The Politics of Passion Week

April 1, 2017 § 4 Comments

Easter’s coming.

One of the most evil things the Scary Clown has promised to do as president is to reinstate torture as a weapon of the state in its “homeland security” arsenal. The last president to do that, and his evil architect vice president, were both Christians. It was this insane contradiction that prompted me to start my first blog, BibleMonster.

For arguably, the most famous person to be tortured to death by an imperial power as a religious insurrectionist was Jesus. The charge for which he was crucified, which was nailed onto the cross over his head, was “King of the Jews”. The soldiers were surely laughing with sarcasm when they posted those charges, but the state took them deadly seriously, nonetheless.

For in fact those charges were true. Jesus was in insurrectionist.

He had started the week with a royal procession into the city, deliberately invoking salvationist and apocalyptic oracles from the prophet Zechariah, assuming royal accoutrements that invoked the monarchy of King David that was both idealized and rife with prophecies about return, and bringing with him a jubilant mob. Then the very next thing he does is raid the national currency exchange. He then spends the next several days leading up to the Passover feast publicly assaulting Rome and its Quisling government in Jerusalem with stories and provocative legal interpretations, then hiding away so successfully in the woods on Mount Olivet that the authorities needed an informer to find him. All this under the very noses of the Roman legionaries, who had built a fort abutting the temple precinct walls overlooking the very courts in which Jesus was staging his insurrection.

And those soldiers were not alone. The Passover season was always a time of civil and political unrest in Judea, and especially in Jerusalem, so the Romans reinforced the Jerusalem legion by bringing in the Syrian legion for the duration of the holiday. For Passover was, after all, the thanksgiving celebration of a people who had been formed as a people in the crucible of divine deliverance from slavery to empire.

The intervening millennium had not diminished the people’s memory of Egyptian slavery, or the Passover and Exodus one bit. Nor was Egypt the only empire that Yahweh had delivered them from. Jesus and his listeners remembered deliverance from Babylon some 600 years later. And just 200 years before their own time under the Maccabees, God had delivered the people from the Seleucids, the descendants of the Macedonian general who inherited the Persian Empire when Alexander the Great died. Judaism was at its core, among other things, a religion about deliverance from empire.

And here came another prophet modeling himself after that first one, Moses, a man named after the conqueror of Palestine, Joshua, whose very name was a battle cry, and deliberately taking on the mantle of their most successful and imperial king, David. Some of the people in the streets actually called him Son of David.

Jesus’s ministry was book-ended by trials. It began with his trial by the Satan in the wilderness after his baptism, and it ended with his trial before the Sanhedrin and the Roman governor. This has special resonance because Judaism as a religion is, at its core, a legal system. It is all about justice and, therefore, about judgment.

Jesus pronounces judgment on the temple-state on his way to the city at the beginning of that fateful week when he curses the fig tree for failing to bear fruit. He condemns the temple-state and the Romans with his teachings in the temple courts. He replaces the temple-state’s central religious institutions at the Last Supper. He goes out of his way to fulfill several apocalyptic prophecies in Zechariah. And he camps out on the very mountain that the prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah say will be the first place to which Yahweh returns when he delivers his people the next time. That is—for Jesus—this time.

This apocalyptic expectation is a difficulty for us today that we’ll have to deal with, because it’s apparently central to Jesus’s mission in this week. But it’s worth remembering that for Jesus and his followers, that expectation was grounded in a thirteen-hundred-year-long history of prior promises of deliverance from empire—and real fulfillments. Jesus had several reasons for quoting Jeremiah in the so-called “cleansing of the temple”.

But before we get to apocalypse, I want to explore some of the events of Passion Week for their meaning in their own time and for their relevance for us today, revisiting some of the posts from a previous series. Below are links to the posts in that original series, for readers who may have found this blog after they were first published in 2016 and not know about them. Here are links to those posts, one for each day of the week, plus a couple of afterthoughts:

The Politics of Passion Week—More Afterthoughts about the Resurrection

March 29, 2016 § 3 Comments

Jesus appeared to his friends and followers ten different times after his death, if you count all the accounts in all four gospels and then adjust for duplicates (both Mark and Luke recount an appearance to two men walking on the road; both Mark and John recount an appearance to Mary Magdalene alone at the tomb). Mark 16:14, Luke 24:36, and John 20:19-23 might all be the same event, as well, since Jesus appears to the disciples in each story while they are eating and they all include references to doubting the resurrection; but I’m treating them as separate events. All of the accounts in Mark are somewhat suspect because the original gospel breaks off abruptly before any of the resurrection accounts; all of chapter 16 was added later and most manuscripts don’t have verses nine to the end, which includes all the appearances.

In fact, doubt, ambivalence, and ambiguity color most of the stories of resurrection appearances.

In three of the ten, the people to whom Jesus appears do not recognize him until something happens to open their eyes. These include appearances to the two men on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-32); to the disciples, right after being told by these same fellows from Emmaus about their encounter (and these two are apparently actually there in the room; Lk 24:36-49); and to several disciples while fishing on the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21:1-14).

One of the appearances—to Mary Magdalene at the tomb—receives conflicting accounts. In Mark (16:9), Mary recognizes Jesus. In John (20:14), she doesn’t, at least not right away.

Four of the accounts include some reference to a problem with recognizing Jesus or believing in his resurrection. In Matthew 28:16ff, Jesus appears to the Eleven on a mountain in Galilee, “but some doubted.” In Mark 16:14, Jesus appears to the Eleven and rebukes them “for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe.” In the two appearances to the disciples with and without doubting Thomas in John 20:19-29, the people present at the moment do not doubt, but the stories are all about the doubter Thomas. Also, weirdly, seven of these men, including Simon and Thomas, fail to recognize Jesus again in the story of the appearance to the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, in a passage that follows directly after the story of Thomas feeling Jesus’ wounds and believing. So they doubt—or at least Thomas doubts; then they are convinced; but then sometime later, they have lost their belief again, including Thomas. That’s a lot of pretty persistent doubt.

