Carolyn Whitnall reviews Jesse P. Nickel, “The Things that Make for Peace: Jesus and Eschatological Violence“, (Berlin / Boston: De Gruyter, 2021), https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110703771
Jesse Nickel’s The Things that Make for Peace bears on a question of pressing and far-reaching concern: did Jesus promote or endorse violence? However, as an adaptation of a PhD thesis (retaining sizeable chunks of untranslated New Testament Greek) it’s pretty unapologetically written for a specialist audience – so I’m going to approach it as such.
For those who ARE up for the full deep-dive (including readers pursuing related research questions), I’ve tried to sketch the shape of Nickel’s argument in a way that hopefully sign-posts particular content of interest. I’m no NT expert, so I’ll leave it to others to assess the cumulative strength of this argument!
But I begin with a general-interest summary of Nickel’s central idea and its implications. My tl;dr would be that the book presents an extensive case for the active nonviolence of Jesus, and contains helpful steers for Bible readers pondering the relationship of the gospel texts to the “Jesus of history.” However, Nickel (perhaps unavoidably) defers the (significant) role of the cross as a topic for future work, leaving the analysis as it stands feel somewhat incomplete.
The key claim of the book is that Jesus pointedly rejected violence in a context where a number of eschatologically-motivated revolutionary movements were embracing it. Nickel attributes Jesus’ stance to his particular eschatological vision. While his contemporaries shared similar expectations of deliverance from enemies and the establishment of God’s reign, many understood this to involve the obedient participation of God’s people in violent acts of justice and destruction. Nickel terms such action “eschatological violence”: intentional physical harm, inflicted in history, associated with or motivated by expectations of “the climax of the present age of evil and inauguration of the coming age of God’s reign.” Against this backdrop, Jesus, according to Nickel’s historical narrative interpretation of the Synoptic accounts, stands out for “teaching and enacting a vision of the kingdom of God that completely disassociated “eschatological violence” both from its inauguration and the identification of its people.”
In place of the looked-for overthrow of human enemies, the Synoptics (Nickel suggests) portray Jesus demonstrating the arrival of the Kingdom through exorcism – victorious eschatological conflict against the true enemies of God: s/Satan and his demonic servants. Nickel sees the renunciation of violent means as importantly consistent with the “end” that Jesus envisions:
To attempt to inaugurate the kingdom of God through violence would be to attempt to defeat the enemy of that kingdom by using his own [power] against him; it would be to set one’s mind on [the things of humankind] instead of [the things of God].Ibid., p234. Square brackets indicate English approximations of untranslated Greek.
The ultimate expression of the alternative, nonviolent role that Jesus undertook within God’s victory was his willing submission to the violence of the cross – though Nickel defers detailed attention to this for future work.
Twentieth century attempts to disentangle the “Jesus of history” from the ideological commitments and interpretive agendas of the gospel writers produced a diversity of portraits – including one that envisages Jesus as a revolutionary who endorsed violence. Advocates of this theory, known as the Seditious Jesus Hypothesis (SJH), argue that the Synoptic Gospels present a fabricated Jesus concerned with “other-worldly” matters, but fail to completely suppress traces of the “real” Jesus. These traces prove both his seditious nature and the inconsistency and historical unreliability of the gospel accounts.
Nickel positions his proposal as a decisive refutation of the SJH. In addition to its methodological shortcomings (relying, as it does, on evidence extracted from texts that are simultaneously being discredited) he identifies a lack of attention to the eschatological expectations contemporary with Jesus. His own analysis demonstrates the coherence of the Synoptic narratives when this lack is corrected, and provides an explanation for the authors’ interest in exorcism – something that SJH advocates have struggled to account for.
On the other hand, the book’s portrayal of Jesus also serves to correct apolitical and purely other-worldly perceptions of him. For Nickel, Jesus’ nonviolence was not the disengaged pacifism of a “spiritual” leader uninterested in the present world, but “an intentional, central component of his eschatological vision; it was an active element of his inauguration of the kingdom of God.” Far from being uninterested in violence, Jesus sought to teach and demonstrate an alternative to the violent methods of his revolutionary contemporaries that were at odds with the nature of the coming Kingdom (as he saw it) and a threat to national survival.
Nickel supports his claims using a methodological approach that is both historical and literary. Following Chris Keith, he rejects efforts, often made within Historical Jesus scholarship (including by advocates of the SJH), to reconstruct an “objective” set of “facts” about Jesus, freed from the interpretive agendas of the Synoptic authors. Keith, drawing on social memory theory, promotes a narrative approach that “attempts to understand why the authors of the Gospels portrayed Jesus in the ways they did, and what this might tell us about the figure remembered through their narratives.”
The book’s introduction sets the scene with an overview of existing work on “Jesus and violence” and “Jesus and eschatology.” In Nickel’s view, insufficient attention has been paid to the relationship between the two, which is precisely the gap he is looking to fill. The gap arises from a mistaken assumption that “eschatological” implies “other-wordly,” combined with a narrow focus on violence as it relates to “earthly” matters. Thus E.P. Sanders, for example, associates Jesus’ nonviolence with his presumed apoliticism, while (by contrast, but sustaining the same dichotomy) Horsley affirms the this-worldly sociopolitical implications of Jesus’ life and ministry but disregards the “theologically-climactic emphasis so prominent within the Synoptic Gospels’ presentation” of it.
