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.

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