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Jesus in Rome-occupied Judea: redeeming messiah or liberating terrorist?

Abhijit Sen
Professor of English at DEOMEL, Visva-Bharati


When problems of terrorism, in different manifestations, strike at the very core of our everyday existence today and threaten tojeopardise human civilization in the modern world, to talk about one who lived and preached the message of love and charity two thousand one hundred years ago and is today worshipped by a large section of humanity as God (and venerated by others as a supreme symbol of global-peace), may appear to be a little out of place. The quest for a ‘historical’ Jesus, which has kept many scholars of Christology preoccupied, remains relevant to our attempts to define the role of Jesus in Rome-occupied Judea, which was then bristling with an agitated political atmosphere. This historicization of the role of Jesus may help to determine to what extent he was merely a religious preacher, or a messianic redeemer, or even a political activist.

In 1846, in England, was published an English translation of David Friedrich Strauss’s work The Life of Jesus, critically examined, the translator being no less than George Eliot[1]. In his work, Strauss reconsidered the Jesus-story, trying to sift fact from interpretation, historical truth from supernatural intervention. Such attempts, in fact, have been undertaken over the centuries, even as history has become overlaid with a monolithic construct of Christian faith, so much so that questions have been raised about the very existence of a historical Jesus. While it has been asserted that, “We can know almost nothing about the life and personality of Christ”[2], attention has also been drawn to the problems arising out of the ‘de-Judaisation’ of Jesus and his teachings[3]. Scholars today have increasingly tended to fall back upon extra-canonical sources in their quest for a historical Jesus and to draw inferences about Jesus and his teachings. This trend has gained further impetus from the recent discoveries and/or archaeological excavations that have unearthed documents like the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Nag Hammadi texts, among which have been located several other gospels, usually set aside as the ‘Gnostic gospels’. Scholarly opinion over the significance of these, of course, remains sharply divided. For instance, the Gospel of Thomas (a Nag Hammadi text) presents a loose and incoherent ordering rationale; while this, to some scholars, is a sign of its being an early eye-witness account, to others, it signifies that the text is an unreliable derivative.

Again, it must be admitted that the quest for the historical Jesus – if there was any such – would be bound to encounter problems that threaten to disallow conclusive inferences: the nature of the sources (and their mutual compatibility); the intervening time-span between the events and their accounts; the validity of oral traditions; breaches in evidences; the authenticity of material remains (including relics); and finally, questions about perspectives/beliefs of the narrators of the Jesus-story. Yet, discussions about the figure of Jesus – his life, his career, his ministry, his death and the events that followed – have to be located in the particular context of the contemporary Jewish history, which itself was politically loaded given the insistent attempts on the parts of the Jews to liberate themselves from the control of Rome. This Rome-occupied Judea, with its charged political atmosphere, was where Jesus lived, preached and died.



The problems start with the very name “Jesus Christ”: Jesus is derived from the Aramaic Yeshua, which can be the name “Joshua” or simply mean “deliverer”; and Christ is a translation of the Greek Christos, derived from the Aramaic meshiha(messiah) meaning the “anointed one”. Therefore, whether “Jesus Christ” is a personal name, or a customary title for one playing out the historically appointed role of the messiah, raises questions. The New Testament, which comprise the main body of the Jesus-texts, seemingly authenticate the historicity of Jesus, of his life, his ministry, his crucifixion and his resurrection. It must be remembered that several decades separate the events and their recorded accounts. Consequently, there is every possibility that historical facts have been, in the long run, downplayed to prioritise a particular creed or faith.  The Jesus-texts comprise the fourcanonised Gospels, the Letters of Paul and others, the Acts of Apostles (generally credited to the evangelist Luke) and the Book of Revelations. Of these, Paul’s letters pre-date the Roman war in Judea (66-73 A.D.), and, as such, pre-date the Gospels written after this war (even though were believed to have been in circulation – along with the other non-canonised gospels – in the oral traditions about Jesus).  Though even till the second century the Gospels were seen more as memoirs of the various apostles, and not as Holy Scriptures, this position was contested in later times[4]. Also, several versions of Christianity vied for prominence in the first century. Jesus’s brother, James is believed to have remained in Jerusalem and preached his doctrine of Jewish Christianity, while Paul chose to go into the world outside and teach his ‘brand’ of Christianity. Ultimately, in this struggle for prominence, it is the Pauline version of Christianity that triumphed not only over the Jamesian creed but also over the other forms of Christianity then available in the first century. The triumph of the Pauline version – with its overt insistence on the divinity of Christ – not only signalled the ‘politicking’ in which the Christian Church had become increasingly embroiled, but also ensured that all subsequent texts of the New Testament were coloured by this significant shift, so that Christianity ultimately evolved not as a religion of Jesus but as a religion about Jesus, as preached by Paul.

