Bernadette Barton and Ric N. Caric
Morehead State University
In 2006, after close to six years of the presidential administration of the self-identified conservative Christian George W. Bush, the radical Christian Right has gained political and economic ascendency through such organizations as Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Moral Majority. These groups promote the interlocking triumpherate of traditional family, religion and government to, in their words, “provide a framework for social order.” To accomplish their goals, chief among them anti-abortion and anti-homosexual lobbying, conservative Christians explictly draw upon the Bible as the primary source of God’s design for humanity. The Mission statement for the Focus on the Family website reads, “To cooperate with the Holy Spirit in disseminating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible, and, specifically, to accomplish that objective by helping to preserve traditional values and the institution of marriage.”
Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and the Moral Majority are evangelical organizations whose religious purpose is to convert others to Christianity. Most of the leaders and members of such groups advocate a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. American fundamentalist doctrine includes five beliefs: the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the virgin birth and deity of Jesus, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement through God’s grace and human faith, the bodily resurection of Jesus, and the authenticity of Christ’s miracles and/or his premillenial second coming (General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, 1910). Although we ideologically and intellectually oppose both the Christian fundamentalist political agenda and religious proscription that the Bible is “inerrant,” in this paper we follow the path of the biblical fundamentalists. Drawing on the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John in the King James version of the Bible, we demonstrate a “fundamental truth” previously unexplored in contemporary culture: men killed Jesus. This is largely a straw argument, for neither author is spiritually or intellectually invested in blaming men for the death of Jesus. Our goals in developing this argument are threefold: 1). To make visible the patriarchal forces of early Christianity, 2). To argue that Jesus had a feminist sensibility, and 3). In doing so, illustrate the narrow-mindedness required of fundamentalist reading.
In 2004 Mel Gibson’s wildly popular film, The Passion of the Christ grossed $370 million. The buzz about the film was everywhere, on websites, in blogs, reviewed and discussed throughout the media. Additionally, religious leaders in the pulpit encouraged parishioners to view the film. Indeed, whole churches rented out theaters for private showings of the film. The 127 minute blood-soaked Passion begins with Jesus’ last supper and continues through his execution. Gibson, a catholic, explained to the press that "I want to show the humanity of Christ as well as the divine aspect. It's a rendering that for me is very realistic and as close as possible to what I perceive the truth to be." http://www.hollywoodjesus.com/passion.htm). Gibson explained that the film remained true to the scriptures. Critics decried the film as overly violent, lacking a coherent narrative, and anti-semitic while droves of the devout prayed through the opening credits.
It was while watching the Passion itself on video, and fast-forwarding through the goriest scenes, that a more empirically plausible, indeed fundamental, answer to the question of Christ-killing forcibly struck us.
Men killed Jesus.
Yes, the film reflected a certain anti-semitism -- hooded Pharisees demanding the death of Jesus, a somber, noble Pilate seeking an alternative to killing Jesus -- but the real story of the Passion, to our feminist gaze, was about the men. We observed: Male religious leaders (Pharisees) condemn Jesus to the Roman authorities, a man betray him (Judas), a man sentence him (Pontius Pilate), men torture him (the Temple and Roman soldiers), male disciples of Jesus deny him (Peter et al), and men nail him to the cross, and stab a spear in his side (Roman soldiers). The question the film raised for us, then, is if men, as a sex, shared an interest in killing Jesus. And, if so, how might have Jesus’ person, bearing, message, or actions provoked the men of his time? What psychological qualities, customs, interests, education, and sexuality of the period potentially encouraged men to be hostile to Jesus teachings? More simply, “What is it about men that would make them Christ-killers?”
In contrast, while there undoubtedly were women in the crowd of Jewish on-lookers shouting to “crucify him,” no single significant woman participated in the torture and murder of Jesus. Instead, Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdalene stayed with him through the ordeal, Pilate’s wife cautioned her husband against condemning what she perceived of as a “just” man, a woman (Veronica) wiped his face when Jesus was carrying the cross, women prepared his body after death, and Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene. Jesus’ female disciples and incidental aquaintances did not manufacture nor participate in the the murder of Jesus – according to Mel Gibson. Since we are loathe to solely rely upon Gibson’s authority in this, we substantiated our theory with a careful, fundamentalist reading of the King James version of the four gospel narratives of Jesus’ life. Drawing primarily from biblical scripture, we will explore the role men played in the death of Jesus and argue that, in doing so, Jewish men, Roman men, rulers, soldiers, religious leaders, farmers and fishermen all shared at least a partial interest in suppressing Jesus’ anti-masculine message of self-sacrifice.
Hostility between Jesus and the Pharisees emerged early in his ministry. The Pharisees policed Sabbath regulations, purity prescriptions, and dietary restrictions. Widely respected for their piety and accepted as the authoritative interpreters of biblical law by the Jewish population, the Pharisees differentiated themselves by carrying phylacteries to hold the Torah and wearing special robes. Jesus challenged the authority of the Pharisees in three ways. First, Jesus rejected their authority to interpret the Torah. Jesus insisted that the primary relationship between a person and God was through him as the Son of God rather than through Hebrew Law. In this, Jesus not only challenged Pharisaic interpretations of the Law, but invalidated the Pharisees as interpreters of the Law. For example, Jesus violated the Sabbath injunction to do no work by healing a man in a synagogue on the Sabbath with Pharisees present. He justified this action with a parable about a shepherd who would tend a sheep, “What man shall there be among you that shall have one sheep and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?” (Matthew 12:11) Most significantly, Jesus expressed that he had the authority to forgive sins and cast out demons, “But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to fogive sins.” (Mark 2:10).
