Why a Menorah?

The cover illustration for “The Gospel According to the Romans” comes from the Arch of Titus in Rome. (Actually, it comes from a Tel Aviv museum’s reconstruction of that part of the Arch.)

The Arch of Titus commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the looting of its treasures in 70 CE, during the Great Revolt that ended with Masada. This was 35-40 years after the death of Jesus, but part of the pattern of a major uprising against the Roman Occupation once a generation or so, and the Legions crushing it.

Treasures from the Temple in Jerusalem being looted by the Legio X Fretensis under Titus

The Roman attitude towards Palestine was that it was a strategically important province: not just at the crossroads of Mesopotamia and Egypt, not just part of the trade routes with India, but essential to prevent piracy and lawlessness in the eastern Mediterranean. So the Romans were there to stay. If the Jews were going to be quiet, the Empire would farm them for taxes while providing commerce and growth and infrastructure. If the Jews were going to be troublesome, the Legions would loot and pillage while suppressing uprisings. Standard Roman practice.

“The Gospel According to the Romans” puts Jesus into this context of Roman occupation and constant Jewish resistance. You’d be surprised how different that makes the Gospels look!

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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.

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…

Chapter 9, Notes

Jesus shows an interesting approach to the Sabbath. He leads his disciples through a ripe field of grain, and they pick and eat kernels. Challenged by religious leaders for working like this on the Sabbath, Jesus brushes it off as unimportant (although elsewhere he upholds the idea that every “jot and tittle” of the Law must be fulfilled), and references a time when David and his companions, being hungry, entered the Temple and ate the consecrated bread that was only for the priests.

Jesus makes an error

Jesus makes a mistake

However, in citing the event, he makes an error in who the High Priest was at the time. He says is was Abiathar (Mark 2:25-26), whereas the scriptures state it was Abiathar’s father, Ahimelech (1 Samuel 21:1-6). This creates enormous problems for Christians who want to believe that every word in the Old Testament is true, and also that Jesus never lied or made a mistake. It can be fun to watch them tie themselves in knots over the “Problem of Abiathar”. We, who don’t suffer from their convulsion compulsions, can just assume that Jesus wasn’t quite as learned as he pretended, and move on.

Jesus also questions whether it is always wrong to do any work on the Sabbath, by asking whether it is wrong to work to help people in need. He then appears to heal a man with a withered hand. Street magicians can do this by having an accomplice in the crowd who pretends to have a deformed hand, and then have it behave normally. Or perhaps they may use more elaborate props…

Chapter 8, Notes

Chapter 8, “Matthew as Host”, takes the dinner event described in Matthew 9:10-13 and uses it to introduce almost all the main characters on the Jewish side of the novel: not just the rest of The Twelve – describing them and grouping them by their probable religious sect – but also Mary Magdalene and the key figures of Lazarus and his sister Mary of Bethany. jesus-with-sinnersMy reading of the Gospels leads me to believe that Jesus’ closest friends were, for very different reasons, Lazarus, Judas and John – and that’s how they will play out in the novel. (That would be John in front of Jesus in the illustration.)

The dinner also provides an opportunity to see Jesus turn water into wine – delight the others, get their buy-in, and see what Matthew thinks of it. As we have already seen how wine is mixed at a Roman dinner, neither we nor Matthew need be impressed.

When the neighbors show up to complain about Jesus and his disciples partying with “publicans and sinners” (tax collectors and whores), Jesus answers with both philosophical observations and the presence of his heavies.

Jesus only addresses one person in the Gospels as “friend” – and that is Judas. Rather like the 17th century Quakers, the 1st century Zealots saw only God as an authority, and therefore all people were essentially equal in importance. Like the Quakers, they addressed each other as “friend” – not that different from Communists’ use of “comrade”. Jesus’ use of the word “friend” to Judas reinforces the idea that Judas was a Zealot, and also that Jesus was sympathetic to them.

As for the Quakers, there is a charming anecdote of William Penn and Charles II, published by the Religious Society of FriendsOne of the most enduring examples of Quaker egalitarianism can be seen in a meeting between William Penn and King Charles II of England. Summoned into the presence of the King, Penn refused to remove his hat. When Charles II asked why, Penn replied, “Friend Charles, we do not uncover for any man, but only for the Lord.” Upon hearing this, Charles removed his own hat. “Friend Charles,” Penn asked, “why dost thou uncover thyself?” “Friend Penn,” Charles II replied, “in this place it is the custom for only one man at a time to keep his hat on.” This pragmatic attitude towards Quaker egalitarianism and “hat honor,” however, was comparatively rare for the time.

As with Charles, Jesus doesn’t have to have been a Zealot himself to use the term “friend” – only to have been sympathetic to and respectful of the ideology.

Chapter 7, Notes

The Calling of Matthew is the first event of the Gospels that is imagined in the novel: for this is obviously the first time that we can have Matthew meet Jesus.

the_calling_of_matthew_by_osam_devet

Jesus calls Matthew to follow him

 

From now on the novel will follow the outline of Jesus’ activity as laid out in the (not entirely consistent) Synoptic (i.e. “same view”) Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. (John’s Gospel is less coherent and even less credible.)

Wikipedia extract:

The Calling of Matthew is an episode in the life of Jesus which appears in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:13-17 and Luke 5:27-28, and relates the initial encounter between Jesus and Matthew, the tax collector who became a disciple.

 According to the Gospel of Matthew: ‘As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me”, he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.’

 The Greek: τὸ τελώνιον (to telōnion) is often translated as “the tax collector’s booth” (e.g. NIV) or “tax office” (e.g. RSV). The King James Version says Matthew was “sitting at the receipt of custom”. Wycliffe’s translation was “sitting in a tollbooth”, and the Expanded Bible suggests that the telōnion was “probably a tariff booth for taxing goods in transit”.

So Matthew was collecting taxes for the Romans when Jesus told him he wanted him as a follower, and Matthew accepted. Jesus was intent on calling all Jews back to full observation of Judaism, and this included even a foreign-born non-practicing Jew who was working for the Romans. He naturally expected Matthew to repent and fall into line, giving up the things that marked him as pro-Roman. Full observation of Judaism – Jesus wanted the observation of every “jot and tittle” of every religious law (Matt. 5:18) – inherently required the refusal to accept Roman laws (market days falling on the Sabbath, Roman coins with graven images, temples for Roman gods including emperors, etc) and Roman customs (beardlessness, eating pork, etc).

So those are the Gospel issues around the ‘Calling of Matthew’. But this is a novel… we can also create some colorful asides for the story, can’t we? Which is why I have called the chapter “The Rug Merchant”, and used it to introduce not just Jesus but also Judas.

Judas is key to my understanding of the activities of Jesus. In the Gospels he is given the name Iscariot, and there have been unfounded statements to explain this name such as that he came from the town of Karioth which, as far as I can tell, has never existed. To me the word is much more evocative of the term Sicariot, which literally means “dagger-carrying man” and was one of the terms the Romans used to describe the Zealots of the resistance – along with other dismissive terms like “robber”, “brigand” and so on. So, given that Jesus was working to bring all types of Jews back to a state of purity, Judas looks good as a representative of the Zealots… along with the second Simon among the Twelve, Simon Zealotes. Simon the Zealot.

It would be natural for Jesus to have had close contact with the Zealot resistance, because he was hostile to the Romans for their desecration of Palestine in general and the Temple in particular. Several of the events of the Gospels which seem bizarre or puzzling in the narratives as influenced by Paul, look natural or commonplace when looked at in the context of opposition to the Roman occupation. They will all be dealt with in the course of this novel.

Chapter 6, Notes

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.

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.