Jesus in a World of Colliding Empires

When Jesus emerged on the scene, the Israelite nation was alive with hope. A prophet had arisen, the first for centuries, John the Baptist. With worldviews shaped by a world in which all empires are established with military force, Jesus came on the scene. Many were drawn to his power, believing that in Jesus their liberation from Rome had come. But Jesus had other ideas.

See Also: Jesus in a World of Colliding Empires, Volume One: Introduction and Mark 1:1-8:29 (Wipf and Stock, 2018).

Vol. II.

By Mark J. Keown
Senior Lecturer in New Testament,
School of Theology
Laidlaw College, Auckland, New Zealand
November 2018

It is intriguing to ponder what was going through the minds of the first disciples as they encountered Jesus of Nazareth. What were their hopes? What possibilities did they see in him?

            To answer such questions, one has to ponder the socio-political situation in which Israel’s people were saturated. Her story is premised on the Exodus, that great event when God liberated Israel from bondage in Egypt. Miraculously, God had brought them out of Egypt and led them by fire and cloud to the land of Canaan. Led by Joshua, they had vanquished most of its inhabitants and laid claim to the land.[1]

Under a series of judges and then kings, they had lived in the land, albeit in a divided state after Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 12). Yet, in 722 BC, the northern tribes were overcome by the Assyrians. Some 135 years later, Judah was conquered by Babylon and many of her people taken into exile. Miraculously, the Exodus was re-enacted, and the exiles were liberated to go home and re-establish their life. The Temple was rebuilt. However, Judah remained under foreign rule—the Medo-Persians, the Greeks, and at the time of Jesus’ emergence, Rome.

Such imperial powers all functioned in much the same way—established by a dynamic male military ruler (e.g., Cyrus, Alexander, Julius Caesar), armies, and occupation. The locals were subjugated enticed by benefaction (e.g., citizenship) or fear of force. Ranging from tribal rule to full-scale empires, the world beyond Rome was much the same. Dynastic tribes and empires formed and fell. Life was violent. Military force was essential to maintain the status quo and to expand. There was no other way.

Israel’s hopes were no different. There were a wide range of expectations when Jesus emerged. Some hoped for God himself to directly intervene, imposing himself with supernatural force. Others dreamed of a transcendent Son of Man figure, drawn from Dan 7 and 1 Enoch. Many yearned for a Davidic Messiah. Some contemplated two Messiahs, one priestly, one royal (e.g., Qumran). Yet others longed for a prophet like Moses based on Deut 18.

What all these figures have in common is God’s intervention with military power to establish his reign. God, or his agent (that I call Theo, “The Expected One”), will cleanse the land of Gentile defilement and domination with force, God’s glory fills his Temple, Jerusalem will be Israel and the world’s capital, and God’s law will be lived as it should be throughout the world. Other works of Second Temple Judaism, especially the Pseudepigraphal apocalyptic writings, looked to such divine intervention in colorful and symbolic terms.

The Maccabean revolt and the establishment of the Hasmonean Empire also fuelled these hopes (167–63 BC).[2] For a short period, Israel had at least in part, thrown off foreign yoke and had found some degree of self-determination. If God supplied the power (as hoped for by some Jihadists), surely some similar revolution was possible.

The desire for revolution is seen in the string of messianic pretenders who had arisen in the period leading up to Christ, and who would continue to emerge until the zealous fateful attempt to drive the Romans from the land in the late 60s AD. This would end with the nation, capital, and Temple demolished. It remains in ruins until today. Along with Israel’s writings interpreted to expect revolt against the Gentiles, men like Mattathias and his five Maccabean sons; Judas, the son of Hezekiah, Simon of Perea, Athronges; Theudas; and Judas the Galilean, all set a pattern of expectations.[3] Eventually, someone would come along who would lead Israel’s liberation from foreign rule.