Deeply threatened, the Jewish political and religious establishment mobilized. The Pharisees, both locally and throughout the nation state, began plotting ways to execute Jesus while continuing to engage him in verbal debate. Such debate was a tricky attempt to trap Jesus into making blasphemous remarks that could justify his execution. (Jesus proved himself more verbally adept than the Pharisees). The Gospel of John makes this point most strongly by emphasizing that Jesus could not travel in Jewish territory because of the religious establishment’s efforts to kill him. According to John, concern about Jesus reached the chief priest Caiaphas. Caiaphas worried Jesus’ popularity might provoke the Romans to anihilate the Jewish nation and indicated that Jesus would have to die for the sake of the people as a whole.
Second, Jesus directly attacked the Pharisees as hypocrites. In Matthew 23, he launched a long denunciation of the Pharisees and scribes that Anthony J. Salderini calls the “seven woe oracles.” Seven times, Jesus pronounced “woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites” as he condemned them. By their greed, the Pharisees had devoured widow’s houses, while their false teachings had infected their followers. More portentously, Jesus claimed that the similarity between the motivations of the Pharisees and those who had killed the prophets meant not only that the Pharisees had been implicated in the murder of the prophets, but that they, and, implicitly, their followers, could be linked to all the murders of the righteous from Abel forward. According to Matthew, Jesus also calls the Pharisees “blind,” “fools,” “serpents,” “vipers,” and warned that it will be difficult for them to “escape the damnation of hell” (Matthew 23:34).
Third, Jesus explicitly identified those perceived as most debased by the Pharisees - lepers, poor, tax collectors, women - as closer to the Kingdom of Heaven than the Pharisees themselves. In Matthew 5:20 Jesus says, “That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.” Throughout his ministry, Jesus sought and embraced those most excluded from the ritual sanctities of Judaism. Further, unlike the Pharisees, Jesus and his followers did not fast. In fact, they ate and drank heartily, and associated with known sinners like tax collectors (or publicans), lepers, and the sick. Such individuals would have been viewed as chronically “unclean.” Also considered to be “unclean” were women, especially during menstruation and following childbirth. During these periods women were isolated within their households and subject to the authority of their fathers and husbands. Thus, excluded from almost all public functions and largely confined to their houses, the public presence of women among Jesus’ followers further damaged him in the eyes of the Pharisees.
Even worse, more than one biblical narrative demonstrates Jesus favoring women over the Pharisees. In Luke 7:36-50, for example, Jesus visits the house of a Pharisee named Simon. As Jesus sat down to his meat with Simon, a woman “which was a sinner” came into the house with a box of expensive alabaster ointment, stood behind Jesus weeping, “and began to wash his feet with tears.” She wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair before kissing and anointing them with ointment. Watching this act, Simon questioned Jesus’ status as prophet, thinking “if he were a prophet, he would have known what manner this woman is that toucheth him” and, then, send her away in shame. Recognizing Simon’s thoughts, Jesus rebukes him:
Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for
my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs
of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in
hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but
this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.[i]
Here, Jesus indicates that he valued this woman’s behavior, in spite of her sins, more than Simon’s in all his pompous piety. This woman (Mary Magdalene in the gospel of John) “loved much” and showed that love through her service. For Jesus, love showed itself most forcefully in a willingness to subordinate oneself to God and others. Desiring forgiveness and animated by a faith that Jesus could provide that forgiveness, the woman eagerly devoted herself to caring for Jesus’ feet. The woman’s love for Jesus recalls several of the important themes in the four gospels. Her abject behavior and longing for forgiveness reflects the first blessing in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew: “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Moreover, the menial act of care for Jesus’ feet and her “tainted” reputation as a sinner correspond with the Jesus’ dictum that the “last shall come first and the first shall come last.” Finally, Jesus himself followed the model of foot-washing as a means to show love to his disciples in John’s account of the Last Supper. Of all the individuals, Jesus encountered in his ministry his actions most resembled this “sinning” woman.[ii]
In contrast, while Simon may not have violated Pharasiac law and felt himself a “sinner,” his conduct was in conflict with Jesus and his teachings. Pious in his own eyes, little burdened by a need for forgiveness, Simon offered Jesus no abject, loving service. Jesus expressed, “to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” The woman’s consciousness of her sins - her uncleanliness - enabled her redemption while Simon’s sense of self-satisfied authority crippled his salvation. Even worse Simon, like the Pharisees generally, cared most about his reputation, an external matter distracting one from service to God. Carrying the books of the Torah, tithing, observing dietary restrictions, and efforts to ensure that the rest of the Jewish population observed those restrictions were all ways that the Pharisees demonstrated their piety and created social capital among their fellow men. Such concern for reputation constituted a “public display” to Jesus, not an illustration of sincere piety of the Law. Jesus made this same criticism of the Pharisees many times,“But all their works they do for to be seen by men; they . . . love the uppermost rooms at feasts and the chief seats in the synagogues and greetings in the markets, and to be called Rabbi, Rabbi.”
