Was Jesus a Zealot? Part II

Reza Aslan’s Zealot provocatively places Matthew 10:34 as the book’s motto: “I bring not peace, but the sword.” What was the attitude of the early followers of Jesus towards violence?

One might conclude from the title and the motto that Zealot would be a rehash of the “Jesus as violent revolutionary” idea. S. G. F. Brandon, Robert Eisenman, and others have all made the case that Jesus was a militant Jewish nationalist. But Aslan’s book is more sophisticated than this; Jesus was a “zealot” with a lower-case “z,” not a member of the Zealot party.

To be clear, Jesus was not a member of the Zealot Party that launched the war with Rome . . . Nor was Jesus a violent revolutionary bent on armed rebellion, though his views on the use of violence were far more complex than it is often assumed. (Zealot, p. 79).

There are several bits of circumstantial evidence driving the idea of a more militant or military Jesus: (1) all Palestine erupted in violent revolt both before and after Jesus; (2) the church in Palestine seems to disappear from the history books after the great Jewish revolt beginning in 66 CE; (3) the weakening or destruction of the church because it actually supported the revolt is the easiest way to accommodate the previous two facts. The idea that Jesus was an advocate of armed rebellion is not Aslan’s view, by the way; but this “military” view of Jesus has been made by other scholars, such as Brandon and Eisenman. Such a “military” view has several major problems.

1. Almost all Christians from the second and third centuries were pacifist, regardless of their theological views.  This includes the Jewish Christian sects, the various “gnostic” groups, and the orthodox church. There is no direct evidence for any such “militaristic” views outside of a few ambiguous gospel sayings. While the church fathers lovingly detail all kinds of other heretical views, there are no descriptions of any heretical (or orthodox) groups which approved of violence or war at all — until we get to the time of Constantine.

2. The best known New Testament sayings of Jesus on the subject, such as “love your enemies” and “bless those that persecute you,” seem to support nonviolence.  The isolated gospel sayings to the contrary (such as Matthew 10:34, quoted above) probably refer to divisiveness rather than military conflict. Right after saying, “I bring not peace, but a sword,” Jesus continues:

For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household.  He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:35–37)

This sounds more like “a man will not listen to his father” rather than “a man will kill his father.” Jesus certainly intended to provoke controversy and division, but did not intend to undertake military action.

3. Paul, writing before the Jewish revolt of 66, speaks of nonviolence as if it were a settled issue.  Paul quotes almost exactly Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, “bless those who persecute you” (Romans 12:14, Matthew 5:44), and “repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:17, Matthew 5:39).

Paul may have simply put forward his own views, and the later gentile gospel writers just copied from Paul.  But Paul nowhere suggests that this is a contentious issue.  Paul is not afraid to confront controversy, even when that means taking on the leadership of the church.  He goes to some lengths to address the much stickier issue of eating animals sacrificed to pagan idols. This suggests that the church contended with Paul over various other issues, such as animal sacrifice, but that there was agreement over pacifism.

Aslan alludes to, but does not discuss in detail, the complexity of Jesus’ views on violence. Obviously Jesus’ disruption of the temple raises problems for the idea of a pacifist Jesus, since Jesus seems to employ some sort of force even though no one is killed.

What exactly does the “pacifism” attributed to Jesus mean here? Walter Wink gives a slightly different translation of Jesus’ saying in the gospel, “do not resist one who is evil” (Matthew 5:39).  Wink states that the word translated as “resist” (antistenai) “is used in the LXX [Septuagint, Greek translation of the Old Testament] primarily for armed resistance in military encounters (44 out of 71 times).  Josephus uses antistenai for violent struggle 15 out of 17 times, Philo 4 out of 10.”  This suggests that a better translation of Matthew 5:39 would be “do not go to war against one who is evil,” rather than “do not resist one who is evil.”

This is exactly the sort of distinction that would make sense both of Jesus’ pacifism and the incident in the temple.  Nonviolent resistance is still resistance. This is likely what Jesus intended in the temple: resistance, throwing yourself in the way, but not military action.

So in general, despite my initial fears that Reza Aslan was going to depict Jesus as a violent militarist, I liked Zealot and am inclined to agree with much of what he says. My main concern is not with what Aslan says, but what he doesn’t say: he doesn’t mention the Ebionites or Jewish Christianity, and he doesn’t really discuss in any depth the issues of animal sacrifice and vegetarianism.  It is these other contentious food issues which two decades later precipitated a split between Paul and the other disciples (Galatians 2).

Jesus was killed because he was a threat to public order. The Jewish Christian disciples of Jesus continued to carry out Jesus’ program, but modified their strategy so as not to provoke the Romans.  After Jesus, there were no further overt attempts to disrupt the temple. The early Christians still encountered violent persecution, but after Jesus it was only the temple hierarchy rather than the Romans who were their chief adversaries — an adversary closer to their own size.

As Aslan points out, Jesus’ zealotry did very much endanger the temple authorities.  Aslan’s follow-up also bears repeating: “That singular fact should color everything we read in the gospels.”

6 thoughts on “Was Jesus a Zealot? Part II

  1. Drew Hensley

    I’m glad you told me where Aslan headed with his conclusions bc I put the book down in disgust this morning. Initially one gets the impression that he thinks the text of the Bible doesn’t matter and that you can reconstruct Jesus strictly from historical circumstance which to me is pure nonsense. It also seems like he wants to say Jesus advocated military violence so I’m interested to see how he avoids that conclusion after setting us up for that conclusion in the early part of the book.

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    1. Keith Akers

      I kept waiting for Aslan to describe Jesus’ plan to take over Palestine and drive out the Romans. It never comes. The book has a lot of provocative trappings. But it is actually quite vague on just how much violence, and of what kind, Jesus advocated or would have countenanced. He mentions Jesus’ (alleged) claim to be the Messiah, the incident in the temple, and the vague gospel reports of Jesus’ sayings about “swords.” All fair enough, but it doesn’t add up to violent revolution, as Aslan himself explicitly states.

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