Baker Academic

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

An Interview with Amy-Jill Levine

If you've been in a bookstore or on the internet or near oxygen you're probably familiar with the name Amy-Jill Levine. I am very excited about her new book and fortunate to have interviewed her about it. The book is called Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi and it will change the way you read some of Jesus' most celebrated teachings. My guess is that this book will invite as much controversy as it does reflection; few readers will walk away from the book unchallenged. Such is to be expected from a teacher as talented as Amy-Jill Levine.

ACL: Professor Levine, thank you for providing us with such a fascinating read. Your research casts many of Jesus' most familiar stories in a new light. Did you ever find yourself surprised by one of the parables as your book was unfolding? In other words, did you ever have the experience of thinking that your research would take you in one direction and then find an altogether different line of thought emerge?

AJL: Thank you for your kind words.
   The major surprise I had was that what seemed so clear to me was not often noted in commentaries and even less noted in sermons. Given the increasing interest, in both theological and academic circles, in Jesus as a teacher of justice and ethics, I had expected to find comparably less focus on how Jesus saves our souls for the afterlife more focus on how Jesus saves us from damaging relationships with other people.
   What also surprised me -- not because if its presence (which I expected) but because its extensiveness -- was the frequent mischaracterization, through ugly and ahistorical stereotypes, of Jesus’ Jewish context. In interpretation after interpretation, Jewish theology and practice are used as Jesus’ negative foils and thus the interpretations bear false witness against both Judaism and Jesus.

ACL: You make a compelling case that Jesus' stories were not exactly meant to be enjoyed by his hearers. In many cases, Jesus seems to intend his parables to cause discomfort. You remind your readers that religion often functions "to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable." You explain, "We do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting." To what extent is this an apt description of Jesus himself? Was Jesus someone who aimed to afflict those who occupied "comfortable" stations in his society? 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Jesus the ‘Revolutionary’…?

In a recent JSNT article also publicised in Newsweek, Dale Martin has argued that Jesus and his armed circle saw themselves as part of an earthly-heavenly war against the Romans and the Temple priests. The JSNT and Newsweek articles have provoked a detailed two-part response on this blog by Brian Pounds, related posts on this blog, and posts on other biblioblogs. Mike Bird, for instance, links to his 2006 article ‘Jesus and the Revolutionaries’ where, following people like N.T. Wright, he made arguments such as this:
Jesus’ use of the phrase “Son of Man” as a self-designation…may constitute another strand of polemic against a revolutionary theology…it may be a censure against the revolutionaries or those who want to usher in the kingdom through violence…Like the rabbinic tradition of Yohanan ben Zakkai who pleaded with the Galileans to follow Torah instead of revolution, Jesus similarly called the nation to forego its idolatrous nationalism and, importantly, to follow him as God’s agent of the kingdom.
Mike also refers to what he calls one of his very own ‘memorable quotes’: ‘[I]n supposing that Jesus was a zealot we are faced with a problem of historical discontinuity between Jesus and his followers that is roughly analogous to trying to explain why a group of Al-Qaeda terrorists have traded their guns for guitars and have established a hippie commune in down-town Manhattan.’

A commenter called ‘Deane’ helpfully provided a quotation from Johannes Weiss on Mike Bird’s blog: ‘To hope for the Kingdom of God in the transcendental sense which Jesus attaches to it, and to raise a revolution, are two things as different as fire and water.’

Simon Joseph, who has had much to say on this issue, including a recent book, has claimed in response to Dale Martin: ‘The Revolutionary Jesus hypothesis has long been rejected by most New Testament scholars…I have argued…that Jesus advocated and practiced a radical form of eschatological nonviolence.’

So the distinction between the (typically violent) ‘revolutionary’ and ‘non-revolutionary’ seems clear enough.  And yet…the relatively nonviolent Jesuses of Crossan and Wright are discussed in books which imply something about Jesus’ ‘revolutionary’ status: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (Crossan) and The Original Jesus: The Life and Vision of a Revolutionary (Wright). 
So here we have a range of definitions or assumptions about what ‘revolutionary’ means (and whether it is a good or bad thing) in relation to Jesus depending on a given scholar: a zealot-esque leader might be ‘revolutionary’ (whether rejected or accepted as a plausible model for understanding the historical Jesus); the opposite behaviour of someone who latched onto the idea of a ‘transcendental’ kingdom; or someone whose radical ideas turned the world upside down. And notice that we can get scholars who argue that Jesus had radical ideas that turned the world upside down but was presumably not a ‘revolutionary’ and we can get a critique of ‘revolutionary theology’ versus Jesus teaching  which is a difference so strong that it requires an analogous contrast between al-Qaeda and a Manhattan commune.

