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

From Genesis through Revelation, the biblical stories take place in the shadow of some sort of empire.  Many interpreters believe that Genesis 1 self-consciously articulates Israel’s alternative to the Babylonian cosmology during the sixth-century exile following Babylon’s crushing the Judean state.[1] The Book of Revelation contains a thinly veiled critique of the Roman Empire, offering a call for followers of the Lamb to choose loyalty to his way rather than accept Empire domination, portrayed in part in terms of the blasphemous city of “Babylon.”[2]

In between, various other empires also shape biblical faith—Egypt, Assyria, Persia, and Greece.  As well, the political elite within Israel itself tended toward empire-like political authoritarianism.  Biblical prophets voice sharp critiques of power politics within their communities because such politics echo the practices of the world’s empires.

So, it comes as no surprise to find Jesus enmeshed in issues related to the Empire of his day—to the point that he gets executed by the Empire using the form of killing, crucifixion, that was Rome’s tool for retribution against political criminals.

Contra Egypt

Ironically, the first overt mention in the Bible of a great empire, Egypt, occurs in a story that presents the Hebrew patriarch, Joseph, helping expand the Empire’s power (Gen 37–50).  Joseph, brilliantly advises the Pharaoh during famine, provided for stores of food to be gathered during times of plenty for sales during the hard times that worked greatly to Pharaoh’s benefit.

The Bible’s attitude toward Egypt, and the other empires that follow, takes a decisive turn toward the negative with the beginning of the Book of Exodus.  We learn right away how empires work.  Joseph had been of service to Pharaoh, and he and his extended family prospered.  In time, though, the Empire found it more useful to enslave Joseph’s people.

“Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8).  Out of fear of the proliferating Hebrew people who had resisted fully assimilating into Egyptian society and its Empire state-ideology, the Pharaoh acts against them.  He orders “his people” to “set taskmasters over [the Hebrews] to oppress them with forced labor” (Exodus 1:10-11).

“The particular Pharaoh of the Exodus is not named because the tradition has come to see him, not as a simple historical person but as the personification of earthly oppressive power, cloaked in its own claims to divinity, yet brought low by the power of Israel’s God, whose power is exercised in behalf of ‘the least of these’.”[3]

Pharaoh’s strategy did not work; “the more [the Israelites] were oppressed, the more the Egyptians came to dread them” (Exodus 1:13-15).  The story of the exodus exposes Pharaoh’s clinging to power.  He refuses to relent in his oppressive policies even when things fall apart for him.  In the end, Pharaoh’s stubbornness leads to disaster for his empire and liberation for the Hebrew slaves.  Pharaoh’s retributive practices turn back on himself and his empire.

The Hebrew’s experience of oppressive empire domination fed into a counter-cultural religious and political vision.  In contrast to the gods of the Empire, who serve the will of the king, the Hebrews worshiped Yahweh, the critic of kings and the advocate of vulnerable, oppressed people.

In contrast to the social structure of the Empire, with its great disparities of wealth between the elite and the masses, the Hebrews followed a law code (Torah) that emphasized decentralized political power and economic self-sufficiency for all in the community.  Torah established strong inheritance laws intending to prevent economic stratification and the disenfranchisement of vulnerable people and their descendants.

“The reality emerging out of the Exodus is not just…a new religious idea of freedom but the emergence of a new social community in history….The participants in the Exodus found themselves involved in the intentional formation of a new social community to match the vision of God’s freedom.  That new social reality was utterly discontinuous with Egypt.”[4]

In contrast to the militarized culture of the Empire, with its permanent standing army, professionalized military elite, and large stores of horses, chariots, and other instruments of war, the Hebrews eschewed being a warrior culture.  Their national defense needs would be met by ad hoc coalitions of tribes joining in temporary militias and by trust in their God.  “Early Israel rejected entirely the idea that God had delegated to some autocrat the legitimate power to put human beings to death.  Early Israel rejected entirely the idea that God was merely the Ground of Being for some political monopoly of force.”[5]

In all these ways, Israel defined itself over against the Egyptian Empire.  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 oppression is undertaken and sponsored by what appear to be legitimated powers.”[6]

Israel’s Monarchy and Empire Critique

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.  In the face of bloody internal conflict among the tribes recounted in Judges 20, we read, at the conclusion of the Book of Judges, “in those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).  Then 1 Samuel tells what happens near the end of the career of Israel’s last great judge.  “When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel….Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain: they took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Samuel 8:1,3).

On top of these internal problems of chaos and corruption, the Hebrews also faced a major external threat.  The emerging regional empire of the Philistines sought to overrun the Hebrews.  As a consequence of these problems, the elders of Israel sought a human king, like other nations (1 Samuel 8:5).

On the one hand, the Hebrews fear losing their identity by being conquered by the Philistines; perhaps the covenant community would thereby be eliminated from the face of the earth.  On the other hand, to become “like other nations” could also lead to the elimination of the covenant community should it lose its distinctive character.

