- The Monograph
- Table of Contents
- Chapter 1: St. Paul's Letters and Jewish Christians
- Chapter 2: What and when was "Parting of the Ways"?
- Chapter 3: Jews, Christians, and Roman Legitimacy
- Chapter 4: Jesus the Jew
- Chapter 5: Recruiting Gentiles and Effect of the name "Christian"
- Chapter 6: Christian Anti-Jewish Rhetoric
- Chapter 7: Christian Reinterpretation of the Jewish Bible
- Chapter 8: Labeling Jews as "Christ Killers"
- Chapter 9: Jewish Rebellion and Roman Destruction
- Chapter 10: Myths Used to Justify Christian Anti-Jewishness
- Chapter 11: Why did Jews find Christianity unacceptable
- Chapter 12: Gospel History
- Chapter 13: Christian Jew Hatred and Antisemitism
- Chapter 14: St. Paul and "Parting of the Ways"
- Chapter 15: The Jewish Messiah and the Role of Jesus
- Chapter 16: Religious Differences Among Jews
- Chapter 17: Christian Rants against Jews and Judaizers
- Chapter 18: Christian Opposition to Biblical "Law" Denouncing Jews who Observe It
- Chapter 19: The "Holy", "Unholy", and "True Israelites"
- Chapter 20: Do Christians Need to Demean Jews? What if Jesus had not been a Jew?
- Chapter 21: Currying Favor with the Romans; Roman Oppression and Jesus' Crucifixion
- Chapter 22: Christian Missionary Success and Accommodation to Roman Society
- Chapter 23: Christian Anti-Jewishness Before and After Gaining Power
- Chapter 24: The Psychology of Antisemitism
- Chapter 25: Christian Literature and Perpetuation of Anti-Semitism
- Chapter 26: Can New Testament Antisemitism be Deleted?
To many Jews of Roman Israel, a Messiah (Hebrew “Mashiach”; Greek “Christ”) was a divinely anointed leader who would deliver Israel from its oppressors into an imminent “Kingdom of God,” establish world peace, reward the righteous, punish the wicked (Charlesworth 1983-1985 Vol. 1, pp. xxxi–xxxiii), and “restore the traditional ideals of a free and egalitarian society” (Horsley and Hanson, p. 116). The messianic model was Biblical David who fought Philistine attacks, domination and injustice. “Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him” (1 Samuel 22.2). “[A]ll the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, ‘Look we are your bones and flesh … The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be the shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel’ …and they anointed David king over Israel” (2 Samuel 5.1–3). In time, the intended Messiah became “the anointed son of David,” with different Jewish groups offering different concepts of the believed God-sent redeemer as either human or divine.
However the term “Messiah” came into popular usage, this theme of appealing to a messianic figure — a present or future king offering rescue and liberation — reverberates through Israel’s history; from Moses in the book of Exodus, to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and beyond. “The days are surely coming, says Yahweh, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety” (Jeremiah 23. 5–6). More than a dozen allusions to a “Messiah” occur in Jewish Biblical and apocryphal documents extending into the Roman conquest of Israel (Bird 2009, p. 48).
The prophet Isaiah’s paean to the coming “Kingdom of God” (60. 1–22, condensed) illustrates Jewish expectations: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of Yahweh has risen upon you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bend down at your feet; they shall call you the city of Yahweh, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel. I will appoint Peace as your overseer and Righteousness as your taskmaster. Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders. Your people shall all be righteous; they shall possess the land forever. I am Yahweh; in its time I will accomplish it quickly.”
Prayers to Yahweh’s Messianic Davidic king are repeated in Psalm 72 (1–15, condensed): “Give the King your justice O Yahweh. May he judge your people with righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. May his foes bow down before him, and his enemies lick the dust. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight. Blessed be Yahweh, the God of Israel.”
The coming, if not imminent, messianic “Kingdom of God” echoes Jewish prophecies in which religious beliefs are given political impact. Amos (9.11–15): “On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old. … I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel … I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says Yahweh your God.” Psalms (37.9–11): “For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for Yahweh shall inherit the land. Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.” Joel (3.18–21): In that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk, and all the stream beds of Judah shall flow with water … Judah shall be inhabited forever, and Jerusalem to all generations. I will avenge their blood, and I will not clear the guilty, for Yahweh dwells in Zion.” Daniel (12.1–3): “At that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. … Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” 1 Enoch (91.8–9): “In those days, injustice shall be cut off from its sources, and from its roots — likewise oppression with its deceit; they shall be destroyed from underneath heaven.”
