Jesus in Jerusalem: Unarmed but Dangerous? (Part One)

UntitledShana Tova! A happy Jewish New Year to all readers. Here’s hoping your 5775 is a great year.

In my last post, I mentioned that Dale Martin, the Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale and all-around big deal, has written a recent article for the Journal of the Study of the New Testament titled “Jesus in Jerusalem: Armed And Not Dangerous.” In this article, Martin claims that in Jerusalem during Jesus’ final days on Earth, Jesus’ disciples (most of them, or all of them) were armed with swords. Why would Jesus have brought an armed band to Jerusalem? Martin believes that Jesus “led his followers, armed, to Jerusalem to participate in a heavenly-earthly battle to overthrow the Romans and their high-priestly client rulers of Judea.” Here’s how Martin describes the “battle” he thinks Jesus thought was coming:

Jesus was expecting the inbreaking of apocalyptic events. If he had come to believe that he himself was the Messiah (something I think is possible but not certain), he was expecting an angelic army to break through the sky, engage the Romans and their Jewish clients in battle, overthrow the Jewish leaders and Roman overlords, and establish the kingdom of G-d on earth, all under his own leadership as G-d’s Anointed. If Jesus thought of himself as a prophet and precursor of the Messiah, he would have expected that army to be led by the Messiah. In either case, he would expect that he and his followers would participate in the battle, along with the much more numerous angels, just as some documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls indicate that those Jews thought they would participate in an apocalyptic battle. Jesus expected the event to take place during Passover and to be centered on Jerusalem. He therefore led his band of Galileans to Jerusalem at Passover and had them arm themselves so they could participate in the overthrow of the Jewish ruling class and the Romans.

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The Far Western Wall

I apologize for not posting last week, and for falling behind in responding to your comments. No excuse other than the usual. Life intervened. Some weeks, it’s easier than others to throw something up here (pun intended).

What’s news: first, esteemed scholar Dale Martin has written an article for the Journal of the Study of the New Testament titled “Jesus in Jerusalem: Armed And Not Dangerous,” which as his titles go is not nearly as much fun as his “Sex and the Single Savior.” Anyway … Martin argues in his new article that Jesus and his disciples had come to Jerusalem “to participate in a heavenly-earthly battle to overthrow the Romans and their high-priestly client rulers of Judea.” According to a Newsweek article, Martin is arguing “that Jesus and his followers were likely expecting that an apocalyptic showdown was on the horizon, one in which divine forces (in the form of angels) would destroy Rome and Herod’s temple and usher in a holy reign.” Evidently, Jesus expected that he and his disciples might be required to do “some fighting” in this apocalyptic showdown. For this reason, according to Martin, most or all of Jesus’ disciples were carrying swords around Jerusalem during Jesus’ last days … and it was this sword-carrying, an act that may have violated Roman law and was certainly frowned upon by the Roman rulers of Judea, that got Jesus arrested and crucified.

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What Was the Jewish Charge Against Jesus? (part one)

imagesOver the past weeks, we have engaged in a close look at Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution, in an effort to figure out how and why it happened, and who was to blame. We are doing this as part of a longer effort to understand the roots of Christian anti-Judaism, and perhaps even Jewish anti-Christianity. So far, we’ve gotten only so far as Jesus’ arrest, concluding that it was probably a joint Jewish-Roman project. Not only was the arresting force (probably) made up of Jewish Temple police and Roman soldiers, but it also appears that the arrest itself was ordered by Jewish leadership (probably the high priest Caiaphas) together with Roman leadership (probably the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate). We’re not sure yet whether the arrest was sought by the Romans (and the Jews cooperated) or by the Jews (and the Romans cooperated).

The next logical question might be, why was Jesus arrested? The problem with this question is, it’s too broad. The question is too broad as a general matter, because every legal system contains prosecutorial discretion: not everyone who breaks the law (or is suspected of having broken the law) is arrested and punished. You may have had the experience of being pulled over by the Highway Patrol for speeding, and as you watched traffic racing by you at speeds well in excess of the posted limit, you asked yourself, why me?  The only answer is, why not you? You were speeding (allegedly). The cops can’t ticket everyone who speeds. Law enforcement has the right (up to a point) to arrest some scofflaws and not others. Yes: we can and should protest when prosecutorial discretion is exercised in a discriminatory manner – against racial or ethnic minorities, for example. But the truth is, you’ll never know why you were unfortunate enough to be the one person speeding to be pulled over. Maybe you were driving a red sports car, and the cop didn’t like red sports cars. Maybe it’s the day of the Michigan-Ohio State football game, and you happened to be driving through Ohio with Michigan plates.

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Who Ordered Jesus’ Arrest?

zpage065Over the last umpteen blog posts, I’ve been looking at what we know about Jesus’ arrest. I’ve had occasion to question reports we find in some Gospels. Was Jesus arrested by a large crowd, as in Matthew? No, I prefer the account in John’s Gospel: Jesus was arrested by a mixed group of Roman soldiers and Jewish officials. How about the story we find in all four Gospels that someone in Jesus’ party (possibly Peter) attacked the slave of the Jewish high priest with a sword? No … that story doesn’t seem plausible. I’ve even questioned the idea that Judas betrayed Jesus – betrayed him how, exactly? By telling the authorities where to find Jesus? Jesus himself provides the argument against this form of betrayal, as he himself stated that he was an easy person to locate: “Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me.”

Now that we’ve looked at the details of Jesus’ arrest, we’re ready to address some of the big questions about this arrest. Here’s the first: who ordered Jesus’ arrest? Whose idea was this?

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(Not) The Last Word on Jesus and Nonviolence

downloadI wanted to write a piece that would be my last word on Jesus and nonviolence. For the time being at least. But I can’t seem to manage to write that piece.