Jesus held the practices of the Pharisees in contempt saying in Luke, “ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.” Acting as authoritative interpreters of the Law among the Jewish people, enforcing religious prescriptions, influencing Temple ritual, and other indications of their public esteem made them “unclean” (or abominable) in a way much worse than the “sins” of the woman who sought forgiveness through service. Indeed, Jesus expresses that the very act of reputation-building was tainted with a sinfulness much greater than transgressions against the law the Pharisees regulated. Because the Pharisees sought to justify themselves “before men,” their education in the Law, following of ritual prescriptions, carrying the Torah, and wearing of special robes all compromised spiritual cleanliness. To Jesus then, Simon was a monster of presumption, an “abomination in the sight of God,” by the time they sat down to eat. It was because of this presumption that Simon the Pharisee could not love Jesus in the manner of the woman with the alabaster ointment, and that Jesus found him lacking.[iii]
Indeed, Jesus demonstrated a deeper regard for non-Jewish women than he did the Pharisees. When traveling on the borders of Tyre and Sidon, a Syro-Phoenician woman came to ask him to cast a devil out of her daughter. Jesus initially rebuffed her saying that it was “not meet to take the children’s (Isreael’s) bread and cast it unto the dogs (the Gentiles).” But, when she replied, “Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs,” Jesus relented and healed her daughter. Like the woman with the alabaster ointment, the Syro-Phoenician woman debased herself before Jesus, acknowledging her inferiority as a non-Jewish person. This act sanctified her in the eyes of God and Jesus responded. The Pharisees never demonstrated a willingness to debase themselves before God.
We theorize that the Pharisees’ reluctance to assume an inferior location to Jesus is directly related to their male and class privilege. Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, priests, and chief priests enjoyed a higher occupational status among the Jewish population as a whole. The Jewish faith also privileged men over women, casting men as the sanctified heads of households while associating women with pollution. Hence, according to Jewish law, women could not act as religious leaders nor had the authority to interpret scripture. Simon and the other Pharisees shared gender capital because they were men. Thus, although Jesus did not explictly critique women’s subordination under Pharisee religious law, he condemning a critical dimension of male supremacy when he condemned the Pharisees for their sense of their own religious sanctity and declared his preference for those who were polluted and attainted.[iv] By the time Jesus established himself in Jerusalem, he and the religious authorities had become like two enemy armies warily stalking each other as they prepare for battle. The Pharisees were seeking to kill Jesus in the name of all of the understandings and prerogatives associated with orthodox Jewish religion. For his part, Jesus was threatening those who followed the conventional masculine paths to sanctity with damnation and greater damnation, and demanding a model of painful humility and service best exemplified by the woman with the alabaster ointment and better manifested by women in general than males.[v]
Jesus did not explicitly criticize patriarchy. He did, however, radically devalue aspects of material life that bolstered the interests, values, and privilege of males, particularly wealth. Indeed, he condemned the accumulation of property, possessions, and money even more than the social capital flaunted by the Pharisees. Everything that men invested in their property (and families) compromised their ability to have a relationship with God, according to Jesus, who further expressed that God would avenge such behavior with hellfire. Like bolstering their religious authority, those who killed Jesus protected their economic interests as they had him arrested, tried, and executed.
Jesus’ cast his objections to wealth very narrowly. He did not identify the pursuit and accumulation of wealth as inherently selfish or unethical, nor did he perceive the wealthy as necessarily animated by greed or cruelty. Instead, Jesus critiqued wealth to the extent that the accumulation and possession of wealth shaped a person’s posture toward God, specifically that: 1. attention focused on wealth was not attention paid to God; 2. labor and material success made one independent of God and; 3. the enjoyment of and prestige associated with wealth was contrary to the model of suffering that Jesus promoted. For Jesus, the possession of material wealth was potentially more sinful than a single act one might commit, such as adultery.
In Luke 12: 13-21, Jesus illustrated this. Asked for advice about an inheritance dispute, Jesus expresses that it is not for him to mediate “covetousness.” Rather, Jesus warns the crowd gathered not to focus on material possessions with the following parable:
The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought withinThe rich man’s extensive possessions and his self-satisfaction are forms of material “fullness” that Jesus condemned in Luke (“But woe unto you that are rich! For ye have received your consolation .
himself saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my
fruits? And he said. This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater;
and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul,
Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink,
and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be
required of thee: when whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?
