Joe Snyder tells Bible stories. This sometimes makes people uneasy, and two years ago I was one of those people. “I flinch every time you say, ‘Jesus,’” I confessed.
“Read the Bible,” Joe replied, not at all concerned. “That’ll take care of that flinch.” And then he told me about Mark.
This piece is intended to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The afflicted in this case—or, perhaps, the conflicted—are those Quakers, particularly young folks like me, who are troubled by references to Jesus, Christ, Christianity, or the Bible as a whole. The comfortable are either those who are sure that they already know what the Bible says, and thus dismiss the Bible as a reactionary old tome, or those who confidently use the Bible to shore up today’s structures of power and wealth because it is so reactionary. I mean to show, however, that the Bible has a lot to offer the most radical in our Quaker faith.
After all, everything that most people admire about Quakerism—from the lack of creeds to the equality of genders and sexualities—flows from the Bible originally. George Fox and his fellows read the Bible in a downright radical fashion, and knew it inside and out. I don’t intend to walk everyone through everything, however. To me, the key is to read the Gospel of Mark as a story not of religion but of revolution.
This isn’t to say that Mark contains nothing religious, though in many ways it’s the least miraculous of the four gospels. As the oldest of the gospels and one of the sources for two of the others, it’s also easy to look to Mark for a non-miraculous or non-divine historical story. For the purposes of this essay, however, I’ll take Mark at his word: if he says Jesus fed five thousand people from twelve loaves and some fish, I’ll assume this is true. But that’s not an assumption my readers need to make; if you prefer, you can set aside “what actually happened” and view Mark as an ancient but inspiring work of fiction with a lesson. Either way, the lesson is one of revolt.
Guerrilla Tactics in Galilee
The first parts of Mark have a recurring pattern: Jesus makes a speech to a lot of people, then leaves, or performs some miracle and then tries to hush it up. He constantly tries to keep a low profile, sometimes giving his own friends the slip—except when he has something to say. While Jesus is not downplaying himself entirely, he’s prioritizing his message, but even here he’s leaving it deliberately obscure—but as he says, “Nothing is hidden except to be disclosed.” These are good marketing techniques, as he always leaves his fans wanting more. It’s also good teaching: he gives his followers something confusing and then vamooses, leaving them to puzzle it out and talk it over among themselves.
But at this point Jesus has already started to antagonize the scribes (the local religious authorities), so this pattern Jesus follows also counts as guerrilla tactics.
Jesus often skips town in such secrecy that his closest companions have to hunt him down. He criss-crosses the Sea of Galilee, bouncing from place to place, basically using a fishing boat as his escape pod and appearing out of nowhere with the scribes none the wiser. In military terms, this is called “interior lines,” and means that you can get wherever you want to go quickly, while your opponents have to take the long way around.
Mark never says this outright, mind you, but it’s not hard to read between the lines: after one major confrontation with the scribes, Jesus not only skedaddles, he flees Jewish territory entirely, going to Tyre, explicitly hoping no one will see him. He’s recognized at once, however. Mark then recounts that he goes back to Galilee, but via a wildly improbable route: he starts, for instance, by going twenty miles in the opposite direction. It’s senseless until you remember that he was trying to hide. Taking the long way home, through foreign territory, bought him more time for things to cool down.
But how had Jesus gotten the authorities so ticked off?
First, a little history. Jewish law had long had a concern for social justice: even in spelling out how to conduct a ritual sacrifice, the Law made provisions for those who couldn’t afford to sacrifice the appropriate animal. The alternative was usually sacrificing a dove. The Law also forbade charging interest, required all outstanding debts be forgiven every seven years, guaranteed a food supply for the poorest, and every fifty years redistributed all property.
But the Law also established a hereditary priesthood, and as Israel was an explicitly religion-based realm, the priests, and their agents the scribes, wielded considerable power. The priests owned no land, but every Jew brought them food: whenever a sacrifice was made, the priests burned some of the offering and ate the rest. The sacrifice requirements were therefore essentially a religious tax supporting the authorities.
Many of the sacrifice requirements centered around what are now known as the kosher laws—not eating certain foods, not touching certain things, etc. If anyone violated this part of the Law, he or she had to make atonement by offering up a sacrifice. A cynic might point out that making such laws and punishments was a great way for the priests to squeeze more out of the people. A more generous interpretation is that the kosher laws formed the bedrock of Jewish identity in an era when the Jewish people were surrounded by a sea of other cultures. A third take is that the kosher laws are so arbitrary because they have no purpose other than to instill obedience—to God, of course, but also to the priests.
By Jesus’s day, many of the more socially-just elements of the Law—such as the forgiving of debts and the redistribution of property—were either long gone, or had been knocked out of commission by the conquering Roman Empire. And the priests and scribes (surprise, surprise) had gotten pretty full of themselves.
