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.

My guess begins with a common theory about the Jesus, one I’ve discussed here previously: the historical Jesus is best understood as a first century Jewish apocalyptic prophet. I like the description of this apocalypticism that Dale Allison provided in his book Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History:

Although G-d created a good world, evil spirits have filled it with wickedness, so that it is in disarray and full of injustice. A day is coming, however, when G-d will repair the broken creation and restore scattered Israel. Before that time, the struggle between good and evil will come to a climax, and a period of great tribulation and unmatched woe will descend upon the world. After that period, G-d will, perhaps through one or more messianic figures, reward the just and requite the unjust, both living and dead, and then establish divine rule forever.

As Allison and others describe it, Jesus saw himself as a prophet of this coming kingdom. Scholars disagree on whether Jesus saw himself as only a prophet, or whether Jesus also intended to help bring the Kingdom into power, or even to direct its coming. Personally, I fall into the “intended more than a prophet” camp, though I certainly see room for debate.

What does apocalypticism have to do with swordplay at Jesus’ arrest? Well, the question of violence was certainly on the mind of Jewish apocalypticists like Jesus. The present world, dominated by evil forces, was a violent place. As Thomas Hobbes might have described it if he were living in those days, life in first century Israel was nasty, brutish and short. Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire, made subject to oppressive Roman taxation, and frequently faced violence treatment at the hands of the Roman army. Josephus tells us that 2,000 Jews were crucified by the Roman legate Varus to put down a revolt after the death of King Herod the Great, and that so many Jews were crucified during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE (up to 500 a day) that the Romans ran out of wood to make new crosses. But not all violence took the form of crucifixions! Josephus gives us this account of Pontius Pilate’s response to Jewish protests over Temple funds being seized to build an aqueduct:

[Pilate] had interspersed among the [Jewish] crowd a troop of his soldiers, armed but disguised in civilian dress, with orders not to use their swords, but to beat any rioters with cudgels. He now from his tribunal gave the agreed signal. Large numbers of the Jews perished, some from the blows which they received, others trodden to death by their companions in the ensuing flight.

It’s no wonder that Jews in Jesus’ time thought they were living in a world gone wrong!

But if life under the Roman Empire was violent, the coming kingdom of G-d would be peaceful. Jews had long predicted that the age to come would be one where nation would not lift up sword against nation, and people would beat their swords into plowshares. Jesus must have seen the kingdom in the same way. He preached that his followers should eschew violence, turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, and love enemies. I think Jesus intended for his followers to put this preaching into effect to the extent that they could, but I also think Jesus understood that his ideal of nonviolence and love could not be fully realized until G-d’s kingdom was firmly established on earth. We can see this (unfortunately) in the things Jesus had to say about his own enemies. Jesus did not express “love” for the Pharisees and hypocrites he bitterly criticized.

So … if the present world was violent, and the Kingdom to come would be peaceful, what about the transition from the present to the future? The Gospels are clear on this: the transition would be a violent affair. A very, very violent affair.

Jesus linked the Kingdom to violence. He preached that “the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it.” He also preached that those who stood in the way of Jesus and the Kingdom could expect violence. The Gospels tell us: for those who betray the Son of Man, it would be better if such a person had never been born. For those who lead little children astray, “it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. False prophets, like trees that do not bear good fruit, will be cut down and thrown in the fire. Entire cities are condemned by Jesus to hell. Jesus’ preaching is full of people thrown into the furnace of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The coming of the kingdom is described in the Gospels as a time of suffering – suffering “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” Jesus said that the kingdom would come like a thief in the night – not something that anyone looks forward to. It would be like the Biblical flood in Noah’s day – as “the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” Jesus’ advice to anyone present at the arrival of the kingdom was to flee. It would be bad for those, sinner or not, who were unable to flee – because they were pregnant, or because it was winter, or because it was Shabbat.

Jesus tells a number of parables about the coming Kingdom of G-d, many with violent endings. In Matthew’s parable of the faithful and wicked servant, when the master returns (i.e., when the Kingdom arrives), the wicked servant will be cut to pieces. In Luke’s Parable of the Ten Minas (a parable told in response to the disciples’ belief that the Kingdom was coming immediately), the King on his return ordered his enemies to be slaughtered in his presence. In Matthew’s Parable of the Wicked Tenants, the wicked tenants were put “to a miserable death” on the return of the landowner. (This is a Kingdom parable, isn’t it?)