So is he that layeth up treasure for himself and is nor rich toward God.”[vi]
Woe unto you that are full! For ye shall hunger.”) Accumulating wealth is condemnable when it demonstrates that one is serving “mammon” (riches, material wealth) rather than God. Jesus warned, “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” By devoting himself to mammon and accumulating wealth, the rich man offended God. Because the rich man was serving himself rather than God, God obtained revenge by killing the man, stripping him of his possessions, and forcing him to contemplate other men owning his wealth. “[T]hen whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself and is nor rich toward God.”[vii] Having toiled in the service of the material - cultivating his land, calculating his investments, and supervising his laborers - rather than developing a relationship with God, the rich man had no heavenly savings account to draw on at his death. Jesus warned that the material is transitory and undependable while a relationship with God is ever-lasting. In this parable, God is so affronted by the rich man’s complacency and poor judgment that He gives him foreknowledge of his death.
Jesus then radicalized his stance against wealth by announcing an invocation against labor. “Therefore he said unto his disciples. Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on.” Given that God provided food for the raven, decoration for the lilies of the field, and clothing for the grass, Jesus asked why men should not count on God to provide these things without their having to labor. “Seek ye the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you.” For Jesus, labor was questionable because it involved a self-reliance in opposition to dependence on God. Not only accumulating wealth, but maintaining one’s subsistence compromised one’s devotion to God. Instead, Jesus instructed his followers to depend on God for food, clothing, and shelter rather than their own efforts, to “sell that ye have and give alms,” and to be “yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord, when he will return from the wedding . . . and will come forth and serve him.” Instead of enjoying what they produce, Jesus preached that the devout should never waver from attention and service to God, no matter how long the wait. “And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants.” This was the only way that men could give God all the devotion that was due him and avoid God’s eternal punishments.[viii]
This kind of service is one that women learned from childhood through domestic labor. And, where the rich man was head of his household and only subject to the laws of the Roman state and god, even wealthy women were subject to the authority of their fathers or husbands. Owning agricultural property was almost entirely a male privilege during the Biblical period (the only exception to this were widows without sons). The freedom and independence material wealth provides enhances an individual’s self-sufficiency, something that Jesus found dangerous because it distracted one from service to God. Hence, the rich man’s self-satisfaction was peculiarly male. In contrast, the rich man’s “wife” (assuming he had one) could not make decisions regarding the construction of new barns, nor “eat, drink, and be merry” without her husband’s consent, nor were the rich man’s daughters free to control their own lives. Thus, the rich man of the parable was planning to enjoy a success to which only men had access.
Jesus cast submission and service in specifically feminine terms. God was the “bridegroom” and men and women collectively “the bride.” For males to be in the position of the human bride to God’s bridegroom, they needed to stop superintending their wealth, give their possessions away, and stop working for their basic needs. As long as men tried to be a “bridegroom” themselves, they were lost and damned. Jesus instructed his disciples to engage in loving service to God much like the way the woman with the alabaster ointment serviced him. For the woman, service was washing and anointing the feet of Jesus. In the case of the apostles, service was waiting for God’s grace. It was only by giving up specifically male ambitions that they could hope to love God as completely as God demanded and thereby avoid the violence of God’s judgment.[ix]
Jesus elaborates on this theme in Luke 16:19-26 with another parable about a rich man whose wealth blocks his path to heaven:
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
Here, the rich man is condemned because he was “clothed in purple and fine linen,” “fared sumptuously every day,” and “receivedst thy good things.” In contrast, the beggar Lazarus, whose degraded form Jesus describes in detail, seems to be embraced by Abraham because he suffered. Jesus explains that Lazarus was not only covered with sores, but his sores were licked by dogs. Lazarus resembled an inert carcass, in a state of living death—unable to provide for himself, completely dependent on others, unable even to keep the dogs off of him. Like the woman with the alabaster ointment and the Syro-Phoenician woman, Lazarus’ suffering favored him for redemption in a way that was impossible for the wealthy. Because he was unable to act as a “man” and either earn his living or enjoy possessions, nothing impeded his relationship and service to God while those men who found comfort in the world were doomed to the flames. “Woe unto you that are rich for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6: 24)
Similarly, in Mark 10:17 Jesus shares the story of a rich young man who asked him, “Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” The young man, when questioned, explained that he followed all of God’s commandments. Jesus then said, “One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me (Mark 10:21).” Unable to part with his possession, the young man sadly left Jesus. That he decided to keep his wealth rather than give it to the poor indicated that he put more “trust” in or received more “comfort” from his wealth than he did from God. The same was the case with the rich man in purple. Wealth is a burden preventing individuals from entering heaven. And, it was the response of this young man that inspired Jesus to make his famous denunciation, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25).” Ultimately, Jesus condemned the possession of property because it both controlled the labor of men and women, and focused attention on mammon rather than heaven.
Jesus not only attacked property by promising eternal damnation to the rich, he chased the vendors out of the Temple almost immediately upon entering Jerusalem. Angry that merchants and money-changers had turned his house into “a den of thieves” (Mark 11:17), Jesus overturned their tables and drove them out of the temple before beginning to preach. Jesus perceived the Pharisees as greedy for wealth in the form of the “temple tax,” or tithe paid by Jews both in Judea and abroad, rather than the “weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith” that should have been the focus of their piety. Even the religious authorities valued mammon at the expense of God. After this incident, the chief priests and scribes renewed their plotting to kill Jesus. The text of Matthew implies that they were seeking to execute Jesus in the name of a general commitment to wealth—the wealth of the religious establishment - but also the wealth of any male head of family who had accumulated property through his own labor or superintending the labor of others.[x] Consequently, when the religious authorities had Jesus arrested after he drove the money changers out of the temple, they were acting on behalf of all men of wealth and property as well as religious orthodoxy.
