Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Jesus’ Betrayal of John

I’ve been thinking over the last couple of days about the interactions between Jesus and John the Baptist.

John was a political revolutionary. His was the most prominent of several movements around that time that desired to restore Jewish national sovereignty and rebel against the Romans in order to establish “God’s kingdom”, a theocratic nation of Israel. Teaching that “the kingdom of God” was coming (ie that political revolution would lead to a restored Israel) he lived in the desert like the Israelites did at the time of the Exodus. He then began baptising people in the Jordan, which was the last river the Israelites crossed in the exodus before they invaded the promised land (Josh 1:11). Those who came out to him and accepted his baptism were effectively joining with him in his crossing of the Jordan and pledging their military allegiance to the cause of the taking of the promised land. “Prepare a way for the Lord to travel”, declared John… ie get ready to be lead by the Lord into the promised land. This quote comes from Isaiah 40:3 which is a long passage about how God has decreed an end to the foreign political control of Israel and is ready to act to help them. This is the “good news” (Isa 40:9) that “the Lord God comes with might” (Isa 40:10). Later John gets thrown in jail for his revolutionary activities.

Into all of this walks Jesus, who is totally against the notion of political revolution. He gets baptised by John, and lets John declare him to be the promised Messiah who will lead Israel to victory against the pagan nations. Jesus then sets out to preach against revolution. He adopts “the kingdom of God” and “good news” language in order to channel the momentum that is behind those causes, but starts trying to steer it in a radically different direction, 180 degrees away from revolution. In short, he does his absolute best to undermine John’s movement from the inside, and prevent a national revolution.

Later we see messengers from John sent to Jesus to say “What on earth are you up to? Are you really the Messiah?” John had spotted the fact that Jesus didn’t seem to be leading any armies in revolution, quite the opposite: Jesus was instead turning John’s Kingdom movement into a movement of socio-economic and moralistic reform that was internal to Israel and attempting to douse the flames of political revolution. I have to say that if I were John, I’d have felt quite gutted, many years and preaching, living in the desert, rousing the masses to my cause… and what do I have to show for it? I’m in jail, and the man I proclaimed as the leader of my revolution has betrayed my cause and stolen my followers. Hmm… it’s probably just as well for Jesus that John was never released from prison!

Of course, looking back on it we would say that Jesus knew what he was about better than John, and that if John had fully understood what God was up to in his times he would have been happy about it and desirous of doing God’s will. I’m not sure if there’s a moral to this story, perhaps it’s just something to think about next time God steals your followers and subverts your message?


Blogger incognito said...

Nice. A most interesting take. Do you have any evidence that you base your ideas of John as a political and military revolutionary on?

Blogger Andrew said...

Well the understanding of John as a political revolutionary is not exactly original to me. But the more I have considered the various theories about exactly what Jesus and John were up to, the more I have because convinced that this is the only plausible explanation.

What is the evidence, you ask? Well I basically outlined it in my post. It seems pretty clear that
"the kingdom of God" phrase that John was using was a political revolutionary slogan. The Bible passage he's reported as quoting is a political revolutionary passage, as is the phrase "good news" in the passage. Even Jesus' own disciples by Acts 1:6 are still asking about when the revolution's going to take place. John's time in the desert and activities at the Jordan seem to be symbolic of the Exodus, up until the time when Israel started conquering the promised land (thus implying that that was what was coming next). John gets himself put in prison for revolutionary activities (according to Josephus). And, of course, John appointed Jesus as the Messiah, who was supposed to lead Israel to victory, and then got confused when Jesus wasn't showing any sign of doing this.

In short, the idea of John as political revolutionary fits perfectly with every shred of evidence we have, and no other theory comes remote close.

Similarly, it's not difficult to see that Jesus was a counter-revolutionary who did his best to stop political revolution and prevent the destruction of Jerusalem that he forsaw as inevitable if the Jews ever rebelled against the Romans. Apart from preventing revolution, the focus of his ministry seems to have been in righting wrongs in the social order: Helping the poor and oppressed, and correcting the major social injustices he saw within Israel.


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