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Did Jesus Favor Armed Rebellion Against Rome?

In response both to my thread on Judas and to my post on Barabbas from last week, a number of readers have asked or suggested that the stories about both figures may be explained on the hypothesis that Jesus was indeed a kind of insurrectionist who supported an armed rebellion against Rome.  That would explain possibly why Judas turned on him, and why he is treated equally to Barabbas, himself guilty of murder during an attempted insurrection.

I have dealt with the issue on the blog, but it has been many years now.  The first time I addressed it at any length (in 2013!) was in response to the then recently-published book Zealot by Reza Aslan.  This was the first book about Jesus ever to become the Number One bestseller on the NYTimes bestseller list, and back then lots and lots of people had been reading it.

It is a brilliantly written book: Aslan is a professor of creative writing.  He is smart, creative, and knows how to spin fine narrative.  But even though he has a degree in religious studies, he does not have advanced degrees in New Testament, or biblical studies, Jewish studies, classics, or anything connected with religion in antiquity.

The thesis of his book is that Jesus was indeed in support of a violent revolution against Rome — not, say, a preacher of love of enemy and peace among all, or a simple rabbinic-like interpreter of Torah, or an apocalyptic prophet expecting God to intervene soon in the world, or anything else.  He was zealous for the Promised Land and wanted Jews to take it back, by force if necessary.  That’s what got him killed.

I devoted a rather long thread to evaluating the book, from the perspective of scholarship on the NT, ancient Judaism, the Roman world, etc. (just search for his name on the blog and you’ll see).   Even though I appreciated the creativity and the writing of the book, I found it problematic; I devoted a number of posts to the flat-out mistakes it makes (with respect to the Roman world, Judaism at the time, the New Testament, etc.)  Then I eventually got around to the central thesis.  Was Jesus in support of a violent overthrow of Rome?

Here I’ll repost some of the things I said back then, to give my answer to the question, in light of Aslan’s thesis.  You will not need to have read (or even know about) his book to make sense of what I say here.

************************************************************************

I have not completed my evaluation of Reza Aslan’s popular, interesting, and well-written account of Jesus, Zealot.   One could think that Aslan may have gotten this, that, or the other fact wrong — about the Roman world, about Judaism, about the Gospels, about the historical Jesus – but that his overarching thesis is nonetheless intact and compelling.  And so now I want to address the thesis itself, that Jesus is best understood as a political revolutionary intent on the military overthrow of Rome – or at least the expulsion of Rome from the Promised Land and the establishment of a sovereign state of Israel, all to be done by force.

As I have stressed early on in this series of posts, this is not a new thesis.  It was in fact the very first thesis …

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Did the Gospel Writers Invent Barabbas? Readers’ Mailbag

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Shawnmrmsh  June 15, 2020

    Another NT passage that has been used to try and “prove” Jesus was organizing a military insurgency, is The Feeding of the Five Thousand. I’ve read claims that since Jesus divided the five thousand into groups of 50 and 100, it “proves” the five thousand was a military force. I’ve always found that interpretation amusing.

  2. Avatar
    janmaru  June 15, 2020

    So Aslan built up his own book, making it fit with his own ideas and bending facts. How surprising!
    It’s like going to court and after the hearing, the jury compares the fascinating story told by the man who was charged with the boring analytical data collected by the forensic and let the judged free ’cause they can’t figure out how such a nice narrative could be wrong. On the other hand, data would be too specific to be understood.