As strong as his attacks on wealth and the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Jesus assaulted family ties, particularly the patriarchal father/son bond, even more powerfully. Like the pursuit of wealth or status, attention paid to familial responsibilities threatened an individual’s devotion to God. As a result, Jesus continually reminded his followers and potential followers to abandon their families and follow him. Jesus demanded of those working for their fathers, like James and John, to leave immediately. He instructed followers to abandon funeral preparations, refused to let them say good-bye to families, and cautioned them to forget any affection they held for anyone other than himself and God. Because of this, Jesus expected the families of his followers to seek revenge on their children for leaving, and on Jesus for taking them away. Indeed, the violence and retaliation Jesus expected from families shaped his conception of his future suffering and ultimate execution. In this sense, Jesus both precipitated and anticipated the revenge of the fathers against the son(s).
The first indication of Jesus’ attitude toward family bonds occurs at the beginning of his ministry when he gathers his disciples, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men (Matthew 4:19).” James and John immediately leave their father Zebedee’s fishing boat in the middle of mending nets. James and John were under their father’s authority in the family fishing enterprise, and their labor was most likely an important part of the father’s success. One or both of them would have been heir to their father’s property as well. In calling the men away, Jesus superseded their father’s authority. For Jesus, obligation and love were zero-sum games. If the men felt called to follow Jesus, they had to leave Zebedee, and leave him “immediately,” disregarding any claim Zebedee might have on them. Jesus allowed no compromise for James and John to ease Zebedee’s burden. Similarly, if the disciples were to love Jesus, they must withdraw love for their father, giving Zebedee no notice and making no departing gesture of any kind.[xi]
The family ties of his followers and potential followers posed two kinds of problems for Jesus. First, family connections resembled property in that they created attachments that hindered men and women from devoting themselves fully to God. In some cases, family connections also served as a form of social capital (or wealth) stored up and spent in this world not in the afterlife. Second, love felt for families competed with the love for Jesus and God. For Jesus, a proper love for God emerged from an understanding of oneself as a sinner, bereft and debased. In contrast, familial love is a sticky web of mutually reinforcing blood ties involving such expectations as care of the sick, fraternal love, cooperation in the household, and loyalties along hierarchical lines. These expectations and responsibilities must be rejected to fully serve God.
For example, in Matthew 10: 34, Jesus proclaims:
I came not to send peace but a sword, for I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.”Again, love for Jesus requires withdrawing love from families. This is the sword rather than splits man from father and daughter from mother. In Matthew, love for Jesus takes absolute priority over all other relations, shocking families such that “a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” Luke 9 reiterates this message when Jesus encounters a man who wants to follow him but also wants to return home to bid farewell to those at his house. Jesus replies that “no man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is it fit for the kingdom of God.”
In Luke 14, Jesus gives the prioritizes God over family with a particularly harsh twist:
“if any man come to me and hate not his father and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.[xii]
Here, Jesus not only demands that men withdraw themselves from their families, but makes hatred of their families the standard by which he judges the legitimacy of their commitment to him. Jesus expresses a similar belief that families would seek revenge on his followers in Luke 21 when he tells his followers that “ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinfolks, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake.” [xiii] Withdrawal of love, the advocation to hate one’s relatives and, more significantly, withdrawal from participation in kinship exchanges, casts the relatives of the followers of Jesus into enemies.
In Matthew 10: 34-38, love is portrayed as a mutual relationship in which the parties adapt several roles and exchange many kinds of things. A man can be simultaneously a son who loves a father, a husband who loves a wife, and a father who loves a son. Indeed, Jesus portrays families as webs of different kinds of love in which a wide variety of mutual services, gestures, tokens of affection, and rituals are exchanged and in which a wide variety of meaningful events are shared (weddings, funerals, births, coming of age ceremonies, etc.). When a man or woman comes to love Jesus, the new follower takes him or herself out of the web of family involvement. Perhaps more importantly, the new disciple ceases to function and experience himself or herself as “father,” “mother,” “brother,” and “sister.” Jesus himself emphasized that he no longer considered his mother Mary to be his mother or his brother to be “brethren.” His viewed his “family” only in terms of those involved with him in his ministry. Thus, family members have a strong motive to perceive Jesus as a threat.
