Jesus As Political Dissident

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