The Political Jesus

The Holy Land in Jesus's time contained a bewildering number of diverse Judaic groups, factions, sects and sub sects In the Gospels, only two of these, the Pharisees and Sadducees, are cited, and both are cast in the roles of villains. However, the role of villain would only have been appropriate to the Sadducees, who did collaborate with the Roman administration. The Pharisees maintained a staunch opposition to Rome; and Jesus himself, if not actually a Pharisee, acted essentially within the Pharisee tradition." In order to appeal to a Romanised audience, the Gospels were obliged to exonerate Rome and blacken the Jews. This explains why the Pharisees had to be misrepresented and deliberately stigmatised along with their genuinely culpable countrymen, the Sadducees.

But why is there no mention in the Gospels of the Zealots the militant nationalistic "freedom fighters' and revolutionaries who, if anything, a Roman audience would only too eagerly have seen as villains? There would seem to be no explanation for their apparent omission from the Gospels unless Jesus was so closely associated with them that this association could not possibly be disowned, only glossed over and thereby concealed. As Professor Brandon argues: "The Gospels' silence about Zealots ... must surely be indicative of a relationship between Jesus and these patrons which the Evangelists preferred not to disclose." Whatever Jesus's possible association with the Zealots, there is no question but that he was crucified as one. Indeed the two men allegedly crucified with him are explicitly described as les-tai the appellation by which the Zealots were known to the Romans. It is doubtful that Jesus himself was a Zealot. Nevertheless, he displays, at odd moments in the Gospels, an aggressive militarism quite comparable to theirs. In one awkwardly famous passage, he announces that he has come "not to bring peace, but a sword'. In Luke's Gospel, he instructs those of his followers who do not possess a sword to purchase one (Luke 22:36); and he himself then checks and approves that they are armed after the Passover meal (Luke 22:38). In the Fourth Gospel Simon Peter is actually carrying a sword when Jesus is arrested. It is difficult to reconcile such references with the conventional image of a mild pacifist saviour. Would such a saviour have sanctioned the bearing of arms, particularly by one of his favourite disciples, the one on whom he supposedly founded his church? If Jesus was not himself a Zealot, the Gospels -seemingly despite themselves betray and establish his connection with that militant faction. There is persuasive evidence to associate Barabbas with Jesus; and Barabbas is also described as a les-tai; James, John and Simon Peter all have appellations which may hint obliquely at Zealot sympathies, if not Zealot involvement. According to modern authorities, Judas Iscariot derives from "Judas the Sicarii' and "Sicarii' was yet another term for Zealot, interchangeable with les-tai Indeed the Sicarii seem to have been an elite within the Zealot ranks, a crack cadre of professional assassins. Finally there is the disciple known as Simon. In the Greek version of Mark, Simon is called Kananaios - a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word for Zealot. In the King James Bible, the Greek word is mistranslated and Simon appears as "Simon the Canaanite'. But the Gospel of Luke leaves no room for doubt. Simon is clearly identified as a Zealot, and even the King James Bible introduces him as "Simon Zelotes'. It would thus seem fairly indisputable that Jesus numbered at least one Zealot among his followers.

If the absence or, rather, apparent absence of the Zealots from the Gospels is striking, so too is that of the Essenes. In the Holy Land of Jesus's time, the Essenes constituted a sect as important as the Pharisees and Sadducees, and it is inconceivable that Jesus did not come into contact with them. Indeed, from the account given of him, John the Baptist would seem to have been an Essene. The omission of any reference to the Essenes seems to have been dictated by the same considerations that dictated omission of virtually all references to the Zealots. In short Jesus's connections with the Essenes, like his connections with the Zealots, were probably too close and too well known to be denied. They could only be glossed over and concealed. From historians and chroniclers writing at the time, it is known that the Essenes maintained communities throughout the Holy Land and, quite possibly, elsewhere as well. They began to appear around 150 B.C. and they used the Old Testament, but interpreted it more as allegory than as literal historical truth. They repudiated conventional Judaism in favour of a form of Gnostic dualism which seems to have incorporated dements of sun worship and Pythagorean thought. They practised healing and were esteemed for their expertise in therapeutic techniques. Finally they were rigorously ascetic, and readily distinguished by their simple white garb. Most modern authorities on the subject believe the famous Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran to be essentially Essene documents. And there is no question that the sect of ascetics living at Qumran had much in common with Essene thought. Like Essene teaching, the Dead Sea Scrolls reflect a dualist theology. At the same time they lay a great stress on the coming of a Messiah an "anointed one' descended from the line of David." They also adhere to a special calendar, according to which the Passover service was celebrated not on Friday, but on Wednesday which agrees with the Passover service in the Fourth Gospel. And in a number of significant respects they coincide, almost word for word, with some of Jesus's teaching.