I don’t think there’s any doubt about this: Jesus preached that the coming of the Kingdom of G-d would be an unspeakably violent affair. So … at a critical stage of the beginning of this coming Kingdom, at Jesus’ arrest, should we be surprised to see a violent incident? Should we be shocked that a representative of the forces of evil opposing Jesus and come to arrest him, the representative of the high priest who would condemn Jesus, the representative of the Temple that Jesus predicted would be destroyed, would be an early victim of the violence to come? I don’t think so.

Certainly, Jesus did not seem to be surprised by the attack. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus makes no comment whatsoever concerning the attack. In Luke and John, Jesus’ concern seems to be that the arrest go forward, so that prophecy would be fulfilled. Only in Matthew does Jesus condemn violence per se. The account in Matthew raises the possibility that, while Jesus predicted a violent transition to a Kingdom of G-d, Jesus did not want his disciples to participate in this violence. I don’t think the evidence is clear on this point, but it is possible that Jesus expected the future inhabitants of the Kingdom to flee from the violence to come, and not to engage in it.

Ultimately, my point here lies elsewhere. Why did early Christians imagine a violent scene at Jesus’ arrest? Because they imagined that Jesus’ arrest was preliminary to the coming of the Kingdom of G-d, and that this coming would be full of violence. This theory may not make perfect sense. But it’s the best theory I’ve got at the moment.

  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    compelling and intelligent theory. I’ve always wondered about that contradiction in the NT and in Christianity between pacifism and violence. How come we’ve got the Quakers AND the Crusades in that history? You’ve given me alot to think about. thanks.

  • Robert

    “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.”

    It is not certain that this is a traditional account that circulated orally or in written from prior to the gospel of Mark. Some historians (eg, John Meier, Bart Ehrman) assume that the gospel of John was not even indirectly dependent upon any of the synoptic gospels and therefore think that anything that is found in the gospel of John and one of the synoptic gospels must have circulated in a pregospel tradition that supposedly has independent attestation. This is an unfounded assumption and cannot be demonstrated. Some eminent scholars (eg, CK Barrett, Frans Neirynck, Mark Goodacre) even take the position that the gospel of John is directly dependent upon one or more synoptic gospels. There is no consensus on direct literary dependence, but no one can rule out the possibility of indirect oral dependence on post synoptic tradition. We know from the Didache that the relatively small Christian communities at that time were frequently visited by highly itinerant prophets that were not expected to stay in any one community more than one or two nights. Stories from a written gospel possessed by one community would easily have been shared orally with another community long before a full written text might have been copied and shared.

    • Robert, I did say I was trying to make a reasonably good guess. Yes, it is possible that the author of Mark’s Gospel made up this story from whole cloth, and that the author of John’s Gospel got this story from Mark. Slightly more likely is that we might imagine a written passion narrative that both Mark and John used as sources.

      But I’ll back off only a little bit. Even if John did have access to Mark (and I think this is a minority opinion), we’d have to explain why Matthew, Luke and John all decided to incorporate this story from Mark when they were willing (particularly John) to jettison so many of Mark’s other stories. In other words, even if John did get this story from Mark, the story might STILL have been in wide pre-Gospel circulation, and it may have been this wide circulation (and not the incorporation of this story in Mark) that explains the story’s appearance in John and the other Gospels.

      In order to posit that this story was an invention of Mark, you have to deal not only with the criterion of multiple attestation, but also the criterion of embarrassment. Why would Mark have made up such a story? If Mark made up the story, why would he not have mentioned who did the ear-slicing, or what Jesus’ reaction was to the ear-slicing? Of the four Gospel accounts, it is Mark’s that is the most “incidental,” the one that seems to be the hardest to tie to a theological or other purpose of the early Church.

      You may have noted Anthony Le Donne’s comment on an earlier post, asking if the ear-slicing story might have been invented to provide a context for Jesus’ statement about living and dying by the sword. But in Mark, Jesus doesn’t respond to the ear-slicing with talk about living or dying by the sword. Jesus doesn’t respond to the ear-slicing with talk of any kind, or even with a healing like in Luke. In Mark, there’s nothing for this story of ear-slicing to DO. It just sits there, as strange and puzzling as the nearby story of the flight of the naked young man (Mark 14:51-52). Like the story of the naked young man (also not explained by Mark), Mark seems to feel the need to relate the story of the ear-slicing without indicating why. Could such a story have been made up, without a clue as to why?

