Doing Justice to Jesus: A Response to J.D. Crossan: ‘What Victory?  What God?’

(Originally published in Scottish Journal of Theology 1997, 50.3, 359–79.  Reproduced by permission of the author.)
by N. T. Wright

I am grateful for the invitation to respond, even though commenting on comments runs the risk of being ‘patently defensive’.  It’s a risk I shall have to take.


I am fascinated by your speculations about the fairy-story ‘third’ quest.  The reason I invented the phrase ‘third quest’ (in 1982) was simply that 2 + 1 = 3.  Received wisdom envisaged an ‘old quest’, ending with Schweitzer, and a ‘new quest’, begun by Käsemann and chronicled by Robinson.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s Ben Meyer, Anthony Harvey and others started doing something which was deliberately, explicitly and self-consciously different in method, and hence not surprisingly in content, from the ‘new quest’.  (This was, of course, before the Jesus Seminar had been invented.)  Subsequent work by Sanders, Charlesworth and many others has confirmed that there is a major movement in Jesus-studies which is different in several important and quantifiable ways from the ‘new quest’.

What names we assign to these movements is a matter of supreme indifference to me.  You could distinguish three different ‘quests’ between Reimarus and Schweitzer, in which case my ‘third’ would be the fifth. Or you could call the Jesus Seminar (and your own work) the fourth.  Or if you want (against the chronology) to call the Jesus Seminar the third one, and Meyer, Harvey, Sanders, Charlesworth and myself the fourth, that’s fine too.  I expect there will be plenty more.  The only point of labelling is to distinguish things that differ.  Of course, the differences are subtle and complex.  That, not a ‘lust for little boxes’, is the reason why I attempted to distinguish between different movements, and scholars.  The alternative would be inaccurate and misleading generalization.  I note that your colleague and close associate of ten years, Robert Funk, agrees with me at this point in his Honest to Jesus (Harper, San Francisco, 1996).

Let us suppose that it was indeed my intention, as you suggest, that by placing your work in the category where Funk at least thinks it belongs (the renewed ‘new quest’), I would thereby set up a ‘quarantine strategy’ designed to minimize the impact of your book on my own work.  Would I then have taken care, at more or less every point where our views differ, to note the differences and argue for my own position?  The index of Jesus and the Victory of God (hereafter JVG) shows that I refer to your work more than anyone else’s, with the exceptions (predictably) of Meyer, Sanders and Schweitzer.   Compare and contrast.  In The Historical Jesus, published in 1991, you refer once to Sanders (and that in the preface), and not at all to Meyer.  From reading some of the flagship works of the Jesus Seminar (usually claiming to tell the world what ‘the scholars’ think), one would simply never know that several major scholars (by no means all Christian) think differently.  Is it better to describe a conversation partner’s work as fully and carefully as one can, to explain why one disagrees, and to note the continuing disagreement throughout the book, or simply to ignore learned and competent scholars who happen to take a different view of Jesus and the gospels from oneself?  Who has put whom in ‘quarantine’?  This, indeed, is why I said that the renewed New Quest is in danger of collapsing into a private game.  What else do you call something where several major players aren’t allowed on to the field?


The critical differences between the renewed new quest and the third quest have to do partly with presuppositions and methods.  In upbraiding me for what I do at those levels, you reinforce the very differences to which I have drawn attention.  To say that one must first decide about tradition-history before reaching a judgment about Jesus is precisely a renewed-new-quest ploy.  It thus inevitably comes across as a further attempt to rule (what I call) the ‘third quest’ off the map.  But, underneath that, there are some issues that need clarifying.

I think we are using ‘tradition-criticism’ and its cognates in different senses.  You use the phrase to cover everything in the whole area of source-, form- and redaction-criticism.  I intended to use the phrase in a much narrower sense, to denote that which takes place, as it were, between the cracks: the attempt to discover what happened to synoptic material before it eventually settled into fixed forms, between then and when it was incorporated into a written source, and in the hypothetical stages between written source and final redaction.  I see, though, that my usage isn’t always consistent, and I apologise for that.

Thus, when I speak of ‘epicycles of unproveable Traditionsgeschichte’, I am not referring to standard source-criticism.  I happily affirm that the material in the gospels passed through various stages of oral and written tradition.  I am not at all rejecting sources and redactions, or suggesting that each evangelist was an independent ‘oral collector’.  I am suggesting, rather, that ‘the interplay between oral and written transmission of the Jesus tradition was an extraordinarily complex phenomenon which will probably never be satisfactorily unraveled’ (Aune: ref in NTPG 423, n. 15).  What you call ‘the general consensus’ (on which see below) needs to take seriously the probability of oral traditions interacting with emerging literary traditions at every point.  When we bring these into the equation it makes the study of sources, forms and redactions, let alone the speculations about what happened in between them, far less precise.

Another puzzle.  You seem to think I am using phrases like ‘form-critical’ and ‘redaction-critical’ as though they are either synonyms for ‘source-critical’ or at least able to stand synecdochically for the whole undifferentiated enterprise of ‘tradition criticism’ in its widest sense.  Thus you describe as ‘inexcusably and even unconscionably inaccurate’ my statement that ‘much of the impetus for form-critical and redaction-critical study came from the presupposition that this or that piece of synoptic material about Jesus could not be historical’, and you cite as a counter-example the theory that Matthew used Mark.  That’s precisely the sort of thing I was not referring to.  As my argument made clear, I was referring to the line of thought we meet again and again in (for instance) Bultmann’s History of the Synoptic Tradition.  He cites a piece of synoptic material; he declares, a priori, that it could not have come from Jesus; he proposes a hypothesis about the early church to account for it instead.  My argument is simply that a coherent proposal locating that material in the life of Jesus will make such extra hypotheses unnecessary.  Occam’s razor is the only sort I use these days, but it’s as sharp as ever.

Thus, in the example I discuss on p. 517, someone who thinks that Jesus never used the phrase ‘son of man’ needs to advance a theory about how the phrase came to be used in the early church prior to the writing of the gospels (and/or their written sources).  Such theories have not been restricted to straightforward source-, form-and redaction-criticism.  They have regularly gone into the no-man’s-land behind and between those activities, precisely into ‘ever-increasing epicycles of hypothetical and unproveable Traditionsgeschichte’, attempting to guess at stages and layers of tradition for which we have no direct evidence.  Think of Tödt on the ‘son of man’ traditions.  Or Hahn.  Or Hare.  This has little or nothing to do with whether Matthew used Mark.  However, if someone argues that Jesus himself used the phrase, they are ipso facto arguing that we do not need to theorize about the early church’s invention of it (though we might still discuss the early church’s developing use of it).

For this reason, I cannot accept your point that tradition-criticism (in the wider sense) is ‘a historical reconstruction about gospel contents and relations and not at all about the historical Jesus’.  All right, it might be possible in theory to enquire about which gospel used which sources, and in what way, without asking any correlated questions about Jesus.  But I notice that little if any source-criticism, let alone wider tradition-criticism, has actually done this in practice.  You of all people know that no historical enquiry is value-free.  The Mark-and-Q consensus in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century emerged, not from disinterested crossword-puzzle-solving, but from a desire to lay some kind of foundation, concerning Jesus himself, that would withstand the radical scepticism of Strauss and others.  Much of the energy in current Q research comes from very different, but equally observable and often explicit, agendas about ‘Jesus and Christian origins’ as a composite whole (and for that matter about, their relevance for the present day).  Please note, I have no problem about people having agendas.  We all do.  We have all renounced the myth of objectivity, though not, I hope, the goal of mutually comprehensible public discourse.  My point is simply that theories about the gospels have always interacted, and continue to interact, with theories about Jesus.  I am not complaining about this.  I am asking that we recognise, as historians, that we cannot but have the entire picture in mind.  There is no such thing as a Jesus-neutral analysis of synoptic traditions.  You cannot first solve the synoptic problem and only then ask questions about Jesus.

What we have to do is to decide what we can say, as historians, about the early church, where almost all our evidence about Jesus is to be found.  I made it clear in Part IV of NTPG that I was perfectly happy to raise all the issues that can be raised from the actual evidence which lies before us, including all the possible traditio-historical ones.  The key issue is: how, as historians, can we best approach those questions?  In what order do they present themselves?  Answer (as I see it): we must move from the known to the unknown, and from the big picture to the small details.  That is precisely what I was doing in that Part of the book.  I certainly did not dismiss form-criticism as invalid, but rather argued for a revised form-criticism, in which (what seem to me) the weaknesses of the discipline as practised over the last couple of generations can be reduced or eliminated.

I am, however, by no means confident that we can, as historians, recover the detailed and exact stages by which the gospels came to their present state.  Form-, source- and redaction-criticism are not that easy to combine.  Logically, they compete.  Older source-criticism saw the evangelists as collectors, hardly even editors.  Once you admit that they modified their material, the task of reconstructing sources is multiply problematic.   Likewise, if the independent ‘forms’ of the pre-literary oral tradition were not only collected, but also edited and arranged, how confident can we be that the original ‘forms’ remain sufficiently intact for us to offer, let alone to prove, hypotheses about their original Sitze im Leben?

The only safe place to begin is with the documents that we have.  When we have done our composition-critical analysis of these documents in their own terms, we might find that their main thrusts and emphases were consistent with a particular line of literary dependence.  We might, in other words, move back from composition-criticism to redaction-criticism, and, as it were, meet traditional source-criticism tunnelling towards us in the other direction.  Much of this process takes place in the dark.  Only when the tunnellers meet up will they know if they were digging in the right direction.

