How did Jesus’ disciples imagine that he would “redeem Israel”?

Shortly after the death of Jesus, two from the band of his disciples are met by the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35). He asks them what they are talking about, and, a little surprised by the ignorance of the fellow, they update him on what has just transpired in Jerusalem. It would be as though someone in the UK had missed the fact that the Queen died last week.

The prophet Jesus, from Nazareth, had been handed over for crucifixion by the chief priests and rulers, but his followers were hoping that he was the one who would “redeem Israel.” Jesus has to explain to them that it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory.” We know how the story goes from there.

So the disciples—presumably not just these two on the road to Emmaus—had expected that Jesus would redeem Israel. But how, if not by dying on a Roman cross?

The usual assumption is that the only alternative was violent rebellion against Roman after the pattern, perhaps, of the successful Maccabean revolt. But it seems to me rather unlikely that Jesus’ disciples—for all their obtuseness—imagined that their master was planning to foment an insurrection in the manner of Barabbas (Lk. 23:18-19). Two swords would hardly be enough (Lk. 22:38).

So was there a third option, somewhere between the two violent extremes of substitutionary atonement and a desperate war against Rome? What did the disciples think plan A was?

That the Christ should suffer and enter into his glory sounds to me like an allusion to Daniel 7:13-27 (cf. Lk. 24:6-7). This seems to be confirmed by the words of the angels to the women at the empty tomb: “Remember how he told you… that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise” (Lk. 24:6–7). It is, therefore, a question of how Jesus would acquire “dominion and glory and a kingdom” and the obeisance of “all peoples, nations, and languages” (Dan. 7:14). Jesus would receive rule over Israel, among the nations, through the suffering inflicted on him—by apostate Israel and the foreign occupying force—as a figure equivalent to Daniel’s “one like a son of man.”

The Davidic kingship theme is firmly anticipated in the infancy stories (Lk. 1:27, 32, 69; 2:11) and in the response of the blind beggar shortly before the entry into Jerusalem: “Son of David, have mercy on me” (Lk. 18:39).

A large crowd of his disciples acclaims him as “the King who comes in the name of the Lord,” as they approach Jerusalem. This is a dramatic, carefully staged re-enactment of Zechariah’s prophecy of the arrival in Zion of Israel’s king, riding a beast of burden, “righteous and having salvation” (Lk. 19:28-40; Zech. 9:9-10). He can enter the city in all vulnerability because YHWH has disarmed the enemy.

Perhaps, then, the larger group of followers believed that they were genuinely celebrating the arrival of a peaceful king, whose authority and status as a son of David would soon—in the coming weeks and months—be acknowledged by the leadership and the people. On the strength of his teaching, his wisdom, his prophetic insight, the signs and wonder which he performed, the exercise of justice, the sheer force of character, he would win the city over.

Herod Antipas would be deposed, perhaps many of the current leadership would be cast into outer darkness, where there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth, but it would essentially be a bloodless coup.

The model for Jesus as the one who would “redeem” (lytrousthai) Israel, when usually it is YHWH who redeems his people, is Moses, who was sent by God “as both ruler and redeemer (lutrōtēn) by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush,” who likewise performed “wonders and signs,” but who also was rejected by his people (Acts 7:35-40). Jesus was the “prophet like Moses.” The “wonders and signs” expression rather suggests, I think, that the equivalent to the plagues of Egypt was the miracles performed by Jesus, as evidence that the satanic force behind the political-religious crisis had been disarmed (Lk. 11:20-22; Acts 2:22).

This redeeming king would then lead his people towards righteousness and peace. There would be a mass movement of repentance and baptism, perhaps with an outpouring of the Spirit and a renewal of the covenant. The movement of reform started by John the Baptist would come to fulfilment. And so extraordinary would be the transformation that the Gentiles would sit up and take notice. The Roman governor would report back to Caesar that Judea was no longer the hotbed of radicalism and militancy that had necessitated Rome’s presence in the city. The garrison would be withdrawn. Weapons would be beaten into agricultural implements.

Diaspora Jews would return to Judea. A glorious new age for Israel would dawn.

The nations would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, bringing tribute, thronging the massive courtyard of the nations. The sacrificial system would continue according to the Law, now operated by a reformed priesthood. More importantly Herod’s spectacular and unshakable temple would now at last be known as a house of prayer for all nations, as it should always have been (cf. Lk. 19:45-46). Some gentiles, no doubt, would become priests.

King Jesus would take up residence in the royal palace, but he would live humbly among his subjects, accessible, compassionate, incorruptible, teaching his people, showing his people, how to walk in the ways of their God all the days of their life.

Things didn’t turn out that way, of course, and the disciples ended up with plan B, which took a little getting used to.

