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Jesus through the Eyes of an Irish Republican

Jesus through the Eyes of an Irish Republican

By Helen Bond
Senior Lecturer in New Testament Language,
Literature and Theology
University of Edinburgh
January 2010

Recent historical Jesus study prides itself on the diversity of participants: Jews, Christians, and secularists from a range of (first world) nationalities and backgrounds. But how diverse are we really? Despite apparent variety, we all share the same basic training in biblical languages and historical criticism, the same basic commitment to scholarly enquiry, and, broadly speaking, a similar social status in our respective settings. It was with some curiosity, then, that I travelled to Israel last month to make a TV program on Jesus for UK’s Channel 4 with Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish Sinn Féin party.

For readers not entirely up to speed on British/Irish politics of the last few decades, Mr. Adams is a man of some notoriety in Britain. Although he has always denied being a member of the IRA, he and his family were clearly central participants in “the troubles,” to the extent that his voice could not be broadcast in the British media during the 1980s (a ban the BBC overcame by having his words spoken by an actor). Gerry is an intelligent man, educated at a grammar school, but without higher academic training; his outlook is deeply shaped by his Irish Catholic and republican upbringing. His questions are not honed by generations of academic discourse (he doesn’t wonder if Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet or a sapiential sage), but by real life experience and struggle.

My role in the program was to act as Gerry’s mentor, to accompany him on his trips (including one dark evening when we found ourselves paddling in the Sea of Galilee in a thunderstorm discussing Jesus’ miracles), and to discuss the days’ findings with him every evening. We spent hours arguing whether first-century Galilee was “occupied”; the meaning of “democracy” in ancient societies; high priestly “collaboration” (and alternatives); and whether Jesus foresaw his own death. I’ve not often had the chance to discuss these things with a man who has been on the run from political authority, who has experienced internment, who has been shot at (and still bears the scars), and who is now protected from the “real IRA” who regard him as a traitor – and I have to say that I learned from him too.

Most importantly, I suppose, I realised how academic and intellectual my approach to the historical Jesus has become. On the subject of Jesus and politics I can rehearse the views of Brandon and his detractors and cite alternatives (Jesus was against imperialism, Jesus was a social rather than a political revolutionary, etc.). The names of Crossan, Horsley, and Fiorenza flow from my pen as shorthand for a variety of views and complex positions. I know too that religion and politics were inextricably intertwined in ancient Israel, that to talk of the “Kingdom of God” in a land ruled by an emperor was dangerous, and that subject peoples will keep their hopes and dreams alive though folklore, ballads, and the names they give to their children. But I had externalized all of this and kept it at arm’s length (in what I thought was good scholarly detachment). It was only when I thought about these things in the complexity of modern Israel, when I heard the views of Jewish scholars brought in for the program, and when I saw things through Gerry’s eyes that I began to feel how Jesus’ message might have been heard in first-century Galilee and Judaea. How could talk of a kingdom have been anything other than a threat to the existing rulers? How could the presence of twelve men, representing the twelve tribes of Israel in its glory years, have been anything other than a powerful symbol of national restoration to people with a strong sense of self-respect and identity? How could Jesus’ words and actions not have reawoken long held hopes, and dared his hearers to envisage another reality? And even if Jesus condemned violence and expected God himself to inaugurate the new age, there would always be those who misunderstood him and thought that God needed a helping hand.

Judas’ betrayal was another area where Gerry’s perspective helped me to see things rather differently. Once again, I’ve always approached Judas intellectually, asking why he betrayed Jesus, what motivated his actions - greed, disillusionment, an attempt to force Jesus’ hand? Gerry, however, instinctively understood the defection of a “gang member.” “Yeah, that’s what happens,” he said, “they got to him.” I had thought of Judas’ betrayal as something active, something he chose to do, rather than a situation he was forced into, perhaps (and quite likely) under duress. Of course, the whole Judas story is probably colored by the betrayal of David in 2 Samuel 15, but the general outline of events is historically plausible, a historicity made even stronger by its clear resonance with the way groups (on both sides) were infiltrated and betrayed in Belfast.

