Victory over Violence - Jesus and the Revolutionists

by Martin Hengel

(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973, out of print)


Chapter 8

Violence Overcome: The Message of Jesus

If one is to understand the uniqueness of Jesus' message and ministry, one must view them against the background of this acute revolutionary situation, a situation with a long history that could ultimately be traced to the historical revolution brought about by Alexander the Great.

For the unsophisticated Jewish population, it was almost entirely a history of oppressive exploitation, wars of indescribable brutality, and disappointed hopes. No other nation of the ancient world defended itself as steadfastly and bitterly against infiltration by Hellenistic civilization and oppression by the force of Roman arms as did the Jewish nation. As the three unsuccessful revolts of 66-74, 115-17, and 132-35 show, this resistance almost spelled the end of the nation. The rule of Herod and his sons and the corrupt regime of the procurators -- Pilate not least among them -- had made the situation in Jewish Palestine so intolerable that apparently only three possibilities remained: armed revolutionary resistance, more or less opportunistic accommodation to the establishment -- leaving open the possibility of mental reservations -- and patient passive endurance. This last was above all the fate of the unsophisticated rural classes, the 'am ha'ares.

It is within this dark context, which was certainly no less desperate for the Jews in Palestine than all today's oppression in Latin America or elsewhere in the world, that Jesus' message and ministry must be "sketched" if we are to understand it correctly today. In a radically new way he presented an alternative allowing men to escape from these three hopeless possibilities, to break out of the vicious circle of violence and counterviolence, opportunistic complicity, and apathetic resignation, an alternative that has not lost its significance for today.

Of course I can only present this alternative in broad outline in these pages, and will concentrate on the problem of "political theology" that is especially disputed today: the question of violence.

First of all, we must recognize that Jesus' appearance in public as a wandering popular preacher could be interpreted -- and also, of course, misinterpreted -- politically from the very beginning: by the mob in the sense that he might indeed be the messiah appointed by God to liberate Israel from the foreign yoke and bring the freedom that all longed for, and by the ruling classes, whether his sovereign Herod Antipas or the leaders of the nation in Jerusalem, in the sense that his ministry to the people might serve to change the existing order by force. For this reason Herod Antipas had already had Jesus' forerunner John the Baptist executed, because he was too influential among the masses. The ultimate consequence of this political misunderstanding was the denunciation of Jesus to Pilate by the leaders of the nation and his dying on the cross the death of a political criminal.

Not only Jesus' death but also his message contain analogies to the message of the Zealots, and it is no wonder, in view of the popular tendency for studies of Jesus to interpret him according to the prevailing fashion of the spirit of the age, that today men find it particularly appropriate to interpret him as a political and social revolutionist (see above, n. 93) . Like the Zealots, he proclaimed the imminence of God's sovereignty and called on the people to repent (Mark 1: 15 par.; cf. Luke 10:9, 11) . At this point, however, we can see a fundamental difference between Jesus and the zealous revolutionists. For Jesus, the evil in the world was not to be found primarily in the transsubjective social and political situation, that is, in Rome as the "hegemony of wickedness," in the priestly aristocracy, or in the large landowners, but rather in the evil heart of the individual. The groundwork for God's imminent sovereignty therefore cannot be laid by the revolutionary transformation of certain political and economic structures -- the liberation of the Holy Land, the breaking up of large estates, and the emancipation of the slaves. Only a transformed heart is capable of new human community, of doing good. Jesus' message and conduct, both of which proclaimed the nearness of God's love, possessed such transforming power. For this very reason, Jesus -- unlike the Zealots -- does not present any speculative socio-political program. The coming of God's sovereignty cannot be enforced by revolutionary actions; it comes unexpectedly as God's gift, as in the parable of the seed that grows by itself (Mark 4:28) : "The ground produces a crop by itself (automate)." The signs of God's sovereignty, of his kingdom, do not consist in the spread of a revolutionary popular uprising, but in Jesus' preaching and his ministry of healing and helping (Luke 11:20) : "If it is by the finger of God that I drive out the devils, then be sure the kingdom of God has already come among you"; or again (Luke 17:20) : "The kingdom of God is among you" (in Jesus' person and message).