Perhaps the most immediate Jewish prophetic reaction to Roman rule were The Psalms of Solomon, written around the time of Pompey’s 63 B.C.E. conquest of Jerusalem. Psalm 17 (condensed, Wright, pp. 639–670): “Lord, raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel. Undergird him with the strength to destroy unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from gentiles who trample her to destruction. He will gather a holy people whom he will lead in righteousness; and any person who knows wickedness shall not live with them. He will purge Jerusalem and make it holy as it was from the beginning, for nations to come from the ends of the earth to see his glory. All shall be holy, and their king shall be the Lord Messiah. He shall be compassionate to all the nations who reverently stand before him. He will expose officials and drive out sinners by the strength of his word. He will lead them all in holiness and there will be no arrogance among them that any should be oppressed.”
Based for the most part on subsistence-level agriculture, dependent on capricious rainfall, and impacted by the Roman occupation, Israel’s social-political-economic problems persisted throughout Jesus’ time and beyond (Hanson and Oakman, pp. 123–147). It is not surprising that visions of messianic deliverance would have been common among Israel’s farmers who numbered over 90 percent of the population (Fiensy 1991, p. 170), whose crops and labor were siphoned off in large measure for Roman tribute, royal aristocratic privilege, priestly tithes, and repayment of usurious loans. Whereas Israel’s peasant farmers saw their land as owned by God and promised to them in their covenant with God (Leviticus 25.18, 25.23, Isaiah 5.7), Romans, native nobility, and priestly families saw the land as a commodity to be exploited for status and wealth through confiscations and taxes.
According to Oakman (2012, pp. 38–42), mainstays of the “Ruling Elites” were taxes, rents, tolls, religious tithes and obligations, loan payments, levies, labor duties, and commercialized farm products. Among taxes, Hanson and Oakman (p. 106) list soil taxes, poll taxes, port taxes, transit tolls, and special poll taxes that supported the priesthood. Except for the Jewish “Sabbatical” year, tribute to Rome, as decreed by Julius Caesar (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XIV:X), may itself have extracted 12.5 to 20–25 percent annually from each household’s produce (Adams p. 172).
Attributing Jesus’ association with tax collectors (“publicans”) to Jesus’ tolerance and reform of even the most hated of exploiters, may also have had the more oblique purpose of tax evasion. According to Oakman (2008, Chapter 16), tax collectors were village scribes who could manipulate tax records and help peasants to reduce or evade taxation, a capital offence that St. Luke’s Gospel (23.2) brought Jesus to the attention of Pontius Pilate. “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.”
“The ancient economy was agrarian and relatively static. It allowed for little growth or entrepreneurial initiative because the organization and use of resources was acquisitive rather than productive. Hence there was no unified market for the commercial exploitation of the empire or any middle class to undertake such activities. So most of the empire were born into poverty, and their only chance to escape it was the tomb” (Friesen 2004, pp. 338–339). Given good terrain and rainfall, “peasant plots were traditionally barely large enough [as little as two hectares — four to five acres] to provide a subsistence living for a family of five or six as well as meet the dues imposed from above.…Tithes [to the priesthood and the temple], and apparently tribute [to the Roman empire], and royal taxes [to Jewish kings and aristocracy] were taken right from the threshing floors. Conceivably over one-third of their crops may have been taken with the combination of the three different demands” (Horsley 1995, p. 219). The New Testament letter of “James the Just,” held to represent beliefs of Jesus’ earliest Jewish disciples (Note #1), echoes these sentiments. “You [rich] have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name [of God] that we invoke over you?” (2.6–7). “Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your field, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (5.4).
J. H. Elliott. (pp. 20–21): “In general terms this crisis was a product of the political domination, economic exploitation, and social destabilization of Palestine by Rome, on the one hand, coupled, on the other hand, with diversified strategies of domestic interest groups [local rulers, landlords, money lenders] to maintain and expand their bases of power and legitimacy. The situation in which earliest Christianity emerged was not simply rife with tension … it was a situation created by conflict over power and the grossly imbalanced and alienating allocation of goods and resources (economic, social, and cultural), a situation strained by struggle over self-interests, values, ideologies and principles of freedom, equality and justice.”
