Saturday, May 5, 2012

Was Jesus a Militant Leader?

When you dig into the secular writing about Jesus of Nazareth, or even the Scriptures for that matter, you notice information that appears to contradict what we have been taught about the peaceful nature of the man. Some quotes suggest that he may have been a militant revolutionary in addition to a charismatic spiritual leader. The subject of this article is to look at the history and the quotes from our sources, to see what we may uncover.

Religion is one of the most difficult topics for a historian because it treads on human sensitivity.  There are 2 billion Christians in the world who have accepted the accuracy of the story of Jesus, as portrayed in the gospels. I do not question those beliefs, but at the same time, I want to look for the truth which results from an analytical approach to the information extant on the subject.

The subject matter in this instance is made more difficult because there are heavy political agendas at work – understandable at the beginning but now dogma after two millennia. The early Christians sought to give meaning to the events that overwhelmed them when their leader was crucified so their writings reflected the ardor they felt. Later, the fully formed Catholic Church attacked the Jewish people because it wanted to separate itself as a new religion and show favoritism to the Romans who had just gone to war against the Jews. The Jews, themselves, tried to distance themselves from the early Christians who they saw as seriously deviant from the law of the Torah.

And now we begin with the “cleansing of the temple”

Matt 21:12. “And Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you make it a den of robbers."

John 2:14. “In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house will consume me.”

What really happened here? Was there violence? It appears so.

The above drawing shows the temple layout. The holy sanctuary is in the center, and on either side are open areas referred to as the Court of the Gentiles. It was here that tables were set up by merchants to sell sacrificial animals. In other words they were providing a necessary function for those wishing to sacrifice in the temple.

The temple had a significant security force. A cohort of Roman soldiers was stationed at the Antonia Fortress and there was also a Jewish “police” force protecting the holy site.

To quote from the Jewish encyclopedia – “The priests and Levites of the Second Temple were organized into groups, with proper officers or captains. Under the high priest the senior officer was more generally designated as his lieutenant. The officer named in the passages quoted in Acts 4:1 corresponds to the one given the same title by Josephus. He is the captain of the Levitical temple-guard, a body of police, referred to also in Luke 22:4. The officers that assisted in the arrest of Jesus cited in John 18:12, may have belonged to this company.”

The temple area was a busy place with perhaps 20,000 people there at one time.

The passages above describe the driving of merchants and money changers out of the temple. How many were driven out -- one, ten, one hundred? If Jesus wanted to create a memorable demonstration, it would have to have been large enough to include physical violence. The Temple police would not have allowed the commotion to escalate before getting involved. Perhaps Jesus had a large group with him (200?). They would have held off the security forces while the demonstration was underway, and then fought their way free.

The Temple episode is further tied to subsequent events, the next being Jesus’ betrayal by Judas. Judas led the authorities to Jesus and his followers and kissed him as a means of identification. They must have been in a secret location because the Pharisees would not have paid Judas money to find someone they could find themselves. He had to be giving away their location. Were they in hiding because of the violence at the temple?

When they Pharisees arrive at the garden, the following happens:

Mark 14:43 “And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign saying, “The one I shall kiss the man; seize him and lead him away under guard.” And when he came, he went up to him at once, and said “Master!” And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him. But one of those who stood by drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?”

So Jesus’ associates were armed. It doesn’t say who wielded the sword so we don’t know if it was one of the eleven remaining disciples, but Jesus undoubtedly had more than eleven men with him, perhaps a body guard or a small militia. The “twelve” always stand as his closest followers, but there are several occasions in the Bible where a larger group is mentioned. In Luke, for example, Jesus sends out seventy to preach. Also why did the accusers feel they needed to be armed in going to apprehend Jesus? Seems like they expected resistance.

Note the following Gospel passages that reference the use of swords and their purpose.

Matt 10:34. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”

Luke 22:36. Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one. For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end. And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.

Where Jesus followers always armed? Obviously we don’t know, but again, there is this subtle thread of militancy.

Now Jesus is arrested and we segue to the trial. There has been much debate about this. One thing for certain is that crucifixion is punishment for sedition against Rome and stoning is the Jewish punishment for crimes against the religion, so Pilate must have been convinced of the reality of Jesus’ crimes against Rome in order to condemn him. We know so little about Pilate and have no primary source information about this episode, so it’s hard to guess what was in his mind. I doubt that he was the wimp portrayed in the Gospels – letting the Pharisees talk him into killing Jesus.

So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” But they can’t see to it themselves and at the same time use the Roman punishment. In the next sequence Roman guards take him to the Praetorium were he is scourged – totally under control of the Romans.

These three scenes from the Gospels give us a hint of militancy at work. But are we imagining something that isn’t there? It’s not unusual for historians to consider facts detrimental to the image of Jesus as true. Their reasoning -- no Gospel writer would knowingly hurt Jesus’ image unless the facts were accurate. The most famous case of this is the baptism by John. Explaining why a sinless man would need to be purified had been problematic for the apologists over the centuries.

In the cases cited above we have just a few threads to go on. Why were Jesus and his followers hiding, until their location was given away by Judas? Were the events in the Temple violent and seditious as seen through the eyes of the Procurator? Why did Pilate condemn Jesus to a Roman death? We just don’t have definitive answers.