Yet, there is a range of other texts in the Jewish Scriptures which anticipated something different. These include a Davidic king surrounded by mocking crowds, his life poured out like water, his bones dislocated, crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps 22). Equally powerfully, there is the vision of a Servant of Yahweh, imbued by the Spirit, crying justice, who would be pierced, crushed, and killed, and yet bear the sins of many. He would be vindicated and be a light to the nations and whose salvation would reach the ends of the earth.[4] Israel’s worldview, preoccupied with ideas of conquest with supernaturally-empowered brute force, could not see that such texts would shape the mission of the expected one. Indeed, he would be Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, the Prophet, all wrapped up in one. Yet, these would all be subservient to the vision of Isaiah’s Servant of Yahweh and David’s mocked and poured out, suffering Messiah. They could not imagine a messianic figure who would die on a cross, for “cursed is anyone who is hung on a tree.”[5] Messiahs do not suffer and die; they cause others pain and death until they yield to Yahweh’s rule.

Enter Jesus. Or better, “Joshua,” for Iēsous is the Greek rendering of Hebrew yehô·šǔaʿ and variants.[6] His name is enough to connote revolution. After all, the first Joshua, performing amazing miracles, even stopping the sun (Josh 10:13) and leading the demolition of the walls of a city with trumpets and a shout (Josh 6:20), had led Israel’s finest through the land of Canaan, smiting the Canaanites, and laying claim to the land. This “New Joshua” would go one better—getting rid of the Romans and all foreign rule, the Spirit coming, the dead raised, the world righted, Jerusalem the home from where God would rule his world.

Reading the four Gospels, it is likely that when Jesus summoned the four fishermen to join him (Mark 1:16–20 and parr.), they already knew of Jesus. They had perhaps seen him heal Peter’s mother in law and many others in Capernaum.[7] This man had serious power. Fuelled with such hopes of liberation, Peter, Andrew, and the brothers Zebedee responded immediately. Their hopes were no doubt heightened by hearing that they would fish for men—a splendid military metaphor of catching people, killing them, and “devouring” them.[8] The “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17) undoubtedly imagined glory.

Soon, Jesus would gather others including a Simon, the Zealot;[9] Judas, possibly an assassin (Sicarii);[10] and other men fit for battle. Indeed, he would choose Twelve to be his Apostles, invoking thoughts of a reconstituted Israel and the Twelve Tribes taking the land (Mark 3:16–19, cf. Josh 3:12).

As the Twelve and the others, including a number of women (Luke 8:2–3), joined Jesus traveling around Galilee, they observed this power repeatedly—casting out demons, healing the sick with a touch, befriending traitors (tax-collectors) and sinners, teaching in perplexing short stories, raising the dead, calming a storm, walking on water, and feeding enormous crowds with a few fish and loaves. It was becoming obvious that Jesus is a prophet (Mark 6:14–16), and yet more (John 6:14–15). Yet strangely, when anyone broached the possibility of his being the Messiah, Jesus shut them down.[11] He made no moves to turn his power toward the Romans.

Even more unusually, Jesus seemed “hell-bent” of antagonizing and arguing with Israel’s leaders. When they asked for a vindicating sign, like those Moses performed as he came to Israel’s leaders (Exod 4:1–17, 30–31), something that proved his credentials to liberate Israel, Jesus swatted such questions away (Mark 8:11–12 and parr.). Surely, at some point, the disciples must have thought, he will summon them to join him, imbued with the power of God (the Man of War),[12] devoting the Gentiles to destruction (cf. Num 21:22–23).

Eventually, at Caesarea Philippi, a town fittingly named to remember Rome’s great redeemer Caesar and Philip the Herodian Tetrarch (recall also Philip of Macedon), up in the north of the land, Jesus asked them the great question—who do people say that I am? The disciples tell him that most see him as some kind of prophet. Jesus persists—what about you? As always, Peter the brash spoke up: “you are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29).