The next two chapters explore the role of eschatological violence among Jesus’ contemporaries. Chapter 2 shows how Second Temple Jewish eschatological writings (Daniel, 1 Enoch, and the Qumran War Scroll) anticipate the violent participation of the people of God in the defeat and judgement of God’s/their enemies. Chapter 3 evidences the association between eschatology and enacted violence through appeal to the records of revolutionary events in that period (the Maccabean Revolt, the Jewish-Roman War, and the Bar Kokhba Revolt). Nickel concludes that actions taken during these conflicts are appropriately described as eschatological violence.
The remaining three chapters (before the conclusion) turn to the Synoptic accounts of Jesus with this backdrop context in mind. Chapter 4 addresses texts held up by SJH advocates as evidence linking Jesus with revolutionary violence. In each of the following cases, Nickel first explains the seditious reading, then critiques it and shows how it can be interpreted as a coherent part of a nonviolent Synoptic depiction of Jesus:
- Matt 10:34: “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
- Mark 11:1–11, Matt 21:1–11, Luke 19:29–39: Jesus’ “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem.
- Mark 11:15–19, Matt 21:12–17, Luke 19:45–48: The “Temple Act.”
- Mark 12:13–17, Matt 22:15–22, Luke 20:20–26: Jesus’ response to the question about the tribute tax.
- Luke 22:35–38: Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to acquire swords.
- Mark 14:43–50, Matt 26:47–56, Luke 22:47–53: The events of Jesus’ arrest in the garden of Gethsemane.
- Mark 15:27, Matt 27:38: Jesus’ trial and crucifixion as a bandit or insurrectionist.
Having rejected claims that Jesus endorsed violence, Nickel is keen to establish that Jesus’ is an active nonviolence, not arising from apolitical indifference but from the belief that violence “had no role to play in either inaugurating the kingdom of God, or identifying the people who belonged to it.” Chapter 5 thus attends to passages with a direct bearing on eschatological violence:
- Matt 11:12: “Τhe kingdom of heaven [suffers violence / goes forth powerfully].” Nickel understands this verse to be contrastive, affirming the forceful advancement of the Kingdom through the power of Jesus’ ministry, critiquing its forceful seizure by others for their own purposes.
- Luke 13:1–5: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Nickel interprets this as a warning against the revolutionary violence that Jesus perceives will lead to national destruction.
- Matt 5:38–48, Luke 6:27–36: “Love your enemies.” Nickel presents enemy love as an identifying characteristic of the people of God within Jesus’ eschatological vision, in contrast to competing visions that aspire to the violent destruction of enemies.
- Mark 14:43–50, Matt 26:47–56, Luke 22:50: The arrest in Gethsemane. Nickel sees a pointed disassociation with eschatological violence in Jesus’ critique of the use of the sword and of those who treat him as an insurrectionist.
Chapter 6 addresses Jesus’ alternative fulfilment, given his rejection of revolutionary violence, of eschatological expectations. For Nickel, this can be seen in the Synoptic portrayals of Jesus’ confrontations with s/Satan and demons, which he understands as manifestations of eschatological conflict with the true enemies of God and God’s people. The “Beelzebub Controversy” and Jesus’ explanation of the binding of the “Strong Man” resonate with Second Temple texts that anticipate the “binding” (by God) of demonic figures in the eschatological age. This sets up a framework, within the Synoptic gospels, for reading the exorcism accounts “as incidents in which the kingdom of God “comes upon” those present, and the eschatological defeat of the s/Satan is enacted.”
The Things that Make for Peace addresses a question that continues to be pertinent due to the entanglement of Jesus’ followers with violent and coercive agendas throughout Christian history and into the present. The case it presents for Jesus’ rejection of violence seems attentive and (to this non-expert) persuasive, but conspicuously incomplete with regards to the role of the cross – an inevitable limitation given the complexity of the existing material, but one that, as Nickel acknowledges, leaves some pressing avenues for further work.
Nickel’s supporting evidence makes for a useful overview of Second Temple eschatology and revolutionary movements, though I would have liked to see more discussion of nonviolent resistance within that context as he risks giving an overstated impression of the uniqueness of Jesus in this regard. His exegetical work on the various passages seems interesting and relevant beyond the particular question in view, though my fledgling grasp of NT Greek (and zero of German) was not quite up to the substantial stretches of untranslated text – appropriate in a thesis to be assessed by field experts, but potentially alienating to interested non-experts, which seems a shame as it does have stuff to offer such an audience. Personally, for example, I took a lot away from Nickel’s thoughtful navigation of the methodological debates surrounding the “quest” for the Historical Jesus: the social memory-based approach he describes helps to clarify and enrich my own interactions with the Bible. I’m always glad when an academic book impacts me devotionally as well as intellectually!
Carolyn Whitnall has just completed a ‘Bible and Violence’ track MA and is hoping to begin a PhD with the Centre in the near future. Her research explores the interpretation and use of scripture in the neo-charismatic evangelical movement sometimes called the New Apostolic Reformation.