Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Revolutionary Message of Jesus

This is the first of a few articles from Godless Haven that has been removed and will be featured here for archive purposes. Originally written March 7, 2009.


Do a simple Google search for 'Jesus revolutionary message', and you will find countless Christian websites all claiming that the teachings of Jesus Christ were new and unique for their time, and remain so still today. Some argue that the figure in the four gospels was a perfect symbol of peace on earth, while others contend that he was a political and social extremist who defied the Roman empire and horrified the religious leadership of the day. Perhaps the most fascinating thing about the character of Jesus is that he is not so easy to pigeonhole, as the scriptures of the bible offer support for a wide variety of views. In this article, I aim to explore these different characterizations of Jesus and determine just how revolutionary his teachings were.

I. The Prince of Peace?
Christians believe that Isaiah 9:6 references Jesus Christ when it speaks of the 'Prince of Peace'. The title has since made it into countless worship songs and other Christian paraphernalia, as believers proclaim their messiah to be the greatest standard for peace that ever walked the earth. Jesus is often portrayed as a beacon of purest love, opposed to all violence and injustice, but how well do his own words in the gospels confirm this?
'Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn "a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law -- a man's enemies will be the members of his own household." Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.'
-Matthew 10:34-39
In these verses, the 'Prince of Peace' makes it abundantly clear that his teachings are not for those who desire peace. Christianity will divide families and friends, because God demands that you love him more than your own parents or your own children.
But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them -- bring them here and kill them in front of me. -Luke 19:27
Beginning in Luke 19:11, Jesus tells the parable of a king who lends out some of his money to several servants. Even though his subjects hated him and did not wish him to be king (verse 14), and one of them rightfully accused the king of taking what is not his (verse 21), the merciful dictator still decided to slay his ungrateful subjects in the end of the tale. It should not be too difficult to understand that this parable symbolizes the reign of Jesus over humanity, and those who do not accept him as their savior will be cast into hell on judgment day.
It has been said that actions speak louder than words, and not only does Jesus vocalize his opposition to peace, but his actions do support his statements, as we find in the book of John...
When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, 'Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!'
-John 2:13-16
Why would someone devoted to non-violent protest cause such a ruckus in a public place of worship? Jesus could have simply preached against the atrocities he observed in the temple, but instead he chose to physically assault both humans and animals, in addition to destroying whatever he did not like to see in the building. To some people, this action of Jesus is an example of his fanaticism against the establishment, which leads me to the second characterization that is often applied to Christ.

II. Jesus the Anarchist
Many times the suggestion has been made that Jesus Christ was crucified for defying the authority of the Roman government or for causing general unrest with his 'revolutionary' ideas. However, there is little evidence in the gospels to depict Jesus as some kind of socio-political warrior, fighting for the people against the established order. When asked about paying taxes to Caesar in Matthew 22:16-22, Jesus says, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's". This statement is unremarkable and non-revolutionary, as Christ clearly instructs his followers to obey their government and pay their taxes, while reserving their hearts and minds for God. This submission to authority is also addressed by the apostle Paul in Romans 13:1-2...
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
As self-explanatory as these verses may seem, there are still dozens of websites, books and articles devoted to characterizing Jesus as a political activist and even an anarchist. Through imaginative reinterpretations, they pretend that Jesus and Paul weren't really advocating obedience to government, just saying it because they were in a bind. If Jesus had told his followers that they could disregard the commands of Caesar, he would've been killed on the spot... right? There is another angle to this issue that deserves examination.

When someone asserts that Jesus was crucified for defying the local authorities, they usually mean one of two things:

- He was executed by the Romans for challenging the governing laws/values of their empire.
- He was executed for stirring up conflicts among the Jewish population, by blaspheming and teaching others to blaspheme.

Neither of these perspectives are concretely supported by scripture or by history. The Romans were well known to be very tolerant of other religions and beliefs, and typically incorporated some of them into their own doctrines after they conquered a people or region. In and around Jesus' day, there were vast numbers of sects and groups known as Roman mystery cults, which professed to have secret, divine knowledge [1]. If the Romans did not fear these cults or their many different gods, then why would they have objected to the teachings of Christianity? As we have already seen, Jesus taught nothing that was radically against the empire. It is strange to think the Romans would've felt threatened by the small Christian sect even if Jesus had been calling for the overthrow of the government. When Simon Bar-Kokhba led his revolt against the empire and reclaimed much of Judea a few decades after Jesus in 132 AD, Rome was largely unprepared and had to be petitioned by the local authorities to send more reinforcements [2]. Why would they have cared about the small following of a Jewish carpenter who had not yet resorted to full-blown acts of violence?

