by Leonard J. Swidler
Reviewed by John Mauger
In Three Jesus Certitudes Leonard J. Swidler makes a case for three claims: 1) that Jesus was a pacifist, 2) that he was a feminist, and 3) that women followers were the true founders of Christianity! Each claim is of current interest regardless of whether one totally agrees with the author. The book is follow-up to his previous book, Jesus Was a Feminist (2007). To support these three claims, Swidler primarily utilizes the four canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) which he considers having the most reliable information on Jesus’s life. Of significant importance to his method, the author distinguishes human Jesus( or Yeshua) from the divine Christ (Messiah or Anointed One), the latter imbued with kingly and militaristic functions (25).
First, regarding pacificism, Swidler argues that Jesus practiced and advocated non-violence. According to the author this is the most common position of Jesus and his followers for the first three centuries until Constantine. It’s illustrated by Jesus’s assertion to Pilate from the Gospel of John that, “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn18.36). Jesus (Yeshua) was not intent to bring a political kingdom to Israel but rather the kingdom of God, an interior and interpersonal realm of peace in contrast to political. Here Swidler’s claim is more moderate than one might initially think as he is not actually advocating total pacifism. He leaves space for self-defense and justified war “when not to be violent would cause even more violence” (170).
Secondly, regarding Jesus being a feminist, the author argues that Jesus believed, practiced and promoted egalitarianism, “the equality of women with men”, which contravened social customs to the contrary (33). He argues this by assembling evidence from the gospels for Jesus respectful and equal treatment of women in contrast to the typical treatment of women in 1st century Palestine. As evidence of the typical treatment of women he cites the Jewish historian Josephus as saying that women were held “in all things inferior to men” (40). According to Swidler, Jesus’s posture toward women is also in significant contrast to the early church which quickly became non-feminist, antiwoman and even misogynist (39). Here he cites passages from the Apostle Paul (1 Tim. 2.11-12) and church fathers such as Tertullian and Origen which reflect negative attitudes toward women (39). Accordingly, this makes Jesus all the more remarkable because he makes feminism “a constitutive part of the gospel, the good news of Yeshua” according to author (38).
For his third thesis, Swidler argues that woman were the true founders of Christianity, that historically Christianity was “given birth” by women followers of Yeshua (83). To support this claim he provides portraits of women in the four canonical gospels that show their importance to Jesus birth, life and ministry. These include among others the virgin birth of Jesus through his mother Mary, and the Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus which includes sexually immoral women such as Tamar, Rahab and Bathsheba. Additionally, Swidler cites many gospel stories such as of the Samaritan woman, the woman caught in adultery, Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha the sisters of Lazarus and others which illustrate both Jesus love for women but also their significance for the gospel story. He also notes the importance of women in the crucifixion and resurrection accounts of Jesus, such as Mary Magdalene and other women being first to see Jesus’s empty tomb to which they reported to the other disciples (150). In fact, based on John 20.17, Swidler considers Mary Magdalene the apostle to the apostles (154).
Lastly, he notes a connection between the three theses. Of feminism and pacificism he points out that without feminism women would be denied their equal rights, a violence against them. Parallel to the rise of non-violence has come the rise of feminism with women spreading the good news of common and mutual love for all, especially for the marginalized.
Many will find this work encouraging and at least partially compelling though disagreeing with parts of the authors method and central assertions. His approach tends to disassociate the Jesus of history from the divine Christ also in the gospels. He seems to leave open the question whether the historical Jesus is the divine Christ, though Swidler’s method can lead to the conclusion that Jesus is not so. If parts of the historical Jesus as found in the canonical gospels are reconstructions by the gospel writers that don’t provide substantially accurate depictions of what Jesus said and did, it might seem difficult to know whether Jesus’s favorable relations and actions towards women are actually accurate to the historical person Jesus or reconstructions by those gospel writers. Another question is over the more obvious patriarchy in the New Testament. The author considers such patriarchy a distortion of the real meaning and purpose of Jesus, and even the gospel itself. As a prime apostle and promoter of the gospel, how can St. Paul be so wrong-headed over significant elements of the gospel despite being a person on his time? Also, Swider’s understanding of Jesus pacificism in the gospels can contrasted with Jesus’ views on divine judgment. The author’s point that women are the true founders of Christianity has truth to it but may also be viewed as an overstatement to make his point. What about the twelve apostles and other men besides women who were appointed by Jesus to spread the gospel? Nonetheless,, Swidler’s argument for equal treatment of women and loving .