Friday, December 30, 2011

Roman and Jewish Context of Early Christianity

When I taught 7th grade years ago, I heard the tail end of an argument between two girls.  The penultimate line was, “Then what religion was Jesus?” To which the other girl hurled with confidence, “Jesus was Baptist.”  We laugh, knowing that Jesus was Jewish, but I think many of us are rather vague on the historical context that gave rise to the Jesus movement, especially if we read the Bible in a vacuum, or rely on those religious movies that appear, without fail, every Easter.  So this morning, I thought it would be useful to summarize the position of Judaism in the Roman Empire between 100 BCE and 135 CE, then focus on the religious conflicts within Judaism itself, and the implications for the early years of Christianity, when it segregated from its root religion of Judaism.

Our images of first century CE Jews as a small band of poor people limited to Palestine, dressed in striped blankets and wearing burnooses is misleading.  First of all, they didn’t wear that Arab headdress.  Second of all, during the first century BCE, Jewish populations thrived throughout the Roman Empire.  They were not some marginalized population crowded only into the eastern Mediterranean hinterlands.  For example, although Rome was obviously the political capital, Alexandria, Egypt was the cosmopolitan and intellectual city (maybe like the different perceptions of New York City and Washington DC for America, today).  In Alexandria, Jews accounted for about 40% of the city’s population (and it was supposedly one of the Ptolemy pharaohs who commissioned the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament, a few centuries earlier).  Throughout the empire, Roman records calculated a Jewish contingent upwards of 10%, often in cities and in positions of business, educational, and political leadership. By contrast, do you know the percentage of Jews in the US today?  Less than 2%.  Furthermore, the Romans granted Jews favored status during that century.  They had full freedom to practice their religion, including not working on their Sabbath, not worshipping at Roman religious sites, and practicing circumcision.  Had the influential Greek population of the eastern empire been in power, they would likely have outlawed what they regarded as that barbaric act of self-mutilation.

 Judaism was growing in number and influence partly through conversions since the first centuries B and CE were ones of theological shifts among people in the Mediterranean world.  A growing number of people began to regard their polytheism as largely symbolic, and so, conversions from polytheism to various forms of monotheism were numerous.    The ethical monotheism of Judaism was particularly attractive.  To my knowledge, for instance, in the first centuries B and CE, Judaism had the only self-supported welfare system in the empire for the poor and needy.  In addition, rights for women, such as postponing childhood marriages, allowing widows to retain property, outlawing infanticide and abortion (which was obviously dangerous before antibiotics), and discouraging infidelity (which also endangered women, through diseases) were secured under Judaism, in contrast to the Roman Empire at large.  Those who became Jewish but did not want to undergo adult circumcision were called “God-fearers” or honorary members.

Roman rule in Palestine and other peripheral areas of the empire was different than in the central cities. These were not plum assignments for administrators or the military, and so were often short of funding and the regions were often run by second-rate leaders.  In Jerusalem, politicians, sometimes Jewish, Greek, or Romans, were known to raid the temple treasury from time to time to meet governmental expenses when Roman payments didn’t arrive for weeks at a time. 

 Movies have tended to exploit stories of Roman violence toward Jews and Christians, often conflating one leader or century or location with another, the way we may mistakenly regard “the Renaissance” or “the Middle Ages” as representing one generic attitude over a region of thousands of miles.  In general the Roman Empire was impressively egalitarian toward the vassal states it cobbled together (until the Empire started crumbling).  As long as communities and nations paid their taxes, preserved local peace, and enabled the Romans to build roads, military and trade posts to secure peace and encourage mercantilism, differences in language, religion, social rules, and architecture were tolerated.  However, when individuals or groups fomented discontent or engaged in acts of political or financial sabotage that undermined Roman goals, the Romans acted quickly and decisively. 

 Let’s turn our attention to pertinent issues within Judaism at the time.  A helpful way to remember some of the names and differences I’m going to point out might be to draw analogies to the Christian reformation, which pitted the Protestants (meaning Protesters) against the Catholic hierarchy, and gave rise to the Puritans (meaning Purifiers), within the Protestant movement and some violent zealots as well.  The Jewish analogies here are the Sadducees to Catholics, Pharisees to Protestants, Essenes to Puritans, and Sicarii to violent religious/political groups.   

