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Christ, what more do you need to convince you
That you've made it and you're easily as strong
As the filth from Rome who rape our country
And who've terrorized our people for so long?


With these words, the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar portrays "Simon Zelotes" trying to prompt Jesus to take revolutionary political action. Even if the scene does not reflect the historical situation of Jesus, it certainly shows the influence of modern discussions about Jesus. Was he a revolutionist? Or are scholars merely trying, like Simon, to make him one? The theory propounded by Samuel Reimarus, Karl Kautsky, and Archibald Robertson has more recently been championed in many books including Brandon's Jesus and the Zealots, Schonfield's The Jesus Party, Carmichael's The Death of Jesus, Joyce's The Jesus Scroll, Haley's The Power Tactics of Jesus Christ, and (with important modifications) Maccoby' s Revolution in Judaea. The question is one both tantalizing and notoriously difficult to settle. Plaguing the discussion of the issues is an easily understandable tendency to cast the alternatives in either anachronistic or too- strict categories. I would like to undertake a brief rehearsal of some of the more important points at issue.


The Evidence: Enough to Convict?

Many have noted how, even though some historical data might encourage us to see Jesus against the background of first century revolution (e.g., the revolt. of Judas the Galilean), other stubborn gospel texts make it more likely that Jesus was an apocalyptic visionary who awaited a deus ex machina salva­tion for Israel. I hope to show that this set of alternatives is not quite as exclusive as it first appears. But the main point is a good one: the evidence is hardly univocal. If this is so, must the inquirer after the historical Jesus remain forever poised, like the proverbial donkey, immobile between two hay stacks? How may we proceed?

Oscar Cullmann admits that "The relevant sayings and narratives of Jesus in the Gospels may be divided into two groups: those representing him as closely connected with Zealotry, and those seeing him on the contrary set apart from it.” (Jesus and the Revolutionaries, p. 7.) All too often, one “suppresses those [texts] which contradict the thesis which one supports himself.” (Ibid., p. 10.) Such a Procrustean procedure is arbitrary and oversimplistic. But on the other hand, we ought to recognize that in the gospels, the use of “ideal types” as experimental models for construing the data  is liable to prove as productive as in any other field of re search (cf. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Let us approach the data and see how well the revolutionist model can explain the evidence. Then let us see whether some plausible explanation can be found for the data that remain outstanding (e. g., the “pacifist" texts mentioned by Cullmann, Martin Hengel, and others).

          First, there is a collection of very interesting hints that Jesus' dis­ciples had some revolutionary involvement. Brandon has made much of the supposed presence of the Jerusalem Christians in the city at the time of the Roman siege (a. d. 70). Earlier research of his had indicated that tradi­tional stories of the flight of the Christians across the desert to Pella were legendary. Brandon supposes that they remained in the city and fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the Zealots against the Romans. But this is an argument from silence, and it cannot carry much weight. The legends might have originated as a pedigree for the Pella church, who wanted to claim the clout of the Jerusalem Mother Church. Who knows? 

Similarly, his attempt to connect the Gospel of Matthew with Alexandria, and with the Jewish revolt there, seems highly tenuous. More suggestive are the "nicknames" given to some of the disciples. Simon "Bar-jona” (Matthew 16:17), usually taken to mean that Simon Peter was the “Son of Jonah," just might mean Simon "the terrorist, " if barjona reflects a certain Akkadian loan-word. The name of another disciple, “Simon the Zealot," is often (nowadays even usually) interpreted as denoting his membership in the radical Zealot Party. But as Michael Grant points out, the word "Zealot" as the name of a revolutionary sect is not attested until after Jesus' day (Jesus: "An Historian's Review of the Gospels, p. 132). The fact of its current conventional use as a catch-all term for first-century revolutionists has possibly misled scholars into retrojecting this meaning onto the disciple Simon. For him, “Zealot" may simply have denoted enthusiastic piety, much as the term is used in Acts 21:20 ("You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.")  

(On the other hand, it is easy to show that the seditionists who actually bore the designation “Zealots” saw themselves as in direct continuity with Judas of Galilee and his successors, so the application of the name may be only barely, and forgivably, anachronistic.)

Just as loudly trumpeted has been the supposed revolutionary signifi­cance of Judas' epithet "Iscariot." It is interpreted with some plausibility as "member of the sicarii," an order of nationalist assassins mentioned in Josephus and in Acts 21:38 ("Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists [sicarii] out into the desert some time ago?"). But, as Bertil Gärtner has shown (in his Iscariot), the name is quite naturally explained as deriving from 'ishgarya, meaning “the false one," thus "Judas the betrayer." But the question remains open, and many still hold for “the sicarius” as Judas’ epithet.

