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.

Satan & January 6

In these bleak months of winter 2020-21, as Trump exits the stage and Trumpism putrefies into various expressions of private madness and public “domestic violent extremism,” I have been thinking about the everlasting dominance of what biblical scholars call “the apocalyptic worldview” or “apocalypticism.” This is nothing less than the actual religion of the Christian Bible, which always subverts and destroys the attempts of Constantinian religion, modern conservativism, or irenic Jesus liberalism to present the Bible as some kind of benign pillar of civilized consciousness.

Apocalypticism rests on a number of core convictions:

  1. The present world is horrific and intolerable.
  2. Therefore “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4) is Satan, an evil demon.
  3. But we are the good people, children of an ultimate father God who is pure goodness. “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
  4. The cosmos is a battlefield between good angels and evil demons.
  5. Human beings can and must choose to fight either for the side of good or that of evil.
  6. Things will get even worse, far far worse, very soon. You can take Jesus’ word for it: there will be a “great tribulation” (Mark 13:19).
  7. After the great tribulation comes the destruction or obliteration of the created world as we know it.
  8. Then the savior god will appear and resurrect the bodies of the dead.
  9. There will be judgment. The souls and resurrected bodies of the wicked will suffer unending torment, while the souls and bodies of the faithful good people will be rewarded with heavenly bliss of some sort.
  10. The End (credits: Jews under Seleucids, Jews under Persians, Persian Zoroastrians).

That’s the basic myth of apocalypticism. The best book on this topic is Chaos, Cosmos, & the World to Come: the Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith, by Norman Cohn (Yale University Press, 1993). Cohn shows how this myth evolved out of a more ancient “combat myth” that was common to all major civilizations of the ancient Near East and India. These civilizations knew that they were fragile and could meet their doom at any time. So they told stories of a “chaos monster” that threatens to destroy the human order, but who would be defeated by a divine hero figure who would step in to defeat the monster and put the world to rights. Nothing odd about such stories to a generation raised on Star Wars, the Matrix, Harry Potter, the Batman trilogy, etc.

But Zoroaster and his followers, especially under the Achaemenid Empire (550-330 BCE), changed the script considerably. They introduced new ideas, like: a perfectly good god; his counterpart, a perfectly evil god; a war between them, unfolding over the course of all human history; the necessity for humans to choose and take sides in this war; a resurrection and an afterlife; a judgment based on one’s behavior. All of these ideas were more or less new, even though the Egyptians had their own ideas about resurrection and rewards and punishments in the afterlife. The crucial change was that Zoroastrianism applied this model to history, and therefore to all cultures and peoples, high and low.

Second Temple Judaism, the origin of all Judaism as well as of Christianity, had its birth and childhood under the Achaemenid Empire, which controlled Judea and the Jews for the better part of 2 centuries (comparable to the lifetime of the United States of America). All the Jewish ideas that made New Testament Christianity what it is originate from this time (a fact which is fundamentally concealed and repressed by the adoption of “the Old Testament” as a foundation stone). Cohn thus argues that ancient Jewish apocalypticism and its Christian offshoot originate from ancient Persian ideas.

What does this have to do, really, with Satan, and with the insurrection of January 6? Everything. The Satan myth is essentially the combat myth. (See The Old Enemy: Satan & the Combat Myth, by Neil Forsyth (Princeton University Press, 1987). The name “Satan” comes from a Hebrew word meaning “the opponent” or “the adversary.” The Combat Myth fits perfectly within contemporary American politics. People are fundamentally uneasy about social, existential changes wrought by technological forces in the Information Age. The Bible itself is felt to be no longer relevant, and therefore “under assault.” America’s Civil War and Cold War are unresolved. Our children’s racial and sexual identity is being stolen from “us,” i.e. White Christian European Western Civilization. The worst are full of passionate intensity.

The Trump presidency was a psychotic eruption of the Combat Myth. Here was a great savior figure intervening on behalf of a dying white Christian America, ready to do battle with the children of darkness. His priapic excesses, if technically criminal, were proof of his titanic powers, and not any detraction from his greatness. Desperate times call for desperate measures. David and Solomon also womanized on a grand scale. That was how they thought in 2016, and it is also why Trump is so often imagined as a messiah figure. The job of the messiah is to overthrow the powers of darkness, and that’s what Trump was supposed (i.e. imagined) to do. This all makes sense within the fictional universe of the Bible, i.e., apocalypticism.

The reason both religious and secular people today are so blind to the apocalyptic bona fides of Trumpism is that we are in thrall to outdated conceptions of Christianity, the Bible, religion, prophecy, God, etc. We are trapped in a 2nd Millennium Model of what those things essentially are. If you think, for example, that C.S. Lewis was essentially right about the character of Christianity, then you have no concept of the apocalyptic energy of scripture. Lewis ignored apocalyptic themes, and made demons into pop-psychological characters of banal comedy. His Christianity, as well as of all mainline Protestant and Catholic varieties in the post-WW2 era, is essentially the “Christianity and Water” that he derided.

In a time of extreme, dualistic opposition between two cultures derived from the Bible, which both see their side as essentially good and their opponents as essentially evil, it can be hard to tell Satan apart from the Messiah. To some the cult leader is a new Christ; to others he is a Satanic figure. Either way, his role is to be a fighter, an opponent, a cosmic adversary. Trump and Satan have everything to do with one another, whether or not one believes in Satan or in the real existence of evil beings.

We are experiencing a psychotic drama in America because our sacred scriptures are fundamentally psychotic and irrational.