Like the Zealots, Jesus required a radical interpretation of God's will, "tightening of the Torah." The revolutionists were concerned with the first commandment and with the prohibition of images -- refusing, for example, to pick up a coin bearing the image of the emperor -- as well as with the requirement that captive gentiles in the Holy Land be compelled to be circumcised. They also shared with Jesus a readiness to renounce personal property and accept martyrdom. The saying about taking up one's cross may go back to what was originally a militant Zealot saying (Mark 8.34 par.; Luke 14:27 par.). Jesus, however, did not take jealous zeal as his point of departure for radical interpretation of the law, but the law of love (Lev. 19:18) , which he made universally applicable. For the Zealots, imitating the first "zealot" Phinehas (Numbers 25) as a model, the slaying of the godless enemy out of zeal for God's cause was a fundamental commandment, true to the rabbinic maxim: "Whoever spills the blood of one of the godless is like one who offers sacrifice. Jesus, on the contrary, appealing to the Father's love for all men and radically extending the Old Testament law of love, demanded love of enemies and renunciation of violence. He thus took a rigorous position against the popular morality of his age. In a sense, the law of love became to him the "law of life in the kingdom." It corresponds to his requirement of unlimited readiness to forgive and renunciation of all expressions of hatred. Only the experience of God's love can transform the hard heart of man, call the individual out of his bondage, and make him capable of breaching petrified structures. Here we come to the truly new and revolutionary element in Jesus' message, particularly in view of the centuries-long history of imperialistic violence and revolutionary counterviolence that had determined the path of his nation throughout the Hellenistic-Roman period. It is not unlikely that Jesus formulated his demand to forgive one's enemies and be ready to forgive in conscious contrast to that Zealot passion that so informed the leading intellectual and spiritual class of his nation (cf. Gal. 1:14; Phil. 3:6; Acts 22:3).

