Christianity Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for committed Christians, experts in Christianity and those interested in learning more. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

From a non-Christian and purely historical perspective, is there clear evidence on whether the historical Jesus was a political revolutionary? A violent political revolutionary?

For example, this review of a book by Reza Aslan complains:

[...] why credit and emphasize violent passages in the Gospels while discrediting and deemphasizing peaceful ones? Why believe that Jesus really told his disciples, “If you do not have a sword, go sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36)? Why the skepticism when it comes to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44)?

And what about the obvious problems with the argument that Jesus was not just a political revolutionary — as biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan and others have argued — but a violent one?

If one simply takes the gospels at face value, then:

  • There is overwhelming emphasis on his teaching of nonviolence and forgiveness.

  • He's clearly talking about the end of the world, not a secular revolution.

  • His crucifixion was not the failure of a revolution but the success of a preordained plan that he predicted in advance to his followers.

But what if, as Aslan does, one dismisses nearly all of the content of the gospels as a description of historical fact, and relies only on criteria that would be considered more reliable by non-Christians, such as non-Christian records, the criterion of embarrassment, etc.?

share|improve this question

closed as off-topic by David Jul 15 '14 at 4:08

  • This question does not appear to be about Christianity within the scope defined in the help center.
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

But non-Christian historians do consider the Gospels to be broadly reliable! – curiousdannii Jul 10 '14 at 22:12
If you didn't receive a welcome yet, here it is: Welcome to the site. We are glad you decided to participate. For your question asking reference in the future please see question types that the community finds acceptable. There's nothing wrong with this question. It's good. – fredsbend Jul 10 '14 at 23:44
Ben, i suggest looking up (the late) John Howard Yoder. several of his books: The Original Revolution, The Politics of Jesus, Nevertheless, What would you do? while there is the divine preference for the poor, Jesus' revolution far, far transcends these human political revolutions. folks like Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu (as well as Jim Wallis and perhaps Daniel and Phillip Berrigan) understand the the difference. – robert bristow-johnson Jul 12 '14 at 19:45
This was my first experience on christianity.SE, and it wasn't a positive one. I asked a historical question and got (1) an irrelevant ad hominem against Crossan from fredsbend; (2) incorrect information from david brainerd; (3) an attempt by gideon marx to impute devious ideological motives to me; (4) a complaint by FMShyanguya that I had asserted something (I hadn't) and that the burden of proof was therefore on me; (5) incomprehensible comments by ties asvWil. I won't be back. – Ben Crowell Jul 13 '14 at 1:16
@BenCrowell Sorry to put you off on the site. I didn't think you would take my comment as mean spirited. Aslan, whom you quote, seems to be critiquing Crossan's assessment of Jesus being a violent revolutionary. In a quick comment, I was hoping to convey that I agree with Aslan and that it is a good question too. I also noted it was a good question in the immediately following question as well. Two of those other users you mentioned are generally left avoided in my opinion, but I don't want to name names. – fredsbend Jul 14 '14 at 19:25

Prefacing with quotes from the article [which is critical of Mr. Aslan] referenced in the question:

Like every other scholar with the chutzpah to try to divide the historical Jesus accurately from the Christ of Christian faith, Aslan does a lot of cherry-picking. [...]

And what about the obvious problems with the argument that Jesus was not just a political revolutionary — as biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan and others have argued — but a violent one? What are we to make of Jesus’s apparent lack of interest in doing anything practical whatsoever to prepare for holy war? If he has come to fight for “a real kingdom, with an actual king,” where are his soldiers and their weapons? And why no battle plan?

In the end, “Zealot” offers readers not the historical Jesus but a Jesus for our place and time — an American Jesus for the 21st century, and more specifically for a post-Sept. 11 society struggling to make sense of Christianity’s ongoing rivalry with Islam.

Answering Mr. Aslan [through the question posed]: "This is our position/accusation, now support/prove it for us" is not how it is done.

In programs that appear on secular TV around the Christmas and Easter seasons, e.g. After Jesus | CNN, the narrative given for Jesus' crucifixion is that he was a rabble-rouser [exact wording - I had to look it up] and the local Roman officials had to deal with him, and in a way that issued a warning to others, or else the matter, unresolved, would landed them in hot water with Rome.