    My question is if a narrative looks so compelling to sound true and appeals to a general understanding of the facts (sort of common sense) and to disprove it, a higher degree of knowledge is needed, then what makes “truth” so desirable? And also who would believe that truth?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      Truth is desirable because without the higher knowledge error can’t be exposed and error is never good. E.g., if Jesus really was a violent military leader and he called people to follow him, what does that lead to. I’m not saying he wasn’t one *because* of that potential outcome, but if he was a peace-maker then those who follow him should be as well; but you get there only becuase you realize the truth. I’m not saying that the truth always leads to good outcomes; if you choose to be a follower of teh true teachings of Hitler, well…. I’m just saying truth matters. Think, e.g., of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

      • Avatar
        janmaru  June 17, 2020

        Error is just a byproduct of measurement. It’s inevitable any time things are evaluated, so the perception of the error depends on the context. If a higher truth was even possible it would not be reasonable to sell it out without making it authentic. I recollect you saying that repeating the same idea many times doesn’t make it true, but I feel it could make it authoritative. And I don’t feel Jesus’ followers were somehow concerned with “peace-making”. Peace-making sounds more like a modern concept.
        I do agree that it’s not possible to judge people from their fruits. But the tree is withered from its roots.

  3. Avatar
    Matt2239  June 15, 2020

    “Turn the other cheek,” “go the the extra mile,” “love your enemies” and “render unto Caesar” are not the sort of things an insurgent revolutionary would say. That alone could have put him at odds with the local religious leadership, who, as evidenced by the destruction of their temple some years later, wanted a violent insurrection against Rome. The breaking point might have been when Jesus declared himself king of a kingdom that was “not of this world,” as he told Pilate. Jesus carved out a unique territory to claim as his realm — the human heart, soul, and spirit. You know that angered them.

  4. Avatar
    Kmbwhitmore  June 15, 2020

    I do not believe that Jesus was planning insurrection. The acting king Archelaus Herod had been removed for incompetence which is why Pontus Pilate was the governor. It would be legitimate for Jesus as a Jew to offer himself up as their King which would fill a vacancy but more importantly fulfill prophecy as well (“Your King will come humbly riding on a donkey”.)
    Jesus rendered unto Caesar what was Caesar’s by paying his taxes and even healed a Roman soldiers aide.
    Judas was considered to be a disciple and I think he was just looking to make an easy and fast buck. He fully expected Jesus would be found innocent and released. He had not expected the events that actually occurred and felt so bad he went out and committed suicide.

  5. Avatar
    veritas  June 15, 2020

    I heard a couple of interviews of Reza Aslan and passionately declares that he is an “Historian”, ” Scholarship is a debate over ancient history” and lastly” Romans explicitly crucified people only for sedition against the State”. From these views I can see why he believes Jesus was a zealot. Offers his view from what he declares,twenty years of research on the topic. Or, wisely, may have picked a controversial topic to stir the interest of many to read his book. Fascinating.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      If he said that the Romans only crucified people for sedition he was absolutely wrong. He is indeed doing history. But since he has no advanced training in Roman, Jewish, or Christian antiquity, and has not read terribly widely in these fields, he makes tons of mistakes — just flat out errors. As I would do if I tried to write in the field that he has a PhD in, which I believe is sociology. If you want to see some of his mistakes, I spent several blog posts laying some of them out (not all!) when I was reviewing his book. Just search for his name and you’ll find the posts.

  6. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  June 15, 2020

    So you oppose the idea that Jesus led a rebellion against Rome as argued by Reza Aslan. One thing that caught my eye in his book “Zealot” was his argument on why James, Jesus brother, was overcast by Peter and Paul. The reason he said, was that it had to to do with dynasty. James was the brother of Jesus and it did not sit well in later centuries when christians believed that Mary was a perpetual virgin. It created an obstacle, so James gradually disappeared as leader overtime. What do you make of that idea in “Zealot”?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      I don’t know of much evidence that that is the reason James fell from prominence. The usual answer is that he was known to support a form of Jewish Christianity (followers of Jesus had to keep the law of Moses) that was not widely accepted.

  7. Avatar
    Clair  June 16, 2020

    Most of these verses that paint a different view of Jesus, seem to have been dropped in without regard to the story being told? While tossing in a few puzzles has a long tradition in oral teaching, do they make sense in the Greek of the time even as a text where not every verse is read and explained to every student?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      I”m not sure which verses you have in mind. If you’ll name them and then explain why they don’t seem to fit, I’d be able to respond.

