The Nonviolent Messiah

KatrinaCrossAbraham1Simon Joseph’s book The Nonviolent Messiah is another helpful study on the question of whether or not Jesus truly preached peace and is a complementary study to A Peaceable Hope by David Neville. Whereas the latter worked from the final version of the New Testament and made a mathematical study of how much violence there was and how much peace, with peace being much the more preponderant element, Joseph uses examination of the Q document and the Adamic model of the Messiah in Enochic literature to argue that the historical Jesus consistently preached peace.

Like some atomic particles that are never seen but are inferred from visible reactions, Q has never been seen but is inferred from a study of the canonical Gospels and other non-canonical material. There may be some guess-work and there remains controversy as to what actually is in Q but there is enough evidence to work with what we have so far.

With a stress on the inaugural sermon in Q which would include the proclamation of the Jubilee and material used in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke, Joseph builds a case that Jesus preached nonviolence and a violent eschatology was added later by the Q community.

The lesser known Enochic literature is examined for a lesser-known element: the Adamic model that emerged in some of this literature in contradistinction to the Davidic Messiah who would be a political and military figure. The Adamic model posits the hope of a renewed creation that would involve all people and would be achieved by totally peaceful means. The Animal Apocalypse, so-called because animals signify the figures, is a particularly strong example of this. We can easily see the influence of this model on Paul’s use of the New Adam in his epistles. Joseph provides much evidence to suggest that this Adamic model, which was very well-known at all levels of Jewish society in Jesus’ time, strongly influenced Jesus’ self-understanding of the kind of Messiah he was.

If we take Joseph’s historical-critical work and bring it to the final result analyzed by Neville, he get the following plausible historical trajectory on the issue of peace in the formation of the New Testament: 1) The early Q community with its collections of sayings by Jesus preaching peace, 2) The community of Mark’s Gospel proclaiming the peaceful, crucified Messiah, 3) the preaching of Paul stressing peace & using the Adamic model of Messiah, 4) a later stage of the Q community where persecution and rejection led to a vengeful eschatology where God would do the vengeance, 5) The community of Matthew’s Gospel using Mark & Q, including the vengeful material but also the peace teachings, 5) The community of Luke’s Gospel mostly rejecting the violent eschatology & stressing peace with many unique elements stressing peace, 6) community of John’s Gospel with a very strong emphasis on peace.

Although a meticulous examination, the book is readable and is an important contribution to the investigations on Jesus’ attitude to peace and violence.

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A Peaceable Hope

KatrinaCrossAbraham1The strongest tension in the New Testament is that between the teachings of non-retribution and forgiveness on the one hand and eschatological retribution threatened for those who fail to follow the way of forgiveness and non-retribution on the other. The first problem is that it sets up a double standard between God and humans. We should be meek and mild but God will throw the bad guys into unquenchable fire where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. The second problem is that Jesus’ accepting death on the cross turns out not to be the ultimate revelation of God that Christianity usually teaches; violent retribution at the end of time is the last word. The third problem is that if violent retribution on the part of God is the last word, the hard practice of non-retribution doesn’t seem to be worth it.

David Neville’s fine book A Peaceable Hope is an indispensable examination of precisely these issues. He sees the divide primarily between some parables and some retributive sayings in Matthew and pretty much the rest of the New Testament. The tension, then, is strongest in Matthew since it includes the Sermon on the Mount and a stress on Jesus being the silent lamb led to the slaughter but also has many threats against those who do not live by these standards. So lopsided a division suggests that the weight of the New Testament as a whole comes down firmly on the concept of God as totally without violence. Neville draws the tension in Matthew and contrasts this Gospel with the three other canonical Gospels, all of which are strongly peaceable in its eschatological teaching to various degrees with John being the strongest on peace themes. The reception history of Revelation has often taken the book to teach retributive violence by God but Neville builds a strong case that the slaughtered lamb is the guiding image for the book as a whole.

Neville doesn’t try to speculate why Matthew would have as vindictive an eschatology as he does. We can make some educated guesses based on our own experiences with rejection and injury. If we can’t or won’t strike back, we like to think somebody bigger than we and our adversaries will come and tear them to pieces on our behalf. There are alternate ways of understanding these violent passages in the New Testament, among them the suggestion that they use firm imagery to show the consequences of rejecting Christ and Christ’s way. Raymund Schwager, for example thinks along these lines in Jesus in the Dram of Salvation. In such a reading, God is not actively acting out revenge on those who reject him; they are suffering the alienation and violence by which they have lived.

Neville’s careful and thoughtful exploration of this difficult issue is valuable for anybody who wants a firm biblical basis for believing in and teaching a God of peace.