Jesus and the Anti-Roman Resistance

A Reassessment of the Arguments

in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus
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Although the hypothesis according to which Jesus the Galilean was involved in anti-Roman, rebellious thinking and activity has been advanced since the eighteenth century, it is now held only by a minority of New Testament scholars. The aim of the present article is to carefully survey the arguments supporting that hypothesis, and at the same time putting them forward in a novel way. I contend that the cumulative effect of these arguments is compelling, and that only a reconstruction of Jesus in which the aspect of anti-Roman resistance is consistently contemplated deserves credibility. The essay argues that there is in the Gospels a great amount of material which points precisely in the direction of a seditious Jesus, that this material configures a recurrent pattern, and that this pattern enjoys the highest probability of historicity. Furthermore, I evaluate different interpretations which try to make sense of the pattern, with the aim of deciding which of them is historically the most plausible. The essay then argues that the hypothesis advanced here has the greatest explanatory power, that the proposed alternatives are unconvincing and often far-fetched, and that every objection levelled against the hypothesis can be reasonably countered. Finally, I point out the disastrous implications for scholarship of the dismissal of the seditious material and of the correlative rejection of the hypothesis.

Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus

Jesus in History, Culture and Media




J. Jeremias, ‘The Present Position in the Controversy Concerning the Problem of the Historical Jesus 1’, The Expository Times 69 (1958), pp. 333–39, here 333–34.


 See P. Winter, ‘Magnificat and Benedictus—Maccabean Psalms?’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 37 (1954–55), pp. 328–47; pace R. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (2nd edn; London: G. Chapman, 1993), pp. 350–55; J. Massyngberde Ford, ‘Zealotism and the Lukan Infancy Narratives’, NovT 18 (1976), pp. 280–92.


F. Loofs, What is the Truth about Jesus Christ? (New York: Scribner’s, 1913); Ch. H. Dodd, History and the Gospel (New York: Scribner’s, 1938); Allison, Constructing Jesus, pp. 10–30. ‘If a motif has gathered numerous recurrent attestations across the sources, it can be regarded as having a claim to authenticity. Rationale: A greater dispersion of a motif suggests that the motif has landed in the Jesus tradition very early and through several tradents. It further suggests that already then the motif had been widely accepted and experienced as central. There are no better options for finding historically accurate reminiscences of Jesus’ (T. Holmén, ‘Authenticity Criteria’, in C.A. Evans [ed.], Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus [New York: Routledge, 2008], pp. 43–54, here 47).


Loofs, What is the Truth about Jesus Christ?, p. 144.


Dodd, History and the Gospel, p. 94.


W. Klassen, ‘Jesus and the Zealot Option’, Canadian Journal of Theology 16 (1970), pp. 12–21, here 19.


 See e.g. Rodríguez, ‘The Embarrassing Truth’, pp. 141–48; it ‘appears propagandistic rather than embarrassing’ (p. 145).


Rodríguez, ‘The Embarrassing Truth’, p. 147.


 See e.g. J.P. Meier, ‘The Present State of the “Third Quest” for the Historical Jesus: Loss and Gain’, Biblica 80 (1999), pp. 459–87, here 475; Rodríguez, ‘The Embarrassing Truth’, pp. 138–46.


 On this aspect, see Farmer, Maccabees, pp. 65–68; Hengel, Die Zeloten, pp. 261–77.


 See Hengel, Die Zeloten, pp. 132–45.


 See e.g. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots, pp. 29, 65, 343–44; idem, Trial, pp. 30–31.


 See D.R. Schwartz, Reading the First Century: On Reading Josephus and Studying Jewish History of the First Century (Tübingen: Mohr–Siebeck, 2013), pp. 134–36.


 See e.g. Smith, ‘Zealots and Sicarii’, p. 18.


E. Norden, ‘Josephus und Tacitus über Jesus Christus und seine messianische Prophetie’, Neue Jahrbücher für das klassische Altertum 31 (1913), pp. 637–66. The text is reprinted in A. Schalit (ed.), Zur Josephus-Forschung (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1973), pp. 27–69.