      Far more likely, it seems, is that Mark inherited this story and changed it. He hid the identity of the ear-slicer, or he was uncomfortable with Jesus’ reaction (or the range of possible Jesus reactions, as we see from Matthew to Luke to John), or he thought this was not a story he wanted to emphasize. Of the four Gospels, it is Mark’s that gives us the strongest impression that this was no big deal, nothing to see here. But if I’m right, and Mark wanted to downplay the story, this argues against his having made it up.

      Your argument about the spread of Gospel stories by itinerant preachers simply argues for a wide oral circulation of stories about Jesus, both before and after the Gospels were written. I can go with that. But there’s no reason to think that once Mark’s Gospel was written, these preachers stuck solely with what Mark had written, and no longer spoke of the oral traditions that predated Mark. I suppose it’s possible that John included the ear-slicing because it became one of the most popular of Mark’s stories, and was widely told orally after Mark wrote it. That’s not how I think it happened, but if you’re right about that, it would still be consistent with what I wrote: the early Christians expected a violent transition into the Kingdom of G-d, and this expectation explains the circulation of this particular story.

      • Robert

        I am not arguing that Mark created the story. Decades of redaction criticism of Mark’s gospel has yielded stunningly diverse and contradictory scholarly views of what is supposedly traditional and what is redactional in Mark’s gospel. Redaction criticism works well for Matthew and Luke, when it is obvious that they both used Mark as a source document, but it produces virtually no consensus when applied to Mark because we do not know his sources and his Greek style is consistent throughout the gospel.

        “Slightly more likely … Far more likely”
        – I don’t think there is methodological warrant for measurable degrees of liklihood here.

        “you have to deal … with the criterion of multiple attestation”
        – As I tried to point out before, the ‘criterion of multiple independent attestation’ is based on nothing more the methodological assumption of those who assert it.

        “you have to deal … with … the criterion of embarrassment”
        – The ‘criterion of embarrassment’ would apply equally against anyone that might have invented the story, not just to Mark. Why would Mark have made up such a story? Why would anyone have made up such a story? This criterion does not argue for tradition vs redaction. And even if one posits that Mark did not make up the story, one should still try to determine its meaning in the gospel of Mark. One should try to understand why he included it, why he included it in its current form, what function might it have in his gospel as a whole? When one struggles with these questions, the plausible answers are not so very different from answering why Mark might have invented such a story.

        To illustrate, you ask, “If Mark made up the story, why would he not have mentioned who did the ear-slicing, or what Jesus’ reaction was to the ear-slicing?”
        – Whoever made up the story, or passed it along, why would they not have mentioned who did the ear-slicing, or what Jesus’ reaction was to the ear-slicing?

        – If Mark inherited the story, why would he not have mentioned or invented who did the ear-slicing or what was Jesus’ reaction to the ear slicing? If he thought it just fine to include a story without these details, then he would have also considered it just fine to create a story without these details.

        – Without a presumption of historicity or a view that Mark was slavishly conservative with the prior tradition, none of these arguments carry much weight, if any at all. On the contrary, however, there are some good indications that Mark was a very skilled and creative writer. This is, in part, why hypothetical attempts to identify and separate tradition and redaction are so vastly different.

        • Robert, if you’re not arguing that Mark created the story, then how do you suppose it ended up in all four Gospels if you also believe that it was not in oral circulation before the Gospels were written? If you are arguing for caution, modesty in historical claims and that sort of thing, good for you, you are on solid ground.

          I felt the need here to stick my neck (if not my ear) out a bit. For all the reasons I’ve argued, I don’t think the ear-slicing incident could be “what really happened.” There are a lot of Gospel stories that I read and think, “maybe” or “could be.” This isn’t one of them.

          I agree with you: let’s never underplay the creative genius of the Gospel authors, and let’s in particular celebrate Mark, my favorite Gospel author! I agree with you if you are saying that Mark’s genius is such that his Gospel can (and probably is) much more than the tradition he received. I also agree that we should be cautious in terms of what you call “redaction criticism” with Mark (strictly speaking, I don’t think such criticism is possible with Mark). But following Keith and Le Donne in particular, I don’t think our work ends once we judge that a particular Gospel story “really happened” or “did not really happen.” We can learn a lot from the inclusion of stories in the Gospels that we don’t think are “what really happened.” If you’ve read my pieces here on Keith’s books on Jesus’ literacy, you know how much he derived from Luke’s account of Jesus’ literacy, which Keith judged to be historically inaccurate but important in order to understand how early Christians saw Jesus’ authority and the role he assumed versus the scribal elite. Le Donne stresses this: we should make the effort to account for all Gospel stories – carefully, of course, and with due consideration for what we can and cannot know.