Even if the historical accuracy of the Jesus-texts of the New Testament is called into question, there is mention of Jesus in other (non-Christian) historical documents, dating back to the first century. Admittedly, no records from Pilate’s period of governance over Judea survive. Josephus, who wrote his Jewish ‘histories’ – Jewish War (c. 75-79) and Antiquities of the Jews (written about fifteen years after the first work) – mentions Jesus in passing. But Josephus is an important, if somewhat unreliable source, for the Jewish history of the period. In his earlier work, Jewish War, he mentions three sects among the Jews – the Pharisees, theSadducees, the Essenes; the Pharisees were more concerned with the conformation to Jewish tradition and the codes of law; theSadducees maintained the Temple rituals; the Essenes, living as a closed community, were sometimes peaceful/pro-Herod, sometimes militant/anti-Herod. In his later work, Antiquities of the Jews,Josephus includes a fourth sect – the Zealots.

Josephus himself was a Jewish Zealot, and is aware of much ‘inside’ information. The Zealots were regarded as a messianic community, who not only clamoured for a change in the Temple administration (then appointed by the Herod kings and approved by Rome) but also pinned hopes on the promised messiah as a political liberator against Roman and Herodian control. They were generally against the establishment: anti-Rome, anti-Herod and anti-high priest. When Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. – Jesus was only two years old then – this anti-establishment movement was already gaining ground; Jesus’s entire life and career, therefore, was played out against this backdrop of political agitation. After the death of Herod the Great, when the kingdom was carved out among his three sons – under Roman surveillance – the agitation mounted. In 6 A.D., Judas of Galilee led an uprising against the census and, more particularly, against the payment of Roman taxes, reminding the Jewish people that the only master they needed to serve was God and not the Roman emperor. The rise of Judas is also corroborated in the New Testament: “After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him …” (Acts, 5:37)[5]. Josephus mentions that around this time a group of assassins was formed within the Zealots called the Sicarii (the dagger men, who were so called because of the small curved knife – a sica – they used for assassinations and secret killings), perhaps founded by Judas of Galilee; in fact, they are sometimes referred to as ‘Iscariots’. It may also be recalled here that in A.D. 34, John the Baptist was put to death because of his criticism of the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias (originally the wife of his brother Philip). Jesus’s brother, James, was himself executed around A.D. 44 after his messianic mission failed, causing many Zealots and other Jews to flee from Judea.

Josephus, despite his early involvement in the Zealot uprising against Rome, had later defected to the Roman camp; in fact, his ‘histories’ were written only after his defection, supposedly while he was in Rome, at a safe distance from the turbulence of Judea. His version of Jewish history is, therefore, believed to have been biased and unreliable, and his scanty mention of Jesus as well as his disparaging comments about the Zealot movement are misleading.  But that the Jesus movement had inspired the popular imagination – for whatever it was worth, political or religious – is attested by other non-Judeo/Christian sources. For instance,Tacitus (55-120 A.D.) notes: “Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius’s reign by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. But in spite of this temporary setback, the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judea (where the mischief started) but even in Rome.” (The Annals of Imperial Rome, XV, 44). And Pliny the Younger (61-144 A.D.) is said to have interrogated Christians and reported back to Rome that they sang hymns to ‘Christus’ as though he were a god (Epistles, XCVI)[6]. Tertullian (160-225 A.D.), an early church writer who had converted to Christianity (c. 197) and was bitterly opposed to heresy and women’s leadership in the church, had observed “ Whatever happened with Christ, Pilate – himself already a Christian as far as his conviction is concerned – wrote all that to the emperor at that time, Tiberius” (Apologeticus, 21)[7]. All these documents, scriptural and non-scriptural, seem to make it evident that Jesus was a Jew, who not only lived and preached in Rome-occupied Judea, but was also considered a Jewish messiah, and executed under Roman law.

