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Why is the Hypothesis that Jesus Was an Anti-Roman Rebel Alive and Well?

Theological Apologetics versus Historical Plausibility

(I am deeply grateful to Jeff Morgan for his generous revision and improvement of my English text.)

Despite the endless attempts to discredit the hypothesis that Jesus of Nazareth was involved in seditious activities (and to discredit also its proponents), it provides the best explanation of the available evidence. This article does not merely advance a view to be put along with other reconstructions of Jesus, but argues that any reconstruction of the Galilean preacher that does not consistently integrate the seditious aspects is strongly prejudiced and lacks scholarly soundness.

By Fernando Bermejo-Rubio
Departamento de Filología Griega y Lingüística Indoeuropea
Universidad Complutense de Madrid
April 2013

The hypothesis that Jesus of Nazareth and his followers were in fundamental sympathy with the principles of the members of the anti-Roman resistance groups, the use of violence not excepted on principle, has been held by several scholars coming from very different ideological and cultural backgrounds (H.S. Reimarus, Ch. Hennell, K. Kautsky, R. Eisler, S.G.F. Brandon, H. Maccoby…) since the 18th century until the present.1 However, this hypothesis has remained a minority view: it is usually dismissed as outdated and refuted.2 The notion that Jesus was a politically innocuous preacher, who was not a threat whatsoever for the Romans, commends itself to many.3 That Jesus preached nonviolence remains virtually a dogma.

Given that quantity of reference is not equivalent to quality of reasoning – especially when there are good reasons to surmise that the presence of ideological constraints might be at work –4 the view which posits the existence of links between Jesus and violence, and his possible role as a supporter of an insurrectionist stance against the control of Palestine by the Roman Empire seems to be particularly disturbing for too many in the guild –, I have put into question the common wisdom in a series of forthcoming articles, providing a novel approach to this thorny issue. Since it is hard to make a strong case in a short paper, the aim of the present article is to briefly surveying my main arguments. I will argue that a reconstruction of Jesus in which the aspect of anti-Roman resistance is seriously and consistently contemplated is the most plausible – in fact the only plausible – view of the Galilaean preacher.

It should be clear from the outset that, unlike what many scholars have insidiously stated, the starting-point for constructing the hypothesis is not an arbitrary and aprioristic assumption, nor a hostile stance towards Christianity,5 but an attentive realization of the great number of blatant inconsistencies and puzzling improbabilities with which the Gospels themselves, and specially the Passion accounts, are riddled,6 all of which makes a critical assessment of the evidence imperative.

First Argument: Detecting a Pattern

A first, decisive argument supporting the hypothesis is the fact that the Gospels contain a great amount of material which point precisely in the sense of a seditious Jesus. Although the available sources have distorted and embroiled the data because of apologetic interests, the Gospels have retained quite a few elements pointing in the direction of a seditious Jesus. As the items are scattered throughout the New Testament writings and they are not usually gathered together in scholarly works, it is advisable to enumerate them:7

a) Jesus was crucified, i.e., executed with the usual Roman punishment for slaves and rebellious provincials, and two insurrectionists were crucified on either side of him; b) The titulus crucis was “King of the Jews”, and much evidence points to the fact that Jesus considered himself as a king or God’s viceroy; c) A heavily armed party (according to John 18:3.12, a cohort) was sent to seize Jesus secretly and at night (Mark 14:43.48; Matt 24:47.52); d) According to Luke 22:36f, on a critical occasion Jesus ensured that his disciples were armed, by ordering them to buy swords; e) At least some disciples of Jesus went about with concealed weapons, as attested by Luke 22:38.49 and Mark 14:47; f) all four Gospels record that armed resistance (involving swords) was offered in Gethsemane; g) The Temple episode involved some sort of forcible activity; h) The “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem was a prearranged action and involved a high messianic temperament and clear political claims in words and deeds; i) According to John 11:47-50, the possibility that Jesus remains untroubled is connected by the high priest with a virtually sure intervention of the Romans; j) According to John 18:19, the high priest questioned Jesus not only about his teaching, but also about his disciples, what betrays a certain apprehension regarding Jesus’ circle; k) The preaching of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God had an unmistakably political character; l) Jesus promised that his twelve disciples would sit on thrones to judge and rule Israel’s twelve restored tribes, what implies the disappearance of the actual rulers of Israel, both Romans and Jews; m) The concrete socio-political, material dimension of the kingdom of God expected by Jesus and his disciples is further proved by the hopes to grant and receive this-worldly rewards; n) According to the disciples’ own statements (Luke 24:21; Acts 1:6), Jesus’ aim was to restore the kingdom to Israel; o) Several sayings attributed to Jesus reveal the circumscription of Jesus’ preaching to Israel and his nationalistic, not to say chauvinistic, tones; p) The violent disposition of at least some of the disciples is well attested in the tradition (Mark 3:17; 9:38; Luke 9:51-56); q) Jesus impressed upon his followers that discipleship is synonymous not only with conflicts and suffering, but also with danger of death; more concretely, the saying about “taking up the cross” indicates an acute hostility between Jesus and the Empire; r) Several Jesus’ followers gave the undertaking to die with him; s) The Gospels witness a deeply antagonistic relationship between Jesus and Herod Antipas; t) There is evidence indicating that Jesus opposed the payment of tribute to Rome (Mark 12:13-17, read in the light of Luke 23:2); u) According to Luke 23:2.5.14, the main charge leveled against Jesus was that of “subverting our nation”; v) Several passages establish a link between the preaching and healing activities of Jesus and popular uprisings; w) Luke 1 – 2 abounds in strongly nationalistic longings which contemplate the subjugation and humiliation of the Gentiles; x) The tradition betrays the disciples’ deep fears of being arrested, and presumably executed (both in the flight depicted in the Passion narrative, and in the account of Peter’s betrayal); y) In Acts 5:35-39, Rabbi Gamaliel compares Jesus and his followers with Theudas and his movement as well as with Judas the Galilaean and his movement; z) Mark 15:7 / Luke 23:19 mention a well-known insurrection in Jerusalem supposedly shortly before Jesus’ arrest, in which the rebels had caused fatal casualties; aa) The Book of Revelation has preserved the memory of a conception of Christ as a fierce warrior.

