Jesus Creed

Christopher Bryan is, if his prose any indicator, both a scholar’s curmudgeon — much on the order of Morna Hooker — and a happy person. He’s a scholar’s curmudgeon because he doesn’t buy trendy scholarship just because everyone likes it, and he writes with a clever lilt — the kind that makes you occasionally smile. I wish more could write like Bryan.
When it comes to postcolonial scholarship, Bryan doesn’t think Jesus scholars have done their job; nor does he think John Howard Yoder got it right. Which makes the next two chapters in his book, Render to Caesar, a genuinely purple approach (neither Red nor Blue).
If you read Monday’s post, you’ll know his categories. Bryan thinks Jesus was (perhaps a little Red) and squarely in the #2 option: He cooperated with Rome (and Israel’s leaders) until they crossed the line, and then he reminded them that they were under God (perhaps a little Blue, but not as much). He doesn’t think Jesus wanted to establish a different form or structure of power, but to get individuals to change. Bryan’s book is a critique of those who think Jesus and the early Christians wanted to establish a different structure and form of power. They were, in other words, anti-empire, postcolonial critics.
Bryan disagrees with this view of Jesus. In other words, the anti-empire rhetoric one finds in R.A. Horsley, for instance, cannot be established by a careful reading of the New Testament.
Here are some major points:
1. “Yet the striking fact is that the gospels do not contain so much as one example of a saying of Jesus that attacks the system as a system” (42). Anyone think of any?
2. Instead, Jesus personalized the issues and asked people to change from the inside out.
3. On the “should we pay tax” question (Mark 12:14): “They owed a head-tax to Caesar… but they owed themselves to God” (46). That’s the meaning. Pay the tax, but serve God.
4. Jesus didn’t ask the centurion to abandon soldiering.
5. Thus, “The traditions of his words and works in general do not indicate the slightest interest in changing the forms or structures of temporal power, in replacing one system of government with another, or in questions as to whether those who ruled were believers or pagan. Those traditions do, however, indicate a concern that those who have power understand it as God’s gift to them, given for the sake of God’s people and the world” (50).
6. Jesus was crucified. Was it because he sought a political kingdom that would replace Rome’s? The Sanhedrin handed Jesus over to God; Pilate handed Jesus over in order to keep the peace. Both reasonable actions, except they had the wrong person this time. He thinks Jesus was crucified less for political threat than for blaspheming by claiming too much for himself.
7. Bryan thinks the same pattern can be found in both Paul’s and Peter’s letters. The Apocalypse, of course, is anti-empire but only because it demands idolatry. All in all, these authors are pro-Rome unless it steps over the line; when it does, the principle of God’s rule is used to contend that all governments are there by the will of God and for the purpose of peace and justice. [The scholarship of JH Elliott on 1 Peter deserved a hearing.]
Response: Overall, Bryan’s points are very good. The postcolonial theories are overcooked, but there is some evidence that points in a different direction.
1. There’s a stubborn fact here that Bryan omits: the titulus above Jesus’ head said that Jesus must have claimed to be “King of the Jews.”
2. And I think he has to deal more squarely (which again he doesn’t mention) with “kingdom” as the central message of Jesus. Surely, that had some implication: the “kingdom” of Israel at the time was by extension Rome.
3. And with the choice to have 12 apostles who would sit on twelve thrones in the kingdom of God. This borders on a structural shift in power if there is such a thing. See Matt. 19:28.
4. Jesus criticized the Roman authorities in Mark 10:35-45 for their claims to power and authority and he saw true power and authority in self-sacrifice. Is this not an alternative to the Roman system? Or is Bryan speaking only of an alternative structure for power to be exercised? If so, maybe this text only deals with the character of those who would sit in the seats of power.
5. And Jesus lampoons Caesar in his triumphal entry — step by step he makes fun of the power of Rome as he lead his holy huddle of humble followers into the city as a kind of king not known to Rome.
Each of these points to issues that could be looked at.
The single-most significant text is the Magnificat. I’m surprised this is not examined in these chapters more. God will strip down rulers … etc..

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus