Baker Academic

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Prince of Peace; Lord of War (Part II)

The God of the Bible is a warrior.  I don’t like it any more than you do, but this was the God to which Jesus prayed.  Jesus defended the purity of a temple dedicated to a God who led his people into battle. Jesus’ God is capable of violence and willing to watch it doled out in lethal doses (cf. Luke 19:27). It was (and is) a violent world and humans conceived of God in familiar categories.  The metaphor of God as “king” brings all sorts of baggage with it.  Perhaps we ought to update this metaphor to “King of the Beach” or “King of Rock” or “King of England” – something less imposing.

Furthermore, Jesus seems not to have been a strict pacifist. He seems to have generally advocated nonviolence, but he seems willing to take aggressive (even physically aggressive) measures.  But given the preponderance of evidence, the few suggestions of a militant Jesus are anomalous to the general impression he left:  E.g. Matthew 5:11, 38-41, 43-46, 10:23, 11:12, 16:24-25; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:27-28, 23:34; John 8:7, 18:11.  

Reza Aslan would have us believe that all of this is wholesale invention.  As I discussed in the first post in this series, selectivity is not uncommon in Jesus research.  But when Jesus’ many statements about martyrdom, nonviolence, peace-making, refusal of capital punishment, and his refusal to resist his own execution are taken together, we must seriously consider the possibility that Jesus did in fact extol peacemakers and renounce men of violence.  In other words, none of this evidence needs to stand by itself as definitive proof of an authentic saying of Jesus.  At least a few of these episodes are going to betray what the earliest disciples believed to be true of Jesus’ message.

What warrant is there for dismissing this diverse and widespread element of the Gospels in order to emphasize (as Aslan has done) Matthew 10:34? He places this verse on a page by itself directly after the title pages:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.”
 For Aslan this is the first thing you need to know about his Zealot Jesus. He picks this up again on p.120:
"There may be no more important question than this for those trying to pry the historical Jesus away from the Christian Christ. The common depiction of Jesus as an inveterate peacemaker who 'loved his enemies' and 'turned the other cheek' . . . has been shown to be a complete fabrication. The Jesus of history had a far more complex attitude toward violence. There is no evidence that Jesus himself openly advocated violent actions. But he was certainly no pacifist. 'Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword."
This line of thought is extended on p.154 where Aslan argues that Jesus’ instruction to “love your enemies” means that Jews should love other Jews and forcibly cleanse all non-Jews from the land.  Matthew 10:34 has clearly become a lens by which Aslan views Jesus’ general message.  More importantly, Aslan seems utterly confused as to whether he wants to sell Jesus as a Zealot or something else. So let’s have a look at Matthew 10:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Just a brief glance of the immediate context suggests that Jesus is talking about familial discord.  This whole “not peace but a sword” business is directed internally – not, as Aslan requires for his thesis, against Israel’s enemies. Moreover, Jesus is quoting Micah 7. Have a look at Micah 7.  Does that prophet sound like he is willing to take up arms against his enemy? Or is he content to wait upon his warrior-god Deliverer?

A much better reading of this passage comes from Dale B. Martin who writes: “Jesus’ rejection of the traditional family and his creation of an alternative community signaled the  imminent,  or  perhaps  incipient,  in-breaking  of  the kingdom of God…The household was part of the world order he was challenging. It, along with other institutions of power, would be destroyed in the coming kingdom. The household, moreover, represented traditional authority, which he was challenging at every turn” (Martin, Sex and the Single Savior, p. 106).

I expand on this point in my forthcoming The Wife of Jesus: Ancient Texts and Modern Scandals.

In my next installment in this series, I’ll talk more about Jesus’ relationship with metaphorical swords.

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


  1. "The God of the Bible is a warrior. I don’t like it any more than you do, but this was the God to which Jesus prayed."

    I'm not saying this to offend, but I very much like it. As I see it, the problem that many people have in our safe, secure, comfortable middle-class ghettos is that we simply are not able to see any genuine threat. We are exactly the sheep Jesus tells us about. We are not able to sense any real threats.

