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.

Cannibals and resurrection

People have been playing games for thousands of years with some of the absurdity in the idea of a physical resurrection of a long-dead body. If a cannibal eats another person, so that the cannibal’s body is now made up of the other person, and the other person only exists in the body of the cannibal… then which of them owns the body that gets resurrected on the Day of Judgement?

Image result for cannibal's resurrection

A traditional way of handling “Excuse me, do you have a moment to talk about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?”

St. Augustine dealt with it, and so did John Donne, Voltaire, and Cyrano de Bergerac, and it continues to amuse writers of fantasy and science fiction. A man is eaten by a wild boar, which is then caught and eaten by other men… where is the first man now? Alternatively, what of the worms that eat a buried body, and of the things that then eat the worms? Or what of the cannibal’s sweat and piss and shit, as he disposes of parts of the person he ate?

Theologians dismiss these mind games as just that, and say that the individual will be resurrected regardless of the scattering of the original body. Why then do they pay so much attention to the care and burial of the body in the superstitious hope of physical resurrection? (Well, but of course there is a lot of money to be made from funerals…)

If you would like to read Cyrano de Bergerac’s take on things, I recommend you to the weekly online SF magazine Bewildering Stories, specifically this issue. 

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!

Anti-Gay Referendum in Romania Fails

Religious groups are often (usually? nearly always?) behind homophobic legislation and similar initiatives. They certainly were in Romania’s referendum this weekend, which was intended to exclude same-sex couples from the definition of marriage. Despite poll forecasts of 90% support for the initiative, and the support of the powerful Orthodox church, and the unusual step by the government of extending the vote to two days instead of one… it failed.

Image result for www.bbc.com romania referendum

A combination of a boycott by gay rights groups, plus general anti-government feeling (the ruling Social Democrats had strongly supported the referendum; their leader, Liviu Dragnea, was due in court this week to appeal against a jail sentence of 3½ years for his involvement in a fake jobs scandal), plus apathy, kept the turnout to 20.4% – and 30% turnout was required for any result to be valid.

(However, in practice not much will change: Romania does not recognize gay marriage or civil unions.)

The religious rejection of gay marriage amuses me because two of the most revered figures in the monotheistic world had gay relationships: King David, whose love for Jonathan “was beyond the love of women”, and the unmarried Jesus, whose youngest disciple John was “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, i.e. in a category fundamentally different from his love for the other disciples.

jesus-with-sinners

But I guess there has always been an underground awareness of this…

There’s no “hell” in the Bible!

Michael Burch, a poet, creator of The HyperTexts and reformed fundamentalist Christian, has written the most detailed exposition I have ever seen on the issue of whether “hell” is a concept that should be accepted by Christians. The exposition has a mercifully short and clear introductory section that covers the key points – and then, for those who want to consider every possible aspect, continues at length.

Hell fantasy

Hell, as imagined by Hieronymus Bosch

Personally, as a skeptic, I find the idea of hell simply ludicrous. As Omar Khayyam says scornfully to God (in FitzGerald’s translation):

Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
Thou will not with Predestin’d Evil round
Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?

(“Gin” meaning “noose of hair or wire for snaring wild birds alive”… which might be the origin of the drink’s name, I suppose.)

Hell is hardly a logical product of an all-powerful Creator, unless that Creator is by nature a sadist. Rather the word that has been so often translated as “hell” is “sheol”, meaning “a grave” or “the place where all dead people go”… which is why, in Psalm 139:8, King David could say that if he made his bed in Sheol, God would be there with him.

Forget hell. It’s a stupid idea.

Chapter 1, Notes

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.

Reactivating the blog

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.

Gods on Trial

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.

Published online in Snakeskin 244, October 2017