Jewish prophets had long condemned many gross injustices perpetrated against Israel’s peasants: “They sell the righteous [to slavery] for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals — they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” (Amos 2.6–7). “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no room for no one but you” (Isaiah 5.8). “Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds … they count fields and seize them; houses and take them away” (Micah 2.1–2). “Like the partridge hatching what it did not lay, so are all who amass wealth unjustly” (Jeremiah 17.11). “Here we are, slaves to this day — slaves to the land that you gave to our ancestors to enjoy its fruits and good gifts. Its rich yields go to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our livestock at their pleasure, and we are in great distress” (Nehemiah 9.36–37).
To peasants, economic life was “zero-sum”: for some to be rich, others became poor. “The only way one could become wealthy in that (agrarian) society was by getting people in debt and charging high rates of interest. This is just what the high-priestly figures and Herodian rulers were doing under Roman imperial rule” (Horsley 2012, p. 128).
To prophets, being rich rather than poor had little to do with virtue, and was plainly immoral. Financial impediments depriving the poor of their needs and comforts simply end in the new messianic era. “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Isaiah 55.1). Prophetic faith aimed at timely remedial justice. “The spirit of Yahweh is upon me, because Yahweh has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; … to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, … They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. … Because their shame was double, and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs. For I Yahweh love justice” (Isaiah 61.1–8, condensed). “I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, and an old person who does not live out a lifetime” (Ibid. 65.19–20).
According to Crossley (2006, pp. 60–61), prophetic struggles against economic injustice “are tied up with the issues of covenant, law observance, and, ultimately, salvation. Wealth is therefore potentially dangerous and can make a person no better than a Gentile. … ‘The love of money is a sure path to idolatry, because, when led astray by money, men call gods those that are no gods, and it drives to distraction whoever is in its grip’ (Testament of Judah 19.1–2).”
More optimistic opinions about the peasant economy have been offered (A.–J. Levine 2007, pp. 64–65), and some archaeologists also insist that Galilee and its environs showed some degree of prosperity (see, for example, Aviam). Nevertheless, prosperous as some Galileans may have been, it is hard to overlook the poverty and dissatisfaction of many others who, from the time of Herod the Great, joined and supported the brigandage and revolts that led to the major Jewish-Roman war of 66-72 C.E. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, XIV: XV; XV; XVII:X, XX:VIII). Subsistence easily departed from optimal because of diminished harvests, excessive taxes, and financial failures.
“Confiscations and the oppressive tax burden narrowed the possibility for self-sufficiency, and thus more and more small farmers lost their land. Therefore, the indebtedness of small farmers and expropriation of their land are the hallmarks of this Roman epoch. …one can indeed speak of a regular process of pauperization. The decline of free small farmers to small leaseholders, then day laborers, and even beggars was nothing unusual” (Stegemann and Stegemann, p. 112). “[I]n Galilee in the late Second Temple period trade did not move goods but taxation and tribute moved them. Thus the movement of goods was under control of the state. This economic system kept the peasantry impoverished” (Fiensy 2013, p. 173). “[T]he major cause of landlessness in Palestine (which may have been especially pronounced in Galilee and Judea) was the movement everywhere in the Roman empire to concentrate more and more land into the hands of the few” (Fiensy 1991, p. 79). “The distribution of what little income was available in the Mediterranean world was entirely dependent on political power: those devoid of political power, the non-elite … could expect little more from life than abject poverty” (Meggitt 1998, p. 50). Even Root (p. 167), who claims reduced banditry in Galilee, acknowledges that “all ancient economies produced enough misery to inspire class-bound hostility in the right political climate.”
Blenkinsopp (p. 81): “The drive toward centralization, the need to subsidize a royal court and an elaborate cult, heavy taxation (‘you…take from them levies of grain’ [Amos 5.11]), frequent confiscations of patrimonial domain following on insolvency, military service, and forced labor, were the main factors undermining the old order and leading to a kind of rent capitalism,”
Given such ever-present exploitative conditions, it is hard to think that only few of Israel’s farmers, Judean or Galilean, fell into debt, lost their property, and became wretchedly poor. To repeat: the downward course of unpaid debts and confiscations converted peasant farmers into short-term tenants and hired laborers. Tenancy and dispossession thus transferred crucial agrarian decisions to landlords cultivating profitable “cash crops,” such as grapes, olives, and flax, instead of traditional plants peasants had used for family subsistence. Production for tribute and commerce rather than for peasant household consumption destabilized basic historic peasant values, forcing farmers, tenants, and hired hands to enter a cash market, relying on money and loans to supply family needs, pay taxes, and repay debts. What the land produced became a commodity to be sold and exchanged as was the land itself — often with disastrous family consequences. For those who worked the land, its productivity no longer belonged to them, but to others.
