“The Things That Make for Peace”: Jesus and the Politics of His Day

April 19, 2019

 

We typically read the exuberant enthusiasm of the crowd entering into Jerusalem with Jesus at his “Triumphal Entry” (Matt. 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-40; and John 12:12-19) as misguided. The crowds relished in the arrival to the Holy City of the prophet from Galilee, who they hoped would usher in a political kingdom of God removing the Roman oppressors and establishing an autonomous Jewish state. Yet, Jesus (at least as it is usually understood) came not to bring a political kingdom, but spiritual freedom. He came to deal with the liberty of a person’s soul, not their political freedom. The crowds crying, “Hosanna” (who Luke identifies as Jesus’ disciples; 19:37), then, missed Jesus’ role and mission. Such an interpretation, while common, fails to appropriately understand the nature of Jewish redemptive hopes within the first century. It unnecessarily spiritualizes Jesus’ words and actions and separates them and him from Jewish hopes of redemption and the Jewish people. Finally, it ignores the two competing attitudes that existed within Judaism regarding redemption and how it was to be achieved. 

 

Jesus, in short, was a Jewish nationalist. He identified completely with Jewish hopes of redemption, which, in all of its manifestations, was always bifocal: political and spiritual. Our failure to recognize this stems from our ignorance of the nuances of Jewish hopes of redemption in the first century. By uncovering the two primary attitudes regarding the achieving of redemption, we can understand where Jesus fit within the landscape of the first century. 

 

The Competing Views of How to Achieve Redemption within Judaism:

It is inaccurate to say that Jews only sought political redemption, even the most militant manifestation of Jewish national, political hopes of redemptions—the Jewish rebels of the First Revolt—embraced a bifocal ideology that possessed political and spiritual aspects. A distinguishing feature of the Jewish revolts against Rome with regard to revolts in other provinces against Rome was religious idealism and beliefs that fueled the Jewish efforts to overthrow Rome.[1] The description of the advent of the Davidic Messiah described in a work composed in the first century BC, the Psalms of Solomon, speaks about the removal of the wicked from the land, the peoples of the nations serving under his yoke, his purifying of Jerusalem, but it also describes the religious quality of the redemption he brings (Psalms of Solomon 17). To say that the Jews solely sought a political redemption is simply incorrect. 

 

Within the first century the Jewish people embraced three basic convictions: 1) the God of Israel was the only God, and He was king of the universe, 2) Israel was His chosen people, His royal inheritance, and 3) Israel could only properly worship God when it was free from foreign bondage (see Luke 1:73-75).[2] The annexation of the land of Israel by Rome, particularly in AD 6, and Rome’s continued rule over Judaea throughout the first century challenged these convictions. Two differing opinions emerged as to how redemption should be achieved. 

 

The first opinion embodied by the group identified by Josephus as the “fourth philosophy” (and others around it) felt that it was a sin for Israel to submit to any foreign rule since God alone was to rule over His people. These groups believed that their response to foreign rule was to actively struggle and fight against the foreign oppressor including the taking up of arms and spilling blood.

 

 

 

The second opinion believed that Israel found itself subjected to foreign rule because of its sin and disobedience. Israel’s response, then, was to repent, obey the commandments, and God would intervene in response to Israel’s repentance bringing about redemption. This stream of thought coined a phrase as an anti-slogan to the ideology of the first group, the phrase: the kingdom of Heaven.[3] During the First Jewish Revolt, this ideology manifested itself most clearly within the peace movement, characterized by figures like Yohanan ben Zakkai, among others.

 

Blessed are those who hear and keep:

Jesus’ use of the phrase, kingdom of Heaven, aligns him with the ideology of the peace group, although he uniquely applied it to his movement due to the role he understood himself to play at the center of God’s redemption.[4] He lived in the occupied land of Israel, under the Roman Empire, and yet, he never encouraged or embraced those movements that sought to take up the sword and fight for a single inch of land. Rather, he called the people to repent and obey the commandments of God; then, redemption would come. 

