Was Jesus a Militant Leader?
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When you dig into the secular writing about Jesus of Nazareth, or even the Scriptures for that matter, you notice information that appears to contradict what we have been taught about the peaceful nature of the man. Some quotes suggest that he may have been a militant revolutionary in addition to a charismatic spiritual leader. The subject of this article is to look at the history and the quotes from our sources, to see what we may uncover.
Religion is one of the most difficult topics for a historian because it treads on human sensitivity. There are 2 billion Christians in the world who have accepted the accuracy of the story of Jesus, as portrayed in the gospels. I do not question those beliefs, but at the same time, I want to look for the truth which results from an analytical approach to the information extant on the subject.
The subject matter in this instance is made more difficult because there are heavy political agendas at work – understandable at the beginning but now dogma after two millennia. The early Christians sought to give meaning to the events that overwhelmed them when their leader was crucified so their writings reflected the ardor they felt. Later, the fully formed Catholic Church attacked the Jewish people because it wanted to separate itself as a new religion and show favoritism to the Romans who had just gone to war against the Jews. The Jews, themselves, tried to distance themselves from the early Christians who they saw as seriously deviant from the law of the Torah.
And so we begin with the “cleansing of the temple”
Matt 21:12. “And Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer'; but you make it a den of robbers."
John 2:14. “In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house will consume me.”
What really happened here? Was there violence? It appears so.
The above drawing shows the temple layout. The holy sanctuary is in the center, and on either side are open areas referred to as the Court of the Gentiles. It was here that tables were set up by merchants to sell sacrificial animals. In other words they were providing a necessary function for those wishing to sacrifice in the temple.
The temple had a significant security force. A cohort of Roman soldiers was stationed at the Antonia Fortress and there was also a Jewish “police” force protecting the holy site.
To quote from the Jewish encyclopedia – “The priests and Levites of the Second Temple were organized into groups, with proper officers or captains. Under the high priest the senior officer was more generally designated as his lieutenant. The officer named in the passages quoted in Acts 4:1 corresponds to the one given the same title by Josephus. He is the captain of the Levitical temple-guard, a body of police, referred to also in Luke 22:4. The officers that assisted in the arrest of Jesus cited in John 18:12, may have belonged to this company.”
The temple area was a busy place with perhaps 20,000 people there at one time.
The passages above describe the driving of merchants and money changers out of the temple. How many were driven out -- one, ten, one hundred? If Jesus wanted to create a memorable demonstration, it would have to have been large enough to include physical violence. The Temple police would not have allowed the commotion to escalate before getting involved. Perhaps Jesus had a large group with him (200?). They would have held off the security forces while the demonstration was underway, and then fought their way free.
The Temple episode is further tied to subsequent events, the next being Jesus’ betrayal by Judas. Judas led the authorities to Jesus and his followers and kissed him as a means of identification. They must have been in a secret location because the Pharisees would not have paid Judas money to find someone they could find themselves. He had to be giving away their location. Were they in hiding because of the violence at the temple?
When they Pharisees arrive at the garden, the following happens:
Mark 14:43 “And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign saying, “The one I shall kiss the man; seize him and lead him away under guard.” And when he came, he went up to him at once, and said “Master!” And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him. But one of those who stood by drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?”
So Jesus’ associates were armed. It doesn’t say who wielded the sword so we don’t know if it was one of the eleven remaining disciples, but Jesus undoubtedly had more than eleven men with him, perhaps a body guard or a small militia. The “twelve” always stand as his closest followers, but there are several occasions in the Bible where a larger group is mentioned. In Luke, for example, Jesus sends out seventy to preach.
Note the following Gospel passages that reference the use of swords and their purpose.
Matt 10:34. “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.”
Luke 22:36. “Then said he unto them, but now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.
For I say unto you, that this that is written must yet be accomplished in me, And he was reckoned among the transgressors: for the things concerning me have an end.
And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, it is enough.”
Where Jesus followers always armed? Obviously we don’t know, but again, there is this subtle thread of militancy.
Now Jesus is arrested and we segue to the trial. There has been much debate about this. One thing for certain is that crucifixion is punishment for sedition against Rome and stoning is the Jewish punishment for crimes against the religion, so Pilate must have been convinced of the reality of Jesus’ crimes against Rome in order to condemn him. We know so little about Pilate and have no primary source information about this episode, so it’s hard to guess what was in his mind. I doubt that he was the wimp portrayed in the Gospels – letting the Pharisees talk him into killing Jesus.
“So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” But they can’t see to it themselves and at the same time use the Roman punishment. In the next sequence Roman guards take him to the Praetorium were he is scourged – totally under control of the Romans.
These three scenes from the Gospels give us a hint of militancy at work. But are we imagining something that isn’t there? It’s not unusual for historians to consider facts detrimental to the image of Jesus as true. Their reasoning -- no Gospel writer would knowingly hurt Jesus’ image unless the facts were accurate. The most famous case of this is the baptism by John. Explaining why a sinless man would need to be purified had been problematic for the apologists over the centuries.
In the cases cited above we have just a few threads to go on. Why were Jesus and his followers hiding, until their location was given away by Judas? Were the events in the Temple violent and seditious as seen through the eyes of the Procurator? Why did Pilate condemn Jesus to a Roman death? We just don’t have definitive answers.
I have no problem imaging Jesus as militant for his cause. The mission in Galilee was a failure and the people did not understand the urgency of his message. With time passing and the end getting closer he may have felt an increasing urgency to make the people realize what was coming. He was certainly militant in thought and speech regarding the poor and downtrodden. Why not militant by action also?