Oakman (2008, p. 138) defines the structure of the Roman Empire as a “political economy” where those in power enforced a “redistributive network” so that “taxes and rents flowed relentlessly away from the rural producers to the storehouses of cities (especially Rome), private estates, and temples. Adams, (p. 172): “With a vast empire and a demanding infrastructure [bureaucracy, roads, armies, etc.], including a capital city of more than a million inhabitants, the revenue and supply needs of Rome were enormous in the first century BCE and first century CE.”
Friesen (2005, pp. 241–243) estimates that the dominant “Elites” who comprised about one percent of the Empire’s total population, possessed most of the Empire’s land and wealth, “earning rent and produce from the subsistence of farmers or slaves who actually worked the land.” Perhaps only a further seven percent, composed of some relatively well-off merchants, artisans, and military, had a “moderate surplus of resources.” The remainder of the Empire’s population lived in relative or wretched poverty, close to or below the level of subsistence. In Scheffler’s estimate (2011a, p. 119): “Only a small percentage (about 3%) of the population could be regarded as wealthy, 25% were starving with another 40% nearly starving.”
Although exact population economic scale percentages can be disputed (e.g., B. W. Longenecker, pp. 30–59, 317–332), all agree that poverty ran large in the Roman Empire with crushing social effects. “The slide from peasant owner to tenant farmer, to day laborer … was inexorable for many and, thus, gave rise to social resentment, debt, banditry and in the case of woman, prostitution” (Freyne 2006, pp. 44–45).
Not surprisingly, Israel’s messianic beliefs often accompanied the common hope that an approaching radical/revolutionary event (“apocalypse”) would change conditions, affording relief from political, economic, and social oppression, allowing “good” to triumph over “evil.” Jesus’ Galilean pleas embodied such hopes and demands: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (St. Matthew 6.11–12).
As pointed out earlier (Note #4), John the Baptist’s motif, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near” (St. Mark 1.15) was echoed by Jesus. Allison (pp. 33–43) catalogs more than 30 New Testament Gospel accounts in which the person of Jesus prophecies an immediate apocalyptic age. (For Jesus’ apocalyptic eschatology, see also E. P. Sanders 2002, pp. 43–44, Ehrman 2014, pp. 103–112, and Ehrman 1999. For the apocalyptic notions of St. Paul, see Meeks 1983, pp. 171–180, and the more recent extensive review by J. P. Davies).
To Jews, apocalypticism was no novelty. The “prophetic books as well as Daniel, foretell the defeat of Israel’s enemies, the influx of [Jews from] the Diaspora, the transformation of the land of promise into a paradise, and the realization of God’s perfect will throughout the world” (J. P. Davies, p. 78). In Isaiah’s last chapter (66.10–15, condensed): “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her, for thus says Yahweh. I will extend prosperity to her like a river, and the wealth of nations like an overflowing stream. As a mother comforts a child, so I will comfort you. And it shall be known that the hand of Yahweh is with his servants, and his indignation is against his enemies. For Yahweh will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to pay back his anger in fury and his rebuke in flames of fire.”
Such ancient messianic/apocalyptic messages continue through Jewish history to the present. Thus, the Amidah prayer celebrating the Jewish New Year, does not entreat justice in heaven, but restates apocalyptic hope: “Bring to early fulfillment the hopes and prayers of the House of Israel for the coming of the Messianic era of thy servant David, ushering in days of justice and peace, humanity and holiness on earth. … Speed the time when those who love righteousness will behold these days and rejoice; when the upright and the kind will be glad and break into song, when wickedness shall be silenced and every form of violence will vanish like vapor, because thou wilt cause the rule of arrogance to cease from the earth” (M. D. Klein, p. 297).