 

On one occasion, while he taught, a woman cried out saying, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you sucked” (Luke 11:27). She recited a Jewish blessing for the Messiah (Pesikta Derav Kahana, Supplement 6) identifying Jesus as Israel’s Messiah. He responded to her: “No, rather, blessed is the one who hears the word of God and keeps it” (Luke 11:28; emphasis added). His response in part rejected the cult of personality and any attempt to establish such a cult around him, but it’s more than that. Embedded within his reply lies an allusion to two significant passages from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

 

The first appearance of the words “to hear” and “to keep” within the Hebrew Bible comes from Genesis 26:5. Here, God reestablishes the covenant He made with Abraham with Abraham’s son Isaac: a covenant of land and progeny (26:3-5). God promises, “And I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and I will give to your seed all these lands. And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your seed because Abraham heard (listened) My voice and kept My statutes, commandments, ordinances, and laws” (26:4-5). The promise of progeny and possession of the land that God gave to Abraham and his descendants came about because Abraham “heard” and “kept” God’s commandments. 

 

A second occurrence of the joining of “to hear” and “to keep” appears when Israel stood before Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19:5). Here, God selected Israel as His chosen inheritance from all the other nations and said: “And now if you will surely hear (listen) My voice and keep My covenant, you will be for Me My personal property from all the peoples for all the earth belongs to Me, and you will be for Me a kingdom (see Acts 1:6) of priests, a holy nation” (19:5-6). Israel’s status as God’s chosen people depends upon their hearing and keeping God’s commandments.

 

The woman’s cry in Luke sought to identify Jesus as God’s agent of redemption, the one who would bring salvation for the Israel and its land. Jesus did not deny her confession, but his identification of those who are truly blessed, i.e., the ones who hear and keep the word of God, indicates that he saw the path of Israel’s redemption within its repentance and obedience, when they like Abraham hear and keep, they will fulfill the mandate of Sinai as God’s chosen people, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. In this way, Jesus aligned with those of the peace movement who said redemption will come through repentance and obedience, but keep in mind, this redemption had a political manifestation as well as a spiritual one. 

 

“Would Today the Things that Make for Peace”:

Luke records that as Jesus rode into Jerusalem, approaching the city, he wept over it saying, “Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace, but now they are hid from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you; because you did not know the time of your visitation” (19:41-44; emphasis added). Many assume that Jesus wept over the city because the people rejected him. Based upon his mention of the plural “the things that make for peace,” however, we cannot read his lament in this fashion. It was not “the thing” or “person” they failed to recognize, but the “things that make for peace.”

 

 

Jesus was not alone among his contemporaries in predicting the coming destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.[5] These various prophetic voices generally identified the corruption of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, particularly the priestly aristocracy, as well as the internecine hatred that existed within the land of Israel in the first century as factors responsible for the coming destruction. Jesus also identified the financial corruption of the priestly aristocracy as responsible for the coming destruction of the temple (Luke 19:45-47; 20:9-19). 

 

After the destruction of the Jerusalem and its temple, the sages of Israel arrived at a conclusion very close to Jesus’ as to the cause for the destruction of the Temple: “On what account was Shiloh destroyed? Because of the disgraceful disposition of the Holy Things that were there. As to Jerusalem’s first building [i.e., the Temple of Solomon, the First Temple], on what account was it destroyed? Because of the idolatry, licentiousness, and bloodshed which was in it. But [as to] the latter [building, i.e., the Second Temple] we know that they devoted themselves to Torah and were meticulous about tithes. On what account did they go into exile? Because they loved money and hated one another” (t. Menahot 13.22; see also y. Yoma 1:1). 

 

When Jesus looked over Jerusalem, roughly forty years before its destruction, he saw the path that the city and its leadership was on and that it would end in loss of life and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. They had missed “the things that make for peace.” 

 

Jesus often used simple speech laced with deft and sophisticated allusions to biblical texts and contemporary debates within ancient Judaism. His simple yet sophisticated language conveyed his profound message and a learned sophistication that came from the highest levels of Jewish academic training.[6] Embedded within Jesus’ phrase, “the things that make for peace,” lies an allusion to the words of Isaiah: “On that day: A pleasant vineyard, sing about it!...Or else let it cling to me for protection, let it make peace with me, let it make peace with me” (27:2-5). In other words, the “things that make for peace” refer to those things that make peace between Israel and God. Jesus’ lament indicates that the “things that make for peace” would have redemptive effect for Jerusalem and Israel, but “now they are hid from your eyes.”

