Why a Menorah?

The cover illustration for “The Gospel According to the Romans” comes from the Arch of Titus in Rome. (Actually, it comes from a Tel Aviv museum’s reconstruction of that part of the Arch.)

The Arch of Titus commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the looting of its treasures in 70 CE, during the Great Revolt that ended with Masada. This was 35-40 years after the death of Jesus, but part of the pattern of a major uprising against the Roman Occupation once a generation or so, and the Legions crushing it.

Treasures from the Temple in Jerusalem being looted by the Legio X Fretensis under Titus

The Roman attitude towards Palestine was that it was a strategically important province: not just at the crossroads of Mesopotamia and Egypt, not just part of the trade routes with India, but essential to prevent piracy and lawlessness in the eastern Mediterranean. So the Romans were there to stay. If the Jews were going to be quiet, the Empire would farm them for taxes while providing commerce and growth and infrastructure. If the Jews were going to be troublesome, the Legions would loot and pillage while suppressing uprisings. Standard Roman practice.

“The Gospel According to the Romans” puts Jesus into this context of Roman occupation and constant Jewish resistance. You’d be surprised how different that makes the Gospels look!

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Contextualizing Jesus

Churches and Sunday Schools teach the Old Testament, the New Testament, the description of the Temple, the differences between Sadducees and Pharisees, food, clothing, etc. But no mention of the Romans.

Jesus opposed those who didn’t follow the Jewish Law, and the Romans executed him

High school Ancient History teaches the rise of the Roman Empire and its acquisition of all the provinces around the Mediterranean. But no mention of Jesus.

This is like telling the story of Osama Bin Laden without mentioning the Americans – and then telling the story of the Western occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan without mentioning Islam or religious insurgents!

Historians are apparently scared of dealing with historical realities that bear upon the creation of religions; the talking snakes and virgin births and going up to heaven in chariots don’t mesh coherently with the sociopolitical narrative, so historians ignore them.

And priests and theologians are equally scared of contextualizing their stories, because the stories only make sense if they exist as detached fairytale bubbles. Their stories are self-referential, detached from reality, about a preliterate world where gods and angels walk the earth and perform magic, where demons are the cause of illness or misfortune, and where life will somehow continue after the body wears out and dies.

But Jesus was a person in a particular time and place. He was a religious Jew, an acknowledged rabbi, living under the military occupation of an idolatrous, pig-eating Western superpower – the Roman Empire. The Romans had been controlling, taxing (and sometimes looting) Palestine for a hundred years, in the face of major uprisings once a generation. When you view the words and actions of Jesus in this light, a fresh and powerful picture appears, clearly hostile to the Romans.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE ROMANS explores the life of Jesus within this historical context.

The perfect Christmas gift!

The perfect way to honor and dishonor Christmas simultaneously – give a novel that recognizes the reality of Jesus without the fantasies of divinity. A novel that accounts for every bizarre action, every “miracle”, every lecture by Jesus, and makes sense of them all by contextualizing them within the Roman Occupation that he fought against.

 

Gospel According to the Romans

The perfect Christmas gift!

He chased 2,000 pigs off a cliff… why? Whose were they? What was important to him about the number 2,000?

He talked of the Good Samaritan. Why did Jews think of the Samaritans as bad? Why did Jesus want them considered good?

He talked of a son of man being dead and buried and resurrected on the third day… then he waited until the third day to “resurrect” Lazarus. (He himself was only buried for a day and a half before his body was taken from the tomb… Friday evening to Sunday morning.)

He “appeared” after his death, twice – the first time telling the disciples not to tough him because he wasn’t ascended, the second time insisting Thomas touch him although he still wasn’t ascended. Why the discrepancy?

“The Gospel According to the Romans” tells the story through the eyes of Matthew Levi, the Roman agent working as a tax collector (and therefore spy) for the Romans in Galilee. it tells what we know of Jesus’ partially Romanized childhood, of the uprisings in Galilee against the Romans, and of Jesus’ failed attempt to take over the Temple at Passover.

This is Jesus as the Jews and Romans of his time saw him. It is the perfect Christmas gift for the atheist, agnostic, or Roman or Jewish historian on your list!

Chapter 8, Notes

Chapter 8, “Matthew as Host”, takes the dinner event described in Matthew 9:10-13 and uses it to introduce almost all the main characters on the Jewish side of the novel: not just the rest of The Twelve – describing them and grouping them by their probable religious sect – but also Mary Magdalene and the key figures of Lazarus and his sister Mary of Bethany. jesus-with-sinnersMy reading of the Gospels leads me to believe that Jesus’ closest friends were, for very different reasons, Lazarus, Judas and John – and that’s how they will play out in the novel. (That would be John in front of Jesus in the illustration.)

