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.

POINT 3: Jesus Was Arrested Because The Romans Thought He Was Armed and Dangerous

Martin’s article never exactly says why he thinks Jesus was arrested. But he does tell us why he thinks Jesus was crucified:

Many details from our Gospels and Acts make more sense if we propose that Jesus’ disciples were armed in Jerusalem at Passover because Jesus was expecting the inbreaking of a divine army that would overthrow the Romans and their Jewish clients. Jesus’ band would not need to do the fighting on their own. But they were armed so that they could participate in the battle, alongside angelic soldiers and cavalry. Being armed with swords inside a city, and especially at an important and potentially turbulent festival, was always a cause for alarm for the Romans. For whatever reason, Jesus’ opposition to the authorities was linked to his opposition to the Jerusalem temple and its cult. Jesus was crucified because his followers were armed in Jerusalem and he was perceived by the authorities as a brigand and rebel. Jesus’ band was not particularly dangerous – only because the Messiah and his heavenly forces failed to show up. But those disciples, and possibly Jesus himself, were armed.

If, if, if. Martin may be right about what led to Jesus’ crucifixion, so long as we buy into a long series of “ifs”: if Jesus and his disciples were carrying swords, and if they intended to fight Romans and Jews, and if Jesus was perceived as a brigand and a rebel, then we could conclude that this is what got Jesus arrested, and crucified.

But this is where I have a question, and if you read this blog, you’ve heard me raise this question before. If Jesus’ was arrested because his “band” was armed and considered dangerous, then why was Jesus the only one arrested? To his credit, Martin addresses this question (helpfully pointing out that this question was raised prominently by E.P. Sanders in his landmark 1985 book Jesus and Judaism). Martin’s answer is that the Roman authorities were “pragmatists” who “typically exerted themselves only enough to squash any rebellion.”

Pragmatists? Really?

The idea that Rome ruled Judea with as little force as possible is news to me. More typical in my experience is Haim Cohen’s description of Roman rule in his book The Trial and Death of Jesus: all Roman governors of Judea “saw it their paramount duty ruthlessly to smother any possible opposition to Rome.” Or Richard Horsley and Tom Thatcher, who write that “Standard Roman practice was to terrorize the peoples they conquered by destroying villages, slaughtering or enslaving the people, and crucifying resistance leaders along the public ways.” Pontius Pilate was known for being particularly brutal – the Gospel of Luke tells of Jesus receiving reports “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.” So we should look carefully at the support Martin brings to support his conclusion that the Romans governed Judea with great restraint.

Martin’s proof of Roman “pragmatism” is by way of two illustrative examples, but both examples are odd ones.  The first of these examples of pragmatism is the case of the “Samaritan prophet” mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus in his book The Antiquities of the Jews. According to Josephus, in 36 C.E. an unnamed Samaritan tried to lead a multitude up Mount Gerizzim in search of sacred vessels supposedly hidden there by Moses. But according to The Antiquities, Pilate prevented the passage of these Samaritans

by seizing upon file roads with a great band of horsemen and foot-men, who fell upon those that were gotten together in the village; and when it came to an action, some of them they slew, and others of them they put to flight, and took a great many alive, the principal of which, and also the most potent of those that fled away, Pilate ordered to be slain.

It’s hard to understand why Martin thinks the case of the Samaritan prophet is one that demonstrates “pragmatic” Roman restraint. Martin admits that “many” Samaritans were killed in this incident, that “many” others were taken prisoner, and that the “principal leaders” of the Samaritans were all killed. Martin tries to argue that Pilate did not attempt “to pursue the many others who had fled,” but according to the translation above, Pilate did pursue “the most potent of those that fled away.” By all accounts, Pilate’s brutal handling of this incident, described by some as the “ruthless slaughter of thousands of Samaritan pilgrims,” led to his recall by Rome and the end of his reign as governor. Even if we question the historicity of these accounts of slaughter, it’s hard to see how Pilate’s handling of the Samaritan incident indicates that he would have responded with “pragmatic” restraint to Jesus’ formation of an armed band of rebels.

What is Martin’s second, and “most obvious,” example of so-called Roman pragmatic restraint? It’s the case of John the Baptist! Here, Martin follows the account of the Baptist’s end in Josephus’ Antiquities:

Herod [Antipas], who feared lest the great influence John [the Baptist] had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.