The relationship between Jesus-study and gospel-study is, I suggest, a constant, and highly complex, two-way process.  We cannot first solve the latter and then move to the former.  The reason why Part IV of NTPGis what it is, and stands where it does in my overall project, is that I think the way to work towards a historical hypothesis about Jesus is by the pincer movement, forwards from first-century Judaism and backwards from first-century Christianity (with the appropriate dissimilarities as well as similarities — a vital point of method in JVG which you don’t discuss).  Only then, with something clear already said about Jesus, could we hope to begin the task of plotting how and why the traditions about him developed in the way they did.

There is another particular reason for this postponement of a detailed account of gospel origins.  There is actually no current consensus about gospel sources.  An increasing number of scholars think that Luke used Matthew, and that therefore Q, never existed.  Ever since I read Streeter and Farmer in the same week in 1972 I have been uncomfortably aware that the same data can be interpreted in at least two quite different ways.  It would be good in theory if we could establish a theory of synoptic relationships once and for all, but in the light of current research I do not think that this is likely.  My working hypothesis is that Luke used Mark (though I know some argue the opposite), and I actually think it fairly likely that Matthew used Mark (though some oppose that, too).  But, after twenty-five years of study and teaching, I am, as a historian, nowhere near as convinced about these points, still less about all that has been built up around them, as I am that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish eschatological prophet who believed that the climax of Israel’s history was occurring in and through him, his work, and his approaching fate.


As a historian, then, I think we know more about Jesus himself than we do about how the manifold synoptic traditions turned themselves into the gospels (canonical and otherwise) that we presently possess.  And the reason I think this is because (like Meyer, Harvey, Sanders and others) I operate with an explicit historical method, which I outlined in considerable detail in NTPG Part II, and which I still think is more rigorous than that outlined in (for instance) The Five Gospels.  I am sorry if the adjective ‘serious’, used in this connection, gives offence.  I spent nearly a hundred pages building up a case for a way of doing history.  Until someone shows me I was barking up the wrong tree I shall continue to use this method, and not be ashamed of it.

This leads to your comment that I have invalidated my own criticism of the Jesus Seminar’s methodology.  You quote a passage from my p. 33 about the way in which the Seminar has adopted, in advance, a particular view of Jesus and the early church which is then brought to the material.  You do not quote what I say four lines earlier: ‘Let it be noted that I am not dismissing this move as a false one: I am actually endorsing it’.  My point, there and here, is not that one should not start with a large-scale hypothesis and then test it against the material.  It is that the Jesus Seminar (a) states repeatedly that it is doing something else (examining the sayings of Jesus from an impartial, neutral position, and building them up into a new portrait), and so (b) never allows the hypothesis it is tacitly advancing to be actually tested by the regular means of getting in the data, doing so with coherence/simplicity, and shedding light on other areas.

Part of the problem now, of course, is that if somebody succeeds in ‘getting in the data’, i.e. producing a historical hypothesis about Jesus which makes sense of the majority of the synoptic tradition, the result attracts what you yourself would surely call derision or nasty language (‘elegant fundamentalism’).  Albert Schweitzer pointed out a century ago that his eschatological reading of Jesus had the effect of vindicating the synoptic portrait; my hypothesis does the same.  I don’t think any actual fundamentalists will enjoy my historical re-construction of Jesus, any more than the would-be orthodox of Schweitzer’s day enjoyed his.



So to the reconstruction itself.  I don’t see why I or you or anyone else should have the right to say how words like ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘eschatology’ should be used.  No two of us in the discipline adopt exactly the same usage.  What is important is surely to get clear what each of us means and doesn’t mean.  That’s why I set out my view fully on pp. 207-9.  I know that you use ‘eschatology’ to mean ‘radical world-negation’, and that you divide this up into various species, of which ‘apocalyptic’ is one.  That distinction helps you make certain points that are important in your reconstruction.  For myself, I do not find that this way of using the words is particularly helpful in analyzing the material before me.  Nor is it demanded by the way these words have been used for the last hundred years.

Following plenty of others, I have used ‘eschatology’ to denote something much more anchored to the specifics of what many Jews in the second-temple period were hoping for: that their long and chequered history would come to a great climax, in and through which their god would do for them what they believed he had promised in the prophets and guaranteed in the covenant.  I do not think it clarifies things to see this Jewish expectation as a sub-set of a more general category of thought, e.g. ‘world-negation’.  The Jews I have in mind believed that the world was made by their god and still governed by him; what had to be negated, for them, was not the world but the evil that had infected it.  Etymologically speaking, ‘eschatology’ has to do with the study of the end.  Traditionally, I think, this has focused not so much on the fact of something coming to a halt but on the fact of something reaching its ultimate goal.  The word has had a second use, in Bultmannian and other meta-readings, producing what you and others have sometimes called ‘vertical eschatology’ as opposed to ‘horizontal eschatology’.  This, I take it, is strictly a metaphorical use, seeing the transcendent dimension (or whatever) through the lens of language about the climax of history.  But I don’t think it is wise to make that second use the determining one.

