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.

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Executing Jesus was OK; murdering civilians isn’t

When a military occupation by a Western power (the US, or the Romans) of a poorer country (modern Afghanistan, ancient Palestine) takes place, the occupying troops will kill people. Even after the situation settles down, there will be ongoing resistance.

Murdered child - killed in his sleep by Americans on Sunday.

Neither ancient Jews nor modern Afghans like being ordered around by large, well-fed, heavily-armored men who don’t speak their language, don’t adhere to their religion, don’t wear their clothing, and don’t respect their culture. A pig-eating, beard-shaving, uncircumcised military is an insult to them. Ongoing resistance is natural.

So when, every 20 or 30 years, there was a Zealot uprising in Galilee or Judea, or an attempt by Jesus to take control of the Temple in Jerusalem and have himself proclaimed King, they knew they were facing execution by the Romans if God failed to intervene actively on their behalf.

We may not condone Roman imperialism, which was mostly driven by trade – the need to suppress piracy in the Eastern Mediterranean, to connect Egypt to Syria, to build a reliable harbor at Caesarea Maritima, to protect the trade routes to India, to defend against the Persian Empire – but we can respect it. It tried to integrate all local gods into the Empire, it gradually extended Roman citizenship to local populations, and it brought peace and infrastructure development and an improved standard of living.

American imperialism appears to have less justification, and to be more based on pure exploitation. And when an Army sergeant (acting alone or not) goes on a killing rampage in the night and murders women and children in their sleep, he should not be protected by the occupying forces, but should be turned over to the local authorities for appropriate execution.

Jesus, Mary and Afghanistan – the death sentence for being raped

Would Mary, the mother of Jesus, have been sentenced to death if her pregnancy was caused by rape or by other sex outside marriage?

Afghan woman in a buqa, Herat, 2010

Consider the case currently unfolding in Afghanistan, whose sharia law is based on the same male-dominated monotheist tribalism as religious Judaism: An Afghan woman, Gulnaz, complained of being raped by a relative. We have good news and bad news:

  • Good news: she wasn’t sentenced to death for adultery
  • Bad news: she was given three years in jail, and after she gave birth to a daughter in jail she was given a second trial, and the sentence was increased to twelve years.

We have more good news and bad news:

  • Good news: in the second trial, the judge told the convict that she could be released…
  • Bad news: … if she married the rapist (regardless of her feelings toward him – or of his toward her, which would likely result in further abuse and quite likely death).

Stay tuned for further developments in the exciting world of 21st century religious jurisprudence. In the meantime, consider what Mary would have faced if she had been raped by a Roman soldier, or had had an affair at 14 – and got pregnant – if she hadn’t married Joseph before he knew she was pregnant, back in the late 1st century BC… Best bet: death by stoning.

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.