S.G.F. Brandon. Jesus and the Zealots: A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1967.
Before Reza Aslan’s Zealot, there was S.G.F. Brandon’s 1967 work, Jesus and the Zealots.
I decided to read Brandon’s book due to the controversy surrounding Aslan’s work. I read book reviews that were highly critical of Aslan, and I wanted to see what Brandon’s case was for Jesus being a Zealot revolutionary. I was expecting Jesus and the Zealots to be a sensationalist book, but it turned out to be quite judicious and reasonable. Even though I question Brandon’s conclusions, I think that he asks good questions.
Brandon does not seem to me to be overly dogmatic about Jesus being a Zealot revolutionary, but he does appear to believe that Jesus had revolutionary impulses that Gospel authors sought to obscure. On what basis does Brandon believe that Jesus was a revolutionary? First of all, Brandon more than once mentions that Jesus had a Zealot as one of his disciples. Second, in Gospel works that try to refute the charge that Jesus was seditious against Rome, Jesus never speaks a word against the Zealots, even though the Gospels depict Jesus criticizing other Jewish groups (i.e., the Pharisees, the Sadducees), and having Jesus criticize the Zealots would have served the Gospel authors’ agenda; for Brandon, that indicates that Jesus was not a critic of the Zealots. Third, there was Jesus’ aggressive cleansing of the Temple, which Brandon believes was Jesus’ attempt to purify the Jewish religion in the face of the coming divine judgment; Brandon in one place states that this actually distinguishes Jesus from the Zealots (at least slightly), since Jesus was not attacking Rome but rather the Temple, but Brandon says elsewhere in the book that this Temple cleansing coincided with the insurrection of which Barabbas was a part (see Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19, 25). Brandon also notes indications in the Gospels that Jesus did not shy away from violent revolution: Jesus’ statement that he came to bring a sword, his exhortations to his disciples to take up their cross and follow them (and the cross was a punishment for revolutionaries), and his exhortation of his disciples to bring along swords when he was about to be arrested (but Brandon acknowledges that Jesus gave up on violent revolution when he saw it was hopeless). Fourth, Jesus was crucified for sedition by the Romans as a would-be Messiah, and Jesus’ expected mission (even according to certain New Testament passages) was to restore the kingdom to Israel. The Jewish authorities arguably did not have to trump up sedition charges against Jesus and turn Jesus over to the Romans if they wanted Jesus dead, for they could have simply stoned Jesus on a religious charge, as they did to Stephen in the Book of Acts. Jesus’ crucifixion for sedition at the hands of the Romans indicates to Brandon that there was something to the charge. And, fifth, there was the suspicion that Jesus’ followers even after Jesus’ death were believed to be seditious. According to Brandon, that was why Agrippa killed off certain Christian leaders, such as James.
Brandon argues that there were attempts after Jesus’ death to obscure Jesus’ revolutionary impulses. According to a number of scholars, the Gospel of Mark was written in Rome, and Brandon contends that there were Christians who were embarrassed by the fact that their founder was crucified for sedition. Consequently, according to Brandon, the Gospel of Mark tried to argue that Jesus was not seditious, and it blamed Jesus’ death more on Jewish leaders than the Romans. Against the view of many scholars that the Gospel of Matthew was written in Antioch, Brandon contends that it was written in Alexandria, Egypt, where many Jews fled after the Romans had crushed the Jewish uprising in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. Some of these Jews were Zealots who were still hungry for revolution, whereas others had decided that war was not the way to go: that it only brought disaster. For Brandon, the Jewish Christians in the latter group thus depicted Jesus as one who promoted peace and non-retaliation, rather than revolution against Rome.
Overall, Brandon’s depiction of the diversity of early Christianity is quite interesting. In Brandon’s depiction, there was the Jerusalem church, which held out hope that Jesus would return and overthrow Rome. There was Paul, who was gaining converts among the Gentiles and who was portraying Jesus’ crucifixion as an assault on demonic powers rather than on Rome, per se. And there were the Christians in Alexandria, whom Brandon believes are criticized in the pro-Paul Book of Acts. These Christians in Alexandria are depicted as people who are stuck in a John the Baptist sort of mode, who do not even know about the Holy Spirit. According to Brandon, Pauline Christians saw the Alexandrian Christians in this manner: as people who were hoping for a political redemption, and who did not recognize the importance of the Holy Spirit, as Paul did.
Like N.T. Wright and others, Brandon inquires why the Christian movement continued to exist after Jesus’ death, when many Messianic movements folded after their leaders died. Brandon contends that something—-perhaps a vision—-convinced early Christians that Jesus was still alive. Brandon seems to believe that Paul, too, had a sort of vision that he believed was from Jesus. For Brandon, a belief that Jesus was still alive motivated diverse strands of Christianity: Jewish Christians, who expected Jesus to return and to finish his mission to redeem Israel, and Paul, who had a more spiritual interpretation of Jesus’ life and work.
One argument that has been made against Brandon and Aslan is that Jesus could not have been a Zealot because the Zealots did not exist until the Jews revolted against Rome in the second half of the first century C.E. Brandon notes, however, that there were Jewish insurrections against Rome before that. A man named Judas led an insurrection in 6 C.E. after the Romans took over Judea to govern it directly and imposed taxes, and Brandon argues on the basis of Josephus’ Jewish Wars 7.254-256 that the Zealots considered Judas to be the father of their movement. Brandon also contends that Josephus had a motivation not to mention the Zealots until he came to the revolt in 66-70 C.E.: because Josephus was writing for the Romans, and Josephus did not want to present the Jews as people who were continually hungry for revolution.
There were at least three points Brandon made that I found particularly interesting. First, on page 259, Brandon argues that Mark’s claim that there was a Roman custom to release a political prisoner during the Passover was false. Brandon notes that Josephus mentions no such custom. But why would Mark make such a claim, if he knew that Romans could read his work and easily refute it? Doesn’t that indicate that Mark’s claim was accurate? Brandon does not think so. He says that Mark was “writing for a public which was unlikely to have the knowledge or inclination to check his story”, and he notes that Tertullian, writing to Roman magistrates, asserted that “Tiberius had been convinced in a report from Pilate as Christ’s divinity” (Brandon’s words, page 259), which Brandon deems to be an obviously false claim on Tertullian’s part. I liked this passage because of Christian apologists who argue that Christianity was true because no one was refuting its claims. (See here for an excellent response to that sort of argument.)
Second, on page 312 and thereabouts, Brandon discusses the significance of the temptation story in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 4). Brandon asks why it was considered wrong for Jesus to turn stones into bread, when Jesus would later perform the similar feat of multiplying bread and fishes. Brandon’s answer is that the temptation story is trying to show that Jesus did not perform his mission out of any obedience to Satan, for there were people who were claiming that Jesus and his ministry were Satanically or demonically driven. I had never thought about that before, but it makes sense. And, third, Brandon talks about Josephus’ reference to Jesus. Brandon notes that there were Christians in Rome, which was where Josephus was writing, and so Brandon deems it reasonable that Josephus’ reference to Jesus (minus the Christian interpolations) was authentic. Brandon speculates that Josephus was mentioning Jesus to show the Romans that the Jewish authorities in Palestine dealt with the founder of the Christian movement, which the Romans deemed to be subversive. For Brandon, Josephus’ reference to Jesus was part of Josephus’ overall agenda to make the Jews look good to the Romans, and to distance the Jews from revolution in his history.
What do I think about Brandon’s arguments? Well, I am open to his claim that the Romans had reason to deem Christianity to be subversive. I question whether Jesus was promoting or participating in armed insurrection, however, for even Brandon says things that indicate that Jesus and the early Jewish Christians had a different approach: that, rather than trying to overthrow the Romans and hoping to restore Israel through their own might, they were expecting an imminent divine intervention that would bring about justice (a still potentially incendiary expectation). But could these expectations and hopes have overlapped somehow, as some believed that it was their duty to assist God in what God was about to do, or to prepare the way for God? That is a good question.
I think that Brandon makes too big of a deal in noting that Jesus includes a Zealot in the ranks of his disciples, for Brandon fails to acknowledge that Jesus also included a tax collector as a disciple. I’ve heard preachers go on about how Jesus was including people of different political persuasions in his ranks, and speculating about the sorts of discussions and debates that went on around the disciples’ campfire. Rather than arguing that Jesus sympathized with the Zealots because he had a Zealot disciple, Brandon should have also addressed why Jesus included a tax-collector in his ranks, when tax-collectors were probably despised by Zealots.