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Raymond Hobbs
A paper presented at the Conference of the Context Group,Portland, Oregon, March 15-19, 2000

1.1 This paper is a development of the presentation at the conference in Tützing in June, 1999. The body of the paper, from pages 1-13a, remains substantially the same. It is a reflection on aspects of the study of Jesus and the Gospel which give me cause for hesitation and further reflection. The concluding section of the paper has been expanded significantly, and several charts and diagrams have been added. I believe the conclusions I originally offered have been strengthened, and with this paper I offer for discussion an important social science model for the understanding of Jesus in the Gospels. It is intended as a prelude to exegesis and historical investigation. I apologize for the length of the essay as a presentation at the Context conference, however, I suggest that the first section can be scanned rather quickly. The essay is part of a larger, ongoing study, and its title is undoubtedly inspired by the the book written by John Howard Yoder, which appeared in two editions, in 1972 and 1994.
1.2 Yoder’s book was extremely popular - a socially significant fact - and this popularity was matched by an intense interest, in the years between the first and second editions, in the topic of the relationship of Jesus to Politics. In these years and since then, there have been numerous books produced in Biblical studies which betray an interest in the topic inside the academy as well.
1.3 The picture of the social situation of first century Palestine, as offered in numerous volumes since the early 1970s - Theißen (1978, 1987, 1992), Horsley (1985, 1988, 1995), Oakman (1986), Crossan (1989b, 1991), Fiensey (1991), and more recently Hanson and Oakman (1998) - is basically a sound one. There are, of course, differences in interpretation of the situation among these and other writers, but what Lenski described as an ‘advanced agrarian economy’ - with its accompanying graphic representation - is a good descriptive and analytical model for the region, and the period. It is a ‘useful’ model (Elliott 1993:40-48, Barrett 1996:214).
1.4 In almost all of these analyses there is insufficient notice taken of the dominant institution of the army - Roman citizen-army and auxiliary militia - which was present in force in the region. Although the early days of Roman control were ‘fluent and changeable’ (Millar 1993:24), the nature of the control became more and more organized and widespread. Within a few decades the legionaries and the unknown number of auxiliary militia in the region became the face of the empire that most of the inhabitants saw and experienced (Millar 33).
1.5 This paper is an invitation, against this backdrop, to an examination of the ministry of Jesus in a light which has, to date, been rather under-exposed.
2.1. The Role of ‘Master Narratives’
2.1.1 Halvor Moxnes has reminded us of the role of ‘master narratives’ underlying much of modern Jesus research (Moxnes 1998). Drawn from modern historical research, the notion of ‘master narrative’ (sometimes called a ‘meta-narrative’, or ‘meta-discourse’) is a complex ideological or conceptual framework within which historical and archaeological data are placed and understood. It functions in an almost unconscious mode much like the social scientist’s ‘model’, and indeed has been depicted in this way by historians like Berkhofer (Berkhofer 1998). The recognition of the ‘master narratives’ is such that Lori Rowlett has commented that, “An argument could be made that the field of biblical studies needs to include among its axiomatic assumptions that our own historical context inevitably plays a part in the way we read.” (Rowlett 1996:25, see also Elliott 37).
2.1.2 Historian David Lowenthal has established the lines of an extremely important debate, between what he labels ‘history’ and ‘heritage’. For Lowenthal, heritage is the tendency to domesticate history for a personal or selfish purpose.
In domesticating the past we enlist it for present causes.
Legends of origin and endurance, of victory or calamity,
project the present back, the past forward; they align us
with forbears whose virtues we share and whose vices
we shun. We are apt to call such communion history,
but it is actually heritage. The distinction is vital.
History explores and explains pasts grown ever more
opaque over time; heritage clarifies pasts so as to infuse
them with present purposes.
(Lowenthal 1998:xv)
2.1.3 Heritage, he states elsewhere, is not an inquiry into the past, but a celebration of it, not in an effort to know what happened but a profession of faith in a past tailored for present purposes. (1998:x). The notion of heritage is closely akin to what the late Moses Finley called the ‘teleological fallacy’ (Finley 1980:17)
2.1.4 Whereas heritage is always teleological, and personal, history carries within it a certain anonymity, in the sense that it is owned by no one, whether victor or victim, and it is always incomplete. If heritage is a domestication of the past, then history is a discovery of the alien nature of the past. Historical study then compels the investigator to confront challenges, surprises, disappointments, joys and sadness, and refuses to be seduced by that most western of narrative clichés, (i.e. a ‘master narrative’) the ‘Happy Ending’.
2.1.5 In a similar fashion there is an anonymity to the historical Jesus. He comes to us as one unknown. Not as a phantom walking on the water, but as one who refuses to fit into ready made molds, whether it be the rebel, the conformist, the religious reformer, the peace activist or the politician. As with the crowds in Mark’s Gospel the historian of Jesus and the Jesus movement must always be prepared go out amazed, and to confess, we never saw anything like this !(Mark 2.12)
2.1.6 Robert Berkhofer suggests,
...most (all?) of what is presented as (f)actuality is a
special coding of the historian's synthetic expository texts,
designed to conceal their highly constructed basis.
...That such coding is conventional also means that it is
. [150].
I understand the highly constructed basis of which Berkhofer writes, to be identical with the notion of ‘master narrative’, or what Berkhofer himself labels ‘meta-narrative’. But ‘master narratives’ are not purely random, nor are they neutral. They, like other elements, are cultural artifacts born in the matrix of the author’s own social and cultural context. They therefore provide a potentially interesting area for examination.