Samuel argued, in vain as it turned out, for 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 will remain viable. In the course of making his case for sustaining the Yahweh-as-king model, Samuel articulated a powerful anti-Empire argument and a profound concern that should Israel take the human king route it would also become Empire-like.

This is what kings are like, Samuel asserts (1 Samuel 8:10-18).  Kings take the people’s sons and force them into the military.  Kings establish standing armies and pour the nation’s resources into sustaining and arming those armies.  Kings take the people’s daughters.  Kings take the best farmland and enrich their courtiers with the people’s property.  King’s take a tithe of the people’s produce, and the people’s servants and livestock.  In the end, kings enslave the people (as did to the Hebrews’ previous human “king,” Egypt’s Pharaoh).

Samuel warned the people that taking the wrong turn at this crossroads would return them to their status in the Egyptian empire, but he added that this time Yahweh would not respond to their cries amidst their oppression (1 Samuel 8:18; cf. Exodus 2:23).

Samuel argued in vain.  “The people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles’” (1 Samuel 8:19-20).  Yahweh instructs Samuel to relent and “set a king over them” (8:22).

As the story continues, Israel’s second king, David, grows in power and seems to head in a direction that would not result in Samuel’s warnings being fulfilled.  In David’s successful early years of gaining and exercising power, and in the provisions for the eventuality of the Hebrews turning toward kingship provided in Deuteronomy 17, we are given the impression that human kingship did not inevitably have to betray the anti-empire vision of exodus and Torah.

The kingship allowed for in Deuteronomy would still be subordinate to Torah and would serve the anti-hierarchical provisions of the covenant.  The king was to come from within the Israelite community and not be a foreigner.  That is, the king was to be one who had grown up observing Torah.  The King must not take: “not acquire more horses” (that is, no standing army), “not acquire many wives, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold, he must not acquire in great quantity for himself” (Deuteronomy 17:14-17).

This Deuteronomy text places the king in a subordinate position to Torah.  “When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the Levitical priests.  It shall remain with him and he shall read it in all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel” (Deuteronomy 17:18-20).

“Two points express what is distinctive of the Israelite ideal: the king is absolutely subordinate to Yahweh and in everything dependent upon Yahweh and Yahweh’s covenant of blessing; and the king’s essential task is to be the instrument of Yahweh’s justice and covenant blessing among people (cf. royal psalms such as Psalms 72 and 101).”[7]

The accounts that follow in 1 and 2 Kings almost all reflect the kings’ unwillingness to submit to Torah in this way.  King David violates commandments against adultery and murder with his affair with Bathsheba.  King Solomon evinces the change from Torah-oriented kingship already, in his ruthless efforts to gain and consolidate his power (cf. 1 Kings 1–11).

Solomon expanded the king’s authority.  He reorganized social structures toward much greater centralized control.  He instituted rigorous taxation to expand his treasury.  He drafted soldiers and expanded the collection of horses and chariots into a large, permanent army with career military leaders.  And he also decreed a policy of forced labor for his twenty-year building project of constructing first his palace and then the temple.

Deuteronomy 17 explicitly stated that kings must not gather horses, gold, or silver for themselves.  Solomon did all these things, gaining renown for his wealth.  Solomon also cultivated ties with other countries.  He had hundreds of wives from many nations. Through his wives, Solomon gained international status.  Again, this is precisely what Deuteronomy tells the king not to do.  “He must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away” (17:17).  We read in 1 Kings 11 that indeed Solomon’s heart did turn away.  His many wives influenced him to worship other gods.  “His wives turned away his heart after other gods; his heart was not true to the Lord his God” (1 Kings 11:4).

God warns Solomon in 1 Kings 9:6-8: “If you turn aside from following me…and do not keep my commandments…but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut Israel off from the land…and [the temple] I will cast out of my sight….This [temple] will become a heap of ruins.”

Solomon’s turn from Torah-oriented kingship toward political authoritarianism finds further expression with his son, King Rehoboam.  Solomon’s practices of forced labor elicited resistance, leading at one point to a rebellion led by one of his top officials, Jeroboam.  Solomon forced Jeroboam into exile, but the latter returned to Israel after Solomon’s death.  Jeroboam spoke to King Rehoboam, asking for some changes.  Rehoboam rejected Jeroboam’s demands, choosing for political authoritarianism.  “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions” (1 Kings 12:14).  So Jeroboam led a secessionist movement resulting in a split between the northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah.  Retributive justice severely damaged the covenant community as the king followed the Empire way rather than the Torah way.

The history of the kings in both Judah and Israel turns toward idolatry, authoritarianism, corruption, and injustice.  As the two Hebrew nations continue to trust in the sword rather than in Yahweh and Yahweh’s Torah, they meet the fate of the nations.  The northern kingdom falls at the hands of the great Assyrian empire near the end of the eighth century, and a little over one hundred years later, the Babylonian Empire puts an end to Judah.