 Judaism was centered in Jerusalem, with religious life, leadership and finances centered at the Temple.  Now, when I say Temple, I don’t want you to think of a single building, like a local synagogue or church.  A closer analogy is Vatican City for Catholicism, or a state capital complex. The Temple supported a whole host of other businesses and a vibrant micro-economy, including priests, scribes, animal husbandry for sacrificial animals, money changers and travel services for the pilgrims who traveled from throughout the Mediterranean world to attend high holy days, seasonal celebrations, and twice-a-day sacrifices.   Throughout their lives, “Good Jews” participated in rituals at that temple, often traveling great distances.  The Gospel of Luke describes Jesus’ ritual presentation at the Temple when he was 40 days old. Think of the tourism business associated with the Muslim trek to Mecca, or religious travel to Rome or Jerusalem today.    Most of these ancient Temple-related businesses were run like medieval guilds.  If your grandfather and father and relatives sold temple doves, or were scribes or priests, you would do so, too.  Priests were married and came from the tribe of Levy. Saducees were a group within this priestly caste.  In addition to the money that changed hands for clean animals to sacrifice, etc. Jews were expected to a pay a temple tax, which paid the priests, maintained facilities, and helped support the indigent. 

By way of analogy to the Christian reformation, those supportive of this Temple-centric religious life might be analogous to Catholicism, which supported a status quo with centralized religious, administrative, and financial organization, headquartered in Rome.    

However, during this rich era (200 BCE – 100CE) of religious and philosophical re-imagining, various Jewish groups were starting to advocate a purer, and far less centralized religious practice, much as the Protestants did.  They criticized the priests for the tremendous wealth controlled by all the businesses associated with the Temple as well as cultural integration with the Greeks of the eastern empire and the Romans of the west.  Rather extreme groups, such as the Essenes are somewhat similar to the Puritans, in that both removed themselves from corrupt society in order to form their own rigorous communities.  The Essenes are the monks who established a commune or monastery of men near the Dead Sea, where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls (of Old Testament documents) were found. The Essenes referred to themselves as “the sons of light” and the rest of the Jews as “the sons of darkness.”  It is a strong indication of the divisions within the religion of the time.

The largest dissenting voice was that of the Pharisees, somewhat analogous to  Protestants in general.  They did not remove themselves from society as the Essenes did.  But, they favored decentralized, community worship, believing that  “Good Jews” could keep the laws anywhere, in their hearts, in their homes.  To them, the Temple of Jerusalem and all its requirements were not required for living a godly life.  This is somewhat like the Protestants saying that the Pope and the hierarchy and system of support for the Vatican is not necessary to be a good Christian.  The Pharisees taught of a religion infusing everyday experience, not separate from it.  For religious authority, they went back to the words of the Torah, including oral tradition, instead of to the hierarchy of priests. They stressed the “Golden Rule” and taught that doing charitable works was the most important mitzvah of the Torah.  It appears that many Pharisees believed in a resurrection, angels, and judgment after death.  Sound familiar? 

If these values sound like some of Jesus’ teachings, it is speculated by a number of scholars that he was a student of the Pharisees.  Some wonder if he studied under the great Rabbi Hillel himself.  Many Christians have only heard of the Pharisees and Saducees from the “bad rap” given them in the four gospels in the New Testament.  But bear in mind that the Gospels were written two or more generations after the events they depict (Luke explicitly says it is not an eye witness account, but written after other biographies were written), and at a point when the Saducees no longer existed (so were easy to decry), and when both Christianity and Judaism were parting company from each other.  In other words, those Gospels likely say more about the timing, authorship and audience of those texts than about any real conflict between Jesus’s little band and the Judaism of which they were a part.