 

The Aramaic targum (translation/interpretation) of Isaiah 27:4-6 expands the words of the prophet in a manner reminiscent of Jesus’ and provides a specific identification of the “things that make for peace” between Israel and God, as well as the redemptive value of such actions:

            

Behold many mighty deeds are before Me. Indeed, if the house of Israel set before themselves to do the Torah, I will send My anger and My wrath against the nations who are incited against them and destroy them just as fire destroys thorns and weedy land together. Or if they take hold of the words of My Torah then peace will be done for them. From then on, peace will be done for them. They shall be gathered together from among the exiles and they shall return to their land. There those of the house of Jacob shall be born; those of the house of Israel shall be numerous and multiply and grandsons will fill the face of the world.

 

The promise of God’s destruction of the nations incited against Israel (see Luke 1:73-75), the gathering of the exiles, and their return to the land represent Jewish hopes of eschatological redemption, which are to be brought about by Israel’s obedience to the Torah. Their obedience causes God to bring about peace for them.

 

We hear within rabbinic sources about those things that make peace between Israel and its Father in Heaven. While the ultimate goal is to make peace between Israel and God, actions on earth, between people, often pave the way for peace between Israel and its Father in Heaven. 

 

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, who belonged to the peace-seeking movement, criticized those, like the Jewish rebels of the First Revolt, who took up weapons against their fellow man (see War 2.254-257; 7.354-255; see also t. Sotah 14.1-4) as a means to establishing peace:

 

Behold it says, “[From] whole stones (אבנים שלמות; ‘avanim shlemot) you shall build the altar of the Lord your God” (Deut. 27:6), that is, stones that establish peace (שלום; shalom). And is it not a matter of kal vahomer? If the Holy One, blessed be He, said, “raise no iron against them” (Deut. 27:5) of the stones of the altar, which neither see nor hear nor speak, simply because they establish peace between Israel and their Father in heaven (see Luke 19:41-44), how much more in the case of a human being who establishes peace between a man and a man, or a man and his wife, between city and city, or one people and another, between family and family, or government and government that for such a man no retribution should come to him (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Ex. 20:25; see also Sifra Kedoshim11.8; Matt. 5:9; Luke 10:6; t. Peah 4.21).

 

Yohanan ben Zakkai drew a parallel between the unhewn stones of the altar, which function to make peace between Israel and God, and a person who makes peace with others who escapes retribution for his peacemaking actions (see Luke 10:6).  

 

Ben Zakkai identified those who make peace between entities as those who establish peace between Israel and God. Another sage identified another human action as having the ability to make peace between Israel and its Father in Heaven:

 

Rabbi Eleazar ben Rabbi Yose said, “From which [verse may we derive the fact] that charity and righteous deeds are great peace-[makers] and intercessors between [the people of] Israel and their Father in Heaven? It is stated, ‘For so says the Lord: Do not enter their house of mourning, or go to lament or bemoan them. For I have taken away my peace from this people, says the Lord, [namely] my steadfast love and mercy’ (Jer. 16:5). “Steadfast love”—this refers to righteous deeds. “Mercy”—this refers to charity. [The verse thus] teaches that charity and righteous deeds are great peace-makers between [the people of] Israel and their Father in Heaven” (t. Peah 4.21). 

 

Rabbi Eleazar specifically identified charity and righteous deeds as great peace-makers between Israel and God. Once again, we notice the idea that how one treats another, like him or herself (see Lev. 19:18), has the potential to be the “things that make for peace,” specifically peace between God and Israel. And, in this instance, it’s charity and righteous deeds. 

 

The saying of Rabbi Eleazar reflects a similar sentiment contained within Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem. The second part of Jesus’ statement, “But now they are hid from your eyes,” regarding the “things that make for peace” contains an allusion to Proverbs 28:27: “Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but the one who hides his eyes will get many a curse” (emphasis added).[7] The Aramaic targum reads: “He who gives to the poor will not lack, but he who withholds his eye from the poor, many are his curses.”

