Baker Academic

Friday, July 11, 2014

My Interview with Simon J. Joseph (Part Two) - Le Donne

I was able to interview Simon Joseph earlier this week about his new book: The Nonviolent Messiah: Jesus, Q, and the Enochic Tradition. Today I conclude this interview. You can read part one here.

ALD: In your book, you claim that Jesus was “consistently nonviolent.” This would seem to contradict some passages in the Gospels that suggest otherwise. You will, no doubt, be accused by some readers of cutting out and dismissing several passages that are problematic for your thesis by labeling them “inauthentic.” Have you overextended your thesis by concluding that Jesus was “consistently” nonviolent?
SJJ: I understand that my proposal of “thoroughgoing” consistency might be difficult for some to accept, but I find this ironic for several reasons: first, because we all value (even insist upon) consistency in our everyday lives – in our friendships, relationships, social networks, when/where we buy our favorite foods, use various products and services, etc. We all expect and anticipate a certain level of consistency in these things (otherwise we go elsewhere).
    On another level, we value consistency as an ethical good and tend to equate it with integrity, reliability, and, most of all, trustworthiness. The less consistent people are, the less we tend to trust them.
    On an even more pertinent level – when many conservative Evangelicals approach the Scriptures, they hold a consistent view of Scripture: everything in Scripture is categorized as “inerrant” because contradictions would undermine the authority of Scripture. The irony, of course, is that this very faithfullness to the consistency of Scripture creates interpretive problems – because the Scriptures do not appear to be consistent but rather contradictory in many instances. Scriptural inerrancy affirms the necessity of consistency but must do so by denying inconsistencies. It’s important to point out that it is the critical detection of these very inconsistencies that has so often resulted in major theoretical advances in biblical scholarship (e.g., the Documentary Hypothesis, the Synoptic Problem, redaction criticism, etc.).
     Often the default position is that Jesus’ inconsistency represents some kind of divine “mystery” and is therefore beyond investigation or scrutiny. In a different context, the concept of divine mystery could be affirmed, but in this instance, it is not likely, and highly problematic. First, the Gospels are human productions, literary products of a particular time and place that reflect their authors’ attempts to preserve the inspiring words and deeds of Jesus, and they were as unavoidably influenced by their own cultural resources, personalities, and interests as we are. Second, this is essentially a confessional, not a critical position. Criticism means making choices, decisions, and judgments – and justifying those choices – with evidence and reason, not presupposing that everything in the text is authentic.
     Put simply, I propose that Jesus was consistent when it comes to the topic of violence. What this means is that he was nonviolent personally, theologically, and eschatologically – even if the authors of the Gospels were not. This dissonance between the Jesus of history and the canonical Gospels is axiomatic in critical biblical scholarship. We shouldn’t shrink from this. In fact, embracing this dissonance effectively undermines the domestication of Jesus in the Christian theological tradition and might yet help restore the controversial Jesus that we still find everywhere on the pages of the Gospels. I am tempted to conclude that if our research is not controversial, then we are not doing our jobs properly.