There are more reasons than one to presume that a political movement was brewing around Jesus and his ministry, whether or not with his consent. At least on one occasion in the New Testament, Jesus is described as encouraging his disciples to arm themselves:

“…And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”

(Luke, 22:36-38; italics added)

In the gospels, Jesus’s role as the messiah is underscored at least through two significant moments of revelation – one, during his baptism (Mark, 1:10-11; Matt., 3:16-17; Luke, 3:21-22); the other, before the apostles (Mark, 9:2-4; Matt., 17:2-3; Luke, 9:29-31). Yet, when Peter tries to reveal this to others, Jesus reprimands him (“Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah’. And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him”: Mark, 8:29-30; also in Matt., 16:20 and Luke, 9:21-22). In spite of this caveat to the apostles, Jesus goes on to deliberately enact the appointed role of the messiah – as designated by the prophets – in the final stages of his career. Two events stand out in particular in this context. First, his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, on a donkey, as a king (Mark, 11:1-10; Matt., 21:1-11; Luke, 19: 29-40; John, 12: 12-19), fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah[8]. The second, his cleansing of the Temple, by evicting the traders and money-changers, who were installed there by the Temple authorities, in particular the high-priest Caiaphas; on this occasion, Jesus uses words that echo those of Isaiah and Jeremiah[9] (Mark, 11:17;Matt., 12:13; Luke, 19:45). Jesus’s preaching of the “kingdom of God/Heaven is at hand” is entirely in keeping with the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets. Yet this messianic pronouncement itself could have meant sedition in Rome-occupied Judea, for it could be seen as a direct opposition to authority – of Roman governance, of Herodian dynastic rule and of the Temple administration. The gospels show that not only was Jesus’s ministry severely challenged, but also repeated attempts were made to have him arrested, put out of the way, and even killed. The synoptic gospels show how his authority (as Messiah) is directly questioned (Mark, 11:27-33; Matt., 21: 23-27; Luke, 20: 1-8) and John mentions Jesus being threatened with stoning to death (10:31) – the customary Jewish punishment for blasphemy.

The sentence passed on Jesus – the crucifixion – was the Roman execution reserved for rebels and insurgents, particularly those who opposed the pax romana. The Jewish punishment for blasphemy, by contrast, was stoning to death – which Jesus himself came close to experiencing once in his lifetime (John, 10:31-39). Samuel Brandon, having pointed out that “the fatal sentence was pronounced by the Roman governor and its execution carried out by Roman officials”, concludes: “It is certain that the movement connected with [Jesus] had at least sufficient semblance of sedition to cause the Roman authorities to regard him as a possible revolutionary and, after trial, to execute him as guilty on such a charge.”[10] The New Testament states that Jesus was crucified along with two thieves: the original Greek text reads lestai which can simply be translated as ‘brigands’/’bandits’, but in a more particular Greek usage of the term it was the official name reserved for Zealots. These two ‘thieves’ were perhaps Zealots/freedom fighters, whom Rome would consider terrorists who deserve to die. Jesus’s crucifixion in their company, then, becomes further loaded with political implications. Even, Barabas, who is let off in exchange for Jesus, is described as a lestos (John, 18:40), translated as a “bandit” but having implications of a Zealot in the Greek original. For that matter, there seemed to have been Zealots among Jesus’s followers as well: one is Simon Zelotos/ xeloten (“Simon, who was called the Zealot”: Luke, 6:15); another is Judas Iscariot. And even though Pilate is described as washing his hands of the matter related to the crucifixion[11], the inscription which he ordered to be placed on Jesus’s cross read “King of the Jews”; this would have been Rome’s attempt to mock the coming of the promised Jewish Messiah. On this matter, recent scholarship is less equivocal than the evangelists’ gospels: “ … his [Pilate’s] insistence that the sign KING OF THE JEWS remain on the cross reveals that he had not washed his hands of Roman law, which was very specific. By its provisions, Pilate’s task was clear: he had to crucify Jesus.”[12] Jesus’s teachings and his appropriation of the role of the ‘King of the Jews’, in more ways than one, may have seemed to espouse the Zealot cause. By talking about a Jewish kingdom of heaven, by entering Jerusalem as the ‘king’, and by challenging the prevailing customs of the Temple, Jesus was posing a threat to the authority of Rome, of Herod and of the Temple (where both the Herodian and the Temple administration had the support of Rome). Jesus’s crucifixion, then, was Rome’s effort to stamp out insurgency in Judea, and frustrate all Jewish propaganda about the coming of the Messiah; the attempts continued even after Jesus’s crucifixion.

