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.
It is important when reading about the life of Jesus to remember that he lived under the rule of an occupying force whose motives for the occupation were profit from pillage, and profit from exploitation, and profit from trade. There was no respect for (or understanding of) the Jewish religion.
In Taken at the Flood by Robin Waterfield, Republican Rome (i.e. the culture of the 500 years immediately prior to the time of Jesus) is clearly shown as a warrior society. Warfare was one of the principle sources of income for both the country and the generals and soldiers that fought those wars:
“Republican Rome was a warrior society, then, from the aristocracy downwards (except that the very poorest citizens were not allowed, yet, to serve in the army). Every year between 10 and 15 percent of the adult male population was under arms, and in times of crisis more: an incredible 29 percent at the height of the Hannibalic War in 213. And everyone benefited, not just from the booty and spoils, but from the intangible benefits of security and the city’s increasingly formidable reputation. Over time Rome became adorned with visible reminders of military victories: temples built in fulfillment of a vow taken in wartime; elaborate statues of conquerors, inscribed with blunt reminders of their victories. ‘I killed or captured 80,000 Sardinians,’ boasted one general on a prominently displayed inscription, and this was not untypical. Most monumental inscriptions dating from the middle Republic — and by the end of the second century the city was crowded with them — focused largely or wholly on military achievements. The qualities the Romans most admired in a man were best developed and displayed in warfare.
Altar Domitius Ahenobarbus — detail showing the equipment of a soldier in the manipular Roman legion (left). Note mail armour, oval shield and helmet with plume (probably horsehair).
“In short, a state of war was not only considered ‘business as usual’ in Rome by the entire population, but was not considered undesirable, especially by Rome’s aristocratic leaders. It is far harder to recover the motives of the ordinary soldier, but several of Plautus’s plays (third/second centuries) suggest that the attraction of warfare for them too was profit. It was bound, then, to be relatively easy for the Romans to go to war; and it was equally easy to present the wars as justified self-defense or protection of weaker neighbors. Slight pretexts could be taken as serious provocation. This is not to say that Rome was the aggressor in every war it fought, but the facts remain: Rome was almost continuously at war in the early and middle Republic (500-150 BCE, in round numbers), every opportunity for war that the Senate offered was accepted by the people of Rome, and the benefits were recognized by all.”
As a religious Jew, Jesus naturally rejected this attitude of the idolatrous pig-eating Westerners who had invaded and occupied Palestine.
Throughout history, as far as we can tell from ancient literatures and from more recent preliterature societies, humans have dreamed of many of the same magical powers:
specifically, to fly to the moon
to talk with animals and birds and fish
to be able to live and breathe underwater
to have a magic mirror that lets you see what is happening in distant lands
to know the future
to go back in time
to shrink to the size of a mouse, or grow to a giant
to change into a different creature
to turn a common substance into gold
to turn a large number of small common objects (ants, seeds, teeth) into an army of warriors
to heal sickness with a word or a touch
to come back from the dead
to live forever
to climb up and live on the clouds
to live in a palace in the sky forever, doing whatever you most enjoy doing.
Some people were said by storytellers to have done these things. Some people claimed to be able to do them. Followers of Jesus thought he rose from the dead, followers of Muhammad thought he went up to Heaven one night, followers of Odin thought that his ravens told him all the doings of the world – and of course many, many religious authorities promise you unverifiable after-death benefits in exchange for a cash contribution in the here-and-now.
But let’s face it: the dreams are cool! We wanted to do these things as kids, and we want to do them still. And better yet: we ARE doing them. Flying, in various ways. Walking on the moon. Looking at distant lands with our “magic mirrors”, whether phones or big-screen TVs.
And we keep working on the rest: trying to talk with dolphins; bringing people back from clinical death; planning for permanent colonies in the sky; and – the big one – trying to figure out how to live forever.
The dreams are the same as the dreams of those old religions. But now we know what we have to do, to make them become reality. (P.S. It involves work, not prayer.)