Moreover Rome had entered into a collaboration with the priests. Rome always preferred it if the locals governed themselves, more or less, and so the priests were put in charge of Judea. This meant that behind the priests stood the power of the legions. The Jewish people, whose great defining moment was the Exodus, the escape from slavery, had always hated captivity, and this was no exception. But the priests, thinking to preserve their people, their power, and themselves, counseled submission, as priests so frequently do.
Jesus Christ, Radical
Jesus pretty much knocks down the entire priestly system every time he opens his mouth.
In Mark Chapter 2, at almost the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus has a series of confrontations with the scribes. He eats with sinners, forgives sins, and doesn’t bother fasting when others do. And then, in a crucial moment, he breaks the Law in a conspicuous act of civil disobedience, helping an “unclean” (sick) man on the Sabbath. As he does so, he points out that doing good is more important than the Law. Kindness, he says, is greater than obedience.
Naturally, this is when the scribes and the “Herodians,” who might have been Roman sympathizers, begin planning to string Jesus up.
Not content with this bold flouting of authority, Jesus violates Law and custom in half a dozen ways, while pushing a fairly radical agenda. He announces that all foods are clean, perhaps making it easier for the poor to feed themselves, overturning half the kosher laws and half of Jewish identity (and then skips out for Tyre). He encourages women to leave their homes and follow him. He questions the basic family structure. He instructs a rich man to give away everything he owns, and implicitly dismisses the long-held (and still-held) notion that wealth signals divine favor. He feed five thousand people and then feeds four thousand people more, teaching his disciples a lesson in generosity in the process: the more you give away, the more you get back.1 And over and over again, he repeats, “The last shall be first and the first, last.” To lead, he insists, one must serve. The social order, he asserts, must be flipped on its head.
Or, in other words: he casts down restrictive religious laws, furthers gender equality, demands the rich surrender their wealth to the poor, encourages communal care, and proclaims revolutionary change.
Showdown in Jerusalem
Finally, after shadowboxing with the powers that be for some time, Jesus stuns his disciples by making a beeline for the center of priestly power: Jerusalem.
But Jesus knows what he’s doing. He goes up at Passover, when half the Jews on Earth would be in town—including many of his fans and allies. By now he’s built up quite a following: popular support. It’s also one of the most sacred times in the Jewish year, so everyone’s mind would be on religion and God. And Passover is, of course, a festival of liberation. Going to Jerusalem now is good tactics—the moment is right and the support is there. Time and again in the next week, it’s Jesus’s support among the people that keeps him alive.
Jesus has enough fans that when he arrives in the city, he’s treated like royalty. But he’s still teaching: instead of using this popular support to launch a revolt, he goes to the temple, looks around—and leaves. He’s not here to give the people what they want.
The next day, he cleanses the temple.
It’s the only time Jesus uses violence, though no one is killed; he flips some tables and chases some people out. But he has good reason to be furious. The people he throws out of the temple are the moneychangers, who were likely cheating out-of-town tourists with gouging exchange rates, and also the dove-sellers. Remember that the dove was the substitute sacrifice for the poor, including (according to the Gospel of Luke) Jesus’s own parents. The dove-sellers were likely gouging the poor, which of course defeated the purpose of the low-cost dove option. Two blows on behalf of justice. Then comes the essential line, which can only be found in Mark: “…and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple.” If no one is allowed to carry anything through the temple, normal operations are shut down: Occupy Jerusalem, if you will. Anyone can enter the temple to pray, but no sacrifices can be made, and if no sacrifices can be made, then no sacrifices can be eaten. Jesus has just struck at the priestly supply line, and if he keeps it up, the priesthood will literally starve. Naturally, the priests redouble their efforts to kill Jesus.
I admit that the word “through” is a weakness in my theory—if Mark had meant “carry into the temple,” then surely he would have said it? I need to read the original Greek, which means I need to learn to read Greek. But Jesus has essentially launched a sit-down strike, or more accurately a teach-in. And his next words are telling: “Is it not written, ‘My house [the house of God, i.e. God is speaking about the temple] shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations [all humanity]?’ But you have made it a den of robbers.” Jesus is throwing the temple wide open to Jews and Gentiles alike, shattering more religious laws, and making a firm statement to the priests: “Your day is done. We don’t need you any more. Anyone and everyone can talk to God.”
Yep, that’s where Quakers got it from, among other places: no ministers and no pastors and no hierarchy at all, because Jesus staged a demonstration in the temple and called the priesthood out.
More evidence comes soon after: a religious scholar, essentially a theology major, asks Jesus “Which commandment is first [in importance]?” Jesus’s response is a masterpiece. His first response is the Sh’ma, the most holy Jewish law and prayer: “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one; you shall love the LORD with all your heart…” This is a safe answer, but also one that subtly points out there’s really only one top dog in Israel, and he’s not the High Priest. But Jesus then goes on: “The second [commandment] is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Which is the Golden Rule, of course, in its strongest possible form: the most powerful iteration I’ve ever heard of the most universal law of human compassion and decency. By placing it beside the Sh’ma, Jesus is saying, “Love outranks all other laws.” In fact, by pairing it with “The LORD is one,” Jesus is almost saying, “God is love—that’s the greatest commandment.”
