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Angela Tilby: Jesus was not a social revolutionary

06 April 2023


A fresco in a Franciscan church in Dubr depicts Jesus before Pontius Pilate

A fresco in a Franciscan church in Dubr depicts Jesus before Pontius Pilate

IN THESE anti-imperialist days, it has become almost commonplace to preach and teach that Jesus was crucified because his message set him at odds with Roman imperial rule. He was, after all, “crucified under Pontius Pilate”.

The social-justice gospel has plausibility, and provides a contrast to the more traditional message that Jesus died to pay the price of human sin. You can, of course, link the two, if you see imperialism as the most potent form of sin, and redemption in terms of earthly liberation.

Of course, there is a weight of critical New Testament scholarship which presses us to distrust the texts as they stand, and claims that they have been edited in such a way as to cast blame on the Jews, to exonerate the Romans, and to obscure Jesus the agitator from our understanding.

So, I understand how a preacher might come to Holy Week and Easter with an anti-imperialist agenda, for which they claim scholarly backing. But I am not sure that the anti-Roman Jesus is really present in the Gospels. Jesus’s first reported encounter with political authority is with the Jewish King Herod, who is determined to crush him as a potential rival. The arguments that Jesus has in the Gospels are about the interpretation of Jewish law rather than the rights or wrongs of the Empire. Jesus had a Zealot among his disciples, but was not himself a political Zealot.

Jesus’s answer to the question of imperial taxes seems designed for ambiguity, although a whole range of contemporary commentators seem confident that they know what he meant — and that it was a rebuke to Roman authority.

Yet the only example of Jesus’s attitude to individual Romans is the healing of the slave of the Roman centurion (Matthew 8.5-13). An interesting scholarly case is made by Professor Allen Brent, in A Political History of Early Christianity (T& T Clark, 2009), that the threat posed by the early Christians was that they prophesied the end of Augustus’s pax Romana. But, he insists, this did not make either them, or Jesus, social revolutionaries.

Perhaps we should be asking a different question. I am not sure how much the anti-imperialist reading of the Passion story truly liberates or brings salvation in the widest sense. In the end, all unchecked idealism fails or, worse, turns into totalitarian oppression.

When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom, he seemed to be referring to something both more elusive and more possible: a way of living and believing as though God reigned now, no matter what the Emperor or his successors might be up to. Jesus points us to a different life breaking in on this one, a life that comes from heaven. It is this that gives meaning to the Passion story, enabling us to claim Jesus not only as victim, but, as he returns from death at Easter, as victor.

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