History as Irony

Into the land for which the Jews
A thousand years before
Had killed and burned to take,
Jesus was born.

In towns controlled by Rome –
Grafting their multicultural odd gods
Onto Rome-cleansed, Rome–straightened cities –
Jesus played.

Walking four miles from Nazareth
To Sepphoris with Joseph at age ten
To work and help his father build another
Roman Jewish palace,
Jesus toiled.

In the uprisings led by Judas of Galilee
When Joseph and two thousand Jews were killed,
Crucified by the Romans, Sepphoris burned,
Jesus escaped.

In hills and deserts outside Rome’s control,
Studying prophecies and hefting swords,
Jesus preached Israel purged of Rome.

Outside the shining city on the hill,
The Passover uprising crushed by Rome,
Flanked by two Zealots, heads of the revolt,
Jesus, King of Jews, was crucified.

Preventing further fundamentalists
Leading attacks against High Priest and Rome,
Saul hunted Jesus’ Messianic dregs.

Seeing an opportune new power base,
Mixing old Jewish myths in a fresh blend
With Mithras, Isis – a One God for all –
Saul/Paul created Christ as a new God.

Antonia Fortress

The Antonia Fortress falls to the Romans, 70 AD

Both fundamentalist and Paulist Jews
Denying the Emperor’s divinity –
Disrupting commerce, peace and government –
Nero burned Jewish Christians, and
Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple, and
Hadrian deported all the Jews
From Palestine, scattering Christians and Jews
Throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

Jews kept their heads down. Christians evangelized,
Spread through the powerless – slaves, women, poor,
Criminals and the lowest army ranks.

Seeing an opportune new power base,
Constantine changed Rome’s faith.

Controlling now (in part) the Emperor,
Popes ruled the West from Rome, built palaces,
And persecuted Jews.

(Jesus gives no opinion, being dead.)

Published: Ambit 211, UK, January 2013

Advertisements

Rome, Israel, and the Christian compromise

Rome and Israel were in constant conflict for the first 200 years of Rome’s occupation of Palestine. Jesus, as a highly religious Jew, was part of that conflict and was executed for it. Jerusalem was besieged and the Temple destroyed in 70. After the umpteenth uprising, the Romans finally kicked the Jews out of Palestine in 135.

Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, 70 AD, by David Roberts

When Paul came along, he had the bizarre idea that he could meld his Jewishness and his Roman citizenship, and create a universally applicable religion. It was all done by blending and compromising, and it proved to be very successful. Here are some examples:

Israel: only one God, and no prayers or worship of anyone or anything else. Rome: thousands of gods, worship your own and those of other religions. Christian compromise: only one God… except He has three “persons”, one of which is Jesus… so it’s OK to pray to any of them… also to Jesus’ mother… well, and to any other of God’s angels, saints, etc… but it still counts as only one God.

Israel: God only cares about Israel, God’s Chosen People – ignore everyone else. Rome: local gods care about local people, so the bigger the Empire gets, the more gods care for it. Christian compromise: God cares for everyone who believes in Him, so keep making His empire bigger.

Israel: love Jerusalem, hate Rome. Rome: destroy Jerusalem, Rome is the center of power. Christian compromise: make Rome the center of the Jerusalem-focused religion.

Israel: 7-day week. Rome: 8-day week called “nine days” (inclusive reckoning). Christian compromise: 7-day week called “eight days” or “Octave” (inclusive reckoning).

Israel: Passover. Rome: Saturnalia. Christian compromise: Saturnalia traditions at Saturnalia to celebrate Jesus’ birth, Passover-type traditions at Passover to celebrate Jesus’ death.

Israel: circumcision of males mandatory. Rome: are you crazy? Christian compromise: circumcision of males voluntary.

Israel: detailed dietary and food preparation laws. Rome: eat anything. Christian compromise: no prohibitions most of the time, except Fridays and Lent.

And so on. It’s fascinating. And for a long time, it worked.

Unasked questions: What happened to Joseph?

One of the signs of a great story is the listener’s question, “What happened next?” In the National Geographic for March 2012 the cover article is “The Journey of the Apostles”, detailing the lives and teachings of not just the original Twelve, but also others such as Mary Magdalene, after Jesus’ crucifixion.  We have stories about what happened to all of them, and to many others associated with Jesus. Not all the stories are believable, but where there is no fact there is plenty of speculation and legend.

Except in the case of Joseph, the (step)father of Jesus.

This is strange. If his fate was unknown, we would have legends and rumors. Search for “What happened to Joseph of Arimathea?”, for example, and you find him traveling all over the place, carrying the Holy Grail, settling in Britain, you name it. But search for “What happened to Joseph the father of Jesus?”, and you find nothing about him after his last mention in the Gospels, going up to the Temple in Jerusalem with Mary and Jesus when Jesus was 11 or 12.

