Were Jesus and his followers armed? That’s the question for this week’s Readers’ Mailbag. I had started to address the question when I realized that I had already said what I have to say as well as I could say it in my recent book Jesus Before the Gospels. And so I will give that discussion here. So, here’s the question and my response
What is the scholarly view on this subject: did Jesus himself, his movement and then early Christians walk around with weapons (swords, e.g.) to protect themselves, despite preaching the love for enemies? Do we have any historical evidence of how things looked like in this matter?
RESPONSE: (Taken from Jesus Before the Gospels)
In all four Gospels, at least one of Jesus’ followers is armed when he is arrested. In the Synoptics, this unnamed follower draws his sword and strikes the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear (see Mark 14:47). In John’s Gospel we learn that the sword-bearing disciple was Peter (John 18: 10). Jesus puts a halt to his follower’s violent inclination, however, and humbly submits to his arrest. In Luke’s version he does so only after healing the ear (Luke 22:51).
From the eighteenth century until the present day (starting with Hermann Samuel Reimarus, the first scholar to write a critical study of the historical Jesus in the modern period), there have been scholars, and non-scholars, who have thought that this incident in the garden is both altogether plausible and indicative of the character of Jesus’ message and mission. In this opinion, the incident must be historical for a rather simple reason. What later Christian would make up such a story? When Christians were telling and retelling their accounts of Jesus’ life in the years after his death, of course they would want him to appear entirely palatable to their audiences. Nothing would make Jesus more palatable in Roman eyes than the view that he was a peace-loving promoter of non-violence, not a violent insurrectionist against Rome. If Jesus allowed his followers to be armed, however, that would suggest he was in favor of them carrying out acts of violence. If later Christians would not make up the idea that Jesus’ promoted violence, then no one could make up the idea that his followers were armed. Following this logic, the story of the sword in the garden is not an invented tradition but a historical fact. Jesus’ followers, therefore, were armed. Moreover, if they were armed, so this reasoning goes, then Jesus must have anticipated and even promoted an armed rebellion.
There’s a good deal of sense to this view and it is easy to see why it is attractive. Still, at the end of the day I don’t find it convincing. This is for two reasons…
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