Jesus, the Powers, and the Fathers

Another day, another paperback trying to help comtemporary Christians think about their socio-political environment. Enter the brand-new Jesus and the Powers by N. T. Wright and Michael Bird.

I’m only a few chapters in, and I may give a fuller review later, but so far, the argument is fairly anodyne. While it’s too soon to say, I may end up bothered that the book does not treat history carefully enough, c. 100–2024. Wright and Bird are New Testament scholars, after all, so they are naturally going to handle the biblical material more directly than later Christian experience. Even so, I wonder if there’s a tendency for non-specialists to the reduce the vast bulk of Christian political history (especially the premodern stuff) to vague ideal types. We’ll see where it goes; I’m hopeful.

One example of brushing over non-New Testament history too quickly concerns the supposed political dualism or escapism (my terms) of early Christian figures, a few of whom I’ve actually studied. The authors—and I suspect from the style that this section anyway was drafted by Bird—present an opposing thesis to knock it back down. Some Christians, they posit, are essentially political quietists who don’t want the church or its clergy meddling in social issues. These are the sort who will invoke John 18:36: “Our Lord said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ because the kingdom is spiritual and timeless, and belongs to the heavenly realm.”[1] The ensuing pages interpret John 18:36 itself in a way I find unobjectionable, but one of the attendant footnotes references two ancient sources to exemplify the escapist position, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 3.19–20 and Justin Martyr’s First Apology 11.

I want to argue that these passages do not support the kind of position with which Wright and Bird would align them. Furthermore, I find it worrying that we would so misunderstand some of the very earliest actors who tried to put Jesus’ political ethos into practice.

Let’s treat Eusebius first. For starters, Eusebius is mostly repeating an earlier story in Ecclesiastical History 3.19–20, taken verbatim from a much older source named Hegesippus, who was probably writing in the second third or so of the 100s. The tale concerns the grandsons of Jude, Jesus’ own brother “according to the flesh.” I have handled this passage in an earlier post about its significance for Jesus’ family tree:

With Domitian himself having commanded that those of David’s family be rooted out, an ancient account [from Hegesippus] holds that certain sectarians accused the descendants of Jude and holds that this one was the savior’s brother according to the flesh, as they happened to be from David’s family and were holding kinship with Christ himself. And Hegesippus makes these things clear, stating thus verbatim: “And from the Lord’s family, there yet existed the sons of Jude, who is called his brother according to the flesh. Those whom they reported as being from David’s family, these the evocatus led to Domitian Caesar. For he feared the παρουσία of the Christ, as even Herod had. And he asked them if they were (descended) from David, and they confessed it.

But when Domitian asks Jesus’ great-nephews about the Messianic kingdom, the brothers assure him it is not a “worldly” kingdom:

And having asked about the Christ and his kingdom—what sort it would be, where and when it would appear—they gave an account that it was not a worldly one, nor earthly, but it would be heavenly and angelic, appearing at the end of the age. At this point, (Christ) coming in glory judges the living and the dead and repays each according to his way of life.[2]

Most readers can see that Jude’s grandsons were basically paralleling John 18:36, where Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would have struggled, so that I would not be handed over to the Jews. But now, my kingdom is not from here.”[3] In Hegesippus’ telling, Domitian was clearly asking about the same kind of thing Pilate had been after, and the Lord’s kinsmen gave an answer much like their uncle. While Domitian let them off because he found them pathetic, Eusebius and Hegesippus indicate a little further down (3.32) that these brothers later died as martyrs under Trajan, just as their cousin Symeon (the second bishop of Jerusalem after James) was crucified. Richard Bauckham in particular has argued that these traditions about Jesus’ family in leadership of the early Palestinian church cannot be written off as mere later legend.[4] And even if Hegesippus had made up the entire story whole cloth, he would still be representing a very early Christian view of the church’s relation to Caesar: one that basically amounts to what one already finds in John.

The idea that Jude’s grandsons, Hegesippus, or Eusebius were stark dualists who saw God’s kingdom simply as an ethereal, otherworldly domain doesn’t hold up in my mind given the familiarity each would have had with persecution. Should we credit Hegesippus’ history, Jude’s grandsons were on trial for their lives and seem to have eventually suffered martyrdom. Hegesippus was probably in Rome when Justin Martyr was executed there, and when Irenaeus later brought word to Rome of violent persecution in Lyons-Vienne. Eusebius, himself jailed at one point during the Great Persecution, watched close friends die under the Tetrarchs—and this is the same Eusebius who is usually accused of launching Caesaropapism, at that. For his part, Wright has in the past insisted that such second-century martyrs were precisely carrying on the kingdom project in step with the synoptics, in contrast to the truly dualist gnostics with whom the emperors would not have bothered. Martyrdom, in other words, should be a strong indicator that early Christians were not escapist but basically aligned with Jesus’ own idea of politics, of God’s kingdom “on earth as in heaven.”