But let’s confuse things a little further. In Pauline studies it is now, of course, obligatory to mention that philosophers like Jacob Taubes, Žižek, and Alain Badiou have given distinctive philosophical readings (Terry Eagleton has attempted something similar with Jesus, though his arguments are much more familiar in the history of historical Jesus studies). All three present Paul in revolutionary terms but do not really think about Paul as leading a violent uprising to overthrow Rome. Instead they construct Paul (and sometimes Jesus) in language unambiguously associated with some of the most popular contemporary understandings of ‘revolution’. For Taubes, Paul stands in a revolutionary Jewish Messianic tradition in constructing a new ‘people of God’ who overthrow all existing categories  while more so for Badiou who sees resurrection in Paul functioning as a revolutionary Event much like the French Revolution or May ’68. Žižek and Badiou even compare Jesus and Paul to Marx and Lenin? So does all this make Jesus and Paul ‘revolutionaries’? The authors think so.

Lenin and Marx not ‘revolutionary’ enough? Marxist exegete Robert Myles has shown how it is even possible for ‘revolutionary’ stories about Kim Jong Il to incorporate miraculous birth narratives.  

I could try and provide a definition of ‘revolutionary’ but instead I’m going to confuse things further still by returning to Mike Bird’s analogy between al-Qaeda and his Manhattan commune. This distinction might not be so clear cut. The historical and intellectual background to al-Qaeda and related groups is, of course, complex but Marxism played its part. As has long been noted, Marxist influences (e.g. revolutionary vanguard, anti-imperialism, terror, internationalism, and popular justice), as well as ideas concerning totalitarianism, are unsurprising given the prominence of Marxism in universities and the nationalist and socialist movements in colonial, postcolonial and neo-colonial contexts, including the Middle East, India and North Africa. Thus even Bird’s seemingly common sense distinction can start to break down. And if we are not fond of modern analogies, we might turn to passages from Josephus which suggest that even the distinction between prophet and physically violent subversive is not always clear cut (e.g. War 2.254-68).

I won’t give a serious solution to this problem but could we say that the idea of someone attacking economic inequality and promising a future where the first will be last (and vice versa) in a new world order, where the core group get an especially elevated position in what would eventually become or mimic the power it once opposed, sounds a bit like the clichéd pattern of the…revolution?

Update: Robert Myles has responded and critiqued one creator of a Revolutionary Jesus who once lived in a castle

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Quarterly Quote of the Month about Jesus for this Week

Paul more or less totally ignores Jesus' particular acts, teachings, parables.... never in his writings does he engage in hermeneutics, in probing into the "deeper meaning" of this or that parable or act of Jesus. What matters to him is not Jesus as a historical figure, only the fact that he died on the Cross and rose from the dead--after confirming Jesus' death and resurrection, Paul goes on  to his true Leninist business, that of organizing the new party called the Christian community.

                           ~Slavoj Žižek

Friday, September 26, 2014

JC Has Arrived at the Jesus Blog

Earlier in the week, we teased that JC was coming.  He has now arrived.  JC is, of course, James Crossley, Professor of Bible, Culture, and Politics at the University of Sheffield, who is joining us as a regular contributor.  Anyone familiar with discussions in NT studies involving the historical Jesus, the Gospels, Jewish law, the Bible and culture, or the Bible and critical theory will be very familiar with James's work.  He will continue to maintain his own blog at Harnessing Chaos, but will join us here for all things historical Jesus.  Speaking for myself (Chris), though I doubt Anthony will disagree, I consider James one of the most important voices in current historical Jesus work.  To say that his is an original voice is too much of a cliché, so I'll just say that I probably learn more from his work than anyone else in the field right now simply because he is constantly taking a different approach to problems, whether new ones or longstanding ones.  His recent work, especially Jesus in an Age of Terror and Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism, has charted new territory in the modern contexts of historical Jesus work.  I really can't wait for his new Jesus book to land, Jesus and the Chaos of History (Oxford University Press), and to see some of the discussion it generates.  For those who care, and I know lots of you who read this blog do, I'm told that it is explicitly positioned as "post-criteria" historical Jesus research.  When we asked James what he thought about joining the blog, he said he'd love to drag the good name of historical Jesus research further into the mud with us, and that sealed the deal.  Welcome James!

