Friday, May 13, 2005

Caird on Politics and Jesus

The late and brilliant New Testament scholar, George B. Caird [Teacher of so many excellent present day biblical scholars it's surreal...] had much to say on my topic of research, namely Jesus and the Politics of Israel and Empire. Although Caird's emphasis lay on the politics of Israel, he had much to say that would equally apply to the politics of Roma. Below is a smackle of quotes from Caird's book New Testament Theology completed and edited by L. D. Hurst.


Recalling our warning that we should begin where the evidence is least subject to doubt, we turn to the one undoubted fact in the history of Jesus: He was crucified. Apart from those few on the lunatic fringe who have denied that Jesus actually existed, nobody in our time has attempted to deny that Jesus died on a Roman cross. But can we accept a fact without also asking why?[1]
If the cross is central to the story, the controversies which led up to it must be equally central. Here the points of disagreement between Jesus and the authorities would, if recoverable, constitute an entry into the material which might bring us close to the centre of Jesus’ message.[2]
We now return to our main question: why was Jesus crucified? And here we face an inexorable fact about the Gospels, namely that Jesus’ teaching has within it a strong political element. It has, of course, been crusted over by centuries of piety which has distinguished between religious concerns and politics; and this is the format which all New Testament Theologies have implicitly employed in their consideration of the teaching of Jesus.[3]
If Jesus had no interest in politics, why go to Jerusalem at all? Why not be content to train his disciples in the calm of the Galilean hills? Why this headlong clash with authority? And at the last, when he is aware that treachery is afoot, why not simply slip away quietly, under cover of darkness, to a place where his enemies could not get at him?[4]
Such questions require an answer. One answer f course is that he exposed himself to certain danger because he believed he was fulfilling the scriptures. But apart from attributing to Jesus a one-dimensional understanding of this world and his role in it, such an answer does not account for much information in the Gospels which relates to Jesus’ concern for the Jewish nation. If he found himself at the end embroiled in political crisis which resulted in his execution on the order of a Roman governor, it was not because he avoided politics. It was because for him politics and theology were inseparable.[5]
Pontius Pilate was the representative of the Roman Emperor, much as the Governor General represented the Crown in a British dominion during the first half of the twentieth century, with a local parliament carrying on day-to-day affairs.[6]
A prima facie case therefore exists for claiming that Jesus was crucified for political reasons, not simply because of any concern for individual souls in the hereafter. He addressed an equally great question: What does it mean fr the nation of Israel to b the holy people of God in the world as it is? Ultimately of course the individual and the national will not be unrelated. To claim that Jesus was embroiled in the politics of first-century Judaism hardly sends into limbo his many sayings which reflect his concern for the individual, and any approach to the teaching of Jesus which is unable to integrate such a concern is to be resoundingly rejected. But it is also true that the nineteenth-century picture of Jesus as the Saviour of individual souls only, that his exclusive concern was the relationship of individuals to their Maker, leaves out of account too much Gospel material, with too many crucial questions left unanswered.[7]
[1] Caird, New Testament Theology, pg. 353 [2] Caird, New Testament Theology, pg. 354 [3] Caird, New Testament Theology, pg. 356 [4] Caird, New Testament Theology, pg. 357 [5] Caird, New Testament Theology, pg. 357 [6] Caird, New Testament Theology, pg. 358 [7] Caird, New Testament Theology, pg. 359
What Caird has done here is remind us both of an important criterion in historical Jesus research, and also a solid indicator as to the mission and message of Jesus. An apolitical Jesus would make little historical sense. Politics plays an important role in Judaism, see the latest post by Seth Sanders for a good example. So much so that Sanders says:
Israelite writers thought a lot about empire, comparing Israel to the succession of men who, in trampling through their small country, claimed to be carrying a mission to rule the world. They thought about how they were and weren't like their imperial rulers. Empire was imprinted on their consciousness... The prayer [Pslam 89:21ff.] reverses this triumph, mourning how God has let David's dominance be shattered--God's covenant, it seems, did not faithfully endure. The psalm is almost an incantation, summoning God to pony up, demonstrate his vaunted faith, and restore his side of the bargain. The prayer dares God to be a real imperial ruler

This is an astounding claim. More thoughts later on Caird's comments...

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