What follows is profoundly ironic and almost humorous. Jesus says nothing to refute the claim; he knows he is the Davidic Messiah. However, his understanding of Messianic rule and those of the disciples are poles apart. For the rest of his short life, he will teach the disciples what it means to be Israel’s Messiah. They will be summoned to live by the patterns of his life in the service of his mission. They will subsequently be empowered by his Spirit to do it (Acts 2:1–4)—but that is getting ahead of ourselves.

Immediately upon Peter’s confession, Jesus seriously warns (epitimaō)[13] the disciples not to tell anyone of his identity (Mark 8:30). He then redefined Messiah in two ways. First, he assumes the title “Son of Man.” This multivalent term draws on the Son of Man in Dan 7 but was also likely chosen for its ambiguity. It can merely mean “person” (Ps 8:4), “prophet” (93 times in Ezekiel), a deliverer (Ps 80:17), or Daniel or Enoch’s transcendent figure. Clearly, for Mark, it means the latter, and as in 1 Enoch, it is fused to the notion of Messiah.[14] Secondly, Jesus speaks of this Messianic Son of Man dying and rising (Mark 8:31). Peter is shocked at such thoughts; a Messiah and Son of Man will not die! Despite his earlier confession of Jesus as God’s anointed Davidic king, he has the temerity to rebuke (epitimaō) Jesus—this is now way for a Messiah to speak! Jesus continues the exchange of rebukes, and then reproves (epitimaō) Satan. He does not directly rebuke Peter as Satan but hears in Peter’s words the voice of the one whose modus operandi is conquest by brute force, by the false patterns of the world. This is the one who in Matthew and Luke arrogantly offered Jesus the kingdoms of the world (Matt 4:8; Luke 4:6)—as if they were really his to give![15] In the Biblical narrative, it is he impels humans to constant notions of war and rule by imperial power.[16]

Peter’s response shows how he and the other disciples were locked into dreams of revolution by brute force. They had no understanding that there is another way. It is this way Jesus is coming to enact and teach. Twice more Jesus will predict his death explicitly. After each, the disciples are equally baffled (Mark 9:31–32; 10:32–34).

From Mark 8:34 to Jesus’ death on the cross recorded in Mark 15, Jesus sets about teaching the disciples what it means for him to be Messiah, Son of Man, and Servant. He declares that if anyone wishes to be a disciple, they must deny themselves, take up crosses, follow him, and lose lives (Mark 8:34). For the first disciples, this likely sounded like another call to war against the Romans; after all, it is they who did the crucifying. Gloriously, many would survive the war and see the Kingdom of God come in power (Mark 9:1).[17] That Jesus meant the resurrection prefigured by the Transfiguration is beyond them.[18]

He tells them that the path to greatness is servanthood and the humility and dependence of a child (Mark 9:33–37; 10:13–16). He teaches that victory over demonic forces does not come through war, but through prayer (Mark 9:14–29). Using war imagery of severing hands and feet, he summons disciples to resist sin (Mark 9:42). Unlike Herod Antipas (Mark 6:17) and the Roman Caesars whose sexual infidelities and adultery were infamous, he summons disciples to marital fidelity and sexual purity (Mark 10:1–12).[19] When approached by a rich man, rather than claiming the young man’s loyalty and his money to further his own imperial ambitions, Jesus effectively likens the young man to a camel that must be squeezed through the eye of a needle telling him to sell all he has, give to the poor, and then join him (Mark 10:17–30). When the Sons of Thunder seek the places at his right and left hand, he summons them to renounce all such claims of glory and be servants, as he came to serve the world and give his life for it (Mark 10:35–45). Rather than march the disciples seven times around Jericho to bring down its walls, when a poor blind beggar in the city approaches him Jesus mercifully heals him. He does so after asking him the identical question he had asked James and John (cf. Mark 10:36, 51). Whereas James and John were not granted their wish for positions of power, as they acted out of arrogance and selfish ambition (and later failed the test),[20] Jesus grants Bartimaeus’ desire for healing from genuine need without hesitation (Mark 10:46–52). This Messiah is not about military takeover and destruction of the Romans. He is here to heal the sick and demonized, feed the poor, and respond to genuine human need. His mission is to save sinners and make them servants—Jew and Roman alike. Not seduced by wealth and power (e.g., the rich ruler), the likes of Bartimaeus are this Messiah’s people. So they must be our people too!

