Chapter 8: Jesus’s Death and the Powers Political Authoritarianism (Empire)

“From Genesis through Revelation, all the biblical stories take place in the shadow of some sort of empire.” (AK location 4266)

Contra Egypt

  • “Out of fear of the proliferating Hebrew people who had resisted full assimilation into Egyptian society and its empire state-ideology, the Pharaoh acts against them.” Exodus 1:10-11 (AK location 4279)
  • “The story of the exodus exposes how Pharaoh clung to power. In the end, Pharaoh’s stubbornness led to disaster for his empire and liberation for the Hebrew slaves.” (AK location 4294)
  • “The exodus testimony, ‘this most radical of all of Israel’s testimony about Yahweh,’ verifies that the God of Israel is a relentless opponent of human oppression, even when the oppression is undertaken and sponsored by what appear to be legitimated powers.” (AK location 4317)

Israel’s Monarchy and the Critique of Empire

  • “The tradition’s hostility toward empire, reflected implicitly in the law codes providing for a decidedly non-empire-like social order, found overt expressions at a major crossroads in the story of the Hebrew community” (AK location 4317)
    • “in those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Judges 21:25
  • Samuel made his sons judges over Israel, but they did not follow his ways, took bribes and perverted justice.
  • On top of this the Hebrews faced an external threat, an emerging regional empire of the Philistines.
  • As a consequence, the elders of Israel sought a human king, like other nations. (1 Sam 8:5)
    • Feared losing their identity by being conquered by the Philistines
    • But becoming like other nations could also lead to the elimination of the covenant community
    • Samuel argued that there was a third option: continue to trust in Yahweh as your only king, maintain a distinct identity oriented around exodus and Torah, and Yahweh will see that the covenant promises remain viable.
      • Anti-empire argument; if Israel takes the human king route it would also become empire-like
    • The people refuse to listen to Samuel (1 Sam 8:19-20) so Yahweh instructs hi to relent and “set a king over them” (8:22)
  • Deuteronomy establishes a kingship that is still subordinate to Torah. The king was to come from within the Israelite community, in other words one who had grown up observing Torah. (Deut 17:18-20)
  • “The accounts that follow in 1 and 2 Kings almost all reflect the king’s unwillingness to submit to Torah in this way.” (AK location 4379)
  • A rebellion of King Rehoboam’s (Solomon’s son) treatment of Jeroboam led to a split between the northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah.
    • Kings of both Judah and Israel turn toward idolatry, authoritarianism, corruption, and injustice.
    • The northern kingdom, Israel, falls to the Assyrian empire near the end of the eighth century BCE, and a 100 years latter Judah falls to the Babylonian empire.
  • Outside of Israel kingship was a blessing of the gods. Within Israel, kingship was regarded as human rebellion. (AK location 4409)

The Hebrews Among the Empires

  • Four large empires: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Persia
  • Greece during the inter-testamental period
  • Rome dominates the New Testament

Egypt

  • The story of Solomon includes several allusions to Egypt. “Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh” (1 Kgs 3:1)
  • “The irony that Solomon would marry into the Egyptian Empire’s leadership class rings loudly when we remember Samuel’s warning about the people, under their desired king, returning to slavery.” (AK location 4428)

Assyria

  • Located north of Israel.
  • 2 Kings 17:5-23 gives the account of Assyria destroying Israel
  • “Nahum joyfully proclaims the impending doom of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, as due to Assyria’s injustice and brutality.” (AK location 4461)
  • The book of Jonah, as mentioned earlier, centers on the capital of Assyria, Nineveh.

Babylon

  • Nebuchadnezzar ruled the Babylonian Empire from 605 BCE to 562 BCE.
  • Not long after Nebuchadnezzar’s death, the Persians, led by Cyrus, replaced Babylon as the dominant empire
  • “those were extraordinarily eventful years for the Hebrews, and the Babylonian Empire and Nebuchadnezzar loom large in biblical writings, down through the final book of the New Testament.” (AK location 4478)
  • “The role of Babylon in Israel’s consciousness as the paradigmatic example of political authoritarianism may be seen in the use of “Babylon” in symbolic ways down through the writings of the New Testament.” (AK location 4502)
    • In Revelation “Babylon symbolizes the brutalities and blasphemies of the Roman Empire

Persia

  • Emerged mid-sixth century BCE under Cyrus
  • Is presented in a more positive light than the other empires
  • “The Persians evidently concluded that their purposes would be better served if they permitted their conquered nations a measure of self-determination. Perhaps this would provide for greater tax revenue and overall productivity in the occupied territories.” (AK location 4515)
  • “The positive impression the Old Testament gives of the Persian Empire in part stems from the likelihood that during this time most of the Hebrew Bible reached its final form.” (AK location 4528)
  • “The Persian period provides evidence that the covenant community was capable of survival apart from operating its own nation-state”

Roman Domination

  • The greatest empire of the ancient world emerged in the second century BCE
  • Rome appoints Herod “king of the Jews” and rules at behest of Rome from 37 BCE until his death at 4 BCE
  • After Herod’s death Rome divided his kingdom into thirds among his sons
    • Herod Antipas – Galilee and Perea (40 years)
    • Philip – Trachonitis and Iturea (40 years)
    • The third son, Archelaus, was given Judea, but he failed to maintain control and so Pontius Pilate was appointed governor of Judea

Jesus and Empire

  • In Palestine of Jesus’s day, society is divided into two groups:
    • The ruling class, including representatives of the Roman Empire
    • The second group included most everyone else, the peasants in the countryside and the vast majority of the population of Jerusalem
      • Jesus came from this second group and oriented his ministry towards them
  • “When Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, he challenged the Pax Romana. He prayed for the coming of God’s kingdom and expected it soon. He believed his own work would inaugurate this kingdom. He did not accept the empire’s claims to bring the ‘gospel’ (good news) of peace. And he rejected the claims that the empire acts on behalf of God.” (AK location 4590)
  • “When seen in conjunction with his ministry as a whole, Jesus is in both cases presenting his politics as an alternative to Roman political authoritarianism in the here and now” (AK location 4615)
  • “In Jesus’s execution, two contradictory notions of peace meet head on.” (AK location 4630)
    • Pax Romana (peace through violence) vs the non-violent Peace of Jesus

The Death of a Political Criminal

  • “The central conflicts in Jesus’s career occurred with the Jewish religious leaders, not the representatives of the Roman Empire.” (AK location 4630) Yet it was Rome that crucified Jesus
  • Crucifixion carried enormous symbolic weight
  • The allegations of Jesus claiming to be king stand at the center of Pilate’s concern when he faces Jesus.
    • Pilate asks, “Are you king of the Jews?”
    • Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
      • What did Jesus mean? Did me mean to advocate only a purely spiritual “otherworldly” kingdom, or did he mean that his kingdom was not like the typical kingdoms of this world and as was known through the entire Biblical story?
  • “Jesus was apolitical only if we understand ‘politics’ strictly as power politics, the politics of the sword. However, if we understand politics more generally to mean the way human beings order their social world, Jesus was political.” (AK location 4669)
  • Summary of last three chapters: (AK location 4705)
    • Jesus asserted the possibility of direct access to God. In doing so, he undercut the authority of the temple.
    • Jesus challenged the interpretations of the law that empowered the Pharisees. He advocated an approach to the law that placed the priority on mercy and justice, not on the legalistic focus on external regulations
    • Jesus rejected the Roman Empire at a basic level. He replaced a violent, debt-oriented way of seeing with a way that started with God’s mercy.
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