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The Christ of the Fifth Way: Recovering the Politics of Jesus, Part II: Other Kingdoms

In his novel The Last Temptation of Christ , Nikos Kazantzakis imagines a Jesus whose greatest temptation is to get married, to settle down, to raise a family and experience a comfortable and conventional life into old age. There is little in the New Testament, though, to suggest that Jesus was ever strongly tempted by such a prosaic vision. What the Gospels do suggest is that Jesus was repeatedly tempted to embrace the agendas and tactics of several competing theological-political movements, each claiming to know how best to realize God’s kingdom on earth. Yesterday I examined the broad political context for Jesus’ life and actions. The political significance of Jesus’ kingdom announcement emerges in even sharper relief when we consider four rival kingdom programs or paths he might have chosen in response to pressing dilemmas of violence, economic exploitation, and social inequality.
Collusion and Compromise: The Way of the Herodians
First, Jesus might have followed the path of pragmatism or “realism” represented by the Herodians and Sadducees. These political and religious authorities (successors to the dynastic line of Babylonian Jews known as the Hasmoneans) had no legitimate claim to rule other than having colluded with the foreign invaders. They administered Judea on Rome’s behalf and, like the Vichy government in occupied France, were viewed as traitors and collaborators by the rest of the population. Thomas Cahill describes them as a “gang of priest-pretenders” whose piety “was not so much suspect as nonexistent.” Yoder, however, offers a more nuanced reading. It is superficial, he argues, to dismiss the Herodians and Sadducees merely as scheming, morally bankrupt pawns of the Caesars. These were in fact intelligent planners, men who understood balances of power and the necessity of following a “responsible strategy.” Their moral assumption was that people need to face up to “reality”: when you cannot achieve your ideals, you must learn to work within the realm of the possible, to form unpleasant alliances if necessary and to accept “dirty hands.” According to Josephus, the Sadducees believed in “free will”, which Wright interprets not as an abstract metaphysical claim but as the belief that God helps those who help themselves.
In many ways, the Herodian approach to building God’s kingdom “worked”. Because of their willingness to collude with Rome, they managed to maintain the Temple in Jerusalem and to secure official recognition of the Jewish faith. It is the seeming effectiveness of the Herodian option, the way of “conscientious cooperation,” that makes it such a tempting path, in all ages, for individuals who want to act responsibly to change the world. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, Herodian “realism” was not realistic enough to save Israel from the impending cataclysm. Realism, as a secular political doctrine, asserts that humans are capable of calculating and balancing means and ends, tactics and goals, in proportional and effective ways. Biblical realism, however, declares that the pretensions of the hard-headed “realists” are in fact hopelessly naïve and idealistic; humans are unable to control or contain the outcomes of their choices, particularly when violence is involved. Further, by working for incremental change within the Roman system of coercion and violence, the Herodians lost their ability to challenge the system itself. They were easily co-opted as conservatives, as apologists for empire and the status quo.
But Jesus was not a defender of the status quo. Nor was Jesus co-opted by empire. In the story of his confrontation with Satan in the wilderness at the start of his public ministry—which, whether read literally or allegorically, clearly reveals the early Christian view of political power—Jesus rejects the path of political compromise, the way of collusion with the kingdoms and governments of this world. In the Lukan version of the story, Satan shows Christ “all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time” and tells him that “all this domain and its glory” “has been handed over to me, and I give it to whomever I wish” (Luke 4.5-6). Jesus, amazingly, does not dispute Satan’s claim. The subversive implication, Jacques Ellul suggests, is that the devil is speaking the truth. All human systems of power and control, without exception, are seen as falling under the domain of the enemy. But Jesus, quoting from the book of Deuteronomy (4.8), declares that humans were made to serve God alone. The only escape from the imperialist-nationalist trap is for believers to pledge a radically different allegiance.