I then use ‘apocalyptic’ to denote, not first and foremost a worldview, but one particular language-system of the various ones in which this ‘eschatological’ hope finds expression.  I thus do not collapse the genus-level term ‘eschatology’ (as I use it) into the species-level term ‘apocalyptic’ (as I use it).  Since you use these words differently (as you have every right to do!), I would love to know what words you think I should use to denote the things I am talking about.  Am I, for instance, using ‘eschatology’ to mean what you mean by ‘apocalyptic’?  My aim here is simply clear communication, to clarify where actual disagreements, as opposed to mere verbal tangles, actually lie.  To that end, I note that in your lecture in New Orleans last November you spoke of ‘apocalyptic’ as a matter of people waiting passively for their god to act.  According to Josephus, however, apocalyptic oracles goaded first-century Jews to action (cf. NTPG 304, 312-4).  We need to be careful to spell out what precisely we are talking about — which texts, which actual movements — at each point, if we are not to run into over-generalization and consequent misunderstanding.

In particular, I think you somewhat misrepresent my view of the ‘metaphorical’ meaning of apocalyptic language.  According to you, I assert that first-century Jews ‘took it all metaphorically’, by which you mean ‘non-literally’.  That is only one side of the story.  What they took metaphorically, as far as I can see, was the cosmic language, that is, sun and moon being darkened, stars falling from heaven, etc.  So too with ‘the son of man coming on a cloud’, which I think demands to be read, historically, in the light of the way in which a first-century Jew might read Daniel 7.  But the fact that the language is to be taken metaphorically doesn’t, of course, mean that there isn’t a concrete referent.  This needs explaining further.

I observe a regular confusion, in scholarly discussions, between ‘literal’ and ‘concrete’.  The distinction between abstract and concrete (which has to do primarily with what sort of subject-matter is being spoken of) is regularly confused with the distinction between metaphorical and literal (which has to do primarily with the way in which words and phrases relate to the referent).  Thus ‘metaphorical’ is often used, misleadingly, to refer to something that happens in the realm of the imagination, of ideas, or of the spirit, while ‘literal’ is often used for ‘what actually happened’, ‘the concrete state of affairs’.  If I call my car ‘the old tin can’, the language is metaphorical, but with an obvious concrete referent.  If I dream about a monster, calling it a monster is using language literally, even though there is no corresponding concrete reality.

The adverb ‘literally’ has itself become extremely slippery.  (According to the OED, this problem goes back to the early nineteenth century.)  It is now regularly used simply as a way of saying ‘please take this metaphor very seriously’ (e.g. ‘the phone lines were literally red hot’).  This, ironically, has left us without an unambiguous way of expressing the literal sense of ‘literal’.  These misunderstandings are always in danger of bedevilling our discussion of apocalyptic.

When it comes to phrases like ‘the sun and the moon will be darkened’, I have argued that ancient apocalyptists meant this sort of thing metaphorically.  It is of course possible that some took it literally, but the behaviour of Jewish groups that employed this language, insofar as we know about them, suggests otherwise.  But saying they intended the language metaphorically doesn’t mean they weren’t intending to refer metaphorically to a concrete referent, so that the only referent would be abstract (e.g. their existential or religious state of mind).  Far from it.  They wanted definite things to happen within their space-time historical world, things for which cosmic language was, for them, the only appropriate metaphor-system.

Once this is clear, we will obviously need to examine each facet of the language of Jewish expectation and ask (a) what concrete referent, if any, the authors intended, (b) whether their language referred to this ‘literally’, with something like a one-for-one correspondence, and (c) if not, what was added to the intended reference by the non-literal (sc. metaphorical) language.  When you say, as you do, ‘I myself take it all metaphorically’, I don’t know whether you mean ‘This language is a metaphorical lens, through which we see concrete referents’, or, as I suspect, ‘There is no concrete referent for this language; it refers simply to abstractions, such as ideas, feelings and beliefs’.  Nor is it clear to me whether you mean ‘I think they took it all metaphorically’, or ‘they took it metaphorically and I agree with them’, or’ they may or may not have taken it metaphorically, but when I read it I do’.

In fact, I suggest, apocalyptic texts shuttle to and fro between thoroughly metaphorical language and what you call ‘islands of literalness in that vast sea of apocalyptic metaphoricity’.  When Daniel 7.19 says that the fourth beast had ‘teeth of iron and claws of bronze’, and 7.20 says that it had ‘ten horns on its head’, I take the teeth, claws, horns, and head as metaphorical (though with concrete referents), and the iron, the bronze and the ‘ten’ as literal in usage and concrete in referent.  When v. 21 says that the other horn, which replaced three that fell out, then ‘made war on the holy ones and was prevailing over them’, the horn remains metaphorical, with concrete referent, but the successful war against the holy ones is intended to be taken literally.

