Baker Academic

Monday, September 29, 2014

Jesus the ‘Revolutionary’…?



In a recent JSNT article also publicised in Newsweek, Dale Martin has argued that Jesus and his armed circle saw themselves as part of an earthly-heavenly war against the Romans and the Temple priests. The JSNT and Newsweek articles have provoked a detailed two-part response on this blog by Brian Pounds, related posts on this blog, and posts on other biblioblogs. Mike Bird, for instance, links to his 2006 article ‘Jesus and the Revolutionaries’ where, following people like N.T. Wright, he made arguments such as this:
Jesus’ use of the phrase “Son of Man” as a self-designation…may constitute another strand of polemic against a revolutionary theology…it may be a censure against the revolutionaries or those who want to usher in the kingdom through violence…Like the rabbinic tradition of Yohanan ben Zakkai who pleaded with the Galileans to follow Torah instead of revolution, Jesus similarly called the nation to forego its idolatrous nationalism and, importantly, to follow him as God’s agent of the kingdom.
Mike also refers to what he calls one of his very own ‘memorable quotes’: ‘[I]n supposing that Jesus was a zealot we are faced with a problem of historical discontinuity between Jesus and his followers that is roughly analogous to trying to explain why a group of Al-Qaeda terrorists have traded their guns for guitars and have established a hippie commune in down-town Manhattan.’

A commenter called ‘Deane’ helpfully provided a quotation from Johannes Weiss on Mike Bird’s blog: ‘To hope for the Kingdom of God in the transcendental sense which Jesus attaches to it, and to raise a revolution, are two things as different as fire and water.’

Simon Joseph, who has had much to say on this issue, including a recent book, has claimed in response to Dale Martin: ‘The Revolutionary Jesus hypothesis has long been rejected by most New Testament scholars…I have argued…that Jesus advocated and practiced a radical form of eschatological nonviolence.’

So the distinction between the (typically violent) ‘revolutionary’ and ‘non-revolutionary’ seems clear enough.  And yet…the relatively nonviolent Jesuses of Crossan and Wright are discussed in books which imply something about Jesus’ ‘revolutionary’ status: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Crossan) and The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary (Wright). 
 
So here we have a range of definitions or assumptions about what ‘revolutionary’ means (and whether it is a good or bad thing) in relation to Jesus depending on a given scholar: a zealot-esque leader might be ‘revolutionary’ (whether rejected or accepted as a plausible model for understanding the historical Jesus); the opposite behaviour of someone who latched onto the idea of a ‘transcendental’ kingdom; or someone whose radical ideas turned the world upside down. And notice that we can get scholars who argue that Jesus had radical ideas that turned the world upside down but was presumably not a ‘revolutionary’ and we can get a critique of ‘revolutionary theology’ versus Jesus teaching  which is a difference so strong that it requires an analogous contrast between al-Qaeda and a Manhattan commune.

But let’s confuse things a little further. In Pauline studies it is now, of course, obligatory to mention that philosophers like Jacob Taubes, Žižek, and Alain Badiou have given distinctive philosophical readings (Terry Eagleton has attempted something similar with Jesus, though his arguments are much more familiar in the history of historical Jesus studies). All three present Paul in revolutionary terms but do not really think about Paul as leading a violent uprising to overthrow Rome. Instead they construct Paul (and sometimes Jesus) in language unambiguously associated with some of the most popular contemporary understandings of ‘revolution’. For Taubes, Paul stands in a revolutionary Jewish Messianic tradition in constructing a new ‘people of God’ who overthrow all existing categories  while more so for Badiou who sees resurrection in Paul functioning as a revolutionary Event much like the French Revolution or May ’68. Žižek and Badiou even compare Jesus and Paul to Marx and Lenin? So does all this make Jesus and Paul ‘revolutionaries’? The authors think so.

Lenin and Marx not ‘revolutionary’ enough? Marxist exegete Robert Myles has shown how it is even possible for ‘revolutionary’ stories about Kim Jong Il to incorporate miraculous birth narratives.  