Sons of Light: The Way of the Essenes
The fact that disciples are called to a radically different allegiance than that of state, party, “civilization” or empire has tempted many believers down another perilous path, a path that was also fully open to Jesus in first-century Palestine. At the opposite end of the political spectrum from Herodian pragmatism lies the path of quietism or sectarian withdrawal represented by the group known as the Essenes, whose stringent way of life came to light in 1947 when a Bedouin shepherd boy stumbled upon a library of papyrus scrolls in the caves of Qumran near the Dead Sea south of Jericho.
This sect of ultra-orthodox Jews sought to live totally apart from the entanglements of the world by forming isolated, self-supporting communities in the Judean desert. They developed an apocalyptic and remnant theology according to which they alone were the chosen “sons of light” called to resist the “sons of darkness” in fulfillment of Isaiah 40.3: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”. The Essenes saw themselves as the true heirs of historic Judaism and strove to maintain the Sabbath, dietary and purity laws of Moses in the face of what they perceived as rampant backsliding. God had providentially called their movement into existence, they believed, as the first phase in the restoration of Israel. They eagerly waited for the day when God’s two Messiahs (both a priestly Messiah and a Davidic King) would arrive to conquer Rome and punish all those lax Jews who had failed to keep the commandments properly.
The Essenes thus held no love for the Roman occupiers, or for the politically and theologically compromised Herodians. Yet precisely because of the strong future orientation of their eschatology, the Essenes during Jesus’ lifetime did not participate in armed revolts or political agitation against the authorities; Herod was sufficiently pleased with their brand of sectarian withdrawal to grant them a special exemption from the oath of loyalty to himself. What shrewd politician, after all, would seriously mind a community like that of the Essenes? Instead of revolutionary action in the name of divine justice, here was a group of people marked by their punctilious Bible study in remote caves, their strange but harmless calculations from prophecy of when the Messiahs would appear and by the fact that they held common meals together. The Essene’s withdrawal from social and political concerns in the name of religious purity was, ironically, its own brand of collusion with the political establishment. Silence and withdrawal, we find, are themselves highly political acts, often with devastating consequences for others.
While the Essenes excluded all non-members—all those “sons of darkness”—from their table fellowship, Jesus, however, provoked scandal by freely associating with sinners and hosting meals for tax collectors. Jesus’ path was not the path of retreat into the desert in the name of maintaining personal or communal purity—a choice that would have allowed the principalities and powers in Jerusalem to continue on with business as usual. Instead, Yoder writes, Jesus “set out quite openly and consciously for the city and the conflict which was sure to encounter him there.” Central to Jesus’ kingdom announcement—which must be seen in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who condemned the injustices and violence of Israel’s rulers, and who suffered ridicule and martyrdom as a result—was the message that God does not desire ritual piety or scrupulous law-keeping but a people committed to acts of justice and mercy (Matthew 9.13).
The Ghetto or the Sword: The Ways of the Pharisees
Somewhere between the sheer pragmatism of the Herodians and the sectarian withdrawal of the Essenes we find the ways of the Pharisees. The broad agenda of the Pharisees was close in many ways to that of the Essenes. They too despised the religious-political compromisers, as much if not more than their pagan overlords, and they struggled to preserve Jewish identity in the face of imperial pressure. But while the Essenes proclaimed, in effect, “Just wait: God will bring about Israel’s liberation in his own time”, the Pharisees, like the Herodians, were prepared to take a more active and urban role as political agents of God’s will. When God finally did intervene to restore Israel, the Pharisees maintained, he would restore the nation as a whole, not merely a sectarian elite sequestered in the Judean hinterlands.
The Pharisees divided into two major schools of political thought. The first, following the teachings of the Rabbi Hillel, sought to avoid direct confrontation with Rome, emphasizing instead the importance of Torah study, religious purity and political prudence. These Pharisees sought to strengthen Jewish piety with a view to resisting Roman oppression, but only when absolute essentials of the faith, “religious liberty issues”, were at stake. In the eyes of these guardians of “proper” religion, Jesus was a threat who needed to be eliminated not only because he played fast and loose with Sabbath, purity and dietary laws (Mark 2.23-28; 7.1-19), but because his band had all the hallmarks of a radical political movement that would soon attract the heavy hand of Rome (Luke 13.31). Better, they decided in council with the Sadducees (normally their bitter foes) on the Sanhedrin, Israel’s highest political body, that “one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11.50).
