There has been a tendency in post-Enlightenment Biblical interpretation to assume that the scriptures provide us with automatic, obvious answers to modern questions. The consequence of this assumption about the nature of the Bible is that many believe it can (and should) speak “plainly” or “obviously” to the most important issues that we face in the modern world; the historical chasm between the New Testament and 21st century western life is easily bridged by an appeal to the plainly-stated timeless truths that are found in the Christian canon. This presupposition is almost universally held by those that attempt to employ Biblical texts in contemporary social, political, and theological discourse, but does it correspond to reality?
Libertarianism Does Not Require Making Jesus into a Modern Man
The Bible, as a collection of texts, reflects the worldviews, the values, and the mindsets of people that lived thousands of years ago in civilizations that bear little resemblance to our own. If we want to faithfully represent what the writers of scripture were intending to communicate, and then apply those insights as a modern church, we have to appreciate that the 2000-year gap between us and the documents that would eventually become the New Testament present us with a difficult historical challenge.
The 21st century would largely be incomprehensible to those living in the 1st century. We all understand that. Often neglected is the logical but haunting conclusion that the 1st century might largely be incomprehensible to us. That doesn’t mean that we cannot understand it, but we do need to be careful in our understanding. The Bible is both reliable and authoritative, but it has to be allowed to speak to us on its own terms.
Henry J. Cadbury, a Quaker Biblical scholar who lost a teaching position for opposing Woodrow Wilson’s Selective Service Act in World War I, understood the gravity of the gaps in our historical knowledge. In his 1937 book The Peril of Modernizing Jesus, Cadbury claims that “our age differs more from Jesus’ age in ways of thinking than in ways of living (Cadbury, 4)”. While archaeological evidence has helped us shine a light of understanding on the ways in which people lived in antiquity, we have much less evidence revealing the ways in which they thought.
Cadbury makes the devastating point that our archaeological knowledge has given Biblical interpreters a sense of confidence in understanding the inner life of historical figures like Jesus that is unfounded. The gospels aren’t concerned with Jesus’ psychological motivations and were written for audiences that would have been asking very different questions about Jesus than we do today. Again, we want to know what Jesus would have said about contemporary social, political, and theological issues.
The problem, of course, is that the issues are contemporary. They would not have crossed the ancient mind because they had yet to be developed and articulated. Concepts such as ‘libertarianism’, ‘socialism’, ‘conservatism’, ‘capitalism’, ‘nationalism’, and the like are distinctively post-Enlightenment, and therefore modern, categories. We should not expect Jesus to have had a position on these issues, and yet, for some reason, we do. The Gospels offer us a comprehensive portrayal of Jesus, but don’t psychoanalyze him. While this might not be a problem for Christians hearing the Gospel of Luke read allowed in, say, Thessalonica around the year 80 CE (let the reader understand), it is for modern people.
Unfortunately, Cadbury explains that the gaps in our understanding of Jesus’ knowledge “are naturally filled by modern persons with modern content. They infer what Jesus would have thought and felt from what we should think and feel” (Cadbury, 29). By doing this, by importing our modern questions into the Gospels, we inadvertently turn Jesus into a modern figure, and our understanding of him becomes not a reflection of the man who lived and breathed in the 1st century, but a reflection of our own contemporary biases and prejudices.
It gets worse. Every work that is included in the Bible is designed to be experienced as a single rhetorical whole. Matthew is a biography and conforms to the conventions of ancient biographies. Romans is an epistle and conforms to the conventions of ancient letter writing. Every passage, every sentence, every word derives its meaning from the context in which it is used in the document as a whole. To isolate an individual passage and assume we understand its meaning without trying to fit it into the entire work in which it was included almost guarantees that we will misinterpret it.
New Testament scholar Michael Gorman highlights this problem: “Indeed, context is so crucial to interpretation that it is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that if you alter the context of a word or sentence or paragraph, you also alter the content of that text (Gorman, 66)”. So much for ‘plain readings’. Isolating a politically fraught text such as Matthew 22:15-22 or Romans 13:1-7 without referencing either its historical context in the world of antiquity or its rhetorical context within the work as a whole will lead to interpretive failure. Between Foucault and Cadbury, the possibility of uncovering well-developed modern ideas in the Bible seems impossible.
It needs to be said, then, that Jesus was not, and could not have been a libertarian. It is also equally true, of course, that Jesus was not a socialist. Or a conservative. Or a progressive. Or a nationalist, or…well, you get the idea. He was a 1st century Jewish theologian. Jesus didn’t live in the 21st century, and his audience didn’t live in the 21st century.
