Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Facing the Jewish Jesus: A “Reed” in the Wilderness

By Ken Hanson
Interdisciplinary Program in Judaic Studies
University of Central Florida
November 2012

What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. (Mathew 11:7-9)

These questions are attributed by the writer of Matthew’s Gospel to Jesus of Nazareth, in his confrontation with the disciples of John the Baptist. With a modicum of reflection, however, a case might be made that they equally relate to Jesus himself. Indeed, these rhetorical questions delineate the many issues swirling around the Galilean preacher as keenly if not more so than they do with regard to the baptizer from Judea.

When it comes to the state of contemporary “Jesus scholarship,” a more cogent question might be: What did you go into the academic wilderness to research? The slender-leaved plant of the Aesopian fable of the oak and the reed? A prophet, reminiscent of the ancient Israelite oracles? A wise sage, in the tradition of the early Pharisaic “proto-rabbis?” A pious messianic figure, someone “more than a prophet?” Or a militant, anti-Roman “zealot,” prepared to resurrect the hope of Israel by throwing off the yoke of Rome in the spirit of the Maccabees? The scholarly landscape has for centuries been populated with those who scarcely know.

When it comes to contemporary Jesus research, it has been argued that the historical Jesus was anywhere betwixt and between the pietistic ancient Hasidic movement and the radical anti-Roman Zealot faction. I will attempt to forge a middle ground, recognizing serious continuity between many of the teachings ascribed to Jesus and those of various pietistic Jewish sages of late antiquity, while being equally mindful of strong (if subtle) links between specific language attributed to Jesus and the so-called “Fourth Philosophy” (in Josephus’ parlance).

When it comes to the former, we need to consider the work of a number of Jerusalem-based scholars (both Jewish and Christian) who have gone to considerable lengths to elucidate the pietistic/ Pharisaic overtones of the synoptic Gospels. As David Flusser of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem noted, “Jesus was close to the world of the Hasidim (the Pious), who were in their turn close to the world of the Sages.…”1 It is significant that Jesus’ place of residence, the Galilee, was home to sundry communities of Hasidim, who were known not for their military, but their religious zeal. They spent their lives in the strict observance of the precepts of the Torah, nurturing an intimacy with the Deity that occasionally bordered on arrogance.

On the other side of the equation, some have made the case that Jesus displays strong affinity with the Zealots on a number of points, especially in his rejection of the Temple hierarchy who collaborated with the Romans. The case is bolstered by his being executed under Roman authority as a rebel, due to a political interpretation of his “messianic” entry into Jerusalem and his action against the Temple.2 Add to this the detail that at least one of his disciples carried a sword (Luke 22:36-38), and we have a considerably less than pacifistic Jesus.3

Many have noted the identification of one of the twelve disciples as Simon the Zealot. Additionally, it is tempting to consider the name of the disciple known in infamy as Judas Iscariot. Does “Iscariot” refer to the town where Judas was born? Or is it a cryptic reference to the most radical of all revolutionary groups of those days, the Sicarii, or “dagger men” (Latin, sicarius) – named after the sicae – the short dagger concealed within a man’s cloak?4 Indeed, almost every Jewish interpreter of Jesus sees Judas as having either been a Zealot or having had unmistakable Zealot leanings.5 In short the Galileans were determined that no temporal authority would be recognized until the establishment of divine rule over all of Israel.

Perhaps the most pressing question hangs on whether the seemingly pietistic sayings of Jesus rule out any solidarity he might have had with the Zealots, or whether the assignation of “pacifistic” traits to the Galilean Sage represents a classic case of anachronistic rewriting of a text/ texts by subsequent editorial hands. Or does this represent a false choice? There is, to be sure, considerable evidence of congruity between pietism and zealotry in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the militant tone of which has long been noticed. It is in the Qumranic corpus that the image of a militant messiah finds full expression.6 Even such seemingly innocuous New Testament phrases as the classic “Blessed are the poor in spirit” may be understood in the light of both religious and political zealotry when viewed in the context of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Indeed, we find in the War Rule a term roughly parallel to the “poor in spirit” (hoi p’tokoi to pneumati in Greek), in a passage declaring:

You will ignite the humble of spirit (n’khei ruakh) like a fiery torch of fire in a sheaf, consuming the wicked (1QM 11:10).

Flusser linked this phrase with the Matthean Beatitude (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”), noting that in each case the reference is to the sect itself or to the “Israel of God.”7 The incendiary tone of the Qumranic language, however, cannot be glossed over. Slightly later in the War Rule, we read:

Among the poor in spirit (anavei ruakh) […] a hard heart, and by those whose way is perfect shall all wicked nations come to an end (1QM 14:7; 4Q491 f8_10i:5).

Here is a Jewish piety completely consistent with the liberationist mindset of the early Hasidim, who (unlike their later pacifist counterparts) had once taken up arms with the Maccabees in their struggle to free the land from Syrian/ Antiochan domination.8 The question for contemporary scholarship has to do with the extent to which the Christian Gospels were essentially “overwritten,” replacing the incendiary tone of such terms as “poor in spirit” with the conciliatory rhetoric of purely “spiritual salvation.” Such a tone would certainly be more palatable to the Roman world into which the nascent Christian faith was destined to spread.

