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

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Rome, Israel, and the Christian compromise

Rome and Israel were in constant conflict for the first 200 years of Rome’s occupation of Palestine. Jesus, as a highly religious Jew, was part of that conflict and was executed for it. Jerusalem was besieged and the Temple destroyed in 70. After the umpteenth uprising, the Romans finally kicked the Jews out of Palestine in 135.

Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, 70 AD, by David Roberts

When Paul came along, he had the bizarre idea that he could meld his Jewishness and his Roman citizenship, and create a universally applicable religion. It was all done by blending and compromising, and it proved to be very successful. Here are some examples:

Israel: only one God, and no prayers or worship of anyone or anything else. Rome: thousands of gods, worship your own and those of other religions. Christian compromise: only one God… except He has three “persons”, one of which is Jesus… so it’s OK to pray to any of them… also to Jesus’ mother… well, and to any other of God’s angels, saints, etc… but it still counts as only one God.

Israel: God only cares about Israel, God’s Chosen People – ignore everyone else. Rome: local gods care about local people, so the bigger the Empire gets, the more gods care for it. Christian compromise: God cares for everyone who believes in Him, so keep making His empire bigger.

Israel: love Jerusalem, hate Rome. Rome: destroy Jerusalem, Rome is the center of power. Christian compromise: make Rome the center of the Jerusalem-focused religion.

Israel: 7-day week. Rome: 8-day week called “nine days” (inclusive reckoning). Christian compromise: 7-day week called “eight days” or “Octave” (inclusive reckoning).

Israel: Passover. Rome: Saturnalia. Christian compromise: Saturnalia traditions at Saturnalia to celebrate Jesus’ birth, Passover-type traditions at Passover to celebrate Jesus’ death.

Israel: circumcision of males mandatory. Rome: are you crazy? Christian compromise: circumcision of males voluntary.

Israel: detailed dietary and food preparation laws. Rome: eat anything. Christian compromise: no prohibitions most of the time, except Fridays and Lent.

And so on. It’s fascinating. And for a long time, it worked.

Monotheism and Polytheism – pros and cons

Monotheism is authoritarian – if there is only one god, and only one correct way to understand his will, then there is only one correct way to act regarding the things god finds important. If there are rival suggestions of the correct way to act in these areas, both sides will feel a religious duty to force the other side to change their behavior, and preferably their opinions. This leads to religious police, religious inquisitions, religious wars.

Only One God - bearded dude up in the sky with a whole bunch of what look like lesser gods

Monotheism results in a very focused society, with absolute values and unquestioning support – until a flaw appears, opposition appears, and war breaks out. Monotheism is inherently hostile to democracy and free choice.

It is easier to manage a theocracy for a population that is ethnically and culturally homogenous. The wider it grows, the more allowances have to be made, and the faster the monotheism erodes. The most effective monotheisms are cults operating in isolated compounds.

Polytheism allows the possibility of behaving in different ways, each way being appropriate for a different god. Those who want to worship Venus are not forced to live by the standards of those who worship Mars.

Lots of gods - bearded dude up in the sky with a whole bunch of lesser gods

This advantage allows a political structure that is not limited by a single religious practice to spread across unrelated cultures, adopting their gods into the pantheon of the rulers. This was part of what allowed the Roman Empire to spread so successfully, bringing the worship of Isis in to Rome as well as the worship of Jupiter out to conquered provinces. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is connected to the replacement of polytheism by monotheism, as Gibbon pointed out.

Polytheism is not all peace and love, however. Where there is no consensus on correct social norms, war cults will want to act in a warlike fashion. Male-only cults will make life hard for women. Patrician cults will formalize aristocracy and slavery.

Mono- or poly-, it’s the theism that is the problem. Matthew, in The Gospel According to the Romans, is an interested but skeptical observer of the religions swirling around the Roman Empire.

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.