Jesus: Unarmed but Dangerous? (Part Two)

Jesus-SwordGreetings! 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.

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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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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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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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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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Nonviolent Jesus

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.

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Who Arrested Jesus?

Caravaggio_-_Taking_of_Christ_-_Dublin_-_2In 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.

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Book Review: Chris Keith’s Jesus v. Scribes (Part 4: Lay Piety)

grahambotterilLet’s conclude my long-running review of Chris Keith’s Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict. I won’t try to summarize everything I’ve written so far – you can read it in all of its wordy detail here, in parts one, two and three. But briefly: Keith argues that Jesus’ teaching in synagogue drew comparison to the Jewish scribes, because it generally fell to Jews who were scribal-literate to read and explain Torah in synagogue. But Jesus was not scribal-literate (according to Keith), and this raised questions about his ability and authority to teach in synagogue. This questioning eventually became pointed and hostile and grew into full-blown conflict, with the result that Jesus wound up on the “radar” of the Jewish authorities as a potential troublemaker. Keith is quick to point out that he is looking at the issues that first brought Jesus to the attention of the authorities, which are certainly not the same issues that precipitated Jesus’ execution. Or as Keith bluntly put it, Jesus was not crucified “because of confusion over scribal literacy and scribal authority.”

I’ve already posted that I don’t fully agree with Keith’s take on “the origins of the conflict.” Nevertheless, I’m enthusiastically positive about Keith’s subject matter and the way he approaches it. Why? Because the topic of “Jesus Against the Scribal Elite” addresses one of my big New Testament questions: what’s so terrible about being a scribe?

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