Katherine Shaner on the danger of singular saviours

The latest edition of the Journal of Biblical Literature has an article by Katherine Shaner entitled “The Danger of Singular Saviors: Vulnerability, Political Power, and Jesus’s Disturbance in the Temple (Mark 11:15–19).” It’s a nicely provocative piece on two counts: it suggests downgrading the role of Jesus in the incident; and it demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of imposing—in keeping with the Zeitgeist—a decolonising and womanist hermeneutic on the biblical text.

Down with the singular saviour

Shaner argues that the Gospel accounts of the disturbance in the temple all focus on the “acts and efficaciousness of Jesus as a singularly powerful figure” to the exclusion of other significant groups. His action would have had little impact on either the absent owners of the money-changing tables or the temple authorities, but it would have affected the “enslaved people, low-status women, and vulnerable workers who would have been working at various kinds of merchant tables, selling small animals and other necessities for temple practices.”

The perspective of these “marginalized actors,” however, has been suppressed in order to maintain the centrality of the singular male figure. In fact, it is likely, Shaner thinks, that Jesus was only one actor in a movement of resistance among disenfranchised, low-status workers, with women and slaves prominent among them, and that this disturbance was only one among many acts of protest and defiance in the period.

Any such historical event would have required “grassroots, community-based authority rather than singular anger or directives.”

The focus of the Gospels on an “all-powerful unique savior” was politically and theologically expedient, but any such historical event would have required “grassroots, community-based authority rather than singular anger or directives.” Therefore, the story needs to be retold in a way that brings out the perspective and participation of these people.

Three main strands of interpretation have been developed by scholars in order to account for Jesus’ behaviour (142-45). 1) He appeals to the “house of prayer for all nations” saying in Isaiah 56:7 because the old Jewish sacrificial system is about to be replaced by the “universal worship of Jesus.” In Shaner’s view, this is an anachronistic interpretation that “reads the eventual sociopolitical power of Roman imperial Christianity into the first-century CE history of Jesus.” 2) Jesus was not a supersessionist but a Jewish reformer who wanted to drive economic exploitation out of the temple. 3) He sought to stir up “anti-imperial political resistance” and “speak truth to power.”

The operative premise of Shaner’s argument, however, is that Jesus is typically understood to be playing the part of a liberator—an interpretive perspective that draws on the “presumption of power, a presumption that assumes that Jesus’s… intentions and actions are always effective.”

What she is proposing, then, is a critique of a dominant liberal or neo-liberal point of view which affirms Jesus as a marginalised and powerless figure himself, who identifies with the weak and criticises the oppressive establishment. In Shaner’s decolonising revision, this still carries

paternalistic connotations in both ancient and contemporary worlds, namely, that a singular, all-powerful savior figure can justly disrupt temple activities and protest his way into liberty and justice for all. This singularity of power in fighting injustice… disavows the multiplicity of resistance movements in Jesus’s day and replicates power structures to which some resistance movements object. (146-47)

She highlights the paradox that well-meaning “white liberal mainlinesocial justice–focused Protestants” nevertheless stand by the theological assertion that “Jesus is the human embodiment of an omnipotent Trinitarian God of later Christian orthodoxy.” In other words, a properly liberal christology must unravel itself to the point that the singular celebrated male Jesus steps back and loses himself in the crowd.

The popular protest in the temple in which Jesus also took part

All traditional accounts of the incident, going all the way back to the Gospels, have the effect of legitimising the idea that “singular (male) power saves marginalized and disenfranchised people from their oppression.” In order to correct this bias, Shaner argues, we must attempt to hear the voices and discern the actions of the largely inaudible and invisible “crowd.”

This involves some historical reconstruction. Multiple resistance movements emerged in Roman-occupied Judea (149-50). Popular protests against the temple system were common. Slaves, low-status women, and other marginalised people must have been active participants in these movements. Economic and religious practices were interrelated in the ancient world, and especially at the time of festivals temples were a site of commercial activity which sustained “low-status women, enslaved people, and other vulnerable workers” (155). The prevailing scholarly view that women were excluded from this sphere is historically inaccurate.

So why would Jesus, who is supposedly a defender of the interests of the marginalised, act in a way that puts “innocent, already exploited people in peril” (157)? The answer must be that they were not passive observers or victims of Jesus’ action at all but the true authors of the protest. Low-status workers in the temple understood that the disruption of their business would “create an opportunity to rally not only their fellow workers but also impoverished, travel-weary pilgrims” (161). They willingly and actively participated in an attention-grabbing stunt that would further the cause. Shaner concludes: “This move is potentially more transformative for geopolitical realities in the first century CE—indeed in the contemporary context, too—than a singular savior could enact.”

A singular prophet like Jeremiah

It seems to me that in general terms this type of historical analysis is perfectly defensible. All historiography, not least biblical historiography, is perspectival and exclusionary, and it is never a bad thing to ask what is outside the field of vision of the New Testament actor or author. But the particular argument here, it seems to me, hangs entirely on a false premise. In her eagerness to apply the decolonising hermeneutic Shaner has fundamentally misconstrued the story that Mark tells. There is no basis for her assumption that he is describing a resistance or liberation event analogous to other popular demonstrations against the native and imperial régimes.

Before we get to the question of the relative prominence of Jesus’ role, we have to ask about the type.