In only two of the accounts do Jesus’ followers recognize him right away, with no reservations or complications, when he appears to them: the account of the women at the tomb in Matthew 28:1-10, and the account of the appearance to Simon, in a very brief, offhand notice with no elaboration, in Luke 24:34.

The point is that Jesus’ followers needed to be coaxed into believing that he was still alive in some form, still a force in their lives in some way, however ambiguous that relationship seemed to be. To believe that the vision Jesus had given them of a reign of God that would transform their outer and inner lives was still alive and viable, they needed some time. They needed repetition. And they needed teaching.

Even people who were intimates of Jesus when he was in the flesh had to be coached—they had to be taught, all over again, over and over again, what the kingdom of God meant, now that the Teacher was no longer with them in the flesh.

The story of the two men on the road to Emmaus is instructive in this regard. After hours of conversation with their teacher, in which they discuss the very events that led to his death, they only recognize Jesus after he has broken bread with them. That is, after they have shared the common meal that the Last Supper epitomized and perhaps inaugurated, and which was apparently the central daily-bread event in Jesus’ movement.

The teaching dimension of this meal comes clear in its description in Acts (2:42-47):

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

When gathered together for the daily common meal, the apostles taught; they distributed food and money to the poor; they ate; and they prayed. Food and teaching and religious experience and radical economics were all almost literally the same thing.

The disciples ate together, they studied together, they shared all they had, and they had profound religious experiences, all of which were so attractive that more and more people joined them. And this teaching/preaching/sharing all involved eating—as in the Last Supper.

Give us this day our daily bread. Feed my sheep. You shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him? This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.

I believe that the Sermon on the Mount and the feeding of the 5000 on the mountain were the same event; in fact, the miraculous feeding may have been the miraculous teaching—to share.

At some point in the future, I want to start a series on spiritual food—on the way Christian scripture conflates feeding and teaching, eating and learning, sharing and understanding. For now, I close this series on the Politics of Passion Week with this conclusion about the politics of resurrection:

When Jesus’ followers were finally convinced that he continued to live and work among them and within them (and it took some time and some teaching), his presence inspired them to continue the radical remake the social and economic structures of their community along egalitarian and communitarian lines. This took discipline. It took study, practice, repetition, example. Folks would lose the message, and then be brought brought back again. This is what all that doubting signifies—how hard the work of believing in the kingdom was when its prophet had been murdered. But all that praying and teaching and feeding paid off. It filled them with such awe and joy that other people flocked to their message.

The Politics of Passion Week—Afterthoughts: Gethsemane

March 28, 2016 § 1 Comment

In the post for Friday, the day of the arrest, I asked the question: what was Jesus really praying for in the garden of Gethsemane? On the surface, it looks like he was just praying to be delivered from the terrible fate he saw coming, a reasonable—and quite human—hope.  But suppose God had answered his prayer with a ‘yes’? What would have happened then? What alternative outcome was Jesus praying for?

It was the week of Passover, the festival dedicated to remembering when God delivered his people from slavery under an imperial oppressor with the right arm of his military power. Tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of pilgrims were in Jerusalem for the festival. Riots, and even the occasional popular uprising, occurred so often during the Passover festival, that every year Rome moved its Syrian legion into bivouac outside the city to help the legion that was permanently posted in the city itself in order to help with crowd control.

Jesus started the week declaring God’s kingship over his people and he’s focused on the radical inbreaking of divine sovereignty through the ensuing days. He’s prophesied the destruction of the temple. And if we accept the structure of the gospels as representing more or less the real chronology of events, Jesus has delivered a long sermon prophesying the last days.

It looks like Jesus was expecting the fulfillment of the kingdom he has been preaching in some kind of visitation from the Father and a cataclysmic overthrow of the existing order. Perhaps he looked forward to the fulfillment of the prophecy from Zechariah that he had enacted at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday:

See, our king comes riding to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. . . I will rouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword. Then the Lord will appear over them; his arrow will flash like lightning . . . The Lord their God will save them on that day as the flock of his people. (Zech 9:9-17)

Perhaps he was expecting the fulfillment of other prophecies, as well. That he was praying on the slopes of the Mount of Olives tends to reinforce this idea, for the Mount of Olives figures prominently in Jesus’ own land-based spirituality. The Mount of Olives had been named by the prophets Zechariah and Ezekiel as a place associated with the Father’s triumphant return to Jerusalem to save his people.

The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. (Ezekiel 11:23; part of the famous vision of the ‘wheel within a wheel’, in which the presence of God leaves the temple in Jerusalem and comes to dwell with the exiles in Babylon, stopping at the Mount of Olives on the way.)

Then the Lord will go forth and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east. . . And the Lord shall become king over all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and his name one. . . And there shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord on that day. (Zechariah 14:3-9, 21) (Notice the echo of the prophecy from Jeremiah about making the temple a “den of thieves” quoted by Jesus when he exorcised the moneychangers.)

Jesus may have been praying on the Mount of Olives because that’s the last place God visited in Israel before leaving the temple, and because Mount Olivet was the place to which he had promised to return in a triumphal manifestation of power against Israel’s enemies. Perhaps Jesus also believed, as the Essenes did, that God had never actually returned to the temple since the Exile, because the temple had never been properly cleansed. That only now was God to finally return to his people.

Except . . .  the Father didn’t return that night. Thus Jesus was left bereft? Was this why he was so cross with James and John and Peter for “falling asleep” in their prayer for “thy kingdom come”, after they had tested so true at the Transfiguration? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he would cry from the cross.