  8. Avatar
    DoubtingTom  June 16, 2020

    Jesus couldn’t have possibly figured a couple armed fishermen or farmers could rout the reinforced Roman occupying force. Divine intervention had to be expected?

    Was Jesus trying force God’s hand, to get the new kingdom ball rolling?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      Yes, he expected divine intervention. But no, I don’t think he was trying to force God’s hand. I don’t think he was expecting to get crucified.

  9. Avatar
    btran  June 16, 2020

    I would like to say, as an educator, I don’t think we don’t need to discredit someone because they don’t have credentials. I tell my students to look at the facts and sources not the person’s credentials (extremely elitist to say that non-PhD’s can’t research, learn, talk about a topic. I’m not suggesting that you, Dr. Ehrman promote this elitism, but this is what I get from reading the beginning of your post and in your 2013 post. Yes, I have been a fan of your work that long!).

    I have many issues with Reza Aslan, but he does have a graduate degree in, I believe, New Testament studies and a Ph.D. in Sociology of Regions, which his supervisor has said he has taken many graduate courses in ancient history, history of religions, and so on. His dissertation was on Muslim political activism, so this expertise can maybe add a new angle in understanding the historical Jesus that historians can’t access.

    All of that being said, interesting post!

    • Bart
      Bart  June 17, 2020

      You’re right. Teh fact someone doesn’t have an advanced degree does not make them wrong about something. But if someone doesn’t have a degree and makes tons of mistakes in what he says — mistakes that not even a graduate student would make — then there is probably some connection. Sociology of religion would have no relevance for understanding the ancient Roman world; and Islam is not even distantly related to the history of early Christainity. I myself have worked in this field non-stop for over 40 years, and I would never ever write a book on Islam. It just isn’t what I do or can do. Let alone sociology of religion. These really are technical fields.
      The reason people need to have advanced training in a field — whehter astrophysics, or Latin philology, or medieval French history — is because it is virtually impossible to learn at an advanced level what you need to know in order to be an expert, without that kind of sustained training. It doesn’t need to be an elitist view — it’s true of lots of things. But it’s certainly more true of some things than others. Some fields require massive tehnical expertise, and others don’t. You can’t be an expert, for example, in Greek texts if you can’t read Greek at a very sophisticated level. And I don’t think I know anyone who can do that without extensive literary / philological training in Greek. And, of course, I’ve known thousands of people who are deeply intersted in certain Greek texts, and have very interesting and important things to say about them. But they can’t work at an expert level. Just can’t. Any more than I can play second base in the Major Leagues. I just can’t, even though I’d like to think I can!
      But let me state emphatically the reverse as well. The fact that someone *does* have advanced training in the field NEVER EVER makes them right about something!!

      • Avatar
        btran  June 17, 2020

        Thank you for your response, Dr. Ehrman! I can see where you are coming from now.

  10. Avatar
    Chad Stuart  June 16, 2020

    “Jesus, rather than wanting a political revolution against Rome, was principally an apocalyptic preacher who thought that *God* (not Jesus and his followers, or an army he would lead into battle) was soon to overthrow the forces of evil (the Romans and their supporters among the Jewish aristocracy) in a divine act of judgment.”

    To me, this settles the issue.

    If Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher, which the Gospels and Paul (although he didn’t meet him he must have known some stories) describe him as, then it does not make logical sense for him to have planned an armed rebellion.

    Another data point is that Jesus focused on the corruption of the Pharisees who he felt were keeping people away from God, not on the Roman occupation. That’s not the behavior of person who wanted to lead a violent overthrow of the Romans.

