Baker Academic

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Did Jesus Preach Violence? - Le Donne

The short answer:  No.

There. You all can get back to your Candy Crush scores and Kirk Cameron hoaxes.

Now I know what you're thinking: of course I'm going to say "no"; I'm a dirty hippie who thinks that arms are for hugging trees and spotted owls and hobbit-people named Dennis Kucinich. I plead guilty. I'm a pacifist. So I am predisposed to disagree with the central thesis of Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. We all have our biases and this is one of mine. That said, I think that my review of his book addresses the concerns that a great many historical Jesus scholars will have.

But don't  take my word for it.  Last week, the Jesus Blog conducted a poll on this topic. Of the 94 people surveyed, 87 were of the mind that Jesus did not advocate militancy.  I tend to think that my readers are smarter than your average bear (well, not polar bears; polar bears are really quite clever).  But don't take their word for it.  Read this review by my colleague Simon J. Joseph.

Tomorrow, I'll offer an alternative to Reza Aslan's view. I will argue that Jesus became a symbol of militancy in the Christian imagination.


Anthony Le Donne (PhD) is the author of The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals.


  1. I have not read Aslan's book, and imagine I might agree with many of the comments made about it here and elsewhere. However, I was struck by a passage in the review you linked to here:

    "To add to the confusion, Aslan later concedes that Jesus “was not a member of the Zealot Party," which again begs the question - why name the book Zealot in the first place? Is this disingenuous? Was Jesus a "Zealot" or not? What does it mean to say that Jesus was a Zealot but not a "violent revolutionary?" It means book sales. "

    This post was by a person who has been very vigorously promoting their own new book, entitled "The Wife of Jesus", a book which then, I imagine, comes to an entirely different conclusion. To paraphrase "Was Jesus married or not? What does it mean to imply he had a wife and then refute this? It means book sales"

    1. Thank Mark, I lobbied with my publisher to give away all of my books for free. Somehow, I just failed to make my case.


    2. that was supposed to be "thanks"; didn't mean to imply that you only deserved one "thank".

  2. Does it count if he advocated violence perpetrated by angels? (Matt. 13, etc.)

  3. It would seem to me that even if Jesus did advocate the idea that vengeance belongs to God and his intermediaries this doesn't undercut Jesus' ethic. Jesus would have still advocated for humans not acting either as God, or the agent of God, recognizing their place in God's current scheme as suffering witnesses like the Maccabean martyrs.

    1. Well...I don't think it's that simple, is it? In the scenario you, and Jack Collins upthread, are describing, an apocalyptic scenario, the agent of violence has shifted, but the promise/threat of violence itself remains. Violence is not rejected on principle, just delayed until your side has a bigger gun.

      The question for your view, then, is: is Jesus ethically opposed to violence in principle? If so, then yes, the hope for eschatological violence undercuts Jesus' teaching. If not, then there is no tension, but there is a violent Jesus.


  4. I suspect that the "87" would probably agree that preaching the Kingdom of God, a kingdom which had no place for Caesar as Lord, would certainly be provocative and have political implications. And, at the very least, provided the categories in which to artificially insert a militant view.

    Having said that, however, the J-bomb dropped and did leave a pretty scary "eschatological bomb crater".

    BTW - The "87" should be turned into some type of historical Jesus themed comic book.

  5. Anthony, a preface: the job of the Jesus historian is to account for the preponderance of the evidence, and a considerable preponderance of the evidence is against Jesus having preached violence. I don't think that anyone's portrait of Jesus accounts for ALL of the evidence, which is part of what makes this whole business so interesting.

    There! I've proven that I'm a sensible and rational fellow, entitling me to ask: why did Jesus tell his followers to buy a sword? Sure, Simon Joseph thinks that when Jesus claimed to be bringing a sword, he means a figurative sword. But Peter's sword, the one that cut off the ear of the Temple guard, appears to have been real. Jesus told Peter to put the sword away, but it was also Jesus who told Peter to carry the sword in the first place. Why? So Peter would have something handy to beat into a plowshare?

    (And while we're at it, how did Peter avoid being arrested for having performed an ear-ectomy without a license?)

    It's not clear to me that 1st century Jewish Palestinian peasants were allowed to carry swords. It's also not clear to me that they weren't, though in other places and at other times the wearing of a sword was reserved for the ruling elite and those in their employ.

    If Martin Luther King had advised his followers to purchase handguns, even once in his life, we would find that significant.

    All this being said, the Aslan firestorm has left me feeling humble, or unusually less arrogant. Apparently, there's scholarship on Jesus I haven't read! Like, most of it. I've come here to be educated, not to make trouble.

  6. I also disagree with Aslan, as I disagree with S.G.F. Brandon in the use of zealot as I don't think Jesus encouraged his followers to lead a violent insurrection with swords. However, he was clearly a political revolutionary who was not a pacifist. The idea of a kingdom where the last will become first and the first will become last is a very much a revolutionary idea on par with with the likes of Karl Marx.

    Furthermore, Jesus was clearly not a pacifist. I know people have disagreed with my reading of ekballein in Mark 11:15, but I don't see any way for Jesus to "begin to throw out those buying and selling" without physically grabbing and throwing people out. I imagine either Moe throwing out Barney from the simpsons, or Uncle Phil throwing out Jazz, pick your pop culture reference.

    So, I would argue that like most things in like it's more complicated than the dichotomy of either jesus was a violent revolutionary raising an army against Rome or he was a pacifist. Perhaps he was more complicated. He wasn't raising an army, but he was clearly a religious, economic, and political revolutionary who was not a pacifist. As much as I, with my own political bias, would like Jesus to be a democratic socialist routed in civil disobedience, he wasn't that. That threw people out and flipped over tables, and might have even used a weapon against people (if you believe John's account of the temple event is historical which I don't).

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