The Politics of Passion Week—The Politics of Resurrection

March 27, 2016 § 2 Comments


The most radical thing about the scene at the empty tomb and the two resurrection appearances that took place there (in Matthew and John) is that the first witnesses of the resurrection were women. This in a society in which women could not appear in court as witnesses. As you might then expect, the men in the story don’t believe their testimony.

For a most thorough and enlightening discussion of women’s place among the earliest followers of Jesus, I highly recommend Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins.

In regard to gender relations, Jesus seems to have gone quite far in placing the last first. Over and over again, it is women who seem to really know who Jesus is, while the male disciples are consistently obtuse. One thinks of Martha’s anointing in John 12, the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her hair in Luke 7, and the little group who traveled with him and the twelve in the very early days, who provided them all with financial support (Luke 8:1-4).

In many cases, these women were doubly marginalized by some other condition, either poverty or spirit possession. Luke says these female ‘angel investors’ were “women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases.” See Stevan L. Davies’s Jesus the Healer for a fascinating discussion, building on the work of Franz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), of spirit possession as a strategy of survival for women in abusive family situations and how Jesus may have rescued Mary Magdalene and the others from such relationships and thus “cured’ them of spirit possession.

The other significant political aspect of the crucifixion and resurrection is the collapse of whatever overtly political expectations Jesus may have had for the kingdom of God. We tend to take the subsequent spiritualization of the kingdom of God for granted, but it’s not clear that Jesus had no overtly political ambitions at all. The evangelists are at pains to put a spiritualizing spin on Jesus’ claims for the kingdom during the trial and elsewhere. This is especially true for Luke and John. But the gospels were written a generation after Jesus death, after a disastrous war with Rome, and under active if sporadic imperial persecution and local pogroms. In the second half of the first century, if you were put on trial yourself, you were simply conforming to reality if you claimed that you only sought a spiritual kingdom.

But if Jesus was not concerned with the actual overthrow of Roman rule and the replacement of the empire’s puppets in Jerusalem, and with making the first last and the last first, what was the little apocalyptic sermon in Mark 13 and the other gospels all about? Why stage these provocative demonstrations at the city gate and inside the temple precincts? Why prophecy the utter destruction of the temple? Why buy two swords?

I believe it all hinges on what Jesus was praying for in Gethsemane. When we read “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me”, we tend to think Jesus saw the torture and death that awaited him and felt fear; but what if the Father had answered with a ‘yes’? Jesus isn’t tortured and crucified. But what happens instead? What was Jesus really praying for?

We’ll return to this question in some afterthoughts later this week. The fact is that the answer was no. And with Jesus’ death, his hopes for some other outcome died, as well. Whatever political dimension that outcome might have had foundered and the disciples were left to figure out: what now? That took them awhile.

They did not even recognize right away that the dream they had been pursuing and the figure who had led them were still alive. Several of the first witnesses of the resurrection do not even recognize Jesus when they see him. People like Mary, who had been his intimate for years, look straight at him and do not recognize him. Two fellows travel on the road to Emmaus for hours discussing the fateful events that have just taken place with the very man himself and don’t recognize him until they sit down to eat. What’s with that? Another thing we’ll discuss in the afterthoughts.

The Politics of Passion Week—Torturing the Insurrectionist

March 26, 2016 § 3 Comments

Friday postscript—Am I leading a rebellion?

In doing some research for the Saturday post, I reread the arrest scene in my NIV translation, which has great research tools but whose translation I  do not like sometimes. In the NIV however, Jesus challenges the arresting party in all the gospels by saying, “Am I leading a rebellion?”, rather than “Am I a bandit?” I checked my Anchor Bible commentaries and only the one for Luke addresses the wording, saying that the word lestis can mean insuurectionist, the commentator’s word, and cites none other than Josephus, who was one of the leaders of the insurrection in 65, leading he fighting in Galilee, until he flipped and went over to the Romans.


Jesus is arguably the most famous person to be tortured to death as an insurrectionist by an occupying imperial army.

Crucifixion is execution by stress position. Though the victim was often nailed to the cross, as Jesus was, you did not normally die of these wounds, and the victim often was only hung on the cross with rope. You died gradually of asphyxiation from the position in which you hung, sometimes complicated by shock and dehydration, depending on how badly you had been treated while in custody.

Why did the Romans torture Jesus? Why did George W. Bush and Dick Cheney torture insurrectionists at Abu Ghraib and in the CIA’s secret ‘black sites’?

Because dehumanizing the enemy is the sine qua non for all warfare. Because of ideology, which inevitably claims that a little evil is justified in order to protect a greater good. Because of the naked rush of power that the powerful feel when exercising their power over others. Because terror teaches other enemies of the state a lesson, it “sends a message”. Because of breakdowns in morality, reason, character, and political-judicial justice. But also because empires torture dissidents to get information.

“Hail, King of the Jews,” mocked the soldiers as they stripped Jesus, crowned him with thorns and beat him with a staff (the symbol of royal military authority in ancient Israel—“thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me”)—no doubt a reference to his triumphal coronation procession a week earlier. “He saved others but he can’t save himself!” Go ahead, save yourself. TELL US WHO YOUR FRIENDS ARE. Especially that fellow with the sword.

George W. Bush believes, presumably, that the torture of Jesus was necessary to save his (George’s) immortal soul. George W. Bush believes, apparently, that torturing insurrectionists in Iraq was necessary to save American lives. For George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Jack Bauer, and many Americans, torture has legitimate salvific power. Never mind that the torturer assumes the place of the Romans who murdered their God.

Meanwhile, while the torturers are playing with Jesus, the fellow with the sword is skulking around in their very midst. Peter, wanted by the police for insurrection, assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder, and associating with a known terrorist, has infiltrated the police compound and hides under their very noses. Thrice, people think they recognize him, and yet he does not run away. Instead he denies their accusations and stays.

