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The Collapse of Society in Luke 23: A Thucydidean Take on Jesus’ Passion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 June 2021

Mark Jeong*
Duke University, Divinity School, 407 Chapel Drive, Durham, NC, 27708, USA. Email:


Στάσις is an important theme in Luke-Acts, but one that remains understudied. Many Lukan scholars equate στάσις with Roman seditio or treason, thereby overlooking the rich philosophical reflection on στάσις in Greek political thought. In this article, I analyse Luke's use of the concept of στάσις in his depiction of Jesus’ trial against the background of Thucydides’ model of στάσις in book 3 of his history. Thucydides’ reflections on στάσις were highly influential for later historians such as Josephus, and I argue that Luke too employs the common topos of στάσις as a violent internal conflict and not an act of rebellion or insurrection to reveal how the conflict between Jesus and his opponents is symptomatic of a deeper inversion of social bonds and language within a community. He does this, I argue, to set the stage for the story of Acts where στάσεις erupt throughout the Empire wherever the gospel is preached.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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I would like to thank Mark Goodacre, Brittany Wilson and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments on an earlier version of this paper. Any remaining errors are my own.


1 Keener, C. S., ‘Paul and Sedition: Pauline Apologetic in Acts', BBR 22 (2012) 209Google Scholar, who equates στάσις with seditio and says, ‘No clear line of demarcation separated treason [maiestas] from sedition, and they might share the same penalties.’ So also Evans, C. F., Saint Luke (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990) 857Google Scholar, who says that στάσις is ‘a technical term for revolt'.

2 The literature on στάσις is vast. See the now classic study by Gehrke, H.-J., Stasis: Untersuchungen zu den inneren Kriegen in den griechischen Staaten des 5. und 4. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. (Munich: Beck, 1985)Google Scholar. On the continuing significance of στάσις in Greek cities under the Roman Empire, see H. Börm, ‘Hellenistische Poleis und römischer Bürgerkrieg: Stasis im griechischen Osten nach den Iden des März (44 bis 39 v. Chr.)', Civil War in Ancient Greece and Rome: Contexts of Disintegration and Reintegration (ed. H. Börm, M. Mattheis and J. Wienand; Habes 58; Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2016) 99–125.

3 Cf. McConnell, S., ‘Lucretius and Civil Strife', Phoenix 66 (2012), 97121CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 97–8, who says, ‘Civil strife or στάσις was not only a subject of social, political, and historical significance in the ancient world; it was also an integral topic in ethics and political philosophy, with a rich tradition going back to the pre-Socratics, and expressed most clearly in Plato's Republic (e.g., 351d–352a, 443d–444e, 462a–e, 545c–549d, 556e) and the fifth book of Aristotle's Politics (1301a19–1316b28).'

4 The only studies I am aware of which address στάσις in its Greek political background in Luke-Acts are D. Dormeyer, ‘Stasis-Vorwürfe gegen Juden und Christen und Rechtsbrüche in Prozessverfahren gegen sie nach Josephus’ Bellum Judaicum und Mk 15,1–20 parr.', Internationales Josephus-Kolloquium: Aarhus, 1999 (ed. J. U. Kalms; MJS 6; Münster: LIT, 2000) 63–79 and D. L. Balch, ‘ΜΕΤΑΒΟΛΗ ΠΟΛΙΤΕΙΩΝ: Jesus as Founder of the Church in Luke-Acts: Form and Function', Contextualizing Acts: Lukan Narrative and Greco-Roman Discourse (ed. T. Penner and C. Vander Stichele; Leiden: Brill, 2004) 139–88. Balch primarily focuses on Acts, though he identifies Jesus’ trial in Luke 23 as for στάσις. He compares Luke's use of στάσις with Plutarch and Dionysius to conclude that Jesus (and the apostles in Acts) cause στάσις to institute regime change and the formation of new ‘colonies'. I differ from Balch in that I do not think Luke understands Jesus or the apostles as fomenters of στάσις. Rather, those who accuse them are the ones who actually incite στάσις. Dormeyer examines στάσις in Luke and Josephus and agrees that while Jesus is accused of στάσις, the Sanhedrin and the crowds are the ones who incite the people (71–2).