 

Jesus’ words, “But now they are hid from your eyes,” preserves a deft allusion to Proverbs 28:27 and contains a critique of the financial corruption and the oppression of the poor by the Jerusalem aristocracy. Had they seen the “things that make for peace,” i.e., giving to the poor, redemption would have come, but now the die has been cast—Jerusalem and its temple will be destroyed “because they loved money and hated one another” (t. Menahot 13.22; y. Yoma 1:1). The “things that make for peace” between God and Israel, for Jesus, were charity and righteous deeds; they were not esoteric, general actions. Rather, he identified the specific act of charity as possessing redemptive value (see Luke 4:16-30).[8]

 

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem demonstrates that he identified with Jewish national hopes of redemption; and, he, like others, viewed repentance and obedience as the pathway to national redemption. For Jesus, as with Rabbi Eleazar, the specific act of charity and righteous deeds towards others, like myself (Lev. 19:18), provided the way for Israel’s redemption (see Luke 8:4-15). Inasmuch as acts of charity could bring about national redemption in Jesus’ mind, they also had redemptive spiritual value for him as well (see Matt. 5:20; 6:1-4, 19-21; 19:21; 25:34-46; Luke 11:41; 12:33-34; see also Tobit 4:6-11; 12:7-9; Ben Sira 29:11-13; t. Peah 4.18-19). 

 

National and spiritual redemption were not separated in Jesus’ mind; they were intertwined. He never denied Jewish national hopes of redemption; he endorsed and affirmed them (see Luke 21:28; and Acts 1:6). He rejected those streams of Jewish thought that sought to bring about Israel’s redemption and God’s rule by force, but he was not alone among his contemporaries in his rejection of such sentiment. He saw the path of Israel’s redemption in performing charity and caring for the poor (Luke 4:16-30), embracing his message as God’s anointed. Jesus did not view charity and love for the other as motivated by a philanthropic goodness or an esoteric universal brotherhood of humanity. For him, these actions carried the consequence of Jewish national redemption.  

 

 

 

“Blessed are the peacemakers”:

We have seen that “the things that make for peace” within ancient Judaism have three aspects to them: 1) they primarily concern making peace between Israel and God; 2) the actions which reconcile God and Israel often pertain to interactions between humans, e.g., charity; and 3) Israel’s national redemption results from making peace between God and Israel. 

 

Our discussion up to now should cause us to reframe how we understand Jesus’ statement: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). Most interpreters of the Beatitudes spiritualize them and read them in a personal manner. In light of our observations about making peace within ancient Judaism, we should probably read Jesus’ statement as collective in nature and pertaining to the path of Israel’s national redemption. The collection of the Beatitudes, in fact, should be read in this manner.[9] The peacemakers, then, seek to make peace between God and Israel by specific actions directed at their fellow man, with the end goal: bringing about God’s promised redemption of Israel. 

 

This formula of making peace between God and Israel through how we treat our fellow humans parallels Jesus’ understanding of the two great commandments—love God (Deut. 6:5) and love neighbor (Lev. 19:18)—the manner in which I love God with all my heart, soul, and strength is by loving my neighbor who is like myself (see Luke 10:25-37).[10] Jesus most likely viewed the fulfillment of these commandments in this manner as having national religious significance, as well—“they loved money and hated one another” (t. Menahot 13.22; y. Yoma 1:1). 

 

To those who are peacemakers, Jesus promises that they will be “sons of God.” This phrase does not appear frequently within the words of Jesus. In fact, it only appears one other place: his command to love one’s enemies. 

 

Jesus offered a short homily expanding Leviticus 19:18: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you (Luke 6:27), and pray for those who persecute you (see t. Baba Qama 9.29-30), so that you may be sons of your Father who is in Heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and unjust…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:43-48; emphasis added.) According to Jesus, one became “sons of your Father who is in Heaven” by loving one’s enemies, doing good to those who hate you, and praying for those who persecute you, i.e., those who behave towards others in a manner that will make peace between them and their Father in Heaven—“So long as you are merciful, He will have mercy on you” (t. Baba Qama 9.30; Matt. 5:7; 6:14-15; Luke 6:36).