Should we have a formal welcoming evening of drinks at SBL?  Would any readers of the blog like to join us if we do?

Warren Carter on Jesus and the Greco-Roman World

I just found this article by Warren Carter that sets a few aspects of Jesus' life against a Greco-Roman backdrop. Carter asks more questions than he provides answers here, but it is a good succinct synopsis of one particular approach to Jesus. Perhaps it is an approach that has gained less traction than it did in the early 1990s, but continues to be part of the conversation nonetheless.


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Simon Joseph on Dale Martin's Jesus

Was Jesus a violent revolutionary, leading a band of armed disciples toward a heavenly war in Jerusalem?  Simon Joseph, author of the new book The Nonviolent Messiah, answers no.

You can read my recent interview with Dr. Joseph here, and here.


A Force Shall Arrive

Ever cognizant of the overlaps between historical Jesus research and professional wrestling, we move closer to our big announcement.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A Reply to Dale Martin's JSNT Essay (Part 2)

Yesterday (soon-to-be) Dr. Pounds offered part one of his two-part response to Dale Martin's recent JSNT essay. Here is the second installment:

Yesterday I briefly outlined Martin's hypothesis that Jesus was crucified because he was the leader of a group of illegally armed disciples. Today I focus on Martin's answer to the question of why Jesus' disciples were armed in the first place. He considers the best answer to be that Jesus intended to participate in an armed battle accompanied by a heavenly army (p 15). His supporting evidences for this hypothesis are the episode of the so-called temple cleansing (p 9), the against-the-grain saying in which 'false-witnesses' indicate Jesus own intended participation in the destruction of the temple (p 10; Mark 14:58); Mark's lack of mention of sacrificing or eating lamb at the last supper indicating rejection of the Passover rite at the temple (p 16; 14:18–25), and indications of Jesus' inclusion of Samaritans (who as a group were also hostile toward the Jerusalem temple; p 15; Luke 10: 25–37; John 4:4–42). As I argued yesterday, I propose that the arm(s) carried by Jesus' disciple(s) belonged to the accoutrements of a traveller and were used spontaneously in resistance to Jesus' arrest (as Mark narrates). I view Martin's proposal as a considerably weaker hypothesis.

If Jesus and his armed band had attempted to enact a battle within the temple, they almost certainly would have been killed on the spot (the Temple police was present and a Roman cohort stood watch in the Antonia Tower during Jewish festivals just in case of seditious activity; cf. Acts 4:1–3; 5:23–24; 21:31; J.W. 2.224; 5.243–45; M. Middoth 10.1.1-2, 9). Martin offers no explanation for the escape of Jesus and the disciples .

On a side note, Martin also does not offer a plausible explanation as to why only Jesus was executed. He suggests that it was typical Roman practice to kill an insurrectionary ringleader but not his followers. Yet, this was clearly not the case in most analogous episodes narrated by Josephus. Roman forces were not hesitant in killing the followers of royal pretenders or the so-called sign prophets (J.W. 2.59, 64, 263; Ant. 17.276, 284; 20.98, 171). Martin does not discuss these examples. From Pilate's tenure, he emphasises that only the chief instigators within the Samaritan prophet's movement were executed (Ant. 18.87)– as though disciples attempting armed revolt would not have been considered instigators as well (p 18). Martin also cites the example of John the Baptist, whose followers were not executed despite Antipas' fear that his charisma might inspire insurrection ( p 18; Ant. 18.113–19). However, one must acknowledge that John did not attempt to participate in an armed revolt, and this probably indicates the same for Jesus.

Martin's other points are open to alternate interpretations and do not overcome the major problems posed above. The claim that Jesus would personally destroy the temple is easily understood as a garbled form of his prophecy and symbolic action indicating divine destruction (Mark 11:12–21; 13:2). One can easily read Mark' s narrative as implying that Jesus and his disciples participated in a typical Passover (cf. Mark 14:12, 14, 16). The possible presence of Samaritans among Jesus' followers does not conclusively determine Jesus' attitude toward the temple any more than the presence of tax-collectors determines his stance toward the Roman Empire. Moreover, even if Jesus did lead a counter-temple movement (as a sizeable group of scholars conclude), this does not necessitate that he attempted to use force of arms to bring about its downfall. In sum, Martin's proposal that Jesus and his armed disciples attempted to participate in an apocalyptic battle suffers from the same fundamental improbabilities as previous attempts to construct Jesus as a rebel. His subsidiary arguments are not conclusive enough to overturn these improbabilities. Space does not permit discussion of the problem posed to Martin's hypothesis by the non-violent Jesus of the double tradition (Matt 5:39–42; Luke 6:29–30). 

