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.
WHEW! That’s a grand thesis. The thesis speaks to some of the biggest questions we consider here, such as who the historical Jesus really was, and what was Jesus’ stance on violence and nonviolence. But Martin also talks in this article about the issues we’ve been most recently considering here: why was Jesus arrested, and what were the charges against him. Consider what I wrote above: Martin thinks that most or all of Jesus’ disciples were armed with swords in Jerusalem. And for Martin, this fact alone may have decided Jesus’ fate:
If Jesus’ little band of young Galilean men were armed in Jerusalem during Passover, that in itself would have merited, in the eyes of Roman rulers, arrest and execution. A Roman prefect [like Pontius Pilate] needed no more reason for crucifying a Galilean [like Jesus] than discovering him surrounded by a band of armed men in Jerusalem at Passover.
WOW! Another radical claim, which I find all the more surprising, since I’d previously regarded Dr. Martin as a relatively staid and conservative fellow. Martin’s thesis has attracted a bit of attention so far, most of it negative. Prominent Jesus scholar Paula Fredriksen told Newsweek that Martin’s paper has several holes “that you could drive trucks through.” Friend of this blog Simon Joseph says that the problems with Martin’s thesis “are legion.” (Pretty good pun, Simon!) Michael Bird describes Martin’s thesis as “Jesus the Zealot (Again),” comparing Martin’s portrait of Jesus to the widely criticized portrait drawn by Reza Aslan in his book Zealot. (There’s some irony here, as Martin was one of Aslan’s most prominent critics.)
But if you’re tempted to think that Martin has given us yet another crazy portrait of “Jesus the Violent Revolutionary,” I’d advise you to think again. This is Dale Freakin’ Martin, people! If you were to make a list of the ten most important Jesus scholars in American Academia today, Martin would probably be on it. If your list was 20 people long, he’d certainly be on it. I have to take seriously anything Dr. Martin has to say. This is particularly the case, given that Martin’s thesis flatly contradicts much of what I’ve written here recently.
Since Martin disagrees with me (not by name!) on a number of points, and echoes points made here by a number of my commenters, let’s revisit these points, see what Martin has to say, and then see if I can manage a response against the esteemed holder of the endowed chair at Yale.
POINT 1: The Disciples Moved Through Jerusalem During Jesus’ Last Passover Armed With Swords
Martin thinks that Jesus’ followers – most of them, or all of them, and very possibly Jesus himself – were carrying swords in Jerusalem when Jesus was arrested there. Why does Martin think this? He thinking begins with the Gospel incident we’ve discussed at great length here, where someone (described as a member of Jesus’ party in three of four Gospels, and identified as Peter in John’s Gospel) sliced off the ear of the slave of the Jewish high priest. (Evidently, Martin hasn’t read my argument that this incident never happened!) Taking this incident as “Gospel,” Martin concludes that “[a]t least one of Jesus’ disciples was armed when Jesus was arrested.” Martin then points to the discussion of swords in Luke, where Jesus tells his disciples to arm themselves and assures them that two swords would be sufficient. So far, by my count, we’ve accounted for only two swords. But Martin sees more than two swords in these accounts. He thinks that Luke’s story of the two swords is in all likelihood an invention, intended by Luke to hide the fact that there were more than two disciples carrying swords. Martin thinks that Luke mentioned just two swords in order “to play down the incident [of the ear slicing] and protect Jesus from any suspicion of rebellion.” Martin thinks that if we didn’t have Luke’s Gospel, we’d naturally assume from Mark’s Gospel (14:47) that most or all of Jesus’ disciples were armed.
But Mark doesn’t give us a sword count. Mark’s Gospel only says that as soon as Jesus is arrested, “one of those standing there drew a sword and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear.” Martin reads “one of those” in Mark to mean (or imply) that there were many sword carriers, and that it was “one of those” carrying swords who pulled out his sword and used it to attack the slave of the high priest. But that’s not much of an argument. Absent some nuance in the Greek of Mark 14:47 that I haven’t picked up (and that Martin never mentions), Mark is only talking here about one person, a person who had a sword and used it. There’s no reason to conclude from this that everyone else with Jesus had a sword. Think about it: if I described a crowd in a garden, and told you that “one of them pulled out a liverwurst sandwich,” you wouldn’t necessarily think that everyone else in the garden had a sandwich!
Martin’s next argues that Jesus’ followers must have possessed more than two swords, because the Gospel authors after Mark were “embarrassed” by Mark’s account of the ear-slicing event, and sought to downplay the fact that Jesus’s followers were carrying swords. It’s true that the authors of Matthew, Mark and John all present ear-slicing stories that are somewhat different from that found in Mark. For example, Matthew’s and John’s Gospels each have Jesus rebuke the ear-slicer, while Luke’s Gospel contains the story of Jesus healing the slave’s ear. (There is no rebuke from Jesus or ear-healing in Mark’s Gospel.) But if Matthew, Luke and John were ‘embarrassed” by the ear-slicing, then why do they each add to this embarrassment by identifying the ear-slicer as a follower of Jesus? Mark had told us only that the ear-slicer was “one of those standing there.” But Matthew tells us that the ear-slicer was “one of those with Jesus,” and Luke tells us that the ear-slicer was one of Jesus’ “followers.” John goes further, telling us that the ear-slicer was Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples.
