In the 1980s, the Reagan administration decried “liberation theology” as Marxist and quietly approved when right-wing regimes murdered priests and nuns. But new scholarship reveals that “liberation theology” was carrying forward the real-life demands of Jesus for social justice, as Rev. Howard Bess explains.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
Christian churches have created a theological understanding of Jesus that has made him the unique son of God, born of a virgin, died as a sacrifice for sin, and raised from the dead, the second person of the Trinitarian God. The volumes that have been written about this theological Jesus are almost endless.
However, in the past two centuries, scholars have been asking very different questions about the flesh-and-blood Jesus of history. At first those conducting the search were a trickle. Today they are a flood.
The first attempts could not find a Jesus of history in the narratives of the four gospels of the New Testament. Then, about 40 years ago, a new generation of scholars took a different approach. They looked at the history, culture, economics and religion of Galilee in the first century C.E. In that context, the teachings of Jesus took on new life and the Jesus of history emerged in a new way.
Sometimes called “the third quest for the historical Jesus,” this new surge of scholarship was different because it was interdisciplinary. It was led not by theologians but by historians, sociologists, economists and political scientists. Their work placed Jesus in the setting of an advanced agrarian society, an aristocratic empire and a peasant backwater.
The fruits of this scholarship forced a whole new reading of the New Testament. The most dramatic insight was that Jesus was a very public political figure who advocated for justice for rural peasants, artisans, people who were considered unclean and degraded, and a growing number of expendables. The teachings of Jesus thus ring out as a prophetic voice speaking from and to the needs of the very lowest level of Galilean society.
It is worthy of note that this latest wave of pertinent scholarship parallels the rise of “liberation theology” in the Third World. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Peruvian Catholic priest who worked with the poor people of Lima, published Theology of Liberation in the early 1970s. It was Christian theology written from the perspective of the poorest of the poor, the position adopted by Jesus of Galilee.
A very important reality of the First Century in Galilee was the strong presence of the Zealots, a movement of Jews who despised Roman rule and advocated taking back Palestine from its Roman rulers by violent action. The Zealots were a minor force around Jerusalem, but not so in Galilee, which was one of their strongholds. Galilee was a mean and dangerous place.
The Zealots saw other groups of Jews who cooperated with Roman rulers as traitors to Israel. The Zealots, who all carried large knives under their cloaks, despised Pharisees and Sadducees as much as they did the Romans. Because of this violent radicalism, religious and political leaders from Jerusalem kept a careful eye on Galilee, making the relationship between Jerusalem and Galilee tenuous at best.
Simon Peter, a disciple of Jesus, is identified in the gospels as a Zealot and probably several of the other disciples were Zealots or Zealot sympathizers. In that context, Jesus is seen as a very different kind of leader. Committed to the reign (or kingdom) of God, his first call was to love God. His second was to love his neighbors.
Jesus was neither a knife-carrying Zealot nor an uncritical citizen living quietly under the heavy hand of Roman rulers, wealthy landowners and Temple legalists. Instead, the gospel records present Jesus as an Israelite prophet calling for a Year of Jubilee in which wealth would be redistributed and justice would be restored for all. Besides being unconditionally committed to his God of love and compassion, Jesus was fully committed to bringing love and justice to everyone and especially to the poor and needy.
So, this third quest for the historical Jesus asks us to return to the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and read them with new eyes. We are asked to read about a Jesus who was fully engaged in the social, economic and religious world of his day. We are asked to reread his parables, sayings and aphorisms. We are asked to read about a Jesus who was crucified by Roman rulers on a charge of insurrection.
This third quest is not claiming to have produced a precise picture of the human Jesus. Scholarship must continue and there is much still to learn. But we know enough now to rid ourselves of an obsession with getting to some ill-defined heaven. Instead, the challenge for Christians is to be fully engaged in a world that is crying out for love and justice.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.