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Jesus of the War Zone

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

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About Nathan Gilmour

Nathan P. Gilmour is a Christian, a husband, a father, and a college English teacher. He tries to do all of that and write something worthwhile on occasion.

Discussion

18 thoughts on “Jesus of the War Zone

  1. >So I’m inclined to say that it differs from foundationalism in that it looks around for its next move rather than backwards for the roots of movement.If this is true, how does one holding such a view avoid skepticism? Doesn’t the truth of such an assertion require that somewhere down the line the legitimacy of the dialectical principle might be undermined?Also, what is the “it” that looks around?I’m most impressed with Quine’s web-metaphor and its ability to account for knowledge’s tendency to be interconnected without necessarily having a singular foundational point.Yes but again, where does the web-metaphor principle fit into our knowledge. If it is simply a part of the web, how do we know its true? Perhaps the web will expand someday to the point that we see the theory is more likely false (I say “more likely” false since, of course, we could never know absolutes given such a scheme, only probabilities)Does the web have edges or a center? If not what do we really mean by using spatial metaphor?No, I’d say that knowledge of our own moment is mediated through knowledge of self, of history, of others, of God. Likewise knowledge of self is mediated through knowledge of history, knowledge of our moment, knowledge of God, and so on. Likewise knowledge of others is mediated through knowledge of self, knowledge of God, and so on.I agree with the principle of multiple perspectives. However, from where does the knowledge which is mediated ultimately come? Also, where does the principle of mediation through multiple perspectives derive? How do we know that our view of multiple perspectives is not simply anther perspective in dialectic with absolute foundations? Indeed, doesn’t the dialectical principle require it?And finally, where does God fit into this. Is he simply another perspective by which humans glean meaning? Are we autonomous in that process? It seems to me that in order to maintain a non-foundationalist epistemology one is forced to admit autonomous human knowing. In fact, it might not be a stretch to say this is the principle behind the whole thing. Have we reached the point where we need to do another pair of Luther/Erasmus posts? :)Gosh I hope not. That post took hours from my short creaturely existence! πŸ™‚

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 30, 2008, 8:43 pm
  2. >We finite creatures know everything in relationships, relationships that can be thought of dialectically (is that a word?).I hope it is, as I’ve used it in papers for graduate seminars. :)Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder, doesn’t a dialectic framework require (at the very least) the foundational principle of the dialectic to begin with. In other words, isn’t foundationalism ultimately inescapable if we are to think and speak meaningfully?By foundationalism I mean the assertion that human knowledge begins with some Archimedean point, an assertion (like cogito ergo sum) that stands outside the contingencies of history. While dialectic is a starting point of sorts (though we can examine how it develops historically), it’s more a description of what we find ourselves in the midst of than a posited (or positive) starting point. So I’m inclined to say that it differs from foundationalism in that it looks around for its next move rather than backwards for the roots of movement.With regards to meaning, I’m most impressed with Quine’s web-metaphor and its ability to account for knowledge’s tendency to be interconnected without necessarily having a singular foundational point.You say one understands a historical moment “from inside one’s own historical moment.” I don’t understand. Seems a bit redundant to me. You seem to be arguing for immediate knowledge of the historical moment. For instance, you seem to be saying we know a historical moment by knowing a historical moment. Is that accurate?No, I’d say that knowledge of our own moment is mediated through knowledge of self, of history, of others, of God. Likewise knowledge of self is mediated through knowledge of history, knowledge of our moment, knowledge of God, and so on. Likewise knowledge of others is mediated through knowledge of self, knowledge of God, and so on.In other words, I think that our situatedness in a web of knowledge can sustain human reason without our positing a singular foundational/immediate point. That’s why I prefer traditions to foundations–they sustain meaning through stories of those who came before without having to posit immediate contact with forebears.Have we reached the point where we need to do another pair of Luther/Erasmus posts? πŸ™‚

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 30, 2008, 7:50 pm
  3. >I appreciate the dialectical perspective. I think there is much wisdom, value, and truth in that. We finite creatures know everything in relationships, relationships that can be thought of dialectically (is that a word?).Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder, doesn’t a dialectic framework require (at the very least) the foundational principle of the dialectic to begin with. In other words, isn’t foundationalism ultimately inescapable if we are to think and speak meaningfully?You say one understands a historical moment “from inside one’s own historical moment.” I don’t understand. Seems a bit redundant to me. You seem to be arguing for immediate knowledge of the historical moment. For instance, you seem to be saying we know a historical moment by knowing a historical moment. Is that accurate?

