I 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.
In 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.
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.
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:
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.
Let’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.
I apologize for not posting last week. I have a good excuse – ten days ago, my old trusty Lenovo laptop blue-screened. If you’re not a PC user, you don’t know how terrifying those blue screens can be! And this was not your ordinary, annoying, blue screen in the midst of a key sales presentation kind of mishap – my PC repeatedly blue screened at the beginning of startup. Yucch. So I’ve spent much of the past week configuring a new computer to do all of the odd things I do (including some esoteric legacy computer software writing and maintenance). Hopefully, I’m back in business (and if any of you have questions about Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 or Windows 8.1, I’m your go-to guy!).
Today’s post will be shorter than usual (you can leave “Hurrah!” as a comment below if you’re so inclined). We talk a lot here about the Historical Jesus. Last year I wrote a detailed review of Reza Aslan’s book about Jesus as violent zealot revolutionary, so I figure I owe some space to the opposing point of view. My current favorite voice in favor of Jesus’ nonviolence is Dr. Simon Joseph, Adjunct Professor of Religion at Cal Lutheran. Dr. Joseph’s latest book is The Nonviolent Messiah: Jesus, Q, and the Enochic Tradition, a book that is currently on my virtual nightstand.
In the next few weeks, I hope to continue my series on anti-Judaism in the New Testament, focusing on the difficult and challenging topic of anti-Judaism in the Gospels. This topic is difficult for many reasons, and one big difficulty is the necessity of addressing how Jesus died. This difficulty does not give us an excuse to skip over this topic, at least not if we want to understand Christian anti-Judaism. If “the Jews” actually killed Jesus, as Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians, then Paul simply described “what happened,” and it would be hard to accuse Paul of being anti-Jewish for merely reporting the truth. But much scholarship today indicates that the Romans (or Pontius Pilate) killed Jesus (albeit with some cooperation of some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem), and if we take that scholarship seriously, then Paul’s accusation is wrong and we have cause to examine his possible motives.
I think the question of who killed Jesus deserves a careful exploration. Here, I’ll start with a seemingly simple question: who arrested Jesus? The Gospels give us four accounts.
Last week I wrote an impassioned post about the decision of the Presbyterian Church (USA) to divest from three companies (Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard) that this Church believes are profiting from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. In this post, I addressed separate messages to Jews (let’s try to hear the Presbyterian action as a call for peace and an offer to help) and to Christians (divestment is a sure avenue for Jewish-Christian misunderstanding). I received mostly polite praise from my readers. Elsewhere, my effort to state my point of view did not go as well. I should know better. Israel is a difficult topic for Jewish-Christian dialogue.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, I remember my Aunt telling us about how her some of her Christian friends had visited Israel, and came back with glowing descriptions of their visit to the “Holy Land.” “You mean, you visited Israel,” my Aunt would reply testily. “Yes,” her Christian friends would gush, “the Holy Land!” The talk of “Holy Land” was like fingernails down a blackboard for my Aunt. “Why can’t they call it ‘Israel’?” she’d ask. Even today, when I hear someone use the expression “Holy Land,” I assume either that they are Christians, or that they’re Jews who think they’re talking to Christians, and I’m never sure that they’re talking about the same place I call “Israel.”
Let’s take a break from the heavy topic of early Christian anti-Judaism, and focus instead on the equally heavy topic of divestment from Israel.
“Divestment” (or “disinvestment”) refers to the strategy of refusing to invest (or selling existing investments) in a government, industry or company for ethical or political reasons. It’s a kind of economic boycott, often based on the idea that money should be invested in a socially responsible way. Divestment is sometimes designed to pressure its target to change its policies; for example, divestment from South Africa was designed to end apartheid. In other cases, divestment is a form of protest or punishment: against Sudan, for example, for its involvement in the genocide in Darfur.
These days, the primary target for divestment is Israel, as a result (so it is said) of Israel’s military occupation of the Palestinian territories. Divestment is a hot topic for the moment, because last week the general convention of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted in favor of a measure to divest church funds from three corporations (Caterpillar, Hewlett-Packard and Motorola Solutions) that the church believes are profiting from the Israeli occupation. The Presbyterian measure also reaffirmed Israel’s right to exist, endorsed a “two state solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, called for interfaith dialogue, and recommended “positive investment” in endeavors that advance peace in the region.