5 Kalimtzis, K., Aristotle on Political Enmity and Disease: An Inquiry into Stasis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000), 3Google Scholar.

6 Merriam-Webster defines ‘insurrection’ as ‘an act or instance of revolting against civil authority or an established government’ (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edn, s.v. ‘insurrection’.)

7 Gehrke, Stasis, 6. He goes on to say, ‘Dieses Wort … war auch als politischer Begriff nicht eindeutig, weil es nicht nur den Konflikt, sondern auch – neben Menschenmengen allgemein – die im Konflikt existenten Gruppen, also die Parteiungen, bezeichnen konnte und ohnehin auch für einen im legalen Rahmen bleibenden oder überhaupt unpolitischen Streit verwendet wurde’ (6–7).

8 All translations of non-biblical sources are from the Loeb Classical Library editions unless otherwise noted.

9 Price, J. J., Thucydides and Internal War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 70Google Scholar.

10 Cf. Price, Thucydides and Internal War, 31 for sources.

11 Gehrke, Stasis, 7.

12 Price, J. J., ‘Josephus’ Reading of Thucydides: A Test Case in the Bellum Iudaicum', Thucydides, a Violent Teacher? History and its Representations (ed. Rechenauer, G. and Pothou, V.; Göttingen: V & R Unipress, 2011) 7998Google Scholar, at 93. Price notes that Josephus diverges from its most common usage when he uses στάσις to mean something close to ‘insurrection’ in some cases.

13 Claudius says, ‘As for the question which party was responsible for the riots (ταραχῆς) and feud (στάσεως) (or rather, if the truth must be told, the war) with the Jews, although in confrontation with their opponents your ambassadors, and particularly Dionysius son of Theon, contended with great zeal, nevertheless I was unwilling to make a strict inquiry, though guarding within me a store of immutable indignation against whichever party renews the conflict’ (Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians, in Select Papyri, vol. ii: Public Documents (ed. A. S. Hunt and C. C. Edgar; LCL 282; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934) 84–5).

14 Price, Thucydides and Internal War, 71.

15 Price, Thucydides and Internal War, 71 says, ‘Unlike polemos, stasis is almost always pursued to the very end, i.e., the total defeat or even annihilation of one side by the other, or the expulsion of the losing faction from the area of conflict.’ Cf. also Loraux, N., ‘Thucydides and Sedition among Words’, Thucydides (ed. Rusten, J. S.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 261–92Google Scholar, at 267, who says, ‘The last word of stasis, hideously reduced to its factual brutality, is death.’ On the connection between στάσις and exile more generally, see B. D. Gray, Stasis and Stability: Exile, the Polis, and Political Thought, c. 404–146 bc (Oxford Classical Monographs; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

16 Aeschylus, Eum. 976–83 (trans. Smith), cited in Kalimtzis, Aristotle on Political Enmity and Disease, 3.

17 For Thucydides’ influence on these authors, see Scanlon, T. F., The Influence of Thucydides on Sallust (Heidelberg: Winter, 1980)Google Scholar; Price, J. J., ‘Thucydidean Stasis and the Roman Empire in Appian's Interpretation of History’, Appian's Roman History: Empire and Civil War (ed. Welch, K.; Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2015) 4563CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dreyer, B., ‘Harmonie und Weltherrschaft: Die Stasis bei Polybios’, Civil War in Ancient Greece and Rome: Contexts of Disintegration and Reintegration (ed. Börm, H., Mattheis, M. and Wienand, J.; Habes 58; Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016) 8798Google Scholar; Spielberg, L., ‘Language, Stasis and the Role of the Historian in Thucydides, Sallust and Tacitus’, AJP 138 (2017) 331–73Google Scholar.

