Biblical scholars, one of the greatest of them once remarked, go looking for Jesus only to find themselves staring at their own reflection down the bottom of a very deep well. As with scholars, so with cultures. The Victorian Jesus was meek and mild and proper and principled. There’s a rather good sketch of ‘GOP Jesus’ doing the rounds on Twitter in which Our Lord tells his followers: ‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat… And behold, now I’m all lazy and entitled.’ In our own politically troubled times, however, it is Jesus the zealous revolutionary who has risen.
There is much to recommend this intense, radical figure. The political Jesus is not just a product of the disappointed ex-Marxist imagination, but reflects our growing understanding of the poor, febrile, violent, despotic, colonial world of first-century Palestine. It was never very likely that the Romans would have crucified someone for being spiritual and nice, and so it is we have learnt to read words such as ‘peace’, ‘repentance’, ‘kingdom’ and ‘salvation’ in their true political register. The result is a Jesus who attempted a Galilean coup on behalf of the suffering poor, and whose gasp of desperation on the cross marks his mission’s abject failure.
The problem with this, as David Lloyd Dusenbury observes in his learned and engaging book on the ‘political life’ of Jesus, is that it swings the pendulum too far. I Judge No One is an attempt to fight the ‘modern tendency to reduce [Jesus] to his milieus’ – and, we might add, ours. Just because Jesus was political and revolutionary, that doesn’t mean he was a revolutionary in the familiar 1st-century, or indeed 21st-century, sense of the word.
Dusenbury is as happy circling around Spinoza, Kant and Nietzsche as around Josephus, Celsus and the gospels.