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.)

Social Warfare and Religious Genocide

From Gombe’s chimps to interstellar space
We will have war. Sanctioned by the Divine,
Moses first led the Jews to Palestine
Telling his tribesmen not just to displace
But to kill all, and wipe out without trace
Each adult, child, animal, tree, vine.
Genocide’s justified, cleansed ethics fine,
To get resources for your tribe and race.

Believers justify war’s bloody courses:
We’re right, they’re wrong, so therefore they’re to blame.
Conquer through war to grab and keep resources,
Aztecs or Spaniards, everyone’s the same –
Victory to the best guns, swords or horses,
And put defeated scriptures in the flame.

I’m pessimistic about the chances of humans being able to stop warfare. It seems built into the nature of social creatures – when you define your group, you are defining everyone else as not in your group. Then, when it’s a question of who gets limited resources, groups compete and the most ruthless groups tend to do the best.

The sonnet highlights one of my personal religious irritations, that people can walk into a neighbouring territory, wipe out the inhabitants, and create a justifying fairytale of how the destroyers are the persecuted victims. Think of the Pilgrims and other British immigrants in America… think of the Jewish tribes coming into the Promised Land: when they captured a city outside the core area,

“when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword:
But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.” (Deuteronomy 20:13-14)

But when they captured a city in the heart of the Promised Land,

“of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:
But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee:
That they teach you not to do after all their abominations.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)

It is hard to see a future without warfare, when even the most revered “holy books” teach genocide and justify it as doing God’s will.

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.