Chapter 2 was originally called ‘Dinner with the Camp Commander’. But on learning more about the structure of the Roman Legion, I have renamed it ‘Dinner with the First File’. First File was the designation of the longest-serving Commander, although as a career officer he was of lower rank than the young noblemen who did a year or two of military service on their way to careers in politics. The First File was the man who actually ran the Legion. (Tinkering with a completed novel is easier to do when it is self-published rather than in the hands of publisher, but it creates its own confusions…)
In this chapter, Matthew has dinner with the main characters from the Roman side of the novel (apart from Pilate): his old friend Longus, now the de facto head of the Tenth Legion Fretensis; two other senior career officers, Caninus and Purpureo; two enlisted men, Buteo and Bibaculus; and the excitable young Jewish civilian, Paulus.
Apart from introducing key characters, the purpose of the chapter is to begin the depiction of the cultural gulf between Rome and Israel, a gulf that was unbridgeable between the military might on one side and the religious conviction on the other. About the only thing the societies had in common was the unthinking male chauvinism that was the worldwide norm.
The dinner menu itself shows the gulf: the Romans basically ate everything they came across, and to eat at their table was to renounce Jewish purity.
The process of serving wine is included as being interesting in itself – and it also suggests how easily Jesus’ first “miracle” could have been worked at the marriage feast in Cana, an event that is remembered but not shown in the novel.
The common interest of the dinner party (all men) is Mithraism, the mystery religion popular in the army. Even today not a lot is known of Mithraism, but enough to see that it was the origin of a lot of the imagery that St. Paul used in creating Christianity. For Paul to have invoked that imagery, he must have been familiar with it, which implies association with the Roman army. It is easy to introduce him here. But this is a work of fiction – there is no historical reason for thinking that he and Matthew ever met.
Chapter 1 of “The Gospel According to the Romans” introduces key factors regarding the social structure and day-to-day environment of 1st century Palestine: Palestine was a province of the Roman Empire and, as such, was under the military occupation of a Roman Legion. The figurehead ruler might be a local king, but real power rested with the Roman governor.
Palestine was unique in the Empire in having only one local god, and this god was considered superior to all other gods, to the extent that Jews were not allowed to worship any but Yahweh. Normally the Romans just added the local gods to their own pantheon and expected the natives to allow the worship of Roman gods alongside their own. This was not acceptable to religious Jews.
So the local leaders had to choose between four approaches to the Romans: that of the Sadducees – active collaboration, favored by the wealthy, powerful and venal; of the Pharisees – resentful acquiescence while ignoring sacriligious Roman factors like pigs, shaved chins and graven images; of the Essenes – retreat from Roman influence into remote, self-sustaining and traditional communities; and of the “Fourth Philosophy”, the Zealots – armed resistance, assassination, robbery, and province-wide uprisings.
But not all Jews were religious. The novel’s protagonist, Matthew Levi, was born and raised in another province, Syria, and has long been friends with individual Romans. Chapter 1 sees him interviewed by the governor, Pontius Pilate, for a position as tax collector in Capernaum. As the Roman agent in a small town he will also be expected to send reports about any anti-Roman sentiment or activities he hears of. In effect, any tax collector will be a spy.
Most of my writing since I finished ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’ has been poetry, some of which has spilled through into this blog. My intent now is to return to the novel and post it here, chapter by chapter. I also hope to review the themes in it as they were developed, as a sort of study guide.
Because the book has a serious purpose: by contextualizing the story of Jesus within the sociopolitical realities of the Roman Empire and its occupation of Palestine, to take all the miracles, magic and mysticism out of the life of the man. Pretty clearly he was a Jewish fundamentalist with a Messianic dream, who failed in his attempt to capture and cleanse the Temple of foreigners and other impurities.
The book follows the structure of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke, which tell essentially the same story – but from the point of view of the Roman tax agent “Saint” Matthew Levi who was recruited by Jesus but, in this novel, remains loyal to Rome… allowing us to see everything from opposing points of view.
When all the old gods go on trial, loud cursed
In the High Court of Public Thought Review,
Jehovah (tribal god of bronze age Jews)
Stands of his vast pretentiousness accused:
Claims he created Heaven and Earth
When he was born six thousand years ago!
(Can’t define Heaven, doesn’t even know
If there’s a difference between Earth and Universe.)
God of the Christians and the Muslims too!
Won’t do anything against the AI
Displacing all the gods. Thor in the dock
Scratches his bull-neck, Odin his empty eye,
Zeus his cock.
The gods are human, know they face death, forgotten
As any carven deity, buried, rotten.
Concerned, they fidget restlessly –
Only Jehovah, the least self-aware,
Storms he’s exempt, blusters with beard and hair,
Thinks his small tribe is all that there can be.
Pity the suicide bomber
Who will never see Heaven
Neither the Heaven of lover and spouse, children, grandchildren,
The Heaven of here and now, of sunrises, sunsets,
Nor the Heaven of Afterlife, if it exists.
Bitter, despairing, the suicide bomber consigns herself to hell.
Pity the coward who shoots up the outdoor cafe,
Who has no combat skills,
No worthy adversary,
No genuine enemy,
But kills only the unarmed, defenceless and innocent.
Confused and deluded, used and betrayed, he consigns himself to hell.
But have no pity for the preachers of hate,
The preachers in churches and mosques,
The preachers in Parliament and Congress,
The preachers on TV and talk radio,
The preachers of hate who profit from fear,
The preachers of death who profit from strife,
The preachers of war who don’t go to war,
The dog-shit on the walk of life.