Prophets emerge in the context of this movement within Israel away from Torah who utter words of sharp critique toward the Hebrew community’s increasing conformity with the ways of Empire.  However, they also critique the outside empires.  In fact, “the polemic against kings is found throughout the Bible: Yahweh against Pharaoh in the escape from Egypt (Exodus 1–15); Yahweh against Sennacherib [of Assyria] (Isaiah 37:23-29, 8th century BCE); Yahweh against the King of Babylon (Isaiah 14:4-21, 7th-6th centuries BCE); Yahweh against the prince and king of Tyre (Ezekiel 28:1-19, 6th century BCE).  Outside of Israel, kingship was considered as ‘let down from heaven,’ a blessing of the gods.  Within Israel, kingship was regarded as human rebellion, a rejection of the rule of Yahweh (whose will was communicated not through the king, but through his prophets).”[8]

The Hebrews Among the Empires

Four large empires figure prominently in the Old Testament story—Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia.  A fifth, Greece, plays a large role during the inter-testamental period.  And a sixth, Rome, dominates the New Testament.

Egypt. As we have seen, the Egyptian empire looms large over the emergence of the Hebrews as a people.  The exodus from slavery in Egypt and the formulation of the law as a counter-testimony to the ideology of Egypt’s empire, show how Israel defined itself over-against Egypt.  “Egypt has become, from the outset of Israel’s memory, a defining image of hostility to Yahweh’s governance.”[9]

The story of Solomon includes several allusions to Egypt.  “Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh, king of Egypt; he took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David” (1 Kings 3:1; see also 1 Kings 7:8; 9:24; 11:1).  While on the surface, these references reflect Solomon’s renown and significance in his day, in the context of the traditions of Israel, especially Deuteronomy 17, we may see this alliance as a key indication of Solomon’s violating Torah’s opposition to foreign influences.[10]

Also, the irony of Solomon marrying 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.  Deuteronomy 28:68 also made this connection.  The final threatened curse, should Israel not remain faithful to the covenant, reads as follows: “The Lord will bring you back in ships to Egypt, by a route that I promised you would never see again; and there you shall offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but there will be no buyer.”

Egypt surfaces several times as representative of the nations in rebellion versus God (e.g., Ezekiel 29–32; Isaiah 19; Jeremiah 46; Psalm 87).  Egypt bears responsibility for the death of King Josiah, one of the few kings in Judah the Bible portrays as seeking to let Torah govern the kingdom.  Josiah goes out to confront Pharaoh Neco and is slain in battle (2 Kings 23:28-29).

Poignantly, the prophet Jeremiah, at the time of Babylon’s destruction of Judah writes of accompanying Jewish exiles into Egypt (Jer 43-44).  He critiques these exiles as idolaters.  It is as if the entire history following the exodus has been for naught as people of the covenant return to trusting in power politics and turning from Torah and toward Empire faith.

Assyria. From its northern location, the Assyrian Empire threateningly hovered over Israel.  The kings of the northern kingdom, in alliance with other nearby smaller nations, successfully resisted Assyria’s imperialism for many years.  Eventually, though, as recounted in 2 Kings 17:5-23, Assyria utterly destroyed Israel and moved on to attack Judah.  Isaiah 36–39 and 2 Kings 18–20 tell how Assyria besieged Jerusalem.  The Judeans staved off Assyrian conquest.  Isaiah portrays this event, wherein Assyria withdraws from the attempt to conquer Judah, as evidence of Yahweh’s power over against the brutal superpower.  Not coincidentally, the books of the Kings portray Judah’s king of the time, Hezekiah, as one of only two kings who remained utterly faithful to Yahweh (the other being Josiah).[11]

The antipathy many in Israel felt toward Assyria received voice in the prophecy of Nahum.  Nahum joyfully proclaims the impending doom of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, due to Assyria’s injustice and brutality.  Nahum portrays this doom as the work of Yahweh.  “Your shepherds are asleep, O king of Assyria; your nobles slumber.  Your people are scattered on the mountains with no one to gather them.  There is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal.  All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you.  For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” (Nahum 3:18-19).

Much later, the book of Jonah uses Israel’s antipathy toward Assyria and Nineveh to much different effect.  This book critiques Israel’s insular perspective in post-exilic Palestine.  To do so, the writer draws on the assumed hostility toward Nineveh and Assyria that would have remained alive in the people’s memories.  Nineveh plays a rhetorical role in Jonah, standing as the last place the Hebrews would ever want God’s mercy to be expressed.  This symbolic use of Nineveh indicates how terrible the actual Assyrian empire had been in the eyes of Israel.

Babylon. During the seventh century BCE, Assyria met its match in the resurgent Babylonian Empire.  Babylon succeeded where earlier Assyria had failed—conquering Judah and destroying the temple and much of the rest of Jerusalem, and taking the Jewish ruling class who survived into exile.