Tim Peebles | Wed, 09/14/2022 - 03:36 | Permalink

As an anabaptist (and thus ambivalent) appreciator of your general reading of Jesus and the scriptures, I found this reading both narratively/historically quite plausible, as well as anabapt-ish in its sensibilities—or at least usable in an anabaptist direction. In any case, if your interpretation is roughly correct, doesn’t it create some tension with your nuanced-but-still-somewhat-sympathetic interpretation of Christendom, and your reading of Paul as an authorization for such Christendom? Is it plausible that the politics of Jesus, as rendered here in your interpretation, could so easily be bent in an imperial direction? Or, perhaps Paul understood Jesus (and his eventual recognition by the nations) along the lines you propose as well? If the latter, then an imperial interpretation of Jesus by the 2nd-4th century church would not be formally ruled out, exactly, but any imperial moves in the name of Christ (such as Constantine’s “under this sign conquer”) would substantively and materially be deeply questionable. I’m reminded of George Lindbeck’s comment in The Nature of Doctrine that claiming “Jesus is Lord” while cleaving the skull of an “infidel” cannot be a true confession because the meaning of Jesus’s lordship according to the NT and the meaning of the one doing the cleaving are not the same. In the same way, “bloodless coup” and quite bloody warfare, rule, and crusade, seem to be incommensurable meanings of just and peaceful governance. As always, trying to think along with you…

Tim, thanks for this. Good to hear from you. Here are some quick and possibly incoherent thoughts in response.

We need to distinguish between means and ends. I think Jesus and his followers may have been in broad agreement about the ends but not about the means.

If the “means” involved suffering and death, then presumably it was understood that Jesus would reign as king in a heavenly Jerusalem, seated at the right hand of God, even after the parousia. That seems to me to be how it is understood in Revelation 20. But this perhaps maintains a separation between an ideal heavenly government of Jesus and the martyrs and the mundane and flawed life of the governed on earth. Here is the crucial question: do we press New Testament rhetoric for the transcendent implications of its eschatological vision, or do we suppose that this is (nearly) always fundamentally about the concrete existence of the people of God under changing historical circumstances?

I think that Paul had more or less the same ends in view, but a) he was much more conscious of the empire-wide reach of the coming rule of YHWH through Jesus over the pagan nations, and b) he saw the growing inclusion of gentiles in the eschatological movement as a clear sign that the intrinsically Jewish (as distinct from Abrahamic) character of this future rule was at risk.

The critical question then may be how the apostles envisaged the continuing function of the churches after the conversion of the Greek-Roman world—if they thought about it at all. In the New Testament the churches are signs of a political-religious transformation to come, but what are they supposed to do once that transformation has happened?

One important point to make here is that the emphasis was on bringing the pagan religious system to an end, not on overthrowing systems of government. Kings, governors, and magistrates—perhaps even emperors—would stay in place, but they would acknowledge the final authority of Jesus, honour one God, and implement justice accordingly. The reign of Queen Elizabeth II was a faint but authentic memory of that principle.

It seems to me most likely that the ongoing existence of the churches in a converted empire would be as a largely non-professional priesthood, in the place of the old pagan priesthoods, charged with the task of mediating the lively presence of the one true God and teaching the nations how to walk in his ways. But this model would not require the nations suddenly to cease to be earthly political entities, subject to all the usual problems generated by human sin, meaning that the use of force to execute justice and maintain security would continue. No excuse for the crusades, however.

The tension would obviously be very difficult to manage—and was. But this was no different from the Old Testament arrangement, in which a priestly-prophetic caste, often internally split, came into conflict with Israel’s rulers—Ahaz and Isaiah, for example, or David and Nathan.

The New Testament insistence on not resorting to violence, even in self-defence, applied to the difficult transitional period leading up to the conversion of the pagan oikoumenē. Whether the apostles would have expected this to be normal in a Christian civilisation, I don’t know.

Thanks, Andrew, for this thought-provoking post. I question your general reading of Moses as an OT precedent (in popular thinking) of a peaceable leader of Israel, but am still gathering my thoughts on that.

This bit in your response to Tim Peebles, though, 

“… Jesus and his followers may have been in broad agreement about the ends but not about the means.”

seems highly questionable to me. We repeatedly see the synoptic authors portraying the apostles as clueless about Jesus’ thinking about “method”; given the depth of this misunderstanding, is it likely that they nevertheless clearly understood his goals?

