Calendar Conflicts

Under the Roman Occupation, the Jews continued to use their religious calendar for everyday use. Six days were just called ‘First day’, ‘Second day’, etc, with only the seventh day having its own name, and being special: the Sabbath. (The origin of the word is probably Babylonian, and dates from that Exile.) That gave them the seven-day week with a regular weekend that is so familiar to us that we tend to think of it as universal. As no work, including cooking, could be done on the Sabbath, the 6th day was the logical one for major food-shopping and food-preparation.

The Romans had neither weeks nor weekends. They had, as we do today, months of varying length that did not coincide with the moons, but they did not subdivide them into weeks. Instead, individual days were deemed lucky or unlucky, workdays or holidays, or holidays for some people but workdays for others. And there were plenty of other complications that required priests to post calendars in public places to tell people the quality of the individual days of the next year. The Kalends (first day of the month), Nones (fifth or seventh, depending on the month) and Ides (thirteenth or fifteenth) had names as being particularly important, and the other days were counted forwards or backwards from them, but you couldn’t tell much about them just from that fact.

This would be a very small weekly market, even for a village.

But the Romans did have a regular market day, standardized throughout the Empire, once every eight days. This was a legal requirement; and no legislation could come into effect until it had been publicly posted for three consecutive markets.

So, throughout the Roman province of Palestine, once every seven market days no practicing Jews would show up because it was their Sabbath. Farmers wouldn’t sell food, craftsmen couldn’t buy supplies and wouldn’t sell products, and neither Jews or Romans could buy anything for the next week. Then each side blamed the other for being inflexible.

Any Jews who chose to attend the market on those days were seen as renouncing their religion and becoming traitors to both their people and God – and the Zealots had no more qualms about killing them than about killing Romans.

Any Jews who refused to perform normal market duties on the Sabbath were seen as resisting the Roman attempt to bring uniformity, progress and stability to the whole Empire, and risked being treated as enemy combatants.

The attempt to impose the Roman calendar on the Jews was one of the key, and constant, flash-points, from the time of the Roman conquest in 63 BCE to the destruction of Jewish life in Palestine after the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE.

It makes a useful early clarification of the different worldviews of the occupiers and the occupied in ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’.

Those pro-choice Romans

Romans kept the children they wanted, and wanted the children they kept

Romans couldn’t understand why Jews, Germans and Egyptians never ‘exposed’ children. I.e. why they never drowned or abandoned newborns that were unplanned, surplus, illegitimate or deformed – but instead decided to raise them all.

The Romans considered this very inefficient management. Contraception, abortion and infanticide were all legal, within limits. After a birth the midwife placed the newborn on the ground, and it was the father’s choice to pick it up or to abandon it. Abandoned babies were then exposed in a public place where – if they were lucky – someone else would pick them up. A newborn wasn’t a true person until it was named at 8 or 9 days.

Why keep a baby you couldn’t afford, or didn’t want? If later you wanted one, you could always buy or adopt; just as, if you wanted a particular adult, you could always adopt them as your child or arrange a marriage to bring them into the family.

Surely your family should be managed at least as carefully as your farm animals?

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!

Jewish Monotheism, Roman Polytheism. Atheism.

It is amusing to think that many religious Jews and Romans saw each other as atheists.

The Jews felt that polytheism showed that Romans had no concept of the supreme Creator, and were therefore atheists.

The Romans felt that Jews acknowledging only their one tribal god showed that Jews had no concept of the rich and diverse spiritual nature of the universe, and were therefore atheists.

So it goes.

Socrates – bearded old dude who lives on in libraries and T-shirts

The Jews had a point: the Roman gods didn’t look like they were capable of creating a planet, yet alone an entire Universe. They weren’t an orderly or spiritually uplifting bunch.

The Romans had a point: the Jews were claiming that there was only one God, and that He was their tribal god, and no one else’s counted. That’s a no-win situation for anyone but Jews.

Presumably a real atheist, whether Roman or Jew, didn’t give a damn either way.

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 3, Notes

Caesarea Maritima, built for the Romans by Herod the Great

Chapter Three begins the transition from the urban Roman world to the rural Jewish one where Jesus lived. Caesarea was the Roman headquarters in Palestine, and the location of the Tenth Legion Fretensis. Herod earned the appellation “the Great” for the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem and for the cities and fortresses he built. Caesar Augustus had made Herod king, and Herod built and named Caesarea for him in return.

When Matthew moves from this world to rural Galilee, he has to be reminded of the religious fundamentalism where he is going. For example, he will have to be demonstrative in his respect for the mezuzah – the unobtrusive case holding a Bible verse that will be beside every front door.

He travels with a detachment of the Legion that is rotating troops through the province. A natural stop is in Sepphoris, or Zippori, Herod Antipas’ capital now in decline and caught between the two worlds. The weekly public market required by the Romans highlights this: the Romans work on an inflexible eight-day week, so the market day cycles through the inflexible Jewish seven-day week. Once every seven weeks the Romans require the market to be open on the Sabbath when the Jews refuse to work. This is an unresolvable source of conflict.

Chapter 1, Notes

Chapter 1 of “The Gospel According to the Romans” introduces key factors regarding the social structure and day-to-day environment of 1st century Palestine: Palestine was a province of the Roman Empire and, as such, was under the military occupation of a Roman Legion. The figurehead ruler might be a local king, but real power rested with the Roman governor.

Palestine was unique in the Empire in having only one local god, and this god was considered superior to all other gods, to the extent that Jews were not allowed to worship any but Yahweh. Normally the Romans just added the local gods to their own pantheon and expected the natives to allow the worship of Roman gods alongside their own. This was not acceptable to religious Jews.

So the local leaders had to choose between four approaches to the Romans: that of the Sadducees – active collaboration, favored by the wealthy, powerful and venal; of the Pharisees – resentful acquiescence while ignoring sacriligious Roman factors like pigs, shaved chins and graven images; of the Essenes – retreat from Roman influence into remote, self-sustaining and traditional communities; and of the “Fourth Philosophy”, the Zealots – armed resistance, assassination, robbery, and province-wide uprisings.

But not all Jews were religious. The novel’s protagonist, Matthew Levi, was born and raised in another province, Syria, and has long been friends with individual Romans. Chapter 1 sees him interviewed by the governor, Pontius Pilate, for a position as tax collector in Capernaum. As the Roman agent in a small town he will also be expected to send reports about any anti-Roman sentiment or activities he hears of. In effect, any tax collector will be a spy.