          If the story of the ear-slicing is not historical (meaning that it doesn’t accurately describe an incident that took place during Jesus’ arrest), then it must be a part of the Gospels for another reason. The reasons are varied, but if we’re acting as historians, then the reasons are all variations or combinations of two possibilities, that Mark received the story from the pre-Gospel tradition, and that the story was his creation. By saying that a story might have been Mark’s creation, I’m not saying he didn’t think the story was true. I think Mark’s truth was in the most effective possible communication of the “good news,” and this communication need not follow the same rules that a New York Times reporter would follow. The “good news” could be told allegorically, or theologically, or in ways we might describe as mythic, and still be truthful, faithful and effective communication.

          So, I acknowledge that the ear-slicing story might be Mark’s creation. But I don’t think it was, for the reasons I’ve stated. If you don’t think these are good enough reasons to reach the conclusion I’ve reached, fine, I understand your point and respect your evident caution for what we can and cannot know. BUT I differ with you on at least one point: I see a sharp distinction between stories in the oral tradition that are not “what really happened,” and stories that were Mark’s creation. The stories that become a part of a group’s social memory, particularly when the group is a minority subgroup, are formed following patterns that aren’t the same as those present when an individual author writes a historical/creative account of particular events. Social memory processes are more group-oriented, and work more on a subconscious level. The primary rule I’ve derived from my limited exploration of how social memory works is that it works primarily to forge group identity. We should not exaggerate the difference between social memory formation and how an author like Mark would craft a Gospel, but we should not conflate it either.

          So yes: I think that the pre-Gospel tradition could include stories that were not “what really happened” and that an individual Gospel author would have no reason to create.

          • Robert

            Short answer. I think Matthew and Luke were both dependent upon Mark’s text and John probably was too, or at least indirect dependence cannot be ruled out.

            Longer answer: I am arguing for the prior need to first understand the story in Mark’s context. When the rationale for asserting that a story must be or most probably is traditional because the story cannot be well understood in its current form in Mark’s context, we have not yet done the first step.

            I have Keith’s book and like the social memory approach, but it does not obviate the need to first try and understand the story that we have in its current context. Until we have done that, we have not make every effort to account for all Gospel stories, carefully, of course, and with due consideration for what we can and cannot know. The gospels are first and foremost indirect evidence for the views of the authors and their community but a poor source for the prior oral tradition and a very poor source for the historical Jesus. Personally, I think the same story appears in all four gospels because Matthew and Luke were directly dependent upon the text of Mark. I don’t think it can be proven that John was directly dependent upon one or more texts of the synoptic gospels, but, among others, Neirynck and Van Belle, especially, have made a very strong case for this and an even stronger case against more multiply hypothetical source theories (eg, Bultmann, Boismard, Fortna) that try to account for the quadruple tradition without even indirect dependence on any of the synoptic gospels. Good scholarship should always maintain an epistemologial appreciation for Occam’s razor. I believe that the reality behind the texts is much more complex than simple theories of dependence, but we can only arrive at a few simple probabilities with relative confidence. One cannot help but speculate about the earlier traditions and the historical Jesus, and I personally like doing this, but it is all exceedingly speculative, despite methodological assumptions, and it should not obscure good hermeneutical method for the texts, which are the only historical evidence we do have. Unfortunately, that is highly specialized and does not make for popular books a larger public audience. For me, that is the real work. Leben Jesu speculation is more what I consider ‘play’, sort of a hobby, the musings of someone who has much greater appreciation for the hard work of textual hermeneutics that should not be short-circuited.

            “BUT I differ with you on at least one point: I see a sharp distinction between stories in the oral tradition that are not “what really happened,” and stories that were Mark’s creation.”
            If I understand you correctly, we do not differ on this point. I’m sure that both things exist and that they are different. I do not think, however, that one can easily apply criteria to differentiate between the two with any certainty. Mark, as a ‘communal author’ would also be interested, consciously and unconsciously, in forging and supporting the communal identity, would he not?