Was Jesus nonviolent at the beginning of his ministry only to embrace violence later? Or vice versa? Or was Jesus radically nonviolent throughout his ministry and then misrepresented in the Gospels? Did Jesus say “love your enemies” and then assign them to eternal hell? Did Jesus change his mind? Or is it the tradition itself that is confused and irreconcilable?
See Also: The Nonviolent Messiah (Fortress Press, 2014).
By Simon J. Joseph
Dept. of Religion
California Lutheran University
In my book, The Nonviolent Messiah, I propose that the historical Jesus was consistently nonviolent in word and deed throughout his ministry. The English term “nonviolent” – like “pacifist” – may not have existed in first-century Judea, but they are useful terms today in so far as they describe a way of life inspired by radicalized interpretations of the Golden Rule and the Greatest Commandment(s): to love God, neighbors – and enemies. Jesus’ call to “love enemies” is not a Christian revelation to be contrasted with Jewish “legalism” and apocalyptic violence, but a radical vision within first-century Jewish apocalypticism.
The association of Jewish messianism with a new era or age of peace is as old as the Book of Isaiah, which refers to a “Prince of Peace” and envisions a time when “the wolf will live with the lamb.” This prophecy of restoration was one of the most popular motifs in the Second Temple period (537 B. C. E. – 70 C. E.). The problem, of course, is that throughout the biblical tradition, God is also portrayed as a bloodthirsty Warrior who punishes the wicked and rewards the faithful in battle. This seems a far cry from our Sunday School Jesus preaching peace and love to his neighbors and enemies. The nonviolent traditions in the Gospels seem overshadowed by these dark clouds of divine judgment. Consequently, there is considerable resistance towards embracing them.
How could Jesus have advocated such an unrealistic ethic? Paul, after all, did not stress this ethic, but focused more on the theological significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Centuries later, Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as his personal religion ensured that traditional Christian pacifism would be compromised by the fusion of church and state. Today, few Christians feel compelled to “follow” Jesus by following his teachings. As a result, the average Christian does not look very much like Jesus at all. It is now a commonplace to accuse Christianity of hypocrisy and corruption. In this kind of atmosphere, doubting the historicity of Jesus might seem like a welcome relief.
So much for the bad news. What happened to the “good news,” that is, the Gospel of Jesus? If eschatological (end-time) violence was part and parcel of the “good news,” then it is difficult to see how such “good news” could be anything more than a veiled threat: Repent, or else! God loves you – but he’ll also send you to hell! Love your enemies – but get ready to judge and kill them! There is no escaping the fact that this dissonance between punishment and reward (or good and bad news) is found in the Jesus tradition. The question is: what are we supposed to make of it? Was Jesus – like our biblical God – both violent and nonviolent, as circumstances required? Was Jesus nonviolent at the beginning of his ministry only to embrace violence later? Or vice versa? Or was Jesus radically nonviolent throughout his ministry and then misrepresented in the Gospels? Did Jesus say “love your enemies” and then assign them to eternal hell? Did Jesus change his mind? Or is it the tradition itself that is confused and irreconcilable?
The answers to these perplexing questions may be found in Jesus’ ethical and instructional wisdom-sayings in the “Sayings Source” or “Gospel” Q (Quelle). Despite the minority opinions of some Q-skeptics, the Two Documentary Hypothesis positing Markan Priority and Q remains the dominant solution to the Synoptic Problem of literary inter-dependence between the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Q contains approximately 235 verses common to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but not Mark, and thereby represents our earliest evidence for the historical Jesus and the Judean Jesus movement. One of the most distinctive features of Q is a carefully composed collection of wisdom-sayings framed as a short discourse or “Sermon” that served as the prototype for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke’s longer “Sermons” on the Mount and Plain.
