I originally wrote this for Palm Sunday 2013 with the title The New Testament’s Disgust with Politics. Perhaps I read the NT’s attitude towards the political order as more pessimistic than it really is. St. Paul, for example, seems to have been a critical, but patriotic Roman. A Christianity which is purely otherworldly becomes Gnosticism: anti-history, anti-Incarnation, ultimately anti-human.
On the other hand, some strands of Christian thought seem to think that the mission of the believer in the world is to create government programs for the betterment of society. Looking at some of the historical failures of Christianity from Constantine to “the social gospel”, the idea that Jesus’s mission was to help Caesar create a perfect society seems at best naive, at worst a secret lust for power.
What follows is not a spiritual reflection, but a historical observation. I do not presume to be a very spiritual person, but I can read the Bible with some historical knowledge and a little bit of theological training.
Today is Palm Sunday, a strange feast day in which the faithful go to church to celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, and then read about how Jesus was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed on rather vague charges. It is common for the faithful to read aloud several chapter from one of the gospels, first playing the part of the enthusiastic crowds welcoming Jesus, and then playing the part of the crowds calling for his crucifixion.
What has always struck me about the Passion narrative is the political background: Israel at the time was part of the Roman Empire which ran the country through the sons of Herod the Great, whom the Romans had set up as puppet kings. But since the whole economy of Jerusalem revolved around the temple, the city itself was run by the priestly council, the Sanhedrin, who saw themselves as the true leaders of the people. Jesus’ disciples were country boys from Galilee who wanted to see the whole corrupt bunch (Herodians, Romans, and priests) thrown out and a glorious new order installed by Jesus, their Messianic King.
The Sanhedrin want to get rid of Jesus because they see him as both a threat to their power, and as upsetting the delicate political balance. The last thing they want is for some bumpkins from Galilee to break up their racket and incur the wrath of Rome. But since they cannot legally kill Jesus outright, they have to manipulate the Romans into executing him.
The Romans, led by Pontius Pilate the Governor, just want the Jews to shut up and pay their taxes. Some people argue that the New Testament tries to paint Pilate in a good light in order to gain sympathy from Roman readers, but I don’t see that. Pilate is a politician, and he only thinks in political terms. Perhaps he thinks Jesus is harmless, seeing him as some sort of Jewish Socrates, but the only factor in his decision is avoiding being blamed for Jesus’ death, since that might start a riot. Pilate never stops to wonder what the true identity of Jesus might be: truth is not a political category. When Jesus speaks of truth, Pilate snorts: “Truth! What’s that?”
Trying to avoid being seen as responsible for Jesus death, Pilate first tries to pin the blame on Herod, who does not want to get involved; then Pilate declares Jesus innocent and, in a non-sequetur only a politician could dream up, has the “innocent” man stripped, beaten, and whipped. Finally he condemns Jesus to death but, with a touch of political theater (the freeing of Barabbas and a symbolic washing of hands), claims he had nothing to do with it. Pontius Pilate, not Thomas More, should be patron saint of politicians.
Jesus’ followers and the enthusiastic crowds are also part of the political drama. The common man felt alienated from the centers of power that ran the country, and wanted to see the current order overturned. Perhaps they felt deep down that the political situation was unsustainable, and the time ripe for a major historical shift. They see Jesus as just the man to kick the politicians and inaugurate a golden age. But once it becomes apparent that Jesus is not going to get rid of the priests and the Romans, they turn on him. His core followers scatter, and the disillusioned masses demand his blood. Pilate offers to release a prisoner as a show of mercy, the crowd could have its choice: Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus Barabbas, who seems to have been part radical guerrilla leader, part gangster. The crowd chooses the guerrilla: he may be a murder, but at least he gets results.
What did Jesus think of all this? The only record to go on is what the New Testament authors say about him, which is fairly consistent: he never denied being a king, but never quite affirmed it either. When asked he would answer, in substance “I’m not the sort of king you would know.” He did not make any effort to avoid being caught, and it seems like he knew from the start that the trip to Jerusalem would end with his death. In other words, Jesus was not concerned with the power struggles around him, even though he knew that those political forces would end up killing him.
The attitude of the various New Testament authors towards politics ranges from indifference (St. Paul) to outright disgust (the Gospels and Revelation). At best, they seem to say, decent politicians can leave us alone. At worst, the world of politics, a world of lies, naked ambition and implicit violence, is the property of Satan. Early in Jesus’ career, Satan supposedly offered to him the command of all the kingdoms of the world because “they belong to me, and I give them to whom I wish.” Jesus, according to the story, turned him down.
I think it is fitting to mention here the context in which the Gospels were written: it is not always easy to get an exact date of ancient texts, but it seems the four gospels reached their final form somewhere between 70 and 80 AD (the Gospel of John may have been written down a decade or so later), some thirty years after the events took place. It is important to recall that Jews attempted to rebel from Rome in the late 60’s, and the Romans brutally crushed the rebellion and leveled Jerusalem in 70 AD. Turns out that the dissatisfied crowds were right: a major historical shift was about to happen within their lifetimes.
This means that as the Gospels were being written, they were indirectly recording a historical situation, first century Palestine, that was lost forever. Luke, it seems, had visited Jerusalem in the early 60’s with St. Paul and recounts in his Acts of the Apostles an even more intense political situation in which riots erupt over mere rumors. Luke’s descriptions of how the Temple and Roman garrisons were laid out match up well with archaeological research. Interestingly, even though the Gospel of John was the last written, it has the most accurate descriptions of pre-70 AD Jerusalem, describing features that would not be seen by anyone after 70 AD until unearthed by 20th century archaeologists. (Mark, by contrast, seems to have little notion of local geography, and probably never visited Galilee.)
The New Testament authors were writing about a real historical world, not a symbolic or mythical one. While the material they contain is obviously arranged for the theological ends of each author, (and some parts probably made up) the gospels describe the life and career of Jesus as taking place in this real world, complete with false hopes, disillusions and defeats, murders, power politics, poverty, lies, misunderstandings, and simple failures of nerve. The characters are priests, fishermen, hookers, tax collectors, corrupt politicians, soldiers, and farmers: a few are good, a few bad, but most are mediocre.
My point here isn’t to argue the truth of the claims of the gospels about Christ; whether or not you believe in miracles or the Resurrection is a personal choice that is really none of my business. Rather, I want to point out some of the gritty, hard, human element present in the gospels which even believers (perhaps especially believers) tend to miss. Whether the gospels are lies, truth, or colossal misunderstandings, they are not fairy tales.