Baker Academic

Friday, September 21, 2012

Interview with Helen K. Bond (Part III)

Parts I and II of my interview with Helen Bond are here and here.

ACLD: Walter Wink, who we recently lost, was quite convinced that Jesus’ famous “turn the other cheek” saying was meant to shame a violent oppressor into acknowledging an equal relationship with the person being struck. In this view, Jesus was not advocating passivity to abused people. So too with the “go the extra mile” saying. Do you think Wink was reading too much into these symbolic actions?

HKB: Who said anything about being passive? I don’t think that proclaiming God’s imminent rule and the need to prepare for it is passive in any way. Its demandingly active, hugely political, and massively counter-cultural and threatening to those in authority. So I think that Wink is right that these sayings of Jesus have the ability to shame oppressors (if they took the time to notice), but I would be wary of restricting these sayings to Rome/political authorities. While the ‘go the extra mile’ saying may have originated in the context of Roman auxiliary troops, the ‘offer the other cheek’ saying would fit in any uneven situation – from feuds between rival families to violence in the home. Again, I think its human relationships on a more basic level that Jesus is talking about.

ACLD: One of the key points made by anti-Empire folks, is that the title “Son of God” (as applied to Jesus) is in direct opposition to Caesar Augustus’ title.  In other words, Caesar isn’t the son of God, Jesus is. Is this not the best reading of this title?

HKB: I think we need to make a distinction here between what Jesus claimed for himself and how he was regarded later on. As for the former, there’s no doubt that Jesus referred to God as father/abba, and that he saw himself as a (perhaps even a very special) Son of God. His predominantly peasant Jewish followers in Galilee and Judaea, though, would have understood this in terms of his piety, his obedience to the will of Yahweh, and perhaps even in terms of royalty. I don’t see much evidence that Jesus equated himself with the Emperor; his central focus was on God and God’s reign, so I think (had he cared to) he might have contrasted God with the Roman ruler, but the contrast would have been a pointless one.
      Later on, of course, when the gospels were composed in largely gentile environments, the phrase ‘Son of God’ took on added resonance with the Emperor who was regarded (especially in the East) as son of his deified father. This was presumably helped by the fact that the Christian message had undergone significant Christological development and followers now regarded Jesus as Son of God in a unique way. I do think that when Thomas confesses Jesus as ‘My Lord and my God’ in John 20 the audience would have connected that in some way with the demands of Domitian, and that they would have seen that all the grandiose claims of the Emperor truly belonged to Jesus. But all of this is a long way and a huge Christological leap from the Galilean prophet himself.

...more of this interview will be published on Monday...


  1. Helen, thanks so much for doing these interesting interviews. And thanks for your sane approach to the anti-Rome issues. I feel like the "empire" studies have gotten out of control a bit.

  2. I think it's so important to recognize that Jesus response to Roman oppression works beautifully in the non-violent movements of the 20th century and continued in the Arab Spring. If the goal is to love our enemies, so they no longer are enemies, then the recipe Jesus gave is timeless. The sad part is that it is also so misinterpreted that it was nearly lost to history throughout Medieval history and early modernity until a little lawyer named Gandhi reapplied it in its true form! Wink's treatment of the passage does such a great job of making it assessable.

  3. Jesus claiming to be the Son of God was not a direct opposition to Caesar Augustus' title. Jesus was focused on bringing the word of God to the people, so that they could be enlightened with His teachings to become spiritual and faithful peoples. Jesus was not focused on the kingdom of earth rather his focus was on the Kingdom of Heaven. The Roman rulers, like Caesar Augustus, were part of the earthly realm, the realm that can not compete with the holy realm of God. Therefore, it's hard for me to say that these two realms cannot directly oppose each other because they inhabit different spaces.