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 30, 2008, 7:34 pm
  4. >From inside one’s own historical moment. If you’re hinting that my reasoning is always/already dialectical, you’re right. I’m not impressed with foundationalist modes of reasoning, preferring traditionalist ones. I’m interested in traditioned faithfulness, not in finding an Archimedean point. It’s a riskier place to live, but I think philosophically it’s more adequate to human contingency.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 30, 2008, 3:35 pm
  5. >I knew you would, that’s why I didn’t claim it for myself. :-)a working assumption that any human act (especially those involving language) only makes sense inside the Gestalt of its historical moment.How do you then understand the historical moment itself? In other words, what is the immutable datum (in the engineering sense) that allows you to evaluate such a moment, and therefore understand the human acts of that moment?

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 29, 2008, 9:05 pm
  6. >Hmm… that’s not how I’ve been using historicist. I’ve been using it to indicate a methodology originating with (but not exhausted by) Vico and Hegel in philosophy and advanced by John Milbank in theology, a working assumption that any human act (especially those involving language) only makes sense inside the Gestalt of its historical moment. It’s a philosophy that seeks to resist reductionist theories of “human nature” such as Lockean/Smithean universal self-interest or uniform Freudian psycho-sexual theories in favor of what Clifford Geertz calls “thick description,” taking seriously the particulars of the moment and theorizing outwards from them rather than imposing templates upon them.Extended to Christian theology, historicism is not satisfied with artificially simple (that is to say, reductionist) theories but seeks to incorporate all of the linguistic, ritual, political, aesthetic, and all sorts of other influences upon a historical moment, including but not limited to the Christ-event and the mission of the Spirit from Acts forward. As you might have anticipated, I also think of myself as a Biblicist. Such are the wonderful and fun moments in these conversations.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 29, 2008, 6:33 pm
  7. >With regard to the “datum” bit, I was using it in a philosophical sense, something “given,”I suspected we were using that term differently. I apologize for not defining it properly when I raised it. I was trained as an engineer. That’s the first “world” in which I encountered the term.If Dictionary.com got their definition of historicism right (i.e. “a theory that history is determined by immutable laws and not by human agency”), then I think I would claim that modifier for myself.In the end though, I am tempted to think of myself as a Biblicist, but claiming that modifier requires a sort of intellectual arrogance that scares even me. πŸ™‚

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 29, 2008, 5:11 pm
  8. >With regard to the “datum” bit, I was using it in a philosophical sense, something “given,” and I left out a preposition. The sentence should have read something more like, “In Christ one encounters the primary datum for talking about divinity and for talking about humanity.”With regards to the a priori unity, I think we’ve run up against an impasse between your hermeneutics and mine. Whereas you posit an a priori unity as simply part of the structure of human existence, I’m inclined to see the same unity as a contingent-but-naturalized bit of Aristotle. With regards to immediate knowledge, I confess that I’m suspicious of any such claims, largely for the same reasons–they naturalize the contingent. Again, I think that there’s a good range of things that your philosophy sees as natural and mine sees as naturalized, and I suppose that’s one reason I’m a historicist and you don’t seem to be one.I don’t fault you for not being a historicist, but I’m still convinced that a historicist framework is more adequate for making sense of Biblical revelation, just as I’m guessing you’re not convinced of the same.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 29, 2008, 10:02 am
  9. >I’d be inclined to say that in Christ one encounters both the primary theological datum for talking about humanity and divinity.Help me understand this sentence. You say “both” with respect to “datum.” Did you mean datums? Or did you mean the one theological datum? (Also, I am using the word datum in an engineering sense, meaning the standard from which other things are known with meaning)I disagree about John 1. John’s focus seems to be on the eternal Word, the Son of God, becoming flesh. Thus he gives a logical and chronological priority to the divine in the incarnation, a principle which might be thought of as analogous to the priority of God himself in his creatures knowing with meaning. seems to imply that there is an a priori unity that one ought to impose on the narratives of Jesus in the Scriptures.I am not advocating the imposition of unity onto historical narrative. I am advocating the position that unity is simply their a priori. And that it is a unity that is sourced in God and, in a sense, is God. I believe it is a unity that we all understand implicitly as creatures. In other words, it is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be a creature. So, while I don’t mind speaking of knowledge as being analogical in many respects, I don’t think the idea of analogy works comprehensively for all knowledge. As creatures I believe we do know at least one thing immediately, the Creator. I deduce this from Romans 1:20, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” Because we are also “the things that have been made,” we all know God immediately.It is this underlying immediate knowledge of God that is, I think, the unifying datum of all knowledge. It is the one thing that gives ultimate meaning to everything else. The creation is fundamentally God-centered. Therefore, we should acknowledge its priority in biblical hermeneutics. That’s all I’m sayin’ πŸ™‚