I could try and provide a definition of ‘revolutionary’ but instead I’m going to confuse things further still by returning to Mike Bird’s analogy between al-Qaeda and his Manhattan commune. This distinction might not be so clear cut. The historical and intellectual background to al-Qaeda and related groups is, of course, complex but Marxism played its part. As has long been noted, Marxist influences (e.g. revolutionary vanguard, anti-imperialism, terror, internationalism, and popular justice), as well as ideas concerning totalitarianism, are unsurprising given the prominence of Marxism in universities and the nationalist and socialist movements in colonial, postcolonial and neo-colonial contexts, including the Middle East, India and North Africa. Thus even Bird’s seemingly common sense distinction can start to break down. And if we are not fond of modern analogies, we might turn to passages from Josephus which suggest that even the distinction between prophet and physically violent subversive is not always clear cut (e.g. War 2.254-68).

I won’t give a serious solution to this problem but could we say that the idea of someone attacking economic inequality and promising a future where the first will be last (and vice versa) in a new world order, where the core group get an especially elevated position in what would eventually become or mimic the power it once opposed, sounds a bit like the clichéd pattern of the…revolution?

Update: Robert Myles has responded and critiqued one creator of a Revolutionary Jesus who once lived in a castle

15 comments:

  1. I think there is discontinuity between Jesus as a revolutionary and his followers not being so, but what makes questing through all of this difficult is that there is discontinuity in other important areas as well. For example, everyone recognizes Jesus' strong critique and rejection of the Temple in Mark 11-16, but we just don't find that same emphasis in Acts or Paul or elsewhere. And there's other areas of discontinuity which is why there have been so many disparate portraits of Jesus. So do you think all this discontinuity is due to the nature of our sources, or do you think the Jesus movement changed over time, or some of both? Thoughts?

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    1. J.J., I will break one of my own commenting rules and address a topic not addressed by the article. I do think that the Temple theme (whether it's critique or supersession) features prominently in both Acts 1-7 and in Paul's notion of a "temple of the HS." But back to the main point of the post, the continuity / discontinuity issue is a big deal from a memory perspective. Memory tends to demand continuity (or a perception of continuity, at least) and ruptures in mnemonic lines tend to require explanation. That said, the trauma of the Temple's loss and/or the religious experience of the early Christians could have provided such a rupture. Even so, it will be the historian's task to account for such a rupture.

      -anthony

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  2. I remember as an undergraduate, how I got graded down on a term paper because I used the word "revolution" to describe the program of some 18th century figure (Paine, perhaps). I was sternly told that the concept of a "revolution" did not exist yet. I felt too stupid to ask how all that military stuff that took place around 1776 became known as the "Revolutionary War."

    Now I find out it's perfectly cool to call people "revolutionaries" who lived 1700 years before those 18th century American posers. Ha! I was ahead of my time. Then again, I graduated college before E.P. Sanders had published his first book, so being "ahead of my time" doesn't count for much any more.

    If we look at the revolution Jesus described through a Jewish apocalyptic lens, is it really a "revolution"? Can something be seen as a "revolution" if it's also seen as the end of history? The answer, I suppose, is a strongly qualified "yes," so long as we see all the differences between (say) Armageddon and Valley Forge.

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    1. Simon, if I think back on what I learned in my undergraduate days at Berkeley, I think we also have to ask whether a "revolution" can be accomplished nonviolently. Jesus says that in the Kingdom, the last shall be first, and I assume that means at minimum that Caiaphas won't continue to live in such a nice house. It probably meant something more than that, something like a general "attack on inequality" (as Dr. C put it above). Absent a miracle, I don't see that "attack" being nonviolent. I don't see those with high status in first century Judea giving up their status without a fight.

      So I find it hard to argue that Jesus was pushing for a nonviolent revolution. I don't see any evidence of this. I think Jesus hoped that the revolution would be the last violence the world had to see, and that he looked forward to the end of violence. I've also been arguing lately, partially under your influence, that Jesus advised his disciples to play no role in the violence to come. But I don't think we can place Jesus in the role of Claude Rains in "Casablanca" and imagine that he'd be shocked, shocked, to learn that the last became first violently. (I am willing to imagine that Jesus wished it could be otherwise.)

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    2. Yes, and I suspect Simon has a different answer, but when the kingdom was expected to come and the twelve were judging on thrones, what would it be like...? How would God overthrown the 'first' and put the 'last' in place? This is where I'd think, as Larry is suggesting (right?), one big violent episode by God would inaugurate everything...?

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    3. James, I think I may enjoy having you around here.

