Political Context of Jesus’ Day

The System and the River
By Joe Casad

As Joanna said in her introduction last week, the Worship committee hatched this plan to lead off our Lenten series with a pair of sermons on the religious and political context for the Easter story. It is actually interesting, in hindsight, that we chose to divide the task around what seemed a perfectly logical fault line: you take church, and I’ll take state. This division reveals more about our own own cultural bias as 21st century Americans than it says about the reality of 1st century Palestine. As Joanna mentioned, there is a lot of crossover. In fact, it would be fair to say the two major political forces in this story — the Jews and the Romans — agreed on very little, but one thing they would certainly have agreed on is the utter absence of a separation of church and state.

This part of the world had been batted back and forth between great empires for centuries. The Assyrians, the Persians, the Egyptians — all were in charge at one point or another. Yet the Jewish religion survived, simply because the Jewish people fought for their faith with an almost fanatical energy. There were stories in the ancient world of Hebrews, at the instigation of some cruel conqueror, being given the choice to eat pork or die and amazing their captors by actually choosing to die.

As Joanna mentioned last week, a Selucid emperor made the mistake of selling the high priest of Jerusalem job to the highest bidder, and lined up somebody who didn’t know the territory very well, who decided it would be a good thing to place alters to other gods, such as Zeus, in the Jewish temple, and he ended up with a full-scale revolt on his hands, in which the Maccabees rose up and took back the temple. This story survives to this day in observances surrounding the holiday they call Hanukkah, and it is commemorated in the menorah candles lit each night through the Hanukkah season in every Jewish home.

Many historians have observed that, based on where they were and all they had been through, it was amazing that the Jewish people held onto this faith and were never assimilated into the religious traditions of their conquerors. They were, by most all accounts, an unremarkable people, in an unremarkable place, with a very, very remarkable, vibrant, and seemingly indestructible religion. As Bertrand Russel writes, “The Jews were distinguishable from the other nations of antiquity by their stubborn national pride. All the others, when conquered, acquiesced inwardly as well as outwardly; the Jews alone retained the belief in their own per-eminence, and the conviction that their misfortunes were due to God’s anger, because they had failed to preserve the purity of their faith and ritual.”

Just as outwardly, they faced a revolving series of conquerors, inwardly, they faced an endless series of prophets and leaders, calling them to even higher levels of devotion in service to their God.

Palestine fell into Roman hands around 64 BC with the conquest of the Roman general Pompey. Rome showed a united face to the world, but behind the scenes, its leaders played a kind of musical chairs. Roman legions were infused with an intense patriotism, but they were willing to leave the details of what that meant to their superiors. As a practical matter, they owed their loyalty to their general. This led to a lot of civil wars. So Julius Caesar fought Pompey and won, then Julius Caesar was murdered. Then Caesar’s biggest ally (Marc Anthony) and Caesar’s protégé and heir (Octavius) fought a war with everyone who murdered Caesar, then they fought a war with each other, which Octavius won.

And around that time, the people of the empire were getting really sick of these wars, which were costing a lot of money and lives, and there was this big sense of wanting more stability. Octavius certainly wanted stability, since he had just consolidated his position in control the whole empire. He changed his name to Augustus, meaning the “illustrious one.” Augustus Caesar is one of those fascinating characters in history–he was clearly an organizational genius, but he was also an excellent politician, as well as a pretty good gangster and intimidation artist.

To make the story short: Augustus really did succeed in bringing a relative level of stability to the empire, but he didn’t exactly do it with a great deal of benevolence or empathy. What he basically did was set up a system and let the system do the work. This system ushered in an era of relative peace –Pax Romana, they called it: the Peace of Rome, but it must not have felt much like peace for the people living in it. It was all about projecting power: maximum intimidation with minimal overhead, keeping a close watch on unfolding events, and of course: taxes, because the system cost a lot of money.

The 2nd chapter of Luke, the very first verse of what we think of as the Christmas story depicts the holy family playing their own role in the system when it says, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…” Think about the power embodied in that one line: one guy decides that “all the world” should register. That’s how it was with Rome: you didn’t say no — when they say to register, you register. And there was no secret why they wanted everyone to register: so they could levy taxes.

The Romans had a very special espirit de corps that is difficult to explain. They had this mystical belief that they were going to win every time, and all their actions embodied that certainty.

The way the system was playing itself out in Palestine was actually kind of complicated: it was, after all, a system and not a formula. The region had a measure of autonomy under the reign of Herod the Great, who died around the time Jesus was born. But a succession battle after Herod’s death, and the general incompetence of his sons, and what seemed a persistent propensity for rebellion and unrest had caused the Romans to place Judea in a form of more direct rule, incorporating it into the Province of Syria and placing a Roman governor on site to keep an eye on things. The region was gaining the reputation of being something of a powder keg, and the heat was on: it was one of those places the Romans watched extra closely, and the Roman authorities used every trick the system offered to maintain order — because maintaining order looked, to a Roman, like maintaining peace.