 See R. Horsley (ed.), Hidden Transcripts and the Arts of Resistance: Applying the Work of James C. Scott to Jesus and Paul (Leiden: Brill, 2004).


 See e.g. Hengel, Die Zeloten, p. 346, n. 3 (Jesus’ attack was addressed ‘nicht gegen die römische Oberherrschaft sondern gegen die religiös und politisch herrschende Schicht im Judentum selbst’); ‘Direct criticism of Roman rule, if any, is nowhere recorded in our Gospels’ (Fast, Jesus and Human Conflict, p. 91); ‘If Independence from Rome were Jesus’ agenda, it is strange overall that there is not a single saying attributed to him in any gospel that unambiguously states that agenda’ (Bryan, Render to Caesar, p. 46); ‘When we turn to the few secure pieces of evidence we can garner from the historical Jesus’ life, we search in vain for any insurrectionist call to arms against Rome’ (L.H. Cohick, ‘Jesus as King of the Jews’, in S. McKnight and J.B. Modica (eds.), Who Do My Opponents Say I Am? An Investigation of the Accusations against Jesus [London: T&T Clark, 2008], pp. 111–32, here 118). See also S. Kim, Christ and Caesar: The Gospel and the Roman Empire in the Writings of Paul and Luke (Grand Rapids, mi: Eerdmans, 2008), p. 95.


 See e.g. Fast, Jesus and Human Conflict, p. 86; Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 244, among many others.


Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, p. 235.


 See Montserrat, El galileo armado, pp. 139–40. According to several scholars, Jesus would have behaved as a seditionist ‘at least in the closing stages of his life’ (D.R. Griffiths, The New Testament and the Roman State [Swansea: John Penry Press, 1970], p. 51); ‘Die Gewaltsamkeiten im Wirken Jesu häufen sich anläßlich seines Kontaktes mit Jerusalem’ (Berger, ‘Der “brutale” Jesus’, pp. 119a; 127a).


C. Batsch, ‘Le “pacifisme des esséniens”, un mythe historiographique’, Revue de Qumran 83 (2004), pp. 457–68; S. Weitzman, ‘Warring against Terror: The War Scroll and the Mobilization of Emotion’, Journal for the Study of Judaism 40 (2009), pp. 213–41; Farmer, Maccabees, p. 195. Although the expression ‘Thine is the battle’ (המהלמה הכל) is repeated (1 qm 11.1–5), swords are part of the eschatological weaponry (1qm 5.7.11–14). ‘So kann die Grundtendenz der Kriegsrolle—ungeachtet ihres essenischen Ursprungs—als ganz und gar “zelotisch” angesehen werden’ (Hengel, Die Zeloten, p. 287). In fact the Qumran community ended up fighting against the Romans.


 See Bryan, Render to Caesar, p. 51.


 See G. Anderson, Sage, Saint and Sophist: Holy Men and their Associates in the Early Roman Empire (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 70–72.


Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots, p. 9, n. 4.


Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots, p. 341.


 See also Brandon, Trial, pp. 126–27. This means that the claim that Lk. 9.51–56 ‘catches the spirit of Jesus’ (so Allison in R.J. Miller [ed.], The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate [Santa Rosa, ca: Polebridge, 2001], pp. 99–100) is, to put it mildly, highly unlikely.


Otto Betz, ‘Jesu Heiliger Krieg’, NovT 2 (1957), pp. 116–37. He cites e.g. Mt. 11.12/Lk. 16.16; Mt. 10.34.


Betz, ‘Jesu Heiliger Krieg’, p. 136 (‘mehr war als ein Theudas’).


 See e.g. Windisch, Der messianische Krieg, p. 39; S. Mowinckel, He That Cometh: The Messiah Concept in the Old Testament and in Later Judaism (Nashville, tn: Abingdon, 1955), p. 450; ‘Jesus die politische Messiasauffassung immer als eine Versuchung, und zwar als seine besondere Versuchung angesehen hat’ (Cullmann, Jesus und die Revolutionären, pp. 56–57, original emphasis); ‘Wir verstehen aber auch, daß das Zelotenideal für Jesus die eigentliche Versuchung war, von Anfang an’ (Cullmann, Staat, p. 12); M. Hengel, War Jesus Revolutionär? (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1970), p. 20; W.D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994; orig. edn 1974), p. 344 and n. 23.