Jesus thus kept a critical distance from the political powers and authorities of his period (Matt. 11:8; Luke 13:32; 22: 25) . For him they are emptied of power by the nearness of God; they had become, so to speak, indifferent matters (Mark 12: 13-17; cf. Matt. 17:25 ff.). Among the followers of Jesus not their laws but the order of love and service are in force. (Mark. 10:42 ff.; Luke 22:24 ff.) . Thus the individual, regardless of his situation, is "empowered" to freedom in the face of all the powers that would oppress his humanity. He " therefore passes harsh judgment upon unjust "worldly wealth" (Luke 16:9, 11), which in his time-as still today in lands with a feudal structure-stood in brutal contrast to the poverty of the bulk of the population. With his alternative "either God or worldly wealth" (Matt. 6:24) and his requirement to put away anxious thought (Matt. 6:25 ff.) he strikes to the roots of human existence. But even these demands are not based on some binding "social program" but on the offer of unconditional trust in the goodness of the Father. Whoever trusts more in worldly wealth falls into idolatry and is thus subject to God's judgment. Jesus' strong ` emphasis on this ultimate responsibility of man before his creator links him with the call to repentance of his fore- runner, John the Baptist, and the proclamation of the Old " Testament prophets (Luke 3:7-14 par.; 7:24 par.; Matt. 21: 31 ff.). None of his contemporaries criticized more sharply than he the complacent, self-satisfied Babbitts that sought the meaning of life primarily in the acquisition of riches. His message was thus socially and politically explosive, a trait that has reappeared repeatedly throughout its history, down to L. Ragaz and Leo Tolstoy. If it were not so, it would be almost impossible to understand why the lower classes came to him in such droves; for this very reason he aroused the suspicions and fears of the national leaders, of Herod Antipas in Galilee and the Sanhedrin at Jerusalem. This appeal to the 'am ha-'ares, the uneducated people "who do not know the law" and are therefore accused, he may also share with the revolutionists. But he never allowed this openness to the religiously and socially declasse, despised by the upper classes, to be restricted by political barriers. He addressed himself not only to the totally "useless," the poorest of the poor, the sick -- lepers, for instance -- but also to the "traitors to the nation" and "exploiters," the universally hated tax collectors. To these very men he gave his love and companionship, without regard for the universal offense that must be given by such provocation, political as well as social. Today one would say that he consorted with "enemies of the people." It was no less offensive that he could represent the "popular enemy," the Samaritan, as a model in contrast to the hereditary Jewish . aristocracy, the priest and Levite. In other words, Jesus' message could not be pigeonholed in any of the contemporary religious or political schemata; his critical attitude touched in ' fundamental terms all the contemporary Jewish "parties" in Palestine. His hostility toward the priestly aristocracy of the Sadducees is shown, for instance, by his prophetical, symbolic act of cleansing the Temple, which must by no means be reinterpreted as an armed attack on the Temple -- it was rather an exemplary demonstration against the misuse of the sanctuary to enrich the leading priestly families. Their response-shortly thereafter-was to have the Jewish police arrest Jesus in Gethsemane and deliver him to the Romans as an alleged political criminal. The pericope of the tribute money (see above, n. 105) demonstrates how the extreme right, the Herodians, could plot against Jesus with the leftwing Pharisees because they both considered him highly embarrassing (cf. Mark 3:6) . But even to the revolutionary Zealots Jesus appeared hardly less dangerous than to the establishment, for: (1) he had great influence among the simple rural population of Galilee, in other words, their primary source of recruits; and (2) his demand for love of enemies and renunciation of violence was in extreme opposition to their ideal of revolutionary zeal. They therefore necessarily perceived his message as a direct threat. He appeared simultaneously as a "competitor" and a "traitor." This means that both the extreme right and the left of Jesus' period rejected him as an intolerable provocation, and his death was undoubtedly welcomed by both wings.

His most extreme provocation was his linking of his message of unconditional love and readiness to forgive, based on the nearness of God, with a messianic claim. Decision with respect to his message was a matter of life and death, acceptance into the kingdom of God's sovereignty or exclusion from it. Without going into further detail on the almost impenetrable problem of Jesus' claim to be sent by God and his own self-awareness, I should like to stress that he unambiguously associated his own person and commission with the enigmatic figure of the coming heavenly "[Son of] Man." He put forward his claim to speak with greater authority than Moses or the prophets;... in other words, he made his appearance in order to announce the final, ultimate "revelation of God," the true will of the Father, and at the same time his unconditional love for all lost souls. He could therefore term his forerunner, the Baptist, the "greatest among those born of woman," exceeding the measure of the prophets."" The characterization of Jesus as "rabbi and prophet," developed by liberal scholarship and adopted by Rudolf Bultmann and some of his pupils, is totally inadequate to express this messianic claim. Only on this basis can one understand why Jesus not only proclaimed the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises-as in the Beatitudes and his reply to the Baptist -- but at the same time called the Torah itself into question, the Torah that to the Jew was identical with the law of the world, indeed with the cosmic order of the universe, that guaranteed Israel's election and right to dominion, and at the same time legitimized Israel's struggle for political and social self-assertion and, what is more, its eschatological victory over the nations.

Jesus' messianic claim represented a radical break with these traditional features of Jewish messianic expectation; he thus gave his message an unlimited universality that broke down all barriers of social privilege, nationality, and race, even though his ministry was to all intents and purposes limited to Palestinian Jews. From the perspective of traditional Judaism he could appear, so to speak, as an "anti-messiah," and the Jewish tradition of the Toledot Jeshu so terms him occasionally.