Even after Jesus’s crucifixion, several other Jewish leaders were known to have piloted movements with messianic orientation, often with more explicit political slant. The Zealot movement had been active since A.D. 6, was raging during Jesus’s lifetime, and within thirty years of his crucifixion, the war in Judea broke out, primarily led by the Zealots and the anti-Roman priests (66-73 A.D.), prompting the Roman emperor Nero to send an army under Vespasian (who was later to become emperor himself) to crush the revolt, take control of Jerusalem, and destroy the Temple. Another insurgent movement broke out in Alexandria in 115 A.D. led by Lucuas, who titled himself the ‘King of the Jew’, but his defeat signalled the collapse of the Jewish community in Egypt. A further revolt erupted between 131 and 135 A.D., under the leadership of Simon Bar Kochba (‘Son of the Star’, an appellation for the king of the Jews). This last movement, in fact, was able to dislodge Roman control over Jerusalem, and even install a Jewish civilian administration – though temporarily – for about two years. Eventually, the movement was mercilessly crushed by the Romans, led by the Emperor Hadrian in 135 A.D. Simon Bar Kochba and his followers were killed, and Judea was renamed as Palestina (now Palestine) by Hadrian.



To return to the Jesus-texts of the New Testament, of the four canonized gospels, the Gospel of Mark, now thought to be the earliest (c. 70 A.D.), was written most likely by one anxious to spread the ‘good news’ of Jesus, who has been identified as the evangelist Mark, the interpreter of Peter. The written text is seemingly a compilation of traditions – mostly oral – already available about Jesus, and may have depended on an earlier written source, now lost and usually designated by scholars as ‘Q’. This is followed by Matthew and Luke (who base themselves on Mark and Q), and these early three are considered the synoptic gospels, sharing common sources. The Gospel of John, presumably written last among the canonised gospels, appears to have a somewhat different orientation[13].

Added to the uncertainty of the exact dates of composition (as written texts), is the even more troublesome gap of several decades, if not centuries, between the life-time of Jesus and the writing of these four gospels. Also, there are different versions of particular events in the different texts; so, while Mark mentions Jesus’s own profession as that of the carpenter and remains silent about his father, Matthew (presumably a later version) mentions him as the “carpenter’s son”, thereby removing the stigma of a ‘low’ profession as well as of the uncertain paternity[14]. What is even more significant is that the narratives in the different gospels are inscribed with individual interpretation of the respective narrators, often with an eye to the contexts of their production and reception.[15] In fact, interpretative dissimilarities are significantly evident in the Pauline letters, which, as written texts, pre-date the gospels. Whether written by the original ‘Paul’ or by his followers adopting his name[16], these texts show radical departures from the position of James and Jewish Christianity. For Paul, following the Jewish laws is not so important as it is to the Jewish James.[17] Even as Paul opposes the literal following of the law, not only does he oppose the Jamesian position but also contradicts Jesus’s own position. As is evident in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’s emphasis is not on destruction but on fulfilment of the law:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.

(Matthew, 5:17; italics added)

James is believed to have remained in Jerusalem and preached his doctrine of Jewish Christianity, while Paul chose to go into the world outside and teach his ‘brand’ of Christianity. As mentioned earlier, ultimately in this struggle for prominence, it is the Pauline version of Christianity that triumphed not only over the Jamesian creed but also over the other varied forms of Christianity then available in the first century. As a consequence, what emerged was not so much the gospel of Jesus but the gospel of Paul: “Jesus proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom, but what came was the Church” (Fr. Loisy)[18].


Though Jesus may have thus appeared to champion the Zealot cause, yet, when the significant question of paying tax to the Roman emperor is raised, he adopts a position that is far from endorsing the Zealot opposition to Roman dominion. He refuses to answer the question directly in an attempt to avoid the trap laid for him by the Pharisees, and instead asks for a coin to be brought to him:

But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title? They answered, “The emperor’s”. Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

(Mark, 12: 15-17)

Corresponding passages occur in the other synoptic gospels as well (Matthew, 22: 15-22; Luke, 20: 21-26). This answer of Jesus would have angered the Zealots for they may have seen in this a betrayal of their cause. Their agenda of militant opposition to Rome included refusal to pay the Roman taxes, and here was Jesus showing his preference for maintaining the status quo, at least as far as tax payments were concerned. After this, the Zealots may well have joined in cries for his death (though for reasons quite different from the Pharisees or the Sadducees).