The convergence of so many different and closely related items constitutes a pattern, that is obviously at odds with the overall impression conveyed by the evangelists, according to which Jesus had nothing to do with the dirty matters of politics in first-century Roman-controlled Judaea.

There are several ways of establishing with a reasonable degree of certainty that the material forming this pattern substantially goes back to Jesus. Firstly, as several scholars have convincingly argued,8 the all-pervasive character of an aspect in the sources makes its historicity more likely, because removing such a great amount of material should leave us wholly sceptical about the mnemonic competence of the tradition. Secondly, to many items of the cluster the so-called criterion of embarrassment can be (and has been) applied: Christians would never have gratuitously concocted such material, which not only does not advance their kerygmatic interests, but directly runs counter them.9 Thirdly, we can further add a criterion of historical plausibility: the material we have surveyed corresponds to the very concrete socio-political situation which actually existed in Jesus’ lifetime, that of a Palestine under Roman control; more concretely, Jesus is understandable in the wake of that movement which was called by Josephus “the Fourth Philosophy”.10 The material pointing to a seditious Jesus has accordingly the best guarantees of historicity.

Several inferences can and should be immediately drawn from the cluster we have identified. Unlike what many scholars have claimed,11 the target of Jesus’ activity was not merely the religious and political ruling class in Judaism, but also the Roman rule and its overthrow. Another crucial point which is apparent from the cluster is that it interrogates the widespread assumption that Jesus was a man solely of love, mercy, and peace, lying outside the web of violence: there are several converging passages (Lk. 22:38; Lk. 22:49; Mark 14:47 and par.) indicating that – at least in the final phase of Jesus’ ministry – Jesus’ disciples were armed and ready to use the weapons they carried, and according to Lk. 22:36 Jesus himself encouraged his followers to arm themselves with swords. Moreover, Jesus and his disciples are remembered as saying and doing some other things which are not to be reconciled with a kind of pacifism or nonviolence avant la lettre.12 The widespread attempt to downplay or suppress the violent aspects in Jesus’ words and deeds is only possible through a conceptual lifting which is very helpful for pastoral purposes, but is untenable as a result of critical scholarship.

Second Argument: The Explanatory Power of the Hypothesis

A further argument supporting the hypothesis that Jesus, whatever else he may have been, was a seditionist lies in its great explanatory power. This hypothesis provides the simplest and best explanation for a large amount of data. Firstly, it can account for everything related to his fate: his execution on the cross; the report that he was crucified along with two other men, and between them (if Jesus spearheaded an armed group and made kingly claims, the reason for the central disposition in the collective crucifixion becomes crystal-clear: Jesus was placed in the middle because the Romans considered him to be the leader of those men crucified with him); likewise, the titulus crucis and the mocking of Jesus by the soldiers are also most easily explained if Jesus claimed to be a king in the religious-political sense.

Secondly, many intriguing details in the Gospel accounts of the last week of Jesus and his group in Jerusalem (e.g. the traces of clandestine and nocturnal moves, alongside prearrangements with followers, in Mark 11:1-6 and Mark 14:12-16; the reports on the size and arming of the party sent to arrest Jesus; the traces of violence carried out by Jesus’ followers in Gethsemane; the charges of sedition in Luke 23:2f.; the reports on the obstinate reluctance of Jesus to give an answer to the Roman prefect; the possible participation of the Jewish authorities in Jesus’ arrest) become also understandable if Jesus did indeed act as a seditionist.