2.2. Lakoff and Johnson on ‘Conceptual Metaphors’
2.2.1 The historian’s focus on the past was once assumed to be clear. Now the focus has become fuzzy and less clear, forcing the historian to concentrate on aligning the instruments of observation (the constructed, rhetorical nature of our knowledge) more carefully, and, incidentally, paying more attention to them (Kellner 1998:134). Like all others, historians are the subjects of ‘socialization’ in which ‘the history of social relations enters into people’s understanding of themselves and of the world they live in’ (Toren 1996:514). Involved in socialization is the transmission of cultural values, understandings of the nature of the universe/world, the language used, the myths retold, and the way in which these are all embedded in social systems. Lakoff and Johnson complement this with the notion of the ‘conceptual system’ (Lakoff and Johnson 1988:3) which ‘plays a central role in defining our everyday realities’ (3). The conceptual system is learned, constructs our social realities, is often unconscious, is betrayed by language and, importantly, is metaphorical. Such constructs of reality are akin to, if not identical with the ‘metanarratives’, or ‘master-narratives’ of the historian, or the ‘meta-discourse’ of the anthropologist, in the sense that they provide a conceptual and ideological framework within which data and experiences can be understood.
2.2.2 In his book Imagined Communities:Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (2nd ed. 1996), Benedict Anderson concludes with reflection on ‘The Biography of Nations’ (204-207). Such biographies, he suggests, are not written in the conventional sense from parents or grandparents to children, i.e. ‘down time’, through a long, progressive chain of begettings. (205), but ‘up time’ This marked by deaths, which in a curious inversion of conventional genealogy, start from an originary present. (205), and grab hold of elements of the past wherever the lamp of archaeology casts its fitful gleam. (205). It is the perpetual domestication of the past, from which we find it hard to escape. It is, Lowenthal’s notion of ‘heritage’. Reflection on our own ‘national histories’ and the way in which they are presented will substantiate this observation.
3.1. Nature of ‘Politics’
3.1.1 Calling Jesus ‘political’ (Yoder) begs certain historical questions. Since the 1950s in western writing on political science, terms like ‘political culture’ have come into the vocabulary, indicating a broadening of the notions of politics, and the practice of politics, and the subject for political analysis (Kavanagh 1972, Rosenbaum 1975, Femia 1995). Added to this are notions of the ‘politicizing’ of knowledge (Foucault 1980), and interpreting all human relationships not only as engagements of power, but as engagements in which both sides, regardless of their standing, can do something about power (Coulson and Riddell 1980).
3.1.2 If Aristotle’s profile of politics and political activity held any authority in the ancient Mediterranean world, then politics is what happened in cities, among property-owning males. In the Roman world of the first century, politics is, by extension, what happened in Rome. Broadly-speaking, it was the manipulation of power by an élite, and subsequently the exercising of power over the imperial subjects. In Bailey’s words:
The nation...becomes an arena in which the nobles fight it out
with one another for a position at the top of the highest
accessible heap...The state from this elevated point of view
was not the entire population, but only those who governed.
Bailey 1991:111-112).
The idea that individuals in the first century at the farthest reaches of the empire had any truly political power, or could exercise such power in any meaningful way, was extremely suspect. It can only be understood this way if politics is broadened to include many modern western notions, such as the relation of the ‘individual’ to ‘society’.
3.1.3 Within studies of the cultural anthropology of the traditional Mediterranean world, the common division between ‘political’ and ‘family’ life for the average person (Hanson and Oakman, Pilch 1993:139-142) would support my point that Jesus was probably not involved in ‘Politics’, in the accepted sense of the first century Mediterranean world. Of course, there were examples of family intrigue and jostling for control within the family. Such cases can properly be called ‘political’ from our later perspective. But whether they would be so understood in the first century context is another point entirely. Those who did practise power politics in the Mediterranean world are treated with the utmost suspicion (Herzfeld 1991: 20, 27; Bailey 1971:303), a point, I think which is reflected in Jesus’ comment on the leadership styles among the ‘rulers of the nations’ (Matt. 20.25; Luke 22.25). They would certainly not affect the broader structures of society within which the family life found its home, and unless there was a deliberate intrusion of such into the world of the peasant. It is to the same ‘rulers of the nations’ to whom Jesus is handed over for trial (Matt. 20.19).
3.2. Lenski in Reverse
3.2.1 One of the most popular and ‘useful’ macro-societal models used in current social science discussion of the first century world of early Christianity is that of Gerhard Lenski, the ‘advanced agrarian society’ (Lenski 1984) [Fig. #1]. Its familiar shape - that of an ancient bottle with a broad base and narrow top - is determined by two axes, the distribution of power, and the size of the population strata. Dominant in the image presented is the size of the population. I suggest this interest in demographics (i.e. numbers) reflects western values. It is a static image, and offers little of the way in which the most important element of the social structure of the ancient Mediterranean world is distributed and enforced. That element is, of course, power and its accompanying honour.
3.2.2 In the light of ancient Mediterranean terms and values, the shape of the model, though not its basic presentation would change. What westerners perceive as the powerless masses, thus concentrating on the numbers of lower strata in society, is of little or no concern to the ancient politician. From Aristotle on the masses at the lower end of the social scale are understood, not as a result of an imbalance in the distribution of wealth and power, but as a fact of nature. The task of those at the top who have been endowed, again by nature, with the gift of leadership (they are the true political animals) is to control the masses below and to maintain an equilibrium to the advantage of those at the top. This is an idea common in European thought until Hobbes (1651). This equilibrium is maintained through the manipulation of the agents of power - primarily the army - and the ancient member of the ‘lower class’ would see him/herself as overshadowed by a vast umbrella of power against which they were completely powerless (Fig. #2).