Here’s perhaps the most jarring mismatch between the apostle’s and Jesus’ thinking about ‘method’; Luke 9:51-56, specifically “Do you want us to call down fire from heaven?” to kill the unfriendly Samaritans. This incident is after Peter’s affirmation of Jesus as messiah/son of God/king of Israel and after Jesus’ prediction of the necessary fate that awaited him at Jerusalem. The apostles seem to have thought that Jesus might agree with them to destroy the village; they didn’t understand his ‘method’ at all. How likely is it that they understood his goals? Surely “goal” and “method” are intimately related.

Perhaps one could argue that the apostles’ relationship with Jesus hindered their understanding; they were pre-occupied with hopes of high position in a future Jesus reign. But if they were projecting their hopes and ambitions onto Jesus, is it not likely that this was happening more widely among the members of the ‘Jesus movement’?

The comparison with Moses was only meant to account for the language of “redemption.” Still, the exodus did not require Moses to use violence himself, which gets to your main point. Did the disciples envisage a redemption like the exodus, achieved not through human acts of violence but through divine violence? That seems quite plausible, given their eagerness to call down fire from heaven.

Perhaps the question is whether they were expecting primarily the reformation of Israel or the expulsion of Rome. My argument was that the reformation of Israel would itself convince the gentiles of the righteousness and power of Israel’s God, but perhaps that remained an open question. If they were not persuaded and like Pharaoh, hardened their hearts, then perhaps more drastic action would be required on YHWH’s part.

Jesus might have agreed with his disciples that God would judge the Samaritan village for rejecting Israel’s messiah, but have disagreed about the means of judgment. If the day of judgment is the destruction of Jerusalem, Samaritan villages may well have suffered in the course of the war, but less, significantly, than Jerusalem and Jewish settlements such as Chorazin and Bethsaida (cf. Lk. 10:13).

Thank you, Andrew.

  The question of what did different groups in Israel, and the population at large, to the extent that there may have been a more or less coherent national consensus among them, want or expect to happen is the heart of the problem. Not knowing that, it’s difficult to interpret the textual evidences of what people did. Perhaps we will forever be faced with a palette of undecidable possible interpretations of “what Jesus thought he was accomplishing.”  

Regarding Moses, the thing I was alluding to was that Moses did lead — or at least oversee — Israel in battle against hostile nations during the journey out of Egypt and into Canaan. The Exodus from Egypt was an exercise of Divine power, but there was at least some ‘arm of the flesh’ combat afterward. There’s a lot of bloodshed in the subsequent history of Israel’s judges and kings. To the extent that the people of Israel in AD30 thought that the man riding up to Jerusalem was, or had pretensions to be, Israel’s next king, I think it’s highly probable that many of them were thinking in terms of these historical precedents (this seems to me reinforced, if not confirmed, by the deliberations reported in Jn 11: 45-50; they clearly saw Roman intervention and national ruin as a probable outcome of a widespread popular following of Jesus). It seems probable to me that some — and perhaps many — of the people who were following Jesus were following because they viewed him in this way. Perhaps the disappointed Emmaus road disciples are among this group.

Perhaps Hezekiah, the greatest of all the kings, is a good OT model for the kind of king Jesus could have been (and perhaps intended to be, had the nation heeded his call to repentance) — reforming the religious life of the nation and relying on YHWH, rather than military might, to protect Israel from whatever enemies arose. Matthew’s genealogy goes back through Hezekiah. I am impressed that the people seem to have regarded Jesus’ Davidic ancestry to be significant; David was a mighty, bloody-handed warrior-king. Perhaps “son of David” is simply an acknowledgment of Jesus’ status as messiah/son of YHWH/king of Israel, but I suspect that for many, this title would have had resonances of the kind of king over Israel that David had been. 

To the extent that the people of Israel in AD30 thought that the man riding up to Jerusalem was, or had pretensions to be, Israel’s next king, I think it’s highly probable that many of them were thinking in terms of these historical precedents…

Are there really “historical precedents” for a king riding peacefully on an ass into Jerusalem in clear evocation of Zechariah’s prophecy? Those bent on violence would normally retreat to the hills (cf. Judas Maccabeus), build up a fighting force, and then launch an attack on Rome.

In John 11:47-48 the emphasis is on the fact that Jesus “performs many signs,” not on the possibility of insurrection. Wouldn’t that point to divine rather than human action?

But yes, I imagine there would have been better antecedents than a war-mongering king of Israel—Matthew’s genealogy also goes back through Josiah.

I’ve wondered whether Jesus’ outrage at the Temple following his royal entry into Jerusalem had something to do with the priests’ refusal to acknowledge him as king then and there. God had promised to set his king upon Zion. 

The idea that Jesus expected a purely peaceful transfer of power out of the hands of Herod and Rome seems off to me. That is not to say that Jesus was planning an armed revolt, just that he expected God to act powerfully against his opponents, in accordance with scriptural precedence.

