Friday, July 8, 2016

How historical are the gospels, really?

This is not what things looked like in Jesus' time
Contrary to popular belief, imperial Christianity or "Christianity-as-we-know-it", didn't start with Jesus, or with Paul, but with Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century. For its first three centuries, the original Jesus movement was a Jewish sect that lowered the bar to join so drastically (by for instance no longer demanding circumcision) that pagans could join with relative ease. And thus they did and did so in droves, because even though the Jesus movement was illegal, it was also irresistibly attractive.

Here at Abarim Publications we like to believe that the original movement indeed began in a certain historical Jewish individual, but the literary genre that would feature Him sought mostly to provide commentary on the times via His highly allegorical biography. The earlier writers (Mark, Paul and doubtlessly many we've never heard of) couldn't simply state that the Romans sucked and why, because they would have swiftly executed them. In stead, they disguised their more controversial ideas in The Adventures of Jesus. Take the story of the demoniac called Legion, for instance; that's pretty blatant.

This is what things looked like in Jesus' time

By the time these authors wrote, the Romans would have considered their works silly laments over some dude who got himself killed decades earlier, as one of tens of thousands of insignificant natives who had been terminated in order to preserve the hallowed peace. To their intended audiences, however, these stories were about a whole lot more. A Roman censor might have snickered over the absurd but harmless report that long ago a Roman governor had publicly released a known terrorist called Barabbas, but the gospel's target audience understood this story's subtle details. Likewise Paul's plea to have a runaway slave named Onesimus forgiven would have been considered absurd but relatively harmless to any Roman snoop, but to the real Philemon the real Onesimus meant quite something else.

Jesus was a Jew, but His movement was not simply a continuation of Jewish thought. After the time of the latest Jewish prophets, Judaism began to be permeated by Greek thought to such a degree that the Galilee of Jesus was no longer Jewish but rather Greco-Jewish. When the Romans conquered Judea, they disposed the Jewish king as well as the incumbent high priest and installed a political elite which was more to their liking. That made Galilee a Greek-Hebrew hybrid in the cultural sense and a Roman-Jewish hybrid in the political sense. All this gave understandable rise to a movement that demanded the utter purification of Hebrew religion, which included the return of a rightful Jewish king, a.k.a. messiah or christus in Greek.

The Siege of Masada meant
the end of the Sicarii
Jesus appears to have largely sought to avoid these people (John 6:15) and their movement quickly fractured into a spectrum of vastly differing sentiments. So-called Zealots were militant brutes, who managed to spawn an even worse offshoot called the Sicarii. These guys were sly assassins who killed anonymously and did nothing but evoke Roman wrath and bloody retaliation upon innocents. Our friends the authors appear to have represented these two groups in Jesus' disciples Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot.

Then there were Essenes, who solved the problem by completely separating themselves from main society and teaching righteousness to whatever audience would come to them in the desert -- the character of John the Baptist obviously resembles these. As told, this movement was beheaded by the Roman-Jewish government (Mark 6:17) but respectfully surpassed in virtue and effect by the Jesus movement (Matthew 11:11).

Meanwhile the Romans suffered their own share of attacks, both from without and within. Around the same time that Jesus was born in Judea (give or take a few years), a federation of Germanian tribes tore three whole Roman legions to shreds at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest meant
the end of Roman legions XVII, XVIII and XIX
At that same time, the Illyrians (in present Bosnia) staged their revolt and kept the Roman army busy for three excruciating years.

The Germanians got away with it but the Illyrians were wholly destroyed. At that same time Judea was made a Roman province, and while some insisted on an Illyrian-like armed revolt, most realized that a respectful dialogue with the oppressor would be much more fruitful.

 "Knock and the door will open," said Jesus, and with that He almost certainly referred to the great doors of the temple of Janus Quirinus in Rome. At peace time these doors were shut with great imperial fanfare. At war time, they would open, and horror upon horror would flood the land.

But the most vicious attacks on Rome came from within. When Julius Caesar had pronounced himself dictator for life (half a century before Jesus' birth), dozens of disgruntled senators clubbed up under the epithet The Liberators (namely Rome from tyranny).

And one late winter day, these Liberators proceeded to assassinate old Julius, hoping that this would bring the Republic back. Unfortunately, all it did was infuriate Ocativan, who chased and killed the last of the Liberators at the Battle of Philippi and pronounced in rapid succession (1) himself as the adopted son of Julius (well, it said so in Julius' will), (2) the Republic dead, (3) but resurrected as divine Empire, (4) of which he would be the first Emperor, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, (5) which meant that he was also the Savior of the World, (6) which meant that Julius had to be divine, and (7) which meant that Octavian was the Son of God.
The doors of the Temple of Quirinus
Matthew 7:6-8

All that he glazed by giving himself the name Augustus, from the Latin verb augeo meaning to increase, enlarge or magnify, and the derived noun augustus, meaning majestic or magnificent one.

