Although the inspiration to write this post came while reading The Shaping of Things to Come by Hirsch and Frost, the outlines of the ideas have been brewing in my head for some time. Hirsch and Frost are not the first and certainly not the most egregious among those who ignore the state of war in first century Palestine; they were just in front of my eyes when the thought went off.
First-century Palestine was not much at all like Indiana or Tennessee or Georgia. There, I said it. The feuding Sadducees and Zealots were not like Methodists and Baptists, or like evangelicals and Jews, for that matter. They were more akin to the feuding factions of twenty-first century Iraq, occupied by a foreign power that thought of itself as liberating the people from their primitive ways. Or at least as an empire that would liberate them if they understood any language but force. And forceful they were; within a generation after Jesus’ death and resurrection, rebel groups were embroiled in a full-scale war with Rome, backed by certain Parthian kingdoms (some in modern day Iran) but nonetheless outgunned completely.
But Jerusalem was a city that tore itself apart so completely that the Roman army almost didn’t have a city to overthrow. The resistance split between the Zealots and the Sicarii well before the Roman army got there, the bloodbath in Jerusalem was already almost unspeakable by the time any siege began. When Rome threw Titus Flavius Vespasianus a triumph after he destroyed Jerusalem, Titus, according to legend, refused a triumphal wreath, saying that it was no great victory to defeat a city forsaken by its own god.
Now most historical Jesus books (those by Jesus Seminar types and more rigorous ones by folks like N.T. Wright) take that war-to-come as essential background. Unfortunately, when many Christian teachers do their Christology, they treat Bethlehem like Gainesville and Jerusalem like Atlanta.
Now don’t get me wrong–I like The Cotton Patch Gospel. I can enjoy it precisely because it so self-consciously Americanizes the Jesus event for artistic reasons. What I find less tolerable are treatments of Jesus and “sinners” that don’t take their time and distinguish between Pauline everyone-is-a-sinner theology and the real, social, sometimes military distinctions between the pious and the common in first century Palestine. And when Jesus interacted with the players in this geo-political struggle, one should not assume that he was in a larger version of a high school cafeteria.
When Jesus welcomed sinners to his table, he was not reinforcing some common-sense feeling that “everyone’s a sinner” but making a statement about the Reign of God and where the pious militants were getting things wrong. When Jesus proclaimed that a Centurion had great faithfulness, he wasn’t giving a bland sanction to a generic “military life” (as if there’s any such thing as a generic “soldier” in a war zone, as if there aren’t occupiers and insurgents as different as human beings can be) but declaring that the Reign of God would include the worst enemies of God’s people. When Jesus remarked that a widow had given all she had to the Temple, he pointed not to a collection plate that she could have passed to the old woman next to her but to an instrument of Imperial oppression. (In Jerusalem, Rome-collaborator Sadducees collected the money they passed on to the Caesars at the Temple.)
When Jesus told people to turn the other cheek and not to resist evil, he was not talking to school children. He was talking to the Galilean peasantry, the number one recruiting base for anti-Roman terrorism.
When the people outside the high priest’s house accused Peter of sounding Galilean and traveling with Jesus, they were racial-profiling.
Perhaps most importantly, when people started attempts on Jesus’ life for being “King of the Jews,” their fear was not some generic “religious” fear but the panic that comes when an enemy power, in this case the Parthians, comes knocking at the door. As the people then and there knew too well, Palestine was contested territory, won back from the Parthians a few decades ago by Marc Antony and headed up initially by Herod the Great, King of the Jews. When a Galilean Jew (they were notorious for colluding with Parthian kings in rebelling against Rome) starts taking on that title, whether he claims it or not, he becomes a dangerous man, someone whom Rome has to crush lest the war spill over into neighboring territories.
Such is not to say that those of us who live in Georgia (the one not currently under attack by Moscow) and Tennessee and Indiana have no connection to Jesus; on the contrary, the Christ who spent his ministry in a territory occupied by the greatest military power on earth has much to say to those living in relative safety inside the borders of the greatest military power on earth. It is to say that if we believe that the second person of the Trinity really did become flesh and really did dwell among us, we’d be well advised to take that seriously as we examine what he said to whom.
Cross-posted from Hardly the Last Word