The brothers James and John are given the title "Boanerges," allegedly meaning "Sons of Thunder." This name could perhaps refer to revolution­ary leanings, though the traditional opinion that it refers simply to a "stormy" emotional disposition is no less likely. John M. Allegro (The Sacred Mush­room and the Cross) has even suggested that it derives from the hypothetical Sumerian word Geshpuanur, "upholder of the vault of heaven," a reference to the mythological "heavenly twins" motif. Thus “Boanerges” would rightly be rendered “Sons of the Thunderer.” That would be a pretty odd coincidence.

So some of the most strikingly attractive evidence for the Zealot hypothesis turns out to be ambiguous. But the meat of the theory lies else­where. Here we must deal with certain facts of Jesus’ career and the gospel writers' interpretation of them, or rather, their attempts to rebut rival interpretations. At the heart of our knowledge of Jesus is the fact of his crucifixion. This was not the form of execution either for Roman citizens (beheading) or for blasphemers (stoning), but rather for sedition against Rome. The followers of Judas the Galilean and of Spartacus met this gruesome fate. Moreover, Jesus went to the gallows in the company of two lestoi, or "brigands," the term used by Josephus to refer to the revolutionaries a generation after Jesus’ day. Jesus, then, died the death of a rebel against Rome. But was it all a mistake, as the early Christians contended? A handful of incidents may be cited to indi­cate that it was not.

The key narrative is that of the so- called Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus, according to one plausible reading, is there hailed as the Messiah who will restore “the kingdom of our father David" (Mark 11: 10). He proceeds to enter the Temple and expel the merchants and moneychangers, stampeding the livestock. Oddly, no mention is made of any action by either the Temple Guard or the nearby Roman garrison. Yet later we are told that along with Jesus, the authorities are holding one Barabbas “who was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising” (Mark 15:7). Wait a minute… what uprising? As depicted in the TV movie Jesus of Nazareth, it is difficult not to wonder if this riot were not connected with (or even identical with) Jesus' "cleansing of the Temple.” The indirect evidence is, if anything, even more intriguing. With regard to the Barabbas episode, there are tell-tale signs of tampering. Pontius Pilate was known for his propensity to outrage Jewish sensibilities every chance he got. Can we then picture him knuckling under to the crowd and releasing a known revolutionary instead of the pacifist Jesus? This whitewashing of Pilate (which eventually went so far that he was canonized as a saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church!) has long been seen as an attempt to shift the blame for Jesus' death from the Romans to the Jews. This is not hard to imagine in the light of the widely-recognized tendency of the gospels, notably Luke, to defend Christianity from the dangerous charge of sedition. The tendency is most pronounced in Luke's second New Testament work The Acts of the Apostles, which is largely a series of vindications of Paul by Roman authorities, before whom trouble-makers have accused Paul and his companions: "These men are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice" (Acts 16:20-21). "They are all defying Caesar's decree, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus" (Acts l7:7).

Remembered as a Rebel

Historically, it does seem that much persecution of Christians by Roman authorities was based on misapprehensions, such as that the Lord's Supper was cannibalism. Also, the government resented the pacificism of some early Christians including Tertullian and Origen. But what is inter­esting for our purposes is that the gospels (especially Luke and John) are at pains to refute popular beliefs that Jesus himself was a political rebel. Now such beliefs might have been generated after Jesus' death by people believing lies spread about Jesus, if lies they were. Some of the evidence could be explained this way, though it needn't. For instance, Luke is keenly aware that Jesus is remembered as being one of a group of religious revolutionaries. He has Rabbi Gamaliel address the Sanhedrin, comparing Jesus to two earlier notorious figures:

Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody [cf. Luke 21:8, “Many will come in my name claiming 'I am he.’”], and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dis­persed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourself fighting against God (Acts 5:36-39).

Similarly, Paul is mistaken for an Egyptian leader of sicarii in Acts 21:38. Significantly, Josephus mentions all three of these rebels, noting that the Egyptian claimed he would part the Jordan River as did Joshua of old. Theudas also predicted he would repeat one of Joshua's miracles; he would topple the walls of Jerusalem, as Joshua had done to Jericho. Could Jesus (Greek for "Joshua," of course) have been another would-be deliverer who staked everything on a climactic miracle to be performed by him at Jerusa­lem? Luke attests, perhaps unwittingly, that he was remembered shortly after his death in precisely these terms. Luke and John also give evidence that Jesus was seen this way by worried authorities even before his death. John reports a clandestine meet­ing of the Sanhedrin: "If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place [= either "jurisdiction" or "temple”] and our nation" (John 11:48). As Brandon points out, the issue is seen by Jesus' opponents in purely political terms. This is doubly striking, since this is not even supposed to be the issue in the rest of John's gospel, where the Pharisees oppose Jesus for his claims to be God’s Son.