ALD: Simon, as you may know, I’m a pacifist and a Christian. I also make my living as a Jesus historian. I would like nothing more than to believe in a thoroughgoing non-violent messiah. But allow me to push back a bit here. I imagine that Jesus struggled with the role of violence (be it divine or otherwise) in the coming of God’s kingdom. I’m also willing to imagine a Jesus who changed his mind on this topic. Moreover, we have an analog with Malcolm X. MX seems to have changed his tune on a number of topics toward the end. So I would take issue with the assumption that a “confessional” rather than a “critical” position has made me less receptive of a thoroughgoing non-violent Jesus.
SJJ: Great questions. One, did Jesus change his mind? And two, does taking a confessional approach make one less receptive of a thoroughly nonviolent Jesus?
    First, to clarify, I don’t think there is any kind of dichotomy between historical-critical and theological/confessional approaches to the tradition. And I’m certainly not saying that confessional readers can’t be critical. I think it’s fair to say that confessional allegiances do make it more difficult to reach critical conclusions that undermine those very allegiances, but it is obviously possible (as John Meier – a Catholic priest and Jesus scholar - illustrates). Whether or not historical-critical conclusions have any bearing on one’s theological convictions is another matter altogether. It’s up to each one of us to negotiate that tension for ourselves and I understand that a lot of people struggle with the tradition for this very reason, just as I have, but it seems to me that we need to make critical decisions here about whether the Jesus tradition accurately represents an inconsistent, confused, or inscrutably complex Jesus; and/or whether the earliest Jesus tradition is a combination of authentic and inauthentic traditions. I’d like to think that readers would be open to the possibility of a thoroughgoing nonviolent Jesus, but I suspect that this will be a challenge for both historical and theological reasons. In other words, I don’t think that a consistently nonviolent Jesus is obvious. It is not. If it were obvious, I wouldn’t have had to write this book. But I do think it is compelling – and for both historical and theological reasons.
     Of course, there are other options. We could accept the entire tradition as historically accurate, which most critical scholars will not accept, at least in so far as they are doing their historical work. We could just throw up our hands and say “I don’t know” and leave it at that. We could also, as you suggest, conclude that maybe Jesus changed his mind at some point during his ministry. So let’s take a look at that. One could say, and some do, that Jesus began his ministry as an apocalyptic preacher of end-time doom and then changed his mind after John the Baptist’s death. Alternatively, one could argue that Jesus began his ministry – like Willem Dafoe’s “Jesus” in The Last Temptation of Christ – teaching love and peace and then changed his mind by picking up the axe. It’s true that people change their minds all the time. Bart Ehrman famously went from being a “Fundamentalist” to an agnostic. Geza Vermes converted back to Judaism from Catholicism. The apostle Paul did an about-face in joining the Jesus movement. Malcolm X is another example, but the difference is that for each of these examples, we have good historical documentation of their personal development, even autobiographical accounts of their changing thought processes. We don’t have that for Jesus, so we can’t write a proper biography of Jesus’ inner life. We could say (following Stephen Patterson) that Jesus simply didn’t have enough time to figure out what he thought. We could also surmise that Jesus saw an awful lot of violence and death growing up around Sepphoris and may have figured out that violence doesn’t work. The point is that we don’t know how Jesus arrived at his religious convictions. I see no compelling reason to think that Jesus changed his mind midstream – whether after his meeting with John or during some perceived failure of his mission prior to visiting Jerusalem.
     What I do see is Jesus challenging normative assumptions about how God’s justice worked. There is simply no precedent for loving enemies in Early Judaism and this would hardly have endeared him to revolt-prone sentiments among his contemporaries. I think it’s safest to conclude that Jesus’ vision of nonviolence was rooted in his religious experience and his own understanding of the Scriptures and God’s will. Whether or not Genesis 1 or Isaiah 11 made an early or lasting impression on him is hard to say because we can’t reconstruct his inner development, but I infer, based on the radicality of this vision (and the trouble it brought him), that it was an inseparable part of whatever convinced him to begin his ministry in the first place. In short, I think that what we have is an early, radical stance of nonviolence that emerges within and in conversation with other Jewish voices, and that this vision, which still shines through the early Jesus/Q tradition and the Sermon on the Mount, was quickly compromised by the social strains and inter-group conflicts between the Jesus people and other Jewish groups. We see this happening as early as Q and it only gets worse as we proceed to Matthew. In other words, Jesus was consistently nonviolent throughout his ministry, but the literary tradition that grew around him was not.

ALD: One of the most interesting problems in this debate is the influence of apocalypticism on Jesus. Indeed, the hope for a final, divine judgment (often imagined in violent metaphor) seems to have been almost universal among first-century Jews. I found your chapter dealing with Jesus and apocalyptic judgment to be fascinating. Would you give us your take on this problem in a nutshell?