Why? What is he doing there? The only answer that makes any sense is that he’s looking for a way to spring his leader from jail, to save him from a terrible death. Does that not sound like the Peter who launched himself into the water without thinking? Is that not about the bravest thing you can imagine him doing? Is it not a miracle that he escaped alive?

A generation later, when confession of faith and martyrdom were becoming idealized and even fetishized, Peter looks like a coward. But in the moment, he was a hero with extraordinary courage, resourcefulness, and loyalty.

He couldn’t save Jesus, but Jesus did save him. Jesus never cracked. He never told his torturers who his confederates were. He took the rap for them all. Greater love hath no one than that he give up his life for his friends.

His followers did, apparently, try one mass demonstration aimed at getting Jesus released. At least that’s how I read the weird and impossible account of Pilate and Barabbas (informed again by the work of Hyam Maccoby). First, the Pilate of Christian Scripture is a wimp, a pathetic if not quite sympathetic character. But the real Pontius Pilate was so vicious and oppressive that the emperor had him removed from office! And we have no record of any tradition of releasing prisoners (especially one like Barabbas, convicted also, of insurrection) on Passover (a holiday dedicated to revolution against empire), a practice that is unthinkable as official Roman imperial policy. So a crowd may have demanded that the authorities release Barabbas, but we can be pretty sure it never happened.

But who was Barabbas? Let’s look at his name. His name is not Barabbas, it is bar Abbas. In Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue and the universal Semitic language of the time, bar Abbas means son of the Father, a strange redundancy. Father—as in “Our Abbas who art in heaven.”

“Son of the Father” is redundant and meaningless on its own. But it is the obvious appellation for the man whose Father said at his baptism, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.” For the man who taught the Lord’s Prayer.

And it is perfectly reasonable to think that a crowd might gather to demand Jesus’ release, calling out the epithet by which he had become known: “Give us bar Abbas!” Well, it didn’t work. They crucify insurrectionists, don’t they.

The Politics of Passion Week—The Arrest: Am I a Bandit?

March 25, 2016 § 1 Comment


For years in Galilee, Jesus has been building a movement on the margins of the Judean temple state. Now he’s come to the center of religious, economic and political life for his people. For days in Jerusalem, he has been openly confronting the Powers that be, not just preaching and teaching the kingdom of God, but inaugurating and demonstrating it with bold actions and in-their-face argument. He has

  • conducted an inaugural procession into Jerusalem, declaring a new government under God;
  • cast out the money changers from the temple and stolen their money, an act of exorcism;
  • cursed the fig tree (representing these corrupt Powers), a declaration dissolving the current government;
  • argued that his authority comes from the same source as the popular prophet John the Baptizer, that the Roman tax is illegitimate, and reasserted God’s comprehensive claim over his people with the commandment of love;
  • denounced the Powers with parables and formal curses (Matthew’s seven woes);
  • prophesied the temple’s utter destruction; and
  • prophesied the final in-breaking of God’s reign accompanied by apocalyptic convulsions.

The authorities are not happy. For days, they have been trying to discredit him in public and, at every turn, Jesus has turned their arguments against them. For days, they have been plotting to lay hands on him, but he is too visible and popular to seize openly. For days they have been hunting for his secret nighttime hideout, without success. Now, at last, they have an informant. I would burst the already constrictive bounds of this blog to get into who Judas was and why he did what he did. Another time. Meanwhile, I cannot recommend more highly a book (all the books, really) by Hyam Maccoby: Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil.

So also, the meaning of the agony in Gethsemane lies outside the scope of this series, which I’m trying to keep focused on politics. However, I believe Jesus’ despair in the garden is political to its core and that it was no accident that brought the secret police to his hiding place on this night of all nights. Something was supposed to happen that night, and it didn’t. But I’m going to defer discussion of what that was until another time.

For now, the arrest. Besides Judas, the arresting party includes representatives from three political interest groups: the chief priests, who wielded political power as heads of state; the teachers of the law, their lawyers; and the elders, the judicial establishment.

“Am I leading a rebellion, that you come out with swords and clubs to capture me?” demands Jesus. And the answer, obviously, is yes. At least, the authorities think so. And how could they not, after the list of provocations that I’ve just cited? Jesus’ party is armed, for God’s sake, and one of them actually assaults an officer.

The charges against him, posted on his cross at his execution, read “The King of the Jews”, sarcastically indicting him for insurrection. So, also, they would taunt him when they crown him with a circlet of thorns. And they will crucify him with two other “bandits”, meaning (many scholars believe), insurrectionists. Or perhaps members of the kind of roving gangs comprised of disenfranchised peasants that continually plagued the roads of Palestine in Jesus’ day—which pretty much describes Jesus and his disciples. The kind of people that break into the temple’s currency exchange and make off with the treasury. The kind of people who will start a war against the Roman occupation a generation later.

Jesus was arrested, tried and executed as an insurrectionist, a threat to the stability of Rome’s puppet government in Judea. His execution was a judicial assassination of a political threat to the state.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the imperial torture of insurrectionists, we’ll rehabilitate Peter the denier, and we’ll take a close look at Barabbas.

The Politics of Passion Week—The Last Supper

March 24, 2016 § 1 Comment


Jesus’ instructions for preparing the Passover meal read like a spy novel: follow a man carrying water; he will take you to our secret safehouse. Give the homeowner a password and he will show you to an upper room. Besides the secrecy, five other elements of the Last Supper story indicate the revolutionary character of this gathering:

  • Jesus inaugurates a new covenant with the messianic banquet/common meal as the celebration of God’s newly established reign.
  • Jesus demonstrates for whom he has established his new ‘interim government’ in the way the meal is shared: this is, of course, for the poor.
  • Jesus reclaims the cultic authority of the temple and its officiating priests, instituting his own replacement—the Eucharist—for the central daily offerings to God in the temple.
  • Jesus takes a Nazirite vow, dedicating himself to wholehearted service as a consecrated ‘warrior’ to God’s deliverance of God’s people.
  • Jesus purchases weapons—why?