18 T. Rajak, Josephus: The Historian and his Society (London: Duckworth, 2004) 9.

19 Smith, D. L. and Kostopoulos, Z. L., ‘Biography, History and the Genre of Luke-Acts’, NTS 63 (2017) 390410CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 406.

20 It is possible that Luke was familiar with Josephus, though I will not pursue that line of argument here. Had Luke read Josephus, he would have recognised the Thucydidean echoes. On Luke's possible use of Josephus, see Mason, S., Josephus and the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003 2) 251–95Google Scholar. In addition, Thucydides formed part of the progymnasmata or rhetorical training in Luke's day. On Luke's familiarity with the rhetorical handbooks or progymnasmata, see Parsons, M. C., ‘Luke and the Progymnasmata: A Preliminary Investigation into the Preliminary Exercises’, Contextualizing Acts: Lukan Narrative and Greco-Roman Discourse, (ed. Penner, T. C. and Stichele, C. Vander; Atlanta, GA: SBL, 2003) 4363Google Scholar.

21 To give just two examples, both Dio Chrysostom (Or. 34.49–51; Or. 38.25) and Aelius Aristides (Or. 32.48), writing in the first and second centuries ce respectively, use the conflict between Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian war as a negative model in their orations on ὁμόνοια (concord), which focus on how cities can avoid στάσις. Aelius Aristides explicitly quotes from Thucydides 2.12.13 in Or. 32.48, a section concerning how Athens and Sparta engaged in ‘faction over command’ (ἐστασίασαν περὶ τῆς ἡγεμονίας).

22 Plümacher, E., ‘Eine Thukydidesreminiszenz in der Apostelgeschichte (Act 20,33–35 – Thuk. ii 97,3 f.)’, ZNW 83 (1992) 270–5Google Scholar argues that Acts 20.33–5 is an allusion to Thucydides 2.97.3, though I do not find this convincing.

23 Emphasis added.

24 Swain, S., ‘Law and Society in Thucydides’, The Greek World (ed. Powell, A.; London: Routledge, 1997) 550–67Google Scholar, at 551.

25 For ancient commentary on this passage, see Müri, W., ‘Politische Metonomasie: Zu Thukydides 3, 82, 4–5’, MH 26 (1969) 6579Google Scholar, who traces its reception from Xenophon to Dio Cassius.

26 Price, Thucydides and Internal War, 61.

27 Some commentators reject the authenticity of 3.84 on internal (style and content) and external (lack of attestation in Dionysius of Halicarnassus) grounds. I have chosen to retain it because what I have quoted is thematically consonant with what Thucydides says elsewhere. Also, the possibly spurious portions concerning economic motives for στάσις play no role in my analysis. For an overview of the debate and a defence of the passage's authenticity, see Christ, M. R., ‘The Authenticity of Thucydides 3.84’, TAPA 119 (1989) 137–48Google Scholar.

28 Kalimtzis, Aristotle on Political Enmity and Disease, 13.

29 Price, Thucydides and Internal War, 41.

30 Rappaport, U., ‘Who Were the Sicarii?’, The Jewish Revolt against Rome: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (ed. Popović, M.; Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011) 323–42Google Scholar, at 325 n. 8.

31 Feldman, L. H., ‘Josephus’ Portrayal of the Hasmoneans Compared with 1 Maccabees', Studies in Hellenistic Judaism (New York: Brill, 1996) 137–63CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 146.

32 Cf. Thucydides 1.1.1, where the Peloponnesian War is called ‘great and noteworthy above all the wars that had gone before’.

33 Mason, S., Josephus and the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003 2) 80Google Scholar. Surprisingly, though Mason admits that στάσις is a major theme of Josephus, he does not list στάσις as one of the parallels between Luke and Josephus in his chapter on Luke's use of Josephus, despite the fact that Luke uses the word seven times.

