Paul’s putative silence on the historical Jesus is the overwhelming fact that undermines all historical questions, has been forcefully made, I think. And I can sympathise with it to a point, it certainly makes cases like you outline have some possibility: namely that Paul’s community could create Jesus in any way they chose.

            But that doesn’t make it the only possibility. Nor, on my reading, even particularly likely. I remain persuaded that the gospels are not written in a context where anything could be said about Jesus, and the constraints which we can infer (some more reasonable, some highly speculative) tell us something about an earlier strata of Jesus belief.

            The Jesus of Mark is not the Jesus of Paul. And that tension means that seeing the gospels purely in the light of Paul’s discussion of Jesus is highly tendentious, in my opinion. I see no reason in reading Mark to think that its author derived from a Pauline theological community. Quite the opposite.

            But, as I try to stress more often these days, I am not a scholar. I’m just a curious non-believer.

          • If a question is beyond the reach of any valid historical methodology, I guess I tend not to think of it as a historical question. Historians have a difficult enough time with establishing what someone thought about a particular subject even where they have the person’s writings and solid evidence of the actions they took regarding the subject. To think that we can recover someone’s thought on so nuanced a matter out of oral tradition seems to be pushing the envelope far beyond what any historian in any other field would think possible.

            I don’t see all that much connection between Mark’s Jesus and Paul’s Jesus either, but I don’t see how that gives us any reason to think that Mark was relying on a tradition that went back to the historical Jesus. Paul tells us that there were a number of false gospels being preached. There is no way to determine that Mark wasn’t relying one of those traditions. It may be possible to infer that Mark was constrained by an earlier strata of belief without being able to establish genuine memories of the historical Jesus as the source of those constraints.

          • Ian

            ” I don’t see how that gives us any reason to think that Mark was relying on a tradition that went back to the historical Jesus”

            So why hammer on Paul in a discussion of the gospels?

            Sure there is no way to determine if Mark was relying on a prior tradition. But that doesn’t much matter, I don’t think. The question is still valid: is the earlier tradition of Jesus seditionist or pacifist?

          • I focus on Paul because he establishes the possibility, if not the existence, of early Jesus traditions that are unconnected to the historical Jesus of Nazareth. That raises the question of whether there is any reason to think that the synoptic traditions are in fact connected.

            I think it is a perfectly valid historical question whether the earliest Jesus tradition reflects sedition or pacifism. I doubt the validity of asking whether those were actually Jesus’s thoughts.

  • Gary

    My amateur thoughts…
    Against Rome, or accepting of all? I still like Gnostics. Even though the established church considered Gnostics heretics. The underlining theme…if the teaching of Jesus expands to the Gentile world, why be against Rome, Gentiles. If you are a gentile, why do you care about a covenant with Israelites? And the OT is a history of Israelites. So why do Gentiles care about the OT? Gnostics rejected the OT. They viewed Jesus’s teachings as “light, knowledge, resides within the individual”. Gnostics just went too far with wacky cosmology, and anti-clergy, which was a death sentence for the movement. Jesus as a NT hero, advancing the peace/love movement, allowed the movement to expand to the gentile world. If Jesus was portrayed as a anti-Rome revolutionary, his movement would be a local, Jewish only, movement. My misc. ramblings. So the only question is how the multiple authors in the NT molded this, instead of the other cosmology of Gnostics. OK, I admit I am probably crazy.

    • Gary

      Amendment: the church fathers that selected the scriptures for the bible, and created the creeds, carefully selected them to appeal to both Gentiles and Jews, to reject Gnosticism, and to firmly place the power within the established clergy. They needed to portray Jesus as an accepting, loving God for everyone. Not a revolutionary for Isrealites against Rome. Especially in 300AD, when you want to be a buddy of Rome and Gentiles, not a hero to a Jewish culture, where the Temple lay in ruins, and the Jewish state no longer existed.

  • ChuckQueen101

    Your last question exposes the problem with the apocalyptic worldview. There is no place for vengance and retaliation in the life of Jesus portrayed in the Gospels. I image God and view reality through the lens of Jesus presented in the Gospels. Granted, there are some disturbing elements even here, particularly in the judgment parables of Matthew’s Gospel that contains some harsh, apocalyptic elements (i.e, “eternal punishment,” etc.) But the overall portrait of Jesus’ life and teachings paints a picture of a totally nonviolent God. I cannot accept an apocalyptic second coming; in fact, I doubt seriously whether we should be expecting any sort of second coming. The living Christ is already here. http://www.afreshperspective-chuck.blogspot.com