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Jesus as Zealot? An Insurrection You Probably Read Right Past

August 14, 2013

The publicity around Reza Aslan’s recent book on Jesus: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth has shown that both scholars and lay people are far from settled, 2000 years later, on just who Jesus was. What was his main identity and mission?

Corcovado jesus

Corcovado jesus (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

Aslan’s point of Jesus having been a nationalist zealot (though not member of the “Zealot” party dedicated to violent revolution) is not a new one, by any means.  A certain “line” of New Testament and Christian Origins scholars has been contending this for a very long time, with increasing detail and support as the surrounding scholarly fields have matured and further archaeological discoveries been made.

I won’t take space today to review the points of this scholarship… an extensive project.  I merely want to tweak your curiosity and point out something I think should be of much greater interest than it seems to have been up to now. As my title suggests, there is something almost hidden in what most Christians have read (or heard read/preached), probably repeatedly, in the Gospel stories of Jesus’ crucifixion.  It at the least puts Jesus right in the context of a Jewish insurrection against Rome…. not necessarily that he was involved in it or sanctioned it.  But there are a number of curious things in the texts that are hard to put together.

Now, I don’t mean the major rebellion 30-some years later that became a horrendous war of 4 years and ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE.  That one is of particular importance to the New Testament (NT) and the origins of Christianity; and the NT is curiously vague and seemingly evasive about it.  (That is, based on the consensus dating of the Gospels and Acts as written after the war, or even just Acts if not the Gospels… Acts written after Luke by the common author’s own claim. Even if the Gospels/Acts are pre-70 in present form, they avoid almost all direct discussion of the contentious political and economic situation.)

Back to the pre-crucifixion narrative, did you notice the insurrection mentioned just in passing? (And largely hidden by unfortunate translations in most popular versions until recent decades, especially the King James Version?)

This insurrection appears at least indirectly in all the Gospels.  We encounter three rebels from this uprising… two as the “thieves” (a Greek term often now translated “bandits” and connoting guerrilla fighters or insurrectionists) crucified on each side of Jesus.  But also, the prisoner released rather than Jesus, upon the offer of Pilate, named Barabbas, is clearly an insurrectionist – a “notable” or “notorious” prisoner (KJV, NIV, Matt. 27:16).  He is also said to have “committed murder in the uprising” (Mk. 15:7, NIV; KJV has “insurrection”).  The picture is building of something more than the raging of a madman.

Mark 15 has it that Barabbas was in prison with “the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising” (the Greek text makes it clear that insurrectionists [plural] had committed murder, not Barabbas alone).  So we have at least 3 rebels and more than one of them has committed murder…. Based on other NT accounts as well as those of the historian, Josephus, it is likely that the number of rebels would have been substantial. The way the story goes throughout the four Gospels, the implication is of an insurrection of some note. For example, in Mark we have the wording quoted above, as if readers would know what “the insurrection” was.  More in flow with the story would be “an uprising” (it not yet having been referred to).  But we read “the uprising”.  It is possible Mark indirectly had told us of “the” insurrection?  

The only thing in the preceding story by Mark that might be considered an uprising of sorts is the “cleansing of the Temple” incident by Jesus.  The real situation (assuming, at least for the moment, that the basic incident as well as the others described did happen) remains murky in comparing the Gospels.  But Mark (ch. 11) has it that upon upsetting the tables of the money-changers, “driving out those who were buying and selling there”, Jesus “would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts” (a very large area, clearly implying the help of at least his immediate disciples or others).  

It doesn’t say for how long he shut down this commerce vital to Temple operations but the incident was, in the story, just days before the crucifixion.  (John, interestingly, has the same basic story set at the beginning of a multiple-year ministry of Jesus, and nothing comparable at the end.)  

At any rate, whether or not Mark intended to connect “the insurrection” with the “cleansing” incident, neither he nor the other Gospel writers saw fit to (otherwise?) describe the rebellion in which at least three fighters were captured.  And there had been multiple deaths… not a mere “peaceful protest” or a small scuffle! I do think it is safe to assume it was very close to the time of the crucifixion.  That is because we know that the Roman soldiers crucified many, many rebels and seemed to do so with little if any formal trial and swiftly upon being captured….  The whole point was for the public torture and disgrace to be a strong deterrent to other potential rebels… counterproductive to keep prisoners for long if they are destined for execution.  

Jesus, on the cross, is mocked in Calvary as t...

Jesus, on the cross, is mocked in Calvary as the King of the Jews, Luke 23:36-37 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 So why do the Gospel writers all include the fact of an insurrection, probably near the time of the crucifixion and in or near the geographically small city of Jerusalem which swelled to nearly a million in temporary population around Passover?  Why do so, yet basically downplay its seeming significance? A number of answers are possible but I won’t here go into exploring that.

But isn’t it at least interesting that Jesus, while his message does seem to have been non-violence consistently, used some kinds of force in the “cleansing” incident, though perhaps not causing injury? (Or was it a major violent event, purposely toned down in the Gospels?) And further interesting that Jesus was crucified in the context of insurrection? It was among what may have been fairly regular, mostly small uprisings against the Romans and/or the ruling Jewish elite who collaborated with them.  (The late 1st-century Jewish historian for Rome, Josephus, wrote a lot about such uprisings and the general turmoil of the times.)  Throughout the rest of the Gospels, we get hardly a hint of the tense situation throughout Galilee and Judea, including Jerusalem, during the time of Jesus’ ministry. Everything appears to be pretty settled, calm and “normal”…. But was it?

And could Jesus’ action in the Temple courts have been either intended or taken as a serious challenge to the ruling authorities rather than just religious symbolism?  

What do you think, and what does “the insurrection” and the context bring to mind for you?

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