When it comes to ‘resurrection’, I argued in NTPG 321-32 that the earliest usage (Ezekiel 37; I leave aside the question of Isaiah 26.19) was metaphorical, referring non-literally to the concrete liberation of Israel, but that by the time of 2 Maccabees its concrete referent had come to include the meaning of actual physical re-embodiment, without losing echoes of the wider non-literal, but still concrete, referent (Israel’s liberation from pagan domination).  When Daniel 12.2 says that ‘many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake’, this is of course metaphor (sleep for death, awakening for resurrection).  It is in principle possible that, like Ezekiel 37, the original writer intended this as a double metaphorical lens: sleep/waking, then death and resurrection, then the concrete events of Israel’s eventual liberation.  It is even conceivable that the referent might be a blissful existence in a non-physical future world. But the many subsequent uses of Daniel 12 in Rabbinic discussions of resurrection make it clear that from at least around the first century the verse was taken to refer to the concrete event of the future bodily resurrection.  Once more, no generalizations will do.


So to the heart of the actual issue: violence and justice.  I was not sure, at several points, whether you were disagreeing with me on historical grounds or simply protesting that you did not like the results.

First, I wonder what exactly you mean by the remarkable concessions you make, when you ‘accept all those great shining hopes of restoration eschatology’, and say, at the very end, that you agree with the ‘eschatologically restorative themes’ of Israel’s return.  God’s return, and victory over satanic evil.  Are you saying that you are persuaded by my historical account of the Jewish eschatological setting of, and meaning of, Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom (JVG, esp. ch. 6)?  Are you therefore abandoning the alternative account for which you and others have argued?  Or are you offering a modified agreement, allowing that these eschatological themes are what Jesus’ contemporaries would have heard, but doubting whether they formed the core either of Jesus’ agenda or (as I argued in JVG chs. 11, 12 and 13) of his self-understanding?  Or what? I am eager to know.

There are then three points about violence which must be addressed.  I spent ten pages of detail on revolution, and twenty on the Pharisees, in NTPG 170-203, and can’t repeat the whole case again.  Since you don’t say which parts you find unconvincing, it’s hard to know where to start.

I don’t find your neat divisions between protesters, prophets, bandits and messiahs helpful.  Josephus’ accounts of several of the movements you list as ‘protesters’ and ‘prophets’ spill over into his accounts of ‘banditry’.  Adding up ‘movements’ somewhat arbitrarily separated out from Josephus’ narrative, and counting scores, gives a completely misleading impression.  This is particularly so because neither the ‘protesters’ nor the ‘prophets’ were actually as violence-free as you suggest.  Several of the ‘protests’ either began with brigandry or ended in violence, or both.  The obvious exceptions are of course the protests to Pilate about the standards and the aqueduct, and to Petronius about the statue.  (I am interested to note that you take Josephus’ accounts of these incidents, which so obviously serve his overall agenda, as literal historical descriptions.  Is it over-cynical of me to suggest that, if Matthew or Luke contained stories that were similarly congenial to their polemical thrust, you would have cast doubt on their veracity?)

Several of the ‘prophetic’ movements, too, were in fact closely linked with revolutionary brigandry.  The followers of the ‘Samaritan’ were armed, and ended up fighting.  The unnamed prophets of War 2.258-60/Antiquities 20.167b-8 are subsumed under the general brigandage noted in Antiquities 20.167a.  The ‘Egyptian’, according to War 2.262, intended to force entry to Jerusalem, overpower the Roman garrison, and set himself up as a tyrant.  The unnamed prophet of Antiquities 20.188 appeared in the context of widespread brigandry (were his followers expected to say ‘Ah, this is a ‘prophet’, so if we follow him we must abandon our dreams of violent revolution’?).  Jonathan the Weaver (War 7.437-50 [not book 6 as in your Historical Jesus p. 451]) had, according to Life 424f., aroused a stasis in Galilee.  That leaves, from the ‘prophets’, John the Baptist, Theudas, some unnamed prophets (who are urging the people to stay and fight rather than flee), and the remarkable Jesus ben Ananias.

When we then turn to those you list as ‘bandits’ and ‘messiahs’, we should be clear that your ‘popular-level unrest’ (you use the phrase ‘peasant unrest’ in Historical Jesus), excludes several movements of revolt which had a sizeable following.  You don’t count them, presumably, because they were led by non-peasants.  My argument, however, was about revolutionary tendencies in the Jewish people as a whole, not least those instigated by ‘doctors of the law’.  Let me list the ones you thereby omit, which are grist to my mill, and which, I submit, help make the case for very widespread Jewish tendencies towards revolution in the first half of the century.

