December 2, 2007

Calendar Conflicts

The Jews continued to use their religious calendar for everyday use under the Roman Occupation. 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 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.

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.

Unfortunately, throughout the Roman province of Palestine, that meant that 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, Jews would refuse to shop for the next week, and the Romans couldn't buy anything from the locals. Then they each 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 actively resisting the Roman attempt to bring uniformity, progress and stability to the whole Empire, and risked being labeled as hostile.

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.

November 20, 2007

Jews and Romans: contextualizing Jesus

Let me explain this "contextualizing Jesus" phrase with a story:

My childhood involved 5 years of Church of England boarding school in Jamaica, followed by 5 more years of the same in England. From age 7 to 17, for most of the year, I had 15 minutes of chapel every day, with an hour on Sundays. Scripture classes in Jamaica covered 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.

In my last year or so of school I also studied Ancient History, specifically the period in Rome from the Gracchi to Nero, covering the turbulent transition from Republic to Empire and the 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 US occupation of Iraq 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.

Priests and theologians are equally scared of contextualizing their stories, because the stories only make sense if they exist as detached fairytale bubbles, realities that are complete in themselves, self-referential, living in 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.

The mission of this blog, then, is to explore the context of the life of Jesus:

the attempt by the Romans to subjugate the troublesome Jews in a strategically important part of the world, and bring them the benefits of international law, trade, peace, and education, while extracting wealth from them;

the attempt by the Jews to rid themselves of the ungodly forces of oppression and corruption and establish a theocratic kingdom for God's Chosen People.

This is the world that Jesus was born into. This was the daily reality throughout his life. There was a province-wide uprising shortly after his birth, led by Judas of Galilee, with the Galilean city of Sepphoris (Zippori, 4 miles from Nazareth) captured by the rebels and then burnt down by the Romans. When he was 12, Judas of Galilee led another uprising, as a result of which the Roman Legions crucified 2,000 Galilean insurgents.

This was the Galilee of Jesus' childhood. No responsible historian who discusses early Christianity can ignore the Roman Occupation, the Jewish insurgency, and their formative impact on the character, teachings and actions of Jesus.