Thirdly, other aspects of Jesus’ former ministry, which are at first sight striking, can be easily accounted for: the warnings that following Jesus entailed the danger of suffering and being crucified; the mutual hostility between Jesus and Herod Antipas; the absence of Sepphoris and Tiberias in the Gospels (they were the strongholds from which the pro-Roman tetrarch ruled, where he housed his administrative apparatus, and where he had most of his troops); the comparison of Jesus in Acts 5 with the fate of failed prophets and revolutionaries, and so on.

This explanatory power of the hypothesis, which allows us to provide a unifying explanation of the evidence, is a most compelling reason for any independent historian to integrate the seditious aspects in their reconstruction of Jesus. We should also realize that the passages in which Jesus is presented as distancing himself from violence or seditious goals (e.g. John 6:15; Luke 9:51-56) do not refute in the least the hypothesis. Far from it, they can be also understood in the light of this reading. For instance, if Jesus’ engagement in armed resistance was restricted to the final phase in Jerusalem, one possibility is that those passages reflect a former period, or, more simply, that they convey a strategic and temporary stance.

Third Argument: The Lack of a Convincing Alternative

The rejection of the hypothesis that Jesus was somehow actively involved in seditious activities turns the Gospel evidence into something desperately puzzling, not to say absurd: we would have sources about a pacific preacher which are crawling with political and violent overtones. In fact, a further argument in favour of a seditionist Jesus lies in the inability of alternative attempts to explain away the relevant evidence. This evidence is handled in standard scholarship in the following ways: it (or a substantial part of it) is simply overlooked; the existence of the pattern is (at least partially) taken into account, but the historicity of its items is denied; or the items of the pattern are reinterpreted in the sense of a blunt de-politicization. The flawed character of the current scholarly surveys of the political aspects of Jesus is also visible in their inconsequential treatment of evidence.13

The widespread view of Jesus in the field as a harmless and innocent man turns the well-attested fact of the crucifixion into an unfathomable conundrum. In fact, the terminology labeling Jesus’ death “a puzzle”, “an enigma”, or “a mystery”, is all-pervasive.14 Of course, to discard the simplest explanation leads scholars to endorse the most convoluted ones: Jesus was crucified because he overcame Judaism, because he was hated by priests,15 because he had blasphemed, because he was deemed mad, because a misunderstanding took place, because he subverted the unjust and non-egalitary logic of the contemporary society,16 because he was non-violent within a violent Empire,17 or because Pilate was capable of crucifying anyone over the slightest little thing. The fact that in the 21st century such implausible views are still advanced everywhere as respectable scholarship shows to what extent there is something odd (not to say: something rotten) in the state of historical Jesus’ studies.

Likewise, the abundant material outside the crucifixion having clear seditious overtones appears as extremely puzzling to those rejecting the hypothesis of a seditious Jesus, to the extent that they describe it time and time again as “enigmatic”, “strange”, “very intractable”.18 The presence of such sayings and episodes is often left ultimately unexplained. But even when most items are taken into account and their historicity is accepted, the usual way of handling them is to carry out a compartmentalizing analysis of each passage in order to prove that their apparent meaning is to be discounted and replaced by another interpretation in which any violent and revolutionary overtones have been got rid of.19 The saying about “taking up the cross”, the passage concerning the swords in Luke 22:35-38, and the violent episode in the Temple are only some examples among dozens. The most extravagant interpretations have been – and are still – elaborated in order to defuse the subversive contents of the available material. This procedure does not carry conviction, not only because it entails an atomizing approach to the evidence and is incapable of offering a unifying explanation of the whole material, but also because it systematically involves strained and far-fetched interpretations, to the extent that many passages whose meaning is obvious enough in themselves (and even clearer in light of the detected pattern) virtually become cruces interpretum, not to say unfathomable mysteries. The systematic need of such convoluted re-readings, always carried out in the sense of a blunt de-politicization of Jesus’ preaching and activities, makes their reliability highly suspicious, not to say simply incredible.

Argument 4: The Lack of Compelling Objections

A large number of objections have been raised against the hypothesis that Jesus was involved in some kind of seditious ideology and activity. Among them we could list the following ones: “The hypothesis is the result of ideological prejudices”, “There is no evidence enough supporting it”, “The fact that there is so much evidence preserved in the Gospels proves that it was not embarrassing, so Jesus was not a seditionist”, “Judaea in Jesus’ time was a quiet place”, “Jesus’ target was only the priestly caste, not the Romans”, “Any violence conveyed in the Gospels should be attributed only to the short-sighted disciples, not to Jesus”, “Jesus could not advocate any kind of violent resistance against the Empire because he thought God was in charge”, “It suffers from one-sidedness”, “Jesus could not be involved in seditious activities, because his disciples and followers were left unmolested”, “The message of “love thy enemies” put Jesus beyond the political antagonisms of his age”, “Matt 26:52-53 ia a definite proof that Jesus rebuked violence on principle”, “Jesus’ reported fellowship with tax collectors proves that he did not endorse a seditious stance”, and so on).