The Liberators had bitten the military dust precisely like the Illyrians would three decades later, and became the thinking man's example of how not to do it. But the internal Roman liberation movement kept going strong. One native Italian people in particular felt they had a bone to pick with their domineering Latin neighbors, whose wretched village of Rome had now so gloriously taken over the world. These people were called the Samnites and although they had resisted Roman rule longer than anybody else on the peninsula, they too had grudgingly yielded.

One particular Samnite family was that of the Pontii. In the 4th century BC, commander Gaius Pontius had beaten the Romans silly at the Battle of the Caudine Forks. Early in the last century BC, the defender of the plebs (lower class) and military commander Pontius Telesinus had fought Roman general Sulla, whose tyrannical actions set the collapse of the Republic in motion. Some decades later, Lucius Pontius Aquila, a tribune likewise of the plebs, so managed to vex Julius Caesar that the latter famously began using the former's name as cuss word. But Pontius Aquila did more than vex Julius, as he soon joined the Liberators and became one of Caesar's assassins. By the time of Jesus, the name Pontius had the same regicidal ring to it as the names Booth and Oswald do in ours.

The Liberator denarius showing a pileus, a "freedom hat", which was the symbol of a freed slave. Such a freed slave was known as a pilleatus, which is often assumed to be the root of the name Pilate. 

When Jesus was in His mid-twenties, a perky Pontius Pilate stepped from the Samninte Liberator stage of Rome onto Judean soil, and stayed on for an unusually long ten years. We have two main sources of information on this man: Roman and Judaic. Even decades after he was deposed, Roman historians bore Pontius Pilate a measure of ill will that barely fits a man of his modest stature, and easily makes an unbiased reader suspect that he did something entirely disagreeable. The gospel writers, on the other hand, spoke remarkably well of Pilate.

The Judea in which Jesus was born, and in which He preached, was tried, executed and commemorated was not a country sparsely populated with complacent peasants but rather a land where the most intimate of human considerations were expressed in the most potent of people movements. There were no two clearly established fronts, no obvious good-guys and bad-guys, but two fractured mirrors facing. Tensions raged like bundled snakes and shared anger yielded brittle alliances between the most unlikely of candidates.

And at the very heart of that, a Samnite Liberator who was clipped of his balls met a courageous genius with no will to fight. Pilate pronounced Jesus innocent, because the Samnite liberator understood perfectly the position of the Judaic liberator: to render upon Caesar what belonged to Caesar, and to thus set captives free (Luke 4:18).
Vespasian, a.k.a. the Muleteer:
"The emperor comes out of Galilee"

Three decades later, the revolt broke out. Emperor Nero, who until then had entertained Paul, sent general Vespasian and his son Titus to sort things out.

Quickly after Nero's death, Vespasian returned to Rome as the new emperor, tickled pink by the legend that the new emperor of the world would come from Galilee.

Meanwhile Titus attacked Jerusalem and destroyed it and its temple. And as his father's nickname had been Mulio, was Titus not the Colt, needed of the Lord?

Thousands upon thousands of Jews were crucified and the rest was deported. What was left of the city was declared off limits. Judaism was robbed of its central temple and its sacred city, and without its heart it spiraled into an unprecedented crisis and onto its near-certain demise.

What saved Judaism and the unsurpassed wisdom it had collected over the centuries, was expressed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which told of a resurrected Temple and a heavenly kingdom.

So how historical are the gospels, really? During the last few decades, archaeology and Scripture Theory have unearthed vast amounts of data in which a certain grave's cover stone slowly dissolves. The ever so vague outline of what lies beneath points at a literary effort vastly surpassing the traditional interpretations of the New Testament.

Here and there the hopeful few think they can actually peek through pin holes and peer into the howling hollow of history but the honest answer to our question is a rather sheepish look and the calm confession: "we got no clue how deep this goes, but hey, stay tuned for more".

Don't know yet, but stay tuned

1 comment:

  1. I have really enjoyed and found useful , your articles on Hebrew words. I´d like to know if you believe in Yeshua as portayed in the New Testament? rather than just an allegorical figure ? If your answer is no, do you know about the heptatic design that carries over into in the New Testament?


Be nice.

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