Bad as conditions were under Israel’s Hasmonean-Herodian aristocracy, messianic/apocalyptic hopes swelled even further under exploitative Roman rule after Herod the Great, worsened by avaricious Roman prefects and procurators. Various messianic figures were either killed in battle with the Romans or summarily executed. Among recorded failed Messiahs, prophets, or leaders with messianic followings, dating from Herod’s death (4 B.C.E.) into the first century, were Judas son of Hezekiah (ca. 4 B.C.E.), Simon (ca. 4 B.C.E.), Athronges (ca. 3 B.C.E.), Judas of Gamla/Galilee (ca. 6 C.E.), John the Baptist (ca. 27 C.E.), the “Samaritan” (ca. 28 C.E.), Theudas (ca. 45 C.E.), Benjamin the Egyptian (ca. 56 C.E.), Jesus Bar Hananiah (ca. 65 C.E.), Menachem (ca. 66 C.E.), and Simon Bar Giora (ca. 69 C.E.).
All of these movements were clearly reminiscences or reenactments of earlier Israelite movements led by a prophet, such as the exodus from bondage, the wilderness march and the entry into the land (e.g., ‘the battle of Jericho’) led by Moses and Joshua, with echoes of Elijah and his protégé Elisha in the wilderness and crossing the Jordan as well. … The similar form and purpose of all these movements, along with their differences in peculiarities, suggest a common pattern that was very much alive in Israelite culture at the time of Jesus, clearly rooted in the collective memory of the ancient formative prophetic movements” (Horsley 2012, p. 93).
Note that prophetic and messianic activities could lead to consequences that were not that far apart. Prophetic demands for social justice paved the way for messianic movements and actions where words lead to followers and followers to organizations challenging the status quo: not unlike executed John the Baptist’s history and his executed follower, Jesus the Galilean of the New Testament.
Jesus’ claims were both prophetic and messianic. “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand” (St. Mark 1.15) “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come into power” (Ibid. 9.1; also St. Matthew 16.28). In fortifying his followers, St. Mark (9.41) has Jesus say “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ [Messiah] will by no means lose the reward.” To Jesus, the ideal state of the “Kingdom of God” is already in sight, in which he promises to drink wine again with his followers (St. Mark 14.25):
- where the poor are blessed (St. Luke 6.20),
- where debts are forgiven (St. Matthew 6.12),
- where material possessions are shared (St. Mark 10.21),
- where all are welcome to communal meals (St. Mark 2.15),
- where Jesus’ twelve disciples judge Israel’s restored twelve tribes (St. Matthew 19.28),
- where Jesus will renew or rebuild the Holy Temple (St. Mark 14.58),
- where justice triumphs (St. Matthew 12.20).
Jesus’ populist message requiring compassion and goodwill to enter his “Kingdom of God,” would thus have ranked high among the poor and oppressed: give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit prisoners (St. Matthew 23.34–36). Even more radical is Jesus’ opposition to economic inequality: the injustice of being rich while others are poor. To the wealthy petitioner who obeys all commandments and begs him “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life” (St. Mark 10.17), Jesus replies “You lack one thing: go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Ibid. 10.21, also St. Luke 12.33, 18.22). “You cannot serve God and wealth” (St. Matthew 6.24, St. Luke 16.13). “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (St. Luke 1.52–53). “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (St. Luke 6.25). “What is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (St. Luke 16.15). James the Just’s letter also condemns the rich, and prophecies their doom: “Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and … it will eat your flesh like fire” (5.1).
Such declarations would certainly appear as messianism of high order to an oppressed people, and would have been sufficient for St. Peter to proclaim “You are the Messiah” when Jesus asks “Who do you think I am?” (St. Mark 8.29). Thus, despite charging his disciples not to broadcast his messianic title (St. Mark 8.30), the popular enthusiasm that the Gospels claim greeted Jesus on entering Jerusalem (St. Mark 11.8–10, St. Matthew 21.8–11, St. Luke 19.36–38, St. John 12.12–13) shows that his followers and perhaps many other Jews regarded him as a messianic figure foretold by the Jewish prophet Zachariah (9.9–10). “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Lo, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey … he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from river to the ends of the earth.”
In answer to theologians who questioned Jesus’ messianic status, R. N. Longenecker (1970, pp. 70–71) made the following comment. “One is bound to wonder how a man who made no explicit messianic claim for himself … or who absolutely rejected the ascription and did so little that was out of the ordinary … could have aroused the intense opposition … that culminated in his death. … That Jesus understood his ministry in terms of messiahship is the underlying presupposition in the narratives concerning the baptism, the temptation in the wilderness, the transfiguration, and the triumphal entry … Jesus could …hardly have claimed to be the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy without at least implying that he was in some sense the Messiah of Israel’s hope.”
