Muted Kingship?

As I come toward the end of my latest run through Luke, I am passing through the passion narrative. Luke’s telling of the story is distinctive on several accounts.

It is in Luke that Jesus heals the guy who loses his ear during Jesus’ arrest. It is in Luke that we hear of Pilate sending Jesus to Herod, and the ensuing friendship between the two leaders.

But Luke’s omissions are perhaps even more intriguing.

Jesus is mocked during his trial, but by the Jewish guards rather than the Romans (Luke 22:63-64).

Jesus does get an “elegant robe” put on him–but it is put on by Herod rather than the Romans, with no indications that it is the mocking purple of a would-be Messianic pretender.

Pilate hands Jesus over to be killed, after protesting his innocence, and there is no indication that the Romans torture Jesus before the crucifixion. No scourging. But even more importantly: No crown of thorns. No purple robe. No scepter.

Luke does include the charge over Jesus’ head, “This is the King of the Jews,” but otherwise, the Roman mockery of Jesus as a messianic pretender is muted.

The conclusion of Jesus’ life is followed by the centurions’ confession, which in Luke is not a testimony of Jesus’ divine sonship but instead his innocence: “Surely this man was innocent (or, just).”

All of this seems to play into the idea that Luke is concerned to depict the early Christian movement as something that is not of a political nature. Though Romans do mock Jesus as “King” on the cross, the impression of Jesus being a claimant to the royal throne is toned down. Yes, Jesus is enthroned king, but this happens at the resurrection, when God then makes him Lord and Christ.

Other interesting threads are woven here as well.

Jesus is more in charge and less destitute in Luke than in Mark. He pauses along the way to comfort the women of Jerusalem and tell them to fear for the future of the city. It seems that Jesus not only speaks a word of admission into the kingdom to the crucified bandit, but also a word of forgiveness to his persecutors.

Finally, when it comes time for Jesus to die, he does not die as one abandoned. In place of the cry of dereliction is the faithful commendation of Jesus’ spirit into the hands of a loving and, apparently, present Father: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

In all, I find it interesting that Jesus is more kingly, more in possession and control, than we see in Mark, while at the same time the overall royal thrust of the passage is less. For Luke, it seems that this whole scene is more of an entryway into the coming kingly resurrection, whereas for Mark the crucifixion is more directly the path to coronation itself.

For Luke, the death opens up the possibility of people seeing their need to be forgiven in the unjust murder of a righteous man, a forgiveness that will go forth to the ends of the earth once Jesus has been enthroned.

At least, that’s what I’m seeing. Anybody else out there worked through this data? What have you seen?

8 thoughts on “Muted Kingship?”

  1. Daniel,

    Many thanks for these posts. I found today’s to be one of the most intriguing. “Muted Kingship” is a good way to describe what we are seeing. I may use some of your posts for my online class in Gospels, if you don’t mind.


  2. Thanks for the interesting observations! Luke is the Gospel I’ve probably spent the least time with. How much weight would you give the idea that Luke has an apologetic purpose with this portrayal [as well as in Acts] vis-a-vis the Roman empire? I.e., the Christian movement is not a threat to the empire; not necessarily pro-empire, but transcending it, as you seem to suggest. If and how is this a legitimate model for Christian engagement with politics in general?

    Those are the thoughts/questions that come to mind . . .


    1. Justin, Kavin Rowe has convinced me that things are a bit more complicated than this. There is a strand of “we’re not that bad for the empire,” but there’s also a strand of “these people are turning the whole world upside down.” Perhaps the answer is something along the lines of, “This is not a directly political subversion, but something more powerful than politics at work to change the world.”

      The things I was noting, however, would play well into the stand of evidence you allude to, in which the early Christian movement seems to find its identity, in part, in not being politically subversive.

  3. Daniel, I read so much theorizing about Luke’s editorial concern to down-play any possible offense to Rome that it is like fresh air when you point out:

    interesting that Jesus is more kingly, more in possession and control, than we see in Mark, while at the same time the overall royal thrust of the passage is less.

    I like the distinction – Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ character differs from Mark not only in taking the ‘rebel’ a bit more out of the picture but also in reflecting more of Jesus’ kingly moral and spiritual bearing throughout. I’d say not exactly ‘muted’ but more like spiritual code-speak designed to go over the head and past ears of earthly empire while still reaching a target audience with a ‘greater than Caesar’ message which is more spiritual than Mark’s but less offensive to the material authority of the imperial office. And I would argue that the new pitch doesn’t so much make up a new story as get the old one right.

    And if Mark offers a throne, I agree that it is the cross. Whereas Luke sees a crowning and enthronement in post-Pentecost hearts.

    Did you indicate that Kavin Rowe has more like this?

  4. Interesting …. i am wondering if there is something more going on, like a Jewish Gentile divide. I have found that in Luke’s Gospel, he highlights more of Jesus’ ministry to the Gentiles than other gospels. We see this kind of bias in Acts too. After all Luke is a Gentile and so is his audience. If i were witnessing to a Jewish person i would not say “you Jews killed Christ”. I would rather emphasize the Roman aspect of Jesus’ death. So i do not think Luke was downplaying the politicization of Jesus, he was de-emphasizing the murder of Jesus by the Romans.

    I do like the observation that Jesus seems more incharge in Luke as compared to Mark and that he has a different way of looking at Jesus kingship.

  5. It seems that Luke places some of the most important ideas around Jesus’ death into the form of prayers on Jesus’ lips (22:42, 23:34 and the one you mention 23:36)…

    So while a political reading of Luke’s story is possible and necessary, some political readings end up excluding a more theological reading which seems to run against the grain of Luke’s own account.

    I agree that Rowe’s work on Acts is helpful in this regard… he seems to allow both elements to be part of Luke’s account in Acts, which is what we should then expect here in the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In keeping with Rowe, I think “lord” rather than ‘king” is probably a more Lucan metaphor for Jesus through the account of his trial and death – I suspect NT Wright’s Israel/Messiah/King emphasis works less well in Luke than the other synoptics… but its just an impression

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