It is usually contended that those objections have dealt a fatal blow to the hypothesis, to the extent that the overwhelming majority of scholars take for granted that it has been refuted. Elsewhere, I have identified a score of these objections and systematically argued that none of them is really compelling.20 In fact, a fourth key argument supporting the hypothesis is that every main objection leveled against it can be easily countered.

I will put just one example. It is usually claimed that the hypothesis of a seditious Jesus is fatally one-sided, as far as it overlooks other aspects of his message and personality.21 Nevertheless, this is nothing but a trivializing caricature. No serious scholar has ever denied that Jesus often spoke on spiritual and moral topics, thereby accepting that he was more than a “mere seditionist”.22 People engaged in nationalistic resistance need not be monomaniacs, so it would be silly to think that one could reduce everything in Jesus to his rebellious stance. Therefore, unlike what the Markan Jesus himself and standard scholarship seem to imply,23 there is no contradiction at all between being a spiritual master and being a seditionist.24 Just as John the Baptist and many other holy men in Jesus’ age, Jesus was a complex figure whose many-sidedness is not to be denied. Ironically, one-sidedness could be blamed on those abundant scholars denying, overlooking or downplaying the seditious dimension of Jesus.25

Although the piling up of objections is quite impressive at first sight, their inadequacy and unconvincing nature becomes rather obvious when one takes the trouble to think each of them through: they do not stand up to close examination. In these circumstances, the high number of objections suggests not so much how flimsy the hypothesis is as how great is the need of many scholars to convince themselves of such alleged flimsiness.


The fact that the building blocks of the above-mentioned hypothesis come from the New Testament writings makes evident that the seditious Jesus is also a remembered Jesus (although probably an uncomfortably remembered one). This, in turn, means that if Jesus was not a seditionist, the Gospels – as far as they contain much evidence which is otherwise unintelligible – would be desperately absurd and meaningless texts. The involvement of Jesus in anti-Roman activities seems to be an inescapable corollary.

Admittedly, in which precise sense was Jesus a seditionist is unclear, precisely because the extent of the misrepresentation of Jesus’ story carried out by the transmitters of the tradition and/or the evangelists is a debatable matter. Some scholars (e.g. K. Kautsky, R. Eisler, J. Montserrat….) have surmised that the considerable degree of editorial manipulation and tendentiousness which can be tracked in the Gospels indicates that the revolutionary atmosphere of Jesus’ activities has been altered almost beyond recognition, so the underlying story must have originally been a quite different one. This has led them to infer that Jesus actually was a truly military figure who tried to stage a coup d’état. According to others (e.g. H. Maccoby), the hypothesis of a seditious Jesus followed by an armed entourage does not necessarily imply that Jesus was a guerrilla-fighter, nor the chief or an army; he might have thought that the arrival of the kingdom ultimately was in God’s hands, and that the dirty work of crushing the Romans and their collaborators would be God’s (or his angelic hosts’) task. But the belief that deliverance would mainly come by supernatural means does not imply that human beings should only wait passively for an awesome miracle (the prophets had said that at the end of time there would be a final battle and one should be prepared for it). Therefore, perhaps Jesus limited the participation of his group in violent issues to the decisive eschatological moment.

Unfortunately, the theological view of Jesus as the Prince of Peace looms large in the consciousness of mankind, and the scholarly realm is no exception. Just as Jesus’ Jewishness, the seditious nature of Jesus has been consistently repressed in the guild, and there is every indication that will go on being object of – conscious or unconscious – repression. The religious significance of Jesus for millions of our contemporaries (including most of those who boast about doing historical research on him) makes him a very different kettle of fish, and prevent most scholars from offering a historically plausible image of his figure. Most reconstructions of Jesus, however seemingly sophisticated and erudite, by overlooking his seditious dimension offer a drastically distorted image of him.

Although, due to the overwhelming presence of ideological interests in the field, I am not particularly optimistic about the future of Jesus Research, at least I hope that this paper – along with the series of forthcoming articles thoroughly supporting its claims – will be helpful for self-critical scholars to realize that the current disparaging statements about the hypothesis of a seditious Jesus (and about its proponents) are – if not the outcome of sheer ignorance – nothing but wishful thinking and self-deceit. Dismissal of this essential dimension of the Galilean preacher runs against the available evidence and grotesquely defies historical plausibility.