Mass crucifixions after an uprising

But suppose his fate was a) not something that the early Church wanted to talk about, and b) so well-known that no one could make up an alternative narrative without having the whole thing dragged out into public discussion again. Therefore silence. No narrative, no legends, nothing.

The interesting event that happened around that time (probably later in the same year that Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem, but the timing is uncertain) was an uprising led by Judas of Galilee with an attack on Sepphoris. (Sepphoris is the Roman name; the Hebrew name is Zippori.) This was Herod Antipas’ capital city in Galilee, 4 miles north of Nazareth. Probably a lot of men from Nazareth were in the uprising. The uprising was crushed by the Romans, and the Romans crucified 2,000 Jews outside Sepphoris.

And after that, we don’t hear anything about Joseph in the Bible, or in legends or stories.

Jesus, however, retains a remarkable father-fixation all his life, and is himself crucified after leading an attack on the Temple in Jerusalem, having tried to claim the messianic kingship of Israel.

So… what happened to Joseph? And why didn’t anyone want to talk about it in the early Church, as they tried to make Christianity acceptable throughout the Roman Empire?

New religion? New laws.

It’s normal for the founder of a new religion to produce a new code of laws. After all, the founder isn’t content with the existing social situation, or he (and it’s usually a he) wouldn’t feel the urge to create something different. The new religion will require a new definition of god/ess/es and a new definition of the appropriate and/or mandatory ways to worship them and beg things from them.

The god Shamash (seated) giving Hammurabi insignia and laws

New god(s), therefore new liturgy, new rules regarding purity… cleanliness… then food… food preparation… and of course clothing… and now we’re into the regulation of sexual relations… marriage… penalties for disobedience… Pretty soon you’re instituting the death penalty for adultery, then regulating marketplace weights and measures, and standardizing the length of cart axles so that the wheels always fit the ruts in the road.

It may not be necessary to create a whole new religion if your interest is just the laws. Especially if you have a pantheon of gods to choose between, you can simply shift the emphasis from one to the other, as Moses did in suppressing the worship of Ba’al and other gods in favor of Yahweh. But then, Moses may not have written all of those laws – it appears they kept getting added to for hundreds of years, the authors always attributing the additions to Moses attributing them to Yahweh.

Several centuries before Moses, various rulers in the area of modern Iraq such as Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi provided extensive written laws. They too invoked the gods as the true creators of the laws, increasing the authority of the laws and enhancing the status of the ruler.

So it’s an apparent anomaly that there was no new and extensive written code of laws with the birth of Christianity – neither from Jesus nor from Paul.

But Jesus had no interest in starting a new religion – he was a Jew who was trying to get all other Jews to turn back to the old ways, back to the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”), and away from the polluting Romans.

And Paul, though he wanted to start a new religion, had no interest in new laws because he was intent on starting this new religion within the existing framework of the Roman Empire. The Romans didn’t look favorably on people who tried to override their laws.

So Christianity started out without any clear legal definition, only the tension of trying to adhere to the very different Mosaic and Roman legal structures simultaneously…

And then a few hundred years later we get Muhammad, and we’re back to divinely inspired legislation.

What kind of “new religion”? Mormons and Christians

Religions never spring to life fully-formed and without any connection to the religious and cultural ideas around them. (Scientology is the nearest to an exception I can think of, but it claims not to be a religion. It is heavily indebted to 1950s science fiction, anyway.)

Sometimes a “new religion” is like the Lutherans, more of a family squabble about reform than a whole new religion. “The Bible should be translated into the local language so everyone can read it.” “No, it should stay in Latin, because we’re Romans, remember?” And so on.

The angel "Moroni" giving Joseph Smith the "golden plates" in "Reformed Egyptian"

But sometimes you get a kid with a streak of the con artist, writing screeds of bad fantasy in an imitative style…

Joseph Smith’s impoverished farming parents tried to make extra money by treasure-digging, and the teenage Joseph claimed he could use “seer stones” for this. He would put a special stone in a white stovepipe hat, and then see the information he needed in the reflections inside the hat. (At age 20 he was tried in New York state on the charge of “glass-looking,” or pretending to find lost treasure.)

In his teens he claimed to have been visited at night by an angel named Moroni, who revealed the location of a buried book of golden plates as well as other artifacts, including a breastplate and a set of silver spectacles with lenses composed of seer stones, which had been hidden in a hill near his home.  Smith said he attempted to remove the plates the next morning but was unsuccessful because the angel prevented him.

