Crucifixion by Romans

Crucifixion was designed as the ultimate in slow, painful and humiliating deaths.

Crucified naked

Naked like this, but with a lot of blood

Aspects of the punishment included that prisoners were often required to carry their  crossbeam to the place of execution for it to be attached to its stake or tree; that they were crucified completely naked (more humiliating for a Jew than a Celt, and for a woman than a man – though female crucifixions were rare); that, naked, they would undoubtedly empty their bladder and bowels over themselves in front of the crowd who came to watch.

The prisoner was tied or nailed by the wrists to the crossbeam. The feet were often nailed to the upright, one one each side, at the ankle. Frequently the prisoner had a block of wood attached to the stake or tree for them to sit on, with a spike sticking up from it to magnify their pain.

The execution could last for hours or days, depending on the weather, the prisoner’s condition (such as loss of blood from having the skin scourged off his back) and whether the legionaries guarding the crucifixion were in a hurry to go back to camp. Some ways for the soldiers to hasten death were to break the prisoner’s legs with an iron bar, to run a spear up through the stomach and chest, or even to light a smoky fire below him to asphyxiate him.

Once dead, the body was normally left in place as a warning to others, while it was eaten by crows and buzzards.

The punishment was in use by Greeks, Persians and others before the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans originally used it only for slaves, but then extended it to pirates and enemies of the state. The punishment was forbidden under Jewish religious law, which only allowed execution by stoning, burning, strangling, or decapitating the victim.

So Jesus was not crucified at the wish of Jewish authorities, or of the Jewish people. He was crucified by the Romans as an enemy of the state, which he had declared himself to be by claiming the kingship of Israel while entering Jerusalem. The Romans tacked a sign above his head reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, to show what they thought of his ambitions.

Jesus was crucified between “two thieves”, but you didn’t get crucified for mere theft. However “thief” and “robber” were synonymous with “Zealot”, “sicariot” (or knifeman) and “insurgent” to the forces of the Roman Occupation. It is reasonable to assume that the “thieves” were leaders in the armed wing of the Zealot resistance – but not as prominent as Jesus, and not part of his cadre of preachers.

Jesus was stripped naked, and the legionaries diced for his clothing. He was scourged: flogged 40 times with a short cat-o’-nine-tails , each tail ending in a lead ball to lacerate and strip the skin off. He was made to carry his crossbeam to the Place of Skulls outside the city, but he collapsed on the way. After perhaps nine hours of crucifixion he called out “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” Then he called out again, and died. Joseph of Arimathea negotiated with – or bribed – the Romans to be allowed to take Jesus down for burial, but first the Romans ran a spear up through the corpse to make sure it was dead – this was common practice, and only a dribble of blood and a watery fluid (presumably from the pericardium around the heart) came out.

And that was it. The end of just one of a 200-year series of attempts to oust the Romans from Israel. But preachers and knifemen didn’t have much chance against the Roman Empire.

Unasked questions: Who *was* buried 3 days and 3 nights?

Before Jesus went up to Jerusalem to have himself proclaimed King of Israel, he prophesied that he would show off his powers by having “a son of man” brought back to life after “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth”.

The magic trick might have been more credible if it hadn’t been performed by Jesus on his best friend.

Luckily his best friend Lazarus was reported to have died as Jesus and the disciples were headed towards Jerusalem. Lazarus lived four miles south of the city at Bethany, with his sisters Mary and Martha. Jesus delayed his journey for a couple of days, while the disciples urged him to hurry. When Jesus got to Bethany, Mary and Martha met him near Lazarus’ tomb and made a theatrical production of grief. Jesus dramatically called for the stone to be rolled away and called Lazarus to come out, even though he was four days dead. Lazarus came out.

“Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him.” (John 11:45) The wording suggests that many others were unimpressed with the show, and didn’t believe it.

So the “three days and three nights” prophecy was fulfilled even before Jesus rode into Jerusalem with the crowd calling him King and God’s Anointed. He had no reason to think he himself was going to be the object of the prophecy.

Lazarus fulfills Jesus’ prophecy. Which is more than can be said for Jesus, who was only buried for some 36 hours before his corpse disappeared.

And no, “son of man” had no meaning of “Godlike” attached to it by Jews at that time. The most detailed exposition of its use in the Old Testament is in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Son_of_man. It has the connotation of “mere human”. Redacted excerpt:

“Within the Hebrew Bible, the first place one comes across the phrase son of man is in Book of Numbers 23:19:

God is not a human being (איש : [‘iysh]), that he should lie,
or a son of man (בן–אדם : [ben-‘adam]), that he should change his mind.”

Got that? God is not a Son of Man. (That Mithraist God-incarnate idea is Paul’s great innovation, and the beginning of Christianity.)

Burqa Pride Confusion

Burqa Pride

Burqa Pride???

The Dutch have managed to create a political statement that is confusing everyone on both the right and the left. A Labour party councillor in Amsterdam dressed up in a yellow niqab for recent LGBTQ Pride celebrations, because the Dutch government has banned face-covering garments in government buildings and on public transport.

Burqas and niqabs are not required in the Quran, but they are symptomatic of the repressed role of women in old-fashioned versions of Islam (and Judaism, and Christianity). The freedom to do whatever you like because of your religious misapprehensions is a dangerous position to support; it leads to all kinds of antisocial behaviour, including genocide, female genital mutilation, and waving a live chicken over your head to cure disease.

But Jesus, being gay and an otherwise fundamentalist Jew, would probably have approved…

 

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!

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.