1 See now Z. Garber, “The Jewish Jesus: A Partisan’s Imagination”, in Id. (ed.), The Jewish Jesus. Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation, West Lafayette: Purdue University Press 2011, pp. 13-19; J. Montserrat Torrents, El galileo armado. Historia laica de Jesús, Madrid: Edaf 2007.

2 According to S. McKnight (A New Vision for Israel, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1999, p. 229, n. 70), that view “was dealt a fatal blow” in the collective volume edited by E. Bammel – C.F.D. Moule (eds.), Jesus and the Politics of His Day, Cambridge: C.U.P. 1984.

3 “Jesus’ mission and message were concerned with a kingdom whose chief characteristics were neither political nor external” (H. W. Hoehner, Herod Antipas, Cambridge: C.U.P. 1972, p. 208; “His ministry for the Kingdom was devoid of political, i.e. revolutionary inspiration. He had no anti-Roman bias. He embraces the doctrine of non-resistance to evil” (G. Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus, London: Penguin 2004, p. 401.

4 The presence of ideological factors plays a role even in historiographical matters; see F. Bermejo-Rubio, “The Fiction of the ‘Three Quests’. An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Historiographical Paradigm”, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 7 (2009), pp. 211-253.

5 For instance, Joachim Jeremias referred to Reimarus’ Der Zweck Jesu und seiner Jünger as a “hate-filled pamphlet”, and labeled his approach as “clearly absurd and amateurish” (J. Jeremias, “The Present Position in the Controversy Concerning the Problem of the Historical Jesus 1”, The Expository Times 69 (1958), pp. 333-339, here: 333-4). Brandon’s main work has been described as “an attack on Christianity, as complete and total an attack as can possibly be imagined” (B. Vawter, Review of Jesus and the Zealots, Theological Studies 20 (1969), pp. 498-500, here: 498); Anthony Harvey referred to “Professor Brandon’s initial contempt for the Gospels” (A. E. Harvey, Review of Brandon’s Jesus and the Zealots – The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth, Journal of Theological Studies 22 (1971), pp. 200-202, here: 202).

6 This has been explicitly stated by several proponents of the hypothesis: “Serious ground for doubting the Gospel presentation is actually provided by that presentation itself” (S.G.F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity, Manchester: Manchester University Press 1967, p. 2). See also K. Kautsky, Der Ursprung des Christentums. Eine historische Untersuchung, Stuttgart: Verlag von J.H.W. Dietz Nachf. 1908, p. 389.

7 The following list is not exhaustive. For a more thorough treatment, see F. Bermejo-Rubio, “Jesus and the Anti-Roman Resistance. A Reassessment of the Arguments”, forthcoming.

8 See recently D. C. Allison, Constructing Jesus. Memory, Imagination, and History, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2010, pp. 1-30; A. J. M. Wedderburn, Jesus and the Historians, Tübingen 2010, p. 169.

9 For criticisms to the usefulness of this criterion, see especially R. Rodríguez, “The embarrassing Truth about Jesus: The Criterion of Embarrassment and the Failure of historical Authenticity”, in C. Keith – A. Le Donne (eds.), Jesus, History, and the Demise of Authenticity, London: T&T Clark 2012, pp. 132-151. For a defense of the criterion, see my article “Changing Methods, Unpalatable Truths. Should the Criterion of Embarrassment Be Dismissed in Jesus Research?”, forthcoming. A significant hint indicating that this kind of material was indeed deeply disturbing for early Christians, at least for those who wrote the Gospels or transmitted the underlying tradition, is that much of the potentially disconcerting material has been tampered with in the editing process.

10 Convergences with the ideology of Jewish resistance groups are numerous: the readiness to lose one’s life (specifiacally through crucifixion) for God’s sake; the longing for Israel’s gathering and liberation; the conflicts and criticism of the chief priests and the strong animus towards the Herodian dynasts; the harsh criticism of wealth, at least partially associated to social injustice and oppression; opposition to the payment of the tribute, and so on.

11 See e.g. M. Hengel, Die Zeloten: Untersuchungen zur Jüdischen Freiheitsbewegung in der Zeit von Herodes I. bis 70 n. Chr., Leiden: Brill 1976 (orig. edn 1961), p. 346, n. 3 (Jesus’ attack was addressed “nicht gegen die römische Oberherrschaft sondern gegen die religiös und politisch herrschende Schicht im Judentum selbst”).

12 Jesus “zu Gewaltanwendung kein prinzipiell negatives Verhältnis hat” (K. Berger, “Der ‘brutale’ Jesus. Gewaltsames in Wirken und Verkündigung Jesu”, Bibel und Kirche 51 (1996), 119-127, here: 127a).

