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The Violent World of Jesus of Nazareth…

The Violent World of Jesus of Nazareth…

Jesus of Nazareth was born into a violent world. Much like ours, only different. 

At the time Jesus was born, Judea and Samaria and Galilee had been under the control of the Roman empire for about sixty years. King Herod the Great ruled over these regions as a “client king” of Rome—meaning that he answered to Caesar and ruled in Caesar’s name. 

Rome dominated its empire, usually by threats of violence, and (when necessary) by actual violence. Herod the Great dominated his kingdom in the same way, by threats and by force.

Herod was an evil, violent man. He killed his favorite wife, Mariamne, and three of his sons. When forty young religious Jews tore down a golden eagle that Herod had put in the Temple, Herod arrested them and burned them to death in a public execution. 

When Herod lay on his deathbed, he was terrified his death would go unmourned. So he ordered a large number of leading men in his kingdom to be arrested and executed on the day he died—to ensure there would be mourning at his death. (This order was disobeyed after he died.)

A famous story in the gospel of Matthew says that Herod ordered the massacre of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two, hoping to kill the newborn “king of the Jews.” Nobody in the first century doubted this story, because that was the sort of person Herod was. And that was the sort of man Rome wanted ruling the Jews. 

Jewish Responses to the Violence of Rome

In the first century historical sources, we find three major ways that Jewish people responded to Rome’s violence:

  • Collaboration—a few Jewish aristocrats collaborated with Rome to hold their countrymen in bondage to Rome. Herod the Great and his descendants were in this camp. So were the chief priests in Jerusalem, who belonged to a small party called the Sadducees. So were the infamous tax-farmers. 
  • Armed resistance—many Jewish revolutionaries sprang up in the first century, calling for armed resistance against Rome. The majority wing of the Pharisees was in this camp (the School of Shammai). Around the year AD 68, one branch of this group formed the Zealot party. But long before there was an official Zealot party, wannabe revolutionaries called themselves “zealous” for God.
  • Apocalyptic fantasy—many Jews began preaching that God himself would rescue his people from Rome. The Angel of the Lord/Son of Man would come down from heaven, armed with a flaming sword, and destroy the enemies of God’s people. The people who lived in Qumran were in this camp, and also the minority wing of the Pharisees (the School of Hillel). 

Note that all three of these responses were violent, and all three were entirely natural. When you’re treated violently, you respond violently. It’s only human to pay back violence with violence. 

How Jesus Responded to the Violence of Rome

Jesus lived and breathed and worked and ate and slept and prayed in this miasma of violence. It would have been very reasonable if he had chosen violence as his own response to Rome. Did he?

It seems clear that Jesus rejected collaboration with Rome. The gospels record a number of his debates with the chief priests/Sadducees. He very strongly disagreed with them, and he paid for it with his life. All four gospels tell how the chief priests arrested him, tried him, and handed him over to Pilate for execution. 

It also seems clear that Jesus rejected the idea of armed resistance to Rome. You can’t find a single story in the gospels of Jesus urging people to revolt against Rome. But his disciples had other ideas. One disciple—Simon the Zealot—was called that because he was zealous for God and for violence against Rome. At the Last Supper, the gospel of Luke tells us that the disciples produced two swords, and Jesus responded with some exasperation. And many followers of Jesus expected him to be a messiah–a warrior king who would lead the final battle against Rome.

It’s not so clear whether Jesus rejected the idea of calling down vengeance from heaven against Rome. The gospels record a number of sayings of Jesus about “the Son of Man,” and many people in the first century understood that to mean an angelic warrior. And Jesus had a lot to say about the final judgment. This is why most Biblical scholars today think that Jews in the first century saw Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. 

But there’s another side to Jesus that doesn’t quite fit the apocalyptic mold…

Enemy Love

In a number of sayings in the gospels, Jesus urges his followers to do something incredibly unnatural—“Love your enemies.” If you think that’s a natural response to violence, then you’ve never been bullied or robbed or beaten up or cheated. 

I don’t think Jesus was telling his people to feel some impossible emotion for their enemies. I think he was urging them to treat their enemies with dignity and respect, like human beings. Jesus was telling his followers that they must never dehumanize their opponents. 

And I don’t think Jesus was telling his people to be doormats. Jesus was not a doormat. He stood up to the Sadducees and the Pharisees when he disagreed with them. I think he meant his disciples to resist evil nonviolently. And let’s be clear—nonviolent resistance is resistance. Two notable examples of nonviolent resisters in the twentieth century were Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. They got their ideas from Jesus.

When Jesus and his disciples were going through Samaria, a certain village treated him with contempt. Two disciples, James and John, the feisty sons of Zebedee, asked Jesus to let them call down fire from heaven on the village. I like to think Jesus told them to go ahead and try, and then he sat back and smiled when they couldn’t do it. (Nothing in the gospels says he did this, but it seems like something Jesus might do—right before launching into the story of the Good Samaritan.)

Jesus the Subversive Prophet

Jesus spoke a few times about the tale of Jonah, which is the most subversive story in the entire Bible. The book of Jonah tells how the angry prophet Jonah called down destruction from heaven on Nineveh, the capital of the evil Assyrian empire. 

Nineveh deserved fire from heaven, if anyone ever did. The Assyrians destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel, scattering the ten tribes to the four corners of the world, from which they have never returned. The Assyrians invented a cruel form of execution—impaling people on stakes and leaving them to die over the course of several days.

So Jonah goes to Nineveh and prophesies destruction. But then something awful happens. The people of Nineveh repent. And God honors their repentance. No fire falls from heaven. Nineveh is saved! Jonah is incensed, and he should be. This is injustice on a grand scale. The story of Jonah presents an unjust God.

People these days think the Jonah story is weird because of the whale. They’ve utterly missed the point. People in ancient Israel thought the story of Jonah was weird because it claims that God accepts repentance even from his enemies. 

Jesus was a subversive prophet. If you want to call him an apocalyptic prophet, I would agree. But he was an apocalyptic prophet who preached God’s victory over his enemies through a revolutionary new idea—enemy love. 

The story of the crucifixion of Jesus is the story of enemy love. 

It doesn’t get more subversive than that. 

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