Jesus then enters Jerusalem heralded by many as Davidic King astride a donkey, coming in peace, as Zechariah had foreseen (Mark 11:1–10). However, whereas Zechariah had imagined this Messiah bending Judah as a bow, making Ephraim an arrow, stirring up Zion’s sons as weapons to destroy Greece’s finest (Zech 9:9–13), this Messiah through the blood of God’s covenant (cf. Mark 14:24) would set prisoners free from the waterless pit through giving himself for the world without violent force (Zech 9:11). On his entry, Jesus does not launch an assault on the Romans but attacks the sacrifice system (Mark 11:15–19). He does nothing to woo the Jewish leadership, but debates them relentlessly, even humiliating and challenging them (Mark 11:27–12:40). Rather than launch a revolution, his mortal fate is sealed.

After foretelling the destruction of the Temple and giving hints of his future return (Mark 13), he then sat to dine with his disciples knowing that one will betray him and another deny him (Mark 14:10–25). Yet, he breaks bread even with a traitor and a denier, an astonishing act of mercy and love by the friend of sinners—there is hope for us all! (Luke 7:34). As they celebrate Passover, he speaks of his body broken and his blood poured out for many as the blood of the new covenant. Again, his words are ambiguous and may have sounded like a declaration of war and the spilling of the blood of others.[21]

After passionately pleading that God free him from what is to come, a prayer God chooses to deny, Jesus is then arrested and tried (Mark 14:32–72). When he faces Pilate, Rome’s representative ruling the city, instead of offering him terms and warning him of his forthcoming destruction, and the future subjugation of Rome to God’s rule by force, he makes a vague affirmation and is silent (Mark 15:1–5). In the place of a genuine rebel Barabbas (son of Abba), the One that a Roman soldier would acknowledge as God’s son, is then beaten and crucified without using his power in self-defence (Mark 15:6–41). The irony is palpable. He is deserted by his closest, including Peter, who fails the test (Mark 14:66–72). Jesus is utterly bereft. He cries out the words of Ps 22, a final plea for people to see that he is the Davidic Messiah come as God’s Servant (Mark 15:34).[22] Yet, he is merely mocked and ridiculed. If he is truly “King of the Jews,” he would not hang accursed on a tree but break free and launch the revolution. He dies. His followers are despondent. They have no idea what they would no later—he was indeed accursed but to take the curse of our sin (Gal 3:13).

Luke’s version of the Jesus story shows how the hopes of the disciples were shattered (Luke 24:19). Jesus is no longer Messiah, but Jesus of Nazareth, merely a prophet. They had hoped for the liberation of the nation, but he was gone (Luke 24:21; Acts 1:6). Their vision was too small. Jesus did not come to liberate a nation politically, but to set free sinners from the whole world. Their expectations of the MO of God’s Messiah was fatally flawed.

Yet, for Mark and the other NT writers, this is not the end, but a new beginning. What happens next changes everything. The women find an empty tomb (Mark 16:1–5). They are told to meet Jesus in Galilee. Mark ends his story with the women afraid and bewildered (Mark 16:8).[23] Yet, the existence of Mark’s Gospel shows that they did not stay in that state. As the other Gospels give witness (e.g., Matt 28:8–10), they did run to the others, told them, and Jesus did meet them in different ways over space and time. With his help and the Scriptures renarrated through the lens of a suffering Servant Messiah and Son of Man (Luke 24:26–27, 44–46), they realized that their hopes had been misguided. Their worldview was turned upside down. The way of Jesus is walking with crosses strapped on backs to the point of death (cf. Phil 2:5, 8), not inflicting such punishment on others.