13 A remarkable case of inconsequential treatment is Richard Horsley. In Jesus and the Spiral of Violence (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1993) he incurs in several blatant contradictions. For instance, he acknowledges that “Jesus is portrayed as using moderate violence against property in the Temple demonstration. And he apparently announced a good deal of imminent divine violence” (pp. 318-19), but later he states: “Jesus himself did not advocate or engage in violent actions” (ibid., p. 322). Furthermore, he writes: “Jesus and his followers understood their opposition in terms of a protest or resistance for which the individuals would be vindicated by God, but not in terms of its being a serious revolt” (p. 320), but a bit later he contends: “Jesus and his movement were engaged not simply in resistance but in a more serious revolt of some sort against the established order in Palestine” (p. 321).

14 See J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, vol. 3: Companions and Competitors, New York: Doubleday 2001, p. 646; J. B. Green, “Crucifixion”, in M. Bockmuehl (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Jesus, Cambridge: C.U.P. 2001, pp. 87-101, 88f.

15 Some scholars have even argued that Jesus was crucified by Jews: see e.g. E. Bammel, “The Trial before Pilate”, in Bammel – Moule, Jesus and the Politics of His Day, pp. 415-451, 439.

16 J. T. Carroll – J. B. Green, “Why Crucifixion? The Historical Meaning of the Cross”, in Iid., The Death of Jesus in Early Christianity, Peabody: Hendrickson 1995, pp. 165-181, 180.

17 See J. Gwyn Griffiths, “The Disciple’s Cross”, New Testament Studies 16 (1970), pp. 358-64, 363; see also G. Theissen, “Gewaltverzicht und Feindesliebe (Mt 5,38-48/Lk 6,27-38) und deren sozialgeschichtlicher Hintergrund”, in Id., Studien zur Soziologie des Urchristentums, Tübingen: Mohr 1979, pp. 160-197, 195.

18 The following expression, referred to Luke 22:36f, could be generalized: “That the commentators have floundered in a morass of perplexity when faced with this notoriously difficult passage is undoubtedly true” (G. W. H. Lampe, “The two swords (Luke 22:35-38)”, in Bammel – Moule (eds.), Jesus and the Politics of his Day, 335-351, here: 335).

19 This is the method carried out in works as Bammel – Moule (eds.), Jesus and the Politics of his Day; among many others.

20 See F. Bermejo-Rubio, “Has the Hypothesis of a Seditionist Jesus Been Dealt a Fatal Blow? A Systematic Answer to the Doubters”, Bandue. Revista de la Sociedad Española de Ciencias de las Religiones 7 (2013); Id., “(Why) was Jesus of Nazareth crucified alone? Solving a false conundrum”, forthcoming.

21 “Caractère unilateral” (J. Daniélou, “Bulletin d’Histoire des Origines Chrétiennes”, Recherches de Science Religieuse 56 (1968), pp. 115-118, here: 118); “Disastrous onesidedness” (Hengel, Review of Brandon’s Jesus and the Zealots, Journal of Semitic Studies 14 (1969), pp. 231-240, here: 235).

22 See e.g. Ch. C. Hennell, An Inquiry Concerning the Origin of Christianity, London: T. Allman 1841Sup>2, p. 446; Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots, p. 342; “He was no ordinary rebel, either, but a Prophet with a lofty vision […] he was a King-Messiah […] At the same time, he was a Rabbi” (H. Maccoby, Revolution in Judaea. Jesus & the Jewish Resistance, London: Ocean Books 1973, p. 154, p. 209); “Jesus was a religious leader not just a secular militarist” (G.W.Buchanan, Jesus. The King and his Kingdom, Macon: Mercer UP 1984, p. 251).

23 Mark 14:48-49. See e.g. P. Winter, On the Trial of Jesus, Berlin: W. De Gruyter 19742, p.69; W. D. Davies and E. P. Sanders, “Jesus: from the Jewish point of view”, in The Cambridge History of Judaism. Volume 3: The Early Roman Period, Cambridge: C.U.P. 1999, pp. 618-677, 670.

24 Let us recall the case of the two great Torah teachers (sophistaí) who encouraged their disciples to cut the Roman eagle down from above the Temple gate as Herod lay dying (Josephus, B.J. I 648-651); Judas the Galilean is also called a sophistés (B.J. II 118).

25 Jesus’ multifaceted personality helps us better understand how his disciples subsequently could form a messianic movement which was not based on the hope of military victory. This would have been much easier if the kernel of Jesus’ ministry was not so much incitement to armed resistance as preaching of the impending kingdom of God and related ethical teaching.