As in the Christian Reformation, this conflict between the conservatives who supported the status quo and the reformers was often contentious.  Just as in any reform movement, there were some extremist religious zealots who used violence to overthrow the Temple power structure and seem to have hated Temple authority as much as they hated the Romans.  One of these groups was called the Sicarii, for the little daggers they carried beneath their robes for assassinations they tended to carry out in crowds, so they could slip away.  The Sicarii killed BOTH Temple leaders in Jerusalem and Romans (there and elsewhere). The battle and suicide at Masada may have involved a band of Sicarii.  If the name sounds familiar to you, you may be thinking of Judas Iscariot.  If his name does indicate that he was associated with or was perceived to be party to this band of violent zealots, then perhaps Jesus’s whole group was similarly involved or perceived to be, in which case, we can certainly understand the crucifixion, which was the Roman’s public punishment reserved for lower class thieves, robbers, slave rebellions, and saboteurs.   

Such zealots sought to foment discontent with both powerful groups – religious and political.  In 66 CE, they engaged in two acts of terrorism in Jerusalem.  The SECOND act was the murder of the nearby Roman garrison.  The FIRST was burning the temple debt rolls, documents that listed those who, like the Pharisees and others critical of the Sadducees, had not paid their “fair share” of tithes to the Temple.  Perhaps this is similar to torching an IRS office.  These were obviously acts of both political and religious defiance, and they initiated the beginning of the end of Judaism then known.

 The Romans were shocked.  The only other recent rebellion in the entire empire had occurred in Britain, another obviously remote spot.  In a world with a large and increasingly popular Jewish and monotheistic population, such an act could not go unpunished.  So Roman legions headed toward Jerusalem, first clearing out regional forts and trading posts that could provide any military and material support.  The zealots and the assumed complicit city of Jerusalem held off the Romans for four long years, exercising very clever tactics documented by Josephus and others, until an effective siege of the city caused attrition by slow and grisly starvation.  Numbers are of course, inflated by both sides, but it is clear that a very high proportion perished - women, children, and Jewish and Christian leaders. When the Romans scaled the walls, they razed the Temple and damaged but did not destroy the city.  The end of the Temple meant the end of centralized worship, the end of the Sadducees’ power base, and the de facto rise of decentralized Jewish worship. Other ideas filled the void,  including, of course, the Pharisees’ teachings and the small Christian sect.  

 The Jewish rebellions that fuel our image of brave but tragic guerilla fighters –like the Maccabees, and the battle of Masada - continued for the next 50 years, tragically eroding the strength, the status, and the appeal of that religion. Many rebel leaders, like Judah of Galilee, called himself the Messiah to attract more support. Simon Bar Kokhba (or Kosiva; the name means the star) was brave, religious, and charismatic, but under his faulty leadership, it is reported that 50 Jewish forts were destroyed, 985 towns ruined, and some 500,000 Jews killed. Although these numbers are likely inflated, the impact is clear.  Greater Judea became a wasteland as weakening Jewish bands pestered the largest power in the known world and were repeatedly beaten. Jerome reports 300 years later that Jewish slaves were so numerous during that era that their individual value was less than that of a horse.  Finally, in 135 CE, the Romans had had enough.  Emperor Hadrian leveled Jerusalem, filled in the low spots to build a flat Greek style city, and barred Jews from entry on pain of death.  It is from this period that the Wailing Wall traditions date.

 Imagine the impact of these years, physically and psychologically, on the people and on the religion.  This was a period as devastating as the holocaust on the individual and communal faith and on the community units.  These repeated crises galvanized several significant changes that affected both Judaism and Christianity.   

1) After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Judaism became more separatist from both Christians and polytheists.  As you have seen throughout history, when a societal underdog becomes the leader, he often rewrites rules to marginalize those who had previously marginalized him and those who threaten his new position.  Thus, Pharisee prayers as early as 80 CE- only 10 years after the Temple toppled - described Sadducees as well as Christians as heretics and barred them from sharing places of worship.   

2)  Although the Torah and many histories in the Old Testament were written and codified hundreds of years earlier, new books were now added or written.  Some were included in the Apocrypha and in the Catholic version of the Old Testament (like the book of Judith).  Several of the latest books of the Old Testament include apocalyptic visions that make sense, given this repeated level of destruction.  Others tried to make sense of the failed military efforts, like those of Masada and the Maccabees, with such touching stories that we know today, such as Hanukkah.    