Jesus’ acclamation in Jerusalem as a royal “Son of David” (St. Matthew 21.9) and leader of an imminent new socio-economic “Kingdom of God” (St. Mark 1.15) would have made him a prime seditious suspect. That Jesus apparently not only spoke but acted in the Temple “in the name of God,” cast him further into the role of a rebellious Jewish populist, sardonically crucified by Pontius Pilate under the title “King of the Jews” (St. Mark 15.26, also Note #21). Jesus’ Jerusalem crime may well have been active opposition to the Temple priestly system in which “ordinary people are deprived of their own offerings for the most part … a system of exploitative redistribution for the benefit of the few” (Oakman 2008, p. 195).
Jewish response to the Romans and their collaborative priestly authorities would hence have been no different from earlier critiques and supplications for justice by Israel’s prophets. “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. … But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5.22–24). Perhaps the most impassioned appeals for justice and commitment to Yahweh came from Micah. “Alas for those who devise wickedness … They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance” (2.2–3). “Listen, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Should you not know justice? — you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones” (3.1–2). “With what shall I come before the Lord … with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams and with ten thousand rivers of oil? … What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (6.6–8).
In Psalms of Solomon (17.21–24, 32, Charlesworth 1985 vol. 2, p. 667), written during Israel’s 63 B.C.E. absorption into the Roman Empire, the Jewish Messiah is expected “to destroy the unrighteous rulers, to purge Jerusalem from Gentiles who trample her to destruction … to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth. … There will be no unrighteousness in his days, for all shall be holy and their king shall be the Lord Messiah.” Horsley (1994, p. 154) proposes Jesus’ movement followed this theme to replace long-condemned systematic injustice with “an independent and revitalized social order. [It] proclaimed God’s overcoming of the old unjust and unfree order and insisted on the possibility of free, just, even creative personal and social life.”
To the list of purported Jewish Messiahs, Horsley and Hanson add the names of various “bandits” and “brigands” who met ignominious deaths; some, if not many, contesting Herodian and Roman domination. “As to the number of robbers he [Felix, Roman Procurator] caused to be crucified, and of those [common people] who were caught among them, and whom he brought to punishment, they were a multitude not to be enumerated” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews II:XIII). Crossan (1991, pp. 451–452) lists 33 cases titled Peasant Unrest in Early Roman Palestine, and Kearney and Zeitz claim as many as twenty-seven Messiah-like figures can be identified between 28 B.C.E. and 135 C.E.
None of the messianic movements relieved the Jews of their oppressors, and none could withstand the Roman army, used throughout the empire to enforce taxation, conscript labor, defeat rebels, conquer territory, and enslave captives. In fact, conditions worsened for most Jews in Israel because of increased Roman oppression, leading to repeated rebellions in which many Jews were enslaved, crucified, or burnt alive.
Jesus’ Galilean homeland was not immune to revolts: bands of guerillas fought Herod with uprisings that continued even after his death (Josephus, Wars of the Jews I:XVI, XVII). In 4 B.C.E., a major Galilean revolt was suppressed by the Roman Governor, Quinctilius Varus, who crucified 2,000 Jewish “rebels,” sacked the Galilean city of Sepphoris, sold most of its population into slavery, and turned the city into a royal principality. (Sepphoris was only 3 miles from Nazareth, Jesus’ birthplace.) By 6 C.E., the offensive behavior of Herod’s son, Archelaus, in governing Jerusalem and Judea (Southern Israel), led the Romans to declare Judea a Roman province administered by a series of Roman “Prefects” who appointed the Temple High Priests. Among Roman Governors was Pontius Pilate (26–36 C.E.), described by the Jewish historian Josephus as greedy and savage, eventually recalled to Rome on charges of excessive brutality. To enforce order during Jewish holidays, a garrison of Roman troops quartered in the Antonia Fortress adjoining the Jerusalem Temple, furnished the cohort that captured and executed Jesus.
Josephus’ history shows that tensions and disputes in Israel between ordinary Jews and the privileged elite increased rapidly through Jesus’ life in the early first century C.E. and for more than generation after. “Brigandage,” nationalistic or in response to exploitation and poverty, became a notable feature of Israel’s landscape, and as indicated above, was severely punished by Roman authorities but not eliminated. By the time the great Jewish revolt began in 66 C.E., Galilean peasants had attacked elite enclaves in Sepphoris and Tiberias. In Jerusalem, rebels “carried the fire to the place where the [debt] archives were deposited, and made haste to burn the contracts belonging to their creditors, and thereby dissolve their obligations for paying their debts; and this was done in order to gain the multitude of those who had been debtors, and that they might persuade the poorer sort to join in their insurrection with safety against the more wealthy” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, II:XXVII).