What they had experienced in the life of Jesus in first-century Galilee and Judah was indeed the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Prophet, and the Servant; God’s Theo. Yet, he had come to do something unforeseen other than in unrecognized parts of the Jewish Scriptures.[24] This Theo would come not as a hurricane of supernatural military force to impose God’s reign, but to wash feet, feed the poor, heal lepers and all manner of others with a touch, befriend those at the margins, and save a world through love. His life then is the pattern for discipleship—we who accept his summons to yield allegiance to this King, are to take up our towels and crosses and follow him. This is the way.[25]

His Kingdom is not like any other ever seen before. There is indeed a war, yet it is a war of hearts, a spiritual war (esp. Eph 6:11–18). The Kingdom is planted in the midst of the swirling empires of the world that are led by the arrogant and assured, laying claim to people’s allegiance by hook or by crook. Christ’s Kingdom is a kingdom of love, service, selflessness, humility, suffering, and sacrifice, for the good of others (esp. Phil 2:1–11). It involves the renunciation of such things as selfish ambition and vain conceit (Phil 2:3). All are invited to yield. Others are free not to. Those that do are gifted eternal life with this King. The final outcome will be the return of the King sometime in the future and the establishment of his reign in a world free of the hubris of colliding empires.

Mark’s Gospel then has two layers. The first is the experience of the disciples as they struggled to make sense of a Messiah, Son of Man, and Son of God who did not play the game of thrones the world was engaged in. Or better, he played it differently, summoning people to yield to God’s rule by love, wooing them with compassion and mercy. The second is our experience of reading Mark, and the other Gospel writers were doing as they wrote their accounts of Jesus. They are summoning us to see the deep magic embedded in the narrative. There is another way. It is the way of the cross. It is the way of renouncing the trappings of the world for a new way of being. It is the path of humility, service, and agapē that the world may know that we are truly his disciples (John 13:34–35).

Sitting here in the twenty-first century, we are again in a world of colliding empires. Some are bona fide empires led by despots dominating with force, emulating the empires of old. Others are subtler, controlled by those who know how to use political intrigue, charisma, wealth, and rhetoric to win hearts. Their empires may not be violently enforced, but they are economically powerful, binding people to the patterns of the Kingdom by socio-economic necessity. Such rulers know how to control the narratives of the array of media options before us. We live unsure what news is fake and what is true. The world is a dangerous place with empires on the rise. The Jesus of the four Gospels summons us to live as subjects of the Empire of empires. In the cacophony of media, we are to listen to and consider more deeply the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God. This will mean identifying the empires of our age and refusing to be conformed to them (Rom 12:2). Rather, to reference Paul, we are to be citizens of God’s Empire, led by Jesus, living as he calls us to live—cruciformly (Phil 1:27–30; 3:20–21). Where we have the honor and privilege of leading, we must lead without resorting to the duplicitous patterns of autocracy so many exhibit in politics, business, and other parts of society. We are to lead as humble and merciful servants. In this way, God’s reign will continue to be extended, nestled in this world of colliding empires, reshaping it from the inside out. We are not summoned to partner with those seeking rule by military force. We are to work from the inside out, changing the world with a reloveution of mercy. Ultimately, when his message has penetrated to its every part to his satisfaction, we are told he will return, and all will be right (Mark 13:10; Matt 24:14). In the meantime, we are to take up our crosses and towels and follow him.

(Mark Keown’s recent book is Jesus in a World of Colliding Empires (Wipf and Stock, 2018.)




[1] The Conquest is questioned historically. However, this is a modern debate. For Israel at the time of Jesus, the story was foundational as recorded in their sacred Scriptures; hence, its historicity is not important to this discussion. See on such questions Michael T. Kennedy, “Canaan, Conquest of,” “Historical Reliability,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary (hereafter, LBD).  

