Allan Bevere makes the important point that Jesus was not crucified because he went around telling people to love one another. “It doesn’t take a profound thinker to know that the primary motivation for this dehistorizing and detheologizing of Jesus is to domesticate his life and work into something more palatable to modern sensibilities.” I’m not sure about the “detheologizing” of Jesus. In many ways, that seems to me to be a rather good thing to do. But certainly I object to the “dehistorizing” and domestication of Jesus, as does James McGrath, who drew attention to Bevere’s blog post on his Facebook page.
What’s love got to do with it?
There is actually very little said about love in the Synoptic Gospels. Jesus did not go into Galilee after the arrest of John the Baptist and proclaim that the love of God was at hand. No parable begins, “The love of God may be compared to….”
There are two distinct “love” sayings, both presupposing the immediate Jewish context. The first is the command to love God and neighbour as a fulfilment of the Law: “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40). If the Jews had loved God and had loved their neighbours, the nation wouldn’t have been in the mess that it was in. The second is the further requirement that the disciples should love their enemies (Matt. 5:43-44; Lk. 6:27, 32-36). In the context of Jesus’ teaching this is most likely to be a reference to enemies of the disciples within Israel—or at most, among the diaspora. The command is part of Jesus’ intensification of the Law: “You have heard it said…. But I say to you…” (Matt. 5:38-39). Gentiles are not in view.
The reinterpretation may even not have been that novel. The wording of the “love your neighbour as yourself” command comes from the Greek version of Leviticus 19:18. The context makes it clear that it was already understood as an injunction to love Jewish enemies, who are also neighbours:
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lev. 19:17–18 LXX)
In other words, there was nothing very remarkable in the insistence of the “historical” Jesus that the Jews should love God and neighbour and that his disciples should love those Jewish “neighbours” who would oppose and persecute them as they continued his mission to Israel.
Jesus and the ways of the world
However, Bevere’s explanation of his rejection of the romanticised and domesticated Jesus of liberal and progressive thought—and of much modern evangelicalism, for that matter—is also not without its problems, I think.
But a domesticated revolutionary will not bring about serious change; he will just reinforce the agendas of those who are frankly doing nothing more than using Jesus as a prop to get what they want. Jesus was crucified because he presented a true alternative to the ways of the world that could not and will not be displayed in the politics of the current age. Jesus was not killed for promoting right-wing violence on behalf of the state, and he was not crucified for advocating a progressive social agenda. Jesus was crucified because he presented a serious threat to the status quo in all forms; and it will not do just to present his life and ministry as supporting any modern political and social agenda. And those Christians who attempt to do so are domesticating Jesus into doing their bidding.
To say that Jesus was crucified “because he presented a true alternative to the ways of the world,” is itself a dehistorising statement. Jesus was crucified because he had launched a sustained, prophetically inspired attack on the authorities in Jerusalem, because he had denounced the corruption of the temple system, and because he had made some sort of claim regarding his own future exalted status and authority with respect to Israel.
There is nothing in the texts to suggest that he aimed to present an alternative to the ways of Israel, let alone of the world. He modelled in certain limited respects an authentic righteousness for Israel without attempting to subvert Torah observance, but this is not why he was crucified. No one was threatening to arrest the rich young ruler on trumped up charges and have him executed. Jesus taught his disciples a radical, trusting, selfless, forgiving, and enemy-loving lifestyle, but this was to be a way of mission during troubled times. The alternative way of life for Israel was already given in the Law.
Jesus presented a threat to the status quo but only because he correctly predicted that Israel’s God would overturn the status quo, making the first last, and the last first, and then would vindicate his Son—as the suffering Son of Man—by giving him glory, dominion, and kingdom. The alternative was not an ideal way of life modelled by Jesus in Galilee and Judea, it was a fundamentally different future, over which Jesus would reign as Israel’s king.
Living up to expectations
Bevere concludes: “Jesus has not come to conform to our expectations. We must conform to his.” Well, no. Jesus did not conform to the expectations of his own people, though arguably many recognised his likeness to the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah especially; and the suggestion that the re-historised Jesus should conform to the expectations of twenty-first century Christians is simply nonsensical. But by the same token, the historical Jesus expected nothing of us. The Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels demanded a great deal of his compatriots, but he did not look beyond the fate of Jerusalem and the temple and the mission of his disciples to Israel as the age of second temple Judaism drew to a calamitous conclusion, within a generation.
Beyond that, we must ask about the expectations of the heavenly Lord, who no doubt requires us to “fulfil the whole Law” in some sense.