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The relationship between the Historic Jesus and politics

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In his December 14, 2013 debate on the British radio show “Unbelievable?” religious scholar and author Reza Aslan made the following statement:

“…there is no difference between religion and politics in Jesus’ time. They are absolutely, 100%, one and the same thing. And so every single seemingly religious word that comes out of Jesus’ mouth has clear political implications.”

Aslan’s newest book, Zealot, defends the claim that the real, historical Jesus was a political zealot, meaning that he was complicit in the Jewish unrest – and eventual revolt - against the Roman Empire.

Aslan’s point is well-taken. Surviving first century writings (which are relatively scant) seem to indicate that practically every idea floating around in the first century – particularly in the turbulent Palestine regions – had some kind of political motivation.

Moreover, historically, religion is very difficult to separate from politics. In ancient cultures, state religions were the norm; that is, everyone under a particular governing system was required by law to worship under a particular religion. In such empires, the priesthood was frequently a part of the government. This aspect of state religions continued up until very recently in history, most notably when the American Constitution cemented the separation between Church and State.

Whenever the term “Historical Jesus” is thrown around, it is certain that the person using the term is attempting to separate Jesus as an actual real historical person from Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament documents. Since these documents are the very things being thrown into doubt, it would be pointless to use them to argue against Aslan’s version of Jesus.

That said, it is significant to note that the New Testament documents, which, at their most liberal dating, were written between 30 and 150 years after Jesus lived, are surprisingly a-political. If, as Aslan states, “there is no difference between religion and politics in Jesus’ time,” and if religion and government have close ties throughout history, the fact that in the earliest Christian documents (which still lie within a century’s proximity to the “Historical Jesus”) the sentiment was prevalently a-political makes Christianity (at least, in its earliest context) exceptional to most other religions, especially to its contemporaries.

It is largely agreed upon by all schools of biblical scholarship that Paul of Tarsus wrote his epistles early (sometime in the 60’s CE, about 30 years after Jesus’ death); and was instrumental in forming much of the theology/philosophy of the early Christian Church. While liberal scholars will not allow that all of the writings which bear Paul’s name were actually written by Paul, they will give him the books of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon.

It is significant, then, that Paul wrote these lines in the uncontested book of Romans:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:1-8 English Standard Version)

The overwhelming message of the New Testament is that Christ is returning shortly to judge the world. This being the case, the New Testament encourages Christians not to become politically or socially entangled:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15 English Standard Version)

"Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." (Luke 21:34-36 NRSV)

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish” (2 Peter 3:10-14 NRSV)

They are instead to focus on evangelism in the attempt to convert as many as possible to bring them into a right relationship with God and to save them from the coming judgment. Unlike other a-political religions, such as Buddhism, the New Testament calls Christians not to monastically isolate themselves from society, but rather to engage society with the Gospel:

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:1-2 English Standard Version)

It is worth noting that these passages, which appear to be in harmony with one another, are drawn from all different sections of the New Testament.

The New Testament alienates both Jewish and Roman parties by making them both complicit in Jesus crucifixion. The Jesus of the Gospels condemns the Jewish leaders for their hypocrisy and victimization of the Jewish people through manipulative religious laws. The book of Acts and the epistles implicate the Romans as being harsh persecutors of the early church.

Accurate or not, the New Testament documents appear to go out of their way to alienate the major political influences in the context in which they were written. It is difficult, then, to support the claim that they were written with a political agenda.

When one denies the accuracy of the New Testament documents, the historical data on Jesus becomes almost non-existent. Aside from a few scant (and unflattering) references to Jesus in the Jewish Talmud, a brief mention by a Syrian Philosopher who lists him as one of several wise teachers who were killed for their teachings, and a few first and second century historians who mention him in connection with the Christian religion; there is no illuminating historical information about Jesus.

How, then, do scholars such as Reza Aslan go about the search for the “Historical Jesus”? Well, they do so from the New Testament documents.

Using a technique called “Higher Criticism” or “Form Criticism,” they attempt to separate the facts about Jesus from the religious fiction built into the Gospel writings.

This technique can become a grab bag from which almost any version of Jesus may be argued. Aslan picks a few scant passages that can be interpreted as being vaguely aggressive and ascribes to them historical merit over a much larger body of pacifistic teachings in order to support his premise that Jesus was a Jewish Zealot.

Aslan’s opposite in the December 14th debate took passages such as Jesus’ famous injunction to “turn the other cheek” to interpret Jesus as a peace-loving social reformer.

In his recent book Killing Jesus, political mogul Bill O’Reilly casts the “Historical Jesus” as a capitalist who would have gladly embraced the Republican Party.

In his book, The Third Jesus, spiritualist Deepak Chopra preaches a Christ who is distinctly New Age in his leanings.

In fact, there is no historic figure so coveted as Jesus of Nazareth. Muslims claim Jesus as an Islam-friendly prophet, radical feminists claim Jesus as a woman teacher who was wrongly interpreted to be a man, Mormons will identify Jesus as the deified spiritual son of Heavenly Father, homosexuals will claim Jesus as gay, and Buddhists will credit Jesus as an ascended master.

Even atheists will gladly claim Jesus as a wise social reformer.

If the New Testament documents cannot be trusted, then any conclusions drawn from them is pure speculation as proven the overwhelming lack of consensus.

One has to wonder what is so significant about Jesus of Nazareth that practically every political and religious agenda wants him on their side. Why care at all about such an obscure historical person?

If nothing else, the utter uniqueness of the early Christian position on politics and the tremendous tug-of-war that rages over this Jesus of Nazareth makes the New Testament documents worth a second look.

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