Nebuchadnezzar emerged as the ruler of the Babylonian Empire in 605 BCE and remained in power until his death in 562 BCE.  Not long after Nebuchadnezzar’s death, the Persians under Cyrus replaced Babylon as the dominant Ancient Near Eastern empire.  So, Babylon reigned only briefly.  However, those were extraordinarily eventful years for the Hebrews, and the Babylonian Empire and Nebuchadnezzar in particular loom large in biblical writings, down through the final book of the New Testament.

Over several invasions and deportations in a couple of decades, Nebuchadnezzar, according to the Old Testament, ended Judah as a nation-state and left the covenant community a small, scattered remnant that barely sustained its consciousness as people of the promise.

Because Israel’s prophets critiqued their nation for its unfaithfulness, they interpreted the acts of Nebuchadnezzar as expressions of God’s judgment on God’s people.  Nonetheless, this theological assertion did not lessen the evil in the Babylonian Empire’s merciless actions.[12] The prophet in Isaiah 47 speaks of God’s judgment toward Babylon: “Sit in silence, and go into darkness, daughter Chaldea (i.e., Babylon)!  For you shall no more be called the mistress of kingdoms.  I was angry with my people, I profaned my heritage; I gave them into your hand, you showed them no mercy….You felt secure in your wickedness; you said, ‘No one sees me.’  Your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me.’  But evil shall come upon you, which you cannot charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, which you will not be able to ward off; and ruin shall come upon you suddenly, of which you know nothing” (Isaiah 47:5-7,10-11).

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 – most famously the Book of Revelation, where “Babylon” symbolizes the brutalities and blasphemies of the Roman Empire.

Several hundred years after Babylon fell to Persia and ceased to exist as an empire, the imagery remained vital as seen in the portrayal of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 2–4.  Nebuchadnezzar’s craziness and power worship likely represent Daniel’s take on Antiochus IV, the Syrian ruler who oppressed the Jews in the second century BCE.  The only redemption possible for this idolatrous ruler is to submit to the ultimate rule of God (Daniel 4:34-37).

“Nebuchadnezzar—and Babylon—take on a remarkably generative role in the imagination of Israel, and become a metaphor for arrogant, autonomous power that does evil in the world in opposition to Yahweh’s will.”[13]

Persia. The Persian Empire, which emerged in the mid-sixth century BCE under the leadership of Cyrus, is the one great empire presented in a more positive light in the Old Testament.  Several factors probably account for this.

Persia defeated the terrible Babylonians, the destroyers of Judah and the temple.  Israel’s joy at this action is reflected in Isaiah’s identifying Cyrus as god’s “shepherd” (44:28) and, even, God’s “anointed one” (45:1).  Persia’s victory indeed did serve Israel’s purposes.  It is hard to imagine the covenant community surviving otherwise.  Whatever Cyrus’s own motivations, from the Israelites’ perspective his actions did look like a saving act of God.[14]

The Persians evidently concluded that their purposes would be better served by allowing their conquered nations a measure of self-determination.  Perhaps this would provide for greater tax revenue and overall productivity in the occupied territories.  So, Cyrus allowed the exiled ruling class Hebrews to return to Palestine.  This return provided for profound challenges as the exiles struggled to reintegrate with those who had remained in Palestine.  However, this return allowed the community to survive.

A second policy by Persia not only allowed the Hebrews to build a temple, but actually helped finance that project.  This temple, like its predecessor constructed by Solomon, served people in power by playing an important role is sustaining social order.  It served as a tax-collecting center for the Persians.  However, it also undeniably played a crucial role in providing a locus for Israel’s on-going identity as people of the covenant.[15]

The Persians allowed important Jewish leaders such as Nehemiah and especially Ezra to reshape Judaism and to build viable religious and cultural structures in the fifth century B.C.E. that proved to be essential for the sustenance of the tradition.[16]

The positive impression the Old Testament gives of the Persian Empire in part stems from the likelihood that it was during this time that most of the Hebrew Bible reached its final form.  Those responsible for that work would have avoided producing materials that would alienate their Persian benefactors.

The portrayal of the Persian Empire provides a bit of a counter-weight to the otherwise critical spirit of the Old Testament concerning the great empires.  Perhaps these ambiguities may actually reinforce our understanding of the Powers as not inherently evil.  As Walter Wink writes, they are simultaneously good creations, fallen entities with a proclivity for usurping God’s supremacy, and potentially redeemable.[17] The Persian experience provides a sense that Empires need not be as brutally oppressive as many are.

The Persian period provides evidence that the covenant community was capable of survival apart from operating its own nation-state and capable of sustaining its particular identity in the context of a dominating empire not committed to the covenant.

Roman Domination

The greatest empire of the ancient world emerged in the second century B.C.E., eventually defeating the remnants of Alexander’s empire in Syria, Macedonia, and Greece.  The Romans established a relationship with the various provinces in Palestine in which Judea, Galilee, Idumea, and Perea all were ruled by Jewish governments who served as Roman clients.