The ensuing Jewish-Roman War (66–72 C.E.), involving both Israel’s cities and countryside, was put down by a host of Roman legions who destroyed the Jewish Temple and most of Jerusalem. All Jews throughout the Empire, young or old, were then charged an ethnically targeted tax lasting for centuries, Fiscus Judaicus. Penalty though it was, “from AD 96 it came to be valued by Jews as their public license to live by their own rules” (Judge, p. 367). As pointed out earlier (Note #3), although paying the tax would have protected St. Paul’s Christians from persecution as an illegitimate superstition, they nevertheless sought exemption from any form of Jewish identity. To this one can add: “Why would [Gentile] Christians not opt to distance themselves from a group now being deliberately humiliated and financially disadvantaged?” (M. H. Williams, p. 159).
In the second century, the messianic Simon Bar Kochba led another large Jewish rebellion (132–135 C.E.) also overwhelmingly defeated, in which Israel’s Jewish population may have been reduced by almost half (Lapin, p. 33). On pain of death, Jews were then forbidden to enter Jerusalem, renamed Aelia Capitolina in honor of the great Jupiter Temple on Rome’s Capitoline hill. On only one day of the year (“Tisha B’Av”) were Jews, after paying tribute to the city guardians, allowed to enter Jerusalem and mourn at the site of their destroyed Temple.
Christian sympathy, however, was not forthcoming. St. Jerome, whose translation of the Jewish Scriptures into Latin was dependent on Jewish teachers, had nothing good to say about Jewish grief: “These hypocritical tenants [Jews] are forbidden to come to Jerusalem, because of the murder of the servants of God, and the last of them — the Son of God; unless to weep, for they are given permission to lament over the ruins of the city in exchange for a payment … The children of this wretched nation [Jews] bemoan the destruction of their temple, but are not worthy of compassion” (Hamblin and Seely, p. 68).
If we consider that Jews actively protesting against oppressive conditions were often unjustly condemned as “robbers,” “outlaws,” or “insurrectionists,” Jesus’ Roman execution, (ca. 30 C.E.) was not unexpected. “Jesus was arrested like a robber, tried on charges similar to those that might be used against such a person, executed between two lêstai [“outlaws”] and another lêstês — Barabbas — is set free” (Richardson and Edwards, p. 264).
Interestingly, the New Testament Barabbas, supposedly saved from crucifixion by a highly unbelievable practice of Romans releasing a single prisoner at Passover (Ehrman 2012a, p. 184; Marcus, p. 1035; Vermes 2005, p. 61), is also labeled an “insurrectionist” (St. Mark 15.7). As far as the Romans were concerned, neither Jesus’ messianic movement, nor his execution, nor others of Jesus’ time were of significance. The Roman historian Tacitus, writing of “troubles” in Judea during 14 – 37 C.E., declares that “Under Tiberius, peace [nothing happened].”
For Jews, Christianity’s demand to recognize Jesus as the Messiah (“Christ”) could only be answered by comparing Jesus’ accomplishments to those of the expected Messiah. Was Israel free of foreign domination? Was the Jerusalem Temple free of corruption? Protected from destruction? Was economic and political oppression eradicated? Was the world at peace? In the words of Micah (4.3–4): “He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between nations far away: they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; …neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” Or, as famously put by the prophet Isaiah (11.5), “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
According to Donaldson (2010, p. 155), “Jewish expectations about the promised age of salvation did not contain any notion of a Messiah who would suffer and die, who would do so as a means of bringing salvation, and who would be removed to heaven without having established the expected era of righteousness under the reign of God.” Similarly, “Messianic claims were not a question of doctrinal heresy, but a matter of empirical testing. If a person was indeed the Messiah, history would prove it by showing that he did what a messiah does: redeem Israel from oppression under the nations, overcome sin and evil, inaugurate the new age of blessedness. … Messiahs win — they do not get crucified” (Ruether 1979, pp. 236, 238). In Isaiah’s words (42.4), the Messiah “will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice on earth”. Moreover, a Messiah’s “Kingdom of God” is not postponed to a “Second Coming” after his death. In the Biblical book of Deuteronomy (18.22): “If a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the Lord has not spoken.”
