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
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 sees Matthew visit the local Roman detachment in their little fort outside Capernaum. He 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 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.