Herod’s son Herod Antipas still had nominal authority over the backwater region known as Galilee, which gave him some authority over people who came from Galilee, including Jesus. In the city of Jerusalem, the Roman governors had re-established an ancient body of priests and elders known as the Sandhedrin to act in an advisory role, or perhaps, to act as a figurehead and give the illusion of local autonomy. No one really believed the Sandhedrin could actually take a stand against Roman dominance. But why would they? These were rich and powerful people, with a stake in the status quo. That was the genius of the system. The money rolled in. The favors rolled in. The wealth and power trickled down — just far enough to ensure the obedience of those who were needed to ensure the obedience of the people below.

This money trickling everywhere was the instrument of power that held everything in this tense quasi-equilibrium. No one in this region really knew very much about money before the Romans came, especially in Galilee, which operated on a barter economy and was an almost Brigadoon-like throwback to an isolated past.

A look at the map will give some perspective:

Galilee–isolated, landlocked, still largely untouched by the forces of urbanization and globalization.

Samaria–the space between Galilee and Judea, which now mostly goes by the name of the West Bank. The people of Samaria had a similar Abrahamic roots, but they weren’t directly affiliated with the Jews in the new testament. They weren’t exactly hostile, but they weren’t exactly friendly either, and Samaria was on the path for all pilgrimages from Galilee to Jerusalem.

Judea–under direct Roman rule, a regional population center, and becoming what could really be considered a cosmopolitan city of the Roman empire, with merchants, immigrants, vast disparities of rich and poor–and also receiving the continuous flow of money from pilgrims journeying to the temple from surrounding regions.

The temple was ground zero for this whole brewing, simmering potion. It was the heart of the Jewish religion, a place of supreme reverence and importance to all Jews. Yet here it was, in this cosmopolitan hub of the region, under direct Roman rule, with this influx of wealth, a center of trade, a place of inflation, a place of consumption.

Business in Jerusalem happened through the exchange of coins. The Temple was big business. Pilgrims journeying from the outer regions would need to pay to stay someplace. They would need to pay for food. Would need to pay for an animal for sacrifice. And the temple only took one kind of currency: the Tyrian Shekel, further confusing those from a barter economy, who were forced to undergo the strange dance of changing their money for different money — hence the presence of money changers. Most infuriating of all were the fees associated with the ritual purification necessary to gain admittance to the temple itself. An elaborate system of cisterns, springs, aqueducts, and underground pipes fed a series of ritual purification baths at the temple site, and that all cost money to maintain and operate. You couldn’t get into the temple unless you underwent purification, and this purification came at a price. So here’s the system again: restriction, exclusion, control of access to the most fundamental expressions of faith, maintained–not by force of arms, but by this weird, invisible force that they knew as “mammon” twining itself through the fabric of their life: impurity laying siege to the very ritual of purification.

And all this is being done to a group of people who are called to say that they would rather die than eat pork. But the Romans weren’t backing down. They knew that they were born to rule, and they were going to have their peace their way. And the Jews weren’t backing down. They knew that they were born the children of God, and their were going to have their faith their way.

Get the feeling that this whole thing is about ready to blow up? That it is kind of like the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. It doesn’t all fit, and something’s gotta give.

So picture these simple but tenaciously religious people, in Galilee, and all other parts of the Jewish ecosystem, making this pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to this place in this sea of what they consider Greco-Roman excess, and they need to bring this money, just to go to the temple. They already pay a lot of money in taxes, and now they need even more money, just so to exercise their faith.

Some scholars believe this created the scenario where a charismatic leader, who many believe, based on hints from the bible, was of the Essene community (which, you remember from last week, rejected the new times and lived in an isolated, ascetic location away from the temptation of Roman corruption) who set himself up along the Jordan river, along one of the routes used by pilgrims, and said “Going to the temple? You need to be purified? I’ll purify you right here–for nothing.”

That leader was John the Baptist. His message was deeply religious, but it was also had a very political edge, affirming the aspirations of those who felt disenfranchised by mammon and left behind by the system, and he attracted a large following — large enough to gain the attention of the authorities, who had heard quite enough of this rebellion and put John to death.

Then someone who, according to scholars, might have been part of John’s movement at one point, emerged from the chaos following John’s death and burst upon the scene with a bold new vision that went far beyond what John had suggested: that we were all born in a state of grace with God, that purity isn’t a transient, temporary thing we acquire through devotion to outward ritual but a natural state that comes with closeness to God, and it is all up to you to maintain that closeness through your own thoughts and actions and acceptance of God’s grace — it isn’t dependent on money changers or high priests or dietary laws or strict devotion to protocols. That man was Jesus, and his call to walk in his shoes, to follow his path, to carry his cross, offered a whole new beginning and a new direction for faith that would have implications well beyond what the people listening to him in those tiny towns and villages could possibly have imagined.

What happened when this movement hit Jerusalem– home of the temple and Herod’s palace and the high priests and all the Roman guards? Come back next week for more on that.

Sources
[1] Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography by Bruce Chilton; Image Books
[2] A History of the Ancient World by Chester G. Starr; Oxford University Press
[3] A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell; Touchstone Books
[4] Rome and Jerusalem: The Class of Ancient Civilizations by Martin Goodman; Vintage Books
[5] The Oxford History of the Biblical World by Michael D. Coogan; Oxford University Press

 

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