Other Pharisees, however, did not shy so quickly from the prospect of a “clash of civilizations”, eastern Jewish vs. western Roman. These individuals, drawing their inspiration from the teachings of the Rabbi Shammai, urged immediate and violent revolt against Rome in the pattern of Judas Maccabaeus, who had led a seemingly miraculous guerrilla uprising against the Syrian megalomaniac Antiochus Epiphanes in 164 BC (the event still celebrated by Jews during the festival of Hannakuh). Where the Hillelites represented the way of respectable or proper Judaism—the way of Mishnah and ghetto—these latter Shammaite Pharisees stood for revolutionary zeal, the way of the sword. The Apostle Paul, before his conversion, appears to have been one such Shammaite, fully prepared to use violence to rid Israel of apostates and traitors.
The revolutionary zeal of the Shammaites was especially appealing to marginalized Jews living outside of the major centers of power—rural people in “underdeveloped regions” like Galilee, who fueled the economic dynamism of the empire by providing cheap labor and raw goods for export. Fully half of Jesus disciples may have had strong zealot leanings, if not outright zealot commitments. Beyond what may be inferred from the disciples’ social backgrounds, there are clues scattered throughout the Gospels. James and John urge Jesus to rain destruction on a group of offending Samaritans (Luke 9.51-56). Peter, along with James and John, is prepared to violently resist Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane (Luke 22.49). One or more of these three is armed with a sword and wounds a slave of the high priest (Matthew 26.51-52). Simon is directly identified as a zealot (Mark 3.18). Some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that Judas Iscariot’s name contains a veiled allusion to the Sicarii, a band of urban intellectuals turned terrorist-assassins with dynastic links to Judas the Galilean, the failed messianic leader executed for sedition against Rome in AD 6, whose sons were also crucified for their politics in the 40s.
The fact that Jesus attracted individuals such as these, who harbored violent insurrectionist dreams, and who probably hoped that alignment with Jesus would help to realize them, as well as the fact that Jesus’ opponents could plausibly accuse him before Pilate of sedition against Rome, the legal charge on which he was finally crucified, points to the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ character and kingdom announcement. But while Jesus is repeatedly tempted in the Gospels to take up the sword—to launch a campaign of “just war” that will vindicate the Jewish faith once and for all—he steadfastly refuses the path of coercive power, the way of violence to establish God’s kingdom on earth (Matthew 5.9; 5.38-48; 26.51-53; Luke 6.27; 22.50-53). Precisely because he is so deeply sympathetic with the insurgents, the religious freedom fighters, he is also in many ways most critically opposed to them.
But what path did Jesus take to build God’s kingdom? If not the way of the Herodians (calculation and compromise), the way of the Essenes (retreat into the desert), the way of the Hillelite Pharisees (Torah study and respectable religion) or the way of the zealots (violent revolution or “just war”), what other possible way? We have already begun to formulate a picture of Jesus’ politics by way of negation and contrast as: 1) demanding a radically different allegiance than that of nation, state, party or empire; 2) engaging rather than retreating from concerns of social justice; and 3) refusing the path of political violence and coercive power. But what made the Way of Jesus—the word used by the earliest Christians to describe their faith—a compelling message of good news for people living in a situation of crushing poverty and foreign military occupation?
Thomas Cahill, The Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1999).
Craig Carter, The Politics of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2001).
Norman Cohn, Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
Jacques Ellul, Anarchy and Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).
Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Reasons for My Involvement in the Peace Movement”, 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).
_____, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements At the Time of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985).
Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence”, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington (New York: HarperCollins, 1986).
Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee, Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003).
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, What St. Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
John Howard Yoder, “The Original Revolution” in For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972).

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