Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Liberator: a prophet like Moses or Elijah

a brief response to my nemesis...

No proposal in scholarship is written in a vacuum and my proposal of Jesus’ counter-imperial empire is no different. So in my response to Eddie’s fine comments, I must note that I am building on the works of those who are before me and who know more than me. In their studies of Jesus’ prophetic role both Ben Witherington and Scot McKnight have alluded to features of Jesus mission and message that beg the question: “What sort of a prophetic figure might Jesus have been?”
[1] Witherington proposes the meta-question of “what role did Jesus see himself playing in the drama of God’s people?”[2] He then goes on to propose that Jesus was an Elijah type prophet but also notes that no single category could ever encapsulate such a complex figure as Jesus. McKnight categorises the various prophetic traditions and then compares them with what we know about Jesus’ prophetic ministry. Based on a comparative analysis he concludes that Jesus was no classical or even pre-classical prophet but rather his ministry shares many features with that of Moses, and even Joshua.[3]

What’s the deal with Elijah and Moses? Both of these prophetic figures sought to liberate Israel from either oppression or false gods, or both. They were liberation prophets leading the people of Israel out of bondage to foreign rule and oppression. It was never YHWH’s intention to keep the people of Israel under bondage forever. They had suffered the consequences of their unfaithfulness and now YHWH would return to Zion’s people and once again embrace her.

I find it interesting to note that the transfiguration narratives [which are an historical anomaly] connect Jesus, Moses and Elijah together. Luke even has the opaque reference to an “exodus” which would be accomplished at Jerusalem. It appears that the gospel writers had already made this connection with the identity of Jesus. So scholarship is possibly on the right track in it’s identification of Jesus with such liberation figures.

Yes Jesus probably believed that there is "no king but YHWH", but the question is, what kind of king did he believe YHWH was, and how did he envision YHWH carrying out his reign? In other words, what shape was the kingdom of God to take in the present and in the future? I see no evidence within Jesus sayings that his followers had to bring Caesar down. What he did do was re-commission those within God’s people who accepted the call to drop their agenda’s for Israel and follow him as the Messiah from God, to continue Israel’s purpose, but now heightened to discipling the nations. Through this, all humanity would come to serve the one king, YHWH.

But this leads us back to our former question. What sort of prophetic figure might Jesus have been, and what role did he see himself playing in the drama of God’s people? It is my contention, following Wright’s exile thesis, that Jesus saw himself as the one would liberate Israel from foreign rule and oppression. I would agree that there is no evidence that suggests that Jesus envisioned his disciples wanting to “take Caesar down.” But given the nature of Jesus’ kingdom message, and the Mosaic backdrop, one is struck that although Jesus never spoke directly against Caesar, by claiming allegiance to himself that even redefined filial allegiance, he was drawing/pulling people away from the leadership of Caesar and Rome [with all her rituals, rules and categories] and into the Kingdom of YHWH, right here on earth celebrated in community, table fellowship and allegiance to Jesus. It was a subversive kingdom that operated on the laws of love and liberty.

I am not sure what “discipling all nations” means but the evidence is clear that although Jesus did focus on Israel, he often called and directed his own disciples to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom to those outside Israel. Especially to those with an allegiance to Rome. One example from Jesus will suffice from Matthew 8:5-13.

The story is told of a centurion, i.e. Roman commander, who comes to Jesus and “appeals” to him. The issue is the vitality of a servant. Jesus is willing to cross over into a pagan’s home, the home of an army officer who controls the discipline in that area. An officer who makes sure that people pay tax, an officer who pledges allegiance to ROME and her gods, especially the emperor. Knowing the rules of authority and how Jewish people don’t enter pagan homes, the centurion asks for another way and recognises Jesus’ unique ability to heal from afar. A Roman soldier, the perfect symbol of allegiance to Rome, is asking YHWH’s representative for help. Rome’s gods and the emperor have failed to provide vitality and hope for life. All Rome’s benefits come to naught when faced with the enemy of death. And once again Jesus proves victorious in this manner by doing what Rome cannot do. By healing both a cultural barrier and physical ailment. The Empire of Rome is confronted with the Empire of YHWH and Rome is shown to be impotent. This subversive act of healing confronts the populace with the question of who is able? Who is able to heal and restore? Who is able to conquer death and sin? Who is able to do this? Only the one with true authority. Not those who steal or force authority, but those who submit to the true authority found in Jesus. Here Jesus is bringing liberty to the oppressed. Rome claimed to bring health and wholeness to her empire and yet here, one of her most allegiant persons is asking Jesus for help, in an almost desperate state. Yes, Jesus’ mission and message was “to the house of Israel”. But clearly Jesus had a mission and message that extended far beyond the borders of Israel. A mission to liberate not only Israel from Rome, but also Rome from Rome [and if Wright is anyone to go by this meant liberation from the satan as well!].