    An illustration. If someone breaks into your house in the middle of the night, Do you perceive that as a threat? Is it a threat if they have a knife? Is it a threat if they hold a knife to your child's throat? Are you willing to use a weapon to suspend that threat? Most people are willing to do so... once they perceive a real threat. A three year old might say, Daddy why did you hurt the nice man? They'll never see any threat. They can't see it.

    Do you consider it an act of love or hatred to defend your family against a threat?

    My point is that those who like the peace and love kinda Jesus-dude, don't perceive any real threat. If I were rude, I'd say that they don't know anything about the real world. They are the ones who are most in need of a forceful defender, since they can't do it themselves. It's part of being sheepish.


    1. Thank you for being so creepy, Mark. That is one thing that the Jesus Blog has really lacked this past year. I keep telling Chris that we really need to tap into the hypothetical-knife-wielding-child-threatening burglar demographic.


    2. We have had this conversation so many times. The problem is that if we have any success with that demographic, Anthony would inevitably try to light incense and serve them peppermint tea. And once those cards have been played, what's next?

    3. What's next?! A viewing of the film "Slacker" followed by a game of Twister. Of course.


    4. You two are should start a blog or something...oh...wait...

  2. In Chapter Four of his book The Didache, Thomas O’Loughlin wonders if Matthew 10:34 might be interpreted in the context of late first-century households where an individual decision to be baptized would significantly affect the entire household, particularly regarding the days on which to practice fasting, causing domestic turmoil. He suggests that is why there was an emphasis on baptizing households.

  3. Well, the best near-contemporary evidence of what Jesus' post-crucifixion movement was about comes from the letters of Paul, which are generally about love. Not much about coming with a sword. Paul predated the Gospels, of course.

  4. I want to thank you for your excellent review of Aslan's book. I found it very helpful. I just recently discovered this blog and bookmarked it. I like it very much. I am not a Jesus scholar; I'm a progressive Baptist pastor with a real passion for understanding the historical Jesus. I make a distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith (the quintessential and archetypal human being). However, the historical Jesus greatly informs my view of the archetypal Christ. When I let Jesus be a Jewish sage, prophet, etc it made a huge difference in my faith.

    I do have a couple of questions about assumptions you make in the first paragraph. You say: "Jesus defended the purity of a temple dedicated to a God who led his people into battle." I do not see this. It seems to me that the dominant view in the Synoptics is of a Jesus who bypasses and thus disregards the sacrificial system of the Temple, particularly in his teachings on forgiveness. And what about the protest he staged?

    You also say, "Jesus' God is capable of violence and willing to watch it doled out in lethal doses" which seems to me to be totally incompatible with his nonviolent teachings, call to love one's enemies, and his nonviolent response to his captors, which of course you acknowledge in your rebuttal of Aslan's thesis. It seems much more likely to me that the harsh images of judgment (such as one finds in the judgment parables of Matthew's Gospel) are later embellishments. I have no doubt that Jesus spoke of judgment. But judgment, which can be very painful, can also be redemptive rather than retributive. Redemptive judgment can be quite easily harmonized with Jesus' nonviolent teaching; harsh, punitive judgment cannot.

    It seems to me that Jesus' image of "Abba" and his many sayings about a loving heavenly Father overwhelm the images of a warrior God that was common in Judaism. I find in Jesus (which feeds my Christ image of the quintessential human being) an utterly nonviolent God.

    1. Dear Chuck, your suggest is not far from Dom Crossan's reconstruction. In short, Jesus was a pacifist and the Church became increasingly violent. Thus, all of the violent images in Jesus' teaching are embellishments. I.e. this is a mirror image of Aslan's Jesus. I think that both hermeneutics fail. But I must admit that I'd like it if I could bracket out parables like Luke 19 (cited above) so simply.

      There are a handful of scholarly reconstruction of the Temple "protest". No serious historian think that Jesus was trying to put an end to the notion of sacrificial worship.

      Finally, do you mean to say that Jesus had no knowledge of the "God is a warrior" or "Lord of Hosts" language of Jewish scripture?


    2. suggest should be suggestion - my apologies.