Comments (10)

An excellent article. A little-known relevant work in this discussion is George Wesley Buchanan, _Jesus: The King and His Kingdom_ (1984), which is one of the best quality and least-cited arguments I have seen for the point you make. Buchanan, who did his dissertation on the topic "Reimarus was right", argued that the language of "kingdom of God" associated with the Gospels' Jesus meant an earthly holy Jewish empire, and that spiritualization of this is anachronistic. Buchanan told me his argument was ignored but never refuted, with the only proposed scholarly rebuttal being an argument that there was innovation of new meanings for the language (this is the Gospels' claim as well). However Buchanan pointed out the problem with this scholarly rebuttal is there is no non-anachronistic evidence for it. Therefore, the known contemporary range of meaning of the language can by default be assumed in the absence of evidence to the contrary to be the original sense of the language (so Buchanan's argument), and this supports the thesis of your present article.
#1 - Greg Doudna - 04/09/2013 - 02:40

Hi, Greg, thank you for your kind comment (and nice to meet you). As probably you have realized, I also refer (note 22) to the work you mention. In fact Buchanan's book gives further the lie to the trite, pointless claim that the hypothesis of a seditious Jesus is "one-sided", since his book is mainly devoted to the analysis of the concept of Kingdom of God, chreias and parables. But this did not prevent him from uttering several perceptive sentences about Jesus as a rebel. Just a couple of them:
‘It is not possible for an objective historian to dismiss all the military inferences related to the teachings of and about Jesus’ (G. W. Buchanan, Jesus. The King and His Kingdom [Macon: Mercer UP, 1984], p. 247). ‘Jesus was associated with a group who expected him to lead a war and he is not reported to have done much to correct them’ (ibidem, p. 248).
And yes, Reimarus was indeed essentially right!
#2 - Fernando Bermejo-Rubio - 04/09/2013 - 18:20

I have long argued that the key term "malkhut shamayim" has two possible interpretations: "kingdom of heaven" and "sovereignty of God". Compare the interpretations of John the Baptizer's message as a call to reject Roman rule. Recall too the militant text found in the caves of the Judaean Desert that plan for a messianic war.

These two interpretations of "malkhut shamayim" may well be seen as rejections of Roman occupation,
a theme developed in detail by
Israel Ben-Shalom, The School of Shammai and the Zealots' struggle against Rome [Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben Zvi Press and Ben Gurion University of the Negev Press, 1993] (in Hebrew).
#3 - Steven Bowman - 04/14/2013 - 16:26

Hi, Steven. Thank you for this helpful reference. Preaching an imminent establishment of "Malkhut shamayim" certainly has seditious implications.
As to the War Scroll (1QM), it constitutes a significant parallel for a better understanding of one of the versions of the hypothesis. For several religious groups in the period the most important thing was spiritual – not military – preparedness, but when the hour finally came fighting would be required, so a certain synergism with God is presupposed. Even if Jesus limited the participation of his group in violent issues to the decisive eschatological moment, violence is there. Likewise, the members of the Qumran community earnestly believed in a God who would crush the military superiority of the Romans, but they also expected to fight in the eschatological battle along with the angelic hosts.
#4 - Fernando Bermejo-Rubio - 04/14/2013 - 18:44

If one assumes the priority of John or a precursor text that evolved into canonical John, the Last Supper can be seen as a final meeting acknowledging a failed attempt to seize the Temple and start a revolt.
There is a non canonical tradition of Jesus being associated with violence.
The Gospel of Peter contains a passage that states the disciples went into hiding because they were under suspicion for plotting to burn down the Temple. Lactantius quoting Sossonius Heirocles stated that Jesus was the leader of over 900 bandits (Divinae Institutiones 5.3). In the Gospel of Barnabas, Jesus attacked a Roman soldier. The followers of the Wonder Worker in Slavonic Josephus wanted him to drive out the Romans and kill Pilate. In the same text, "the wild man" (John the Baptist) wanted his followers to seize freedom. There is mention in the canonical gospels about entry into, or the foundation of the Kingdom of Heaven being presaged by violence.
#5 - David Blocker - 04/15/2013 - 01:37

Traces of violence occur throughout the canonical gospels.

In John’s version of the Temple cleansing, Jesus wields a “flagellum”, a flail or scourge, not a “scuta” or quirt or whip as in the synoptic accounts.
He is depicted wielding a real weapon, one used by peasants denied access to swords, a weapon that can maim or kill. This is not a simple quirt, a persuasive aide, as seen in the canonical gospels. The flagellum was a killing tool.

The term “vessels” which Jesus forbids entry into the Temple courtyard, in the Gospel of Mark, can be translated as sutler’s goods or military supplies (see an unabridged Liddle Scott Greek English Lexicon, for alternative translations).

Peter engages in an act of violence, though Jesus apparently distances himself from it.

The Gospel of John states that a cohort was sent out to arrest Jesus, the use of such a large detachment suggests the authorities were concerned about facing a determined resistance to the arrest.

In Luke, the disciples give up their extra possessions and arm themselves with two swords, as do the Sicariot assassins described by Flavius Josephus.

There is a passage in Hippolytus’ “Against Heresies” which mentions an aggressively militant sub group of the Essenes who have given up their extra possessions and travel about armed, analogous to the Luke passage cited above.