3.3. The High Centre and Porous Borders
3.3.1 The frequently used term ‘marginalized’ to describe the recipients of Jesus’ words and acts of kindness demonstrates the strength and ubiquity of the model of ‘centre and periphery’ (Shils 1981, Champion 1989:2-5). On the large-scale the metaphor is a helpful one to use in describing the structure of Roman imperial rule. There is a strong centre, and a distant border controlled from the centre. This use of the model has been fully exploited by Liverani in his studies on Assyrian imperial rule (Liverani 1977), and became the subject of an important historical and archaeological symposium (Champion).
3.3.2 The elements of the model, centre and periphery, are relative (Douglas & Wildavsky 1983:120). The values which provide the dynamic of the model are supplied by the observer. Shils exposition (Shils 1981) dependent upon ‘consensus’ around ‘central’ values, betrays its western interest in numbers, and is based on the assumption that the ‘mass’ have a political voice. Benedict Anderson makes the following observation on ‘pre-modern’ societies:
Kingship organizes everything around a high centre. Its legitimacy derives
from divinity, not from populations, who, after all, are subjects, not
citizens. In the modern conception state sovereignty is fully, flatly, and
evenly operative over each square centimetre of a legally demarcated
territory. But in the older imagining, where states were defined by
centres, borders were porous and indistinct, and sovereignties faded
imperceptibly into one another
(Anderson 1991:19)
3.3.3 This observation is important. Palestine, because of the nature of its geography, and its position as the ‘distant periphery’ (Braudel 1972:355) of the Roman empire, constituted one of its most porous borders. But precisely because of this the military presence in the region was massive. It had grown since the first occupation, and it is estimated that by the middle of the second century over one third of the entire Roman Army was stationed in the Roman Near East (Millar 4).
3.4. The Role of the ‘Lower Classes’
3.4.1 I do not want to offer a detailed picture of ‘lower classes’ (a loaded term) in first century Palestine. Instead I wish to sketch something of their political significance within the context of the this paper. I do this by drawing on ethnographies of such classes in recent historical/anthropological literature. I begin with an important quotation from James Scott’s recently published monograph, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (Yale UP: 1998). Scott’s observations are helpful and appropriate.
The pre-modern state was, in many crucial respects, particularly
blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their
landholdings and yields, their location, their identity. It lacked
anything like a detailed ‘map’ of its terrain and its people. It
lacked for the most part a measure...that would allow it to
translate what it knew into a common standard necessary for a
synoptic view.
(Scott 1998:2)
What Scott then goes on to offer in detail is the process of ‘making legible’ the unreadable outposts of the empire. It is a process of simplification, seen most clearly in the construction of road systems which, in reality and symbolically, straighten out old paths, redefine ancient towns and cities as centres of communication, and, of course, control. A control, I stress again, which was exercised primarily through the presence of an army. The so-called ‘lower classes’ would consist of at least slaves, peasants and bandits. Slaves deal with this topic very briefly. The Roman empire, and its dependent client-states were slave societies, something seen as being in the natural order of things (Aristotle Politics I v). The term ‘slave’ is multi-faceted including galley rowers, and miners, to estate managers and police forces. Their common element is lack of citizenship, and therefore lack of legal status. It is not so much their labour that they offer in service, but themselves (Finley 1980 68) bonded to slave-owners by ‘faithfulness’. This was a relationship that went beyond the normal relationships of respect, duty and honour in a hierarchical society (Finley 103-106). This is a phenomenon reflected in the parable of the talents (Matt 25.14-30). It is generally accepted that their wide variety of occupations and spread over large geographical areas, precluded organized outbursts based on the fact that they were slaves. For a fuller exposition of the matter, I defer at this stage to Finley’s exposition of slavery in his Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (1980). Peasants I shall take for granted that the majority of the population of Galilee at the time of the Gospel story were peasants. I will also take for granted the generally accepted image of the peasant as:
any rural cultivator who is low in economic and political status.
Low economic status denotes little access to economic inputs (capital,
land, knowledge); little control over the management of these inputs
(what to cultivate, when to work); and little control over output and
its distribution between the factors of production. Low political status,
likewise, denotes little access to political inputs (such as votes); little
control over the management of political affairs (over elected or
appointed officials); and little control over the output of the political
system (i.e. the content of political decisions).

(Landsberger, Hewitt 1970:561).
This depiction is based on twentieth century peasantry. I suspect that the lot of the First century peasant was much worse (see Rowlandson 1996). Within the study of peasantry as background to the Gospels, certain aspects of peasant life - their deprivation, their hardships, to name a few - have rightfully been stressed. I wish to look at other ‘anonymous’ aspects of peasant life which have not received as much attention. Almost all studies on peasant life in the 19th and 20th centuries mention the noteworthy characteristic of the peasants as their passivity. Well-known studies of ‘limited good’ (Foster 1965) or ‘the bad life’ (Bailey 1970) have stressed this. This passivity is certainly not to be regarded as laziness - which is often a stereotyped view of peasantry. It is a survival strategy based in a sound understanding of themselves as what Hobsbawm calls the basic type of humanity (Hobsbawm 1998:149), and as radically different from non peasants, whom they approach if at all, with intense distrust (ibid 149). To cite Hobsbawm again:
The major difference lies not in the theoretical aspirations of the
peasantry, but in the practical political juncture in which they
operate. It is the difference between suspicion and hope. For
the normal strategy of the traditional peasantry is passivity.
It is not an ineffective strategy, for it exploits the major assets
of the peasantry, its numbers and the impossibility of making it
do some things by force for any length of time, and it also utilizes
a favourable tactical situation, which rests on the fact that no
change is what suits traditional peasantry best...