 3)  Christian theology changed over its first century, not in some homogeneous train of thought, but, as more than 50 different whole and partial Gospels show (in the New Testament, in references by early Christian leaders, and in preserved in the Nag Hammadi collection) , Christians trying to interpret the teachings of Jesus, the theological implications, and develop a sense of identity and organization, often with conflicting ideas.  Christians juggled ideas of whether Jesus was a gifted faith healer, or a God or half man/half God, what heaven meant, was there a Judgment Day, and other issues percolating through the philosophical world of the time.  Just as Jesus’s death around 30 CE traumatized his followers, so did the fall of the Jerusalem Temple forty years later.  Both inspired reinterpretation of key beliefs, particularly those in which heaven would appear within Jesus’s lifetime, and after his death, within the generation of his followers.  As that generation died, and certainly when the Temple was destroyed, you can imagine the crisis of faith.  The idea of an afterlife, and a heaven elsewhere gained traction, since heaven clearly wasn’t evident in the here and now.  In addition, Christians realized that they needed to write down the teachings of Jesus, and their interpretation of him for a posterity they hadn’t expected.  Other than Paul’s letters, the rest of the New Testament was written after the sack of Jerusalem and outside of it.

 Those Gospels presumed to be the earliest, like the Gospel of Thomas, which is a collection of parables, and Mark, lack the magic, mysticism and theological interpretation of later texts.  In addition, the exploration of such half man / half God concepts and a general disregard for the purity laws espoused by the Pharisees hastened a mutual desire by both Christianity and Judaism to segregate.  In 132 CE, right before Hadrian’s final blow to Jerusalem, Christians petitioned Rome for a religious status officially independent of Judaism.  (Side note: the story that Nero scapegoated Christians for the fire of Rome in the mid-60’s is suspect, for the simple reason that the Romans didn’t recognize Christianity as a distinct sect until generations later. However the scapegoats could have been Jewish zealots.)

 4)  Both the faithful and others may have perceived weakness of the Jewish faith and Jewish God from the repeated losses between 70 and 135 CE.  That, plus the perceived synergistic monotheism-polytheism of Christianity, may have contributed to increasing numbers of Christian converts and decreasing numbers of Jewish converts from among polytheists.  It is easy to see the new religion’s appeal. Christianity maintained the ethical monotheism attractive in Judaism, including many of the charitable and human rights mentioned earlier.  For Jews, it was evocative of the Pharisaical Judaism they knew in worship forms and values, but it also had the practical advantage of fewer prohibitions against outsiders: it didn’t require circumcision, considered a very big plus, and allowed intermarriage and broader food and lifestyle tolerances.  In other words, it was easier to convert to Christianity than Judaism.

So this was the Roman and Jewish context of early Christianity.  The conflicts within Judaism, particularly between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, and between the Jews and the Romans, resonate in the various books of the NT.  We see in Paul’s letters, written in the 50s and 60s, his passionate arguments that Christians did not have to be Jews.  After 70, and the deaths of Christian leaders in Jerusalem who saw Christianity as part of Judaism, such advocacy was less pressing, and we see in the four orthodox  Gospels a general sense that Christians are different from Jews, including an outright criticism of the Temple and the Sadducees (which was rather easy, given that neither existed any longer).  There are explicit condemnations of Pharisees, a group that still existed, but that regarded Christians as impure heretics.  Still, Christians shared the religious books, prayers, and worship forms of Judaism.   Some books, like the Gospel of Luke seems to go to great pains to show that the early Jesus movement respected Roman rules and that Jesus came from a traditional Jewish home.  For example, Joseph and Mary traveled peacefully to the temple of Jerusalem and to their home town for the census. Others, such as the Gospel of Matthew tells the audacious story of Herod killing all baby boys, causing the Holy Family to flee to Egypt, thus castigating both Roman leadership, which still existed, and Jewish administration, which no longer did. Each book speaks to a different audience of Christian believers within the Roman Empire.

Because the religion of Christianity arose in such a contentious time, I find it fascinating to reread passages in the New Testament looking for context clues of contemporary events (in the letters of Paul) and historic revisionism, in the Gospels.  I hope this helps you better understand these books which loom so large in our culture, and to appreciate the early evolution of this religious movement.

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