Friday: The Arrest—Am I a bandit?

April 2, 2010

For years in Galilee, Jesus has been building a movement on the margins of the Judean temple state. Now he’s come to the center of religious, economic and political life for his people. For days in Jerusalem, he has been openly confronting the Powers that be, not just preaching and teaching the kingdom of God, but inaugurating and demonstrating it with bold actions and in-their-face argument. He has

  • conducted an inaugural procession into Jerusalem, declaring a new government under God;
  • cast out the money changers from the temple and stolen their money, an act of exorcism;
  • cursed the fig tree (representing these corrupt Powers), a declaration dissolving the current government;
  • argued that his authority comes from the same source as the popular prophet John the Baptizer, that the Roman tax is illegitimate, and reasserted God’s comprehensive claim over his people with the commandment of love;
  • denounced the Powers with parables and formal curses (Matthew’s seven woes);
  • prophesied the temple’s utter destruction; and
  • prophesied the final in-breaking of God’s reign accompanied by apocalyptic convulsions.

The authorities are not happy. For days, they have been trying to discredit him in public and, at every turn, Jesus has turned their arguments against them. For days, they have been plotting to lay hands on him, but he is too visible and popular to seize openly. For days they have been hunting for his secret nighttime hideout, without success. Now, at last, they have an informant. I would burst the already constrictive bounds of this blog to get into who Judas was and why he did what he did. Another time. Meanwhile, I cannot recommend more highly a book (all the books, really) by Hyam Maccoby: Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil.

So also, the meaning of the agony in Gethsemane lies outside the scope of this series, which I’m trying to keep focused on politics. In fact, I believe Jesus’ despair in the garden is political to its core and that it was no accident that brought the secret police to his hiding place on this night of all nights. Something was supposed to happen that night, and it didn’t. But I’m going to defer discussion of what that was until another time.

For now, the arrest. Besides Judas, the arresting party includes representatives from three political interest groups: the chief priests, who wielded political power as heads of state; the teachers of the law, their lawyers; and the elders, the judicial establishment.

“Am I leading a rebellion, that you come out with swords and clubs to capture me?” demands Jesus. And the answer, obviously, is yes. At least, the authorities think so. And how could they not, after the list of provocations that I’ve just cited? Jesus’ party is armed, for God’s sake, and one of them actually assaults an officer.

The charges against him, posted on his cross at his execution, read “The King of the Jews”, sarcastically indicting him for insurrection. So, also, they had been taunting him when they crowned him with a circlet of thorns. And they crucified him with two other ‘bandits’, meaning (many scholars believe), insurrectionists. Or perhaps members of the kind of Robin Hood-style gangs comprised of disenfranchised peasants that continually plagued the roads of Palestine in Jesus’ day. The kind of people that break into the temple’s currency exchange and make off with the treasury. The kind of people who actually started a war against Roman occupation a generation later.

Jesus was arrested, tried and executed as an insurrectionist, a threat to the stability of Rome’s puppet government in Judea. His execution was a judicial assassination of a political threat to the state.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about imperial torture of insurrectionists, we’ll rehabilitate Peter the denier, and we’ll take a close look at Barabbas.

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