[2] The dynasty proper ran from 142–63 BC. See Tessa Rajak, “Hasmonean Dynasty,” The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary 3:67–76.

[3] See Mark J. Keown, Jesus in a World of Colliding Empires: Mark’s Jesus from the Perspective of Power and Expectations, Vol 1 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2018), 127–31 for a summary of the biblical and extra-biblical texts, particularly, Josephus.

[4]  Isaiah 42:1–9; 49:1–7; 504–11; 52:13–53:12.

[5] Deuteronomy 21:23; cited by Paul in Gal 3:13.

[6] G. Schneider, ”ησος, ο Iēsous Jesus,” The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament 2:180–81.

[7] While Mark places this after the call (Mark 1:29–34), Luke sets it before (Luke 4:38–41). Combined with John’s account of the call (John 1:29–51), it is in my view more historically plausible that they had met Jesus before their call.

[8] Any person who fishes knows that fishing involves the capture and killing of the marine life involved. The motif of capturing as in fishing is also used in the OT in a military sense (see Isa 19:8; Ezek 29:4; 32:3; Amos 4:2; Hab 1:14–17; also, Job 41:2; Eccl 9:12). Notably, while Mark and Matthew use halieus denoting a fisherperson (Mark 1:17; Matt 4:19), Luke prefers zōgreō, meaning “capture alive” (Luke 5:10, see BDAG 429), clarifying that this is not a capture and physically kill ministry that they are being invited into.

[9] See Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1–8:26, Word Biblical Commentary 34A (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1998), 163 on the variants. While it is unclear whether Simon was a full-blown revolutionary in the sense of the Zealots who inspired the later revolt against Rome, the tag Zealot indicates he had revolutionary tendencies; see R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: Eerdmans; Paternoster, 2002), 163.

[10] Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 152.

[11] The so-called “Messianic Secret” (Mark 1:24–25, 34, 43–44; 3:11–12; 5:7, 43; 7:36; 8:26, 29–30; 9:2–8). In my view, the central reason Jesus did this was to guard against revolutionary tendencies (see John 6:14–15). For various views, see Brendon R. Witte, “Messianic Secret,” LBD.  

[12] Exodus 15:3; Isa 42:13.

[13] This is a strong term meaning to rebuke, reprove. In the LXX, it “becomes a technical term for the powerful divine word of rebuke and threat,” see Ethelbert Stauffer, “πιτιμάω, πιτιμία,” The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 2:624.

[14] See especially 1 En. 48.1–10; see also 1 En. 46.2–4; 52.43; 60.10; 62:5–16; 63.11; 69.27–29; 70.1; 71.14, 17. The Book of the Similitudes in 1 Enoch 37–71 is dated by Isaac ca. 106–64 BC and so would have been well known by the time of Jesus in Palestine; see E. Isaac, “A New Translation and Introduction,” The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 1 (New York;  London: Yale University Press, 1983)., 1:7.

[15] See Ps 24:1—"the earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;” 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1—“the Lord reigns!” (NIV).

[16] For example, 1 Chron 21:1; Job 1:6–2:7; 2 Thess 2:9; Rev 12:9.

[17] This likely refers to Christ’s future resurrection, foreshadowed by the Transfiguration. However, for first hearers, this would sound like a summons to fight Rome, see Mark J. Keown, Jesus in a World of Colliding Empires: Mark’s Jesus from the Perspective of Power and Expectations, Vol 2 (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2018), 12–23.

[18] See James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002), 260.

[19] For a summary of their marriages and dalliances see Keown, Jesus in a World, 2:52–58.

[20] If James and John had honored their commitment, they would have hung either side of Jesus on the crosses. However, they were nowhere to be seen. Assuming historicity and John’s authorship of Revelation, later they did participate in Jesus’ cup and baptism of suffering (Acts 12:1–2; Rev 1:9).

[21] Keown, Jesus, 2:186–92.

[22] It is commonly held that the words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” are to be read literally as Jesus being God-bereft in that moment. Yet, this does not fit the context of Psalm 22 (where David cries out to God feeling abandoned but not literally so) nor Jesus’ situation. Rather, Jesus is giving Israel its final opportunity to recognise that he is the one of whom David prophesied as he wrote those words (Mark J. Keown, “‘My God, my God, Why have you Forsaken Me?’ Did God Forsake Jesus on the Cross?” (…).

[23] The textual evidence is overwhelming that Mark’s Gospel ends at 16:8, see Roger L. Omanson and Bruce Manning Metzger, A Textual Guide to the Greek New Testament: An Adaptation of Bruce M. Metzger’s Textual Commentary for the Needs of Translators (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2006), 103–106. In my view, this does not indicate Mark was interrupted or that the ending is lost. Rather, it brilliantly leaves readers with the questions—who is this man? What will be my response? (cf. Mark 4:41).

[24] John’s Jesus tells Israel’s leaders that they search the Scriptures and fail to find Jesus and eternal life (John 5:39). We are warned against excessive confidence concerning the eschaton as we too examine the Scriptures.

[25] Matthew 7:13–13; Mark 10:52; Luke 1:79; Acts 9:2; 19:9; 24:14, 22.

Article Comments

Submitted by John MacDonald on Mon, 03/11/2019 - 18:46


It has long been noted that Jesus believed he needed to suffer to fulfill God's plan, such as demonstrated with the Gethsemane prayer, or Jesus rebuking his followers for not thinking he had to suffer. This has sometimes been thought to be due to an exegetical coloring of the gospels with Isaiah 53, although there is disagreement on this issue.

Here is another avenue that might prove more fruitful as an explanation. In Book 2 of Plato's Republic, Plato gives the example of the lowly impaled just man as a condition to determine whether one was just and whether this is preferable to being a happy unjust ruler. Sachs comments that:

"If Socrates were to succeed in proving that justice by itself cannot but be good for the soul of its possessor, and injustice evil, he still would not be meeting Glaucon's and Adeimantus' challenge; for they ask him to show that justice is the greatest good of the soul, injustice its greatest evil. Further, showing this will not be sufficient unless Socrates thereby shows that the life of the man whose soul possesses justice is happier than the life of anyone whose soul is unjust. The latter is required of Socrates when Glaucon asks him to compare certain lives in terms of happiness. Glaucon envisages a just man's life 'bare of everything but justice. . . . Though doing no injustice he must have the repute of the greatest injustice . . . let him on to his course unchangeable even unto death . . . the just man will have to endure the lash, the rack, chains, the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be [impaled].' On the other hand, the unjust man pictured by Glaucon enjoys a position of 'rule in the city, a wife from any family he chooses, and the giving of his children in marriage to whomsoever he pleases, dealings and partnerships with whom he will, and in all these transactions advantage and profit for himself,' and so forth, including a not unreasonable expectation of divine favor. Socrates has to prove that a just man whose condition is that described by Glaucon will still lead a happier life than anyone who is unjust if he is to show that, in terms of happiness, which is the Platonic criterion for the choice among lives, one ought to choose the just life. Again, if Socrates is able to show that an unjust man who enjoys the existence depicted by Glaucon is more wretched than any just man, that will suffice for choosing to reject any unjust life. As Prichard remarked, 'Plato certainly did not underrate his task. Indeed, in reading his statement of it, we wonder how he ever came to think that he could execute it.'"

So Plato proposes a sort of test for how to measure whether one is truly just, and whether such an individual would be "happier" in the technical Platonic sense.

Plato's Republic was the most famous book in the ancient world, so it is not unreasonable to suppose some of its themes may have influenced Jesus and his followers, even if none of them ever read The Republic. Perhaps Jesus thought it was God's plan for him to nobly suffer as a criminal in society's eyes like Plato's impaled just man, because this would demonstrate him to be truly just and thus worthy of being the Son of Man/judge of people in the new age following the apocalypse.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.