Herod, originally governor Galilee, gained power over all the provinces.  He was entitled “king of the Jews” by Rome, but had to consolidate his control through his own military prowess.  Herod ruled, at the behest of the Romans, from 37 B.C.E. until his death in 4 B.C.E.

Herod was a typical Roman client-ruler.  “Rome was able to produce a sharing of interests between itself and the native upper classes.  This involved above all those at the top of society.  This community of interests was above all of an economic kind.  Roman peace guaranteed the preservation of the existing order and therefore the continuation of the status of the indigenous upper classes.  On the other hand, Rome guaranteed a peace in the province or in the allied kingdom which was the presupposition for the money and offerings in kind which had to flow to Rome as duties and taxes.”[18]

After Herod’s death, Rome divided his kingdom into thirds among his sons.  Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea for over 40 years and Philip ruled Trachonitis and Iturea for nearly 40 years.  The third unit, Judea, though, soon came under the direct control of the Romans due to the failure of Herod’s third son, Archelaus, to maintain his authority.

“Rome was relatively tolerant of the fierce exclusivism of the Jews; as long as the ultimate hegemony of Rome was recognized and the tribute paid, a modicum of local autonomy could continue.  Rome remained, however, in firm control.  The procurator had the power to appoint and depose the high priest, the symbolic leader of the Jewish polity, at will.  He retained stewardship over the high priestly garments, thus effectively controlling its functioning.  In classic colonial fashion, Rome maintained exclusive authority over matters of foreign policy and serious domestic dissent (e.g., capital punishment).”[19]

In time, Pontius Pilate became governor of Judea.  Contemporary Jewish writers Josephus and Philo portrayed Pilate’s governorship as bloody and violent.  Luke 13:1 alludes to Pilate’s responsibility for the deaths of a group of Galileans.  Later on, after the slaughter of a large number of Samaritans, Rome recalled Pilate.  Church historian Eusebius wrote that Pilate eventually committed suicide.

Jesus and Empire

In the Palestine of Jesus’ day, society could be divided into two main groups.  The ruling class included representatives of the Roman Empire.  As well, those government officials who served as clients of Rome, in particular the descendants of King Herod must be included.  A third element of the ruling class included the religious leaders associated with the temple in Jerusalem.

The second group, much larger, basically included everybody else: peasants in the countryside and the vast majority of the population of Jerusalem and the other cities.  “As in other areas of the Roman Empire, a huge chasm separated those of wealth, privilege, and power from those who produced for and otherwise served the desires of the ruling groups.”[20]

Jesus came from this second group and oriented his ministry toward them.  Insofar as he encountered people in the first group, he tended to treat them respectfully while also challenging them to be responsive to the needs of all people and to do away with the cultural dynamics that made the few wealthy and powerful and disenfranchised the many.

Jesus expanded the scope (contra the Pharisees) of who would be included among people of the covenant.  Hence, he came into conflict with guardians of the law and guardians of the temple, as we have seen in our previous two chapters.  A significant part of Jesus’ message, though, also included a critique of the dominant forces from outside of Israel’s religious structures—the political rulers, the Roman Empire.

Jesus understood himself to be following after earlier biblical leaders, especially Moses, Jesus’ own namesake Joshua, and later prophets.  These leaders each energetically rejected political authoritarianism.  Moses, most foundationally, led the people out of the Egyptian Empire, thus exposing Pharaoh’s profound corruption and reliance upon oppression and brutality.[21]

Matthew’s birth story presents Jesus as born to carry on the tradition of Moses, down to the parallel between Pharaoh’s violence and the violence of King Herod.  From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he acts and speaks in defiance of the ruling class’s assumptions about their dominance and control over the people.  His healing and exorcisms lead to the Pharisees making common cause with political leaders (the Herodians) in desiring to kill Jesus (Mark 3:1-5).  Jesus triggered the rulers’ retributive inclinations by violating their policies of control.

“Implicitly, the central content of Jesus’ proclamation, the immanence of the Kingdom of God, amounts to a questioning of the Pax Romana: anyone who prays for the coming of the Kingdom of God, expects it very soon, and sees the sign of its dawning in his own action, has no faith in the imperial good tidings of a pacified world and human happiness in it; he does not regard this situation as the peace God wants, but is certain that it will soon end.”[22]

The stories of Jesus’ exorcisms mean to evoke the sensibility of Moses and Elijah—crossing the sea, healing, feeding the multitudes in the wilderness, preaching the law.  This, in turn, evokes memories of Moses’ resistance to Pharaoh and Elijah’s resistance to King Ahab.  Jesus’ power over demons (linked on occasion with Roman legions—Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30) symbolized his rejection of Roman power.[23] Remember Jesus’ encounter with Satan in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry.  Satan offers Jesus political power as if it belongs to Satan.  Jesus later on displays his continued rejection of Satan’s presence in and among the people when he casts demons out.

