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Jewish Nonviolent Resistance

jewish nonviolent resistance

One of my favorite stories about religion comes from the first century. It centers around Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor over Jerusalem from the years 26 CE – 37 CE.

You might know about Pilate from the Gospels. Jesus was brought before Pilate during his trial.  

But Jesus wasn’t the only Jew who confronted Pilate.

One of my favorite stories comes from the first-century historian Josephus. In chapter three of book XVII of his multi-volume series, The Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus recounts an episode when Pilate brought Roman soldiers to Jerusalem to “abolish the Jewish laws.” 

Pilate’s first step was to engrave Caesar’s image on the Roman soldier’s military gear. He brought the military gear from a city called Cesarea to Jerusalem. This was a major problem because the Jews were not allowed to have graven images in the city. This was Pilate’s way of mocking the Jewish people and their laws.

The governors in Jerusalem before Pilate deliberately refused to bring in graven images. They (more or less) respected Jewish laws and customs, as long as the Jewish people (more or less) behaved themselves. But Pilate was different. He wanted to put the Jewish people in their place by forcing the graven images upon them. 

So one night, while the Jewish people were sleeping, Pilate ordered the graven images to be placed in the city. 

According to Josephus, when the people discovered the images, “multitudes” of Jews confronted Pilate and pleaded with him to take down the images of Caesar. Pilate refused “because this would tend to the injury of Caesar.” 

The people protested the images outside of Pilate’s home. On the sixth day of their protest, Pilate ordered his soldiers to prepare their swords to kill the protesters.

Pilate ordered his “judgment seat” to be placed in the city with a large backdrop that would hide the soldiers who stood ready behind him.

The people asked him once again to remove the images, but this time Pilate signaled for his soldiers to surround the protesters. As the soldiers moved into position, Pilate threatened them with immediate death, unless they stopped protesting and went back home.

The protesters had already planned for Pilate’s threat. Instead of going home, they laid down on the ground. They bared their necks so that the soldiers would have easy access to killing them.

Josephus states that the protesters proclaimed that, “they would take their death very willingly, rather than the wisdom of their laws should be transgressed.”

But the nonviolent resistance of the protesters worked. 

Pilate’s heart was changed, he was “deeply affected” by their dedication and their nonviolent struggle. Pilate “commanded the images to be carried back from Jerusalem to Caesarea.”

As a Christian, I have often been taught a Christian supremacist ideology that Jesus was good and nonviolent, in opposition to the Jews at the time, who wanted to violently defeat Rome.

But that’s simply not true. First-century Judaism had many responses to the Roman Empire. Some wanted a violent revolt. Some thought they just needed to keep the law and then God would defeat the Romans for them. Some thought humanity had gone to hell and so they left to live in the desert. And here, we have an act of nonviolent resistance in the face of oppression. This is a nonviolent resistance that Jesus learned from his religious tradition and his fellow Jews.

Adam Ericksen

Adam Ericksen

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