This notion of the peasant’s passivity is widespread in the literature, and I add to the list Landsberger and Hewitt (1970), Feder (1971), Shanin (1971), Pearse (1975), Lenski (1984), Scott (1998) and Baker (1997:6). Closely related to the notion of passivity is a corresponding lack of political will, that is a will to change the system. This too is a widely recognized phenomenon in peasant studies. Hobsbawm, in a recently revised and republished essay on ‘Peasants and Politics’ (Hobsbawm 1998) observes that while the potential power of the peasantry (i.e. their numbers) is massive, peasant political activity is quite unrealistic (155) because of a perception of weakness and inferiority, the lack of a suitable armed force (unless raised by outside forces) and the nature of the peasant economy. The cycle of their labours shackles them to their fate (156). Elsewhere he states, The sense of the constant potential or actual confrontation of force may perhaps derive from the very exclusion of the traditional peasantry from the official mechanisms of politics. (159). Of course, these writers are dealing with 19th and 20th century peasantry and politics. One can only assume that in pre-industrial societies the lot of the average peasant was the same, if not, worse. Political significance should not be read into all lawless, rebellious action (Chabal 95). ‘Not all banditry and delinquency have deep political relevance, and it would be otiose to read political statements in every utterance and action of the disenfranchised. Whether such utterances and actions are politically meaningful depends in part on the self-consciousness of those who profess and utter them, and in part on the perception of those in high politics.’ (Baker 12-13). Pearse, in concert with this view notes that the political options for peasantry are few and limited. His examination of Latin American peasantry Pearse concludes that the only viable political alternative for peasants is a movement organized ‘from above’. But, unfortunately, such a movement is the expression of the forces of incorporation emanating from the centre; it is the form given to a new system of political and commercial manipulation (188). the benefits of such an involvement move outside the peasant group, and are almost always viewed with the peasant’s inherent suspicion. A third element of peasant life consists of the numerous strategies of survival developed by peasantry in the context of an oppressive and exploitative system. What the peasant would know of Rome would be taxation, and the threat of force. These make up the sense of the constant potential or actual confrontation of force as a determining feature of peasant life and action. Hobsbawm further states:
For most of the soil-bound peasants the problem is not whether
to be normally passive or active, but when to pass from state
to the other...Broadly speaking, passivity is advisable when the
structure of firm, or closed.
(1998 157-158).
Peasants certainly would have understood the truism, on the lips of Jesus, that they that live by the sword shall perish by the sword (Matt. 26.52). In other words, the chances of a successful change in the system are virtually nil, especially if one has to contend with the real power of the army as imperium. Accommodation, rather than open resistance is the ‘better part of valour’. (Shanin 238-260), an opinion endorsed by Bailey, who states,
Peasants live out their lives devising ways to protect themselves
and their households from the predatory incursions of the state,
while the state is organized, albeit inefficiently, to extract as
much as it can from its peasants.
Bailey has coined a perceptive phrase to describe how peasants (in this case in India) deal with potentially disastrous conflict, ‘The Civility of Indifference’ (Bailey 1996). The phenomenon of banditry, or what Hobsbawm chooses to call ‘social banditry’, has become an important element in discussion of the historical Jesus. The paper by K.C. Hanson presented at the Tützing conference (Hanson 1999) summarizes much of the debate in an extremely helpful way and establishes the most important categories of the discussion. I do not need to rehearse well-known material. I am trying instead to give a stronger voice to some of the anonymous features of studies on banditry in aid of the ongoing debate. Hanson has drawn together an impressive lexicon of terms used in ancient literature which is most valuable. Of necessity, the sources used refer on the whole to military activity against outlaws. Banditry, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and I believe it is helpful to understand the language in the context of deviance labeling by those in positions of power. By an ordered society deviants are ‘out of place’. The guardians of order, the beneficiaries of order, and those that support them affix such labels in the interests of maintaining the proper lines of such an ordered society (Pfohl 1985; Schur 1971:100-114. See also Lofland’s model Fig #3). This has been demonstrated with moving effect by Richard Moore in his study of persecution in late medieval Europe (Moore 1987). The use of terms like ‘bandit’ in Josephus and other ancient writers is to be seen in a broader context than simple historical description. The need for enemies is common (Bailey 1998), the faces of those enemies are drawn from a universal bestiary (Keen 1986, Hobbs and Jackson 1991). Commenting on a more modern phenomenon, Bailey suggests:
In politics the normal route to uncalculating solidarity,
the readiness to give one’s all to the cause, is not so
much love of the cause; it is the propensity to hate those
who are presented as the cause’s enemies.