Jesus' attack upon the law, carried on consistently by Paul, still challenges us today: what is at stake is also abolition of what the law compels, self-vindication and self-assertion at any price, aggressive retaliation, and self-justification of violence and glorification of ruthless success. These manifold inner laws of the life struggle and use of violence Jesus opposes as one who summons men to freedom, a freedom of love and goodness informed by the love of the Father, by unconditional openness and trust-even in the face of hate and distrust -- and, finally, by freedom to suffer and to sacrifice, upon a way that Jesus himself followed to the bitter end. The injustice and suffering in Palestine two thousand years ago was certainly no less than the suffering in our world today. The revolutionary prescriptions of our time for the overcoming of such injustice and suffering are likewise not always so very different from those proposed then. The idea that the present-day situation has become intolerable, so that revolutionary violence has become justified, even necessary, was widespread then as now-and it was not the most wicked who were proclaiming this idea. Those who justify violence today do not see that they are starting a vicious circle from which they can scarcely escape, and which -- as is shown by the history of the revolutions in Palestine in the time of Jesus and in Europe during the past two hundred years -- will either corrupt them through abuse of their new-found power or, if they seek to preserve their "humanity," drive them into opposition and finally liquidate them as alleged "counterrevolutionaries."

In the midst of an outwardly hopeless situation, Jesus taught his group of followers how to break out of this vicious circle; until the age of Constantine, the early church adhered unflinchingly to this refusal to use violence. It is part of the critical power of the gospel that this summons to freedom -- which also means freedom from the inner law of violence -- is still heard today, is in fact once again being heard more clearly. Fundamentally, today's dispute over the possibility and proper form of a "political theology" is concerned with the old conflict between law and gospel, between the self-justification of the man who seeks his salvation in the law and allows his means to be justified through the law, and the justification of the godless man who is set free to enjoy his true humanity through the unmerited love of God. Reflection on the message of Jesus against the background of the unimaginable brutality and injustice of his age could help us today better to understand the gospel, that is, Jesus' summons to freedom, and to act accordingly.

Chapter 9

The Way of the First Christians

Finally, let us inquire into the attitude of the primitive Christian community. It neither went the easy way of joining the Zealot liberation movement nor glorified Jesus as a martyr for the cause of Israelite nationalism, slain by the Romans and leaders of the nation. Instead, the appearances of the risen Lord gave the disciples a missionary task, already sketched by Jesus in principle: first as a responsibility toward their own people, then, a few years later in Paul's vision of Christ, as a mission to all nations and peoples. The resurrection visions were thus not an end in themselves, but embodied this very missionary commission. The means to carry out this task also remained the same as those used by Jesus: the spoken word and the helping deed. The fundamental renunciation of violence was implicit. The hope for eschatological world dominion on the part of Israel, which manifested itself, for instance, in the prophetic and apocalyptic notion of the gentile pilgrimage, a notion that at first continued to play a role within the Palestinian community, disappeared. In its place there arose relatively quickly the demand for an active mission among all nations, without first circumcising the gentiles in order to make them proselytes, that is, Jews. The revolutionary significance of this decision, which overcame the gulf between Jew and gentile that had previously determined Jewish history in its entirety, can hardly be measured. A centuries-old, insurmountable wall of mutual mistrust and hatred was broken down. That this should lead to occasional difficulties is only natural. It was therefore all the more significant that they were overcome and the early church was not torn asunder. The decision of the Jerusalem community at the so-called Apostolic Council some eighteen years after the crucifixion of Jesus (A.D. 48) to legitimize this missionary work (Gal. 2: 1-10; Acts 15) bears witness to an astounding magnanimity that can hardly be explained on other grounds than the sense of obligation felt even by the "pillars" at Jerusalem (Gal. 2:9) to follow the intent of Jesus' message. For this bold step necessarily meant defamation for them and persecution by the Jewish majority in Palestine (1 Thes. 2:14 ff.). Given this background, it is no accident that Paul could call his missionary message, directed to the entire world, "the word of reconciliation" (logos tes katallages). This reconciliation was not, of course, any short-circuited "reconciliation" in the sense of "human brotherhood," but had reference to the reconciliation of hostile men with God through the death of Jesus. This concept of "reconciliation," which is fundamental to Paul, must be understood at least in part against the background of the ideology of sovereignty in the ancient world. Plutarch called Alexander the "universal author of peace and reconciler of the world," who "brings all men together in unity by words and force of violence." In similar fashion, Horace's Carmen saeculare and the fourth Eclogue of Virgil sang the praises of Augustus as bringer of reconciliation to the world, while in the Jewish Sybilline Oracles God himself reconciles opposites and inaugurates a kingdom of peace following his court of judgment. According to Paul, on the contrary, men experience God's reconciling love in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 5:6-11), and being thus reconciled receive the freedom to break down social and national barriers. In Gal. 3:28 Paul gives this idea truly revolutionary expression: "There is no such thing as Jew and Greek, slave and freeman, male and female; for you are all one person in Christ Jesus."