New covenant. As celebretory signs of the new covenant, Jesus uses bread and wine, which do not have such a central role in the Passover meal. I agree with Bruce Chilton that the bread and wine are meant to replace the show-bread and wine libation placed daily on the altar in the temple as the symbol/reality of Yahweh’s continuing presence among his (sic) people, his “supping with them”. With the words of the Eucharist, Jesus declares the government of the temple-state and its cultic foundation no longer constitutional and declares his own community the provisional government of Israel—provisional until God comes Godself to rule in the land.

Solidarity with the poor. Jesus’ treatment of the wine and the bread express the revolutionary character of his provisional government, also. Of the bread, the evangelists say, “While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it, he broke it and gave it to them and said . . .” In the ancient Near East, everyone at the table was provided his (sic) own loaf of bread. The host served the meal in serving dishes set in the middle of the table and individual diners broke pieces of their loaf off and used them as ‘tools’ with which to pick pieces of food from the common bowl. There were no forks, so bread was used to prevent touching the common food with your hands. (See Luke 11:5-6)

When Jesus breaks a single loaf and distributes the pieces to all the diners, he is doing two radical things at once. First, and most audacious, there is one loaf because only one loaf is placed on Yahweh’s altar in the temple—Jesus is distributing God’s own personal loaf of bread. The act symbolizes that God dines with them; this is the messianic banquet that Jesus described in his parable of the great banquet (Mt 22:2-14).

At the same time, using only one loaf expresses radical solidarity with the poor, with people who are too poor to provide a loaf for every person at the table. It also demonstrates how Jesus’ interim government in God solves the problem of poverty—by sharing, and by trusting in God to provide. We’ve already seen this sharing demonstrated several times, in the feeding of the 5,o00 and of the 4,000 and elsewhere.

The eucharist. The first covenant was sealed—and thereafter renewed—by pouring sacrificed oxen blood upon the altar by the priests. Jesus seals his new covenant, not with oxen blood, not with a cultic act at the altar, but with wine and a ‘cultic’ act at the table. He is saying, “That is their blood of the covenant, which they sprinkle on their altar; this is my blood of the covenant, which we share together as the cup of God’s fullness at God’s table.

This is not the traditional interpretation of the eucharist, of course—that Jesus really meant his own blood. But it is unthinkable that Jesus meant the wine to represent somehow his own blood. The law strictly forbad eating blood, even for Gentiles living among Jews (Lev 17:10-12). This prohibition is one of the few instructions from the law that the Council of Jerusalem chose to apply to Paul’s Gentile converts as part of its accommodation of his Gentile mission (Acts 15:19-20).

Equally unthinkable to Jesus and his first Jewish followers would have been the idea that Jesus himself would have served as either a human sacrifice or a divine sacrifice whose blood could atone for Israel. Yahweh had categorically rejected human sacrifice almost two thousand years earlier when God released Abraham from the necessity of sacrificing his son Isaac, sacrificing a child being a common cultic act in the ancient world when founding a nation (witness Agamemnon and Iphegenia for Hellenic Greece, Romulus and Remus for Rome, Cain and Abel for the Kenites). Likewise, the sacrifice of a god, on the model of Dionysus or Mithra in their respective mystery cults, and the associated salvific function of their blood, was so foreign to Jesus’ religion that Hebrew scriptures never even mention such a thing so as to condemn it. Drinking a dying god’s blood was the most extreme form of idolatrous paganism.

Instead, Jesus sealed the new covenant with a messianic banquet, at which God and the New Israel supped together in a celebration that anticipated the immanent arrival, judgment, and salvation of God Godself, as Israel’s true sovereign father.

The Nazirite vow. That Jesus expected the direct rule of God very soon is indicated by his Nazirite vow just after inaugurating the covenant: “For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18). With this vow, Jesus dedicated himself to the climactic final work of his ministry.

The Nazirite vow was a warrior vow (see Numbers 6:1-8 for the instructions concerning Nazirite vows). Not exclusively a warrior vow, though; the example of Samuel, the Nazirite prophet, seems to fit Jesus’ case more aptly than the example of Samson, the Bible’s most famous Nazirite warrior.

Jesus the Nazorean is the literal reading of the passages that usually are translated as Jesus of Nazareth. But the construction is not correct for that reading, or for that matter, for Nazirite. It’s either a mistake or a new construction for which we don’t know the details. But Nazirite fits as well as Nazareth, especially since we know for sure that Jesus took one form of the Nazirite vow.

For Luke, the correspondences between Jesus and both Samuel and Samson were strong enough to help shape his birth narrative. They have in common:

  • annunciation of the birth to the mother by an angel,
  • a miraculous dimension to the birth itself,
  • resistance or lack of understanding on the part of the father,
  • dedication of the infant to God,
  • a hymn sung by the mother of the child,
  • anointing of the man by God’s holy spirit, and
  • a career of service to God for the salvation of his people.

In particular, the Magnificat resembles the canticle of Hannah, Samuel’s mother. In both poems, Yahweh reverses the fortunes of the people according to his (sic) justice: “he has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:52-53)

Jesus vows only to “never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God. (Mark 14:25)” He does not mention the prohibitions against cutting the hair or contact with corpses or sex, the rest of the Nazirite proscriptions. So perhaps he means something else here. Yet he has certainly assumed the stance of the warrior. He has focused his mission over the past several days quite intensely on revolution, on fulfilling the Magnificat’s promise of liberation. He clearly expects a climax, and soon; nor does he seem to expect the denouement to take very long. And finally, he orders—or at least sanctions—the disciples to acquire weapons. This is, perhaps, the most incongruous action in all of Jesus’ career.