The central ethic of Q is “characterized by nonviolence,” and has been described as the “heart of the proclamation of Jesus, the conscious rejection of violence.” The imperative to “love enemies” is further emphasized by imperatives to pray for enemies, turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, and not judge. Other Q sayings further support the central message of the Sermon’s call to nonviolence. Jesus’ disciples are “sheep among wolves.” They are defenseless among those who resort to violence. They are forbidden even to carry a stick or staff for self-defense. They are to declare “Peace” when they enter the home of a “son of peace” who welcomes them, let their “peace” come upon those in the house, and announce the presence of the kingdom. The followers of Jesus are to forgive their brothers repeatedly. Jesus’ vision of a loving and forgiving God is the message and content of the kingdom, the “good news.” There are numerous Q sayings that implicitly or explicitly affirm the principle and practice of nonviolence, the “way” of Jesus:
Q 6:27-28: Love Your Enemies
Q 6:31: The Golden Rule
Q 6:32, 34: Impartial/Unconditional Love
Q 6:36: Being Full of Compassion like Your Father
Q 6:37-38: Not Judging
While the existence of Q continues to be debated by biblical scholars, it is not necessary to believe in Q in order to acknowledge the existence of these sayings. They are, after all, also found in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Jesus was born into a world that had seen more than its share of warfare and violence. He did not have to be a prophet to understand that violence and warfare was not the path to peace. He had seen it with his own eyes. The meaning of statements such as “those who live by the sword die by the sword,” “put away your sword,” and “love your enemies” also seems fairly self-explanatory. If we add Jesus’ reputation as a healer, his defenselessness during his arrest and trial, and several centuries of Christian pacifism in imitation of Jesus’ example, then the case for the nonviolent Jesus increases in explanatory power. There may always be those who regard Jesus as a false prophet or a failed revolutionary, but there have also always been those – like Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – who have seen in Jesus the highest ethical ideals of humanity. In the end, of course, it may not be a single piece of evidence that convinces. As in most historical work, it is the cumulative weight of the data that often persuades.
So what does a nonviolent Jesus have to do with traditional Jewish messianism – a tradition based on the royal and political ideology of Davidic kingship? It seems highly probable that Jesus’ Roman crucifixion as “King of the Jews” reflects a royal charge and, perhaps, a royal claim. This is clearly how his political opponents viewed him, although this does not necessarily tell us very much about how Jesus saw himself. Similarly, it is highly probable that Jesus’ disciples came to see him as the long-awaited Davidic king, but here again this tells us more about Jesus’ followers than Jesus. Paul identifies Jesus as Christos (“messiah/anointed”) over 270 times. This illustrates the vigor of Paul’s convictions that Jesus was the messiah. But crucifixion was the very last thing that any first-century Jew expected to happen to a messianic candidate.
Biblical and apocalyptic traditions encouraged the view that a future Davidic king would overthrow the Romans and restore the political independence of Israel, but Jesus’ career did not conform to that expectation. In fact, Paul calls Jesus’ death a “stumbling block” for Jews and “foolishness” to Gentiles because it was so scandalous. Although Jesus did not fulfill traditional Davidic expectations of military conquest, his first followers chose to redescribe the messianic role rather than abandon the messianic identification. Early Christians reinterpreted the traditional concept of the Davidic messiah in order to explain Jesus’ death by identifying him as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah while postponing the fulfillment of those expectations to the time when Jesus returned to finish the job. By the time the Gospels were written, multiple messianic ideas had already been conflated to produce a multifaceted portrait of Jesus: the son of man, Son of God, Davidic messiah, and Suffering Servant. How did this happen?