Start with the eagle-incident.  The young hotheads were egged on by the teachers Judas and Matthias, who were then killed on Herod’s orders (War 1.648-55; Ant. 17.149-66).  Continue with the violent revolt the following Passover, which was renewed at Pentecost (War 2.1-13; 39-50; Ant. 17.206-18; 250-64).  Of the latter, Josephus says that it involved ‘a countless multitude’ from all over Palestine, especially Judaea itself; some peasants there, surely?  They laid siege to the Romans, fought them, and besieged the commander himself in the palace.  At this, anarchy broke out in Palestine (War 2.55; Ant. 17.269, referring to ‘continuous and countless new tumults’), including a revolt by Herod’s veterans (which you don’t mention) and one by Judas, son of Hezekiah (which you do).

Then there is Judas the Galilean himself (War 2.118, etc.), whether or not he is the same person as Judas the son of Hezekiah the bandit leader (see NTPG 180).  There are his sons, Judas and Simon (Ant. 20.102), who were crucified in the late 40s (presumably crucifixion for insurrection feels much the same even if you’re not a card-carrying peasant).  There is Barabbas, and the revolt in which he took part (Luke 23.19; in John 18.40 Barabbas is described as a lestes, ‘brigand’).  Presumably the two lestai crucified alongside Jesus count as well.  Then there are all the ‘common people’ who were punished along with Eleazar ben Deinaeus; in War2.253, Josephus says the number of them was ‘incalculable’.  Then there are the further outbreaks of brigandage reported in War 2.264f.; these maybe the same ones who are mentioned in 2.271 (whom you note), but in the earlier passage it appears that the revolutionary fervour was far more  Widespread than a small group.

Then there are the Sicarii (War 4.198, Ant. 20.186f., etc.).  Whatever their social background, they still count for my argument.  So, too, do John of Gischala and his followers (refs. in NTPG 177 n. 54).  Finally, of course, there is Bar-Kochba.

When all these are added up, what emerges is a picture of widespread revolutionary tendencies across the country, the century, and a fair amount of the social spectrum.  Josephus (who might be wildly misleading, but he is almost our only source) repeatedly stresses the large number of people involved.  That is the picture which I built up in NTPG, upon which I based my arguments in JVG.  Of course, the exceptions — the unarmed protests against Pilate and Petronius — matter.  But they are precisely the exceptions that prove the rule; and even there, even if we believe everything Josephus says about them, it is not clear whether the form of protest was chosen from conviction, or simply faute de mieux (they realised that the odds against them in a straight fight would be overwhelming).  For the most part, protesters and the followers of ‘prophets’ could expect to be involved in violent action, just as bandits/brigands and the followers of ‘messiahs’ would.  This is not a generalization from a limited historical basis. It is simply a summary of the evidence we have.

I agree, in other words, with two interesting contemporary sources.  First, Martin Goodman (The Ruling Class of Judaea, Cambridge 1987, p. 108): ‘There was no separate anti-Roman movement in first-century Judaism; rather, anti-gentile attitudes which originated long before A.D. 6, perhaps in Maccabean time, inspired many different groups, permeating the whole Jewish population and varying only in their intensity’ (my italics).  Second, Richard Horsley and John Hanson (Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, Minneapolis, 1985, p. xv): ‘Most of the ideas believed to be distinctive to the Zealots, almost all of them relatively widely attested in our limited source, were probably common Palestinian Jewish ideas… opposition to the Roman rule of Jewish Palestine may have been far more widespread and spontaneous… than previously imagined’ (my italics). This is what I was talking about.  This is the basis upon which I have argued, not indeed that Jesus was not interested injustice (!), but that he proposed a very different sort of revolution, which subverted this widespread ideology as well as the oppressive forces to which it was reacting.

What, then, was the role of the Pharisees in all this?  I argued at length in NTPG 181-203 that the Pharisees in Jesus’ day were reasonably numerous, geographically widespread, and very influential; that prior to the destruction of the Temple the majority of the Pharisees were hard-line Shammaites; that what they were hard-line about (and what the Hillelites were lenient about) was not simply purity codes and personal keeping of Torah, but their agenda for Israel vis-a-vis pagans in general and Rome in particular. This picture, which despite Sanders on the one hand and Neusner on the other has a good deal of support, does not make the Shammaites ‘a small leadership group’, but a sizeable group with wide influence, whose revolutionary agenda was clearly shared by a great number of Palestinian Jews of the period, as witness the revolutionary movements chronicled above.  I have not generalized from the Shammaites to ‘Israel’.  I have plotted the Shammaites’ agenda, have plotted all the revolutionary movements, and have observed a considerable convergence.

This leads to your question about non-violence and creative resistance.  As the notes make clear, in my exposition of (for instance) the material in Matthew 5, I was borrowing from Walter Wink’s fascinating exposition.  Turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and so forth, were not a summons to ‘be a doormat for Jesus’, but were themselves a call to (non-violent) resistance, not just non-violence.  I am perfectly happy with your proposal that Jesus’ feastings and healings (and, in my book, a good deal else besides) constituted acts of, and pointed to a programme of, creative non-violent resistance.  My whole exposition of Jesus’ kingdom-stories and kingdom-symbols (JVG chs. 6-9) was designed partly to explore this.  It would be good to work towards further convergences at this point.