Similarly, St. John's account of Jesus' crucifixion is explained away as a 'Johnny-come-lately' [no pun intended] narrative that progressively pins Jesus' crucifixion on 'the Jews' [one wonders why a Jew would want to do that to fellow Jews].

My take was that this is one of the fallouts from Antisemitism.

These were the politico-religious sects/factions at the time of Jesus: the Pharisees, the Zealots, and the Herodians. There is no historical or scriptual basis that Jesus belonged to any of these.

A cursory look at Jesus' Apostles and Disciples might indicate an apparent indirect link to the Zealots via St. Simon the Apostle, surnamed Zelotes [cf. Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13], except the New Advent link from his name explains his name does not signify that he belonged to the party of Zealots, but that he had zeal for the Jewish law, which he practised before his call.

It is likely that Mr. Reza Aslan is jumping on the bandwagon of the current popular narrative [what people want to hear, aligned with the current political opinion, and what sells], and if not, he has the burden of proof to his assertions in the absence of historical and scriptural [the Gospels are also historical] evidence.

Was Jesus a political revolutionary? A violent one?

Another approach is to look at Jesus' 'Movement' after his Death and Resurrection. If he were, as the question asks, it is surprising that of his followers [14 out of 16 Apostles] all but one were martyred for him like lambs led to the slaughter. Their legacy a 2000-year [now the] oldest institution in the world; absent in it a violent political revolutionary idealogy.

share|improve this answer

This is a two-part question, and I'm going to take each part separately.

1. Was Jesus a political revolutionary?

To answer this question, it's important to understand what politics meant in the context of the nations living under the shadow of the Roman Empire.

After the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Roman Senate had declared him to be a God, and dedicated a temple to him. Octavian, as his adopted son, took the title Divi filius ("Son of God"). After Octavian's victory in the Battle of Actium, ending Rome's long civil war, Octavian was given the title Augustus ("Majestic" or "Venerable").

Augustus believed himself to be not just the divinely appointed leader of Rome, but the man who would bring peace (through military conquest) to the whole world. For his efforts, Augustus was lauded as the savior of the world.

So when the early Christians proclaimed Jesus the "savior of the world" and the "son of God", they were not just making theological statements in a political vacuum. These statements were also a direct challenge to Augustus' authority. Jesus' claim of having his own kingdom (even though "not of this world") would also have been understood as a challenge to Rome's authority over all kingdoms.

So, when Jesus was crucified (the canonical example of the criterion of embarrassment, and also attested in Tacitus), the signs listing the charge against him said he was the "King of the Jews" (see Matthew 27:37 | Mark 15;26 | Luke 23:38 | John 19:19). This clearly indicates that his crime (from Rome's perspective) was political.

2. Was Jesus a violent revolutionary?

There are statements in the gospels that, read in isolation, could be taken as support for violent revolution. For example, Matthew 10:34-39:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Or Luke 22:35-36:

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."

But in the larger context of the gospels, Jesus' movement is portrayed as a nonviolent one. He will bring about change, not through bloodshed like the Romans, but through changing people's hearts and minds. I won't go into all the details here, since you're looking primarily for secular documentation.

The main reason, from a secular/historical point of view, to believe Jesus was not a violent revolutionary, is to look again at his crucifixion. Although Jesus was crucified as a political threat, his followers were not. That's important, because Josephus records a number of crucifixions of political revolutionaries. Every time subjects took up arms against Rome, survivors of the battle were crucified. This could run into the hundreds or thousands.

Here's an example from Antiquities 17.10.

Upon this, Varus sent a part of his army into the country, to seek out those that had been the authors of the revolt; and when they were discovered, he punished some of them that were most guilty, and some he dismissed: now the number of those that were crucified on this account were two thousand.

If the Romans had believed Jesus' followers were a threat, or were likely to challenge Rome on their own, the disciples would have been rounded up and crucified with him. Since they weren't, the evidence suggests that Jesus was seen by Rome as a nonviolent political revolutionary.

share|improve this answer
Regarding your 1.: cf. Fr. Barron that's where I first heard of such a theory. Again it's the narrative that fits current politics/what people want to hear, i.e. Romans can be blamed, but don't go near the Jews. – user13992 Jul 14 '14 at 20:52

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.