34 Josephus, B.J. 1.31: στάσεως τοῖς δυνατοῖς Ἰουδαίων ἐμπεσούσης καθ᾿ ὃν καιρὸν Ἀντίοχος ὁ κληθεὶς Ἐπιφανὴς διεφέρετο περὶ ὅλης Συρίας πρὸς Πτολεμαῖον τὸν ἕκτον.

35 Price, ‘Josephus’ Reading of Thucydides', 83.

36 G. Mader, Josephus and the Politics of Historiography: Apologetic and Impression Management in the Bellum Judaicum (Leiden: Brill, 2000) 56–7.

37 All translations of scripture are my own unless otherwise noted.

38 Mark 15.7 and Heb 9.8.

39 It is worth noting that πρωτοστάτης (used only here in the New Testament) is derived from ἵστημι much like στάσις.

40 Kalimtzis, Aristotle on Political Enmity and Disease, 17–22, on Plato's association of στάσις and disease.

41 Loraux, ‘Thucydides and Sedition among Words’, 265 n. 13. Cf. Heb 9.8.

42 Ritter, B., Judeans in the Greek Cities of the Roman Empire: Rights, Citizenship and Civil Discord (Boston: Brill, 2015)CrossRefGoogle Scholar 38 says, ‘Josephus may have been responding to [the conflicts at Caesarea, Alexandria, Antioch and Cyrene] with an almost Thucydidean concern for history as a prescription for future ills.’

43 Price, Thucydides and Internal War, 31. Price is not saying that Thucydides does not envision στάσις taking place in a πόλις, but that Thucydides can also speak of a στάσις disrupting the entire Greek world.

44 Loraux, ‘Thucydides and Sedition among Words’, 266.

45 Loraux, ‘Thucydides and Sedition among Words’, 267.

46 Cf. Thucydides 3.81.4; Theognis 51; Herodotus 3.82, cited in Loraux, ‘Thucydides and Sedition among Words’, 266.

47 Dormeyer, ‘Stasis-Vorwürfe’, 71 says that διαστρέφω is a synonym for στασιάζω.

48 So Schneider, G., ‘The Political Charge against Jesus (Luke 23:2)’, Jesus and the Politics of his Day (ed. Bammel, E. and Moule, C. F. D.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984) 403–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 407; Fitzmyer, J. A., The Gospel according to Luke x–xxiv: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (AB 28A; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) 1473Google Scholar; Green, J. B., The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997) 799800Google Scholar; Parsons, M. C., Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015) 328Google Scholar; contra Bovon, F., Luke 3 (Hermeneia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 2012) 253Google Scholar, who sees all three charges as equally prominent.

49 Bovon, Luke 3, 284.

50 Evans, Saint Luke, 858.

51 Green, Luke, 811.

52 Bovon, Luke 3, 255.

53 Rowe, C. K., World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) 101Google Scholar.

54 Bovon, Luke 3, 256.

55 The parallels between Jesus’ and Paul's trials will not be explored in great detail here, though a few points are worth noting. The language of Luke 23.2 and 23.5 is similar to Acts 24.5. In addition, just as the Jewish opponents of Jesus incite στάσις during the trial, so too do Paul's opponents in Acts 23, where Luke says that ‘a στάσις erupted between the Pharisees and Sadducees and the multitude was divided’ (23.7). On the Jesus–Paul parallelism here, Bovon, Luke 3, 263 says, ‘The evangelist is concerned to make the fate of Jesus the Master and that of his disciple, Paul, as parallel as possible. In all probability the literary movement flows from the disciple to the Master. When he creates the Gospel episode [of Luke 23], Luke is already thinking of Paul's appearance [in Acts 25–26], which he will portray in his second work.’

56 Cf. Schneider, ‘The Political Charge against Jesus (Luke 23:2)’, 408, who says, ‘It is not in fact Jesus who is the one who leads the people astray, but rather the Jewish leaders who stir them up.’

57 Cf. Balch, ‘ΜΕΤΑΒΟΛΗ ΠΟΛΙΤΕΙΩΝ’, who connects the various στάσεις with the formation of new communities in Acts.