The swords. This passage implies something deeper and more disturbing, actually, than the obvious possibility that the disciples were preparing for a fight. Jesus seems to be abandoning his Jubilee commitment to radical dependence on God. He reverses the commandment he had given earlier to “take nothing for your journey, no staff (defense), nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. (Luke 9:3)” He seems to be saying, things have changed; it’s time we took matters into our own hands. And also that the moment of fulfillment is so close that you will not even need the shelter of your cloak tonight; you will need a sword more.

He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’ (Isaiah 53:12); and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”

Luke 22:35-38

As rationale, Jesus quotes Isaiah 53, one of the Servant Songs, a poem that prefigures in many of its details the hours that will follow: the arrest, Jesus’ taunting and death and burial. The “lawless” here (Hebrew, pasha) means to break away from just authority; to rebel or revolt; it could mean ‘bandit’ or ‘insurrectionist’. “Bandits” were, in Jesus’ time, roving bands of the poor and dispossessed, and/or tax resisters, along the lines of Robin Hood, though not so romanticized.

With the line that Jesus quotes, he implies that bringing the sword will ensure that he will be “numbered among the transgressors,” and this will ensure that he dies. Immediately upon his arrest, he says as much, clarifying what he means by transgressors: “Have you come with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit/insurrectionist?” Yes is the answer; they do “number” him a bandit/insurrectionist, and the sword Peter uses against the high priest’s servant proves it. They “number” him among the transgressors when they crucify him among bandits, too. The authorities consider Jesus the leader of a bandit gang. At the arrest, Jesus ensures that only he is taken into custody, that he takes the rap for his followers, “the many”.

We’ll look at the Son of Man as bandit in more detail tomorrow when we discuss the arrest. In the meantime, we are left to ponder the mystery of the swords.

The Politics of Passion Week—Love: The Greatest Commandment

March 23, 2016 § 1 Comment


In the second gospel’s account of Passion Week, Mark follows the argument over taxes with an argument ostensibly about the rules of levirate marriage, a law in which a brother is obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow, if there were no offspring, in order to continue his name (that is in order to keep his property within the family). And then comes the question of what is the greatest commandment? In answer to the question, Jesus naturally quotes the law:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul [and with all your mind] and with all your strength. [And] love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:30-31; see Deut 6:4-5 and Lev 19:18)

For us, love is an emotion of the heart, which we usually think of as arising spontaneously as a more or less instinctual response to something. Not so for Jesus and his listeners. For him and all followers of Torah in his time, love was a legal obligation, not just a spiritual ‘commandment’; love was a legal term, not just an emotional one.

Love is the willing, yea, even joyous, commitment to the terms of the covenant with God. The commandment of love summarizes the essential obligations of the covenant.

Thus Mark, in his version of the story, rightly quotes the Shema, the essential confession of Jewish faith, directly from Deuteronomy, as introduction: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

In this context, the three articles of the law of love define comprehensively three areas of human life and activity that are covered in the legal obligation of ‘love’. But to understand what’s involved you have to understand ancient semitic anthropology and let go of the anthropology we western Christians have inherited from the Greeks.

The heart. For ancient Semites, the ‘heart’ was not the seat of the emotions, as it is for us; it was the seat of the will, and of wisdom—that is, of the willingness and capacity to study and especially, to follow, Torah: the commitment to know and follow the law, the intention to obey God. This is why Mark adds “and your mind” in his version of the story—he realizes that his Greek readers will misunderstand the term “with all your heart” to mean just the emotions.

The soul. For Jesus and his listeners, the ‘soul’ was not some eternal spiritual identity that inhabited the body as something that is ‘poured’ into it as a vessel, as the Greeks believed; for them, the ‘soul’ meant the whole living person. There was no soul separate from the body, and the word “soul” encompassed all that was involved with real life in the world as a living entity.

Strength. For Jesus and his listeners, ‘strength’ meant all of your material resources and, specifically, your money and other forms of wealth. Originally, it meant willingness to answer the call to holy war against Israel’s enemies when one of the tribes or a prophet called for a muster. Hence the usage of “strength”.

So the love commandment meant: you shall be faithful to the terms of my covenant by dedicating yourself to knowing and following my instructions (that is, Torah); and you shall dedicate to me your very personhood, including all your possessions. That is: you owe me everything. And furthermore, says Jesus: you shall treat your fellow covenanters (neighbors) under the law just as you want to be treated yourselves.

This decisively answers the question posed in Mark a few verses earlier of what we should render to Caesar and what to God: God gets everything, Caesar gets nothing. And, for Jesus, the ‘srength’ clause in the legislation, coupled with loving your neighbor as yourself, provided the legal foundation for his economics of redemption: forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors and the rest of the platform for the common-wealth of God, in which the community takes care of its poor, as in Acts chapters two and four. This is the very heart of the gospel of Jesus—good news for the poor (Luke 4:18).

And though Jesus here invokes the law (rather than throwing it over, as Paul does later), he has spent his whole prophetic career redefining the law as he wants it applied in his own community.

The Politics of Passion Week—Render Unto God

March 22, 2016 § 1 Comment


For the next several days, Jesus plays cat and mouse with the temple-state authorities, arguing with them in the temple courts during the day and hiding from them in his secret hideout on the Mount of Olives at night. All of this—the hiding, the legal arguments, the parables and denouncements—have political and/or economic dimensions, and they are too many to cover in his little series of blog entries. But some stand out. I want to start with the famous saying, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.” This is usually quoted to mean exactly the opposite of what Jesus intended.

Having failed to entrap Jesus in blasphemy, the rulers try tax evasion. In a classic Jesus jiu-jitsu move, he uses their own words and motives to trap and condemn them instead.

