Jesus and the Politics of his Day

Written by Ernst Bammel and C. F. D. Moule (eds.) Reviewed By Christopher Sugden

S. G. F. Brandon’s Jesus and the Zealots first appeared in 1967. A thorough and critical review by M. Hengel appeared in The Journal of Semitic Studies 14 (1969), pp. 231–40. Some of the essays in this collection edited by Bammel and Moule were completed ten years ago. No explanation is given in the introduction for why it has taken seventeen years for this magisterial examination of Brandon’s thesis on literary-critical grounds by leading European New Testament scholars to appear.

J. P. M. Sweet gives a short overview of the case that Brandon makes—that Jesus and his disciples were in fundamental sympathy with Zealot principles and that the New Testament documents, Mark’s Gospel especially, were written to cover this up. He recounts briefly the arguments advanced in detail in the following essays and concludes, ‘Brandon’s theory is a tissue of interlocking possibilities of varying weight, wholly lacking in positive evidence.… The plea that the positive evidence has been destroyed … is unanswerable, and warns us against regarding probabilities as certainties. But probability is still the guide of life’ (pp. 8, 9).

Moule picks up this theme as he writes of ‘tendency-criticism’: ‘The instances where a New Testament writer’s intentions (beyond the general intention to glorify Christ) can be ascertained with virtual certainty are rare; and even then it must not be assumed, without further evidence, that he has allowed his intentions to distort his representation of the facts. It is safer (pace Baur and Brandon) to stick to such direct evidence as may be available for testing his accuracy, and to deduce his tendency, if such there be, from repeated and consistent occurrence of demonstrable distortion or selectiveness, rather than speculations about his purpose’ (p. 100).

E. Bammel, the author of over 190 pages of the volume, gives a most valuable 57-page essay on the history of the political interpretations of Jesus. However, he concludes by opposing the hermeneutical approach which would just ‘listen to the voice of the day’ when reading Scripture without respect for historical texts. This appears to pose a false hermeneutical dichotomy which pervades all the essays. The essays are by no means uniform in their assessment of the historical authenticity of the gospels, for Catchpole finds the reports of the triumphal entry ‘as presently described, unhistorical’ (p. 330), since it reflects a post-Easter victorious Christology, while K. Schubert criticizes the use of literary-critical criteria for determining historicity (p. 388). But the respect for historical texts seems to ignore any sociological awareness of the social context and implications of Jesus’ ministry. The authors appear to assume that the judgment about Jesus’ politics depends solely on the actual political threat that he posed to Rome in possible connection with the Zealot movement. If this can be disproved, then he was not political in any sense, runs the argument. His death was instead caused by theological disagreements and conflicts with Judaism (p. 6), which by being theological are therefore assumed to have no political or social dimensions or implications. This isolation of historical texts from their social context, and the imposition on them of a hermeneutic which isolates theology from politics and social understanding is at best questionable, and at worst the imposition of a certain form of Western dualistic thinking which ignores the social context of the historical texts, and of their interpreters.

New Testament study is too important for the mission of the church to be left to literary critics. Brandon’s work and Colin Morris’ missiological book Unyoung, Uncoloured, Unpoor, which builds on it, raise crucial issues for the church and Christian stances in situations of poverty and oppression, to which Brandon’s answer may be wrong. But the response to Brandon cannot be merely to say that Jesus was not involved in revolutionary politics against Rome. Because of the inadequacy of the sociological awareness in approaching the New Testament in these essays, their response could be charged with exactly the same tendentiousness and wishful thinking (in the opposite direction) of which they skilfully accuse Brandon. There are sociological dimensions of Jesus’ ministry among the poor, the women, the outcastes and the ‘sinners’ in Jewish society which are inextricably bound up with his theological conflict with Judaism and which are crucial for understanding his mission then and today. It is regrettable that these essays do not address these issues. For that perspective Jesus, Politics and Society by Richard Cassidy (Orbis, 1979) remains more illuminating, but goes without any mention in the list of over 800 authors in the index. The work of the late G. B. Caird, who lectured and wrote in this area, and who constantly pointed out that Jesus was involved in two political states, the Roman and the Jewish, is also ignored. Regrettably, the title of Bammel and Moule’s volume attracts only to deceive.

Borrow a copy from the library, get the arguments from Sweet’s introduction, mine the wealth of material in Bammel’s ‘The revolution theory from Reimarus to Brandon’ and leave the rest of the material for those doing detailed New Testament scholarship as it is presently pursued without adequate reference to sociological understanding.

Christopher Sugden

Oxford Centre for Mission Studies