Was Jesus a Political Revolutionary?
Mark B. Poe, Research Fellow, Robert C. Cooley Center Was Jesus a political revolutionary? SG.F. Brandon once argued that Jesus, though not to be identified as a member of some sort of “official” zealot party, shared a common sympathy, similar values, and even cooperated with those who sought to maintain the ideas of the founder of the zealots, Judas of Galilee.i When Brandon first made this proposal almost four decades ago now, it was by no means a novel approach to understanding Jesus‟ intentions.ii Long before Brandon, Reimarus had interpreted Jesus‟ proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God as a means of inciting the Jewish people to revolt against the government of Rome. This was a view that was then taken up by scholars such as R. Eisler, Carmichael, Brandon, and Hugh Anderson. Though opposed in whole or part by the likes of Martin Hengel and Oscar Cullmann, the view of Jesus as political revolutionary has been recently revived by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. In short, Hendricks portrays Jesus as a liberal political activist who is not concerned with the salvation of individuals but with transforming society and the world “into a kingdom of justice in which all of God‟s children, regardless of color, creed, or national origin, can have life, and that in abundance, in every sphere of living.”iii For Hendricks, Jesus, like many activists of our time, is all about earthly, political and social liberation and equality. The question to be addressed is: can such a position be maintained? Obviously, a case could be made if one were only to examine the perception of Jesus by his contemporaries (cf. Jo. 6:15; Mt. 26:55; Lk. 24:21; Acts 5:35-39). A case might also be made with a quick examination of the issues of Jesus‟ Davidic links, his gathering of disciples/followers, several of which have been argued to have ties with the zealot movement, and with his popularity among the common people. Furthermore, a case could be made if one were to focus on the second advent of the Messiah and that event‟s obvious national/political implications regarding Israel and all the nations. But, is there any concrete evidence from Jesus himself that his first advent should be understood in political terms? The answer lies in several areas of Jesus‟ teaching, most specifically his teaching on the coming of God‟s kingdom. In short, the proclamation of the imminent coming of God‟s kingdom was central to the aspirations and activities of Jewish revolutionaries.iv By the early first century, in fact, the nation of Israel had high hopes for the promised Davidic Messiah. Part of this expectation involved the reign of God on earth, a reign which would bring freedom to Jerusalem, the Temple, the land, as well as freedom from Gentile oppression and bondage, a freedom which would ultimately lead to worldwide political power and dominance. This kind of political ideology is best seen in the zealot understanding of the coming kingdom,v which is that, after generations of wars, captivity, humiliation, and oppression, the Jewish “freedom fighters” longed for God to intervene and bring his rule down to earth. The final straw came with the census conducted in AD 6. Following the unrest that broke out after the death of Herod the Great, Augustus deposed Archalaeus, turned Judea into a Roman province, and placed it under an equestrian prefect. The result is that a census was conducted in order to assess head and land taxes. The problem that arose is that “the Jewish population in part understood this obvious directive as meaning that the


Holy Land was being made the private property of the emperor and its population enslaved.”vi It is this notion that led to the revolt under Judas the Galilean, which led to the founding of the zealot movement. It was also this notion and movement that, under Judas and Zadok the Pharisee, gave rise to the religious ideology of eschatological struggle for liberation.vii Within this ideology and combined with a fanatical zeal for the law, there were three primary and foundational propositions. First, God was to be their only Lord and ruler (cf. Ant 18.23). Thus, there was a theocentric desire to be free from human rulers and kings. Second, there was the rejection of taxation, which was argued to be equivalent to idolatry, apostasy, and self-imposed slavery, as well as a violation of 2 Sam. 24.viii Finally, “the coming of God‟s reign depended on human „revolutionary activity,‟ and could not simply be awaited passively.”ix In other words, the Israelites had to cooperate with God in “holy and guerilla warfare,” much like the Maccabeans had done before the outbreak of the Jewish War. The purpose of such warfare “was to stir up a general popular rebellion against Rome, which was seen as the prerequisite for God‟s intervention.”x To the zealots then, the Jewish, Davidic Messiah was the one who would come as a “victorious national commander-in-chief” and who, following upon the initiative and activity of the “freedom fighters,” would come and conquer all enemies and pagan peoples, set up his kingdom, and rule over the world.xi In this sense, it is quite evident that, while the emphasis was on a coming eschatological kingdom, the zealots were, in all actuality, “looking for a political government with all of the usual trappings of geography, army, and laws.”xii But how did Jesus view the kingdom and its coming? Simply stated, he had a distinctively different view. To begin with, Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of God was not simply a future hope but was a fact already at hand (cf. Mt. 4:17; Lk. 10:11; 16:16; 17:20-21).xiii He even gave the ethics by which “kingdom people” should presently live (cf. Mt. 5-7). In addition, Jesus claimed proof for the presence of the kingdom, which was not the military and political defeat of Israel‟s enemies, but in his power to cast out demons (cf. Mt. 12:28; Lk. 11:20), as well as in his power to heal and that the “good news” is being proclaimed (cf. Mt. 11:2-6; Lk. 7:18-23). Essentially, the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed was not an earthly, political kingdom to be gained through violence, class warfare, or national warfare. His kingdom was simply not of this world. Five points serve to illustrate this. First and foremost are the words of Jesus before Pilate. In John 18:36, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Here, Jesus is not denying his kingship, rather he is claiming that his sovereign rule or activity is not “from here.” That is to say, the kingdom of Jesus does not have its origin in the world. The implication is, if the sovereignty of Jesus does not originate in this world, then the kingdom itself is not like the kingdoms of this world. This is affirmed by what Jesus goes on to say: “If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting in order to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.” Jesus has no army because that isn‟t the way his kingdom and sovereignty function. Thus, Jesus was indicating that Pilate, the Jews, the zealots, and even his own followers had to recognize that his kingdom and rule are entirely different from that of the political powers of the world. Simply stated, Jesus did not come in order to rule through armed resistance and revolt.