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them; or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to others, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

Mark 12:13-17

What a subtle story of shrewd maneuvering is the account of the fencing match over taxes to Rome! And how incendiary is the issue. For both religious and political-economic reasons, tax resistance crouched just beneath the ground cover of Judean life, rising as open rebellion several times during Jesus’ own lifetime.

The fate of Jesus’ ministry hung on his answer to this question about taxes. Prevaricate before his challengers and he loses credibility with his followers, who know that fulfillment of the Jubilee and the coming of the kingdom he has promised requires the end of oppressive Roman taxation. To deny Caesar’s authority to tax means certain arrest.

At issue is the Roman poll tax, a head tax that requires a census of the population, the very sort of tax census that Luke claims put Mary and Joseph on the road to Bethlehem. That census actually took place in 6 CE, some years after Jesus was born, and it led to a tax rebellion that the Romans crushed with brutal force.

Why did Jesus’ people revolt? Because God’s law expressly forbade a tax census, whose primary purpose was always the support of a state bureaucracy and, especially, of a standing army. The legislation against a tax census was written into the constitution federating the twelve tribes of Israel long before Saul and David established the monarchy, and even David did not dare hold a census or organize a standing army. For, as the Song of the Sea put it, “Yahweh is a warrior” (Exodus 15:5)—to God alone is Israel to look for her defense against her enemies, not to her own military resources. In other words, the Roman poll tax usurped Yahweh’s sovereignty as the true king of Israel and violated his covenant with his people.

Beginning with Solomon, however, the kings of Israel and Judah ignored this law. But the theology behind the law—that God alone is sovereign over his people—remained a central theme throughout the Bible. It inspired many rebellions against usurpers, both domestic and foreign, not least or last Jesus’ own movement. Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians will declare who he believes is the rightful sovereign of Judea—God or Caesar.

Jesus’ enemies open the match with a feint to pull him off balance. They invoke his famous integrity, his equal treatment of all people regardless of station, and his forthrightness of speech. His riposte: he asks for a Roman coin—and they produce one.

These Pharisees—these hypocrites who pride themselves on their strict observance of the law, and especially their rigorous adherence to the regulation against anything that would make them unclean—have on their persons objects that violate both the first and second commandments and which are unclean. (Though, in fairness, we may assume that the Herodians produced the coin. ‘Herodian’ was virtually synonymous with assimilationist, meaning someone of the party supporting the line of Herod and their consistent policy of directing Judea toward ‘modernism’, that is, toward cultural assimilation and full economic and political integration into the Roman empire. This included even abandoning circumcision. Their lax attitude toward the law and their physical and cultural associations with Gentiles made Herodians themselves unclean in Pharisaic eyes, however, so either way, these Pharisees are hypocrites.)

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourselves a graven image.

Exodus 15:2-4

But back to the coin. The Roman coin they’ve pulled from their purse and have brought into the temple precincts has, on one side, an inscription that reads, “Caesar, son of god”, and on the other side, it bears the image of Caesar-god. Jesus has entrapped them in their own question, unmasked them as hypocrites on their own terms, and indicted them for breach of Yahweh’s covenant on two counts, the first being the primary commandment of worshipping only one god.

He rubs it in, asking, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” Then he delivers the coup de gras with one of the most familiar and misinterpreted sentences in the Bible: “Render therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

This clever answer deftly sidesteps the trap they have laid for him and yet directly drives home his answer by quoting the very Torah which the Pharisees claim from one side of their mouths and reinterpret from the other. The thrust of his argument lies in the answer to the question: what debt do you owe to God?

‘Render’ means in Greek to repay a debt, pay whom you owe. Mark and Luke have set up the story with an earlier story, the parable of the tenants, making it clear that the tenants (the rulers of the temple and of the people of Judea) owe the land-Lord (God), and that what they owe to God is the land itself and its fruits. God, not Caesar, owns the land and its fruits—the economic wealth of Judea—and to him (alone) are the rent dues owed.

Jesus has answered the question of what is rendered to God, decisively and comprehensively. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus specifically defines what we owe God under the law just twelve verses after this duel with the Pharisees, when a scribe asks him what is the greatest commandment (Mk 12:29-31). We’ll talk more about the commandment of love tomorrow.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.

Deuteronomy 6:4

Hear, O Israel: There is only one God, Jesus reminds them, and we owe everything we have to him: our love, our commitment, our minds, our soul, our material possessions, our very lives.

What is left for Caesar after loving God, that is, giving to God all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, as repayment of the debt we owe the Lord? Nothing is left. Therefore, we render nothing to Caesar, because we have given all to God, and nothing remains. Especially not taxes, since we know that “with all your strength” meant explicitly, with all your material wealth.

Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and Herodians means: how can we pay the Romans their poll tax, to support the very army that holds us down, when the legal mechanism for executing the tax is against God’s law, when the act itself usurps God’s sovereignty, and when we have already given all we have to the poor, whom Caesar (and yourselves, you hypocrites, he adds) have helped to impoverish? Furthermore, we owe God because God set us free from Pharaoh and our oppressors, gave us this land as an inheritance, and created us as a people. Are we now to owe Caesar for enslaving us, seizing our land, and trying to destroy our identity as a people?

No—it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. This is Jesus’ answer. But he has answered in such a way as to shame his challengers and avoid prosecution. “And they were utterly amazed,” say the evangelists. Utterly ‘consternated’ would be a better translation.

The Politics of Passion Week—Casting out the Moneychangers

March 21, 2016 § 3 Comments


Jesus raids the temple treasury

Directly from the royal processional to the city gates, Jesus and his exultant followers go to the temple gates and one of the most extraordinary events in Jesus’ ministry begins: he raids the temple treasury. Picture the scene:

A crowd arrives at the gate of the Temple with their leader at the head. They are singing, “This is the gate that belongs to Yahweh; let the righteous/triumphant enter through it” (Ps 118:20). The demonstrators stream into the Temple court behind Jesus, who advances to the tables of the moneychangers. Quoting the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, he grabs the planks and heaves them over.