(1998 xii)
Labels like ‘bandit’, ‘terrorist’, are often used in the annals of military history as justifications for repressive action against certain segments of society, often by armies of occupation, a point conceded by Isaac (Isaac 1991). In fact the disappearance of the term in Josephus, once the War has begun is noteworthy (War ii 253, Williamson 461). ‘Bandits’ it seems are responsible for the start of the war and the general unrest that preceded it. In describing two of the major sieges of the war outside Jerusalem, namely Gamla (War iv 4) and Masada (War vii 288-416) Josephus reserves remarkably restrained language for the defenders, who are now elevated to ‘sicarii’, and takes pains, to depict their ‘fights to the death’ as an unavoidable, but nevertheless, noble gesture, almost gladiatorial in its expression. Such an ennobling of an enemy (often to boost one’s own reputation) is common. In his study of banditry in Bengal during the latter half of the eighteenth century, Ranjit Sen (Sen 1988:45-47) distinguishes between mass robbery and social unrest on the one hand - a common feature of life, it seems, and banditry on the other. Banditry is sustained by its own motive, the motive of loot for individual sustenance or the sustenance of a group (Sen 46). Mass robbery, such as the looting of a merchant’s house at midnight by 300 rather unorganized men, is a sign of social unrest and widespread need, and, in the case studied, was not related to banditry at all. Yet, the British reports of incidents such as these consistently refer to the lawbreakers as ‘dacoits’ or ‘bandits’, without discrimination. To use the unimaginative language of sociology, this is an example of ‘societal reaction perspective’ (Pfohl 1985:283-330). For Hobsbawm ‘social bandits’ were forms of pre-revolutionary (pre-political) social protest - befitting the writer’s Marxist perspective. Like deviant-labels, ‘social banditry’ is a construct based on social values, and becomes a term of legitimation. ‘Social banditry’ as expounded is a cultural artifact, a way of seeing, and perhaps even an expression of hope. As if to reinforce this noble and romantic image, there is frequent appeal to the archetypical social bandit Robin Hood (Isaac, Hobsbawm, Horsley, Hanson). The allusion is very revealing. The Robin Hood envisaged is the Robin Hood of myth and legend, not of history. The popular image of a rejected nobleman fighting on behalf of peasants against cruel overlords is just that, an image, and states more of the ideals and ideology of the seventeenth- and eighteenth- century balladeers than it does of the realities of the case. Hobsbawm I think came close to this when he spoke more of ‘Robin Hoodism’ than about an historical character, Robin Hood. The recently-established historical and textual project on Robin Hood, sponsored by Purdue University and the University of Wales, Cardiff, has produced a rather different image of the man. The scholars involved state:
In the early texts , Robin is a yeoman, not a nobleman; he is
English by birth, not Saxon; he is from Barnsdale, Yorkshire,
not Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire; he does not have
a girlfriend named Marian; he does not live in the time of
King Richard; and he does not "rob the rich to give to the
poor." At times Robin is...impetuous, hot tempered, a poor
loser, a highway robber, a philanderer, and a murderer.

Peasant support of such men and their gangs is sporadic at best, but never constant. Peasants would have as much to fear from bandit gangs as from Roman revenge on their supporters, as the Egyptian evidence strongly suggests.
3.5 Involvement of the Military
3.5.1 There is a feature of most, if not all, studies on the historical context of Jesus which is worthy of comment. That is the absence of discussion on the involvement of the Roman army, and the locally raised militias in the society of the day. I now turn to this topic
3.5.2 Whether by direct Roman control, or by local control, the involvement of military power (not independent of political power), that is, the face of the empire, is widespread and inescapable. Its role was important, its presence ubiquitous, and its control near-absolute. Every aspect of ‘civilian’ life was in some measure or other under the control of the military. The Egyptian papyrological evidence presents a situation which might be typical of the Roman Near East; an institution involved in local and city administration, economic life, especially the collection and control of taxes, security with the attempts to control the ‘porous borders’ of the empire, internal justice acting as magistrates in village, town and city disputes over a wide range of civilian life (assault, property damage, theft, fraud, breaking of contracts, and even spousal abuse). By the second century most of these roles were the prerogative a locally stationed centurion, who became ‘a vital means of interaction between the people and the state.’ Alston 87).
3.5.3 Beyond this, their presence in certain areas also was meant as a deterrent against local banditry, for which Egypt and the Levant were notorious (Alston 81-86). There is certainly no evidence to show that such bandits were widely supported or encouraged by the agricultural workers from whom they stole their provisions. The few cases recorded of this happening were dealt with in a harsh a brutal manner. What is known is that by early in the second century large tracts of the fertile Delta area were abandoned and neglected, the villagers having been driven away by the raids of bandits (Alston 83-84). Given the passive tendencies of peasants, and their precarious existence, in such a volatile climate it seems more likely that they would prefer the regular and predictable abuse of the oppressive system under which they lived, moved, and had their being, rather than the irregular, chaotic and disruptive abuse and exploitation that would have come from bandit raids.
3.5.4 I spend some time on this topic to broaden the debate on the ‘politics of Jesus’. The presence of the Roman army and its auxiliaries on the soil of Palestine in such numbers and with such power is a result of the militarization of traditional Mediterranean society under the Romans. Thus far in the literature I have noticed little attention being paid to this phenomenon, and where it is noticed it is seen in terms of a fundamentally Newtonian model - for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This, along with the notion of the development from simplicity to complexity has been a ‘master-discourse’ of much social anthropological literature, particularly from the 1960s and early 1970s. One result of the application of this ‘master narrative’ is that the primary elements of social change have been violent outbursts, usually by revolutionary bandits. This is certainly the dominant characteristic of Hobsbawm’s model of ‘social banditry’ () and was also taken up by Wolff (1969).
3.5.5 Of great value for Second Testament studies are explorations of the role of participants in situations of dominance and resistance (Miller, Rowlands, Tilley 1995). While it is true that military organizations can become agents of dominance, and occasionally spark violent reaction, what is also noticeable is that in situations of dominance, the dominance itself can be maintained through quite peaceful means. The majority of the population is not necessarily bludgeoned into submission, but can accept the dominance through simple compliance with its demands (Miller 63). This again, is not an unconscious reaction, but a reasoned reaction based on notions of the greater good. It is, in fact, a conscious strategy of survival. Relationships of dominance are not simply of an active agent set against a passive subject. As Miller suggests, The reflexive definitions and perspectives of both sides of the relationship must be ascertained and understood in relation to each other (64).
3.5.6 In terms of the overall picture of such situations the observer’s (i.e. historian’s) skill is not found in setting up the scene intuitively as a situation of continual tension and undeclared revolution, but as detecting when, and under what circumstances the equilibrium is deliberately upset. On the other side, the military has to justify to itself and its rulers at what times tension is increased, and when is further repression justified. What often happens is that the tension is explained and the repression rhetorically justified in terms of typical military and political discourse (Jahangir 1988:319). This justification ranges from drawing attention to broader questions of stability for the whole of society, to apocalyptic warnings of total destruction and structural decay, if things go too far.