Jesus’ condemnation of authoritarian types of leadership also reflects his rejection of Rome’s power politics: “You know that among the Gentiles (i.e., the Romans) those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them” (Mark 10:42).  With this statement, “Jesus clearly stated that the existing ‘order of peace’ is based on the oppressive rule of force.  That is the way in which Jesus and—as is shown by the ‘you know’—his disciples experience the reality of the Pax Romana….The alternative which Jesus puts forward shows that he is not resigned, and the contrast against leads to a negative description of the reality he depicts: peace based on oppressive force is not what Jesus wants.”[24]

Jesus’ famous confrontation concerning the payment of taxes, when properly understood, presents his listeners with a choice between two competing claimants for his listeners’ loyalties.  God or Caesar; it has to be one or the other.  Those who trust in the true God will deny Caesar’s claims for their loyalty.  “If God is the exclusive lord and Master, if the people of Israel live under the exclusive kingship of God, then all things belong to God, the implications for Caesar being fairly obvious….Caesar, or any other imperial ruler, has no claim on the Israelite people, since God is their actual king and master.”[25]

When given the opportunity in the wilderness prior to the beginning of his public ministry to overthrow the Romans with force, Jesus turned Satan down.  And, at the end, when face to face with Pilate, Jesus asserted that “my kingdom is not of this world.”  However, neither of these points portray Jesus as apolitical or indifferent to the Roman Empire.  Rather, 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.[26]

Jesus’ alternative politics did threaten Roman authoritarianism.  So it was the logical consequence that such a threat would be brutally punished.  Public crucifixion served most of all as a means to intimidate subject peoples—retribution for the sake of social control.

The language of “kingdom” (the Greek word, basilea, may also be translated “empire” – see Daniel 1:20; 2:37-45; 4:31,36, in relation to Babylon) itself indicates that Jesus saw himself posing a contrast between his community and Rome.[27] Jesus’ vision was in continuity with the heart of Torah.  That such a Torah-oriented vision was revolutionary in first-century Palestine only underscores that the spirit of Empire embodied in ancient Egypt remained alive and well in the time of the Romans.  Just as Torah originally countered the Empire-consciousness of Egypt, so its renewal in Jesus’ ministry countered the Empire-consciousness of Rome.

Jesus showed how the original vision for salvation in the Old Testament remained viable.  And, in doing so, he directly challenged Rome’s hegemony.  This challenge meant, according to the logic of retribution, that he must be punished.  Due to his agenda, Jesus indeed was a revolutionary.  Hence, that he died a revolutionary’s death was not a miscarriage of justice in the sense that he truly was seditious in relation to the state’s values.  In fact, he was more of a threat to these values than the agents of Empire even realized.

“At the focal point of the New Testament, the testimony to the death and resurrection of Jesus, two completely opposed modes of peace clash.  On the one hand there is violence which interrupts and breaks off by force: the Pax Romana in the name of which Jesus was executed, a peace produced and secured from the then center of power, above all by military means, an order going out from the metropolis and oriented on it.”  On the other hand, Jesus interrupts violence.  He creates genuine “Pax” (peace) by abolishing the notion of enmity altogether.”[28]

The Death of a Political Criminal

On the one hand, clearly the central conflicts in Jesus’ career occurred with the Jewish religious leaders, not the representative of the Roman Empire.  Yet, on the other hand, Rome crucified Jesus, using the methods employed political offenders.  And they crucified him with the title “King of the Jews” attached to his cross.

“Crucifixion was a powerful symbol throughout the Roman world.  It was not just a means of liquidating undesirables; it did so with the maximum degradation and humiliation.  It said, loud and clear: we are in charge here; you are our property; we can do what we like with you.  It insisted, coldly and brutally, on the absolute sovereignty of Rome, and of Caesar.  It told an implicit story, of the uselessness of rebel recalcitrance and the ruthlessness of imperial power.  It said, in particular, this is what happens to rebel leaders.”[29]

We saw above in chapter five some of the key elements in the story of Jesus’ execution.[30] Jesus called himself the “king of the Jews”—which could be a conclusion drawn from the use of messianic language of Jesus (“messiah” = “anointed one” = “king”).  For Jesus to claim to be “king” would have been a political problem, something that would have put him on a collision course with the putative political leaders, who of course, would have been highly sensitive to such claims as a threat to their authority.

Jesus as a political problem had the ironic impact of bringing together Pilate and Herod, as they are said previously to have been enemies (Luke 23:12).  But they were united in their hostility toward this feared usurper.  John 19:12 reflects the general sense that Jesus threatened the political leaders with his alleged claims to be king of the Jews: the crowd cries in opposition to Jesus that “every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.”

The allegations of Jesus claiming to be king stand at the center of Pilate’s concern when he faces Jesus.  His first question focuses the issues: “Are you king of the Jews?”  Significantly, Jesus does not answer with a simple denial, even as he also makes it clear that he does not seek to be the kind of “King” who rules the Roman Empire by brute force (or the kind of client king like Herod the Great who ruled Palestine with brute force).  “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus replied to Pilate.