Luke portrays the Sanhedrin "falsely" charging Jesus before Pilate with sedition: "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king" (Luke 23:2). Luke clearly intends his readers to discount these charges, since he has already shown Jesus commanding payment of taxes to Caesar ("Give to Caesar what is Caesar's" Luke 20:25). Brandon tries to interpret this text so as to make it forbid tribute to Caesar, but his attempt is hardly convincing. The passage may be simply a cosmetic addition by Christian apologists who wanted to avoid trouble. We find a trend in the same direction elsewhere in the gospels. For instance, Jesus is "falsely" charged with predicting to miraculously rebuild the Temple after its destruction (Mark 14:58), yet John records that he did make such a claim (John 2: 19), though John tries to reinterpret it. Also, the appendix to John's gospel denies that Jesus ever claimed that at least some disciples would live until the end of the world (John 21 :22- 23). Yet according to Mark, Jesus claimed precisely this (Mark 8:38-9:11), a pre­diction that is likely to be the origin of the legend of the Wandering Jew ("Tarry thou until I come again"). But what does all this have to do with the charge that Jesus forbade the payment of Roman taxes? I suggest that the charges may have been true, but that Luke is trying to obscure the fact. Cullmann is right: it is simply arbitrary to reject as spurious texts which conflict with one's theory. So we would feel more comfortable classing the "Give to Caesar that which is Caesar's" saying as another apologetical negation like those just listed if we had a close parallel or precedent.

As it happens, we do. In Matthew 17:24­ 27, we find the famous legend of the coin in the fish's mouth. Simon Peter has just assured the collectors of the Jewish Temple Tax that Jesus intends to pay the tax. Jesus then asks him: "From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes- -from their own sons or from others?" "From others," comes Peter's answer. "Then the sons are exempt," replies Jesus. The whole point is that Jesus, being God's son, has no intention of paying. So far so good. But the story continues: "But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours." The saying is thus de-fused, and the point is completely reversed. Someone, afraid of the original radical threat of the passage, has tacked on a pious legend which makes the text "safe." May we not wonder if exactly the same thing has not transpired with respect to Jesus’ teaching on another tax, that paid to Caesar?


In the Memory of the Disciples

We have seen that the gospel writers preserve the memory that Jesus was seen by his enemies as a political subversive both during and shortly after his ministry. Now it is still possible that the early Christians were actually fending off misunderstandings. But the likelihood of this shrinks visibly when we realize that Luke and John also attest that during his career Jesus' own followers saw him in the same light. John tells us that after Jesus' miraculous feeding of the crowds, "They intended to make him king by force” (John 6:15). John says that Jesus rejected the idea, but remember the fears of the Sanhedrin that Jesus’ movement would bring political ruin (John 11:48). Luke is aware that as Jesus approached Jerusalem, "The people thought that the Kingdom of God was going to appear at once” (Luke 19:11), and that when it did not, and Jesus died instead, they were bitterly disillusioned. "We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel" (Luke 24:21). In answer to the question "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6), Luke's Jesus reformulates the messianic kingdom in spiritual and religious terms. Now could all this have been the result of misunderstanding?

True, Mark constantly depicts the disciples as a bunch of thick-headed dunces, but this is less a historical reminiscence than a factional polemic. Typical of early Christian and Gnostic tracts, Mark repudiates the teaching of the twelve apostles, so he must dismiss it as their distortion of what Jesus taught them. In fact, it is hard to believe Jesus' followers could have so completely mistaken Jesus’ intentions. As Reimarus pointed out, Jesus had sent the twelve (and according to Luke, seventy others) to preach his views of the coming Kingdom all across Judaea. Did he send them out with­ out double-checking that they had the message right? The gospels also record a few "hard sayings" which have always proven baffling to exegetes, but which take on new meaning in light of the preceding.

For instance, at the Last Supper, Jesus instructs the disciples to go sell their coats and buy swords if they are not already carrying some (Luke 22:36). In fact, some of them are (and they do not fail to use them later that night, when Jesus is apprehended at the Garden of Gethsemane). The attempts of Martin Hengel (Was Jesus a Revolutionist?) and others to spiritualize this text are unconvincing. Luke himself intends us to understand that Jesus commanded the bearing of swords simply in order to fulfill a prophecy that he would be among bad company (Luke 22:37). This has all the artificiality of Schonfield's scheming Jesus in The Passover Plot. Clearly, it represents Luke’s tendency to attribute the Passion with all its details to the letter of predictive prophecy.

