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.

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.

Antonia Fortress

The Antonia Fortress falls to the Romans, 70 AD

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

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.

Executing Jesus was OK; murdering civilians isn’t

When a military occupation by a Western power (the US, or the Romans) of a poorer country (modern Afghanistan, ancient Palestine) takes place, the occupying troops will kill people. Even after the situation settles down, there will be ongoing resistance.

Murdered child - killed in his sleep by Americans on Sunday.

Neither ancient Jews nor modern Afghans like being ordered around by large, well-fed, heavily-armored men who don’t speak their language, don’t adhere to their religion, don’t wear their clothing, and don’t respect their culture. A pig-eating, beard-shaving, uncircumcised military is an insult to them. Ongoing resistance is natural.

So when, every 20 or 30 years, there was a Zealot uprising in Galilee or Judea, or an attempt by Jesus to take control of the Temple in Jerusalem and have himself proclaimed King, they knew they were facing execution by the Romans if God failed to intervene actively on their behalf.

We may not condone Roman imperialism, which was mostly driven by trade – the need to suppress piracy in the Eastern Mediterranean, to connect Egypt to Syria, to build a reliable harbor at Caesarea Maritima, to protect the trade routes to India, to defend against the Persian Empire – but we can respect it. It tried to integrate all local gods into the Empire, it gradually extended Roman citizenship to local populations, and it brought peace and infrastructure development and an improved standard of living.

American imperialism appears to have less justification, and to be more based on pure exploitation. And when an Army sergeant (acting alone or not) goes on a killing rampage in the night and murders women and children in their sleep, he should not be protected by the occupying forces, but should be turned over to the local authorities for appropriate execution.

Unasked questions: What happened to Joseph?

One of the signs of a great story is the listener’s question, “What happened next?” In the National Geographic for March 2012 the cover article is “The Journey of the Apostles”, detailing the lives and teachings of not just the original Twelve, but also others such as Mary Magdalene, after Jesus’ crucifixion.  We have stories about what happened to all of them, and to many others associated with Jesus. Not all the stories are believable, but where there is no fact there is plenty of speculation and legend.

Except in the case of Joseph, the (step)father of Jesus.

This is strange. If his fate was unknown, we would have legends and rumors. Search for “What happened to Joseph of Arimathea?”, for example, and you find him traveling all over the place, carrying the Holy Grail, settling in Britain, you name it. But search for “What happened to Joseph the father of Jesus?”, and you find nothing about him after his last mention in the Gospels, going up to the Temple in Jerusalem with Mary and Jesus when Jesus was 11 or 12.

Mass crucifixions after an uprising

But suppose his fate was a) not something that the early Church wanted to talk about, and b) so well-known that no one could make up an alternative narrative without having the whole thing dragged out into public discussion again. Therefore silence. No narrative, no legends, nothing.

The interesting event that happened around that time (probably later in the same year that Joseph took Jesus to Jerusalem, but the timing is uncertain) was an uprising led by Judas of Galilee with an attack on Sepphoris. (Sepphoris is the Roman name; the Hebrew name is Zippori.) This was Herod Antipas’ capital city in Galilee, 4 miles north of Nazareth. Probably a lot of men from Nazareth were in the uprising. The uprising was crushed by the Romans, and the Romans crucified 2,000 Jews outside Sepphoris.

And after that, we don’t hear anything about Joseph in the Bible, or in legends or stories.

Jesus, however, retains a remarkable father-fixation all his life, and is himself crucified after leading an attack on the Temple in Jerusalem, having tried to claim the messianic kingship of Israel.

So… what happened to Joseph? And why didn’t anyone want to talk about it in the early Church, as they tried to make Christianity acceptable throughout the Roman Empire?

Jesus’ outbursts of anger

Did Jesus ever get angry?

It’s certainly not the image presented to children. Our foundational understanding of Jesus is “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild”, mixed in with Baby Jesus, Jesus healing people, Jesus feeding people, and all sorts of “God is love” stuff.

Gentle Jesus, or man of violence?

Well, but he whipped the money-changers out of the Temple. And when he was in a synagogue on the Sabbath, he looked round at the congregation “in anger” (Mark 3:5) before healing someone. And there are other places that he gets angry, yells at his disciples, etc.

So there is nothing unlikely about his being connected in with the Zealot insurrection, or in having a Sicariot and Simon Zealotes among his closest disciples.

In other early writings, contemporary with the canonical Gospels, there are accounts of Jesus’ childhood in which (along with magical stories of his making lumber longer or shorter to help Joseph with the carpentry) there are disturbingly violent incidents. In one version he pushes a boy off a roof and kills him, but brings him back to life. In another he curses a boy who has either bumped into him or thrown a stone at him, and the boy falls dead. In yet another he kills a teacher who has reprimanded him.

These extremely negative stories are not the sort that followers normally make up to glorify their deceased master. They are more likely to be reflections of rumors about his childhood that couldn’t be shaken off, and could only be palliated by adding “and then he brought him back to life”. But if you only wanted to show his early powers of healing, you wouldn’t normally start with having him doing the killing himself…

But as the bastard son of, perhaps, the Roman legionary Pantera – looking unlike Joseph – with some resentment on Joseph’s part – teased by other children because of the rumors… we can make an easy case for his having a lot of anger in him. Add in that Joseph disappears from the narrative when Jesus is 12, in the year of the failed uprising by Judas of Galilee with 2,000 Jews crucified by the Romans four miles north of Nazareth…

And we have the makings of an angry, conflicted, anti-Roman young man.

Forget the “meek and mild” – it’s nowhere in the Gospels.