Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Caird, the Cross and Politics

Caird rightly declares that it is a fact that Jesus died on a Roman cross. This also rightly leads to the pivotal question of why? Why would the Roma, the vast and powerful entity which ruled with an iron fist care about a Jewish prophet enough to not only silence him, but do so in a way that would declare in no uncertain terms that Rome was the supreme authority here, and any challenge to that would be met with serious and dire consequence. To Rome, Jesus was a Lestes [Revolutionary]. Granted, he wasn't the usual type who picked up weapons and gathered a movement for violent resistance, but nonetheless Jesus did oppose Rome at significant points. Points which Rome could not, would not, tolerate.
Notice how Caird builds towards understanding the teachings of Jesus in connection with events so as to explain the fact of the crucifixion. It appears to me from a cursory reading of the relevant literature that scholars have for too long either chosen a poor selection of "sayings" and neglected key events, or they have focussed to narrowly on events, and neglected key teachings. Using the criterion of historical plausibility, teachings which give actions meaning and purpose should be seriously considered as authentic material [See The Quest for the Plausible Jesus: The Question of Criteria. By Gerd Theissen and Dagmar Winter. Translated by M. Eugene Boring. Westminster John Rnox, 2002, but see also Criteria for Authenticity in Historical Jesus Research: Previous Discussion and New Proposals JSNTSup 191; Sheffield Academic Press, 2000]. Scholars should, as Wright has noted several times in NTPG and JVG propose an historical hypothesis which is to be tested by the various exegetical and historical details.
Ergo, if Jesus was crucified by Rome, if the titulus is accurate and represents what Jesus claimed, then we have reason to believe that within Jesus' teachings there were elements that either a) bothered Rome/Jewish leadership or b) threatened Rome. We have reason to believe that the threat that Jesus posed, warranted more than just a thrashing [as other supposed messianic claimants or irritants had received]. Jesus' presence, teaching and challenge warranted the death penalty. What in his teaching might have achieved such a response? I propose that when looking at the Jesus traditions, and analysing their authenticity and plausibility - teachings which explain this particular aspect of his cruel demise at the hands of a ruthless empire should be considered authentic. And this is exactly what J.P. Meier has noted in the first volume of his epic, A Marginal Jew.
Caird's questions persist:
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?[1]
One wonders if Jesus had a political agenda. One wonders if Jesus' political agenda lead him to face Rome in Jerusalem. One wonders if Jesus' mission to Jerusalem, firmly rooted in his ministry and movements in Galilee, was compelled by a vision of protest against Rome in such a manner that his death [and way of dying?] would speak volumes about what kind of empire Rome had really established compared with the empire Jesus was already establishing. One wonders...
In his essay Rome's Victory and God's Honour, Bruce Longenecker makes the insightful claim that:
In the Johannine passion narrative "the Jews" are asked by Pilate, 'Shall I crucify your King?' - a question that, in the context of a fiercely nationalistic Passover celebration, goes directly to the heart of Jewish hopes for the dissolution or Roman reign over them. Their famous reply, 'we have no king but Caesar' (Jn 19:15) is suggestive of a disavowal of the kingship of their GOD and their resignation to Rome's imperial lordship.[2]
Jesus specifically answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” [Jn 18:36] If Jesus had been the sort of revolutionary that Rome was accustomed to, then fighting would definitely have been on the agenda. But this is just another one of those important clues that not only is Jesus different, but his kingdom is different. The dichotomy between physical and spiritual has no place or bearing on the text for that is a western imposition. Rather, Jesus is suggesting that his kingdom on earth is not like other kingdoms on this earth. It is a kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.
Richard Hays is on the right track, but deals with this not in the context of Jesus’ ministry but within the community of John’s disciples, that:

In response to Pilate’s claim to have power to crucify him, Jesus pointedly asserts that Pilate actually has no power over him; God has merely granted Pilate a temporary and limited authority in order that God’s own purpose might be fulfilled. The whole dialogue subverts Roman claims of sovereignty and subordinates Roman power to the power of God.[3]

IF this is an accurate portrait, then part of Jesus' political agenda was to recall the people of Israel [as well as the Gentiles] back to her GOD. Nationally, Israel must 'embrace and entrust' [traditionally: repent and believe] the KING, Jesus [as YHWH's earthly representative]. Caird's words again ring in my thoughts:
One answer of 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.
In going to Jerusalem, in protesting prophetically against the temple, in making messianic claims, Jesus sets himself up as counter-imperial. Jesus exposes the corruption of the empire and its methods by embracing Israel’s consequences of rejecting her GOD and facing justly the punishment handed out by Rome. Rome had made all these claims about bringing peace and prosperity, but at such a brutal cost? The way Jesus was proposing was highly subversive.
[1] Caird, New Testament Theology, pg. 357 [2] Longenecker, "Rome’s Victory and God’s Honour" in The Holy Spirit and Christian Origins, pg. 95 [3] Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, pg. 148

No comments: