By Helen Bond
Senior Lecturer in New Testament Language,
Literature and Theology
University of Edinburgh
Recent historical Jesus study prides itself on the diversity of participants: Jews, Christians, and secularists from a range of (first world) nationalities and backgrounds. But how diverse are we really? Despite apparent variety, we all share the same basic training in biblical languages and historical criticism, the same basic commitment to scholarly enquiry, and, broadly speaking, a similar social status in our respective settings. It was with some curiosity, then, that I travelled to Israel last month to make a TV program on Jesus for UK’s Channel 4 with Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish Sinn Féin party.
For readers not entirely up to speed on British/Irish politics of the last few decades, Mr. Adams is a man of some notoriety in Britain. Although he has always denied being a member of the IRA, he and his family were clearly central participants in “the troubles,” to the extent that his voice could not be broadcast in the British media during the 1980s (a ban the BBC overcame by having his words spoken by an actor). Gerry is an intelligent man, educated at a grammar school, but without higher academic training; his outlook is deeply shaped by his Irish Catholic and republican upbringing. His questions are not honed by generations of academic discourse (he doesn’t wonder if Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet or a sapiential sage), but by real life experience and struggle.
My role in the program was to act as Gerry’s mentor, to accompany him on his trips (including one dark evening when we found ourselves paddling in the Sea of Galilee in a thunderstorm discussing Jesus’ miracles), and to discuss the days’ findings with him every evening. We spent hours arguing whether first-century Galilee was “occupied”; the meaning of “democracy” in ancient societies; high priestly “collaboration” (and alternatives); and whether Jesus foresaw his own death. I’ve not often had the chance to discuss these things with a man who has been on the run from political authority, who has experienced internment, who has been shot at (and still bears the scars), and who is now protected from the “real IRA” who regard him as a traitor – and I have to say that I learned from him too.
Most importantly, I suppose, I realised how academic and intellectual my approach to the historical Jesus has become. On the subject of Jesus and politics I can rehearse the views of Brandon and his detractors and cite alternatives (Jesus was against imperialism, Jesus was a social rather than a political revolutionary, etc.). The names of Crossan, Horsley, and Fiorenza flow from my pen as shorthand for a variety of views and complex positions. I know too that religion and politics were inextricably intertwined in ancient Israel, that to talk of the “Kingdom of God” in a land ruled by an emperor was dangerous, and that subject peoples will keep their hopes and dreams alive though folklore, ballads, and the names they give to their children. But I had externalized all of this and kept it at arm’s length (in what I thought was good scholarly detachment). It was only when I thought about these things in the complexity of modern Israel, when I heard the views of Jewish scholars brought in for the program, and when I saw things through Gerry’s eyes that I began to feel how Jesus’ message might have been heard in first-century Galilee and Judaea. How could talk of a kingdom have been anything other than a threat to the existing rulers? How could the presence of twelve men, representing the twelve tribes of Israel in its glory years, have been anything other than a powerful symbol of national restoration to people with a strong sense of self-respect and identity? How could Jesus’ words and actions not have reawoken long held hopes, and dared his hearers to envisage another reality? And even if Jesus condemned violence and expected God himself to inaugurate the new age, there would always be those who misunderstood him and thought that God needed a helping hand.
Judas’ betrayal was another area where Gerry’s perspective helped me to see things rather differently. Once again, I’ve always approached Judas intellectually, asking why he betrayed Jesus, what motivated his actions - greed, disillusionment, an attempt to force Jesus’ hand? Gerry, however, instinctively understood the defection of a “gang member.” “Yeah, that’s what happens,” he said, “they got to him.” I had thought of Judas’ betrayal as something active, something he chose to do, rather than a situation he was forced into, perhaps (and quite likely) under duress. Of course, the whole Judas story is probably colored by the betrayal of David in 2 Samuel 15, but the general outline of events is historically plausible, a historicity made even stronger by its clear resonance with the way groups (on both sides) were infiltrated and betrayed in Belfast.
It is always dangerous to import modern experiences too easily into an ancient setting, despite broad parallels between Northern Ireland and first-century Judaea. Yet Gerry’s background helped to illuminate for me certain aspects of Jesus’ life in a way that discussions with academics often has not. I’m not advocating giving up reading scholarly work, but true diversity of participation in Jesus studies involves discussion with a far greater variety of perspectives than are currently heard.