The dinner also provides an opportunity to see Jesus turn water into wine – delight the others, get their buy-in, and see what Matthew thinks of it. As we have already seen how wine is mixed at a Roman dinner, neither we nor Matthew need be impressed.

When the neighbors show up to complain about Jesus and his disciples partying with “publicans and sinners” (tax collectors and whores), Jesus answers with both philosophical observations and the presence of his heavies.

Jesus only addresses one person in the Gospels as “friend” – and that is Judas. Rather like the 17th century Quakers, the 1st century Zealots saw only God as an authority, and therefore all people were essentially equal in importance. Like the Quakers, they addressed each other as “friend” – not that different from Communists’ use of “comrade”. Jesus’ use of the word “friend” to Judas reinforces the idea that Judas was a Zealot, and also that Jesus was sympathetic to them.

As for the Quakers, there is a charming anecdote of William Penn and Charles II, published by the Religious Society of FriendsOne of the most enduring examples of Quaker egalitarianism can be seen in a meeting between William Penn and King Charles II of England. Summoned into the presence of the King, Penn refused to remove his hat. When Charles II asked why, Penn replied, “Friend Charles, we do not uncover for any man, but only for the Lord.” Upon hearing this, Charles removed his own hat. “Friend Charles,” Penn asked, “why dost thou uncover thyself?” “Friend Penn,” Charles II replied, “in this place it is the custom for only one man at a time to keep his hat on.” This pragmatic attitude towards Quaker egalitarianism and “hat honor,” however, was comparatively rare for the time.

As with Charles, Jesus doesn’t have to have been a Zealot himself to use the term “friend” – only to have been sympathetic to and respectful of the ideology.

Chapter 6, Notes

If you want to have a fresh think about who Jesus was, you can’t start with him. He is too well-known to be introduced right away, because all the preconceptions and associations about him will dominate the picture.

Magdala on the Sea of Galilee, 1900 AD.

Magdala on the Sea of Galilee, 1900 AD

It is necessary (even if it slows down the narrative) to bring the context to life first, and then slide him into that context. That means giving a sense of the Roman Occupation of Palestine, which had been going on for 100 years by the time of the Gospels.

We have to start with Pontius Pilate and the rulership of the province; what the Romanized cities looked like; how the military presence kept the province from rebellion… and what the whole Occupation felt like, the normal day-to-day existence of people in one of the less important provinces of the Empire.

After that, we need to look at the fault-lines between the occupiers and the occupied, and consider the extent to which the Occupation is or is not impacting the daily lives of the locals. So we move to a small farming and fishing town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the interior, Capernaum. Get a sense of what their life is like, and how much they interact with or avoid the Romans. This has taken the novel as far as Chapter 6, with the hostile interactions between Romans and Galileans, and the first rumors of some “Teacher”, some “Rabbi”, who gets a lot of respect from the local people.

Now we can prepare to bring Jesus into the story and consider how he acts and talks – because now we have a basic understanding of the environment in which he lives.

Chapter 5, Notes

Chapter 5 sees Matthew visit the local Roman detachment in their little fort outside Capernaum. Roman LegionaryHe goes in order to send a report to Pilate, and chooses a Sabbath when he expects no customs work caused by travelers. He finds Buteo in charge and Bibaculus also present, watches their training exercises – Roman legions were virtually invincible, and certainly more than a match for any rebel army – and shares a meal. He walks back into town with two of the legionaries who are looking for a chance with a local girl when the Sabbath ends at sunset.

Falling asleep in his office, he wakes up to witness one of the legionaries murdered in the street. Too late to intervene, he stays out of the way overnight.

The resistance may not be able to put an army in the field, but they have other modes of combat.

 

Chapter 4, Notes

Map of Galilee with Capernaum

Capernaum in Galilee

Chapter 4 brings Matthew to Capernaum, the lakeside village on the road between Caesarea and Damascus where he will charge import and export taxes on goods moving between the provinces of Palestine and Syria.

Capernaum is far removed from Roman city life. The unsophisticated and largely illiterate peasant farmers, herders and fishermen wish to get on with their lives without being bothered by the Romans and their taxes. Matthew meets some of the fishermen: the large and impetuous Simon who is nicknamed Peter (“the Rock”) and his more thoughtful brother Andrew, later getting to know James and his garrulous teenage brother John as well.

The view of life from Capernaum is that expressed in the Gospels: this is a land of hard work and primitive living conditions, of unthinking religiosity where wonders and miracles are longed for and accepted, and where the Romans are barely mentioned.

It is a land that the western Occupation forces neither understand nor care about, and can therefore prove fertile territory for resistance.