Unlike religious authority and wealth, men did not have a monopoly over family affections. Consequently, fathers, husbands, and brothers would not have been the only people who had reason to despise Jesus for breaking up their families. Sisters, mothers, aunts, and daughters-in-law would have had reason to hate Jesus as well. Nevertheless, the New Testament provides evidence that Jesus focused his attack on families on fathers, in particular, and males more generally. For example, when young man asked to attend his father’s burial before joining him, Jesus coldly replied “let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60). Here, Jesus not only expressed a casual contempt for the unconverted (and therefore “the dead”), but a thorough-going derision of any loyalties, respect, reverence, or attachment—in other words, love-- that the young man would have had for his father.[xiv]
Further, Jesus preached against many of the behaviors by which males sought to defend their family’s interest and honor. In patriarchal societies like ancient Judea, the “honor” of the family reflects the honor of the male head of the household. Upholding the family “honor” entailed avenging insults and assaults on the family as well as maintaining and increasing a family’s property and social standing. Jesus forbade such practices, especially an ethic of revenge, in the Sermon on the Mount. He instructed followers to “resist not evil,” “bless them that curse you,” and “turn the other cheek.” In this, Jesus implicitly condemned any kind of revenge on those who attacked either them or other members of their families. Moreover, by insisting that men give those who sued them more than is asked, Jesus also denied the efforts of heads of households (who would have been the only ones to have the right to sue) to defend their families economic interests.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges people to stop judging others, to strive even to love not just their “neighbors” but their “enemies” as well. Neighbors, enemies, family members, fathers and brothers, Jesus leveled the playing field saying no relationship was more important than the other, and none so important as one’s relationship to God. Thus, Jesus insisted that men treat their enemies and the enemies of their families as well as they treated their wives, sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers, if not, they traveled the broad way that “leadeth to destruction.” In this sense, the imprecations of Jesus against families applied especially to the men who had the right, duty, and privilege to defend the interests and honor of families. As a result, Jesus would reasonably have expected the vengeance of families on his followers to come primarily from the men.[xv]
As fathers and the heads of households, males also would have been the ones who represented the interests of the family in seeking revenge on Jesus. In John 17, Jesus emphasized that “thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee.” In a similar way, human fathers were “in” their wives, sons, daughters, and mothers in the sense that all of their actions reflected on the father as the head of the household in a patriarchal society. Likewise, wives, sons, daughters, and mothers were “in” male heads of households to the extent that their prominence and social standing derived from the prestige of the father. Consequently, any family betrayal directly impacted the social standing of the father as the head of the household who was also responsible for reporting misdeeds to local religious authorities. While mothers, daughters, and sisters would experience betrayal and loss, they did not have the authority or responsibility to act publicly. Because the families were the strongest principle of competition for the love that Jesus sought to direct toward himself, Jesus expected families, particularly male heads of households, to be the most implacable agents of revenge on him and those who followed him.
The twelve male disciples were a discouraging test case for Jesus’ doctrine. He had personally recruited and taught them, performed miracles of healing and exorcism that demonstrated his divine powers, and gave each the power to heal and cast out demons. However, the male disciples struggled to understand and adopt Jesus’ doctrine, especially his prophecies of his own death and resurrection. Like the Pharisees, the male disciples focused on their own reputations and prestige. Rather than adopting the model of loving service exemplified in the story of the woman with the alabaster ointment, or finding sanctity in being the “least” among men and serving others, the male disciples sought to inflate their own importance through their association with Jesus in the same way that the Pharisees sought to magnify their importance through observance of the Law. They boasted that they would protect Jesus from his fate, argued repeatedly among themselves about who should be “greatest,” and petitioned Jesus to be allowed to sit by his side. Proud, ambitious, greedy, confused and fearful through Jesus’ arrest, execution and resurrection, the male disciples chose masculinity over Jesus.
The image of Simon and Andrew leaving their nets when Jesus calls them to be “fishers of men,’ powerfully demostrates that they recognized some spark of divinity in Jesus. And, while the disciples called Jesus as Master, Lord, Savior, Teacher and Christ, they also frequently expressed doubt about Jesus’ identity. The apostles’ doubt and fear become more visible as Jesus’ execution draws closer. Early in his ministry, as Matthew details, Jesus served as a kind of strolling healer of the sick and exorciser of demons. “And his fame went throughout all Syria; and they brought unto him all sick people that were taken with diverse diseases and torments, and those which were possessed with devils, and those which were lunatic . . . and he healed them.” (Matthew 4:24) Peter, Andrew, John, James, and other disciples accompanying Jesus on his journey witnessed many miracles and heard Jesus preach “the kingdom of god” to “great multitudes.” Jesus even cured Priscilla, the wife of Peter of a menstrual bleeding illness, which at the time would have been not only physically debilitating to Priscilla, but also socially isolating to both Peter and Priscilla as a couple. Jewish law dictated that menstruating women were unclean while menstruating and for seven days after. In spite of repeated exposure to Jesus’ teachings to have faith in him in all things, the disciples were quick to doubt. For example, the disciples feared for their lives when a violent storm broke as they crossed the Sea of Galilee. Jesus rebuked them for this, “Why do you fear, o ye of little faith.” And, when Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples still “marvelled . . . that even the winds and the sea obey him.”