If the Romans were not the ones lobbying for Christ's crucifixion, then maybe it was the Jews. But again, for a few reasons this seems unlikely. Jesus was far from the only person claiming to be the Jewish messiah in those days. We have several historical references to over a dozen messiahs from before and after the alleged lifetime of Christ [3]. Of these self-proclaimed saviors, the ones who were eventually executed were executed for leading violent rebellions against the Roman empire, not for blaspheming against Jewish beliefs. The New Testament mentions numerous stoning incidents as punishment for blasphemy, so it is also a wonder why the Jewish crowd or the Jewish leaders would not have simply stoned Jesus to death on the spot for blaspheming, instead of taking their case to the Roman authorities who often seemed unsympathetic to Jewish concerns.

Could a man named Jesus have been executed for revolting against the Roman empire? It is possible, but with the evidence we do have, it seems fairly improbable.

III. The Good News is Old News
When Christians say Jesus was a revolutionary teacher, many of them mean that the ideas he advocated were revolutionary in his time. Perhaps they were a bit of a culture shock for first century Palestine, but Jesus did not teach anything that was new to the rest of the world too. The Golden Rule predates Jesus Christ by several centuries, his famous instruction to "love thy neighbor as thyself" can be traced back to Hebrew scripture (Proverbs 24:17, 25:21), and his advice to "love your enemies" in Matthew 5:44 is not original either. The first century philosopher and playwright Seneca the Younger wrote:

Someone gets angry with you. Challenge him with kindness in return. Enmity immediately tumbles away when one side lets it fall. [4]
Believers do indeed love to imagine that their savior was the first and the last of great thinkers and moral sages, but he was only one among many throughout history, and he was certainly not the pinnacle. Jesus was not the first character to willingly die for a principle (Socrates did this several centuries before Christ), and he was definitely not the first person to equate himself with God, as Egyptian pharaohs, Roman emperors, Chinese emperors, and countless others had done as early as 2,000-3,000 years prior. The Jesus figure may be unique and original in his use of parables, but all of his claims and teachings may be followed back to another individual from an earlier time. I am not arguing that Jesus intentionally imitated their doctrines, but only that the character in the four gospels of the bible was not as revolutionary as some would lead us to believe.

It may be that many Christians choose to hold such an idealistic view of Jesus because acknowledging other similar messiahs and teachers might provoke them to seriously question the divinity of their beloved lord. One can imagine how it would be difficult to believe in a god or supernatural savior who only rehashes old wisdom and brings nothing new to the theological or philosophical arenas. There were plenty of important issues that the biblical Jesus left unexplored, which we could possibly expect a truly divine and moral leader to have covered. There is no clear admonition of rape, spousal/child abuse, child molestation (which the Greeks were well known for engaging in around Jesus' time), or any number of other unspeakable acts that are curiously left out of the 10 Commandments as well.

Jesus was no revolutionary, not in a peaceful sense or in a political sense. If he existed and spoke the words the bible attributes to him, he was perhaps just a man teaching from the heart. In many ways he sought to conform some of his lessons to the Judaic traditions and customs of the time, yet he also tried to depart from them in other ways. He was one among several self-professed messiahs attempting to change minds and practices in the first century. Thanks to the endorsement from certain individuals and empires, his religion has continued on to the modern day. He has made his impact, and maybe that is the revolutionary part of it in a sense, but let's not forget that a long-standing legacy in no way implies a greater chance of truth in the person or his message.

1. Anonymous. Greco-Roman mysteries. Wikipedia. Retrieved Mar. 7, 2009.
2. Schoenberg, S. The Bar-Kokhba Revolt. Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved Mar. 7, 2009.
3. Lendering, J. Messiah (overview). Retrieved Mar. 7, 2009.
4. Seneca. De Ira, 2.