What might Jesus’ words here have meant?  Traditionally, many have read this as a statement that Jesus is not concerned with the politics of the material world but is advocating a purely spiritual, “otherworldly” kingdom.  However, the evidence indicates otherwise.

People perceived Jesus as having this-worldly political significance when he fed the multitude.  They sought him afterwards, desiring to make him king (John 6).  Jesus, of course, disappeared from the scene because he did not trust their motives.  However, he acted so as to make people think of him as a political leader.

The religious leaders feared that Jesus’ activities had enough this-worldly political significance that the Romans might intervene with the full force of the Empire and impose a military solution to the problem (John 11:45-53).

In the end, Rome executed Jesus as a political criminal.  “That Pilate had Jesus executed on the cross shows that the death of Jesus is indissolubly bound up with the political peace that there was at that time, the Pax Romana, produced and guaranteed by Roman power.  In the view of the procurator this execution, like many others, was virtually an act to secure the peace.  Extent reports of the implementation of Roman punishment of crucifixion at Palestine at the time of Jesus mention only rebels as criminals….In the eyes of the Roman provincial administration Jesus was a rebel who endangered the existing peace.  A disturber of the peace was done away with, by legal means, by the power responsible for peace.”[31]

Jesus was apolitical only if politics is understood strictly as power politics, the politics of the sword.  However, if we understand politics more generally as meaning the way human beings order their social world, Jesus was political.  In fact, in this sense, just about everything he taught (e.g., turn the other cheek, reject lording it over others, share with those in need) was political.  Jesus offered a political alternative to power politics directly relevant for life here and now.

So, when Jesus says “my kingdom is not of this world,” he means “my way of ordering human social life in real life is not of the order of political authoritarianism.”  Jesus still leads a kingdom, a social order in history, but one practicing a different way of structuring social life.  “It is not a question of whether Jesus’ kingship exists in this world but of how it exists; not a certification that the characteristics of Jesus’ kingdom are ‘otherworldly’ and so do not impinge on this world’s affairs but a declaration that his kingship has its source outside this world and so is established by methods other than those of this world.”[32]

In this sense, then, Jesus did offer a direct challenge to the hegemony of the Roman Empire.  According to the values of the Empire, its agents were justified in deciding to punish this so-called “king.”  “For Pilate, to call Jesus ‘the one called Christ’ (Matthew 27:17,22) expresses Jesus’ political threat of sedition, of claiming power without Rome’s approval.  And Pilate is right.  He correctly understands that the term denotes opposition to Rome’s rule and so Jesus must be resisted.”[33]

In a broader sense, as well, when Jesus challenged cultural exclusivism (the Pharisees) and religious institutionalism (the temple), he offered a political (not only religious) challenge.  The religious leaders, as we have seen, also acted as political leaders who oversaw the social lives of the Jewish people.

Pilate, the political leader directly representing the Empire, plays a crucial role in the events surrounding Jesus’ condemnation and execution.  Jesus’ death reflects on Pilate’s practice of political authoritarianism, and as such offers insight into the Powers of the nation-state.  Pilate “represents and protects Rome’s political, economic, military, and legal interests in an exploitative, oppressive and largely unaccountable relationship with those he governs, and as the one who has the almost untouchable power to execute Jesus.”[34]

Pilate mostly wants to heap scorn on the Jews’ nationalistic aspirations and to thereby solidify the standing of the Romans in their occupation of Palestine.  “Pilate’s intention is not to placate ‘the Jews’ but to humiliate them.”[35] When the chief priests cry out, “We have no king but Caesar!” (John), Pilate gets what he had been waiting for.  Pilate simply wanted an admission from the Jewish leaders of the supremacy of Caesar.

Pilate seems to assume that he knows the only truth that matters: “There is no king but Caesar.”  Maybe he did not actively desire Jesus’ death.  He probably simply did not care about Jesus one way or another.  He, perhaps, may be seen as being profoundly cynical—and close-minded—and perfectly willing to sacrifice a life such as Jesus’ in order to further his own ends.  In this case, Pilate’s ends would seem to have been the strengthening of his position in relation to the Jewish leaders.  Pilate “is callous and relentless, indifferent to Jesus and to truth, and contemptuous of the hope of Israel.”[36]

Jesus’ death, then, did have significant significance in relation to Empire, to political authoritarianism.

As we have seen with regard to the conflicts over the law and over the temple, Jesus directly threatened the present status quo.  He provided an alternative political approach to the temple-centered and law-centered politics enforced by the power elite of his day.  The powers-that-be logically sought to make a public example of how advocating such an alternative would lead to deadly retribution.

Jesus asserted the possibility of direct access to God, not mediated by the temple.  In doing so, he undercut the authority of the temple.  The power of the temple establishment rested in its monopoly in providing access to God.  Because people believed they had to go through the temple, they paid the temple taxes that enriched its treasury and accepted the requirements placed on them.  Without that belief, the authority of the temple would collapse.

