Reviewed by Colin Patterson (Bridge Builders)
Robert Beck first came to my notice some years ago when I discovered his book Nonviolent Story, a study of Mark’s Gospel published in the year 1996. As a practitioner of conflict resolution, I find that it is important to pay careful attention to the way the story of a conflict is told. So I was much taken with Beck’s use of narrative analysis as a technique to explore the resolution of conflict in the earliest Gospel. He concluded that Mark’s narrative takes the shape of what we would nowadays call nonviolent confrontation.
Unfortunately for Beck, his US compatriots were generally not very receptive to his book. ‘It was clear,’ he says, ‘in the aftermath of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center [on 11 September 2001], that there was little public appetite for discussions of nonviolence. Retribution was the cry of the day.’ So he shelved his intention to embark on a comparable study of Matthew’s Gospel. But his interest in that project was re-kindled several years later when he noticed an observation made by a Jewish biblical scholar. Referring to the destruction of the second temple in 70AD, this scholar said, ‘It was our 9/11.’
Something then clicked for Beck. According to generally accepted dating, Matthew was writing at a time when this act of violent retribution, anticipated in Mark’s Gospel, had become a grim reality. Every Jew would be aware of what Rome had done. One might assume that this would make Mark’s message of nonviolence even less palatable to Jewish readers, yet Matthew kept it centre-stage, interweaving Mark’s text with significant new material on exactly this subject. Intrigued, Beck began a narrative analysis of Matthew’s Gospel. He has now published the fruits of his work in Banished Messiah, convinced that the way Matthew presents the story of Jesus speaks important things to the post-9/11 world.
Being well versed in literature, Beck makes illuminating reference to a number of well-known stories, noting common elements of their plots, in order to highlight the essential shape of Matthew’s Gospel. He observes that a central feature of Matthew’s plot is the rising tension between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. As in many popular narratives, the protagonist reaches a definitive moment of confrontation with his opponents. But then popular expectations are confounded. The hero of this story will not meet violence with violence, and so the conflict is resolved in a way that has no classic precedent. In Beck’s view, the whole plot is designed to highlight the way that Jesus responds to his antagonists.
Thus far in Beck’s argument, he has not gone beyond what he has already said of Mark’s Gospel. His fresh contribution is to suggest that Matthew draws on a particular stock plot, ‘The Banished and Returned Prince’, to add a new dimension. Beck draws parallels with, for example, The Lion King, Hamlet, the story of Naomi in the Book of Ruth, and the victorious entry of Solomon into the city of Jerusalem. Some important implications follow. First of all, he suggests that Matthew’s infancy narrative should be seen as more than mere prologue. Beck notes that the first two chapters incorporate a type of Grand Entrance. By beginning the main action with the Magi’s visit to Herod, Matthew is introducing his readers at the outset to a corrupt regime that at some stage will need to be challenged. Jesus, Son of David, the infant claimant to the throne, has to escape to safety and is raised in anonymity but eventually returns to Jerusalem as the true king. In essence, Beck argues, Matthew differs from Mark in presenting the story of Jesus as a homecoming – and in doing so is drawing on a rich vein of expectation about how usurpation and re-conquest will usually play out.
According to Beck, Matthew’s aim is to pose the possibility of ‘purge without payback’. Jesus’ teaching, supplied at some length, points to the strange way in which he will bring cleansing of the realm without armed overthrow of a regime. And Beck believes that, by this presentation of Jesus, Matthew was urging his readers not to give in to those within the community of believers who argued for more forcible resistance to the Roman empire. His way of confronting the power of the empire was to portray an alternative reality and an alternative mode of managing conflict.
I like Beck’s way of pulling together insights from literature and theology, and found considerable food for thought in this readable book. Within his broad thesis, he offers many nuggets of theological and exegetical insight. In particular, I was inspired to explore further the significance that Matthew gives to place. It seems clear that he chooses many of his fulfilment texts from the Old Testament, conscious of the significant locations named in them: Bethlehem, Egypt, Nazareth, Galilee, Zion. These can be seen as describing a circle, stations along the path of a home-coming story in which Jesus makes good the royal claims articulated by the Magi. For Matthew, these places, having already been noted by the Hebrew prophets, are pregnant with meaning.
I was also helped to pay closer attention to the way Jesus is portrayed when responding to threats, practising his own teaching against revenge and in favour of forgiveness. Matthew’s Gospel highlights the pointed choices made by Jesus when a mob comes to arrest him. He refuses to allow retaliation or to call upon angels to defend him, and he proclaims that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Beck sees this as Jesus offering principled resistance, even though he does not resort to violence.
I was particularly interested in what Beck offers as the key to understanding how conflict resolution works in the Gospel’s plot. He observes that the material Matthew adds to Mark’s account centres on the idea of innocent blood, and hence the sense of pollution experienced by those try to evade responsibility for the death of Jesus. Judas, the priests and Pilate each show themselves conscious of having blood on their hands. They all make efforts to shake off contamination but are caught up in a cycle of violence with no clear way out. The net result is that only the crowd as a whole will accept responsibility: ‘His blood be upon us and upon our children.’
How, then, are we to understand the fulfilment of the promise made at the outset of the Gospel, ‘He will save his people from their sins’? Beck draws attention to the scapegoat ritual in the Torah, which he believes must have been in Matthew’s mind. The key idea is that, by placing sins upon a goat, and sending it off, pollution was drawn away from the people. Following this line of argument, Beck offers a thought-provoking critique of Girard’s understanding of the atonement. He (Girard) holds that scapegoating as a general phenomenon relies on collusion by feuding parties to pick upon a weaker third party as the real cause of their dispute, and hence as the necessary target for retribution. That victim is sacrificed, which ends the cycle of revenge. But, Beck argues, this notion of how scapegoating works does not fit the trial of Jesus very well. The role of the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement was absorbent, rather than sacrificial. And Matthew portrays Jesus in such a role, as one who absorbed violence. Beck’s point here is that Jesus is not cast as a victim, for ‘the point of non-retaliation is the refusal to regard the opponent as an enemy.’ In fact, the reader sees Jesus making deliberate choices throughout the whole procedure of trial and execution, ‘refusing to blame a victim, to play the card of accusing a scapegoat.’ I find this notion – Jesus both refusing to play the victim, and refusing to claim a victim – an illuminating way of understanding his role as the sin-bearer.
As I write, Osama bin Laden has just suffered a highly-publicised act of retribution, so 9/11 is once again the focus of international attention. I hope that Beck’s book will get the reading it deserves in a world where symbolic demonstrations of destructive power are still the stuff of heated debate.