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The Christ of the Fifth Way: Recovering the Politics of Jesus, Part I: Life in the Occupied Territories

Many Christians throughout history have tried to separate the Gospel as a matter of spiritual truth from the realm of earthly politics, yet there is little in what Christ said and did that does not have profound political implications for his followers. The more we understand about the world of first-century Judaism and the brutal realities of Roman imperialism, the more clear it becomes, in fact, that the New Testament was written as a subversive alternative political grammar for God’s people. Christians since Constantine have widely assumed that there is no necessary conflict between loyalty to God and loyalty to state or empire. Protestants since Martin Luther have often ignored or suppressed the politics of Jesus, declaring that salvation is a matter of being “born again” through a purely individual response “by faith” in Christ’s death. But we must recover the politics of Jesus as central to our understanding of the Gospel lest we fool ourselves into thinking we can be saved by faith in a Jesus whose life we have never encountered.
Over the next several days I will be presenting an article on the politics of Jesus. Today I outline some of the historical and political contours of first-century Palestine, which form the necessary context for grasping the meaning of Christ’s words and actions in the Gospels. Tomorrow I will examine four rival political paths or “kingdom programs” Jesus might have followed in response to pressing dilemmas of economic injustice and foreign military occupation. On Tuesday I will then outline some of the radical political implications of Jesus’ kingdom announcement. Finally, I will wrestle with some of the texts that are often cited by Christians as a way of evading or suppressing the politics of Jesus, drawing some conclusions for believers today. A portion of this article was published by Spectrum last year but this is first time it has appeared in its entirety.
Life in the Occupied Territories
The world of first-century Palestine, against which the Gospel narratives are set and the meaning of Jesus’ life must finally be reckoned, was divided into two broad categories of people: the rich few and the poor many. The rich minority included: several high-priestly clans, who controlled the Temple in Jerusalem and exercised a monopoly over the economy of worship and sacrifice; the Herodians, who ruled Palestine at Rome’s behest and owned more than half of the land; and a small number of other land-owning Jewish aristocrats. These wealthy elites were bitterly resented by the rest of the population, which was comprised of some poor craftsmen, rural priests, farmers, fishermen and others who managed a modest but tenuous existence, and a much larger number of day-laborers, subsistence farmers and socially marginalized groups, who even in the best of times lived on the very edge of survival. It was into this broad class of poor people that Jesus, according to the Gospel of Luke, was born. At his dedication in Jerusalem, his parents could not afford to buy a lamb, the prescribed offering, and so sacrificed the poor people’s offering of two birds instead (Luke 2.24).
The poor majority—the peasant “masses” or “people of the land” in rabbinic literature—were heavily taxed by both secular and religious authorities. They were subjected to frequent exploitation and debt-bondage by state bureaucrats and wealthy creditors. They confronted a situation of increasing crime, family breakdown, environmental stress and untreatable diseases. And they bore the brunt of Rome’s degrading and brutal military occupation, which began in 63 BC with Pompey desecrating the Holy of Holies and continued through AD 135 when Hadrian finally decimated Jerusalem once-and-for-all, forcing the surviving Jews into slavery or exile from which they would not regain control of Palestine until the twentieth century.
The Romans did not normally send their legions to physically occupy conquered lands, ruling instead through efficient laws, economic pressure and military bases strategically positioned as “deterrent forces” around the periphery of the empire. But in the always volatile region of Palestine, Roman legions were a constant presence in the role of foreign “peacekeepers”. Throughout Jesus’ life, Jews faced routine harassment, violence and humiliation by these Roman soldiers, including forced conscription as baggage porters, a problem Jesus directly addresses in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5.41).
Especially galling for pious Jews was the way the pagan occupiers stamped the images and iconography of their imperial cult upon the Jewish landscape. The Law of Moses forbids visual representations not only of God, but of all living creatures. But Jewish religious sensibilities were continually being affronted by the presence of blasphemous imperial standards, votive shields, statues and other forms of artwork proclaiming Caesar’s victories and divine title: DIVI FILIUS—“son of god”. Roman imperial imagery across the Mediterranean world was often pornographically violent in nature, with conquered nations being depicted as violated women at the feet of the divine Caesar himself. The ultimate goal of imperial symbolism, however, was not simply to humiliate Rome’s defeated enemies but to integrate them as subjects of Roman patronage in a “civilized” world order. Jews had little choice, for example, but to use Roman coinage stamped with Caesar’s portrait and images of Roman gods and goddesses. Since possessing or even handling these coins was deeply problematic for strict commandment-keepers, devout Jews were daily forced to compromise their beliefs and collude with the pagan occupiers in order to survive. They were forced to barter their faith in order to participate in the marketplace of Rome’s new global economy.
Unsurprisingly, feelings of righteous anger, humiliation and hatred were always boiling just beneath the surface. Under these circumstances, seemingly trivial but symbolically potent acts, such as the placement of Roman standards near the Temple in Jerusalem, could spark furious (and in the eyes of the Romans, fanatical) riots. These violent demonstrations sometimes led to pragmatic concessions from the authorities, whose official policy was one of tolerance for the Jewish religion. More often, they were crushed by tactics of shock and awe—spectacles of overwhelming military might, of which public crucifixion was but one conspicuous example. Immediately after Herod the Great’s death—during Jesus’ infancy in either Egypt or Nazareth—Judean peasants rose up in a campaign of violent resistance against the Romans and their Jewish puppet regime. The result was over 2,000 insurgents being crucified outside Jerusalem.
The idea that Jews in Jesus’ day were primarily concerned with matters of dogmatic theology, or that first-century Judaism stood for salvation by “works” as opposed to “faith”, N.T. Wright concludes, must therefore be rejected. “[T]he pressing needs of most Jews of the period had to do with liberation—from oppression, from debt, from Rome.” The burning question on people’s minds was: How will God act, in history, to save the Chosen People from their enemies, both within and without? One’s theological answer to this question revealed one’s political ideology, while one’s politics conversely revealed one’s theology. In first-century Palestine, the two were always and inseparably entwined. Between Herod the Great’s death in 4 BC and the first destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, Israel was convulsed by repeated religious revolts, violent messianic movements, political assassinations, insurgency and counter-insurgency warfare. In short, if we think about present-day Palestine, and the kinds of political paths that might tempt a poor but religiously devout Palestinian young man in the West Bank or Gaza Strip, we will not be far from understanding the historical reality that confronted Jesus, a young Jewish carpenter living in the occupied territories approximately two thousand years ago.
John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (San Francisco: Harper, 2005).
Oscar Cullman, Jesus and the Revolutionaries (New York: Harper and Row, 1970).
Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Symbolism and Jewish Faith” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Firrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996).
Richard Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).
Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).
John E. Stambaugh and David L. Balch, The New Testament in Its Social Environment (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986).
N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God: Volume 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God: Volume 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).

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