A couple of years later he got hold of the golden plates, which the angel told him not to show to anyone, but to translate from the “Reformed Egyptian” and publish. They told the story of the Lost Tribes of Israel coming to North America and having all sorts of pseudo-Biblical events in pseudo-Biblical language, full of anachronisms like elephants, steel and silk; and then of Jesus appearing to these North Americans and essentially preparing for Americans (at least the believing ones) to be God’s Chosen People.

He subsequently translated other pages of Egyptian hieroglyphics (which no one else could in the 1840s) and determined that they were all about sacrifices and God and Abraham and so on. Unfortunately the pages have since resurfaced, and real translation shows them to be about embalming and funerary rites and Osiris. There is a Christian critique of the issue here.

So this “new religion” is not a simple reform like Lutheranism. This is one individual’s fantasy, springboarding off the Bible into whatever sounds good and will win converts. It’s not surprising that regular Christian sects don’t have much use for Mormonism – and that’s even before we get into Joseph Smith’s 34 wives, and the issue of everybody being able to evolve through several Heavens into becoming a God of their own planet, and all that jazz.

The irony is that from the point of view of Judaism, Jesus looks like a kind of argumentative reformist Luther… but St Paul’s Christianity, the Christianity that we have today, looks a hell of a lot more like Joseph Smith’s made-up Mormonism.

Would even the Romans have had 2000 pigs?

This question was asked by Greta van der Rol, an Australian writer of historical fiction (“To Die a Dry Death”) and science fiction (the “Iron Admiral” books).

When the Romans had permanent bases, they used their soldiers as builders: roads, farms, towns, aqueducts.

“When on station, the soldiers (…) always maintained a herd of cattle, sometimes herding other animals such as sheep and goats, grew grain and other crops, including vegetables, and foraged for variety.” (http://romanmilitary.net/people/food)

A Legion of 8,000 men engaged in hard labor ate a lot.

“It is estimated that just the soldiers in Britain ate over 33.5 tons of grain a day.”

Plus they liked pork and bacon!

“A soldier always marched with at least a good supply of bacon, hard tack biscuits, and sour wine.”

For hundreds of years the Romans had a Legion (or more) stationed in Palestine. They were there permanently, not on some hit-and-run Panda operation (“eats shoots and leaves”). Undoubtedly they had their own farms – and Romans did things on a very large and impressive scale. Shipping that much food around would have been foolishly expensive and inefficient, even if you had as good a port as Sebaste, built by Herod the Great at Caesarea Maritima. 

Sebaste Harbor at Caesarea Maritima

And the food would still have to been farmed somewhere.

That said, the story of the Gadarene Swine in the three Synoptic Gospels was written down a generation after Jesus’ execution, by people who had heard it from other people who in turn remembered it a little differently, with added elements of bravado (from the Zealots) and exaggeration (from the fishermen) and deliberate obfuscation (from the pro-Roman Paul).

Pigs would be a prime target for Zealots, as pigs should not have been farmed and eaten in Israel. And it would have been almost impossible not to give the Romans the nickname “pigs” – big ugly grunting unclean creatures, pig-eating and marching around under their Legion’s boar standard.

And, accurate or not, the number of 2,000 may have been a deliberate echo of the number of Jews crucified four miles from Nazareth during Jesus’ childhood, when “the Roman pigs” suppressed the uprising by Judas of Galilee.

Where were the Gadarene Swine?

The Gadarene Swine slaughter took place in the countryside around Gadara. This was one of the semi-autonomous Ten Cities (the Decapolis), in the Roman-controlled area mostly east of the River Jordan. Gadara was almost certainly at the place now called Umm Qais.

Gadara (Umm Qais), with the Sea of Galilee and, right, the Golan Heights

In the panorama we have Umm Qais in the foreground, the Sea of Galilee in the background, and the Golan Heights on the right. The gospels say that the pigs rushed over the cliff into the sea and were killed. It is not possible today to find a location on the east of the Sea of Galilee where such a fall is possible – there is a margin of flat land between the Sea and the Golan Heights, and the heights of Umm Qais are even further away.

One possibility is that the lake level may have been higher. But more likely the lake that the pigs fell into wasn’t the Sea of Galilee, but some other lake in the area.

The southern end of the Golan Heights is near vertical in places – you can see the road switchbacking down in the photo. Driving down it you will pass wrecked vehicles suspended halfway in the vertical ravines beside you. And at the bottom is a small lake.

So I suggest that the south end of the Golan Heights is the place where a herd of 2,000 pigs were kept for the Legio X Fretensis, and that Jesus and his followers chased them over the cliffs that are just to the left of that zigzag road in the picture. There may be other equally steep cliffs on the ridge of Umm Qais itself – but maybe you don’t want to have that many pigs on your doorstep. They’d be perfectly safe just across the valley, wouldn’t they? Unless some Jew came along with a chip on his shoulder about pigs and Romans…