Was Jesus Seditious? (Part 2 of 3)

Loren RossonIn the last post we saw a scholar’s approach to the question of Jesus’ wife, and today we’ll examine two popular accounts of Jesus’ politics.

Within months of each other, Bill O’Reilly and Reza Aslan published books that are still on bestseller lists: Killing Jesus: A History and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

O’Reilly is a conservative Christian, Aslan a liberal Muslim, and yet their books argue remarkably similar things. You’d never guess that, based on the publicity: O’Reilly works for Fox News, which went out of its way to belittle Aslan’s book in a notorious interview.

"Killing Jesus: A History" by Bill O'Reilly

“Killing Jesus: A History” by Bill O’Reilly is available from the library in hardcover, audiobook on CD, and downloadable audiobook.

They both agree that Jesus was a revolutionary who opposed the Roman occupation of Judea, and stood against the oppressive system of taxes and tithes demanded by Rome and the Jewish priesthood.

The difference is that O’Reilly interprets this within a libertarian framework, while Aslan gives it a more left-wing thrust, and while each has problems, the latter is more historically sound.

In the agrarian world of ancient Judea and Galilee, Jesus wasn’t antitax because he was for “small government,” but because taxes were being squeezed from the poor and used for luxurious city projects in places like Jerusalem and Sepphoris. He was essentially demanding that the rich stop subsidizing their comforts and help the poor instead.

Then what about Jesus’ famous command? When asked if it was lawful to pay taxes, he said:

“Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12:17; Matthew 22:21; Luke 20:25)

Most Christians today understand this in terms of separation of church and state — that one should give Caesar worldly things and God spiritual things. But in Jesus’ day, religion and politics went hand-in-hand. O’Reilly and Aslan acknowledge this, and suggest that Jesus was making a dangerous political statement, though a cleverly evasive one.


“Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth” by Reza Aslan is available from the library in hardcover, e-book, downloadable audiobook, and audiobook on CD.

O’Reilly says that “Jesus marginalized Rome without directly offending it.” (p. 204)

Aslan explains at more length:

“According to Jesus, Caesar is entitled to be ‘given back’ the denarius coin, not because he deserves tribute, but because it is his coin: his name and picture are stamped on it. God has nothing to do with it. By extension, God is entitled to be ‘given back’ the land the Romans have seized for themselves because it is God’s land. ‘The Land is mine,’ says the Lord (Leviticus 25:23). Caesar has nothing to do with it.” (p. 77)

Their interpretations square with what many scholars tell us. William Herzog, for instance, says that Jesus was telling people to pay their taxes “in contempt”–to give back to Caesar his filthy coins, because he minted them in his image and they should be returned to the idolater in whose image they are made (see Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p. 232). That was less a call to pay taxes, and more a cry to expel the coins from the promised land. It was coded speech, not because Jesus wanted to confuse people, but because he was avoiding entrapment.

I enjoyed reading Killing Jesus and Zealot, even when I disagreed with each on a number of points. But it’s striking that on the question of sedition they are so close, and here I mostly agree: Jesus was seditious for opposing tyranny in a nonviolent way; he thought God would deal with Caesar in due course.

Next up: Morton Smith’s gay Jesus.

About Loren Rosson

Loren Rosson heads up the circulation department at the Nashua Public Library. He's worked at the library since graduating from Lewis and Clark College, with the exception of the two years he spent in Lesotho with the Peace Corps, teaching high school.

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