3.5.7 In the case study examined by Jahangir
there is ample evidence which points to the fact that the
peasants are aware of the[se] happenings: misdeeds of the
influential, corruptive practices and exploitation. This
awareness is internalized by the peasants, since they are
afraid of repression.
(Jahangir 316).
Or again, the observations of Baker:
...behind the peasants’ conduct on the public stage is an
anger that is quite as intent on mitigating and denying the
claims made by the dominant class as open rebels. Far
from false consciousness, Scott finds a penetrating under-
standing by them of what is being done to them. That they
quite deliberately avoid confrontation is precisely because,
as the weak, they could not survive the ferocious response
it would provoke. Their tactics, therefore, employ every-day
but largely hidden responses.
Defiance does not then become most important weapon against the dominators. He can react with other methods The social order [is] confronted with sarcasm, with more social knowledge and cunning, as well as with defiance in certain circumstances. (Jahangir 318). The key is when to use the appropriate one. A task for the observer is to determine which is in use, and when.
4.1 Here I note first three elements in that ministry worthy of comment, then I offer a model of human behaviour which I think is consistent with Jesus’ attitude and utterances. In the Gospels those with whom Jesus has immediate contact are the villagers, the scribes and Pharisees (representatives of Jerusalem, or an alternative religious group). These are at an intermediate stage of dominance. It is not until the very end of the Gospel story that he interacts with the powerful political authorities. But the precise nature of this involvement is ambiguous. Note the nature of the accusations and the ambivalent attitude of Pilate to the proceedings of the trial. So, very briefly:
4.2. Absence of a Programme of Manumission
4.2.1 In the Gospels we note a complete absence of a programme of manumission for slaves. In fact, the contrary. Slavery becomes a conceptual metaphor for the ongoing life of the Jesus community. Second only to the army, although by no means organized, the mass of slaves made up an enormous segment of the Roman social structure. A programme of social change (if such a thing could be envisaged) would have involved dealing with the issue of slavery. Yet the world waited another seventeen centuries for an anti-slavery movement which was remotely inspired by Christian ideals.
4.3. Economic ‘Programme’
4.3.1 We are all deeply indebted to Doug Oakman and his analysis of the economic situation of first century Palestine (Oakman 1986), and I have no wish to quarrel with the analysis. But I do raise one nagging question, and that is whether the assumed trust Jesus places in the ‘middle-man’ for social and economic change, is in fact, misplaced. I would ask further whether the supposed ability of the middle man to effect economic change is based on a realistic evaluation from a Mediterranean point of view. The parable in Matt. 25.14-30 certainly reflects the household manager’s role as that of acquiring goods for the household (Aristotle Politics I ix)
4.3.2 But in the ancient economy such managers lacked political power to change the system Landowning was a prerequisite for politics. As the parable demonstrates the results of an attempt to change the system (if that is what it really is) are immediate and arbitrary dismissal if the managers do not support the system. The ‘whistle-blower’ is a viable concept only if the manager has access to [i] publicity, [ii] a network of like-minded partners, and [ii] power. Outside the system he has none of these. This manager, it seems fell victim to the one who has power to kill the body (Matt. 10.28).
4.3.3 The scenario envisaged is dependent upon the conceptual metaphor of ‘organization as machine’, in which the failure of one part means the breakdown of the whole. The manager, by ‘putting a wrench in the works’ would have shut down the entire system. However, an alternative, and more appropriate metaphor is ‘organization as body’, which is a more flexible one. Within this metaphor, we have it on the most excellent authority (Matt. 18.7-9) that offensive parts of the body can be removed - through ‘excommunication’, banishment, or other symbolic forms of amputation. It is, of course, a painful procedure, but nevertheless a necessary one. In this parable, the corrupt manager receives his expected reward. As I outline below, this bleak portrayal of the current system is consistent with the notion of ‘carnival’ related to disengagement.
4.4. Lack of Military Action
4.4.1 In the gospels there is a remarkable lack of even so much as a hint that Jesus developed a political strategy which took into account the military realities of his context. The few references there are which could be interpreted in this way are ambivalent, and open to a variety of interpretations. The military, as I have posited above, were the dominant face of the Roman power in Palestine. If analogies with Egypt hold, they were the enforcers of stability and order, involved in local government down to the lowest level, and also involved in suppression of stasis, when necessary. They were not a ‘separate’ institution of the imperial structure, but the only face of the empire which most of its subjects saw.
4.4.2 This lack of a military agenda has been interpreted by Yoder and a few others as an endorsement of a deliberate anti-militaristic stance, i.e. pacifism. The conclusion is poorly supported, and thoroughly anachronistic. I would argue that in First Century Palestine ‘social change’ must involve at some stage or other, a violent confrontation with the military powers. The two are inseparable. Lack of interest in this suggests an alternative strategy.
5.1. Sketch of the Model
5.1.1 To understand some of the anomalies I detected in the above I turned to a notion of ‘disengagement’, which is becoming more common in social science literature. Broadly speaking ‘disengagement’ is ‘an inevitable process in which many of the relationships between a person and other members of a society are severed, and those remaining are altered in quality’ (Cummings & Henry 1961:210). It is a social and psychological withdrawal of an individual, or group from an ‘engagement’ with others, or with society as a whole. Many have seen the process of ‘disengagement’ in terms of its active or passive characteristics, and there is a near universal understanding of the process as negative in most of its realizations.