After this, Jesus performed even greater miracles. He shared his powers to heal the sick and cast out devils with his chief male disciples and dozens of other followers so that they could begin their own missions to the cities of Palestine. He walked on water and provided food for five thousand people out of seven loaves of bread and some fish. Finally, Jesus took Peter, James, and John to a mountaintop where he was transfigured into a celestial being with the prophets Moses and Elijah flanking him. At the same time, each heightened manifestations of his divinity illuminated some weakness of faith in the disciples. When Jesus appeared beside their boat walking on the water, he invited Peter to come out with him, but ended up chiding him for lack of faith when Peter’s doubts caused him to begin sinking. Similarly, even though they observed Jesus feed five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes, the male disciples still worried when food suppies ran low. Jesus rebuked them: “Do ye not understand, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets ye took up: Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets ye took up?” Unless they were actually witnessing a miracle, the male disciples doubted Jesus’ sovreignity.
In another example, male disciples illustrated a failure of faith in Jesus when they were unable cure an insane boy. Jesus explained this: “Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you. If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, remove hence to yonder place, and it shall remove and nothing shall be impossible unto you.” (Matthew 17:20) Jesus perceived the disciples’ lack of faith in their ability to cure diseases and cast out devils to stem from their lack of faith in his divinity, a failure Jesus felt exemplified the faithlessness of a whole generation. “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you?” (Matthew 17:17)
The apostles did acknowledge Jesus’ divinity. When Jesus asked what he was, Peter readily answered, “The Christ, the Son of the Living God.” As a reward for this deminstration of faith, Jesus promised that Peter would be the rock on which Jesus’ church would be built. (Matthew 16: 16-19). However, the male disciples used the proclamation of Jesus’ divinity as an opportunity for them to cash in on the social capital they received from their association with Jesus. In Matthew, the mother of James and John approached Jesus to ask her sons to be allowed to sit on the right and left hand of Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, James and John themselves petitioned Jesus. The spirit of ambition gripped the other disciples as well. Arguments about which one among the disciples was greatest continued even the evening Jesus was arrested. In a way, Peter was the most obstreperous and uncomprehending, arguing with Jesus that he would save him, and later bragging during the last supper that he would die with Jesus if he were condemned to death. The disciples acted much like the Pharisees by valuing prestige, power, and their connections in direct opposition to Jesus’ teachings. Indeed, in response to Peter’s claims that Jesus would not be allowed to die, Jesus addressed Peter in the same language he used against the Pharisees. “Get thee behind me Satan: thou art an offence unto me; for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” (Matthew 16: 23)
Jesus used the ambitions of the male disciples as “teaching moments” in which he defined the kingdom of God in terms of humility and suffering. Overhearing the disciples arguing among themselves over who was greatest, (Mark 9: 32, 35), Jesus taught that those who should desire to be “first” would end up “last.” Jesus stressed that his “kingdom” was not like Rome, “the great” did not exercise authority over the others. Rather, the “chiefest” of the disciples would be “servant of all.” (Mark 10:44) To this end, Jesus encouraged his followers to model the open attitude of children. He said: “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of god as a little child shall not enter therein.” Jesus stressed that he himself came to minister to or serve others and give his life as a ransom.
However, the chief male disciples struggled to internalize this message of humility and service. When Jesus pronounced the doctrine of his death and resurrection, the male disciples routinely expressed their confusion and lack of comprehension. When Jesus announced upon his entrance to Jerusalem that he would “be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked and spitefully entreated, and spitted on . . . and they shall scourge him, and put him to death and the third day he shall rise again,” the disciples “understood none of these things.” (Luke 18: 31-34) Their confusion continued through the last Supper and beyond. During this meal Jesus explained that he would soon die, a sacrifice for the sake of them all, and, further, that one of them at the table would betray him. Jesus broke the bread and declared that the bread was his body “which is given for [the disciples] and then after the supper took the cup of wine and stated that the cup was “the new testament of my blood which is shed for you.” There’s a strong sense in which this was the crucible for the male disciples. Would they grasp the message of Jesus as a god who sacrificed himself for them and demanded that they sacrifice themselves by taking up their crosses as well? Or would they demonstrate a greater faith in the things of men and the world as they had many times before?
And, at this tipping point, they reverted to displays of material prestige and social power. After inquiring who would betray Jesus, the disciples began to argue “which of them should be accounted the greatest.” This was too much for Jesus who spent the rest of the supper desperately haranguing the men. First, Jesus discussed how “he that is chief” would be serving others rather than having others serve him much as Jesus the Son of God served them. “I am among you as he that serveth.” He spoke with Peter about his hope that he would “strengthen thy brethren” after he was converted. Peter responded with proud blustering about how he would go to prison or death with Jesus, a monologue Jesus interrupted by revealing that Peter would deny him three times before morning. Finally, Jesus reminded the men that he had once sent them forth without “purse and scrip and shoes,” and encouraged them now to take their scrip and buy a sword. When the men produced two swords of their own as if they were going to fight, Jesus finally proclaimed “it is enough” and left the room altogether.