My thanks to Brian Pounds for his critical and timely posts.

Big News at the Jesus Blog—Chris Keith and Anthony Le Donne

We have some big news here at the Jesus Blog.  We will make a formal announcement later, but suffice it to say that we are certain that JC is coming.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Reply to Dale Martin's JSNT Essay (Part 1)

I am very pleased to feature S. Brian Pounds' response to Dale Martin. Dr. Pounds is a recent graduate of Cambridge and is now teaching at the University of Georgia. His dissertation topic (and forthcoming book) addresses the "crucifiability" of Jesus in historical assessment.

Here is part one:

Dale B. Martin in a recently published article entitled “Jesus in Jerusalem: Armed and Not Dangerous” ( has offered a variation of the long-standing thesis that Jesus and his followers participated in a failed armed revolt. As a starting point, Martin cites the Gospel of Mark's narration of armed resistance at the time of Jesus' arrest (14:47) and the subsequent 'embarrassment' demonstrated by the other evangelists who provide their own respective mollifications of the episode (Matt 26:52; Luke 22:51; John 18:11). According to Martin, from Mark's narrative one would assume that most or all of Jesus' disciples were armed (p 5). Citing the prohibition of arms within the boundaries of Rome, Martin proposes that the same would have been the case in Jerusalem (pp 7–9). On this basis, he goes on to suggest that simply bearing arms within the city around the time of Passover would have been a great enough offense to get Jesus crucified (p 9). [Martin does offer a fuller hypothesis concerning the causes of Jesus' crucifixion, which I will outline and discuss tomorrow.

With regard to Martin's first point, I can plausibly imagine that more than one disciple was armed at Jesus' arrest. However, based upon the narrative of Mark there is no way to determine whether or not this was actually the case. For the sake of argument though I will follow Martin in assuming that most of the disciples were armed. Granting his first point, I have greater reservation in accepting the second step of Martin's proposal. It is true that weapons were generally forbidden within the official city limits of Rome, but it does not follow that this was also likely the case in Jerusalem. Cultic sanctity and civic ideal within the Roman pomerium prohibited not only weapons but also legions, military dress, certain exotic cults, and even burial (cf. J. Rüpke, Religion of Rome, 182; O. F. Robinson, The Criminal Law of Ancient Rome, 95). Thus, the heart of the empire compared to other urban centres was in many ways a special rather than a typical case. Furthermore, there is no source stating that it was illegal–much less crucifiable–for an individual or group of individuals to carry weapons in Jerusalem. In fact, Roman legal codes and narrative accounts from various periods often convey the right of individuals to bear and use arms for protection, particularly in cases of travellers defending themselves against bandits (e.g. Twelve Tables 8.13; Cicero Mil. 11; Cod. justin. 3.27.1; 9.16.3 Dig.; Apuleius Metam. 8.16–18).

This is a fact recognised by many studies dealing with Roman criminal law and penal practice (R. Baumann, Crime and Punishment in Ancient Rome, 39; J. Harries, Law and Crime in the Roman World, 113; O. F. Robinson, The Criminal Law of Ancient Rome, 42, 45). More likely than not these same travellers who bore small arms for protection were usually allowed to continue carrying them after reaching urban destinations. Thus, if one or more of Jesus' disciples was carrying a short sword (machaira), it may simply have been one of the accoutrements of travel for the journey to Jerusalem for Passover (cf. J.W. 2.125, 232; Ant. 20.116). In tomorrow's post I will address some of the remaining points in Martin's article.

Winner of the Beyond Bultmann Giveaway and Some Good News from Baylor University Press for the Losers—Chris Keith

Well, the true random number generator has spoken on the Beyond Bultmann giveaway, and the winner is comment 2:

True Random Number Generator 2

This comment is from Jesus Blog reader "Big Ben," who wrote:

Card carrying RSS subscribed.
Congratulations there, Big Ben!  If you'll send your address to me at, I'll arrange for you to receive your copy of the book.
Before the rest of you losers of the contest stop reading, however, I've got some good news!  The good folks at Baylor University Press have offered a special discount code on this book for readers of the Jesus Blog.  You can order the book on Baylor University Press's homepage ( and at check-out use the code "BBGA."  This will get you 10% off the list price and also free shipping.