Even assuming that Matthew, Luke and John were embarrassed by the account of the ear-slicing in Mark, this is no argument that all of Jesus’ disciples were armed. The Gospel authors might have been embarrassed by the idea that that there was even one sword carried by one of Jesus’ followers. Remember: these authors had described a Jesus who preached the turning of cheeks, the walking of extra miles, the blessing of cursers, and so forth. It’s hard to understand how such a Jesus would have had any disciples carrying any weapons. I don’t see how Martin can argue from embarrassment that Jesus had many disciples carrying many swords.
Let’s be clear. I don’t mean to dismiss Martin’s POINT 1 out of hand. While I don’t think there’s enough evidence to conclude that most or all of Jesus’ disciples were carrying swords, it’s entirely possible that some, most or all of Jesus’ disciples were armed. On The Jesus Blog, Brian Pounds argues that it was common for travelers in the Roman Empire to carry swords to protect themselves against bandits. Even Simon Joseph, of Nonviolent Jesus fame, admits as much. So … Martin may be right here after all. But the next of Martin’s arguments strikes me as more problematic. Namely …
POINT 2: It Was Against Roman Law for Jews to Carry Swords in Jerusalem
Martin argues that merely carrying a sword through Jerusalem, “especially during an important public festival” like Passover, would have been regarded by Roman authorities “as an illegal and potentially revolutionary action.” For support, Martin notes that it was illegal to carry a sword in the Roman pomerium (the area of Rome within its ancient walls) – a ban that was later extended to the entire city of Rome. Martin goes on to argue that carrying swords was also illegal “or strictly contrary to custom” in other cities in the Roman Empire. But the support Martin provides for this argument is odd indeed. For example, he cites the Greek historian Thucydides, who evidently wrote that only “foreigners” carried swords. But Thucydides wrote nearly 500 years before Jesus’ time, before there even was a Roman Empire. Martin also cites Satyrica, a work of fiction written by the Roman author Petronius at a time much closer to Jesus’ own. In Satyrica, a Roman soldier discovers one of the play’s characters carrying a sword, confiscates the sword, and according to Martin, sends the character “packing.” But this is hardly proof that carrying a sword in a Roman-occupied city could warrant arrest and execution.
Martin’s argument on the supposed illegality of carrying a sword in Jerusalem has already attracted considerable criticism. Brian Pounds says that “there is no source stating that it was illegal – much less crucifiable – for an individual or group of individuals to carry weapons in Jerusalem.” Paula Fredriksen doesn’t think that the laws against arms in Rome were in force in Jerusalem, and she also thinks that the “swords” described in the Gospel were really more like “knives.” But for the moment, let’s focus on a more basic question, that of the nature of Roman criminal law. Rome did have a system of criminal law, and we know something about that law functioned in Rome, and how it was applied outside of Rome to Roman citizens. We know less about the treatment of Roman subjects who were not citizens, but from what we do know, it seems unlikely that there was anything like a Roman criminal code or Roman criminal due process applicable to those in Jerusalem who were not Roman citizens. A non-citizen like Jesus probably had no rights whatsoever under Roman criminal law – Jesus may not have even had the right to be judged under whatever passed for Roman criminal law in Jerusalem. Or putting this another way … the applicable Roman criminal law in Jerusalem would have been pretty much whatever Pontius Pilate wanted it to be.
As chief Roman administrator in Judea, Pilate held the imperium, the supreme power of life and death over his subjects. Roman citizens living in Judea had the power to appeal Pilate’s decisions to Rome, but Jesus and his disciples were not Roman citizens. For people like Jesus, Pilate’s word was final. Pilate was not even required to maintain a façade of justice – it was perfectly appropriate for Pilate to crucify an innocent person, so long as Pilate figured the execution would help maintain public order (and so long as the victim was not a Roman citizen). The Jewish philosopher Philo accused Pilate of “repeated executions without trial.” Historian Bart Ehrman argues that if Pilate perceived one of his subjects as a troublemaker, he could crucify that troublemaker with “no need to follow anything that would strike us as due process, at least for the non-Roman citizens” under his rule. Perhaps the best description of Roman criminal law under Pilate comes from beloved author John Dominic Crossan. In his book Who Killed Jesus, Crossan writes:
There would be no need to go very high up the chain of command for a peasant nuisance nobody like Jesus, no need for even a formal interrogation before Caiaphas, let alone a detailed trial before Pilate. In the case of Jesus, there may well have been Arrest and Execution but no Trial whatsoever in between.
On this very point, Martin agrees: “I doubt Pilate would have bothered to conduct a trial of Jesus,” he writes in his new article. “None was necessary.”
So, I don’t think it much mattered whether it was against Roman law to carry swords in Jerusalem. What mattered was what Pilate thought and what Pilate wanted. Pilate could arrest and crucify a sword-carrying Jesus, or for that matter a knife-carrying Jesus, a Jesus who merely talked about swords, or a Jesus who had nothing to do with swords. Of course, Pilate had a strong interest in identifying and crucifying Jewish troublemakers, and perhaps Jesus would have appeared to Pilate to be looking for trouble if he had surrounded himself with sword-carriers. Therefore, while Martin’s reasoning may be off, the conclusion he reaches is on target: “A Roman prefect needed no more reason for crucifying a Galilean than discovering him surrounded by a band of armed men in Jerusalem at Passover.”
Where Martin’s argument gets dicey for me is when we move from what could have gotten Jesus arrested, and ask our $64 question, what did get Jesus arrested?
And for the answer to that question, tune in later this week! But in the meantime, please post what you think so far about Martin’s thesis, and my pushback against his thesis.