In my book The Nonviolent Messiah, I use Q, the Book of Enoch, and other Early Jewish apocalyptic texts to reconstruct some of the earliest ways in which Jesus was understood as a messiah. The Enoch tradition was well known to the early Jesus movement, as its citation in the letter of Jude illustrates. I have suggested that the text known as the Animal Apocalypse – which describes the advent of an Adamic messiah whose function is not to wage war, but to transform all humanity – was the literary prototype for the apocalyptic and angelic “son of man” figure in Daniel 7:13. I also argue that this “son of man” motif was taken up in another Early Jewish text – the Enochic Book of Parables – where the expression is conflated with the concept of the royal messiah. The “son of man” thus became a messianic agent of a violent apocalyptic judgment. Q represents yet another stage in the reception history of this tradition. But there is a striking absence of the title “messiah” or Christos in Q. We have also seen that Q’s wisdom instructions are centered on nonviolence. It seems, then, that instead of using the term “messiah,” Q calls Jesus the “son of man” and the “Son of God,” two exalted titles which recall both the messianic son of man from the Parables and the Adamic messiah described in the Animal Apocalypse, an association that we also find in Paul’s letters, where Jesus is described as the “last Adam” and the “Son of God,” a title that has messianic, Adamic, and divine connotations. This conflation of messianic roles and titles is already found in Q, our earliest source.
The historical Jesus may have neither publicly affirmed nor denied a messianic identification. This seems reasonable enough given the politico-military conditions of first-century Judea. But Jesus’ distinctive vision of peace – his call to “love your enemies,” in conjunction with the early Christian claim that Jesus was Christos, or messiah – requires explanation. The riddle of the nonviolent messiah may be solved if we realize that Jesus not only challenged the biblical tradition of divine violence, but militaristic messianic ideas as well. This is why violence and Davidic militarism are both conspicuously absent in Q’s wisdom-instructional traditions. Loving enemies was an unprecedented idea in Early Judaism. Isaiah envisioned the messianic age as a restoration of paradise and nonviolence, but a nonviolent messiah would not have been “good news” to those who sought to use military power in their struggle against Rome. Nor would such a figure have made many friends with the authoritative interpreters of the scriptural tradition. Scriptural interpretation and authority were highly contested forms of symbolic cultural capital in ancient Judaism. The career of a charismatic prophet, healer, teacher, and potential messiah with a growing following who questioned the authority of the Torah, the Temple, and its custodians – despite being peaceful – would not last very long in such an atmosphere.
 Isaiah 11 is quoted in the Qumran texts, the Psalms of Solomon, the Parables of Enoch, 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, and the Sibylline Oracles.
 John S. Kloppenborg, “The Function of Apocalyptic Language in Q,” SBLASP 25 (1986): 224–35, here 235, citing Q 6:27-28. See also his “Symbolic Eschatology and the Apocalypticism of Q,” HTR 80, no. 3 (1987): 287–306, here 305.
 Martin Hengel, Was Jesus a Revolutionist? trans. William Klassen (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 26.
 Q 6:29.
 Q 6:29-30.
 Q 6:37-38.
 Q 10:3.
 Q 10:4.
 Q 17:3-4.
 1 Cor 1:23.
'Non-violence' usually means 'seeking some gain by vigorous but not violent means', whereas simply living at peace with everyone might mean that you are not interested in making any gains for yourself or for any particular cause. What gain was Jesus after?
#1 - Martin Hughes - 11/05/2014 - 17:49
I do wonder if there is more to it than this. The Q material still has eschatological threats. I'm sure you deal with it in your book.
#2 - Geoff Smith - 11/05/2014 - 20:25
If I am not mistaken, those like Kloppenborg who posit two layers in the Q Document point out that the first, and earlier, layer has no apocalypticism in it, but it only comes in in the second layer.
#3 - Edward Mills - 11/08/2014 - 03:08
The statement: "Despite the minority opinions of some Q-skeptics, the Two Documentary Hypothesis positing Markan Priority and Q remains the dominant solution to the Synoptic Problem of literary inter-dependence between the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke." seems to be a bit dated in NT scholarship. Mark Goodacre had written what is probably the best refutation of the Q hypothesis about a decade ago in his "The Case Against Q" (Trinity Press, 2002). See also http://markgoodacre.org/Q/.
#4 - Timothy Bagley - 11/14/2014 - 22:08
I enjoyed reading it indeed.
#5 - Mina Monier - 12/31/2014 - 11:05