Jesus also challenged the interpretation of the law that empowered the Pharisees.  He advocated an understanding of the law that placed the priority on mercy and justice, not on the legalistic focus on external regulations that required experts to interpret and enforce.  Just as the temple stood as a mediator between people and God, so, too, the enforcers of the law also stood as required mediators.  Jesus repudiated that need.

In his openness to outsiders and welcome to those typically excluded by the guardians of the religious and cultural Powers, Jesus undercut the power of the structures that relied on strong boundary lines for their status.  When Jesus did this, the leaders recognized what was at stake, and opposed him vehemently.  In their opposition to Jesus, though, according to the Gospels, they reveal their opposition to God.

The “trial” before Pilate reveals the political authority’s profound cynicism, closed-mindedness, disinterest in the truth, and the deep-seated violence of both Pilate and the Empire in general.  Pilate begins the encounter by asking Jesus if he is “the king of the Jews.”  As Jesus tries to explain how he understands his “kingship,” and the role of seeking the truth as being at the heart of the genuine kingdom of God, Pilate simply quips, “what is truth?” and then leaves, not interested in listening to Jesus.  He has Jesus tortured, then uses Jesus as a pawn for manipulating the religious leaders, and in the end sends Jesus to the most terrible of executions.

“Jesus opposed the Roman order at the most fundamental of levels.”  He replaced a violent, debt-oriented way of seeing with “a way of being in the world that took as its starting point the beneficence of God, the merciful Father who extends grace even to the ungrateful and wicked.  Jesus’ message thus crossed the grain of the Roman political order not only at the level of practices and attitudes but also with respect to the most basic questions about ‘how the world works’.”[37]

In the end, the largest political significance of the story of Jesus’ death may be seen in how he offers a profound alternative to political authoritarianism.  Jesus exposes it as actually a kind of anti-politics, a dis-order that gains people’s trust as an idol that actually separates them from God.  “The scene exposes Roman justice to be administered by the elite for the elite’s benefit.  There is no doubt that by Rome’s rules Jesus deserves to die.  But this scene, in the context of the Gospel story, raises profound questions about the nature of those rules.”[38]

At the heart of Jesus’ teaching in the final months of his life he instructed his followers, “take up your cross and follow me.”  He called them to live free from political authoritarianism, to recognize that discipleship puts them directly in opposition to the Powers of Empire.  That the authorities (human and spiritual) would put Jesus to death absolutely proves their idolatrous nature—and the need for people of faith to distrust them.

[1] Cf. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1982).

[2] Cf. Elisabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991).

[3] Bruce Birch, Let Justice Roll Down: The Old Testament, Ethics, and Christian Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), 123.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1978), 16-17.

[5] George Mendenhall, The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Tradition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 21.

[6] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 180.

[7] Birch, Let Justice, 219-220.

[8] Millard C. Lind, Monotheism, Power, Justice: Collected Old Testament Essays (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1990), 18.

[9] Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 60.

[10] Brueggemann, Reverberations, 60.

[11] Gerald Eddie Gerbrandt, Kingship According to the Deuteronomic History (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1986), 50.

[12] Brueggemann, Reverberations, 18.

[13] Brueggemann, Reverberations, 18.

[14] Brueggemann, Reverberations, 144.

[15] Brueggemann, Reverberations, 144.

[16] Brueggemann, Reverberations, 144.

[17] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).

[18] Klaus Wengst, Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987), 25.

[19] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 56-57.

[20] Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) 59.

[21] Horsley, Jesus, 81.

[22] Wengst, Pax, 55.

[23] Horsley, Jesus.

[24] Wengst, Pax, 55-56.

[25] Horsley, Jesus, 99.  See also Wengst, Pax, 59-60.

[26] John Howard Yoder argues persuasively that Jesus self-consciously understood his message to be about creating such an alternative politics, The Politics of Jesus, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994).

[27] Warren Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001), 62.

[28] Wengst, Pax, 4.

[29] N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 543.

[30] I am especially indebted to the provocative analysis by David Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1988), 87-106.

[31] Wengst, Pax, 1-2.

[32] Rensberger, Johannine, 97.

[33] Carter, Matthew, 163.

[34] Carter, Matthew, 157.

[35] Rensberger, Johannine, 94.

[36] Rensberger, Johannine, 95.

[37] Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker, Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 40.

[38] Carter, Matthew, 167.

1 thought on “8. Jesus’ Death and the Powers: Political Authoritarianism (Empire)

  1. vengaturreino

    Hi there! I hope you don’t mind, but I wanted to share a recent blog post my husband and I wrote about Christians and politics:

    “…. Although Christians are told to pray for those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-2), there are no instructions anywhere in the Bible to seek political authority for ourselves or participate in political campaigns or decisions.

    As Christians, we have been redeemed by the blood of Christ in order to live in unity (1 Corinthians 1:10). However, those who are involved in politics often find themselves divided on opposing sides, debating and arguing with each other.

    Whole article:


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