The scholar’s reaction is striking. “You are right, teacher… this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” This mention of sacrifices is a bit unexpected in the context of this particular story, but if, as I suspect, this is set in the context of a shut-down temple and some increasingly hungry priests, it becomes much more understandable. And all the more powerful, too: it means that Jesus is winning. His enemies are agreeing with him, even if it might cost them. The priests panic.
The climax of the day hammers the point home still further: Jesus denounces the religious authorities, saying “They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers.” This is a somewhat clumsy way of saying, “These men are hypocrites, just in it for the power, the prestige, and the money, and they are making the poor (represented by the widows) suffer as they do.” This is immediately followed by an actual widow (widows, often dirt-poor and always women, were doubly powerless) offering up her literal last penny to the temple treasury, and Jesus roundly denounces the priests and scribes for demanding such a sacrifice of her.
After this Jesus leaves the city, and shortly thereafter he is arrested, condemned, and executed. The priests sic the Romans on him, and the legionaries put him to death.
Behemoth and the Gene
We have to face it: in terms of practical change, Jesus may have been winning, but then he died, and thus flat-out lost. The priesthood stayed in power, and so did Rome; the rich stayed rich and the poor stayed poor. Jesus came and Jesus failed.
Or did he?
He certainly let down his followers, who had been expecting a violent revolution with immediate results. Instead they saw their leader strung up like a petty thief.
But think about it. The Jews never could have beaten Rome, and never did, as they learned to their sorrow a generation later. Rome was Behemoth, the invulnerable iron-boned monster that only God could subdue, and Rome could stomp any resistance flat. So Jesus offered himself up; he definitely saw to it that he was arrested, and arrested alone. So Jesus died, but it was an act of supreme sacrifice—and I do not mean that his death opened up “eternal life” to the rest of us. No, I mean that his self-sacrifice was unparalleled. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” though of course those are his own words. He meant them, he lived by them, and he died by them. Jesus died—but nobody else did. There was no massacre, and certainly no doomed and bloody revolt. This meant that his followers lived to teach another day, and, inspired by his boundless love, they began to spread his message everywhere.
That message ran like wildfire through the poor, the slaves, and the women of Rome—all the powerless ones, all those who had been stomped on and suffered, not just Jews but people of every race and background. And they taught their children, and the religion grew, and grew, and grew. And eventually Rome had to bow to the new faith, and the faith outlasted the empire.
By dying, Jesus became an idea, and all his teachings with him, and thus became immortal. Now, in the stories he literally rose again, but even if he hadn’t, he’d already achieved the immortality of Achilles or the Buddha: remembered forever. And in the earliest versions of Mark, Jesus rises but isn’t seen again—his resurrection is off-stage. This has puzzled many, and apparently inspired people to write two different, more “satisfying” endings. But perhaps Mark meant to end his story that way, to teach one final lesson: Jesus is alive, but not physically present; instead he is in our hearts and minds.
The teachings of Jesus certainly have stayed with us that way. They entered the genetic code of Western civilization, and have come to the surface again and again. Dozens if not hundreds of anti-war and pro-poor movements have been inspired by the words of Jesus, including liberation theology, abolition, and of course Quakerism (some overlap there). Time and time again the downtrodden rise up against the new high priests and powers that be, and they carry their Bibles in their hands when they do.
The Christian hierarchies, of every stripe, may well have stepped into the role of the Jewish priesthood now, extracting their tithes and fighting a furious reactionary rearguard action. And they often win. They are Behemoth, now, unassailable by force, stomping flat any challengers… but the radical gospel is a gene. Behemoth can’t destroy something which now lives in its own DNA, and so the messages of peace and justice and love are destined to reemerge again and again. And if that isn’t like the woman’s suffrage movement rekindling, or the Czechs of Charter 77 biding their time against the Soviets, or the determination of Gandhi’s satyagraha, I don’t know what is. Jesus and his teachings have earned their place among the revolutionaries.
So many reactionary, power-hungry, and sanctimonious zealots have used the Bible as the cornerstone of their tyrannies, against women, gays and lesbians, people of color, slaves, indigenous peoples, foreigners, the poor in general, and anyone “other.” I will not deny it. But I say that every time they do, they plant the seeds of their own undoing. The Bible has a lot of oppression in it, but it also has Mark, and many other stories besides—and those stories teach us of revolts and strikes, of empires toppled, of religions surrendering to the truth. Mark teaches us of love and justice.
So now I read the Bible. I read it with a radical mind, and therefore I often read it with pleasure. And when I put my Bible down, I am ready to rise up.
1In feeding the five thousand, the disciples started with five loaves and wound up with twelve baskets of leftovers; in feeding the four, they started with seven loaves and wound up with seven baskets. If you’re willing to give away what little you have to more people, it’ll come back to you in greater abundance.