5.1.2 It is used commonly of the passive process of aging in which a reduction of life activities and of ego energy is the inevitable outcome. Thus, unwillingly, the aging person disengages from society into an amorphous limbo to await the next step, death (Cumming 1968, Cumming & Henry 1961, Kastenbaum 1979, Maddox 19823, Tallmer & Kutscher 1984). Within the circles of educational theory, it is used of what was once labeled ‘dropping out’, especially amongst students of colour in a predominantly white environment (Sefa Dei 1998), or of privileged white students who maintain an attitude of entitlement without the necessary sense of obligation. From the rigours of the traditional educational process, they have disengaged. In other words, they do not do assignments or cheat on them (Flack & Thomas 1998). A more neutral understanding of ‘disengagement’ is seen in social studies in the breakup of relationships in western society, which is done in true western fashion with as much benefit to either side as possible (Cahn 1987). Or in legal studies where a lawyer, through fear of recriminations, or charges of conflict of interest will disengage from, or drop, a client. The most positive, and indeed the most consistent use of the term is in military affairs when an army, division, brigade, regiment, company or platoon will ‘disengage’ the enemy by withdrawal or retreat (Hinterhof 1959 - the classic statement).
5.1.3 In more recent years the term ‘disengagement’ has been used as a descriptor of social and religious organizations which have withdrawn from the larger society to form their own system consistent with their cognitive world. Historically, such volunteerism has been seen as the result of conscious decisions made in the spirit of freedom of thought, worship or speech. The label attached to such groups is the Enlightenment-influenced label of ‘dissent’. Prominent in the study of such groups has been the work of Bryan Wilson (1966, 1967, 1973, 1976, 1982, 1990).
5.1.4 Active disengagement is understood as the conscious, rational and deliberate withdrawal from a previous engagement with society or another. The resultant dissent is understood as inspired by rational debate over ideas or world views (e.g. the ‘apocalyptic’). But ‘disengagement’ is a much more complex social phenomenon. It is not merely a matter of opinion, but involves notions of criticism (of the larger group) alongside notions of self-interest and self-preservation. It is, therefore a strategic position which needs further understanding. What I suggest by this is that beneath or even in place of what others have called the ‘political’ position of Jesus, which appears to be one of continuous social criticism, there might be a concern for the preservation of the group he formed, and a continuation of its values.
5.1.5 In his 1993 work The Kingdom of Individuals:An Essay on Self-respect and Social Obligation (Bailey 1993) Bailey developed a clear model of the human behaviour of disengagement (Fig. #4). It is a model doing what a model was supposed to do, provide an explanation for as much of the information as possible, without resort to excision of ‘unsuitable’ aspects of the subject matter. This is a model from the domain of oppression and potential conflict, and, in the way Bailey constructs it, is an unusual one for westerners to accommodate. Western consumer culture (WCC) is used to language of equality, equal rights, which are of course, cultural artifacts. WCC tends to have three strategies of dealing with conflict, and they are, in descending order of importance [1] conflict resolution; [2] conflict management, [3] conflict containment. Each of these is an admission of the failure of the previous one. There is a fourth which ‘disengagement’ addresses, and that is to live with the conflict, but not let it affect life unless absolutely necessary. In another context Bailey called this ‘the civility of indifference’. Turner’s four-stage ‘social drama’ of [1] breach, [2] crisis, [3] redressive action, and [4] reintegration. (Turner 1974), and which he views as processual touches on the same attitude. The last of his categories he is sometimes a legitimation of the social schism, that is, the ability to live with lack of what westerners adore, namely, ‘closure’. These are, as we appreciate, cultural positions and ideals.
5.1.6 The model of disengagement which Bailey outlines has six primary characteristics (Fig #3). It is clear that, as expounded by Bailey, disengagement is not an ascetic withdrawal from life and conflict. It is, instead, an attitude of a small, threatened group, towards a larger, all-powerful and all pervasive group, and/or a dominant ideology. It is a pragmatic and a strategic response, and it is, at root, subversive. Disengagers use the language of the larger group and subvert it (‘anti-language’). Disengagers present an image of compliance which masks strong disagreement. Disengagers seek to survive and to protect their way of life in the context of an alien dominant group. Such a strategic response to the environment is consistent with what have been identified as dominant peasant attitudes (Bailey 1996 126, 129-130).
5.1.7 Since Bailey wrote there has been much more work done on the notion of political disengagement, especially in post-colonial peasant societies. Most helpful among the studies is a concise paper by Bruce Baker (1997) which provides a survey of research, an evaluation of the research, and an outline of a much more comprehensive model. Baker’s model, unlike Bailey’s, deals with levels of disengagement, from ‘social power’, ‘unacceptable power’, ‘political society’ and/or ‘civic society’. No one form of disengagement is thoroughly consistent and unitary. Anomalies in attitudes and actions persist even among the most radical of groups. Baker calls this ‘straddling’ But, as he suggests, ‘Straddling is no more than the recognition that some powers are beneficial and to be engaged, and some powers are detrimental and to be disengaged from.’ (Baker 11). To accommodate this aspect of contradiction, Baker examines the foundational strategy of the non-elites, or their foundational value, which guide the action in a variety of circumstances. This value, he suggests, is self-preservation. The model then becomes more flexible, and therefore more comprehensive, allowing for differing historical circumstances, differing reactions to circumstances on the part of individual groups. It also provides evidence for a variety of types of disengagement which groups can adopt. In many ways it has the adaptability, the scope and the usefulness of the Grid and Group model which Bruce Malina has developed from the observations of Mary Douglas.
