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Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University


No one can enter the strongman's house
unless he first ties him up.
Only then does he loot his house.

       ---Gospel of Mark 3:27



The danger of quoting a saying out of context is that it can create shock waves that the speaker never intended.  Yet, written contexts often hide the original implications of an oral remark by providing a sanitized framework for its authorized interpretation.  In the case of the gospels, readers need to remind themselves that the social world in which Mark and other evangelists wrote was not identical with the world in which Jesus spoke.  So, studying Jesus' sayings one by one, apart from the current gospel context, can reveal facts about him that have been buried for ages.

This aphorism about looting the home of a powerful person is a case in point.  The synoptic gospels report it as part of Jesus’ reply to criticism that he is practicing exorcism without the proper religious credentials:  “He drives out demons in the name of the head demon” (Mark 3:22).  Yet, the images invoked, in both this observation about house-looting and the prior one about divided governments, are drawn from cases of social conflict.  Whether meant as graphic metaphors of an intangible spirit world or not, these sayings presuppose that Jesus knew such situations in the seamier realm of secular politics well enough to cite them to prove a point.

At face value, the saying quoted above offers this practical advice to would be burglars:  “Before robbing someone, make sure that person’s bound and gagged.”  To those planning to take over someone else’s property it makes perfectly good sense to incapacitate the current owner to prevent that person from resisting or fetching help.  The speaker here is not worried about the morality of an attempt to confiscate the goods of others.  Nor is there any second thought about the victim’s reaction or other social consequences.  There is only the concern to complete the task of looting efficiently.

We are apt to hear this type of amoral instruction if we live in dilapidated ghettos or among thieves.  But it is hardly the sort of thing we would expect to find in sacred scripture, much less on the lips of Jesus.  Can you imagine any admirer of Jesus saying he said this if he did not?  Mark and the other synoptic writers have done such a good job of hiding the potential scandal in this saying, that few students of the gospels have given it much thought.  And most of us who have, prefer to remain silent.  For it is hardly a text that is likely to be well-received in a well-healed conservative congregation of law-abiding religious folk.  The only types of audience that are not apt to be bothered by this bit of street wisdom are social riffraff, hoodlums or paramilitary commandos whose primary goal is to take over what is currently controlled by members of the wealthy upper class.  These are not the sort of people with whom devoted Bible readers generally want to associate.  But if you read the gospels carefully, you will have to concede that Jesus himself actually did choose to live and move in such circles among the homeless, oppressed and impoverished underclass---les misérables---of first century Palestine.  It is obviously for such people, not biblical scholars or law-abiding Pharisees, that Jesus intended this observation.

Within Jesus’ lifetime any reference to looting the house of the man in power was bound to be taken as a hint of political resistance to the Herodian regime.  For Herod, as ally and client of the powerful Roman emperor Augustus, established himself as the model strongman of this period.  Like recent despots from Hitler to Stalin to Saddam Hussein, Herod was swift to silence dissent among his subjects and ruthless in eliminating potential rivals (including several of his own sons).  The Jewish historian Josephus, a member of the old Judean priestly aristocracy, wrote this epitaph for this despot:

Herod died on the fifth day after he killed his (oldest) son, Antipater.
He was king for thirty-four years after he had imprisoned Antigonus /1/
and thirty seven years after his appointment (as king) by the Romans.
He was a man cruel to all alike:
angry with his inferiors and haughty with the righteous.
       --- Antiquities 17.191

Having been appointed governor of Galilee when he was only fifteen, Herod demonstrated his determination to stay in power by wiping out bands of Jewish freedom fighters who rejected Roman control of their homeland.  Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE reignited the fires of Jewish rebellion.  So four years later, the Roman Senate appointed Herod king of Judeans, with complete authority to crush any who challenged Roman supremacy over the area.  On his return to Palestine in 38 BCE to reclaim Jerusalem from his rival, Antigonus, Herod made his stronghold at Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee, which was less than four miles over the hill from Nazareth.  From there he set out to eliminate with ruthless efficiency bands of Jewish rebels who had taken refuge in caves just west of the sea of Galilee, about ten miles south of Capernaum.  Far from pacifying the area, Herod’s tactics only prompted Galileans to murder his lieutenants after he headed south.  This backlash, however, only made Herod return to destroy the rebels and their fortifications.

To us, these details may be ancient history.  But for first century Galileans, the memory of Herod’s strong armed tactics was as close and personal as stories of Hitler’s or Stalin’s atrocities are to the families of survivors of the holocaust or Siberian concentration camps.  Just a generation after Herod scourged the southern Galilean hill country, Jesus grew up and gathered his first band of followers in the same region.