At the very least it would appear that Jesus was aware of the Qumran community and, to some extent at any rate, brought his own teachings into accord with theirs. One modern expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls believes that they "give added ground for believing that many incidents [in the New Testament] are merely projections into Jesus' own history of what was expected of the Messiah' . Whether the Qumran sect were technically Essenes or not, it seems clear that Jesus even if he did not undergo formal Essene training was well versed in Essene thought. Indeed, many of his teachings echo those ascribed to the Essenes. And his aptitude for healing likewise suggests some Essene influence. But a closer scrutiny of the Gospels reveals that the Essenes may have figured even more significantly in Jesus's career. The Essenes were readily identifiable by their white garments which, paintings and cinema notwithstanding, were less common in the Holy Land at the time than is generally believed. In the suppressed "secret' Gospel of Mark, a white linen robe plays an important ritual role -and it recurs later even in the accepted authorised version. If Jesus was conducting mystery school initiations at Bethany or elsewhere, the white linen robe suggests that these initiations may well have been Essene in character. What is more, the motif of the white linen robe recurs later in all four Gospels. After the Crucifixion Jesus's body "miraculously' disappears from the tomb which is found to be occupied by at least one white-clad figure. In Matthew it is an angel in "raiment white as snow' (28:3). In Mark it is "a young man in long white garment' (16:5). Luke reports that there were "two men ... in shining garments' (24:4), while the Fourth Gospel speaks of "two angels in white' (20:12). In two of these accounts the figure or figures in the tomb are not even accorded any supernatural status. Presumably, these figures are thoroughly mortal and yet, it would appear, unknown to the disciples. It is certainly reasonable to suppose that they are Essenes. And given the Essenes' aptitude for healing, such a supposition becomes even more tenable.

If Jesus, on being removed from the cross, was indeed still alive, the services of a healer would clearly have been required. Even if he were dead, a healer is likely to have been present, if only as a "forlorn hope'. And there were no more esteemed healers in the Holy Land at the time than the Essenes. According to our scenario a mock Crucifixion on private ground was arranged, with Pilate's collusion, by certain of Jesus's supporters. More specifically it would have been arranged not primarily by "adherents of the message', but by adherents to the bloodline immediate family, in other words, and/or other aristocrats and/or members of an inner circle. These individuals may well have had Essene connections or have been Essenes themselves. To the "adherents of the message', however the "rank and file' of Jesus's following, epitomised by Simon Peter the stratagem would not have been divulged. On being carried to Joseph of Arimathea's tomb, Jesus would have required medical attention, for which an Essene healer would have been present. And afterwards, when the tomb was found to be vacant, an emissary would again have been necessary an emissary unknown to the "rank and file' disciples. This emissary would have had to reassure the unsuspecting "adherents of the message', to act as intermediary between Jesus and his following and to forestall charges of graverobbing or grave desecration against the Romans, which might have provoked dangerous civic disturbances. Whether this scenario was accurate or not, it seemed to us fairly clear that Jesus was as closely associated with the Essenes as he was with the Zealots. At first this might seem somewhat odd, for the Zealots and the Essenes are often imagined to have been incompatible. The Zealots were aggressive, violent, militaristic, not averse to assassination and terrorism. The Essenes, in contrast, are frequently depicted as divorced from political issues, quietist, pacifist and gentle. In actual fact, however, the Zealots included numerous Essenes in their ranks for the Zealots were not a sect but a political faction. As a political faction they drew support not only from the anti Roman Pharisees, but from the Essenes as well who could be as aggressively nationalistic as anyone else.

The association of the Zealots and the Essenes is especially evident in the writings of Josephus, from whom much of the available information on Palestine at the time derives. Joseph ben Matthias was born into the Judaic nobility in A.D. 3 7. On the outbreak of the revolt in A.D. 66 he was appointed governor of Galilee, where he assumed command of the forces aligned against the Romans. As a military commander he seems to have proved signally inept, and was promptly captured by the Roman Emperor Vespasian. Thereupon he turned Quisling. Taking the Romanised name of Flavius Josephus, he became a Roman citizen, divorced his wife and married a Roman heiress, and accepted lavish gifts from the Roman emperor -which included a private apartment in the imperial palace, as well as land confiscated from Jews in the Holy Land. Around the time of his death in A.D. 100, his copious chronicles of the period began to appear.

In The Jewish War Josephus offers a detailed account of the revolt between A.D. 66 and 74. Indeed, it was from Josephus that subsequent historians learned most about that disastrous insurrection, the sack of Jerusalem and the razing of the Temple. And Josephus's work also contains the only account of the fall, in A.D. 74, of the fortress of Masada, situated at the south-western corner of the Dead Sea. Like Montsegur some twelve hundred years later Masada has come to symbolise tenacity, heroism and martyrdom in defence of a lost cause. Like Montsegur it continued to resist the invader long after virtually all other organised resistance had ceased. While the rest of Palestine collapsed beneath the Roman onslaught, Masada continued to be impregnable. At last, in A.D. 74, the position of the fortress became untenable. After sustained bombardment with heavy siege machinery, the Romans installed a ramp which put them into a position to breach the de fences On the night of April 15th they prepared for a general assault. On that same night the 960 men, women, and children within the fortress committed suicide en masse. When the Romans burst through the gate the following morning, they found only corpses amid the flames. Josephus himself accompanied the Roman troops who entered the husk of Masada on the morning of April 16th. He claims to have witnessed the carnage personally. And he claims to have interviewed three survivors of the debacle a woman and two children who supposedly hid in the conduits beneath the fortress while the rest of the garrison killed themselves. From these survivors Josephus reports that he obtained a detailed account of what had transpired the night before.