  5. I would not argue that all the descriptions of judgment in Jesus' teachings are embellishments. I think redemptive judgment can entail much suffering, but if you let stand the notions of a God who tortures people (as in Matthew's judgment parables) and Jesus' teaching on love your enemies because God loves God's enemies then you end up with a very schizophrenic Jesus, which does not seem to me to be historically probable. I'm perfectly comfortable letting Jesus be wrong in some of his imaging of God, but in light of the prevailing picture of Jesus in the Gospels it seems to me more likely that the kind of nonviolent God Jesus imagined in the love your enemies text was just as hard to accept then as it is now by his followers. I can't imagine Jesus saying love your enemies, pray for them, do good by them and then proclaiming that God is going to wipe them out. And it is even more difficult to imagine that the love your enemies text is redactional.

    I don't think that Jesus was trying to end sacrificial worship. I think his protest was primarily against the abuses of it. But I do think he regarded it as irrelevant. There is no indication in the Gospels that he felt forgiveness needed to be mediated through sacrifice. In fact, just the opposite (i.e. Matt 9:2-8).

    I'm sure Jesus was indoctrinated in God as warrior theology, but I think that his experience of God as "Abba" led him to imagine God differently.

    1. Chuck, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree that the concept of judgement is a complicated one. Indeed, there are many precedents in Israel's traditions for temporary suffering within the hope of an ultimate vindication. Much more to be said about that.

      As for your concern of a "schizophrenic" Jesus (he was accused of insanity, after all), we might say something similar about the prophet Isaiah. Is the Isaianic vision for zion devoid of gentiles (displaced or killed)? Does the vision include subservient gentiles? Or does the vision include gentiles who are welcomed on the Temple mount, worshiping alongside the children of Israel?

      I won't say too much more here, but I think that it is very possible that Jesus believed in a redeemer God who enacted judgment according to divine wisdom. I also think that it is possible that Jesus did not think that such vindication would be achieved by human hands. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord... you've heard that tune, I'm guessing.

      Finally, 4Q460 and 4Q372 (both fragments in the Dead Sea Scrolls) contain the phrase "Abba" ... this title for God was not unfamiliar in Second Temple Judaism. This concept did not stop the Yahad (the sect that collected the DSS) from imagining spiritual warfare. Moreover, they tended to write their enemies into their violent visions. All the while, the Yahad does not seem interested in a literal uprising. They seem to be preparing for God to act on their behalf. More on this topic soon...


  6. It's certainly possible that Jesus imagined a God who seeks to redeem enemies with one hand, but then crushes them with the other; it just doesn't seem probable. And we are dealing with probabilities in historical Jesus reconstruction are we not?

    I am aware that since Jeremias either started or popularized--I'm not a scholar--Jesus' use of "Abba" evidence has come to light to show that "Abba" was more common than Jeremias and others at the time proposed. But, the significance I think is the way in which Jesus employed the term (i.e, there is no need to worry about anything because the heavenly Father is going to take care of you). It seems to me that his experience of God did more to shape his understanding/faith than his Hebrew tradition. He certainly was not anything other than a Jew, but the Gospels clearly portray him as a reformer who brought something of a prophetic critique to his faith. It seems to me he did a lot of deconstruction.

    I agree with you on Jesus' vision of an imminent kingdom enacted through divine intervention. On this point I clearly part with Crossan and Borg. And with regard to what happens with the unrighteous when judgment falls, Jesus, I think, was intentionally vague. I don't think he knew, other than they fall into hands of a forgiving, gracious God. I would argue that the character of God is more clearly vindicated through some kind of universal reconciliation than through any sort of eternal separation of the wheat and chaff or even annihilation.

    I have given some consideration to the idea that Jesus may have grown and developed in his understanding. I know this is not popular these days in academic circles, but if we postulate a longer ministry than a year (maybe John has it right here) it is conceivable that his original message echoed something of the vindictiveness we see in John the Baptist which his further experience of God as "Abba" and as lover of enemies led him to abandon. It's possible, but not sure about its probability. I haven't tried to convince my parishioners of this yet -- don't think I will fight that battle.