Though Herod himself had died about the time Jesus was born, his shadow lived on in the person of his son Antipas, whom the Roman emperor appointed tetrarch (literally, “quartermaster”) of Galilee and the Jordan region.  Antipas never got over the fact that the Romans gave him less territory and a lower rank than his father.  So, he spent his own forty-year public career trying to live up to his father’s image, having people call him Herod and styling himself “king.”  He also showed that he was no less determined than his father to stifle popular unrest, by imprisoning and then executing the reform-minded preacher, John the baptizer.  Yet, far from silencing dissent, this strong-armed tactic is what probably launched Jesus’ own public career.

If Galileans of that era were apt to infer the features of Herod, both father and son, from Jesus’ reference to the man in a position of power, the reference to looting his house was bound to be understood as an allusion to the events that followed the first Herod’s death.  The power vacuum created by the tyrant’s demise and the delay to settle disputes between his heirs over the terms of his will in Rome, allowed several ambitious upstarts to seize portions of his vast estates.  The insurgents in Galilee are relevant here.  A man named Judah (Judas, in the Greek), son of the first rebel leader whom Herod had executed forty-years earlier, incited Galileans to storm Herod’s stronghold near Sepphoris to loot the royal treasure.  Josephus describes the event like this:

Now this Judas assembled a mob of desperate men in Galilee near Sepphoris and attacked the king’s palace.  Having gotten his hand on all the weapons stored there, he armed everyone around him and confiscated all the treasures seized there. So he was a terror to all, raiding and plundering those he encountered in his desire for fortune and his zeal to be recognized as king.
   ---Antiquities 17.271-272

This Jew may have sought to liberate Galilee from Herod but wound up imitating him.  Only the face of the strongman had changed; the role remained the same.

The one distinction between the reigns of terror initiated by Herod and Judas the Galilean is that the former was sanctioned by Rome while the latter was not.  In the end, this difference doomed any dream of liberating Galilee.  For the Roman governor of Syria swiftly intervened, destroyed Sepphoris, enslaved its citizens and scoured the countryside to track down fugitive rebels.  So relentless was the Roman army’s attempt to prevent further uprisings that Josephus claims they crucified 2,000 Jews.  Galileans no longer had to fear reprisal from one human being named Herod.  But the oppressive power he embodied was still at large, through his son Antipas, through the military dictatorship of Augustus at Rome, and even through would-be liberators, like Judas the Galilean.

Thus, Jesus’ cool-headed reminder that the strongman---any strongman---must be tied up before his estates can be confiscated is a caution that any first-century Jew caught up in this escalating cycle of oppression and rebellion could well understand.  But Jesus’ matter-of-fact conclusion---”Then he loots his house”---puts him, unlike Josephus, firmly on the side of the looters.  Jesus differs from rebels like Judas the Galilean not in goals but in tactics.  Instead of disabling the strongman, they merely filled his shoes.  Jesus, on the other hand, insists that one can reclaim what some bully has seized only by disarming the bully per se---the potential bully in all of us.

According to conventional wisdom, someone who is strong can only be bested by someone who is stronger.  Such an assumption led Luke to put a different spin on Jesus’ saying:

When a strong man is fully armed and guards his courtyard,
his possessions are safe.
But when a stronger man attacks and overpowers him,
he takes the weapons on which he was relying and divides up his loot.
      ----Luke 11:21-22

This is a pretty good description of the tactics of Judas the Galilean, or the Herods or the Roman emperor.  But it is hardly an image that the historical Jesus would have endorsed.  For it leaves the pyramid of totalitarian power intact; only the face of the despot at the top has changed.

Jesus, on the other hand, subverted every power structure by declaring: “Congratulations you poor!  God’s domain belongs to you!” (Luke 6:20).  Instead of claiming sole power for himself, he announced that the power that really rules the world is ultimately on the side of the powerless.  Thus, without lifting a finger, Jesus disarmed every strongman.  Rather than pose as a superhero who can beat every villain, Jesus acted like Robin Hood, distributing the keys of the ruler’s palace to paupers.  The kingdom that tyrants like the Herods and insurgents like Judas claimed for themselves, Jesus declared to be God’s present to anybody who did not hoard things.  This message incapacitates any bully who tries to control things, by assuring the oppressed that the Power that rules the universe favors the weak rather than the strong.  Jesus’ irregular method of exorcism was simply to tell those who felt powerless that they were free to take back control of their own lives.  When the demon of terror---the fear of being bested by a stronger power---is disabled, then you are able to do just that.

/1/ Hasmonean prince and Herod’s chief rival in his early years.


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  • This article is one of the author's contributions to a multi-authored volume on probable authentic sayings of Jesus that never made it to press.  It is published here for the first time.

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- last revised 04 March 2023 -

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