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.
Caesarea Maritima, built for the Romans by Herod the Great
Chapter Three begins the transition from the urban Roman world to the rural Jewish one where Jesus lived. Caesarea was the Roman headquarters in Palestine, and the location of the Tenth Legion Fretensis. Herod earned the appellation “the Great” for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem and for the cities and fortresses he built. Caesar Augustus had made Herod king, and Herod built and named Caesarea for him in return.
When Matthew moves from this world to rural Galilee, he has to be reminded of the religious fundamentalism where he is going. For example, he will have to be demonstrative in his respect for the mezuzah – the unobtrusive case holding a Bible verse that will be beside every front door.
He travels with a detachment of the Legion that is rotating troops through the province. A natural stop is in Sepphoris, or Zippori, Herod Antipas’ capital now in decline and caught between the two worlds. The weekly public market required by the Romans highlights this: the Romans work on an inflexible eight-day week, so the market day cycles through the inflexible Jewish seven-day week. Once every seven weeks the Romans require the market to be open on the Sabbath when the Jews refuse to work. This is an unresolvable source of conflict.
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.
So, this is a defibrillator. Know what? All over the world, health care professionals are being taught to use this when someone’s heart stops.
Are you shocked?
I didn’t think so. Almost no one is and I can’t understand why. There are frequent disputes among professionals as to what is or is not healthy. Lots of medical theory is on much shakier ground than the theory of evolution. Yet no one protests against doctors being taught about the use of defibrillators in medical school even though the “correct” technique is clearly spelled out in 1 Kings 17:17–22 and again in 2 Kings 4:32–35. It is clearly stated in two independent accounts that you are supposed to get a holy man to lie down on top of the victim and call on the Lord. Repeat until a full recovery takes place.
Where are all the outraged fundamentalists who surely ought to be demanding changes in the medical school curriculum? Why is there no Elisha/Elijah-ist theory of resuscitation?
If defibrillation is not a big deal, why is evolution? Could it be that the issue is not religion per se but rather the sin of pride? Is the insistence that the theory of evolution cannot be correct due to a desperate need to feel special? Is it really a case of people needing to feel apart from and above the rest of the animal kingdom? If adherence to the Biblical principles were important, then when creationists found mold in their houses, they would fight it with scarlet thread, hyssop and the blood of a bird as specified in Leviticus chapter 14.
Believe in miracles if you want. Really – I have absolutely no objection. But realize that miracles are not science. Believe that Joshua made the sun stand still, but don’t insist that it be taught in an astrophysics course. Believe that Jesus turned water into wine, but don’t make it part of a chemistry class. Believe that the world was created six thousand years ago or that humans were a special act of creation or that the development of our species was influenced by supernatural means. Just don’t pretend that this is science or insist that it be taught as such.