It is always dangerous to import modern experiences too easily into an ancient setting, despite broad parallels between Northern Ireland and first-century Judaea. Yet Gerry’s background helped to illuminate for me certain aspects of Jesus’ life in a way that discussions with academics often has not. I’m not advocating giving up reading scholarly work, but true diversity of participation in Jesus studies involves discussion with a far greater variety of perspectives than are currently heard.

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Comments (12)

Thank you, Professor Bond, for a most thoughtful analysis of the relevance of Jesus studies! Indeed, the political realism of the Gospels is all too easily overlooked by our religious and non-religious approaches to their central subject: Jesus. I find myself pondering why the Galilean prophet might have been a threat to the Judean religious leadership, as well as the Roman imperial presence.
#1 - Paul Anderson - 01/12/2010 - 18:52

What you have missed is that if Gerry's experience was replicated in Jesus, most of the apostles would have been traitors.
#2 - Malachi O'Doherty - 02/14/2010 - 08:29

Channel 4's use of Gerry Adams to front an exploration of Jesus is deeply insulting. Adams is no man of peace. Ms Bond skirts over the true antecedents of Gerry Adams and any linkage between him and Our Lord made in her piece, however tenuous, is a disgrace. Channel 4 has, sadly, 'form' in such a provocation. I await a leader of Hamas and his take on the development of Judaism following the flight from Egypt.
#3 - Hugo van der Kraan - 02/15/2010 - 06:04

Dear Dr Bond
I was reading your blog with some interest and I was disgusted to see that Gerry Adam’s terrorist past has been totally ignored. He was the leader of the PIRA in the seventies and eighties who murdered men, women and children and blew Northern Ireland to bits. Your programme gave him an opportunity to make excuses for his atrocities. I think you demonstrated bad judgment given one of the Ten Commandments is thou shall not kill.
#4 - Timothy Sloan - 02/16/2010 - 09:03

I watched the documentary with great interest. I'm sad that some people feel that Gerry Adams should not have made the programme. Isn't he the sort of person Jesus would have spent time with? Gerry admitted he isn't perfect - none of us are. Let the person without sin throw the first stone...... I for one found his questions and comments interesting.
#5 - Liz Fairless - 02/21/2010 - 16:09

I was moved by the programme. It is unusual to see someone actually wrestling with the gospel and acknowledging that, if Jesus was a pacifist, as I believe he was (but not a passivist), then Gerry Adams could not go all the way with him. As he said, he is a politician, and politics is not the cleanest of businesses.

Those who have been quick to condemn Gerry Adams and the programme do not realise the courage, energy and commitment it must have taken for him to lead his people out of violence and into the peace process.

I think he shows a much greater understanding of the limitations of armed conflict than did Blair and Bush when they invaded Iraq on our behalf. They do have blood on their hands.

I'm glad to see that Albert Schweitzer's contribution to our understanding of the Gospels is still one that challenges us.
#6 - Colin Hodgetts - 02/21/2010 - 17:18

I found Jerry Adam's approach to Jesus deeply moving. I think it was an inspired choice to have him do it and should have drawn a lot more people in to view the programme as a result of being intrigued by what he would have to say. I liked his serious and heartfelt approach as well as his humility and the importance he gave to Jesus's message of forgiveness, both for himself and between people. I also very much enjoyed the previous programmes. They should draw a lot of people to want to take a new look at the bible and hopefully benefit from its great richness.