      To take your point further, the twelve judging on thrones is itself a process where violence is involved. Violence accompanies justice; it may be justifiable violence, but it's violence nonetheless. People don't show up in court voluntarily; at least the threat of force is required to get them there. In court, there are people with guns, and you can go to jail if you don't testify when required. And naturally, justice requires punishment, and punishment is violent. We use actual and threatened force to keep people in jail, for example. Even the payment of a traffic ticket has a threat of force behind it (pay, or else).

      Jesus never promised universal citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Some would be in, and some left out. How were the "outs" to be kept out, if not through actual or threatened violence?

      James, your imagined "one big violent episode" is probably best understood as a series of smaller violent episodes, perhaps without end. I may personally wish for a Kingdom where we'll all live together in peace (we may need one hell of a Yom Kippur to get everyone repented and justified), and where no one is left outside weeping and gnashing teeth, and maybe that's what Jesus really promised us, but if so, the universality of that promise ended up on the cutting room floor.

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    4. Damn this gets more complicated the more it is discussed but I think the threat of violence you implied (er, in your reading of the ancient text, not threatening people in the comments section, obviously) is an interesting point here. I mean, presumably not EVERYONE is going to want to partake in the kingdom as envisaged in the early tradition but if they are going to then...

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    1. Simon, I assume that Gandhi read Marx, and I don't know if he found Marx amusing. But the process of Indian independence was a violent affair, even if Gandhi did not participate in the violence. Much of the violence was British, and much extended beyond the borders of India (two world wars). But there were violent elements who fought for Indian independence, and there were many who died in the struggle for this independence. And once independence was achieved, there was further violence, including the long-standing violence between the two most powerful nations that arose from the partition of colonial India, namely India and Pakistan, plus the war that led to the independence of Bangladesh. But if we confine ourselves to the time immediately following Indian independence, perhaps half a million people were reportedly killed in rioting in India and Pakistan, and something like 15 million refugees passed between India and Pakistan.

      So, much like your recommendation that we agree on definitions, I think we might ultimately need to define what you mean by a "nonviolent revolution." I agree with you that Gandhi's campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience is something we should take seriously in any conversation about revolution, but let's not confuse the ideals of his campaign with the amount of actual violence that accompanied Indian independence.

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    3. Simon, I was responding to your statement about the possibility of nonviolent revolution. The Indian revolution was not nonviolent and does not prove that nonviolent revolution is possible.

      The difficult question is whether a person can be considered to be a "nonviolent revolutionary" if they work to bring a revolution into being knowing the extreme likelihood (bordering on certainty in most and perhaps all cases) that the revolution will be violent. Yes, Gandhi never committed a personal act of violence, and I believe he did all he could to promote nonviolence ... so maybe he was not expecting the violence that accompanied this revolution. I don't think we can make a similar excuse for Jesus, who worked to promote the coming of a Kingdom knowing (I think) that the Kingdom would be established violently.

      In part under your influence, I'm trying to envision Jesus consistently with the Gospel information in the most nonviolent way I can. And it’s true, with the possible exception of the Temple cleansing and the ear-slicing at Jesus’ arrest, we can’t pin any violence on Jesus’ actual life. The “revolution” that Jesus actually helped bring about, i.e., the establishment of Christianity, is beyond my scope here. I’m just considering the “revolution” that Jesus said he was working for, the one that James described above as fitting the clichéd pattern of revolution. Can we say that if this revolution had come to pass, that Jesus would bear no responsibility for the violence he foresaw as accompanying this "revolution"? Can we say about Jesus what I think we can say about Gandhi, that Jesus did everything within his considerable power (as popular leader, reputed Messiah, Son of God or what have you) to bring the Kingdom into effect nonviolently? Did he even pray for such a thing?

      Let’s ignore for a moment the violence inherent in Jesus' role as cosmic judge. Let’s assume that Jesus did not plan to personally participate in any of the violence accompanying the revolution to establish the Kingdom, but that he did work to promote the Kingdom. Would this have made his actions “nonviolent”?

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  5. The statement that Dale's thesis is one that "has long been rejected by most New Testament scholars" is really more of a copout than a critique. Regardless, the JSNT article contains a half-page footnote detailing how his argument differs from those before him (i.e. Brandon, Horsely, and even Aslan).

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