Christian theologians completely ignored Jewish objections to Jesus as the Messiah, as though there were no Jewish expectations to gain freedom from oppression, nor any obstacle to accepting Christian theological claims of Jesus as a divine figure (Note #11.b), nor sound opposition to Christian radical misinterpretations of Jewish Scriptures (Notes #7, #18). “We blame the Jews…because they neither refute the arguments which we lay before them to prove that He [Jesus] is the Messiah…nor yet…do they believe in Him who was the subject of prophecy” (Origen, ca. 240, Against Celsus, ANF vol. 4, p. 446). Christians repeatedly condemned Jewish disbelief of Jesus as if it were a crime and Jews as if they were criminals for asserting Jesus’ failure to achieve Israel’s messianic goals of freedom, liberty, justice, and peace on Earth.
The inability of any professed Jewish Messiah to gain victory ended Israel’s contentions with Rome. After messianic Bar Kochba’s second century defeat, the Romans considered Israel as “tamed” (Lapin, p. 16). Jewish nationalist aspirations fell dormant, and leadership left to the Jews was a religious scholar/teacher movement (“Rabbis”) who doubted that Israel had reached the level of religious purity deserving the Messiah. To the Rabbis, salvation awaits piety: If all Israel will keep a single Sabbath in the proper (rabbinic) way the Messiah will come.” (Neusner 2004b, p. 14). In the absence of Israel’s religious renewal, messianic claimants, such as Bar Kochba, were labeled “false Messiahs” and one Rabbi exclaimed “grass will grow on your cheeks and the Son of David will still not come” (L. I. Levine 1992, p. 144). Nevertheless, Messiah believers were not considered heretical: “there was no sin in making the error … of believing someone to be the Messiah” (Schiffman, p. 147). To the Rabbis, a failed Messiah was a dupe or fool, not a blasphemer.
Although Jesus’ messianic message was strictly from one Jew to other Jews (see, for example, Vermes 2003, p. 417; and also Note #4), liberation of Israel from Roman oppressors made little sense to Gentiles and was obviously unfulfilled. In accord with St. Paul (Romans 16.20), Jesus’ adversaries in the New Testament Gospels do not include earthly Rome. In its place, Jesus’ prime enemy is Satan, a celestial villain (St. Mark 1.13; St. Matthew 4.1–11; St. Luke 22.3; St. John 13.27) even more toxic than Jesus’ supposed Jewish antagonists. As noted earlier (Note #14), the term “Christ/Messiah” thus lost its meaning among Gentile Christians as title for an earthly “anointed” Jewish leader and savior (e.g., “Jesus, the Christ/Messiah”), and became instead Jesus’ surname (“Christ”), a new binomial divinity — “Our Lord Jesus Christ” or “Christ Jesus our Lord.” St. Paul’s letters use the term “Christ” more than 400 times; either combined with “Jesus” as above, or simply “Christ.” “Once the communities became largely Gentile, any titular [messianic] significance to Christos [anointed] disappeared” (Scroggs, p. 93).
To attract Gentiles, Jesus’ messianic claim for a forthcoming divine Jewish Kingdom was elevated to a distance far beyond Israel’s goal to correct economic and national afflictions. Instead, emphasis was placed on three dogmata: Jesus Christ was now the savior of all mankind; it was Jesus Christ rather than God who would return in the future to triumph over evil; Christian redemption (deliverance from guilt and harm) is to be attained, not by militant action, but by faith in Jesus Christ. In Acts of the Apostles, “to follow [St.] Luke’s narrative is to read Christianity not as a call for insurrection but as a testimony to the reality of [Jesus’] resurrection” (Rowe, p. 88). Emphasizing Jesus Christ as a peaceful divine Christian savior helped de-emphasize his role as a crucified Jewish rebel. “[T]he author of Acts is trying to establish a modus vivendi with the political powers in the empire. Rome and the provinces are not evil beasts. … The politics of Acts means accepting the Greco-Roman political structure” (Scroggs, p. 166).
There is little question that this mythic Jesus Christ empowered Christianity for millennia (see also Note #22). “The thing that has functioned throughout history as the source of consolation and hope for perplexed humanity is not the historical Jesus, but the literary character of Jesus that we have in the Gospels” (Ellens, p. 254). As described by some writers, the Gospels became a form of “narrative theology” which incorporates St. Paul’s mystical Jesus and minimizes Jesus’ socio-economic political mission.