An essential aim of the innovative technique of fiction worked out by the ancient Hebrew writers was to produce a certain indeterminacy of meaning, especially in regard to motive, moral character, and psychology … Meaning, perhaps for the first time in narrative literature, was conceived as a process, requiring continual revision – both in the ordinary sense and in the etymological sense of seeing – again – continual suspension of judgment, weighing of multiple possibilities, brooding over gaps in the information provided … This sort of critical discussion, I would contend, far from neglecting the Bible’s religious character, focuses attention on it in a more nuanced way. The implicit theology of the Hebrew Bible dictates a complex moral and psychological realism in biblical narrative because God’s purposes are always entrammeled in history, dependent on the acts of individual men and women for their continuing realization. To scrutinize biblical personages as fictional characters is to see them more sharply in the multifaceted, contradictory aspects of their human individuality, which is the biblical God’s chosen medium for His experiment with Israel and history.
Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 12
I’d like to take a giant step backwards from the matters I’ve been discussing lately – Christian anti-Judaism, Paul, Jesus’ arrest and trial, swords (or the lack thereof) – and talk more generally about what I’m trying to do here, and what I think I can do here.
The purpose of this site is to get people talking. If you read one of my posts and think to yourself, “I want to ask Larry a question,” or “I want to share another way of looking at this question,” or even “I must tell Larry something he’s failed to take into account,” then I’ve done my job. I understand that most of my readers will never post a comment – I am a regular reader of many blogs where I never comment – but to the best of my ability, I want to break down whatever barrier stands between you (my reader) and leaving a comment. Even better: I want people to comment on other comments. I’d love to get discussions going and step away from them, and watch them go on for days and weeks. That’s a tall order! I haven’t yet come close to accomplishing this goal – the closest I have come, I think, is in the comments to the post you can read by clicking here! They’re really, really good.)
The talk I want to get going here is loosely referred to as “interfaith dialogue,” and if you think about it, the expression “interfaith dialogue” is a strange one. We say “interfaith dialogue,” as if there was something like “Judaism” capable of talking, and something like “Christianity” capable of listening. Obviously, “interfaith dialogue” is a figure of speech, and we routinely use such figures of speech. We refer to “talks” between “Congress” and the “White House” as if buildings could speak, or between “India” and “Pakistan” as if land masses could listen. We aren’t confused by references to talking buildings and land masses: we understand that these talks are conducted by unnamed people representing these nations and institutions.
In my last two posts, I looked at a recent article by Dale Martin arguing that Jesus was arrested and crucified for leading an armed band of disciples into Jerusalem on Passover to join in a heavenly-earthly battle to inaugurate the Kingdom of G-d. After my last post, Professor Martin was interviewed about his article over at The Jesus Blog – I think he makes a better case for his argument in this interview than he did in his article, so the interview is certainly worth a read. I’m still not on board with Prof. Martin, for all the reasons I’ve stated earlier, but I want to emphasize that Martin is one of the smartest people in this room, and I share his focus on the presence of swords in the Gospels. He thinks that Jesus’ disciples were carrying swords for a reason central to his mission; I doubt that they were carrying any weapon like a sword, and I don’t think these swords were ever used. This is a good time to emphasize, both my opinion and Martin’s are minority opinions (at least Martin has the intellectual credentials to go out on a limb – so why am I doing out here on the opposite limb?).
I looked at Martin’s article because it speaks directly to my focus here in recent weeks on the arrest, trial and execution of Jesus. Specifically, I’m interested in the Jewish involvement in what happened to Jesus – did the Apostle Paul have any reason in 1 Thessalonians to write that the Ἰουδαίων (pronounced “Ioudaiōn,” and commonly translated as “Jews”) killed Jesus? Most recently, I asked what crime Jesus was charged with at his arrest.
Note that I purposely avoided asking why Jesus was arrested – the reasons why a person is arrested may be quite different from the crime named in the indictment against that person. Consider the well-known case against the gangster Al Capone, who was indicted for tax evasion. It’s obvious that the Feds did not go after Capone because he failed to pay taxes on the money he stole. Here, I won’t ask whether Jesus was arrested because the Jewish authorities were jealous of his popularity, or because they saw him as a threat to incite a riot, or because they thought he was a zealous political revolutionary, or (as the New Testament puts it) because Jesus came to Earth “as a ransom for all people.” It’s a complicated matter to determine anyone’s motives, let alone the motives of a Jewish leadership that lived 2,000 years ago and left us with no record of what they were thinking.
Greetings! In my last post, I began my analysis of Dale Martin’s controversial new article, “Jesus in Jerusalem: Armed And Not Dangerous.” In this article, Martin claims that Jesus and his disciples were armed with swords during Jesus’ final Passover in Jerusalem. Martin further claims that Jesus and his disciples carried swords in order to join an “angelic army” to do battle with the Roman Empire … and further, that Jesus was arrested and crucified because of those swords.
In my last post, I examined what I called Martin’s POINT 1, his conclusion that most or all of Jesus’ disciples were armed. It’s my view that Jesus’ group might have carried swords (perhaps for self-defense against robbers and other bad guys), but I don’t see anything in the Gospels proving that they were carrying swords. I then looked at Martin’s POINT 2, that it was against Roman law for Jews to carry swords in Jerusalem. I concluded that we don’t know much about the state of Roman criminal law in Jerusalem, but that this question is largely irrelevant, since Pontius Pilate could have executed Jesus for carrying swords or for any other reason (or no reason). But for certain, if Martin is right and Jesus and his companions were carrying swords in anticipation of joining in an earthly-heavenly battle against Rome, then for certain this could have resulted in Jesus’ arrest.
We’re now ready to address a third critical point in Martin’s article.
Shana 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.
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.
Over 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.
Over 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?
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.