 

The mention in the Beatitude regarding the peacemakers and Jesus’ interpretation of Leviticus 19:18 of being sons of God suggests that, as we have seen within ancient Judaism, Jesus understood the primary goal of peacemaking as making peace between God and Israel, but it was to be accomplished through loving our neighbor who is like ourselves, even our enemies by doing good to those who hate us. 

 

Conclusion:

As Jesus looked over Jerusalem, riding down the Mount of Olives, he wept because he recognized that the city did not, and would not, recognize “the things that make for peace.” They had been “hidden from their eyes.” And what were those things? Charity and love for the other—the message of Jesus: “they loved money and hated one another” (t. Menahot 13.22; y. Yoma 1:1). Jesus’ lament clearly indicates that he believed if they had embraced the “things that make for peace” national redemption would have been achieved. But they were not. And Jesus wept. 

 

 

 

The issue then regarding Jesus’ triumphal entry is not the misguided Jewish view of a political redeemer versus Jesus’ appearance to bring spiritual redemption. No, rather, Jesus embraced the stream of Jewish piety that saw within the people’s obedience to God the path to redemption. He identified with Jewish hopes of national redemption. For him, the way to that redemption came through the specific actions of charity and love for the other, even one’s enemies. These made peace between God and Israel, and in turn, would bring about Israel’s redemption. 

 

By entering into the spiritual world of ancient Judaism, we no longer need to propound the mistaken idea that the crowds looked for political redemption while Jesus offered them spiritual reprieve. Such readings separate Jesus from his world and contemporary Judaism, demonstrating an ignorance of the spiritual world of Jesus. But we have seen that Jesus lent his voice to those calling the people to repent and obey, making peace between God and Israel, through charity and love of the other. 

 

I wonder if in looking at our world today he would have a similar lament: “Would today that you knew the things that make for peace! But they are hidden from your eyes”?

 

 

 

[1] See Martin Hengel, The Zealots (D. Smith, trans.; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989); William R. Farmer, Maccabees, Zealots, and Josephus: An Inquiry into Jewish Nationalism in the Greco-Roman Period (New York: Columbia University Press, 1956); David Goodblatt, Elements of Ancient Jewish Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); and Israel Ben-Shalom, The House of Shammai and the Zealots’ Struggle Against the Romans (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 1993) [Hebrew].

 

[2] See Marc Turnage, Windows Into the Bible: Cultural and Historical Insights From the Bible for Modern Readers (Springfield, MO: Logion Press, 2016), 157-165, 297-330.

 

[3] See ibid.; and David Flusser, “The Image of the Masada Martyrs in Their Own Eyes and in the Eyes of Their Contemporaries,” in Judaism of the Second Temple Period. Volume 2. The Jewish Sages and Their Literature (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), 76-112.

 

[4] See Turnage, ibid., 297-311; and Flusser, Jesus (3rd ed.; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001), 258-275.

 

[5] See R. Steven Notley, “Learn the Lesson of the Fig Tree,” in Jesus’ Last Week: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels—Volume One (R. S. Notley, M. Turnage, and B. Becker, eds.; Leiden: Brill, 2006), 107-120; Notley, “Luke 5:35: ‘When the Bridegroom is Taken Away’—Anticipation of the Destruction of the Second Temple,” in The Gospels in First-Century Judaea. Proceedings of the Inaugural Conference of Nyack College’s Graduate Program in Ancient Judaism and the Christian Origins, August 29, 2013 (R. S. Notley and J. P. Garcia, eds.; Leiden: Brill, 2016), 107-121; and Flusser, “Jerusalem in Second Temple Literature,” in Judaism of the Second Temple Period, 44-75. 

 

[6] David Flusser, “Hillel and Jesus: Two Ways of Self-Awareness,” in Hillel and Jesus: Comparisons of Two Major Religious Leaders (ed. J. H. Charlesworth and L. L. Johns; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 93.

 

[7] R. Steven Notley pointed this out to me (private communication). 

 

[8] See Turnage, Windows Into the Bible, 333-357.

 

[9] I hope to address this in a future post.

 

[10] See Turnage, Windows Into the Bible, 369-384.

 

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“The Things That Make for Peace”: Jesus and the Politics of His Day

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