The question before the scholarly world is summed up by another oft-quoted statement attributed to Jesus: “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).9 Is the tone that emerges, after stripping away the pietistic glosses of later generations, in-keeping with a much more militant, even a Zealot Jesus than the picture of a mild and moderate Galilean preacher? Is this tone inconsistent with the correlation between Jesus and the Hasidic sages, espoused by Flusser and others? Perhaps, but if we conceive of the Hasidim according to their earlier identification as militant comrades-in-arms with the Maccabean rebels, or with the militant Qumran sectarians, then the supposed contradiction vanishes. The larger conundrum in any case remains. What did you go into the wilderness to see? A pious “reed” (qaneh in Hebrew) or a militant “zealot” (the Hebrew qanah)? In today’s academic wilderness, the issues are clearly drawn.


1 See D. Flusser, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity (New York: Adama Books, 1987), 33. See also S. Safrai and M. Stern, The Jewish People in the First Century, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 798, 805.

2 See Mk. 11:15-19, 11:27-33; Mt. 21:12-17, 21:23-27; Lk. 19:45-48, 20:1-8; Jn. 2:13-16.

3 S. Freyne, Z. Rodgers, M. Daly-Denton, A. Fitzpatrick-McKinley, eds., A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Seán Freyne (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 452-3.

4 A. Belica, The Crucifixion: John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ (Cambridge, MA: Harvard), 56; E. W. Stegemann, W. Stegemann, The Jesus Movement: A Social History of Its First Century (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1995), 178-82.

5 See W. Klassen, Judas: Betrayer Or Friend of Jesus? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2005), 198. H. Maccoby, Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (New York: Free Press, 1992), sees the figure of Judas as “almost entirely fictitious,” but finds great significance in disentangling the historical from the fictional elements.

6 See K. Atkinson, “The Militant Davidic Messiah and Violence against Rome,” in E. Dabrowa, ed. Scripta Judaica Cracoviensia, Vol. 9 (Krakow, Jagiellonian Univ. Press, 2011), 14.

7 D. Flusser, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (1988, Jerusalem: Magnes Press), 102-3, 106.

8 See 1 Macc. 2:42; cf. R. A. Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1993), 65.

9 See Z. Garber, “The Jewish Jesus: A Partisan’s Imagination,” in Z. Garber, ed., The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University, 2011), 14. This, along with the “Gethsemane tradition,” supports the concept of militancy in the party of Jesus.

Comments (4)

This takes me back to young days when I got the same message from SGF Brandon. I must admit to religious prejudice, since the militant or zealot Jesus seems to make Christianity illegitimate as a spiritual endeavour, which I'd like not to believe. However, what I'd like to believe and what there is reason to believe are two very different things.
First of all, is it conceivable that Matthew, writing 50+ years after the events and putting the Christian case at a time when Christianity and Judaism were increasingly at variance, would have wanted to encourage militancy on the part of a religious group from which he was distancing himself? I find it hard to see even the beginnings of an argument that he would have wanted to do this. Would he then have given his hero recognisable characteristics of a Jewish militant? He was close enough to the events of 70 to know what these characteristics were.
Was he forced by the evidence to give away the fact that Jesus had been a militant? I would think that evidence does not force people to accept it by merely existing but only by being adduced by a rival writer or group. Do we not look in vain for a Christian group that, on New Testament or Josephan evidence, clearly favoured militancy? Paul, our only witness to first generation Christianity, dealt with many who were Jewish theologically but none (surely) who were Jewish politically. If Matthew was writing against Jewish groups, militant or merely pious, who claimed Jesus as one of their own we have to explain why no trace of this claim has survived and why the Jewish tradition about Jesus is so negative.
That the phrase 'poor in spirit', whose basic meaning must be 'genuinely religious people' was used by someone else who thought that genuine religion implied militancy that gives us little reason to think that Matthew saw it as fighting talk. If he had he would not have attributed it to a teacher who, on his view, supported the highly anti-militant 'go the extra mile' principle and the not very militant blessing specifically on peacemakers. The sword that goes forth from Jesus (or even the sword going forth from Qumran) may not mark simply and starkly the division between Jews and non-Jews but between good and bad people of all nations.
I hope this comment doesn't express too much high Christian anxiety.
#1 - Martin - 12/01/2012 - 12:50

Thanks for the very engaging essay.
#2 - Jim West - 12/06/2012 - 14:11

The problem with interpretations of one single line (bringing a sword, not peace) is that it is just one line. If there was an abundance of evidence that Jesus was a militant,then that would be significant. But there isn't. The lack of evidence for such a proposition is what is really interesting. The bulk of the evidence suggests that Jesus promoted peace and humility, both Pharisaic concerns. Taking the one oddball quote and using that to spin an interpretation of Jesus is not really a good historical method.

It is also extremely difficult to believe that the Romans would have let Jesus go on for even six months if he had really preached militancy and that they would not also have arrested and crucified many of his followers. The evidence we have is more consistent with the fact that Jesus presented a small problem to be nipped in the bud and not a major rebellious problem.

The reed by the way was sometimes used as a symbol of humility. It was said that only the humble could study Torah. One needs the ability to bend. With that approach, it is easier to interpret a lot of Gospel evidence about Jesus. Any theory that makes sense of most of the evidence is almost always the preferred way to go.
Leon Zitzer
#3 - Leon Zitzer - 12/31/2012 - 13:16

Mat 10:38 currently reads:
"And he who does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me."

But this reading makes much more sense:

"And he who does not take up his sword and follow after me is not worthy of me."

especially since verse 34 also refers to a sword, "Do not think I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword."
#4 - Jonathan Onias Hoffman - 05/04/2013 - 00:15

Use the form below to submit a new comment. Comments are moderated
and logged, and may be edited. You must provide your full name.
Inappropriate material will not be posted.

E-mail (Will not appear online)