In the miraculous feedings Jesus groups his followers in cohorts, centuries and maniples mimicking the organization of a Roman legion.

Throughout the canonical texts Jesus is threatened with arrest or stoning, a constant undercurrent of the authorities disapproval and violence directed towards him, their attempts to rid themselves of a troublesome man.
#6 - David Blocker - 04/15/2013 - 01:54

Thank you, David. As to the non-canonical tradition of Jesus being associated with violence, besides Sossianus Hierocles we could also mention Celsus in Origen, Contra Celsum VIII 14 (where Origen must deny that Jesus was a “stáseos arkhegétes”).
Anyway, I prefer not to use these sources for support of my case (I have used them sometimes, but just occasionally), not only because their value as historical sources is a hot-debated and debatable matter (the Slavonic Josephus being an obvious example), but also because I think the Gospels suffice to build a very strong argument.
#7 - Fernando Bermejo-Rubio - 04/16/2013 - 15:26

A very late comment in slightly frivolous tone.
This is an introduction to my planned book 'Jesus: Double Agent'. It will make me very rich.
Jesus was highly political and his most cherished conviction was that Caesar should have his due. He entered the service of Herod and Pilate with the intention of infiltrating, confusing and discouraging militant groups. Note Luke's admission that some of his funding came from a source close to Herod. He was not, but could pass as, Jewish (several times suggested by John). No one knew where he came from, so elaborate stories hinting at a royal and miraculous origin were circulated by Pilate's propaganda department. To keep up his cover a pretence was made at crucifying him and much disarray caused among his followers by his apparent resurrection and subsequent disappearance. He shadowed Paul and took due advantage, by a carefully staged appearance, of that very intelligent man's neurosis. He resurfaced in Rome as 'Chrestus', up to his old tricks as a provocateur, causing the riots around AD 50 which provided cover for anti-Jewish operations by the Roman police. A particlarly important episode was the Cleansing of the Temple, where in one report he wielding a flagellum made of cords, not a weapon issued to armies but still frightening. He objected, on this account, to making the Temple an emporium, ie to raising money there. This was a protest against the attempt of the priests to find other sources of money after Pilate had seized their funds for his aqueduct project. Jesus, fanatical pro-Roman that he was, thought that an aqueduct was a far better project, good for the poor, than anything that the priestly aristocracy could have dreamed up. In other accounts, Jesus said that the Temple was becoming a brigands' cave, ie that the priests were allowing the place to be used by anti-Roman terrorists, whose equipment (skeuos) was being brazenly carried to and fro, at least until Jesus denounced this (to him) disgraceful practice.
At last, a hypothesis that fits all the facts!
Well, to be serious and to speak in my real voice, why would we not take this story seriously? I would say because the Christian movement as it later appears is very unlikely to have descended from a collaborationist project in an earlier generation and it is from what we can know of the Christian movement, the provider of all our evidence, that we should start to ask what we can know of the Historical Jesus. I also think that the difficulties of connecting the Christians to Jesus on your account need more attention. That said, we must indeed note that in some sense the Christians do make their earliest appearances in history as a group accused of terrorism.
#8 - Martin - 04/24/2013 - 15:19

Thank you, Martin.
As to your playful remark, well, so many far-fetched and fanciful claims have been advanced in Jesus scholarship that I am persuaded a book on Jesus as double agent would be seriously and thoroughly discussed in academic journals and University seminars!!! If you do not write that book, perhaps I will do it!
As to your serious comment, my answer is given in nuce in my last note (of course I develop this point in several forthcoming articles). The depoliticizing processes undergone by the Nazarene sect (already in Paul and the Gospels) are well-known: it rapidly became an apolitical messianic group. The (implicit or explicit) objection that the hypothesis of a seditionist Jesus is inconsistent with later Christian developments and emphases, which proceeded in the direction of pacifism, unfortunately ignores the kind of inverting processes and surprising shifts which take place in the history of religions, away from the goals of founders (or allegedly founding figures).
#9 - Fernando Bermejo-Rubio - 04/28/2013 - 13:50

Dear Fernando, I am here to say that you are not alone. We are still in the Dark Ages, but tell those who may attack you that you have others on your side as well. I am confident that within some years the entire world is going to change, no matter how strange or optimistic this may sound. I have written a PhD exactly on the same subject, regardless that my University presents a different title as my own. Reza Aslan recently and Ioannis Kordatos before him, also published books on the same subject. Kordatos worked on historical Jesus since the 20s, but his relevant 2 vols work was rejected by all publishers in Greece. His son managed to publish it 10 years after his death, by it remains unknown to most. There are more people who know, but cannot speak yet.
George Sidirountios
#10 - Sidirountios - 09/27/2013 - 07:22

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