Sonnet: ‘The Fall of Rome’

Jesus, a preacher with fake miracles,
his “Sea” of Galilee just eight miles wide–
rebelling against Rome and crucified–
his failure clear (though words were lyrical)…
you’d think “Messiah” was satirical!
But epileptic Paul a chance descried
to shut out other gods and thoughts worldwide,
thus sealing up Rome’s vital spiracles.
So, building on apocalyptic fears,
the Jewish Jesus ends where Paul begins.
Scientists, artists, poets, engineers,
are suffocated as the new faith wins.
All progress is set back a thousand years.
The Roman Empire died for Jesus’ sins.

Belief is strange. Take Covid vaccination: two thirds of us believe it’s an effective way to save lives, one third of us believe it’s a dangerous and unscrupulous way to make money and control people. Virtually no one has actually done any research and analysis of the issue, we just listen to our preferred sources of information and the community we’re a part of.

Or take religion: for the most part, children raised in Christian families remain Christian believers all their lives, Muslims remain Muslim, Buddhists remain Buddhist, and so on. Which makes it all the more impressive when someone can radically change the belief structure that surrounds them. Kudos then to the epileptic Paul of Tarsus, who created a Jewish-Mithraist-polytheist mishmash that has lasted almost 2,000 years. Pity about the Roman Empire, though.

This happily Petrarchan sonnet (iambic pentameter, and rhyming ABBAABBA CDCDCD) of mine was originally published in Rat’s Ass Review, where respectfulness and respectability are not required. Thanks, Roderick Bates! (More of my poetry is at http://formalverse.com)

“Darkness Falls in Rome” by Storm Crypt is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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…

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.

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.

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

The Tale of Jesus

Jesus, you came with Peter Rabbit,
Mowgli and Pooh Bear.
School tried to make your prayers a habit
But it was hard to care.

Teachers said do what you said
(Though things you did were odd),
But didn’t follow where you led –
So, just a load of cod.

I saw you as a man forthwith –
If you were real at all,
And not some mushroom-inspired myth,
Tales primitive and tall.

Though stored away up in the attic
The image of you stays:
Wit, healing, laughter… enigmatic
Violent angry frays…

Bush/Cheney occupied Iraq
As Rome did Palestine;
Bin Laden tales came down a track
With yours to intertwine:

Lean, bearded, robed and cinematic
Striding over hills,
Laughing and angry, the fanatic
Invokes, inspires and kills.

Pig-eating, beardless Westerners
Uniformed and well-armed,
Are just thieving idolaters
Who leave God’s people harmed.

Seize, cleanse the Temple at Passover,
King of the Jews! But all
Faith fails against Rome, you discover…
(The tale was changed by Paul.)

Published online in Snakeskin (UK) July 2016

http://www.snakeskinpoetry.co.uk/snake230.html