Was Jesus a Threat to the Roman Empire?

Jesus was a non-violent peasant, yet his death by crucifixion was inherently political.

Jesus was a small-town peasant in a Roman province far from the centers of political and religious power. People in such circumstances rarely threatened Rome in any serious way. A miracle-working Jewish prophet and teacher would not have posed much of a conventional threat to such power and brutality. For his own part, Jesus never took up arms, nor did he encourage his followers to do so.

Yet the answer is not quite that easy. Rome took no chances when it came to the potential for uprisings. When an individual’s or a group’s actions seemed even possibly seditious, any perceived threat was put down with decisive state-sanctioned violence. Rome crucified hundreds, if not thousands of people — mostly slaves and suspected revolutionaries — and used military force routinely in the provinces.

Since Jesus died by crucifixion, we know that he was killed by the Roman authorities (Jewish authorities did not practice crucifixion). And while Jesus did not exercise conventional kinds of political authority, his actions and his message included threats to the status quo.

Chief among his threatening actions, Jesus could draw a crowd. The gospels report that great crowds followed him. When he entered Jerusalem during the last week of his life, he entered to local fanfare. The popularity of Jesus, combined with the gathering perhaps hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in Jerusalem for Passover, would have made Roman authorities very nervous.

In modern history, events like the People Power revolution led by Corazon Aquino in the Philippines (1986) or the 2011 Egyptian revolution remind us of the power of largely non-violent protest carried out by massive crowds of unarmed civilians. In the United States Constitution, freedom of assembly is protected by the First Amendment precisely because drawing a crowd has, throughout history, been one of the first steps to social change. It is a practice that tyrants rightly fear and seek to thwart.

The charge under which Jesus was crucified also gives us reason to understand him as a threat to the Roman Empire. In all four Gospels, he is crucified as “king of the Jews,” and in each of them, he speaks of the kingdom of God. He announces that the kingdom of God is “at hand,” and he says that as he performs exorcisms and heals disease, the kingdom of God has come near. This leads one to ask, what kind of kingdom did Jesus imagine he was enacting, and was it a threat to ruling political power?

Because Jesus was not a typical revolutionary, we might conclude that he was not concerned with political realities. At points, the New Testament seems to support this conclusion. Often in the parables of Jesus, the kingdom he preaches sounds politically harmless. To what may the kingdom be compared? It is like a mustard seed (Mark 4:31). It belongs to children and others like them (Mark 10:14). This hardly seems threatening to a world-dominating power like Rome.

In the Gospel of John, as he talks with the Roman governor Pilate, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36, NRSV). He means that his kingdom did not originate in this world but instead comes from God. With his comment to Pilate, Jesus is actually not commenting one way or the other on whether his kingdom might threaten kingdoms that originate in this world. Yet the older translation, “My kingdom is not of this world” (KJV), makes it sound as if Jesus were interested in the spiritual realm to the exclusion of the real world.

This distinction between religion and politics, however, is a modern one.

For ancient people spiritual and social realms were thoroughly integrated with one another, as were religious and political elements of life. The Hebrew prophets offer an example of spiritual leaders whose speech and actions were regularly seen as dangerous to political authorities. Prophets level judgment against greed and corruption wherever they witness it, whether in the marketplace, the royal court, or the temple.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus continue the tradition of calling those in authority to live honorable lives and work on behalf of the common good. As such, both of them threaten Rome and Rome’s client rulers in Judea.

Finally, in his ministry, Jesus seems to have had little regard for social conventions that bolstered the status quo. While this alone might not have been enough to get him noticed by Rome and condemned, it is instructive for those who wonder today whether following Jesus offers any threat to social norms or political realities.

  • Jesus did not marry and so lived a rather abnormal lifestyle for a Jewish adult of the time, and he redefined his “family” as those who do the will of God (see Mark 3:35).
  • When warned that the Jewish client king Herod wanted to kill him, Jesus did not defer to the king’s power or fear his wrath, but instead replied defiantly (see Luke 13:32).
  • When asked about whether it was lawful for a Jew to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus answered in a way that simultaneously acknowledged Rome’s authority and announced clear limits to that authority: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:16).

Indeed, one of the most threatening things about Jesus may have been how clear he was about the limitations of human rulers and institutions. That clarity is one of the most dangerous things for his followers, then or now, to imitate.

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