Gospels

The Roman civil war 68-69 CE and Nero’s suicide in Luke 11:17-18a

Luke 11:17-18a reads as follows: (17) But he [Jesus], knowing their thoughts, said to them: ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. (18) And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?’

A superficial reading of these verses suggests that Jesus is discussing the poor condition of the cosmic kingdom of Satan, using imagery that comprises society from the highest public (‘kingdom’) to the lowest private (‘household’) level. However, reading this fragment as part of an encoded political story, Jesus may not be disclosing a general cosmic idea but giving a specific political comment. The following elements support this political analysis:

  • Traditionally βασιλεία (basileia) is translated as ‘kingdom’, but in the context of Roman occupation of Palestine, ‘empire’ may be the preferable alternative.
  • The phrase καὶ οἶκος ἐπὶ οἶκον πίπτει (oikos epi oikon piptei) is translated as ‘and a divided household falls’ (Nestle-Aland, above) or ‘and house falls on house’ (NRSV). In the Roman imperial context, considering the negative effect (‘falling’) of οἶκος ἐπὶ οἶκον, and translating ἐπὶ as ‘against’ in this context of division, we see a situation of leading ‘houses’ in a struggle for supreme power. In short: οἶκος ἐπὶ οἶκον πίπτει may describe a situation of civil war, more specifically the civil war of 68-69 CE.
  • In a previous blogpost (Did Jesus visit Rome?), I discussed the use in Mark 1:13 of ὁ σατανᾶς (ho satanas) as an encrypted term for the Roman emperor, more specifically the emperor Nero. Maybe this is also the case here.
  • The Greek verb διαμερίζω (diameridzō) is used twice in these verses, and it is consistently translated as ‘to divide’. In the first occurrence, combined with βασιλεία, this translation seems plausible, but in the second it may not be. Considering that (a) the basic meaning of διαμερίζω is ‘to cleave asunder, cut in pieces’, (b) this ‘cutting in pieces’ is directed ‘against himself’ (ἐφ ҆ἑαυτὸν – eph’ heauton), and (c) Nero committed suicide with a knife, the second phrase with διαμερίζω could well allude to Nero’s suicide.

In my analysis, verse 17 describes the civil war in Rome 68-69 CE, and verse 18a describes its provoking event, the suicide of Nero. Luke 11:17-18a is a fine illustration of the gospels being encrypted narratives of the Jewish-Roman struggle for world domination. This short fragment describes the supposed weakness of the enemy expressed by one of the leaders of the Jewish rebellion against their oppressor. Jesus depicts the Roman empire as divided and in a state of civil war following the suicide of its ruler. In the eyes of their Essene opponents, this brought the world power Rome to the brink of collapse. Jesus analyses Rome’s adverse internal affairs and its resulting supposed weakness to motivate the Jewish revolutionary forces.