All the same reasoning applies to the other reference, drawn from Justin Martyr:

And having heard that we expect a kingdom, you have uncritically supposed us to be talking about a human one, when we are talking about one with God, as also appears from the confession to be Christians from those examined by you, knowing the penalty of death applies to the confessor. If we expected a human kingdom, we would also deny so that we would not be destroyed, and we’d try to conceal, so that we attain what we expect. But since we do not have aspirations for the present, we have taken no thought of the destroyers, when it is necessary to die at any rate.5]

This too cannot constitute “escapism” any more than Jesus’ original words to Pilate, especially not when in the following lines, Justin writes, “And we are your helpers and co-fighters for peace more than all other human beings.” Again and again, the Christians’ account of themselves is trying to address a specifically Roman concern that these followers of an obscure eastern sect are subversives trying to corrupt or overthrow the current socio-political order. To this charge, Justin and other martyrs seem to say, “Well, in a way, perhaps we are ‘radicals’ in that we’re willing to die for this cause, but we’re not like any other radicals the world has seen, and in fact, there’s much about Rome’s nominal social ideals we support and uphold.”

To me, it seems plain that these ancient Christians would have more easily intuited the implications of Jesus’ words to Pilate than we, nor can they be brushed off as insincere given the costs faith entailed in their world, which Justin himself well illustrated. Nor can these characters can be framed as Platonic escapist types: Jude’s grandsons were Jewish farmers who worked the land; Irenaeus’ Book Five of Against Heresies sometimes reads like a second-century ancestor of Wright’s Surprised by Hope; Hegesippus (possibly Jewish himself) shared Irenaeus’ chiliasm in my reading of the evidence; the only Platonist of the group, Justin, had to acknowledge that his own literalist eschatology was too much even for some other Christians; the later Eusebius largely endorsed the Constantinian turn. If Wright is correct, as he has long argued, that properly ordered Christian activity in the present partly depends on our expectations for the End, it seems like these men should all check that box.

I realize I make this critique at grave risk of coming off as a nitpicker of footnotes, and perhaps I am indeed making too much of all this. To be sure, some Christians have and do hold to the kind of escapist-quietist position Wright and Bird ascribe to them. I do have real doubts that they are many, and they are certainly not among the loudest voices in the room (that I can tell, though that’s not my expertise).

Even so, I find this apparent misreading of early Christian history compounds an intellectual unease and growing concern that we’re caught in the grip of a theological Zeitgeist presently invisible to us but perhaps more easily spotted by later historians. Put it this way: is there a deeper reason that, when we read ancient Christian commentary presenting little more than a light rephrasing of what one finds in the NT, we reflexively dismiss it as detached and otherworldly? Are we, in other words, pre-committed to political activism of one sort or another? Does God’s kingdom “on earth as in heaven” really entail “politics” as modern people have come to define them? Or is there in fact something askew in our social imaginary?

Hopefully, Wright and Bird will have some answers for these bigger questions as I move further into the book.

  1. N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird, Jesus and the Powers: Christian Political Witness in an Age of Totalitarian Terror and Dysfunctional Democracies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2024), 35.
  2. All translations are my own. ἐρωτηθέντας δὲ περὶ τοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ τῆς βασιλείας αὐτοῦ ὁποία τις εἴη καὶ ποῖ καὶ πότε φανησομένη, λόγον δοῦναι ὡς οὐ κοσμικὴ μὲν οὐδ’ ἐπίγειος, ἐπουράνιος δὲ καὶ ἀγγελικὴ τυγχάνοι, ἐπὶ συντελείᾳ τοῦ αἰῶνος γενησομένη, ὁπηνίκα ἐλθὼν ἐν δόξῃ κρινεῖ ζῶντας καὶ νεκροὺς καὶ ἀποδώσει ἑκάστῳ κατὰ τὰ ἐπιτηδεύματα αὐτοῦ.

  3. Others have spotted the connection between Hegesippus and John. Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 11-21, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture IVb (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 289.
  4. Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (New York: Bloomsbury, 2004).
  5. Καὶ ὑμεῖς ἀκούσαντες βασιλείαν προσδοκῶντας ἡμᾶς, ἀκρίτως ἀνθρώπινον λέγειν ἡμᾶς ὑπειλήφατε, ἡμῶν τὴν μετὰ θεοῦ λεγόντων, ὡς καὶ ἐκ τοῦ ἀνεταζομένους ὑφ’ ὑμῶν ὁμολογεῖν εἶναι Χριστιανούς, γινώσκοντες τῷ ὁμολογοῦντι θάνατον τὴν ζημίαν κεῖσθαι, φαίνεται. εἰ γὰρ ἀνθρώπινον βασιλείαν προσεδοκῶμεν, κἂν ἠρνούμεθα, ὅπως μὴ ἀναιρώμεθα, καὶ λανθάνειν ἐπειρώμεθα, ὅπως τῶν προσδοκωμένων τύχωμεν. ἀλλ’ ἐπεὶ οὐκ εἰς τὸ νῦν τὰς ἐλπίδας ἔχομεν, ἀναιρούντων οὐ πεφροντίκαμεν τοῦ καὶ πάντως ἀποθανεῖν ὀφειλομένου.


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