According to this account the commander of the garrison was a man named Eleazar a variant, interestingly enough, of Lazarus. And it seems to have been Eleazar who, by his persuasive and charismatic eloquence, led the defenders to their grisly decision. In his chronicle Josephus repeats Eleazar's speeches, as he claims to have heard them from the survivors. And these speeches are extremely interesting. History reports that Masada was defended by militant Zealots. Josephus himself uses the words "Zealots' and "Sicarii' interchangeably. And yet Eleazar's speeches are not even conventionally Judaic. On the contrary, they are unmistakably Essene, Gnostic and dualist:

"Ever since primitive man began to think, the words of our ancestors and of the gods, supported by the actions and spirit of our forefathers, have constantly impressed on us that life is the calamity for man, not death. Death gives freedom to our souls and lets them depart to their own pure home where they will know nothing of any calamity; but while they are confined within a mortal body and share its miseries, in strict truth they are dead. For association of the divine with the mortal is most improper. Certainly the soul can do a great deal even when imprisoned in the body: it makes the body its own organ of sense, moving it invisibly and impelling it in its actions further than mortal nature can reach. But when, freed from the weight that drags it down to earth and is hung about it, the soul returns to its own place, then in truth it partakes of a blessed power and an utterly unfettered strength, remaining as invisible to human eyes as God Himself. Not even while it is in the body can it be viewed; it enters undetected and departs unseen, having itself one imperishable nature, but causing a change in the body; for whatever the soul touches lives and blossoms, whatever it deserts withers and dies: such a superabundance it has of immortality."

And again: "They are men of true courage who, regarding this life as a kind of service we must render to nature, undergo it with reluctance and hasten to release their souls from their bodies; and though no misfortune presses or drives them away, desire for immortal life impels them to inform their friends that they are going to depart."

It is extraordinary that no scholar, to our knowledge, has ever commented on these speeches before, for they raise a multitude of provocative questions. At no point, for example, does orthodox Judaism ever speak of a soul' still less of its "immortal' or "imperishable' nature. Indeed, the very concept of a soul and of immortality is alien to the mainstream of Judaic tradition and thought. So, too, is the supremacy of spirit over matter, the union with God in death, and the condemnation of life as evil. These attitudes derive, quite unequivocally, from a mystery tradition. They are patently Gnostic and dualist; and, in the context of Masada, are characteristically Essene. Certain of these attitudes, of course, may also be described as in some sense "Christian'. Not necessarily as that word subsequently came to be defined, but as it might have been applied to Jesus's original followers those, for example, who wished to join Lazarus in death in the Fourth Gospel. It is possible that the defenders of Masada included some adherents to Jesus's bloodline. During the revolt of A.D. 66 to 74 there were numerous "Christians' who fought against the Romans as vigorously as did the Jews. Many Zealots, in fact, were what would now be called "early Christians'; and it is quite likely that there were some of them at Masada. Josephus, of course, suggests nothing of this sort -although even if he once did, it would have been excised by subsequent editors. At the same time, one would expect Josephus, writing a history of Palestine during the first century, to make some mention of Jesus.

Granted, many later editions of Josephus's work do contain such references; but these references conform to the Jesus of established orthodoxy, and most modern scholars dismiss them as spurious interpolations dating from no earlier than the time of Constantine. In the nineteenth century, however, an edition of Josephus was discovered in Russia which differed from all others. The text itself, translated into Old Russian, dated from approximately 1261. The man who transcribed it was not an orthodox Jew, because he retained many `pro-Christian' allusions. And yet Jesus, in this version of Josephus, is described as human, as a political revolutionary and as a "king who did not reign'. He is also said to have had "a line in the middle of his head in the manner of the Nazireans." Scholars have expended much paper and energy disputing the possible authenticity of what is now called the "Slavonic Josephus'. All things considered, we were inclined to regard it as more or less genuine a transcription from a copy or copies of Josephus which survived the destruction of Christian documents by Diocletian and eluded the editorial zeal of the reinstated orthodoxy under Constantine. There were a number of cogent reasons for our conclusion. If the Slavonic Josephus was a forgery, for example, whose interests would it have served? Its description of Jesus as a king would hardly have been acceptable to a thirteenth-century Jewish audience. And its depiction of Jesus as human would hardly have pleased thirteenth-century Christendom. What is more, Origen, a Church father writing in the early third century, alludes to a version of Josephus which denies Jesus's Messiahship. This version which may once have been the original, authentic and "standard' version could well have provided the text for the Slavonic Josephus.

[Source: Baigent, Leigh, Lincoln - Holy Blood, Holy Grail]