Regardless of your perspective on the human Jesus’ omnipotent knowledge (what exactly does Paul have in mind when he claims Jesus ‘emptied himself’ in Philippians 2:7?) we know that, as he “went throughout all Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom (Matthew 4:23)” the very Jewish Jesus would have accommodated his message to his very Jewish (although occasionally Gentile, see Mt. 4:25!) audience. As much as we libertarians, who have the ideological upper hand when it comes to political philosophy and economics, want Jesus to validate our positions, he never does.
It has been in vogue for a long time to imagine that Jesus was a socialist. After all, Jesus was concerned about the poor and talked about the need to give generously to those that have not. Anyone familiar with the writings of Marx or Keynes might come to the seemingly natural conclusion that Jesus, who expresses concerns that appear similar to modern eyes, was an advocate for socialism. If Jesus cared about the poor, he would certainly be in favor of large government redistribution programs, right?
Probably not. Cadbury devotes an entire chapter in his book to critiquing the limits of social teachings that can be derived from the Gospels. He criticizes the dominant theological ideology of his day, liberal progressive Protestantism, chastising them for claiming to know nothing at all about the historical Jesus except that he would affirm all of their progressive policy positions. Cadbury’s conclusion: Jesus doesn’t share our modern social affinities and therefore attempts to fit him into our modern categories don’t work.
When Jesus tells the Pharisees and the Herodians to ‘render unto Caesar’, he isn’t acting as a political philosopher ala John Locke or Thomas Hobbes, he is responding to a specific question in a specific historical context, and Matthew included this story of Jesus in his gospel to further develop his own narrative. We shouldn’t attempt to read into the text libertarianism or to read out of the text socialism. Cadbury argues “we must give up in general our social misunderstandings of Jesus.
We must be particularly careful not to quote him as the ally and prophet of our modern social programs and reforms” (Cadbury, 112). While we must not look to the Scriptures to validate our modern social and political convictions, this reality actually levels the playing field for minority ideas like libertarianism within the marketplace of ideas.
Of course, we know that libertarianism works. When Hayek demolishes the idea that central planners could ever have enough knowledge to coordinate an economy, much less dictate what people do in the privacy of their own homes, he is correct. When Rothbard makes the claim that the state can exercise power only through violence and confiscation, he is correct. When Mises demonstrates that all economic activity is the result of human action and that allowing humans to voluntarily produce and exchange creates prosperity for all, he is correct.
The non-aggression principle, while not exactly the same as ‘treat[ing] people the same way you want them to treat you (Mt. 5:12)’, is a social principle that is impossible to refute. Jesus never articulated any of these positions, but Foucault’s method of genealogy means he didn’t have to for them to be correct. After all, if the philosophy of Hayek, Rothbard, and Mises are products of the modern world, we can’t expect that Jesus would have articulated them to his 1st century audience.
Jesus makes many statements about money. “Do not store up treasure for yourselves on earth (Mt. 6:19)”, “the deceitfulness of wealth chokes the word” (Mt. 13:22), “how hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God” (Mk. 10:23), and, of course, “render to Caesar the things unto Caesar’s” (Mt. 22.21), are all made in an ancient context where wealth, government, and power had radically different meanings than our own days. The degree of specialization that has been created by the technological revolutions of the past three hundred years didn’t exist.
There was no Federal reserve artificially lowering interest rates, thereby punishing those that save and transferring wealth from the poor to the wealthy. There was no systematic reflection on economic principles. The Roman emperors never could have dreamed of the omnipotent power wielded by states in the 20th and 21st centuries. What Jesus offers us, instead of a detailed reflection on contemporary social and political ideals, are theological principles. Compassion for the poor. Generosity if you have wealth. Renouncing power, privilege, and status by serving others. Progressive, conservative, and libertarian Christians are all trying to work out these timeless principles in our modern contexts.
Why is this good news? Cadbury sums up his argument on the limits of Jesus’ social teaching: “His teaching only in the remotest way lies parallel to the modern ‘isms’ and none of them, not even the best of them, can wisely or safely promoted by a partisan dishonesty to the facts of history. With Jesus’ general principles to guide us these are issues which in this complicated world we must judge as best we can on our own responsibility, and not seek piously to shelter ourselves behind and effigy of Christ, nor conceitedly claim a superior loyalty to him” (Cadbury, 112).
Progressive Christian socialists or conservative Christian nationalists, despite their facile claim to superiority based on anachronistic readings of the Gospels, do not have the moral high ground. The ghost of Cadbury haunts all attempts to project modern concepts back through the long, dark corridors of history. Jesus may not be a libertarian, but he certainly wasn’t a progressive or a conservative either. In the end, we must faithfully understand Jesus as a man of his time and do our best to align our modern social and political categories with the principles laid down by Jesus in the Gospels. If we do this, libertarianism wins every time.
Cadbury, Henry; The Peril of Modernizing Jesus, 1937
Gorman, Michael, Elements of Biblical Exegesis, 2005