We get little help from the three main lines of interpretation that she briefly considers because they have been trimmed to fit the analysis. The important appeal to Isaiah 56:7 does not support a post-Jewish universalism. It belongs to a vision of Israel let down by its corrupt leadership (Is. 56:9-12) but restored by the Lord, with a place of worship at its centre to which the nations will come for prayer.

The reformist interpretation focuses too much on the tension between economic and religious practices. Isaiah expects the sacrificial system to continue (Is. 56:6-7), which means that economic activity in and around the temple will continue. Jesus’ violent action and refusal to allow the carrying of goods through the temple is directed against those who have made the temple a “den of robbers”—that is, a place of illegitimate rather than legitimate economic activity.

The “den of robbers” phrase comes from Jeremiah’s forthright denunciation of Israel complacent trust in the presence of the temple of the Lord (Jer. 7:1-15). If the people do not mend their ways, execute justice, protect the sojourner, the fatherless, and widows, stop shedding innocent blood, and abandon their other gods, God will destroy the temple, which they have made a “den of robbers,” just as he earlier destroyed the sanctuary at Shiloh.

Notice that the full range of social-religious malpractice is in view; and we are reminded that at the beginning of the Gospel another solitary figure proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of such sins (Mk. 1:4).

So here, surely, we have the type or model for Mark’s account of the incident. The disturbance in the temple is not patterned after mass protests such as the one provoked by the offensive behaviour of a Roman solder at the time of Passover that Josephus describes (Jos. Ant. 20.105-112). The proper antecedent is the action of the more or less solitary prophet Jeremiah, who is instructed: “Stand in the gate of the LORD’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the LORD, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the LORD” (Jer. 7:2). Jesus acts more or less alone because he is emulating Jeremiah, and in so doing demonstrates precisely the “singular anger or directives” that Shaner wants to discount for temple incident.

The danger of singular saviour scholars

No doubt the prophets were part of larger communities, which perhaps were part of religious movements, and may have been given a somewhat misleading prominence in the telling. But the paradigm appears consistently in the Jewish scriptures, and it is clear that Jesus saw himself, as part of a prophetic community that would continue his work after his death, acting in this tradition.

He is not presented as a singular, all-powerful saviour or liberator but as a singular prophetic figure in the mould of Jeremiah, warning of national catastrophe if the tenant farmers of the vineyard of Israel do not present the owner with the fruit of righteousness. The whole reconstruction of the event as a popular protest led by the money-changers and traders is sheer wishful thinking, an ideologically motivated fiction—not because it diminishes Jesus but because it does not fit the context.

It’s difficult to see what is objectionable about the “singular prophet” paradigm. Even if we think that Jesus’ programme arose out of a call to reform associated with John the Baptist and was sustained by marginalised communities, including low-status women, etc., there is no reason to deny that these are precisely the circumstances that produce highly self-conscious singular actors, who adapt themselves to whatever paradigms are to hand.

It seems to me just a little ironic that a prominent, highly educated pastor and scholar, who is a “regular guest preacher and presider,” should have a problem with that.

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Edwin Janzen | Sat, 04/10/2021 - 01:56 | Permalink

I’ve had “den of robbers” described as meaning a hideout. So the illegitimate activity (e.g.  execute justice, protect the sojourner, the fatherless, and widows, stop shedding innocent blood, and abandon their other gods, ) occurs elsewhere and the leaders hideout in the temple, rather than conducting their sins inside the temple itself to invite Jesus’ outburst. Is there any reasons to suspect there was  illegitimate commerce happening in the temple beyond the possibly misused phrase “den of robbers”? Is Jesus displaying the same attitude to the temple system as to the fig tree a few verses earlier as not bearing fruit and cursing it so as to halt its productivity. 

Yes, I think that’s right. The main point of the saying is to evoke Jeremiah’s warning about the destruction of the temple, and in that respect the saying and the action are symbolic. But Jeremiah addresses his words to “all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the LORD” (Jer., 7:2). So the point is that they commit their crimes, worship other gods, etc., and then take refuge in the temple, thinking that they are safe from judgment. They come and stand before YHWH in the temple and say, “We are delivered!,” and then they go out and continue to do “all these abominations” (7:10). They are like robbers or brigands hiding out in the temple.

Adela Yarbro Collins suggests that Mark may have had in mind later priestly offences:

The incongruity in Mark, however, lies in the contrast between the intended purpose of the temple and its current state. This reformulation gives the connotations of robbery and brigandage a more direct force. In the late 50s and early 60s of the first century CE, four high-priestly families engaged in factional maneuvering that led to corruption and violence. Josephus says that the slaves of the high priest Ananias would take tithes from the ordinary priests by force, with the result that some priests starved to death (Ant. 20.9.2 §§205–7). Ananias and others like him could well be called “robbers.” Furthermore, according to Josephus, the peasant-brigands called “Zealots” “converted the temple of God into their fortress and refuge from any outbreak of popular violence, and made the Holy Place the headquarters of their tyranny” (Bell. 4.3.7 §151). This event could very well have inspired the allusion to Jeremiah’s “den of robbers.” (Mark: A Commentary (2007), 531)

That seems to me unlikely. Mark may have been aware of such matters, but the appeal to Jeremiah 7 fits Jesus’ agenda and method perfectly.