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 29, 2008, 2:11 am
  10. >Nonetheless, I think it is proper to remember that there is a very real sense in which the divinity is primary. The eternal Word became flesh. The human Jesus did not become divine (e.g. adoptionism).I’m not sure what you’re driving at here. I’d be inclined to say that in Christ one encounters both the primary theolgical datum for talking about humanity and divinity. The becoming predicated of the Word in John 1 implies (I think) that Jesus is the starting point for talking about Word and Flesh, not that there’s some prior “word” already known to humanity that determines Christ. On the contrary, Christ determines word and flesh and becoming.I am not proposing an ahistorical reading of the text. In my view that would be fundamentally impossible for finite creatures. Certainly this is so; such is my complaint about so much systematic philosophy. But your next statement, namely this:I am simply proposing the priority of unity, which is ultimately sourced in God and is God, in the hermeneutical process.seems to imply that there is an a priori unity that one ought to impose on the narratives of Jesus in the Scriptures. I realize that much of systematic theology does this, and while I’m not positing any direct link between that approach and the “Jesus hanging out with the stoners” trope, I do think that they both ignore, to their detriment, the particulars of the historical moment into which the Word became flesh. In other words (pun intended), becoming-flesh happens here and now, not in some flattened ahistorical “humanity.” And with that haec-ity comes the scandal that Jesus can only be known by analogy, both because He is Word and because he is flesh. History, being a practice in analogical reasoning, simply will not allow immediate knowledge of any human, even the Word become flesh. In all of our encounters with the Son of God who is the Son of Man, the texts and traditions of the historic Church as well as our own contingent experiences of the Spirit stand mediate between the event and our consciousness.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 29, 2008, 1:15 am
  11. >I affirm the full humanity Christ and the full historicity of the gospels (and all Scripture for that matter). But I think that’s beside the point. To affirm the full humanity of Christ should not lead to a denial or de-emphasis of his full divinity or vice versa. Nonetheless, I think it is proper to remember that there is a very real sense in which the divinity is primary. The eternal Word became flesh. The human Jesus did not become divine (e.g. adoptionism). In other words, while both the humanity and divinity of Christ are properly modified by the word “fully,” that does negate the priority of the divine as the ultimate datum by which the meaning and significance of the incarnation is derived.We could and should, I think, see biblical hermeneutics as analogous to this. The Scripture is both divine and human. Nonetheless, the divine takes priority as the ultimate datum by which the meaning and significance of the text is derived.I am not proposing an ahistorical reading of the text. In my view that would be fundamentally impossible for finite creatures. I am simply proposing the priority of unity, which is ultimately sourced in God and is God, in the hermeneutical process.My quoting of Eccl. 1 wasn’t intended as an overarching hermeneutic. And I agree that it is a cry of despair. What I intended to communicate through that quote is the fact that what Solomon says there is true. That’s why he is despairing. What is true? I think its this (the basic thesis of the book) while we live in a world of historical change, there is a deeper, more abiding sense in which nothing ever really changes. In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The basic unity of the creation, particularly the unity of the human condition, is unchanging. Why? Because all finds it’s meaning in the immutable God. It is this unchanging unity of all things, founded on the very being of God, that gives meaning or purpose to historical change. Unity takes priority over diversity. That was Solomon’s hope. And I think it is a principle that should inform biblical hermeneutics.

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 28, 2008, 10:05 pm
  12. >Oh, and with regards to the nihil sub sole novum trope, I acknowledge that it’s in Ecclesiastes, but I read it as an expression of despair, not as an overarching hermeneutical strategy. I also don’t read 2 Samuel 11 as a paradigm for keeping up good marital relations. πŸ˜‰

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 28, 2008, 10:02 am
  13. >Okay, I’ll confess my sin here.I had read one more “Jesus was a cool dude who would hang out with the stoners even though the uptight religious types didn’t like it” paragraph than my poor little mind could take without exploding. I’m a literary historian; I just can’t take another “the world has always been just like the nineties in San Francisco” book.What you’ve read is the ensuing explosion. :)I agree, Jay, that the person(s) of God is (are) constant across and beyond historical epochs, but again, as a literary historian, I tend in the opposite direction from you, taking Jesus’ humanity to be a full, contingent, historical humanity, and I take the gospels to be fully historical documents. In my own experience, most ahistorical readings of Jesus are not neoPlatonic, as your reading tendencies seem to be, but simply ignorant of history.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 28, 2008, 10:00 am
  14. >This is a fascinating question. How do we understand the relationship between unity and diversity in general and, more particularly, in the Bible. I think we might narrow the question with respect to the Bible by asking, what is the nature of historical change? Is specific historical context (i.e. the realm of change) primary when it comes to deriving meaning. Or, is the specific historical context the result of some unified condition (that we all recognize implicitly and some understand explicitly through God’s revelation) that transcends the moment? In other words, which is primary in determining meaning, the circumstances of change or the cause of change, diversity or unity?Given my Augustinian/Calvinian/Edwardsian understanding of trinitarianism (i.e. what I believe is the archetype of the unity-diversity paradigm), I am inclined to believe unity is primary. Unity is that from which diversity comes, so to speak.So while I think specific historical context is integral to our understanding, it is ultimately meaningless apart from its unifying constituents. Therefore, I think, while I should guard against the temptation to disregard, or as Nathan says, flatten out, history, I should also remember that it is only through the broader universals that I grasp the meaning of such events. In other words, while my exegesis should be historically informed, I need to remember that understanding the particular historical situations of Scripture does not ultimately determine whether or not I understand the meaning of the Scriptures. I am compelled, at every turn, to be looking to the broader canonical and ultimately trans-historical framework in which I live as one of God’s fallen creatures and a member of his covenant community. As the wise old Solomon once wrote:Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the southand goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind,and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.All things are full of weariness;a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done,and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, β€œSee, this is new”?It has been already in the ages before us(Ecclesiastes 1:2-10).

    Posted by M. Jay Bennett | August 27, 2008, 8:57 pm
  15. >So to answer your question, I’m mainly critiquing readings of the New Testament that flatten out historical context. You were hoping that eventually I’d answer the question, weren’t you? πŸ™‚

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 27, 2008, 2:02 pm
  16. >Incidentally, the thought occurred to me while I was reading a liberal-leaning book popular with the emerging church movement, so I wasn’t reacting mainly to Lewis or anti-pacifism when I wrote it so much as a general tendency to ignore the radical alternative to insurgent warfare that Jesus’ embrace of the sinners really was. In other words, although the distinction between Pharisee and sinner had to do with “religious” things, they were the kind of “religious” things that mark off a Muslim-on-the-street from an Mehdi Army recruit rather than the kinds of “religious” things that mark off a Baptist elder from a Chreaster Presbyterian.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 27, 2008, 10:26 am
  17. >I’m not critiquing any particular reading so much as a trend that makes the people who rub shoulders with Jesus in the gospels into universal types rather than particular players in a particular war zone.I’ve read C.S. Lewis’s anti-pacifist writings, and they don’t convince me. I’m not convinced that “a soldier [is] the worst of God’s enemies;” on the contrary, as my post indicates, the point of the centurion’s faithfulness is precisely that my worst enemy might be more faithful than me. I suppose the thrust of my post is to note that there were not in Jesus’ Palestine and there is not in the modern world any generic “soldiers”; such a category can only arise, I think, in the context of places where the war is not actually happening.Both my grandfathers were enlisted men, one on the European theater of WWII and one in Korea, and many of my most faithful Christian friends fought in Vietnam and Iraq, so certainly I wouldn’t issue some blanket condemnation. My point in noting the identity of the Roman legions is only that so much (anti-pacifist and general devotional) biblical exegesis pretends that the only “soldiers” on the scene were the Romans and that when Jesus talked to crowds of Galilean peasants, he was talking to “private citizens,” a social classification that might work in Tennessee but which, in my evaluation, would not have made much sense in a region marked with constant insurgent warfare.

    Posted by Nathan P. Gilmour | August 27, 2008, 10:22 am
  18. >Are you critiquing some modern exegesis, writing generally against war or both?I’ve never been able to escape C.S. Lewis’ defense of war that if someone is trying to kill an innocent, you do no good in standing aside to let it happen. Jesus’ violence in the Temple and in the end days do not motivate me to think Lewis was wrong. Perhaps my personal connection (my brother-in-law is a soldier) also makes me pause before seeing a soldier as the worst of God’s enemies. But perhaps that wasn’t your point…

    Posted by Jared Nelson | August 27, 2008, 5:33 am

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