Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Was Jesus a violent nationalistic revolutionary zealot?

To answer this question, I will be making two main points. 1) Within just a few years of the crucifixion of Jesus, a man called Paul joined the Jesus movement and made himself known to Peter and John, and James, and this Paul was sure that he had joined a movement of non-violence. For that reason, it is highly unlikely that it had recently been a violent movement. 2) Secondly, if you are going to develop a movement of non-violence, the last person you're going to look back on as your founder and teacher would be a violent person.

First, I am going straight to the earliest first-hand eyewitness information that tells us what the first Christians thought about this. In the 30s of the first century, did they believe Jesus was a violent nationalistic revolutionary zealot?

The eyewitness is of course Paul, and the clue is right here in his own words:

“you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. [Paul then describes his conversion to following jesus.]  Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas [Peter] and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.” (Galatians 1:13-14; 18-19 - emphasis added)

The tell-tale clue here is in a word Paul uses: it’s “Judaism”. But we mustn’t misunderstand what he means, or we will miss the point. So the term “Judaism” (in Greek, IOUDAISMOS) needs a closer look.

Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin has pinned down the fact that in its earliest use, IOUDAISMOS contrasts the ways of the people (or the state) of Judea with the ways of the foreigners, the HELLENISMOS. It was a political urge for Israel to be free of Gentile control, free to pursue a manifesto for Israel’s people, land and temple. That was Paul’s agenda.

It was not particularly a term by which a religion was named in the first century. "Judaism" was not the ordinary word for the religion of the Israelites. Today, some textbook references to Judaism of the first and second century give a misleading impression of a Jewish religion that can be placed alongside Christianity as if the two had split into two separate "religions" by then, but that is just anachronistic.[i]

On the contrary, in Maccabees (the earliest known use of the word “Judaism”) IOUDAISMOS is not a religion per se; but rather that "Judaism" is a broader agenda to which Israelites may, or may not, be loyal.

So, 2 Maccabees 8:1-5 characterises “Judaism” as a reaction to the profaning of the temple, the destruction of Jerusalem, the oppression of the people and blasphemies against God’s name.

Judaism was something of which insurrectionists could be convicted; so 2 Maccabees 14:38 says, ‘some born Jews abandoned “Judaism,” others fought for it...’[ii]

When Paul says that he was advancing in “Judaism” (Galatians 1:13-14), this is the background we should have in mind. These are the only two New Testament appearances of IOUDAISMOS. Before his conversion, his nationalism drove him to violence. That was when he persecuted the church, because he believed that some in the church were undermining Judaism’s agenda for Israel’s people, land and temple. Then, in his change of heart and going over to the church, Paul wasn’t joining the side of violent nationalism, he was leaving it.

Paul’s conversion meant for him giving up the nationalistic agenda of his “Judaism”. That was his “former life”, and for him the antithesis of following Jesus. As he put it himself, he was going over to the faith of the people he had persecuted. For him, going over to Peter's and James' side meant giving up his violent nationalist agenda; and meeting Peter and James three years later kept him on his new course, rather than rekindling his nationalism. His was a choice between Jesus or violent nationalism, and that was the way that he and the church leaders of the 30s saw it. Paul’s conversion leaves him in no doubt that his violent zeal for a nationalist agenda is over.

This all happened in the 30s of the first century, and that is important for getting a glimpse of the Jesus they believed in. This is so close to the time when Jesus was supposed to have lived that it has this extra significance: the short time makes most likely that the views of Peter and James would not have changed significantly from the views they believed Jesus held to only a handful of years before.

So one thing we learn from Paul’s writings is that right in the foundational stages of the faith, Jesus’ followers in the 30s were ideologically distant from the zealot cause. And that makes it likely that Jesus too was distant from the zealot cause.

It's worth adding a couple of points about content in the gospels: Jesus has one named zealot among his disciples ('Simon the Zealot') but the function of the gospel narratives is to repeatedly show how all kinds of people, such as Simon, are en masse de-converted away from their own values to adopt the values of Jesus. And even in the one outbreak of violence by a disciple, where Peter cuts off a man's ear, this is actually a conflict between fellow Jews - it's not an attack on a Roman but on a Jew who represents the temple elite. It's not insurrection against Rome. It doesn't even amount to a civil war among Jews. But time and time again we see the gospels portray Jesus crying out in frustration against fellow Jews but never once against a Roman.

Even the story of Peter cutting off a man's ear is told to show Jesus stopping the violence. (It's important to remember that the meaning of a text comes from its function, not just from its content.) In Israel, a country in which some groups felt a simmering resentment against the Roman occupiers, this story of Jesus was ideal for telling again and again in every decade to show that there is another way forward apart from violence.

The name of Jesus was distant from the violent revolutionary nationalism of zealots and their like. Paul's renouncing violent nationalism and joining the persecuted church meant he was doing what he believed was in line with the views of Jesus.

To Paul’s mind, his new interest in following Jesus was incompatible with his former life as a zealous nationalist. Joining Peter/James’ side entailed leaving behind that life. The church of the 30s (in which Peter and James were leaders) were victims of the violence of this nationalistic agenda, on the receiving end of the violence of Paul until his conversion.

Paul’s conversion entailed him switching sides away from the nationalists’ side to the church’s side: from the side of the violent to the side of the victims of violence. If Paul thought joining the church meant joining the side of violent revolutionaries, why is there not even the slightest hint in his letters of him knowing it? In light of the very earliest evidence, the idea that the church was a movement of violent revolutionaries is a non-starter.

And so, in some of his last known words, Paul shows how he has left his past behind him, writing these words:

'Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.'

And if you turn to the gospels, you will find words like those quoted from the mouth of Jesus. Because that is the side that Paul had gone over to.

Of course, you can go to the gospels and get the same result as supplied through this blog. But what I've been doing in this series of blogs is establishing what we can find out about Jesus and the earliest Christians just from Paul's letters. It is turning out to be quite a lot. 

[i] Daniel Boyarin, “Semantic Differences; or “Judaism”/”Christianity”,” in The Ways that Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, ed. Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiko Reed (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 65-85.
[ii] Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple (Illinois: IVP Academic, 2002), 39-40. See also N.T. Wright, What St Paul Really Said (Oxford: Lion, 1997) 26-27.

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