Once again with crucifixion, it was not only revolutionaries who were crucified, but all manner of people who committed crimes. Yes these crimes were against Roman Imperial order, but not all were designed to overthrow or undermine it. It is likely, however, that in the context of Jesus ministry with the various symbols and stories he was evoking, that the saying would have been heard by those gathering around him, against the context of Roman power to suppress Jewish revolution.

With regards to crucifixion I think the point that I’m making is that Jesus was crucified as a lestes or Brigand which has the direct connotation of revolutionary. Although there is no direct saying or logion in the gospels to suggest this, I think historically the case is quite simple. John 19:12, a very historically plausible logion notes that the leadership tell Pilate, “if you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar’s!” Luke makes note that they also claimed that “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” Wright notes that “Pilate recognised that Jesus was not the ordinary sort of revolutionary leader, a lestes or brigand.”

It makes good historical sense, that taken within the larger context of Jesus’ mission and message, the charges laid against him, and the fact that Pilate recognised some sort of claimant here, that Jesus mission and message was covertly subverting the imperial regime. Jesus was not like Judas the Galilean in method, but he was like him in position of not wanting Rome to rule Israel anymore. YHWH’s people must be liberated from the oppressor, just like Moses liberated Israel from Pharaoh. But the means of liberation were ontologically opposed to that of violence and military revolution. This would be a revolution based on allegiance to Jesus and his alternative teachings.

Now, when you write that: If indeed, to pick up ones cross does suggest embrace the revolution (which I am not convinced of yet), then the reshaping that Jesus did to the means of that revolution, turns it more into social protest than active resistance or opposition (what ever form the latter takes).

I can perfectly agree. But is it not a superficial distinction to suppose that a social protest is active resistance to the opposition? Such analytical distinctions seem hard to justify in the first century mindset. Social protest was politically volatile and explosive. Rome did not take to kindly to anyone just saying anything or doing anything. However, politics and social protest are tied to theological convictions. In the first century one would be hard pressed to have one without the other. Jesus’ conviction that it was him who was to lead Israel [evidenced by the re-gathering of the twelve and the reaching out to the gentiles] out of Exile is a politically charged activity. There was much protest against Rome, and the revolutionary movements seem to have plagued Rome for sometime during the 1st century. Why did they protest “No King by YHWH!” ?

The principal goal of these revolutionaries was to overthrow Herodian and Roman domination of Palestine. In addition to fighting the Romans, these revolutionaries attacked the mansions of the aristocracy and the royal residences. This undoubtedly reveals the frustration of years of social inequality. In response, Varus, legate of Syria, dispatched two legions (6,000 troops each) and four regiments of cavalry (500 each). This was in addition to the troops already in Judea and the auxiliary troops provided by the city-states and client kings in the area. In spite of this military might these messianic movements were difficult to subdue.

Because of the lack of sources it is difficult to identify any messianic movements between the revolts and those surrounding the First Jewish Revolt (except, of course, the followers of Jesus).[5] With regard to the First Jewish Revolt, Josephus notes two messianic movements that bear mentioning. The first is Menahem, son of Judas, the Galilean, who

took his followers and marched off to Masada. There he broke open king Herod’s arsenal and armed other brigands, in addition to his own group. With these men as his bodyguards, he returned to Jerusalem as a king, and becoming a leader of the insurrection, he organized the siege of the palace.[6]

Thus, I think the case can be made. The cross, an image of martyrdom was sealed since the Maccabean revolt. Martyrdom, dying as a protest, was massive. In fact, many would rather die than submit to slavery.

With ropes he lowered [over the cliffs] the toughest of his men in large baskets until they reached the mouths of the caves; they then slaughtered the brigands and their families, and threw firebrands at those who resisted. . . . Not a one of them voluntarily surrendered and of those brought out forcibly, many preferred death to captivity.[7]

An old man who had been caught inside one of the caves with his wife and seven children . . . stood at the entrance and cut down each of his sons as they came to the mouth of the cave, and then his wife. After throwing their dead bodies down the steep slope, he threw himself down too, thus submitting to death rather than slavery.[8]

Josephus tells us that they would rather die than submit to imperial rule. Jesus uses the image of the cross as a counter-imperial call to oppose Rome by embracing allegiance to Jesus as the true king which would in fact most likely mean walking the same road and ending up in the same place that Jesus ended up in. The cross is a politically charged image of domination. To embrace that, in allegiance to Jesus is to deny it it’s power of imperial agency.

