Banished Messiah

crucifix1Banished Messiah: Violence and Nonviolence in Matthew’s Story of Jesus by Robert R. Beck is an intriguing and stimulating take on Matthew’s Gospel. He structures the book on the structure of the Banished –Prince-Returns-to-Claim-his-Throne story motif. He outlines this motif in animated movies such as The Lion King to make the outline clear before proceeding to Matthew with ongoing comparisons with other classics such as The Odyssey and Hamlet.

The first stage of the story motif is usurpation which Herod has done very well, although ultimately the usurper is the Roman Empire. The royal claim made through the genealogy strikes me as being as anti-imperial as Luke’s song of the angels the night Christ was born. The exiled prince then grows up in obscurity.

The second stage is the imposter. Beck discusses the ambiguous situation of an exiled prince. As with the case of Odysseus, validating the real McCoy from a Pretender is not easy. In this section Beck discusses the struggles with the Pharisees from a post-colonial perspective. The strife between them has to do with how to resist the Empire. The Pharisees tried to broaden recent techniques—making the whole people a priesthood following ritual purity. Jesus went back deeper in the Jewish tradition for the renewal. More important, the Pharisees were complicit with the Empire, as their having coins with Caesar inscribed demonstrated. Jesus’ resistance to the Empire was total, even to the point of not carrying any money issued by the Empire.

The third stage is the Mentor. John the Baptist fulfills this role. Beck discusses the tensions the mentor’s role often has. John the Baptist does seem to have oriented Jesus to his mission and he baptized him, but Jesus broke with John over the question of violence and judgment, preferring healing to divine vengeance. Athena urges Odysseus to kill the suitors and the ghost of Hamlet’s father complains that he is in a sort of purgatory until his death is avenged—a rather screwy view of Purgatory as Shakespeare surely realized.

The final stage is the return and reckoning. Normally this takes place in two stages: cleansing and revenge. Here is where Matthew breaks off from the story motif, defying our expectations. (Think of how many meek and mild literature professors berate Hamlet for not getting the job done!) The entry into Jerusalem is the return. In Matthew, Jesus immediately goes to the temple and cleanses it. This is a non-violent, symbolic act. In a real cleansing, a lot of blood would have been flowing. Instead of revenge, we get the arrest of Jesus who tells Peter to put the sword away and gives himself up to the soldiers although he could have called on ten thousand legions of angels.

Beck brings in Girard at the end but he misreads him on the crucial point, saying that Jesus was a helpless victim while Girard argues for Jesus’ intentionality here as does Beck. It is Jesus’ renunciation of revenge, breaking the revenge story motif that reveals the truth of God. The commission to the disciples at the end of the Gospel is anti-imperial, a commission to create an entirely new style of human community than the power-structure of Empire.

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.