Winter, On the Trial of Jesus, pp. 193–94.


Winter, On the Trial of Jesus, p. 192.


Winter, On the Trial of Jesus, p. 202.


Winter, On the Trial of Jesus, p. 206. ‘This does not in any way mean that he himself put forward political claims’ (p. 193).


Winter, On the Trial of Jesus, p. 206.


Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, pp. 306–317.


 See R. Horsley (ed.), Hidden Transcripts and the Arts of Resistance: Applying the Work of James C. Scott to Jesus and Paul (Leiden: Brill, 2004). See also R.A. Horsley, ‘“By the Finger of God”: Jesus and Imperial Violence’, in S. Matthews and E.L. Gibson (eds.), Violence in the New Testament (London: T&T Clark, 2005), pp. 51–80.


Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, p. 321. See also ‘Jesus’ actions and prophecies, especially those directed against the ruling institutions of his society, suggest that he was indeed mounting a more serious opposition than a mere protest… He had definitely been stirring up the people’. The expression ‘a more serious revolt’ is used elsewhere on pp. 321 and 322 (see infra).


Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, p. 321. It is true that Jesus ‘was confident that God was imminently to complete the restoration of Israel and judge the institutions that maintained injustice’ (p. 321), but such a confidence does not prevent—as Qumran’s hopes show—that one could be ready to help God as much as possible, or simply to show their commitment to God.


E. Stauffer, Jerusalem und Rom im Zeitalter Jesu Christi (Bern: Francke, 1957), pp. 123–25; E. Bammel, ‘Crucifixion as a Punishment in Palestine’, in Bammel (ed.), The Trial of Jesus, p. 161–65.


Bammel, ‘The Trial before Pilate’, p. 443.


 See e.g. G. Bornkamm, Jesus von Nazareth (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1956), p. 151; ‘Justizirrtum’ (Cullmann, Jesus und die Revolutionären, p. 51); ‘Im Hinblick auf die römische Besatzungsmacht darf man von einem politischen Mißverständnis im unmittelbaren Sinn reden’ (H.-W. Kuhn, ‘Die Kreuzesstrafe während der frühen Kaiserzeit. Ihre Wirklichkeit und Wertung in der Umwelt des Christentums’, anrw 25.1 [Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1982], pp. 648–793, here p. 735); R. Bultmann, ‘Das Verhältnis der urchristlichen Christusbotschaft zum historischen Jesus’, in idem, Exegetica. Aufsätze zur Erforschung des Neuen Testaments (ed. E. Dinkler; Tübingen: Mohr–Siebeck, 1967), p. 453; M.J. Wilkins, ‘Peter’s Declaration Concerning Jesus’ Identity in Caesarea Philippi’, in Bock and Webb (eds.), Key Events in the Life of the Historical Jesus, pp. 293–381, esp. 348: ‘misunderstood by the common people, the religious authorities, and the political and military regime to the extent that it resulted in the execution’.


 See e.g. A. Brent, A Political History of Early Christianity (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2009), p. 31. See also Bryan, Render to Caesar, p. 59 (‘the Sanhedrin, believing that God’s honor required the death of the deceiver, took Jesus before Pilate’); Brown, The Death of the Messiah, I, p. 547.


 See A. Neumann, Jesus (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1906), p. 157. ‘Though pagans also took seriously the matter of dishonoring the gods, they could hardly be expected to appreciate the Sanhedrin’s sensitivities over someone who had blasphemed the God of Israel. So…the Sanhedrin’s representatives chose to restate the charges against Jesus for Pilate’s benefit. They presented Jesus as guilty not so much of blasphemy as of maiestas laesa’ (Bryan, Render to Caesar, p. 60); ‘From the perspective of the Jewish authorities, Jesus did not claim to be “king of the Jews” in the sense in which Pilate understood the term. But the term functioned pragmatically for them, for it translated their concerns into terms that Pilate could both understand and view as a threat’ (Webb, ‘The Roman Examination’, p. 758).