Here at least is an example where the authorities killed the ringleader and ignored the ring he led. We know from Josephus and the New Testament that John the Baptist did have followers, and we know of no effort to arrest, try or execute any of these followers. The authorities went after John alone, just as they went after Jesus alone. Clearly, this sort of thing could happen, because in John’s case, apparently it did happen.

But there’s a huge problem with Martin’s argument. Martin never tries to argue that John or his followers were armed or intended to join with other armed forces (angelic or no) to overthrow the Temple and Rome. John was an unarmed figure who was feared because his popularity suggested to some that he might potentially lead a rebellion. But if that’s the case, and Jesus was like John, doesn’t that suggest that Jesus was also an unarmed figure who was feared because he might potentially take up arms someday? In other words, the comparison between John and Jesus argues for Jesus being unarmed, with no present intention of joining forces with anyone. But Martin believes that Jesus’ followers were already armed when Jesus was arrested, and were hoping that very Passover to join in a battle against Rome and the Jewish leadership! So in what sense is the case of John a precedent for the failure by Rome to prosecute Jesus’ (supposedly) armed followers?

Let’s consider the problem with Martin’s argument from a different angle. Martin is arguing that it was against the law to carry swords in Jerusalem, and that it would have been typical for Rome to enforce this law by arresting only the leader of a band armed with swords. But does this make sense? What would stop a second leader from arising to command a band that had lost its original leader? How, indeed, could Rome make certain that a band of armed Jews did not have a leader? Or, indeed, how could Rome determine that a single armed Jew was not part of a band of other armed Jews?

I think it’s simpler to imagine that Rome would have enforced the law as (Martin thinks it was) written. If there was a law against carrying swords in Jerusalem, then anyone carrying a sword was subject to arrest. If only Jesus was arrested by Rome, then he couldn’t have been arrested because his followers were carrying swords, because then his followers would have been arrested, too.

In fact, the scenario Martin imagines would probably not have ended in anything like an arrest. Over on the Jesus Blog, the venerable Dale Allison was interviewed about the Martin article. He raised a number of questions about Martin’s thesis, including the following:

[I]f Jesus and some of his followers were armed, I’m not sure why he was arrested. Why wasn’t he just killed in Gethsemane? You don’t arrest an armed band that’s just said “en garde!” (or the Aramaic equivalent). You kill them, right? My guess is that only one guy drew a sword, two at most; otherwise there likely would have been blood all around.

But as you already know, I don’t think any of Jesus’ followers drew a sword in Gethsemane. I think that Jesus’ arrest was bloodless, that the slave of the high priest left the scene with both ears attached to his head. I don’t see anything in the Martin article that would cause me to change my mind.

I’ll close by praising Martin. Allison admitted this in his Jesus Blog interview:

I’m not sure what to make of the swords in Mark and Luke. I’ve never read anything that made much sense to me. So that’s always been there in the background, and Dale Martin is right to press the issue.

Agreed 100%. I think that if there were swords at Gethsemane, if there was an ear-slicing event, then an explanation like Martin’s might be the only way to make sense of these facts.

  • Lollo

    “I think that if there were swords at Gethsemane, if there was an ear-slicing event, then an explanation like Martin’s might be the only way to make sense of these facts.”.
    I am not quite sure: if there were few swords (btw, machairos – not exactly swords like soldiers’) could be for self-defense, as you correctly pointed out, while ear-slicing could be an individual, instinctive reaction to Jesus’ arrest. Moreover, there was no Roman soldier (in synoptics’ account) to arrest Jesus but rather “a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.”. This context doesn’t lead me to think of a major armed revolt.

    • Lollo, I agree, so long as the swords were all concealed, or if they were small enough and of the size/style customarily carried by pilgrims in Jerusalem (assuming that pilgrims did carry small weapons for self-defense, which we don’t know for sure), and in any event that no one used their weapons to resist arrest or attack a member of the arresting force. But if we change this picture and imagine that someone drew a sword (or even unsheathed a knife) in an act we’d commonly call “resisting arrest,” then as I said, I think Martin is right to press this issue.

      • Lollo

        Martin is right to press the issue, I agree – he’s not the first and won’t be the last. I just find his specific arguments a bit weak, I think there can be more compelling arguments. Regarding what we commonly call “resisting arrest”, I rather talked about “reaction” – because Jesus was already arrested when reaction happened. And our sources (the only we have) specify that only one person reacted, then everybody fled. This is not, in my personal opinion, what I would expect from a group of armed people ready to fight.