Friday, 11 November 2011


Jesus of Nazareth seems an unlikely candidate for the label "subversive."  The most reliable writings about him that we have (the Gospels of Mark and Luke together with another source, Q, which Mark and Luke used) portray him as an itinerant preacher who urged his followers to repent of their sins, embrace a life of voluntary poverty and virtue, and prepare themselves for the imminent appearance of God's kingdom on earth.  The latter is of special importance for understanding Jesus's mission and teachings.  Jesus was a Jewish apocalypticist, a proponent of an ideology that saw the world as under the sway of evil powers.  A Messiah sent by God would sweep away the evildoers and establish a new order of peace and godliness.  In Jesus's version, the world as then known would soon come to an end, a day of judgment would separate the good from the wicked, and new earthly rulers, presumably his disciples, would preside over the new Kingdom of Heaven. 
There was nothing particularly unusual in his message; a number of prophets before him, including John the Baptist, whom Jesus knew personally, had called the Jewish people to repent and prepare for an imminent catastrophe.  Still, the Romans put Jesus to death as a troublemaker, so they may have seen something subversive in his preaching.  What might that have been?

A subversive is someone who works to undermine a regime or an established political order.  It is natural, therefore, to understand our topic as the question of whether Jesus was a political subversive.  However, it is possible, with a little semantic license, to consider whether he might have been subversive in other ways, which I will mention later in this essay.

It is not easy to make the case for Jesus as a political subversive.*  He does not seem to have been interested in the Romans at all, advising his followers to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's."  An apolitical attitude would make sense for someone who expected the world to end within a generation.  God would deal with the Romans.  His
sermons were all about the coming of the new Kingdom and what the Jewish people should do now to ensure God's favor at the end of days.  Also, there is no evidence that Jesus tried to organize some clandestine organization devoted to overthrowing the Romans or even the Jewish king. 

Nevertheless, near the end of his life when he entered Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, something happened to bring him under the suspicion of the Roman procurator. The authorities were always on edge during Passover, a time of great crowds in the city and not infrequent protests and sometimes even uprisings.  It seems that Jesus's enemies among the prominent Jewish factions of the time saw an opportunity to get rid of him.  His betrayer, Judas, may have told the Romans that he had been fomenting rebellion.  In any case, when Jesus failed to deny before Pilate that he claimed to be King of the Jews, his fate was sealed.  The Romans never hesitated to crucify anyone who appeared to threaten their authority. 

We can be quite certain, therefore, that Jesus was not a political subversive.  However, his adversaries among the religious authorities did not appreciate his criticisms of them and some of his interpretations of God's will, Jewish law, and traditional practices - his theology in other words.   They also felt threatened by his ideas about the evils of wealth and the blessedness of the poor, the meek, and the oppressed. Jesus advised breaking up families, if necessary, and even suggested that marriage was pointless, given that the world was soon to end.  If such radical ethical notions gained wide acceptance, they would change the very fabric of society.  So, if Jesus was not a political subversive, as I have argued, is it plausible to think of him as a theological subversive, an ethical subversive, or a social subversive?

I leave those questions open for any readers who might wish to bring them into the discussion.
     * For a novelistic attempt at this project, see King Jesus by Robert Graves, available from Amazon. 
      - C. Marxer


  1. The image of Jesus as a Roman accommodater seems to be a spin put on the history by Paul who wanted to sell his theology throughout the Roman Empire, so HE did not want to upset the status quo. Paul was an educated intellectual Jew from Tarsus, a great distance from Jerusalem, so he would not have been much involved with the rabid anti-Roman activities in Israel. (The Jews rebelled in 70AD, only 38 years after the death of Jesus - 32AD? & were expelled). Paul was rejected by 'The James Gang' (brothers of Jesus) who tried to keep the Jesus movement going after 32AD & disappeared around 70AD.
    So yes, I think Jesus was a political subversive (& even if he wasn't - Jack is). (Herb)

  2. Jesus probably was an itinerant philosopher like many others at that time, but was not the real villain the Roman authorities wanted. Rather, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate was looking for Barabbas, leader of a murderous and thieving gang in Palestine. High Priest Kaiphas who was ordered by Pilate to restore order and arrest the gang, failed to do so. As a result, Pilate brought in Roman soldiers who were more successful and put Barabbas in prison. Kaiphas, in order not to lose face, arrested Jesus, who conveniently happened to be in the neighborhood. Both prisoners, Barabbas and Jesus were condemned to death. At Passover it was custom to free one individual, and Kaiphas asked the crowd which prisoner they wanted freed, expecting them to call for Jesus's freedom. The crowd, however, shouted for Barabbas - much to the dismay of Kaiphas. (Barabbas possibly ensured there were enough paid "friends" in the crowd who would call out his name). Thus, Jesus was the one who was executed.

    It seems that during that aera most people did not accord any importance to the teaching of one preacher named Jesus as he seemed to have been one among many who spoke out against Roman authorities. The Greek Antisthenes, a friend of Pilate, did not recognize Jesus as particularly outstanding, nor did Kaiphas and his family mention anything extraordinary about this wandering Jew.

    I would argue that yes, Jesus was a subversive in the eyes of the Romans, but not to the extent brought forward by some, and his crucifixion was circumstantial and simply a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. (Helene)

  3. Rick Rogers submitted the following helpful information:

    Hey Charles … you were wondering about the date of the Dead Sea Scrolls … here’s a Wikipedia link with all the C14 dates …

    The range apparently spans something like 1200 years, with the dates on a number of scrolls indicating they were very likely written by contemporaries of Jesus (who quite probably would have heard of him, but apparently didn’t consider him important enough to mention). If you’re interested, this link has a pretty good overview of the various contents as well as some contemporary speculations on exactly what Qumran was (monastery or pottery factory?) and the identity of the Essenes, who may – or may not – have written some or all of the scrolls. Finally, if you want to see the actual scrolls, check this out

    I don’t know the contents of the scrolls that well, and no doubt there is much of interest to all kinds of classical scholars, from biblical to philosophical to social. But from what I have read and learned about them over the years, it seems to me their true value lies in the fascinating overall picture they paint of a very turbulent time, before the One God conquered the many and when multiple new ideas were competing with each other.