Jesus & Insurrection

The mob of insurrectionists who invaded the US Capitol on January 6 offered a more or less Christian prayer when they took over the floor of the Senate, and have since been condemned by a large group of evangelicals (not to mention mainline protestants and the Pope) for Christian Nationalism, violent radicalism, racism, and delusional conspiracy mongering about the election.

It is an interesting fact, given this present political moment, that many scholars and critical students of the Bible maintain that Jesus of Nazareth was executed under Pontius Pilate specifically for the crime, real or alleged, of sedition against Roman rule in Palestine. According to E.P. Sanders, Paula Frederiksen, and many other scholars, Jesus was arrested, tried, and executed primarily because of two incidents related in the Gospels: (1) the riding into Jerusalem on an ass, signifying an intention to become king of the Jews in rebellion against Rome; and (2) the “cleansing” or expulsion of money changers from the Temple courtyard. Somehow or other, these two actions provoked members of the Sanhedrin and/or Pilate’s court to have him arrested, tried, and executed. The evangelists also, at various points, associate Jesus with the specter of “bandits” (lestai), a type of violent insurrectionary criminal who looms large in Josephus’ account of the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66-73 CE. And the disciples are depicted as having expected Jesus to inaugurate revolution.

The evangelists leave much room for debate (i.e. they are ambiguous) as to whether or not Jesus actually had insurrectionist intentions. The envelope of apocalypticism–not to mention the resurrection narrative–in which their story is presented raises a number of issues for any straightforwardly political account of Jesus’ time in Jerusalem.

For those who accept that Jesus’ death in Jerusalem by crucifixion is one of the few solid facts about his life, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that he was (a) executed as an insurrectionist; (b) understood by his immediate followers to be an advocate of insurrectionism; and (c) willing to make himself perceived by the Jewish and Roman authorities as an insurrectionist.

The conclusion seems to follow that the historical Jesus was probably an insurrectionist. Yes, no, maybe?

If one argues the contrary, his death makes little sense except as a literary, dogmatic device for the evangelists to fit him into a pre-existing Isaian/Pauline conception of an atoning messianic death for sins. Or unless, perhaps, one goes down the anti-Jewish path of blaming the whole thing on wicked, Satanic, unbelieving, spiteful Jews (certainly a theme in the Gospels).

We should not forget that the New Testament also includes a weighty diatribe against the very idea of insurrection against any earthly government whatsoever:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

Romans 13:1-7 (KJV)

“Damnation” is a bit of hyperbole from the era of the divine right of kings. The actual Greek word just means “judgment.” But even without the majestic monarchical wrath of King James’ translators, it is hard to miss how unequivocally authoritarian and despotic is this passage from Romans. It doesn’t sit well at all with the Gospel story of Jesus of Nazareth.

Does the Bible advocate any happy medium between despotism and insurrection? To expect it to relate some conception of reasonable, constitutional, restrained government is anachronistic. The world of antiquity from which the Bible emanates had no such conceptions. As on many other topics, when it comes to political morality and the right to rebel, the Bible contradicts itself or at best contains a welter of challengingly divergent “theologies.” But through it all, the basic story of Jesus defying the powers that be holds sway in the Western imagination. It is not particularly surprising that the authoritarian conspiracy cult around the 45th president is fueled by some such romantic notion of Jesus, who after all is a wrathful avenging angel in 2 Thessalonians and The Revelation of John, bent on the destruction of civilization itself.

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