I have no problem imaging Jesus as militant for his cause. The mission in Galilee was a failure and the people did not understand the urgency of his message. With time passing and the end getting closer he may have felt an increasing urgency to make the people realize what was coming. He was certainly militant in thought and speech regarding the poor and downtrodden. Why not militant by action also?


John Cawley said...

Suggesting that the historical Jesus was militant is a stretch. I don't disagree as a matter of faith, but because the argument is thin.

There had been some who believed that the Messiah would be a literal "kings of kings" and a military deliverer. But you have ignore the larger part of the man's gospels to ascribe militancy to his message. Observance of Mosaic law, forgiveness, compassion, care of the sick and poor, healing, redemption ...these are militant?

"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's" is not a call to arms.

Nor did the authorities of the day charge him with military insurrection when when they had him in custody and had every opportunity.

Given the microscopic scrutiny over centuries that every one of his recorded words has received, I don't agree with your suggestion of militancy.

Mike Anderson said...


I'm not taking a position on Jesus as a militant leader. That's why a question mark is in the title. I'm just presenting some biblical quotes and speculating on their meaning. said...

Was Jesus a Militant Leader?

Militant... Not really, but Revolutionary... Ohhh Yes!
First, the militant aspect is so slim that we could argue forever and remain in mere inconclusive speculations.
But about the revolutionary aspect of his message and life, Oh YES!

So when we look at Jesus's anger and violence toward the merchants doing business in the Temple, we see that it was triggered by a gigantic sentiment of indignation due to the Jewish Authorities factually denying access to the Temple for the Gentiles (Non-Jews). Yes, this area of the Temple dedicated and conceived to be in use by the non-jews, had become a noisy market, or rather a Bazaar, where nobody could seriously go to worship in peace, thus evacuating all non-Jews away from the premices, sending a clear message that they are not welcome there, unless they become Jewish first.
When Jesus justified his actions, he quoted the prophet Isaiah (as found in Mark 11:17) which says more explicitely:
"My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations" Isaiah 56:7
Because, even though he said that he was sent "to the lost sheep of Israel" (Matthew 10:5-6 & 15:24), he nevertheless always showed concern and compassion to non-Jews:
* The Samaritan woman at the well, from Sychar (John 4:1-39),
* The Cananite (Syro-Phoenician) woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon whose daughter was possessed by a demon (Matthew 15:21-28 & Mark 7:24-30)
* The Roman Centurion whose servant/slave was sick to death (Matthew 8:5-13 & Luke 7:2-10)
* The demonized Gadarene whose people were raising despicable swine (Matthew 8:28–34).

In the same way, the revolutionary nature of Jesus's teaching can also be seen in the practical way that it was applied by the early church in building a self-less community where "the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; no one said that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common (...) Nor was there anyone among them who lacked" (Acts 4:32-34)
There we see a form of communism based on the generosity of the people, from the heart, rather than on the forceful obligation from a dictatorial government. said...

Now, what about Jesus's episode of anger and violent sacking of the merchants and money changers from the temple, -- on the psychological level?
In psychology we learn that one main/basic trigger for anger, especially in cases of outbursts of anger for otherwise mild personnalities, is frustration, especially indignation caused by the denial of what one considers a rightful priviledge, or need.
For example, when we get angry at someone making fun of us, it's because we are denied the right to be treated with honor and respect.

Kathy A. Svitil, senior science writer at the California Institute of Technology and a contributing editor for the Discover Magazine, who has written on a variety of subjects relating to health and science, explains:
"Anger is as normal an emotion as sorrow or love or fear.
At its best, anger has a noble purpose: It is a warning sign
-a red flashing light- signaling to us that something is wrong, and the situation needs to be addressed. Anger can motivate us to make a change in our personal life (...) or to fix an injustice."
- Psychology Today: Calming the Anger Storm, by Kathy A. Svitil (Alpha Books/Penguin Group, 2006)

In other words, Jesus took the offense personally, as the Son of God that he claimed to be, that this area designed and consecrated for the worship of non-Jews was obstructed in a way to deny Gentiles of their right to worship.

We observe the same attitude in him as we read the passages in the gospels where Jesus rebukes and scolds the hypocritical religious leaders of his time, namely, the scribes and pharisees, to whom he said: "You hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to." (Matthew 23:12-14)
By systematic obstruction, these people were denying to people the right to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven - the very kingdom that Jesus had the mission to herald and usher people into. said...

Correction of my incomplete reference:
- Psychology Today: Calming the Anger Storm, by Kathy A. Svitil (Alpha Books/Penguin Group, 2006)
Page 3

Anonymous said...

My daughter's AP World History teacher said that Jesus was a militant leader.

Onias Hoffman said...

Asking if the historical miracle-working Jesus was a militant is like asking if Santa Claus liked candy canes. Both are imaginary characters who did not actually exist in the way they are described in literature and folklore. But since most falsehoods are not created out of whole cloth, there is likely an historical root that is the antecedent of each 'person'. In the case of Santa, he is most likely derived from Saint Nicholas. In the case of Jesus, he is most likely derived from actual historical messianic aspirants such as Judas the Galilean who also cleansed the Temple. But since the Romans controlled the "publishing industry" of those days, they modified and ridiculed the story of Judas of Galilee in order to transform him into a pathetic peace-loving hippie figure that would not be a threat to Rome. Onias Hoffman