Another traditional stumper is Matthew 11:12: “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and violent men take it by force." Clifford Wilson comments:

Possibly our Lord was suggesting that some were attempting to force the emergence of the Kingdom of God by compelling God to usher in His Kingdom in the special sense they hoped for. He went on to say that forceful men seize it--possibly referring to men such as the Zealots and the Sicarii.

Wilson adds, “These men were outside the will of God in attempting to set up the Kingdom of God by force” (New Light on the Gospels, p. 66). But this last sentiment is gratuitous and finds no justification in the text. I have already had occasion to mention Barabbas. Now I want to propose a fresh interpretation of the whole scene. Brandon is right; it is hard to imagine Pilate dismissing a known insurrectionist instead of a paci­fist. But if the story is thus evidence of Christian tampering, a new ques­tion is raised: Why introduce the Barabbas incident with its embarrassing improbabilities at all? The answer lies in a curious marginal variant pre­served in some Old Latin manuscripts of Matthew, where Barabbas is called “Jesus Barabbas" ("Which would you like me to release to you:­ Jesus Bar-Abbas, or Jesus called Messiah?” Matthew 27:17). Barabbas, or Bar-Abbas, means “Son of the Father"! Is it possible that the original point of the story was to refute the belief that the Christians’ founder, Jesus the Son of the Father (= Son of God), was an insurrectionist? “Oh, to be sure, there was a 'Jesus Son of the Father' (Bar-Abbas) who was a rebel, but he wasn't crucified. Our Jesus was crucified in his place. It's really all a simple case of mistaken identity."

If this admittedly speculative reconstruction were correct, we would have already in the New Testament a precursor to the “docetic" heresy (the belief either that someone else took Jesus' place or that his "Son of God" nature departed, just before the crucifixion).


A Zealot, A Visionary, or What?

Up to this point, a good deal of evidence has combined to place Jesus among the ranks of first-century resistance leaders such as Theudas, Judas the Galilean, and the anonymous Egyptian. Yet, as we anticipated, the picture is not so simple. What are we to make of those texts in which Jesus inculcates pacifism, individual piety, and the expectation of divine deliverance? Albert Schweitzer (The Mystery of the Kingdom of God) and Johannes Weiss (Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God) have shown that the model of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher of repentance is at least as fruitful in understanding the gospels as the "revolutionist" model we have been exploring. To recall our earlier conundrum, are we stuck with a dilemma, asking "Will the real Jesus please stand up?” but with little hope that he will? Cullmann decided that things are not so simple. The historian must at least explore the possibility that the picture is not so simple as making Jesus into a first-century member of either the Jehovah's Witnesses or the PLO. And he is right. Cullmann's own reconstruction, however, seems too much of a theological harmonization, dependent as it is on his prior theory that Jesus saw his mission as combining the functions of the Old Testament "Son of Man" and "Suffering Servant" figures. The resulting “Mennonite” picture of a Jesus who combined a damning critique of the present order with a repudiation of al fleshly revolutionary movements, represents more Cullmann's own theological evaluation of Jesus than a sketch of Jesus' own views.

Cullmann would have been on safer ground if he had chosen a model with a precedent in Jesus' own milieu. And there is such a model available. The Qumran Scrolls from the Dead Sea monastery document the history and beliefs of a sectarian group possibly to be identified with the Essenes. While the notion that Jesus had been a member of this community is an occultist fantasy akin to the belief that he had traveled to Tibet, the Dead Sea Scrolls do shed light on the religious thought-world of Jesus. Like Jesus, the Qumran sectarians expected the imminent end of the world, at which time legions of angels would intervene to sweep the pagans off the face of the earth, or at least out of Palestine. This belief is attested in the Qumran work The War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness. What is espe­cially interesting for our purposes is that the function of the angelic hosts was not to substitute for the efforts of the faithful, but to augment them. It was believed that divisions of angels would fight side-by-side with the sec­tarians against the Kittim, or Romans. "Valiant warriors of the angelic host are among our numbered men, and the Hero of war is with our congre­gation; the host of His spirits is with our foot-soldiers and horsemen" (Chapter. XII, Vermes's translation).

The point of all this is that Jesus could have been an apocalyptic vision­ary 'awaiting the deus _ machina ending of history, and a revolutionary. He and his followers, then, would only unsheath their swords at the proper time, at the very end. The parallels noted earlier with Theudas and the Egyptian terrorist, should have alerted us to this possibility. Both men seem to have staked everything on one last miraculous act, unlike Judas the Galilean, Judas Maccabeus, or Bar Kochba, all of whom conducted sustained cam­paigns of armed resistance. So Jesus may have been an "apocalyptic revo­lutionary,” neither a pacifistic quietist nor a freedom-fighter in today’s sense.

 By Robert M. Price


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