I think the aim should be, not to find out whether Jesus had an opinion on Caesar and his reign (which he no doubt did), but whether this formed part of his mission to the Jews. It may be seen, against a thorough knowledge of his 1st Century context, that what he was saying and doing was indeed “revolutionary” (not literally) within his context and that it did have definite and dramatic implications for the future of Caesar’s Empire. But, it may not be (and I don’t think it was) that he encouraged or instructed active rebellion against it (as opposed to more passive protest or perhaps subversion which I think he did). Jesus focused not on Israel’s political situation (other than to discourage zealous nationalism, and perhaps nationalism altogether), but on her then current failure in fulfilling their purpose of being a light to the nations (Mt. 5-7).

If the exile, or even “bondage” thesis is correct
then we have cause to believe that Jesus’ mission to the Jews did incorporate a subversive challenge to Rome and her imperial dogma. The motif of exile together with its expression in the interpretive traditions in early Judaism constitutes an important background for understanding Jesus and the origins of Christianity. With reference to Jesus, much discussion has taken place about the relationship between Jesus’ understanding of his mission and the alleged despair or feeling of exile experienced in popular Jewish social groups, especially among peasants who endured not only Roman occupation and a burdensome tax load, but also the corruption of the temple crew.

According to Wright, Jesus understood himself to be the Messiah who had come to liberate Israel from its continuing state of exile (“the present evil age”) and bring it into a state of restoration (“the age to come”). He came as a messiah who not only represented the people of Yahweh by taking on himself the suffering of the nation in the tradition of the Jewish martyrs and the wrath of disobedient Israel but also enacted their liberation from exile by intentionally dying in order to achieve victory over Satan, who constituted the true enemy of Israel. The result is a renewal of the covenant, the forgiveness of sins, the coming of the kingdom of God and the fulfillment of Israel’s original mission to be a servant people who are a light to the world.

Other scholars have pointed to specific points of contact between Jewish exile theology and the teaching and actions of Jesus. For example, C. A. Evans argues that at least five features justify a connection: Jesus’ appointment of the Twelve, which may suggest the reconstitution of the twelve tribes of Israel; the request for a sign from heaven (Mk 8:11–13), which may reflect the signs promised by messianic pretenders; Jesus’ appeal to Isaiah 56:7 during the demonstration in the temple (Mt 21:12–13 par.), which, when the oracle of Isaiah 56:1–8 is in view, indicates that Jesus chastises the religious leaders for neglecting to live up to the eschatological expectation; Jesus’ allusion to Zechariah 2:6 (Heb v. 10) in Mark 13:27, which recalls the gathering of God’s people; and Jesus’ criticism of the Jewish religious leaders (Mt 11:21–23 par.), which appears to threaten judgment of exile.

I don’t think this amounts to active rebellion against Rome unless of course by that we mean the refusal to bow down to Caesar, the refusal to partake of imperial festivals which gave honour that was due only to YHWH to pagan idols, or if it meant compromising the teachings of Jesus in any way, shape or form. The testimony of the early Jesus Liberation Movement is that they would, as many of the Jewish forefathers had done, rather die than submit to another King named Caesar.

Ergo, I think your objection has merit only if we discuss this within the context of violent revolution. But given my stance and understanding of Matt 5 and other key texts and exemplary activities of Jesus, I cannot justify that as an accurate description of Jesus. Despite Brandon’s lament to the contrary, the Zealot hypothesis has no merit in history. Jesus was opposed to military violence and the view that Rome needed to be physically attacked in order to be subdued. Jesus had a much tidier mission and message. A much more dangerous agenda. One that would outlast any kingdom built on force and domination. A kingdom built on liberty and love in allegiance to Jesus and his teachings.


Witherington, Jesus the Seer, pg. 246. See Scot McKnight “Jesus and Prophetic Actions” BBR 10.2 (2000) 197-232.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Although, McKnight’s case for a prophet like Joshua seems to be pushing the evidence beyond what it can handle.
[4] Wright, JVG, pg. 546.
[5] P. W. Barnett, “The Jewish Sign Prophets—a.d. 40–70—Their Intentions and Origin,” NTS 27 (1981) 679–97[5]. R. A. Horsley “Popular Messianic Movements Around the Time of Jesus,” CBQ 46 (1984) 471–95.
[6] J.W. 2.17.8; cf. 2.17.5
[7] J.W. 1.16.4
[8] Ant. 14.15.5
[9] C. A. Evans, “Jesus and the Continuing Exile of Israel,” in Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N. T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, ed. C. C. Newman (IVP, 1999) 77–100.

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