Jesus doesn’t really give the priests the chance to acknowledge him, though, does he? And the thrust of his denunciation is on the broader corruption of the temple system.

Samuel Connor’s comment above has a bearing on your second point. It was the disciples, not Jesus, who were eager to call down fire from heaven.

It seems most probable to me that Jesus and his disciples expected Yahweh to miraculously drive out the Romans and possibly even deal with Jewish leadership opposed to Jesus’ rule (although this second part could probably be accomplished by Jesus’ followers).

I can’t see Jesus or his followers believing the powerful Romans would peaceably acquiesce and withdraw.

> I can’t see Jesus or his followers believing the powerful Romans would peaceably acquiesce and withdraw.

I think it’s conceivable that the status of Judea could have been reconfigured into a Tetrarchy governed by a tetrarch or “client-king”, and perhaps Jesus would have been as acceptable, to the Romans, a local ruler in Judea as Herod Antipas was in Galilee and Perea. Whether this arrangement would have been acceptable to enough Judeans to prevent the kinds of conflict with Rome that later arose, I do not know. The historical record of the two subsequent wars seems to me to suggest that the militants in Israel did not want half-measures, it was ‘total independence’ or ‘death’.

> Jesus and his disciples expected Yahweh to miraculously drive out the Romans

I think that after Caesarea, Jesus no longer believed this — he expected to die (and be raised afterward; what he thought would happen after his resurrection does not look like redemption — “Jerusalem shall be trampled under the Gentiles until their times are fulfilled”), though perhaps the apostles and disciples did.

Samuel, doesn’t the redemption of Israel take place after Jesus’ return?

It seems Jesus taught things would be horrible after his death but set right upon his return.

My interpretation of New Testament eschatology is substantially Preterist. I think Israel, as a nation, didn’t repent and was eventually overtaken by wrath. The parables of wrath and reward are probably about Israel’s near-term future. Israel, as a nation, wasn’t redeemed after all, and its status as God’s “vineyard” was substantially handed over to YHWH-worshippers among the Gentiles.

I agree that the New Jerusalem of Rev 22 is not yet realized in history; I wonder whether it might be that the language of the end of Revelation is compatible with the idea that its descent from heaven to earth might be a long-term historical process.  If that’s what you mean by “redemption of Israel”, then I agree that is still future.

But the hopes of Jesus’ contemporaries (for example Paul’s hope that Israel as a people would be saved from the troubles that were portended by ‘the signs of the times’) were not fulfilled.

I wonder about the mindset of Jesus’ contemporaries, those who expected Yahweh to restore the kingdom. Did any of them lose their faith in Jesus as messiah, or did they find a way to explain why things didn’t turn out as they expected.

This is, of course, highly speculative, but the narratives that portray Jesus as “welcomed as Israel’s king” on Palm Sunday and, 5 days later, rejected in favor of an insurrectionist, might be an “in the text” answer to your question. This shows up in all four Gospels and is touched on in Peter’s speech in Acts 3.

That assumes that there was significant overlap between the crowds that welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem and the crowd that turned out to see what Pilate would do with him. I’m inclined to think that there was.

I can’t see Jesus or his followers believing the powerful Romans would peaceably acquiesce and withdraw.

Isn’t there an important difference between what is now historically plausible and what was then prophetically plausible?


Maybe, but I suspect the difference isn’t as great as some might think. I believe we often wrongly ascribe very primitive and even naive worldviews to first-century Jews, but human nature hasn’t evolved much in the last 2000 years. 

I suspect most Jews had no reason to believe independence and a return to greatness were prophetically plausible.

But you could just as well argue that people are as gullible now as they were two thousand years ago. Josephus gives us some reason to think that people were easily led to believe that God would intervene spectacularly as in the days of Moses.

Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. (Antiq. 20:97–98)

These were such men as deceived and deluded the people under pretense of divine inspiration, but were for procuring innovations and changes of the government, and these prevailed with the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them into the wilderness, as pretending that God would there show them the signals of liberty. (War 2:259)

A false prophet was the occasion of these people’s destruction, who had made a public proclamation in the city that very day, that God commanded them to get up upon the temple, and that there they should receive miraculous signs of their deliverance. Now, there was then a great number of false prophets suborned by the tyrants to impose upon the people, who denounced this to them, that they should wait for deliverance from God: and this was in order to keep them from deserting, and that they might be buoyed up above fear and care by such hopes. (War 6:285–286)

Yup, it goes both ways—the Jan. 1 foolishness in D.C. was a good example of foolishness and gullibility, but it seems to me throughout history the majority are more levelheaded. (Of course, the big problems happen when the foolish and gullible wield the reigns of power…)