Second, in Jesus‟ proclamation of the coming kingdom, the message was not a call to arms but to repentance and faith (cf. Mt. 4:17; 11:20; Mk. 6:12; Lk. 5:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7; 24:47). Third, Jesus presented God‟s kingdom as a spiritual kingdom in opposition to Satan‟s kingdom (cf. Lk. 10:18-19).xiv Paul certainly understood this contrast as seen in Ephesians 6:10-13. Writing around the time in which the Zealots were leading Israel into its fateful battle with Rome, Paul indicates that the real battle is spiritual not earthly, political, or with literal arms and weapons. It is against the spiritual, demonic forces and power of Satan. A fourth point in relationship to Jesus‟ kingdom teaching relates to the trial of Jesus before the Jewish high priest and religious officials. In answering the questioning of the high priest concerning his identity, Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man (cf. Mt. 26:64; Mk. 14:62; Lk. 22:69).xv Here, the basic idea is that, yes, Jesus is the Son of God, the David descendant, but he is more than that; he is also the Danielic Son of Man who one day will reign as he comes from heaven, carries out judgment, consummates the kingdom already at hand, and thus establishes his eternal kingdom, a kingdom which is not of this world.xvi So, again, it is not zealot military action that will establish God‟s kingdom. It is not Jesus and the zealots who will establish the future eschatological kingdom. It is Jesus, the risen Son of Man, alone who, at some future point, will bring about God‟s rule and reign, both over Israel and the world. One final and crucial point to note is the statement made by Jesus in Mt. 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent seize it” (cf. also Lk. 16:16). Given its context, there is debate over whether this phrase should be understood positively as praise or negatively as censure. It actually may be a combination of both. That is to say, Jesus recognized in individual zealots, such as Judas of Galilee, a genuine concern for the kingdom of God. Nevertheless, he renounced their violent action because, as has just been shown, his own teachings and ministry indicate that the kingdom is not brought in by human power, nor is it set up as a political kingdom. It comes through suffering. One example, given the context of the passage, is John the Baptist himself and his treatment at the hands of Herod. Other examples would include the increasing and intensifying attacks of the religious leaders upon Jesus, as well as the zealotic craving for a military/political Messiah which, through violence and armed revolt, would bring prosperity rather than righteousness (cf. Mt. 11:20-24). To this, Jesus said that God‟s kingdom brings persecution and suffering (cf. Mt. 10:17-39), not prosperity. But in the midst of this persecution, it‟s the persecuted, not the armed zealots, who will receive future reward (Mt. 10:42). The “kingdom of God” or the “kingdom of heaven” was obviously a central theme of Jesus‟ teaching ministry. As such, it was a kingdom that was radically different from the one envisioned by the zealots or even by today‟s political activists. Jesus‟ kingdom was both present and future, a fact confirmed by his miracles and his power over demons. In addition, Jesus‟ kingdom message was not one of war and armed resistance; rather he invited his listeners to become citizens of God‟s kingdom through repentance and belief, a belief that had faith in God‟s sovereignty and salvation and hope for a future, eternal kingdom. And finally, when he preached his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus summarized his teaching about the ethics of the kingdom by illustrating how to live as a loyal subject of God in the present, which was not in “holy war” but by loving one‟s enemies.


Given such a message, it is likely that the more people listened to Jesus, the more they began to understand that he had a different notion of the kingdom of God from what most of them expected. ___________________________

Cf. S.G.F. Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots (New York: Charles Scribner‟s Sons, 1967). Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede, (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 19-20. iii Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature f Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 10. iv Oscar Cullmann, Jesus and the Revolutionaries, trans. Gareth Putnam (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 8. v For a fuller treatment of Jewish nationalism and the rise of the zealots, cf. William R. Farmer, Maccabees, Zealots, and Josephus: An Inquiry into Jewish Nationalism in the Greco-Roman Period (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956). vi Martin Hengel, Victory Over Violence & Was Jesus a Revolutionist?, trans. David E. Green (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 30. vii Ibid. viii Ibid., 31. ix Ibid. According to Josephus (cf. Ant 6.20; 13.172; 18.13), the rabbis condemned this desire to hasten the end and thus the coming of the kingdom. x Ibid., 32. xi Oscar Cullmann, The State in the New Testament (London: SCM Press LTD, 157), 25. xii Leith Anderson, Jesus: An Intimate Portrait of the Man, His Land, and His People (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2005), 77. xiii This is the very message that Jesus commissioned his disciples to proclaim (cf. Mt. 11:1; Lk. 9:60; 10:9). Cf. George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1959), for a good theological discussion of the “already” and “not yet” aspects of God‟s kingdom. xiv Many of Jesus‟ parables deal with a kingdom that is “already” but “not yet” and thus place a great emphasis on the spiritual nature/aspect of the kingdom. xv Cf. also Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels, vol. 1 (New York: Double Day, 1994), 484-515, for an excellent discussion of Jesus‟ response. xvi Cf. Dan. 7:13; Cullmann, The State in the New Testament, 25; Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, vol. 34B, Word Biblical Commentary, by Bruce M. Metzger (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2001), 451 and 459.