5.1.8 First, Baker sketches nine ‘disengagement phenomena’ which have been considered by observers (Fig. #5). The nine are Migration, Anti-establishment activity, Localized autonomy, Counter-culture movements, Economic separation, Selective evasion of control, Abandonment of culture, Non-participation in formal politics, and Non-participation in informal politics. One advantage of such a comprehensive list is that it moves investigation beyond the rather overworked dualities of traditional cultural analysis, such as ‘church-sect’.
5.1.9 The Typology of the model which Baker offers (Fig. #6) has one axis, Withdrawal Strategy, accommodating some variations in the level of disengagement of a group, movement, or even an individual. These strategies are: Autonomy, Avoidance and Deception, and Indifference. These are not necessarily linked individually to specific groups, but can also be characteristic of a single group in different circumstances. Along another axis, with the heading Arenas of Domination (I would prefer the term ‘Domains of Action’), Baker places four notions of Territorial politics, Economic politics, Institutional politics, and Cultural politics. The intersection of these axes results in twelve aspects of disengagement.
5.1.10 In addition to these notions, Baker offers his attempt to evaluate the Degrees of political disengagement visible in a society, and to link them with (ideal) types of ‘members’ of that society (Fig. #7). On two intersecting axes of Acceptance and Rejection, and High and Low Levels of Participation he plots a range of ‘civic’ activities embodied in the civic, voting, spectator, apathetic, hostile or rebellious ‘citizen’. This chart I find to be tautologous, and less useful than the others.
5.1.11 A distinct advantage of Baker’s model, used in Jesus research, is that it removes the debate from the dominant discussion about the political role and status of the poor and dispossessed in society - which, however noble an endeavour, is a distinctly modern (i.e. post Victorian) western obsession (Himmelfarb 1994). It rescues the debate from numerous ‘teleological fallacies’ (Finley 1981:17), which assume that Jesus had exactly the same concerns about the shape and function of society that the modern social activist has. To find out whether that is true is the goal of exegesis. That it is true is an act of faith, not the result of historical investigation.
5.2 Jesus and Disengagement
5.2.1 It is important now to outline the relevance of this model for reading the Gospels. It is impossible at this stage to link all the strategies and domains outlined by Baker with the life and ministry of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. That work has just begun. What the introduction of this model does is establish an agenda for one’s future investigation of the Gospels within the context of modern Jesus-research.
5.2.2 Looking at the broad picture it seems that the categories offered in the Typology often fit aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus as presented in the Gospels without narrowing him and his group down to one specific strategy or tactic. To return to the point where I began: for Yoder’s influential book the sine qua non of Jesus’ studies was that Jesus was a political being, that he was deeply concerned about responding in an original way to the sociopolitical environment of his day, and that, because of this he is relevant for social ethics in the modern world (Yoder 1998:11). In this, of course, Yoder is not alone. This understanding is not value neutral, but is understood in ways in which I suggest Jesus might not recognize. By ‘political’ Yoder means participatory in the structures of power. By ‘response’ he means critical and public evaluation with an intention to change. By the ‘;sociopolitical environment’ he understands this as an imbalance, based on numerical distribution of society’s ‘goods’.
5.2.3 The relationships between Jesus and his social environment are subtle, and the more tools which are developed and used in understanding human behaviour in such contexts, the clearer, or perhaps, the more complex, the picture becomes. The anthropological model of ‘disengagement’ is one such model that helps us understand the complexity.
5.2.4 Closely linked to the idea of ‘disengagement’ is the anthropological concept of societal ‘inversion’, in which the elements of a society which contain the seeds of its own destruction are highlighted, sometimes ridiculed, or even portrayed in public fashion. This is certainly relevant to studies of peasant attitudes. Anthropologists have taken one of two approaches to ‘inversion’. On the one hand, ‘inversion’ is seen as depicting the ‘shadow’ side of a society - heaven and salvation, counterbalanced with hell and damnation, in some religious ideologies. Indian priests who practise at certain ceremonies, the very antitheses of proper Hindu ideals by eating forbidden food, for example. Such perhaps represent what a society without its established order may become.
5.2.5 But others have also noted that ‘inversion’ is often used as a strategy to highlight the structures of society in a grotesque way. Most common in the Mediterranean world is the carnival. Stanley Brandes’ study of ‘Giants and Big-Heads’ in Monteros society (Brandes 1980:17-36), is such a case. Brandes points out that the values behind such a ritual expression are common in agrarian societies of the circum-Mediterranean world. They include fear of exploitation, of dominance and submission. Such a strategy - whether enacted in rituals like this, or through more subtle means, like public debate - can be the partner of the strategy of disengagement, and under a mask of humour, it contains the utmost seriousness. Both strategies - disengagement and carnival/inversion - contain the most crucial element of subversion. This may be recognized as the conceptual foundation of comedy.
Carnivalesque practices thus attempt to invert consciousness,
to render ridiculous what has become normative, to show
turbulence and negation beneath conformity, to emerge as
spirits of protest against the perceived sickness of society.
(Strathern 1999:169).
6.1 I have suggested a model which will enable a fresh analysis of Jesus and his relationship to a programme of ‘political activism’ or ‘social change’. Such notions, though noble, are anachronistic. I have introduced the model of ‘disengagement’ as a possible tool to interpret the Gospel material, and briefly allied this model to the notion of social inversion. Together they involve, among other things, a flattery of the authorities, the stealing of language (‘anti-language’), the development and nurture of an inner group, and an avoidance of unnecessary trouble. The strategy adopted is one of survival within an oppressive system, and certainly not without criticism of that system. I do not claim, of course, that such a model provides an eternal and comprehensive clue to the understanding of the Gospels. But in offering this model I do suggest that it is what all models can only aspire to be, useful.

Raymond Hobbs, Ph.D.
35 Dromore Crescent
Hamilton, Ontario
Canada, L8S 4A8