Jesus As Political Dissident

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In addition
to being a mystic, healer and teacher, Jesus Christ was a social
prophet and movement initiator in the tradition of the social prophets
of ancient Israel.1 These social prophets were
noteworthy for their sacred or mystical experiences as well as their
radical criticism of the existing social-political order. As Marcus
Borg explains, they were spirit-fueled advocates of social justice.
To understand this facet of Jesus' mission, it is important to understand
this and the historical context in which Jesus lived. 

As far back
as Moses in the 13th century BCE, Jewish social prophets
had protested what was at the time the most common form of economic
and political order – the ancient domination system. 
These domination systems were marked by political oppression (they
were hierarchal and patriarchal), economic exploitation (they owned
the land and taxed their subjects) and religious legitimacy (the
social order reflected the will of God).

This was the
system in Egypt when Moses led two million Hebrew slaves to their
freedom. It was the same system that was later recreated in Israel,
with the king effectively becoming the new pharaoh.  According
to the theology of the ancient Jews, the king of Israel was the
son of God, to whom God had promised an everlasting kingdom. 
The ancient Jews believed that God dwelled in the temple in Jerusalem,
next to the king’s palace.  There was no separation of church
and state – the temple and the king stood together at the top
of the domination system. The social prophets spared neither — they
criticized both the temple and the king and advocated social justice
for the oppressed and exploited.

Of course,
the situation of the oppressed and exploited only became worse when
the Romans invaded Judea in 63 BCE, making it a client-kingdom not
unlike the client-state of Vichy France during World War II or the
client-state that the U.S. is attempting to create in Iraq today.

The rule of
the Romans was marked by dissent and revolt by the Judeans. The
most noteworthy of the rulers appointed by the Romans was Herod
the Great. Herod was originally appointed governor of only Galilee.
When the Parthinians invaded Judea in 40 BCE, Herod fled to Rome.
It was there that Mark Antony appointed him King of Judea. In 31
BCE, Octavian defeated Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium. Herod
quickly switched allegiances to Octavian, who confirmed him as King
of Judea in 30 BCE. Herod had successfully retained his position
as client-king.

In an effort
to ingratiate himself to the people of Judea, Herod began the expansion
of the Second Temple in 20 BCE, which was then inaugurated in 10
BCE. Still, because of his attempts to displace the Jewish ruling
elite, his strict loyalty to Rome and his policy of heavy taxation,
he was not popular in Judea.

After Herod
the Great's death in 4 BCE, Caesar Augustus divided Herod's kingdom
among his three sons. Augustus allotted Herod Archelaus the greater
part of the kingdom — including Samaria, Judea and Idumea. Herod
Antipas was allotted Galilee and Peraea. Herod Philip received the
remainder.

It is generally
agreed that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem shortly before
Herod the Great's death, probably around 5 BCE. Therefore, Jesus
lived most of his life — and all of his adult life — under the rule
of Herod Antipas. During Jesus' life, the tension between the Jews
and the Roman/Judean domination system remained high. Because of
their belief that they were God's chosen people, and were not meant
to be captives or subjects of another authority, the Jews resented
Roman rule.

The most vocal
of the critics were usually dealt with harshly. For example, because
Herod Antipas viewed John the Baptist as a threat to the existing
order, he executed him. John the Baptist was Jesus' close friend
and mentor. It was John who had baptized Jesus around 27 CE.

This then was
the political and personal climate for Jesus as he was heading from
Galilee to Jerusalem for Passover Week in 30 CE. At the beginning
of Passover Week, Jesus entered Jerusalem in a provocative manner.
He rode into Jerusalem from the east on a donkey as his followers
chanted words that linked him to the kingdom of David, the greatest
of ancient Israel’s kings.  At about the same time, the Roman
governor Pilate entered the city from the west at the head of a
squadron of Roman cavalry.  At a minimum, Jesus' actions would
have been interpreted by the Romans as an act of political protest
and civil disobedience.

Moreover, later
that week, as he taught in the temple court, he had engaged in verbal
conflict with the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the temple authorities. 
It was at this time that the Pharisees tried to trap him by asking
whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.  The Sadducees
sought to trip him up by telling the tale of a woman married to
seven brothers and asking him whose wife she would be in the afterlife.
Finally, the scribes asked him to identify the greatest commandment.

It was his
act of overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the temple
court in Jerusalem, however, that ultimately triggered his arrest
in the gardens at Gethsemane.

Jesus was tried
and convicted of blasphemy and sedition and executed by crucifixion,
a Roman form of execution commonly used for two categories of people
– political rebels and chronically defiant slaves.  These
two groups shared something in common.  They both systematically
defied the established authority.  Because Jesus was not a
slave, it makes sense that he was crucified as a political threat
to the Roman order.

It is doubtful,
however, that the Romans acted alone.  Instead, it is widely
believed that they acted with a small circle of Jewish temple authorities. 
After all, Jesus was tried and convicted of both blasphemy and sedition.
The Roman and Jewish ruling elite arrested and executed him to avoid
criticism and popular unrest much like they had done earlier with
Jesus’ mentor, John the Baptist.

Thus, Jesus
was killed because he stood against the Roman and Jewish authorities
in favor of an alternate political and social order.  He was
indeed a political rebel with a cause — the liberation of his people
from the Roman and Judean domination system of his day.

Notes

  1. For an
    excellent discussion of the many facets of Jesus, see Borg and
    Wright, The
    Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions
    (Harper San Francisco, 1999).

December
13, 2005

Jeff
Peshut [send him mail]
lives with his wife and two children in Denver, Colorado. He is
a real estate investment manager with a major institutional real
estate investment management firm.

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