There are, however, further problems here too.  I argued in ch. 9 that Jesus’ symbolic actions, including feastings and healings, were not simply creative resistance to Rome.  (They were that, of course, at least on my reading of Jewish eschatological kingdom-announcements, Jesus’ included: i.e. they implied that Israel’s god was becoming king, which in that world meant that Caesar was to be shown up as a posturing blasphemer.)  They were also a creative and non-violent alternative to the present Jewish modes of operating, both official and unofficial.  This is the point you find ‘dangerously close to obscene’.  Since you don’t spell that out, I can only assume that you are insinuating that I am making anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic remarks — something I took a great deal of trouble to rule out at every point.  (That too, incidentally, was of course the reason for insisting that Jesus was not a Western liberal, but a first-century Jew.)  Let us be clear.  You are happy, I think, when people postulate a Jesus who offered sharp critiques of Antipas, the Chief Priests, and so forth.  You presumably have no problem with the idea that the Essenes believed that the rest of Israel (not just the high-priestly regime, with whom they had a particular quarrel, but also non-Essene Jews in general, and especially the Pharisees) were, to put it mildly, missing the way as regards what Israel’s god was doing in their history.  Nor, I imagine, will you doubt that John 7.49, whatever its actual historical value, is a fair statement of how many Pharisees regarded many lax Jews (‘this rabble that doesn’t know the Torah is accursed’).  I assume, therefore, that you have no problem in principle with a movement like that of Jesus holding a critique of other Jews of the day, based on a worked-out belief as to what Israel’s god required of the true Israel at that moment in her history.  To think that such a movement, or such a critique, was in any way anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic is of course absurd.  (No, you don’t say I say that, but if you weren’t hinting at it, what was the point of those two paragraphs?)

Actually, the way you summarize my point seems to me to conceal what I am actually doing in the relevant passages.  I am explaining how the material in Matthew 5 would be heard by a first-century Jew.  That material, and my summary of it, is not ‘setting the Kingdom movement against “Israel”’.  It is expressing the Kingdom movement as a challenge to Israel: an eschatological challenge, to be Israel indeed, now that the Kingdom-moment has arrived.  You quote what I say about the Torah on p. 380, but you do not quote the sentence immediately after: ‘That did not constitute a criticism of Torah…’.  The point of my whole paragraph was that, as I said at the end, ‘What was at stake was eschatology…, not a comparison between two styles or patterns of religion.’  You seem determined to pull my argument back into a ‘Jesus-versus-Israel’ mode which I repeatedly and explicitly argue against, so that you can then suggest that I may be guilty of something I repeatedly and explicitly avoid.

I am therefore perfectly happy with your extra question (‘Why did Christianity arrive and Judaism survive?’).  Indeed, I raised exactly this question myself in NTPG ch. 16.  But it is not a question for a book on the mindset of Jesus during his public work.  I am puzzled, however, about one thing you say.  You seem to imply that whatever happens in history is what the god of Jews and Christians has willed.  Since I think it highly unlikely that you actually mean that, it would be good to clarify what you do mean.  But at least the raising of the question shows that we are on the same map — the same as one another, and incidentally the same as Paul in Romans 9-11.  That is another story, and I would love to pursue it with you at more leisure.


As you became deeply troubled at this point, so did I.  Among several problems here is the fact that you don’t make your charge against me at all clear.  You say I don’t mention the word ‘justice’ very often.  True, though I think the reality is everywhere present (I don’t mention the word ‘love’ that often, either, but, as I explain at the end, it is the hidden theme that ties the rest together).  You expound justice as a major theme in the Hebrew scriptures, emphasising eloquently that worship and purity must be accompanied by justice if they are to mean what they should.  Of course I totally and passionately agree.  And then you say, to my surprise, that the Jesus and the God in JVG are ‘empty at the core and hollow at the heart’.  If this isn’t to be a simple non sequitur, there must be a hidden extra step in the argument.  What is it?

The missing middle term of your implied argument, all the more powerful rhetorically (but all the more difficult to respond to) for being unstated, must be one of two things.  Either you are suggesting that I have falsified the history by omitting the central strand of justice which you find in Jesus’ teaching.  If this is so, which passages have I marginalised, misconstrued or misapplied?  Or you are saying that, while you are happy with my historical reconstruction, you find the Jesus I have described out of tune with the biblical theme of justice’ which you have described and to which you are passionately committed.  At this point I am tempted to indulge in a bit of my own speculation.  Is part of the problem, perhaps, that your previous experience of people who hold that Jesus’ death achieved something decisive, and that Jesus himself in some way embodied Israel’s god, suggests to you that when people make these claims (atonement and incarnation, for short) they also sit loose to ‘justice’?  If so, I protest.  I have not yet written in this series of books (though I often have elsewhere) about the way in which the victory of God in Jesus can and should be implemented in the world.  But I believe that my historical reading of Jesus has the capacity to ground and energise a theology of political action in a way that far outstrips anything that can be deduced from the subversive teachings and actions of a wandering quasi-Cynic.  Yes, of course the church has often got it disastrously wrong.  So have the scholars. That doesn’t mean that scholarship and church can’t ever get it right.