  11. fefferdan
    fefferdan  June 16, 2020

    I thought Aslan’s book was well written and extremely thought provoking. While I too reject the thesis that Jesus was a Zealot, I agree that we have to take the idea seriously. Also about saying he was the future king, from the Roman viewpoint it must have mattered little whether Jesus thought he was an apocalyptic preacher, a teacher of love and forgiveness, a would-be messiah, or all three rolled into one [a new Trinity!]. Once he violently attacked the money changers, he became threat to the Temple authorities and an insurrectionist in Roman eyes, especially if there were truly violent insurrectionists about, such a Barabbas and the two rebel/robbers [Mark 14] crucified with Jesus. My thought is that Jesus acted out of character when he attacked the money changers, a sort of repetition of Moses striking the Rock instead of speaking to it at a key moment. This provided a legal basis for him to be accused as a rebel even if that wasn’t his real intent. And so, Jesus like Moses, Jesus couldn’t enter the hoped for kingdom on earth [as in heaven], but only in spirit [not of this world].

    • Avatar
      meohanlon  June 17, 2020

      It seems like we agree on a lot. I’m actually putting that into a story I’m writing about Jesus’ pre-ministry life, from the point of view of one of the disciples, a decade or so after his death. I have him make a similar comparison to Moses (that the disciples being Jews first and foremost would’ve appreciated) – he may lead them to the promised land, even if he can’t be there to join them in the flesh. And the “in spirit” thing, which they regarded as a new transcendental-immanent bodily existence, would account for the resurrection experiences.

  12. Avatar
    Shawnmrmsh  June 16, 2020

    Yeah, the creativity of some interpretations of the NT amaze me.

  13. Avatar
    meohanlon  June 17, 2020

    Prof. Ehrman,

    This is a great response to Aslan’s book, and it is nice to see one scholar giving another due credit, even if he doesn’t agree with the other’s conclusions.
    However when I re-read “Zealot” recently, I’m not so convinced that he is endorsing a militant view of Jesus. He does note in some places that his opposition to Rome/Jewish leadership (who served Rome) was non-violent, (or accepts violence only as a last resort? )Maybe the title is a bit misleading.
    I have to say I liked Aslan’s interpretation of the famous “render unto” as NOT calling for sheepish obedience to Rome’s rule, the way post-fall-of-Jerusalem Christians may have read it. If he actually put it this way, he did so because he was being cornered by the authorities; and would damn himself by either explicitly agreeing or disagreeing. Why wouldn’t Jesus consider the occupied land itself to be what is God’s; and that Romans can take their wretched money and leave?
    Moreover, it makes sense if there’s historic basis for the charges brought against him in Luke (which also makes sense of his penalty) – besides stopping tax collectors from their sinful way of life, at least in the case of my namesake, Matthew.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      I think the whole premise of the book is that Jesus supported a violent take-back of the promised land!

  14. Avatar
    roycecil  June 17, 2020

    I think what Reza Aslan did is to make Jesus a revolutionary so Mohammed looks like a logical consequence..

    • Bart
      Bart  June 18, 2020

      I never had the sense that Aslan was an avid Muslim apologist. Do I have that wrong?

  15. 1SonOfZeus
    1SonOfZeus  June 25, 2020

    Bart, in Exodus 7, Moses and his older brother Aaron were mentioned. Because, Aaron was not that great of a speaker. Did Aaron carry anything like Moses did?

    Also, line 52 Gospel of Thomas

    (52) His disciples said to him, “Twenty-four prophets spoke in Israel, and all of them spoke in you.”
    He said to them, “You have omitted the one living in your presence and have spoken (only) of the dead.”

    Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads.

    Did John have time to count all the thrones? Why 24?
    My question is, do we know who those 24 prophets were? I am just curious.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2020

      1. Nope 2. Probably 12 heads of the tribes of Israel and 12 apostles of Jesus.

  16. Avatar
    dankoh  June 27, 2020

    I have a question about the “empty tomb,” based on rereading _How Jesus Became God_. Is it possible that one reason the gospels were so intent on having an empty tomb and thus showing bodily resurrection, that they were opposing the Docetists, who held that Jesus only appeared to be a human being?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 28, 2020

      It’s possible, I would say. And I would say that certainly should be considered for the passages where Jesus stresses that he can be touched, and can eat after the resurrection.

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