In a clatter of wings, the doves ascend into heaven from their shattered cages. The four-legged animals get jittery, bleating and lowing nervously and pressing against their pens in increasing panic. Accounting records fall beneath the tables and underfoot, splintering clay tablets, smearing ink, tearing parchment and vellum. Coins splash onto the pavement and roll away. Servants trying to escape with the vessels full of money are intercepted.

Over the shouting and laughing and hymn singing, Jesus harangues the merchants, quoting Isaiah and Jeremiah in their faces and literally herding them toward the gates of the court with a cattle whip.

…for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Isaiah 53:7

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever. Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, “We are safe!”—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.

Jeremiah 7:5-11

While Jesus is pronouncing his oracle of judgment against the thieving oppressors of the alien, the orphan and the widow, and dismantling the infrastructure of their oppression—what are his followers doing? When the gospel is for the poor, and the Jubilee relieves debt, and the kingship of God replaces the mastership of Mammon, of wealth gained through thievery, force and privilege—certainly, the crowds are swooping on the rolling coins with a whoop and stuffing them into their pockets. Certainly, the vessels Jesus intercepts are full of money, or they soon are filled with money. Surely, the accounting records are deliberately trampled, just as tax and debt records were and will be destroyed by other peasant uprisings in Israel’s history. Perhaps the twelve watch for the inevitable police intervention, maybe stacking tables in front of the doors, or helping to keep the money-gathering operation a systematic pillage on behalf of the poor and watching that no one pockets a personal take.

Matthew and Mark tell us that, after inciting a riot, Jesus remained in the Temple precincts, teaching the people while the Temple authorities plotted ways to kill him. Hard to imagine, unless the crowd was large and totally on his side. This is easy to imagine. Furthermore, the passage Jesus had quoted from Jeremiah against the rulers explicitly condemned violence against innocents in the temple and many there could personally remember when just this atrocity had occurred during a tax rebellion under Quirinius in 6 CE.

An exorcism

So Jesus stole from the rich and the emperor and gave to the poor. While Jesus’ actions and the Bible passages he uses to support his demonstration emphasize the political and, especially, the economic thrust of the action, Jesus also clearly intends to ‘cleanse’ the temple of its idolatrous and polluting elements; or, to put it more accurately, the two are the same thing: theft from the poor is idolatry, for Jesus, as it was for Jeremiah and other prophets before him.

To reinforce this meaning of ‘cleansing’, the evangelists use the language of exorcism to tell the story. Jesus “drives out” the moneychangers, the same word (ekballein) and the same action as “casting out” unclean spirits. As an exorcism, the cleansing of the temple stands as a hallmark case of our enriched definition of possession as assimilation to Greco-Roman culture and its greed and lust for power (Mt 20:25-28). And “casting out” meant rejecting the way of the world and taking care of each other; it often meant being cast out of temple, synagogue or even one’s own home.

Jesus made the economic dimension of exorcism and the exorcistic dimension of radical economic reconstruction explicit with the story of binding the strong man. As Ched Meyers has pointed out in Binding the Strong Man, this parable and the action in the court against the moneychangers share key elements. The evangelists use the same word for the “vessels” of the temple as for the “household goods” of the parable. In the story of the cleansing, these vessels were the coffers used to cart the money into the temple. The “house” of the strong man in the parable is the House of the Lord of Isaiah 56:7.

Jesus told the story of the strong man to legitimize his authority to cast out demons. Jesus casts out spirits by the Holy Spirit as the legitimate head of the true, undivided house of God. The temple, as the illegitimate House of the Lord, is divided—against the poor, especially—and therefore cannot stand.

The cleansing episode describes an act of political-economic liberation. The temple is released from the demonic possession of usurious oppressors—and the money of the oppressors is released to the oppressed from whom they’ve stolen it. The den of thieves has been liberated—by a crowd of counter-thieves. Jesus here acts as a 1st century Robin Hood in the quintessential pattern of the peasant uprising, motivated as was so often the case with such uprisings in ancient Judea, by religion.

But, as with so many of Jesus’ actions and parables, the ‘cleansing of the temple’ expresses a paradox; they turn his religious-political tradition on its head. For if the house of the strong man is the temple and Jesus is the binder, then the Son of Man is the thief. In order to bind up the brokenhearted and release from darkness those who are bound (Lk 4:18), the anointed one must bind the strong man (the rulers of the temple-state) and cast out the thieves who oppress the poor.

Meanwhile, of course, these money-changers must certainly have run to the rulers of the temple, and the Roman guards on watch from the bastions of the Tower of Antonia must have seen the riot below and mobilized a unit for crowd control.

Matthew implies that Jesus stayed long enough to heal the blind and the lame and to dispute with the chief priests and teachers of the law about the crowd’s (the children’s) acclaims of Hosanna to the Son of David. Yet, with the riot police storming down fortress Antonia’s steps, he could hardly have lingered long. Did he ‘heal’ the ‘lame’ and the ‘blind’ with a lightning strike of direct action, with the Jubilee release-liberation of stolen money? Or did the demonstration convert the spiritually blind and lame, so that they confessed the coming of the kingdom in their lives, given that ‘children’ was both a metaphor and a technical term for new converts to the Way? Or both?

Or perhaps the teeming crowds made it possible for Jesus to slip away into the outer courts in the temple complex, to continue teaching and building the reign of God, despite the dangers. All the accounts agree that he left the city at dusk and returned to his base in Bethany, literally, beth-ani, the House of the Poor.

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