What is important to note is that this answer of Jesus shows how he attaches supreme importance to eschewing violence. While he insists on the maintenance of the Judaic law, he also speaks of the mercy of God. He keeps referring to God as theFather, and, significantly, the Greek text of the New Testament mentions the Aramaic abba (i.e., father) at least on three occasions (Mark, 14:36; Romans, 8:15; Galatians, 4:6). Though not unique in Judaism, this reiteration of the image of God astheFather certainly defines Jesus’s perception of God. Jesus “kingdom of heaven” is predicated on Faith in the mercy of God, and perpetrated through the spread of Charity; hence the two commandments that his ministry sought to prioritise were love for God and love for one’s neighbour:

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

(Mark: 12: 29-31; italics added)[19]

In spite of Jesus’s preaching of a religious salvation, in the politically charged atmosphere of Rome-occupied Judea, there was every chance that his ministry would be seen as a threat to Rome, as well as a threat to the Rome-approved Temple administration, and, though the Zealots would, perhaps, have ultimately de-linked him from their movement, he would have been branded as one of them in the eyes of the authorities. This Jesus was more of a Zealot than a Jew, more of a freedom-fighting terrorist than a messianic saviour, and hence had to be apprehended, even executed, to put an end to this liberation movement of the freedom-seeking Jews.



In this present age, when different brands of terrorisms are at loggerheads with each other – whether spearheaded by individuals, fomented by militant groups, or perpetrated by the State – the role of Jesus (in the context of Rome-occupied Judea) needs to be reviewed. He was living, preaching, even dying, in a volatile situation of militant political activism. It was easy for the authorities to brand him as one of the Zealots; it was also easy for the Zealots to write him off as a betrayer of the political cause after he supposedly ‘failed’ them. But, it is important to realise his position in-between – neither pro-Roman, nor anti-Roman; neither pro-Herodian, nor anti-Herodian; neither pro-Zealot, nor anti-Zealot. In an age of virulent terrorism, one is pushed to one camp or the other: ‘if you are not one of us, then you are one of them’. The position of in-betweenness – and the several alternatives that it can offer – are brusquely cast aside. The freedom of choice for alternative options is obfuscated in this mad rush for defining the terrorist binaries of ‘us/them’, giving short shrift to the implementation of individual preferences. In such a context, the quest for the ‘historical’ Jesus, which collapses together his roles as political liberator and religious messiah, becomes meaningful.


[1]This is a shortened version of a paper published earlier.


Notes and References:


[1]  George Eliot based her translation on the 4th German edition of Strauss’s work.

[2]  Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, tr. L.P. Smith and E.H. Lantero (New York: Scribner’s, 1934) p.8.

[3]  See, for instance, N.T. Wright, “The quest for the historical Jesus”, Anchor Bible Dictionary 3, 1992, pp.796-802.

[4]  See Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian gospels: their history and development (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990).

[5]  All quotations from the Bible, unless otherwise specified, are from the New Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition for India (Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 1990).


[6]  As cited in Michael Baigent, The Jesus Papers (London: HarperElement, 2006) p. 75.

[7]  Cited in Adolf Martin Ritter, “Church and state up to c. 300 C.E.”, in The Cambridge History of Christianity, Volume I: Origins to Constantine, pp. 524–537; here quoted from p. 532.

[8]  “Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah, 9:9).

[9]  The Temple is the “house of prayer” (Isaiah, 56:7); and “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” (Jeremiah, 7:11).

[10]  The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (London, 1974; originally 1951) p. 102; cited in Baigent, pp. 24-25.

[11]  “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, …” (Matthew, 27:24).

[12]Michael Baigent, The Jesus Papers, pp.26-27.

[13]  More than the other three, it insists on the role of Jesus as a ‘divine exegete’ as the “Son” (1:18), with frequent “I am” statements interspersed; not only does it re-present the divine act of creation (described in the Genesis) in terms of the logos in the opening section (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”: 1:1), but goes on to claim that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”: 1:14).

[14]  “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark, 6:3); “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” (Matthew, 13:55).

[15]  On this issue, see, for instance, Margaret M. Mitchell, “Emergence of the written record”, in The Cambridge History of Christianity, Volume I: Origins to Constantine, ed. Margaret M. Mitchell and Frances M. Young (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) p. 187.

[16]  These pseudepigraphal letters were supposedly composed even after the death of the historical Paul.

[17]  “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point, has become accountable for all of it.” (The Letter of James, 2:10); “… nor is true circumcision something external and physical. … real circumcision is a matter of the heart – it is spiritual and not literal.” (The Letter of Paul to the Romans, 2:28-29).

[18]  Quoted in A.B. Hasler, How the Pope became Infallible, tr. Peter Heinegg (New York, 1981) p. 246.

[19]  See also Matthew, 22:34-40; Luke, 10:25-28).

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