The Militarization of Christianity: Fallacy and Fact

At first blush, it appears the Interwebz are crawling with religious articles that beg to be picked apart. And no, I don’t mean articles written in the 1970s, or five years ago, or even last year.

Today’s lucky contestant is Dale Martin, a professor of religious studies featured in an article published in Newsweek this very Thursday, September 18, about new ideas as to the “real reasons” behind Jesus’ crucifixion. Mr. Martin, sir, please come on down.

In this article, Martin’s primary argument centers around the postulation that Jesus’ followers were armed, and that such armament would be cause enough to crucify Jesus. So, at face-value, it seems we have a number of things to prove if we are to believe Martin’s argument:

  • Jesus’ followers were “armed.”
  • Jesus’ followers were armed.
  • Being armed was a reason for crucifixion.
  • Being armed was the reason for Jesus’ crucifixion.

If any of these four major points fails to be proven, it can be safely assumed that the theory is mere speculation for the sake of sensational media, or perhaps academic attention.

The next question is: where do we go to find these things out? Well, every single claim except the third one seems to be reliant upon the biblical source texts. There exists no record for anything of that nature, definitively, outside the text, except perhaps a quote from the Jewish historian Josephus. This quote reads as follows:

“Consequently they carry nothing whatever with them on their journeys,

except arms as a protection against brigands.” (J.W. 2.125)

The major problem with this quote is that it refers to the Essene community, primarily based at Qumran. As to why and how Jesus and his followers can’t quite be identified as Essenes, there are numerous reasons—not the least of which being they were not particularly or overly ascetic, and traveled around almost exclusively, instead of rarely and living in a sectioned-off community the rest of the time. So it looks like we have to go back to the biblical text.

Ironically, this is fine with Martin, because he refers to the biblical text in order to draw out his idea. What particular biblical texts does Martin highlight for his notion? The gospel accounts, particularly Mark and Luke, and eventually John. Hearty texts, right there.

As a side note, I’m going to use the NASB for the rest of this discussion. Why the NASB, you ask? Good question: it’s as literal and straightforward a translation as is widely available, so any particular scholarly nuances are more likely to be apparent in the text. And yes, I do also have my Greek New Testament in case things get sticky.

First, we need to address the concern that Jesus’ followers were “armed” (claim 1). All the gospel accounts certainly seem to suggest that someone was armed, and in fact the accounts of Mark and Luke both suggest that not only was one person armed with something, but in fact whole handfuls of people were armed with “swords and clubs” (Mk. 14:43) and/or “torches and weapons” (Jn. 18:3). And of course, a poor slave of the high priest loses an ear by one of those instruments. So the question of being armed cannot rationally be in dispute. Good job on that, Mr. Martin.

Now we get to discern who exactly was armed, and whether or not these people were Jesus’ followers (claim 2). John’s Gospel makes absolutely no mistake that Simon Peter became armed at some point, in fact “having a sword” present with him. John even writes that it was Simon Peter who struck the slave’s ear with such a sword. So, if we are to believe that John was historically accurate in all accounts, since Peter not only managed to acquire a sword but use it, we can’t rationally dispute claim 2, either. Again: well done, Mr. Martin.

Or can we? Just because Peter had an instrument doesn’t mean that Jesus’ followers were armed. That implies a plural possession of weapons, and Peter himself would have to own the sword he possessed at the time of the attack if we are to believe that even a single follower was armed enough to cause an arrest and crucifixion. A good question might be how Peter came to have the sword, and that could be very easily explained, since in all the gospel accounts it is clear that weapons were held by whole groups of people other than the disciples or apostles (since they would have been named as such). In Mark, the “crowd with swords and clubs” come up with Judas, and contain members “from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders” (14:43). In John, those people are also the ones with “torches and weapons” (18:3).

Someone might argue that Jesus’ followers were armed as well, as Luke reads that “those who were around him…said, ‘Lord shall we strike with the sword?’” (22:49). However, (a) “those who were around him” are not necessarily his followers—even people who thought they followed Jesus but actually did not addressed him as “Lord,” and again if they were his followers the gospel writers tended to use phrases specific as to that distinction, not a general turn of phrase; (b) “striking with the sword” is a euphemism for taking aggressive resistant action, (c) nowhere does it say these people actually possessed any weapons of their own. As well, the claim that Peter had a sword is slightly embellished, as the Greek word is actually more similar to a “knife.” This caveat is pointed out by Paula Fredrickson, a scholar at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. What Fredrickson seems to assume is that Peter had to own the knife prior to using it, and the text doesn’t definitively say that such was the case. So it looks very much like claim 2 could be in doubt.

Nevertheless, being a knife may be our own definition of “armed,” but compared to the wide range of weaponry being wielded by others, this would seem hardly worth the effort, trial and potential alienation derived from a crucifixion of someone who had been more on-record for peaceful commands than aggressive, warlike ones. In point of fact, if Jesus was to be crucified for this kind of thing, the chief priests, scribes and elders seemed to be in more danger of the same fate for the exact same cause, let alone the Essene community that Josephus described above, and records seem to indicate they were never in danger for that reason. As it is, Jesus even seems to claim that the groups’ weaponry serves more as protection “against a robber” (Lk. 22:52), again historically consistent with the Josephus quote. So claim 3 now seems to be in doubt as well; even if one’s followers being armed was a cause for crucifixion, it seems that either the arms being carried were not severe enough a threat, or the Roman governorship at the time didn’t express obvious interest in punishing people this way, or they would have done so to the other religious groups mentioned in this account. And if either of those options were true about the other religious groups with all other things being equal, one could hardly argue that Jesus’ followers would have garnered more of a cause for punishment by the same means.

Which brings us to the fourth claim, for good measure: that Jesus’ crucifixion was in fact because his followers were armed. In addition to the logical inconsistencies and practical problems described just prior, the gospel accounts which form the basis for Martin’s argument seem to posit a quite clear range of other reasons for his crucifixion: (a) Jewish leaders saw him as a major threat to their power; (b) Jesus’ claim to raise the temple in three days was taken literally, by mistake; (c) Pilate simply wanted to “satisfy the crowd” of hostile Jewish leaders, and thereby retain peace and his position of authority with Rome, instead of kindle another uprising in the Hebrew province of the Roman Empire (Mk. 15:15). Now claim 4 is clearly dubious.

Boy, Mr. Martin – for someone who appeals to the biblical text, context isn’t your greatest strength, is it?

These reflections about the context surrounding the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus exist as a means of explaining things physically, and don’t of course consider the spiritual/intangible causes for Jesus’ death as well. But that brings to bear another major point that I hope we recognize through this discussion: people will ultimately first approach the biblical text in one of two ways. Either they will approach it as a physical, historical, or even mythical piece of literature that happens to discuss something religious, or they will approach it as a spiritual, religious narrative contextualized in historical reality. Approaching it the first way tends to skew the text in favor of our contemporary obsessions, in this case militarization. Approaching it the second way allows us to see more of the reality behind and around the text, as flawed as we are anyway. I’m far more interested in approaching it as the latter, and I’m far more convinced than I was before Martin’s argument that such is the most profitable approach.