In many ways, this problem is at the heart of contemporary debate on Jesus. We saw this in the “Jesus Wars” of the Jesus Seminar days when various scholars and the media constructed a false dichotomy between Jesus the wisdom teacher vs. Jesus the apocalyptic prophet. I think we can do better than that. This is why Q is so interesting – because it contains multiple themes and literary styles: wisdom sayings, parable, eschatology, apocalyptic, etc., and they all seem to be part of the same thought-system. However, even Q appears to betray redactional activity and contains thematically “dissonant” material. For example, did Jesus say “love your enemies” and then assign them to eternal hell? Is this evidence of Jesus changing his mind? Are these ideas actually thematically-theologically reconcilable? This is where our subjective assumptions of what is “consistent” come into play.
     This is why we have to be careful with how we define our terms. For many, apocalyptic(ism) seems to be synonymous with the idea of a violent end-time judgment, but that is not what the word means. It refers to a divine or heavenly “revelation.” The same applies to eschatology, a slippery word often confused and conflated with apocalyptic(ism). A number of scholars have assembled what appears to be a formidable collection of Jewish texts referring to the end-time judgment, but what concerns me about this is that it tends to construct Second Temple Judaism as a monolithic system that fails to allow for, let alone account for, individual nuances and differences. In effect, it constructs a caricature of the “Jewish” matrix or background within which Jesus is first located and then against which Jesus is favorably compared. However, it is entirely possible for Jesus to sit comfortably within his Jewish context while simultaneously objecting to, withdrawing from, and disagreeing with various aspects of it (this is what Jews have done throughout history and continue to do today). This doesn’t make him any less “Jewish.” The plain fact is that the Gospels were written by Jesus’ followers, not by Jesus. Our texts – even Q – reflect a sociological atmosphere of intense inter-group conflict and competition, so it is not unreasonable to infer that much of the violent rhetoric (for example, in Matthew) reflects the evangelists’ adaptation of Jewish apocalypticism, not Jesus’.
    Jesus was part of an apocalyptic and eschatologically-oriented culture, but he himself focused on the restorative aspects of that tradition and rejected the idea of divinely vindictive punishment. This does not mean he did not foresee a time of divine justice and judgment, but it does mean that we should consider the possibility that Jesus’ vision of God’s justice was different from the author of Q or Matthew’s. It’s quite possible that it was Jesus’ radical and controversial acceptance of outcasts and unworthies that infuriorated his contemporaries – precisely because they regarded them as deserving divine judgment. It bears repeating here that if we do not affirm Jesus’ consistency on nonviolence, we end up affirming – by default – that Jesus was a teacher of nonviolence who simultaneously threatened eschatological divine violence to those who did not heed his own teachings of nonviolence.
     So was Jesus a wisdom teacher? Yes! A Jewish prophet? Yes! An eschatological Jesus? Yes! An “apocalyptic” revealer? Yes! A Jesus who announces divine judgment and justice? Yes!
     Was Jesus an authorized agent of divine apocalyptic violence? No.

My thanks to Simon for such a wonderful achievement and for chatting with me on one of my favorite topics. You can take a closer look at his book here or read his blog here.



  1. I have a question for Simon:

  2. It’s a good question, Deane, and a complicated one. Of course there are theological discussions in my book: I wrote two chapters on “divine violence” in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament and I refer to the “Christology” of Q throughout. We can’t ignore the theological interests of the Jesus tradition. We must take those interests into account, but we can also try to account for them. My interests here include the historical Jesus as well as the earliest Jesus tradition(s) and the earliest traceable Jewish Jesus movement(s), and how these traditions develop over time. That is the domain of history. The two disciplines intersect throughout. We do historical-critical analyses of theologically-interested texts about historical figures and conduct critical discussions of the theologies of historical figures. Like I said, complicated, and a topic I continue to think about (“Distinguishing between History and Theology”

  3. What a great interview. Thanks. I am ordering the book now.