Despite all the persecution and defamation to which he was exposed (2 Cor. 11: 23 ff.), Paul was able to affirm the Pax Romana because it provided a kind of "liberated zone" for the missionary proclamation of the gospel. He shared this relatively positive attitude toward the Roman state with the majority of Diaspora Judaism, of which he was himself a product. It is against this background that we must read Rom. 13:1-7; under no circumstances should this passage be misunderstood as an eternally valid prescription for an attitude of reverence toward the state. Probably Paul formulated this excursus with one eye on the special situation of the Christian community of Rome, only a few years after Claudius's banishment of the Christians (Suetonius Claudius xxv. 3) . This much-misunderstood and much-abused text is corrected by Acts 5:29 as well as by Revelation 13 with its vision of the demonic power of the totalitarian state. One must also not overlook the setting of Rom. 13:1-7: it is set within a framework expounding the law of love (12:17-21 and 13:8-10) , in which for Paul-as for Jesus-the law is summed up, transforming itself radically into promise, that is, gospel. Christian love, agape, defines the limit of the power exercised by the state and society; through love the believer gains the liberty to "use good to defeat evil" (Rom. 12:21) . As 1 Peter, the Pastorals, and later the apologists show, early Christianity firmly maintained this attitude, informed by agape, toward the world in which it found itself, despite the persecutions on the part of the Roman state beginning with Nero and Domitian. From time to time, as in Revelation, which was composed in a situation of acute persecution, a kind of "Zealot raid" undoubtedly occurred. But even here the community persevered in suffering and renounced all violent means of aid: "This is where the patience and faithfulness of God's people have their place" (Rev. 13: 10). Finally, Justin may speak as a representative of the second-century witnesses: "We who were full of war, mutual slaughter, and depravity of all sorts have throughout the world exchanged our weapons-swords for plowshares and spears for pruning-hooks." In his apology to the emperor Antoninus Pius he stresses the necessary connection between renunciation of violence and readiness to suffer: "We who once killed each other have now not only renounced war against our enemies, but, so as not to lie or deceive our judges, we gladly die for the confession of Christ. Between A.D. 163 and 167, before the Roman city prefect Junius Rusticus, he sealed the truth of these words with his own life.

Today, some eighteen hundred years later, we are being asked whether, renouncing the message of Jesus, we wish to return to those atavistic ideologies that glorify violence in the name of a pseudoreligion. For the Christian to whom the origin of his faith still means something, it is salutary to look back on this period. There is a danger confronting any "political theology" that ignores the monstrous extent of oppression and exploitation, violence and counterviolence in Jewish Palestine in the time of Jesus and refuses at the same time to take seriously the radically different response of Jesus and the early Christians to this hopeless situation: the danger of giving up its claim to be "political theology" and turning instead into mere "political theory" or "action."

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