Was Jesus An Anarchist?

Was Jesus An Anarchist?

Anarchist (noun) a person who person who promotes disorder or excites revolt against any established rule, law, or custom. (OED)

History is full of inspirational leaders with radical ideas – people who spread discontent within the political system of their time – idealists who were dissatisfied with the status quo, many of whom were executed for what they believed. One theory suggests a perhaps unlikely addition to their hall of fame – Jesus of Nazareth, put to death over 2000 years ago. But was he really a political REVOLUTIONARY?

At his trial, Jesus was accused of threatening to destroy the temple in Jerusalem and of claiming to be the King of the Jews. Under Roman law these claims were political crimes punishable by death. At heart they undermined Caesar’s right to be Emperor. Jesus’ threats and claims therefore were political DYNAMITE. But was Jesus really intent on lighting a powder keg at the very heart of Jewish society and blowing it to smithereens?

One well-known religious scholar has argued that Jesus was sympathetic to the cause of a violent Jewish revolutionary group called the Zealots. The Zealots had set out to TERRORISE supporters of Roman rule in Palestine, with the eventual aim of driving the Romans out of Jewish territory so that they could govern Israel as a holy people devoted to the Jewish God, Yahweh.

The theory argues that Jesus, coming to the fore as a leader of a new politically aware religious movement, also anticipated the use of PHYSICAL FORCE to achieve God’s rule. At the last supper Jesus encouraged his disciples to purchase a sword, even if it meant selling their clothes to acquire one. In his teaching moreover he had said that he had not come to bring peace but a sword. Was Jesus an anarchist, then, bent on overthrowing Roman rule in Palestine?

The majority of scholars would argue not. Jesus may have clashed with the political rulers of his day, but it seems unlikely that he was a Zealot or even sympathised with their cause. In fact historical evidence suggests the Zealots may not even have existed as a ‘terrorist’ network until forty or so years after Jesus’ death. Jesus’ teachings also frequently undermined the political aims of the Zealots. When interrogated by Pilate at his trial, Jesus said that his kingdom was not of this earth – which seems to suggest that Jesus attached little significance to political authority. He also instructed people to pay taxes to Caesar – which is hardly the kind of advice you would expect from a Jewish FREEDOM FIGHTER. On one occasion he turned away from the crowds when they wanted to politicise his ministry and make him a king.

In short, Jesus lights up the stage of history as a pacifist. In his teaching he constantly urges his followers to love their enemies, to do good to those who hate them, to forgive unconditionally – a radical reversal of every accepted norm.

So – if Jesus promoted peace, what had he done to deserve the DEATH PENALTY? His ministry must have had very serious political implications, as the Romans reserved crucifix- ion for criminals and political agitators.

The answer to this question can be found in statements attributed to the religious leaders in Jerusalem shortly before Jesus’ arrest. As Jesus’ popularity grew, these rulers were concerned that the Romans might think they were incapable of either controlling or governing the Jewish population. This was because Jesus had recently created a scene in the temple by driving out those who were offering a currency exchange service.

This would immediately have rung alarm bells for the Roman governor Pontius Pilate because the priestly authorities were supposed to en- force law and order and maintain the peace in the Jewish capital. A loose CANNON like Jesus therefore could not be allowed to demolish the foundations of Jewish society by his raging against injustice and religious hypocrisy.

History tells us that the Roman authorities adopted a harsh policy towards native rulers who failed to keep their house in order. This usually took the form of a BRUTAL REPRISAL against the native population in general, plus the political demotion of its leaders. In other words, Rome might take away what little POWER the Jews already had under imperial rule.

It is against this backdrop that the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas, uttered the following words: ‘It is necessary that one man should die for the people rather than that the whole nation should perish.’ Put simply: if Jesus was going to continue to challenge and undermine the way the priests were running the religious show in Jerusalem, then he would have to die lest Rome intervened to punish the whole population.

Jews and Romans had every reason to fear REBELS, troublemakers and would- be Messiahs. They created political and social instability in the Roman world and usually brought BLOODSHED in their wake. CRUCIFIXION was the Roman answer to this problem. In the case of Jesus therefore, the quick response of the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman
political authorities put paid to any plans on Jesus’ part to overthrow Roman rule – or call down God from heaven.

It transpired that Jesus’ plans were nothing of the kind. His EXECUTION wasn’t the end of the story – it was part of perhaps the most dramatic twist in history. Three days after his crucifixion, Jesus’ followers claimed that he ROSE FROM THE DEAD, fulfilling his own predictions and prophecies record- ed centuries before. It seems that those in power had quite the wrong idea about what Jesus of Nazareth was aiming for.

Right to the present day, Jesus has become a source of both inspiration and controversy. His style of revolution, far from being rooted in violence, was to radically challenge accepted norms of the culture and religion of that day. Jesus brought a message of love and peace: a way to live that transformed societies and eventually spread across the globe, even becoming adopted by the very people who crucified him – the Romans.

History cannot ignore Jesus: it may wish to question or challenge the claims he and his followers made, but there’s no doubting his place as a significant, surprising and influential leader.

Dr Brendan Devitt is originally from Ireland and studied Theology, Medieval Greek and Byzantine history at Dublin and Oxford universities and teaches Greek and Hebrew. He is married to Sheralee and finds ways to promote a deeper understanding of Scripture among Christians.


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