 See e.g. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, pp. 301–302, 318; Horsley, The Prophet Jesus, pp. 145–46.


 See Meggitt, ‘The Madness of King Jesus’, p. 384.


S. Bøe, Cross-Bearing in Luke (Tübingen: Mohr–Siebeck, 2010), pp. 17–18; Davies, The Gospel and the Land, p. 340.


G. Samuelsson, Crucifixion in Antiquity: An Inquiry into the Background and Significance of the New Testament Terminology of Crucifixion (Tübingen: Mohr–Siebeck, 2011), p. 242.


 E.g. Cullmann, Staat, p. 23; idem, Jesus und die Revolutionären, p. 68.


 See Lampe, ‘The Two Swords’, p. 338. According to this author, ‘of all the attempts to make sense of Luke 22:35–38 as a factual record perhaps the best is that of Cyril of Alexandria… He understood Jesus to be foretelling the Jewish war’ (‘The Two Swords’, p. 350). For a recent example of the endless puzzlement, see E. Voigt, Die Jesusbewegung. Hintergründe ihrer Entstehung und Ausbreitung—Eine historisch-exegetische Untersuchung über die Motive der Jesusnachfolge (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2008), pp. 268–71: ‘Die Empfehlung, ein Schwert zu kaufen, kann aber nur eine punktuelle Sache sein’ (p. 271).


 See resp. W. Western, ‘The Enigma of the Swords’, ExpT 50 (1939), p. 377; H. Helmbold, Vorsynoptische Evangelien (Stuttgart: Klotz, 1953), p. 41.


 See Lampe, ‘The Two Swords’, p. 34; see also pp. 342, 351.


Cullmann, Jesus und die Revolutionären, pp. 68–69.


Lampe, ‘The Two Swords’, pp. 343–45; B.T. Viviano, ‘The High Priest’s Servant’s Ear: Mark 14:47’, rb 96 (1989), pp. 71–80.


E. Schweizer, Das Evangelium nach Markus (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1968), p. 183; ‘The most likely inference from Mark is that the sword-wielder belonged to a third group’ (Brown, The Death of the Messiah, I, pp. 266–67); ‘One of a group who had followed Judas and his group out of curiosity’ (M.E. Boring, Mark. A Commentary [Louisville, ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006], p. 402).


 See F. Bermejo-Rubio, ‘Has the Hypothesis of a Seditionist Jesus been Dealt a Fatal Blow? A Systematic Answer to the Doubters’, Bandue. Revista de la Sociedad Española de Ciencias de las Religiones 7 (2013), pp. 19–57.


 See e.g. Hengel, War Jesus Revolutionär?, p. 16; Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, pp. 304–305; Theissen and Merz, Der historische Jesus, p. 403; Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation, p. 204; among many others.


Cullmann, Jesus und die Revolutionären, p. 24; Hengel, War Jesus Revolutionär?, pp. 20–22; Hengel, Die Zeloten, p. 386; H. Merkel, ‘The Opposition between Jesus and Judaism’, in Bammel and Moule (eds.), Jesus and the Politics of his Day, pp. 129–44, esp. 143–44; Klassen, ‘Jesus and the Zealot Option’, p. 21; Pesce, ‘Ricerche recenti’, pp. 76–78; ‘If Jesus did indeed teach that love of neighbor included love of enemies, as most agree, then that alone knocks a large hole in any thesis that Jesus sought a military solution’ (Dunn, Jesus Remembered, p. 624).


 See Rev. 13.10; H. Kosmala, ‘Matthew xxvi 52—A Quotation from the Targum’, NovT 4 (1960), pp. 3–5.


C. Keith, ‘Memory and Authenticity: Jesus Tradition and What Really Happened’, ZnW 102 (2011), pp. 155–77, here 174.


M. Casey, From Jewish Prophet to Gentile God: The Origins and Development of New Testament Christology (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1991), p. 171.


Klassen, ‘Jesus and the Zealot Option’, p. 21.


S.G.F. Brandon, ‘Jesus and the Zealots: Aftermath’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library Manchester 54.1 (1971), pp. 47–66, at p. 51.


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