Was Jesus a politician? In a pathbreaking and meticulous reading of the gospels published under a title borrowed from John 8:15, I Judge No One, Budapest-based scholar of religion David Lloyd Dusenbury wrestles with—and ultimately submits to—the evidence that affirms the provocative claim that He was. By necessity, Christ became enmeshed in the political fray of first century Judaea, Dusenbury reasons, but his message to humanity lies eternally beyond politics. Lay readers may be taken aback by the author’s exceedingly crisp, hyper-textualist prose, which makes the reviewer’s work at once a challenge and a necessity. They would, however, be wrong to dismiss the book out of hand, for beneath the cacophony of references lies and important—and heterodox—argument worth heeding.
The fulcrum of that argument lies in the introduction. Dusenbury quotes Kant’s seminal partition of the political state in two versants—the politico-civil state and the ethico-civil one. Both wield power in Kant’s mind, but in slightly different ways—only the latter buttresses its ability to coerce in a normative foundation of morality. Dusenbury goes on to argue that Jesus—contra the accusations of his Roman hangmen—laid claim to Kant’s ethico-civil state, not to the political-civil one. Eschewing the Judeo-Roman conflicts of his time, the only race he won was to the cross, meeting his fate in a death that, unlike the life it ended, turned political. The contrast between Jesus’ prophetic life and his political death couldn’t be starker. He was sentenced for blasphemy by the Sanhedrin and for sedition by the Roman authorities. Yet in life he aspired to form, in Kant’s words, a “kingdom of virtue,” or in Dusenbury’s, “an ethical community, a new form of order in which all could be united by laws, without coercion.” In staking out this middle-ground view, the exegete takes aim at two extremes: an exclusively spiritual idea of Jesus on one hand, and on the other an alternative that views Jesus’ spirituality as entirely political. As the avatar of this latter view, Dusenbury picks out the Enlightened Deist Hermann Samuel Reimarus. In the 18th century, Reimarus wrote of Jesus as a “hill-country radical from Galilee who incited a coup in the holy city of Roman-controlled Judea.” In a more recent rendering of this realpolitik view, Anna Della Subin writes of a “Jewish dissident preacher who posed a radical challenge to the gods and governors of Rome.” Despite setting out to reject this view in favour of a return to the pre-modern idea of Jesus as a spiritual force above politics, Dusenbury is ultimately disarmed against parts of Reimarus’ wisdom. He concludes that Jesus was a halfway political-cum-spiritual character.
To anchor this disquisition on factual grounds, Dusenbury treads a well-trod path. Lucian, Tacitus, Pliny, Suetonius, Josephus—all are quoted in his attempt to lay out the facts of Jesus’ life and death, with the self-same difficulty that some characters—Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas—are historically significant only insofar as their fates are enmeshed in Christ’s, in turn biasing the accounts of their lives. Judea at the time was a Roman province “cultically ruled by a hereditary caste of priests,” something Dusenbury calls a “temple-state.” Three movements compete for influence and power in this state (a less lenient writer would call them “sects”): the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. Jesus is “a searing critic of Judea’s scribal culture,” Dusenbury tells us. In nailing down his craft, he quotes Mark 6:4 to liken Jesus to a philosopher (“a prophet is not without honour, except in his home country”) competing for popular attention with Greco-Roman literature (per William Blake, “there is not one moral virtue that Jesus inculcated that Plato and Cicero did not inculcate before him”). Yet he is also a “healer,” inciting sinners to repent and claiming to bring forgiveness. Centred in Galilee and Samaria, “his prophetic life begins and ends with a solitary ordeal,” that of preaching in the desert. Throughout his life, he steered clear of politics, both Judean and Roman. “It is Jesus’ resistance to the political,” writes Dusenbury, “which made his life and death redemptive.”
Not unlike the gospels themselves, Dusenbury’s account is perhaps a tad too centred on Jesus’ adult years. He astutely reads the incident of the adulteress—“let him who is without sin cast the first stone”—as one of only two scenes where Jesus is asked to render judgement. In refusing, he ultimately “resists becoming a political Christ.” His leniency with that blatant illegality constitutes, in other words, a “re-conception of the political.” Elsewhere, Jesus appears as the unlikeliest of rulers, foretelling that “the kingdom of God has come near” yet ever careful to demarcate that over which He does not assert his authority (“hand back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”), thereby differentiating between a realm of the exchangeable and one of the unexchangeable. More broadly, Jesus channels “a near total disillusionment with the machinery of human government.”
Christ’s relationship to death is also a subject of Dusenbury’s interest. Did Jesus want to die? The author cites Nietzsche (and Mara Bar Sarapion 1800 years before him), both of whom likened Jesus to Socrates, who also foredoomed the city that put him to death in a form of “divine nemesis” (“the two greatest judicial murders in History”). Where Nietzsche viewed both philosopher-martyrs as deniers of the human will-to-power, Dusenbury makes a critical distinction. Socrates “contrived his death because he had lived enough,” whereas Jesus did so “because he could not love or forgive enough,” with death becoming, in a phrase by Aldo Schiavone that Dusenbury cites, a “transfiguration of love.”
Some of Jesus’ redemptive character is also gleaned through what Dusenbury calls the “presentment of death” (“his premonitions are heightened,” he writes, “by the beheading of his baptizer,” John the Baptist). In the lead-up to what he calls the Templeaktion—Jesus’ sojourn in the Temple, culminating in the overturning of the moneychangers’ tables—“the Galilean’s mood was sombre during his ascent to Jerusalem,” perceived as he was as the enemy of the Judean authorities who would trial him and hand him over to Rome. The many accounts Dusenbury weaves into the story—all relating a “double condemnation”—turn somewhat cacophonic at this point. Josephus states that “a Roman prefect sentenced Jesus to death after being charged by the Temple aristocracy,” yet who constitutes that aristocracy and what the exact charge was remains hotly contested. Dusenbury is careful to distinguish the Judean charge of blasphemy from the Roman charge of sedition in a “politically realist, de-mystifying” account that “can help correct modern historiography.” He then points out it was the Sadduccees, not the Pharisees, who arrested Jesus, questioned him, and delivered him to Pilate. At this point, Dusenbury’s account turns more and less lenient with the Temple’s aristocracy at once. On the one hand, he claims “neither Herod nor Pilate found Jesus guilty of the charges”, laying all the blame at the Temple aristocracy’s feet. On the other, however, he provides the Sanhedrin’s self-interested motive for trialling Jesus (“if we let him go like this, the Romans will destroy both our holy place and our nation”). “A reluctance to convict Jesus solely on the strength of hostile testimony,” writes Dusenbury, “is something that Judean and Roman judges have in common.” The author laments that the reception of the gospels is linked to “a proto-racist notion of Judeans” as the deicidal people.
Ultimately, Dusenbury wraps his exegesis in two overarching claims: first, “that human judgements are pervasive and deceptive,” and second, “that even divine laws can only be fulfilled in the human experience of love.” His book may at times appear to only broach upon—without ultimately piercing through—the mystery it sets out to unveil: that Jesus lived above politics, but had to meet his fate in a grim political death for his message to shine brightly to humanity. If nothing else, the book will have proven that that is a mystery worth delving into.