You see … I have been privately questioned by some of my friends for things I’ve written here of late, on Jesus and nonviolence. I have suggested that Jesus’ nonviolence was not perfect. I have suggested that the Temple-cleansing incident was violent. I have suggested that Jesus’ prophecy of the coming Kingdom of G-d was violent. I have suggested that Jesus’ response to Peter’s violence during Jesus’ arrest failed to condemn this violence in clear terms. Why would I want to write all this? Am I worried that there might be a sudden outbreak of worldwide pacifism? That people might beat their assault weapons into plowshares?

I wish I could make my response clear. This is what I want.

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Violence and the Kingdom of G-d

downloadIn recent posts, I have looked carefully at the gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, focusing particularly on the incident where an associate of Jesus (perhaps Peter) used a sword to slice off the ear of the slave of the high priest. I have concluded that historically speaking, this incident probably never happened. For one thing, no one in Jesus’ circle (except Jesus, of course), was arrested or punished in the Gospels. I see no way that the Roman and Jewish authorities would have ignored an unlawful act of extreme violence like this one.

But if the ear slicing incident never happened, then how is it that this incident came to be reported in all four Gospels? We will never have a certain answer to this question. Practically all we know about Jesus and his ministry is contained in the Gospels, and any attempt to look behind the Gospels to an earlier sense of “what really happened” is fraught with difficulty. All we can say for certain is that the story of the ear-slicing must have circulated widely among early Christians before the Gospels were written, or else the story would not have appeared in substantially the same form in all four Gospels.

But the fact that we cannot examine the pre-Gospel Christian tradition with certainty does not mean that we should ignore the development of Christian thought prior to the writing of the Gospels. Or perhaps, we should simply state that practical difficulties like these rarely keep scholars from speculating! So here, I will try to make a reasonably good guess as to why early Christians might have told the story that one of Jesus’ followers reacted with extreme (albeit brief) violence to Jesus’ arrest.

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Violence and Militancy

download (1)Friend of this blog Anthony Le Donne has written a terrific post on Jesus, militancy and nonviolence that is well worth your read. Anthony’s post is meant as something of a response to the thoughts of Simon Joseph on Jesus’ nonviolence, as well as my own reaction to Simon. In his post, Anthony wonders what my conversation with Simon would look like “if we nuanced it with the category of militancy.” Anthony describes militancy as a subcategory of violence, so that one can be violent without being militant.

Anthony never defines what he means by militancy. Instead, he illustrates the militancy-violence distinction by using the historic examples of Muhammad Ali and Richard Nixon. Muhammad Ali was, among other things, perhaps the greatest boxer of all time. As a boxer, he was capable of great violence (as is evident from this picture of Joe Frazier taken after a fight with Ali), but he also refused to fight for the US army in Vietnam. “I ain’t got no quarrel with the VietCong,” Ali famously said. He also said the following, words which may speak more clearly to the distinction Anthony wants to draw between violence and militancy:

No, I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder kill and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slavemasters over dark people the world over. This is the day and age when such evil injustice must come to an end.

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Understanding the Story of Malchus’ Sliced Ear

In my last post, I described the story of how, during Jesus’ arrest, someone associated with Jesus (perhaps Peter) sliced off the ear of the slave of the Jewish high priest (named as Malchus in the Gospel of John). This has to be one of the strangest stories in the New Testament, made stranger by the fact that the Gospels (particularly Mark) and most New Testament commentaries describe the story as no big deal. Peter sliced off Malchus’ ear? Of course he did!

Last time I described the many reasons I think this story is strange. You can review my earlier post to get the gory details. Here is a brief summary of the strangeness:

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Jesus’ Arrest and Malchus’ Ear

It often amazes me, what portions of the New Testament receive comment, and what portions are lightly discussed. Take, for example, the incident during Jesus’ arrest, when someone slices off the ear of the servant of the high priest. This has to be one of the oddest stories found in the Gospels, but this oddness is rarely talked about.

This incident deserves more attention for many reasons. For one thing, it is (I believe) the only time that anyone associated with Jesus commits an act of violence against the person of another. Arguably, Jesus committed acts of violence during the Temple-cleansing incident, when he overturned the tables of the money changers and others selling animals for sacrifice, and “drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple.” But the Gospels do not report that Jesus struck or injured anyone in the Temple cleansing.

In contrast, during Jesus’ arrest, someone associated with Jesus sliced off the ear of someone else in Jesus’ arresting party. Under any normal circumstances, slicing off someone else’s ear is considered a serious, violent attack. Slicing off an ear is a common feature of torture. The victim of an ear amputation (particularly in ancient times) might die from blood loss or infection (the painter Vincent Van Gogh nearly died from his infamous ear-severing incident). Even today, the surgical reattachment of a severed ear is not a simple procedure.

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More On Jesus’ Arrest

downloadLet’s return to the topic I began in a post earlier this month on the arrest of Jesus. There are thoughts I’d like to add to that post, inspired in large part on comments I received here and some additional research I performed to address those comments.

Who Arrested Jesus

In my prior post, I noted that the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) describe the force that arrested Jesus as a Jewish ochlos (a “crowd,” or “multitude”), while John’s Gospel describes this force as a mixed group of Jewish Temple police and Roman soldiers. I wrote that John’s description seems more plausible to me. All of the Gospels seek to portray the arrest as stealthy: under cover of night, intended to avoid the protest of Jesus’ many admirers. But there is no stealth in gathering a “crowd” to arrest someone! It makes much more sense to imagine Jesus being arrested by a smaller, more conventional force, perhaps a dozen or so Roman soldiers and Temple police, which is what I think John is describing.

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