In Luke, when Jesus went into the Garden of Olives, all the disciples except Judas followed him, and they stood a stone’s throw off as he prayed in “agony . . . and his sweat as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground.” The best analogy to the agony Jesus experienced was that characterized by the woman with the alabaster ointment, lepers, beggars, and the dying men and women that Jesus had healed during his ministry. Praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus felt the weight of pollution, ostracism, betrayal, or impending pain and death that had characterized all those he healed and humankind more generally. According to scripture, Jesus was preparing to meet his fate to become the least of the least, a condemned and crucified criminal. While Jesus prayed that, “if thou be willing, remove this cup from me (Luke 22:42),” the disciples slept even though he had asked them to stand watch over him. While Judas Iscariot directly betrayed Jesus to the chief priests and the Temple guard, the other disciples demonstrated a profound thickheadedness about Jesus’ primary teachings. They acted oblivious to Jesus’ suffering, and thus oblivious to his doctrine. When the disciples abandoned him after his arrest, they demonstrated that they valued their own lives as men over the faith in the redemptive sacrifice that Jesus had taught them. They also left him bereft and isolated as he faced the power of the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman administration.
According to biblical accounts, the male disciples avoided Jesus (except for John in the Gospel of John) until he appeared to them in his resurrection. They were not in the crowd that urged Pilate to spare Barabbas and execute Jesus, nor did they follow Jesus to the cross, bear witness while he was crucified, visit the tomb, or believe in his resurrection when informed by Mary Magdalene and other women. Jesus had taught that “whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it.” (Luke 17:33) If they had embraced Jesus’ doctrine, the male disciples would have died with Jeus.
Only the women among Jesus’ followers accompanied him as he was being marched to execution and stayed with him during his crucifixion. The key to the betrayal and abandonment of the male disciples was their loyalty to male privilege. Torn between Jesus’ message and social prestige, wealth, and family, Peter, James, John, and the other male disciples chose their allegiances as men over their faith in Jesus. For Jesus, the followers around him were his family. The fact that his closest male disciples chose the priorities of men over Jesus was just as much a mortification of his person as his arrest, interrogation, scourging at the hands of the Romans, and crucifixion on the cross. Because their primary commitment was to the male privileges of social prestige, authority, and religious sanctity, the male disciples rejected the concept of divinity taught to them by Jesus and then abandoned Jesus in his hour of need. Like the Pharisees and other religious authorities, the most prominent male disciples represented the interests of all men as they played their parts in the killing of Jesus. .
The ministry of Jesus challenged the patriarchal super structure of the time, assaulting male and class identity and privilege. As a result, Jesus made enemies of those men whose privileges he condemned as opposing the kingdom of God. This includes the fathers of his disciples he recruited away from family enterprises, men who possessed wealth and property, all those men who sought to uphold male honor through the ethic of revenge, the Pharisees and Scribes who enforced the religious laws, the high priests who managed the financial enterprises of the Temple, and the Roman authorities who counted on their subjects to pursue their self-interest.
Jesus viewed concern with social status, wealth and family as attachments to the world which prevented people from devotion to god. Because of this, Jesus offered blistering criticisms of the Pharisees, scribes, priests, and the wealthy. He then generalized the principles behind these criticisms to prescribe other kinds of male behavior like labor, property accumulation, and revenge. Jesus was also implacable in his demands that the men who followed him abandon their families. And to lend the utmost in practical consequences to his warnings, Jesus threatened his targets with the constant specter of hellfire and damnation.
Men killed Jesus because he attacked three core areas of male privilege—religious authority, property, and family. This male privilege perpetuated itself through a capital of external wealth, social respect, and self-esteem. As a result, when various descriptions of men—the Pharisees, scribes, temple priests, temple soldiers, Roman authorities, and Roman soldiers—killed Jesus, they did so in the name of all men. Even Jesus’ disciples were implicated deeply in the crucifixion. Judas betrayed Jesus to the Roman authorities, Peter denied Jesus three times, and the rest of Jesus twelve closest male followers seemed to abandon him in his hour of need. When faced with the choice of joining Jesus in martyrdom or adhering to the world of male privilege, the male disciples all chose male privilege and patriarchy. The only followers who stayed with Jesus through his death were women like Mary his mother and Mary Magdalene and indeed it was women who were privileged to receive the first news of the resurrection. Where the male followers ultimately identified with the general male interest in killing Jesus, his female followers were in a better position to grasp the message of resurrection. Perhaps the men who killed Jesus did so in the name of all men.
[i]Luke 7: 44-46, The New Testament of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with Psalms and Proverbs, Commonly known as the Authorized (King James Version), National Publishing, 1968. All subsequent New Testament citations from same edition.
[ii]Matthew 5:3; Matthew 23: 11-12; John 13: 4-5.
[iii]Matthew 23: 5-7; Luke 6: 25; Luke 7:47. In Luke 18, Jesus makes a similar comparison between a Pharisee and a tax collector. For popularity of Pharisees, see Timothy A. Friedrichsen, The Temple, a Pharisee, a Tax Collector, and the Kingdom of God,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Spring2005, Vol. 124, Issue 1, 109-110.
[iv]For efforts by the Pharisees to extent dietary prescriptions, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharisees.
[v]Matthew 23: 11-12.
[vii]Luke 6: 24-25; Matthew 6: 24;
[viii]Luke 12:22; Matthew 6: 25-30; Luke 12:38.
[x]Luke 8: 31-37; Matthew 23: 14, 23.
[xiii]Luke 21: 16-17
[xiv]Luke 9: 60.
[xv]Matthew 5: 39-44; Matthew 7: 1-2, 13-14.