Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Prince of Peace; Lord of War (Part 1) - Le Donne
There are several modern notions of Jesus circulating out there – who he was, what he was all about, what he taught. This has been on my mind because I’ve been reading Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus. Wonderful book. Prothero focuses on modern American portraits of Jesus, but I imagine that these bear some resemblance to those circulating outside America as well. (Of course, I’m American, so my imagination is quite limited; for example, I’ve always pictured Jesus wearing Rocky’s stars-and-stripes trunks and a NASCAR pit-crew jacket.)
One particularly “American” understanding of Jesus is that he was all about teaching people to love one another. This Jesus beckons the children hither and totes a lamb around with him and such. I call this portrait the Sunday school portrait of Jesus. It’s not difficult to find passages in the New Testament to support this portrait. Of course, this is a very selective reading of the New Testament and few (I’m aware of none) New Testament scholars promote this interpretation.
But the Sunday school portrait of Jesus overlaps in large part with the hippie, non-violent, anti-establishment Jesus. This is the turn-the-other-cheek Jesus, and the love-your-enemies Jesus and this portrait has many more supporters in New Testament Studies. I must admit that I am tempted myself. There is much in the New Testament to support such a notion. Again, admittedly, this is also a selective reading of the New Testament. Of course historical reconstructions are always based on selective readings. Selectivity isn’t, by itself, an indictment; but we generally want to make the best sense out of the data at hand when defending a thesis.
One of the longstanding notions in historical Jesus scholarship is that Jesus’ primary message had much less to do with love and lilies of the field and much more to do with pronouncements of final judgment. While this might seem perplexing to your average Sunday school-educated American, the notion of a Jesus who shouted “the end is near!” is not all that scandalous among Jesus historians. Sure, it’s a disputed notion, but it’s a very old argument. This Jesus, it would seem, has much less in common with the lamb-a-licious Jesus. Was Jesus a herald of holy war? The notion that Jesus preached about a (not so far off) day of final judgment makes him seem much less like a Prince of Peace. If this camp is right, Jesus believed that God was on his way to start a revolution. Old kings get tossed out; new world orders are established; outsiders are punished; insiders are rewarded. That old tune.
Was Jesus a Prince of Peace reminiscent of Isaiah 9, or was he a Lord of War reminiscent of Revelation 19? In Pulp Fiction terminology, we might ask: was Jesus more like the pre-conversion Jules, or the post-conversion Jules? It would be silly to think that these are the only two options, but they happen to be two very popular notions. In segments two and three of this series, I’ll explore a few avenues toward a possible answer. In the meantime, I’ll solicit your help by way of comments. Initial thoughts?