Anne Forbes
#7 - Mrs Anne L. Forbes - 02/22/2010 - 11:27

The essence of the true Jesus and the mataphysics he came to deliver unto us have been badly distorted and misrepresented by so many who were unable to find the true interpretation of his words replacing them with their own self serving ideologies.
This alone is what stops so many finding the real message of Jesus.
Jesus was and is The Way the Truth and the Light.
His philosophy was about the true nature of mankind and never about religion.
Jesus is love he came to be the light in the darkness of the soul in need,he taught us that all he was we were likewise.
WE are all Gods love. We are all equal within Gods love.
The Jesus of history is destorted and his truths hidden within religious dogma.
To know Jesus is to know the truth he gave us, we all have the spirit of God within and if we live within Gods laws we would walk the road less traveled towards his truths.
Jesus said that where two gather together there he will be, your human heart and the spirit of God within is the two he gave reference to. For both Jesus and God are within us all, and if you dont see God in all things then you dont see God at all.
We are all conected by our spirit and humanity to God.
Mans inhumanity to man has nothing to do with Jesus it goes against both Gods laws and the teachings of Jesus, to justify violence of any kind is wrong and yet another misrepresentation of Gods laws.
Jesus came to show us all the way back to the sacred knowladge buried deep within us all.
Jesus traveled far to find all that was within himself he never spoke about his religion but his God, the father who sent him to show the way.
He spent time with the outcast's of society illustrating both his wisdom and his love.
By living from the point of love no man could cause another harm.
Jerry Adams was a man who lived like many outside of these laws, but never doubt God is still within him at all times.
He has done what he did and is now walking his own road to the Jesus he so wants to find. To hear him speak of comuning with God as he walks within the beauty of a feild is living proof that he has found the truth within himself.
Never judge any man Jesus never.
As for Judas Jesus knew he was to be betrayed by him, how could mans betrayal of love be better illustrated to us all.
It is never to late to find Jesus life will always be what it is until we all can see the God within ourselves.
Forgiving all things is the hardest thing any of us can do but the greatest thing of all.
To forgive both ourself and others is to follow Jesus to love all to help all who need it to share both our time and our love is living within the teaching of Jesus to walk the road less traveled is to follow his footsteps and to come to know him.
Listen to the opinions of others but never try to define Jesus by their actions.
Jesus lived with love for all within his heart and soul he was persecuted for this as those in power knew the effect he had on those who followed him. He suffered not to take our sin but to show us the truth of all we are.
As above so below we are all Gods love, he created us all in his image, the image of love., and equality for all.
There are many those who beleive that Jesus did not die on the cross, i am one of them. He himself told Mary that he had not acended to heaven, more than one of his own disciples
betrayed him, Paul went on to start the Christian religion and it is well documented that his teachings were not as those of Jesus.
Jesus said "love thy Brother as thy soul protect him as the pupil in your eye", How sad so long after he gave so much to us we still do not listen to the purity of his words.
#8 - MARY HARRISON - 02/25/2010 - 22:34

I don't think Jesus had any political agenda, He came to save us from our sins- pure and simple. He was drawn into politics by others but Jesus' message was apolitical and people have strong views about Him because He was the Son of God. People who say that he was just a prophet,a good man or teacher have missed the point. he could not have been just those things because His claims were so radical that He either was who He said he was or a fraud! I've made my choice.
#9 - Colin Cinderby - 03/27/2010 - 07:05

Gerry Adams is regarded as a 'traitor', which gives him an understanding of Judas.

Of course, no Christian for 30 years ever mentions Judas when writing to other Christians.

When the author of Hebrews wants an example of somebody betraying something valuable for monetary gain, he naturally turns to the example of Esau.

There is no evidence that Judas ever existed, much less that Pilate needed somebody to betray Jesus's whereabouts.

This talk of a kingdom of God being a threat to rulers is striking.

No wonder that the Romans in Acts declare that they can't think of a single thing Paul was doing that was against their law in any way.
#10 - Steven Carr - 11/08/2010 - 05:52

I was disappointed in the programme as I expected it to to be an "historical look at Jesus", but it seemed always to assume that the bible is the truth. This is not an historical examination at all. I notice another comment here suggests there is no evidence that Judas existed - well, is there evidence that Jesus existed? That's what I was hoping to see discussed. What we got was the converted preaching to the converted. The worst moment came near the start when Gerry Adams asked a Catholic church leader if any of the gospel writers may have known Jesus. He suggested that "Mark may have done". Cut to the next scene, where Gerry is being shown a piece of the actual, genuine gospel of St. Mark. And next to it was card that dated it at 250 A.D. They must have lived much longer than we thought in those days!!!!!
#11 - Neil - 03/29/2011 - 18:06

Yes, it is great to see Dr. Bond help shine the light of day on the simple truth about the gospels, works of historical fiction loosely based on a likely nonviolent Jewish protester to Roman occupation. A body of writings, written decades after any of the events, for a roman audience, who were cleverly trying to create a new religion by distancing themselves from the Jews.
#12 - Lee Kerr - 01/22/2012 - 23:25

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