Let me ask the question another way.  What did you want me to do that I didn’t do?  I suspect you didn’t want me to point out, for instance, that the synoptic Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their devouring of widows’ houses.  A synoptists’ caricature, you might have said; a slur on the good name of the Pharisees.  I noted at the proper point Jesus’ apparent advocacy of the Jubilee, but that clearly didn’t satisfy you.  Perhaps, though, you wanted me to draw out more explicitly Jesus’ opposition to Antipas’ tinpot empire and the injustices it instigated and legitimated.  My view is that Jesus did indeed offer a critique of ‘that fox’, but that the main thrust of this critique was to put himself forward, cryptically and subversively, as the true King of the Jews, revealing by the style and goal of his kingship not only the moral bankruptcy of Antipas’ rule (a point which could have been made at any time, as a general moral truth) but also the imminent judgment of Israel’s god on him (a matter of one-off eschatology).  As I said earlier, the eschatological announcement of the kingdom of the god of Israel carried with it the full denunciation of the kingdoms of the world: the kings of the world, and for that matter the revolutionaries of the world, behave one way, but Jesus modelled and taught a radically different way, both of royalty and of revolution.

The real question, of course, is: how shall the justice of the one true God come truly to birth?  From Jesus’ point of view, Antipas wouldn’t achieve it; nor would Caiaphas.  Nor would the Pharisees, whether Hillelite or Shammaite.  Nor would movements of revolution, whether led by peasants, prophets, preachers or learned doctors of the law.  In terms of Psalm 82, to which you appeal so powerfully, Jesus seems to have believed that none of these would actually rescue the weak and needy from the hand of the wicked.  He saw his contemporaries (with exceptions, of course) walking around in darkness, unable to glimpse the light of God’s justice themselves, or to be faithful to that wonderful vocation (which you so nobly state) of being the channel through which justice and righteousness would flow from God to the world.  My thesis was that Jesus saw an alternative scriptural vision of how God’s justice and judgment, his demotion of the unjust rulers of the world, his rescue of the poor and needy, would be accomplished.  He believed, in line with a whole strand of Jewish belief and expectation, that the real enemy, the real source of injustice, was not simply the sum total of human wickedness, but something deeper and darker.  And he believed, again as a credible first-century Jew, that the way to defeat this evil and so to install and implement true justice in the world was the royal way, the way of the Messiah, which was also, in his interpretation, the way of the cross.  (Your agenda for justice and righteousness flowing out to the world is very close to the royal and redeeming visions of Isaiah 9, 11, 42, etc.)

In other words, I can without difficulty run through the thesis I offered in terms of what you call ‘justice’.  Of course, what the word ‘justice’ means, or refers to, is a question as old as philosophy itself.  More particularly, the specifically Jewish question of God’s justice is at least as old as Isaiah 40-55, and was raised acutely, for Jews, by the events of the first century.  The problem was not whether the vision of Psalm 82 was right or wrong.  The problem was: how could God’s justice (God’s demotion of the arrogant and unjust and his establishment of his true order) come appropriately to birth, granted the parlous state of humanity in general and Israel in particular?  Further, as many Jews were already asking at the time of the Psalmists, how could this vision, in coming to pass, be reconciled with God’s mercy?  How could they work together, with each enhancing rather than cancelling out the other?  (It is all too easy to demand justice, or to offer mercy, without considering the other side of the story.)  This, of course, is what 4 Ezra and similar writers were struggling with.  It is also what Paul was talking about in Romans, though perhaps you find that, too, ‘empty at the core and hollow at the heart’.  I think it is also what Jesus struggled with, and indeed gave his life to bring about. But if it’s psalms you want, I offer Psalm 85.8-13 as a potent summary of how the justice and mercy of God come to birth as inseparable twins.  Many wise theologians of former days thought they saw an outline of Jesus’ achievement in these words, and I am inclined to agree with them:

Let me hear what the God YHWH will speak;
for he shall speak peace to his people, and to his holy ones,
that they may not turn back to folly.
Surely his salvation is near those who fear him,
that glory may dwell in our land.
Mercy and truth shall meet together;
righteousness and peace shall kiss each other.
Truth shall spring up from the earth,
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.
Yes, YHWH will give what is good,
and our land shall give its increase.
Righteousness shall go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.