First Century Palestine: A Land and People under Occupation

Roman GuardJoyce was a lot older than I, but a close friend. It was one of those perfect spring days in New York and we were sitting in a small, European style restaurant sipping wine, waiting for our lunch, and catching up. I noticed a small bearded man in black sporting a red beret seated at a table behind Joyce. The man rose, gripping the neck of a guitar, perched himself on a nearby stool, rested his guitar on his knee, moved a nearby music stand in front of him and adjusted its height. I had returned my full attention to Joyce, who was talking about her mother’s health problems when the man began strumming a bit of Bach. “Joyce loves Bach”, I thought.

But Joyce’s face turned white and her eyes went dead at the first musical phrase. She stared straight ahead. She did not turn around to look at the musician behind her; in fact her body seemed frozen. Her mind had taken her somewhere else, and she stayed wherever she was for a very long time. Finally light began to return to her eyes, she seemed to gradually focus and look around at her surroundings; she shifted slightly in her chair, reached for her glass of wine. When I spoke her name softly, she looked at me, and when I asked her what was wrong, she looked down for several long minutes at her hands, which she had begun to twist and rub slowly, before she began to speak.

“You know we lived in Budapest during the war. First it was the Nazis who occupied the city and then the Russians”, she said, still looking down. “The German occupation was a nightmare. We knew that terrible things were happening to the Jews and we could do nothing. We had friends – they disappeared without a word – children too.” Joyce stopped, twisting her linen napkin as the guitarist continued to play, then finally raising her eyes to meet mine. “Then the Russians came and began to take the city from the Nazis. One block at a time – block after block. It took 100 days. We hid in a dark cellar for seven weeks. My husband went out one day to sell his Stradivarius violin for a dozen eggs. I was afraid I would never see him again. When he returned he had only half the eggs – a soldier saw him, he ran, fell and broke the rest.” She stopped again.

“When the Russian Red Army finally won, the soldiers began to drink celebrate. They burst into houses and seized what they wanted for their pleasures. Soon they were drinking eau de cologne, playing guitars, and raping the women. I lay on a cot with my husband on top to hide me.” She didn’t tell me whether this succeeded. I didn’t ask.

Murder, rape and pillage are almost always part of occupation. Occupation means a land is taken from its people but they still have to survive there. What is most familiar, most dear, most sacred now belongs to others – to do with as they wish. Economic and political decisions are made by the occupying force and for the occupying force. And then there are always those who betray their own people, collaborate with the oppressors, profit from the misery of their own. Each day is lived under the wary eye of the powerful who are ever ready to snuff out any signs of rebellion.

Ordinary good people must are faced with terrible questions: “How much do I ‘go along’ for the sake of survival, my children’s survival? Must I stand up at some point no matter what the price? Is there any place in between to plant my feet?” Because there are so many ways to answer these desperate questions, people become divided amongst themselves. Like any family dealing with great difficulties, there is now conflict from within.

Jesus and the New Testament writers lived in an occupied Palestine, and occupation by Caesar’s forces struck at the very heart of the people’s identity. God gave them their land, their ancestors told them. But the Roman Empire now controlled it, and Caesar claimed to be not only the Emperor but the son of God. “Filius divini” (son of the divine) proclaimed the engraving on the Roman coin. This divine sonship was celebrated particularly on his birthday which was a religious holiday. All citizens of the Empire were expected to participate this and the other rituals of the state religion. Although Jews, and only Jews, were exempted from this religious participation, they lived in its shadow.

In addition, the Jewish temple observances allowed were under Roman control. Their temple, heart of worship, symbol of hope, became a tool of the oppressors and an instrument of direct economic oppression. High Priests were now selected and appointed by Caesar. The temple became the national bank, storing valuables, collecting mandatory “temple taxes”. In the ancient world, religious institutions were dominated by political powers and used to support, maintain and justify the rule of the politically and economically powerful. Romans and very small Jewish elite controlled how God was viewed and how religious practices were carried out. The temple and the festivals, intended to symbolize God’s liberating action and care for all, had become a market profiting Rome.

All these insults to the identity and spiritual life of the people took place within the context of grinding poverty. There was no middle class. There were the small minority of very rich (about 2%) and the rest lived at a subsistence level. Rome and the few wealthy aristocrats and landowners benefited from the labor of everyone else. Ninety-eight percent were peasants, basically share croppers or fishers.  At the very bottom of the economic ladder were day laborers whose lives were even more tenuous than the peasants and fishers. The Jewish people and every aspect of their work were taxed so heavily that it was impossible to rise out of poverty. The taxes about which many of us bitterly complain cannot begin to compare with those in Palestine. Perhaps the best contemporary comparison would be modern slavery – working to pay off debts that can never be paid off – or the American song: “You load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt…”

Some Jews responded to poverty, oppression and violation with anger and violence. Bandits roamed, especially in the north. Some were Jews who had lost their land because of the heavy taxation, or because it was simply seized by the wealthy or because of some infraction. The “Robin Hood” bandits stole to survive. Others were organized revolutionaries committing assassinations of the elite. Some Jews became tax collectors however, and profited from the impoverishment of their brothers and sisters – a different kind of violence.

This is the context of Jesus’ life and teaching. It is striking that he included among the twelve we now call Apostles both Matthew, a hated tax collector who collaborated with Rome to oppress his own people, and Simon, a zealot promoting violent revolution. We know little of what transpired between them and between Jesus and each of them, but it is easy to imagine it as tumultuous.

This world, where people were ruled by a powerful and often ruthless Empire, set the context for Jesus’ death. Those viewed as a threat to the Empire were eliminated, killed as enemies of the state. The instrument of this execution was the cross. It was a world not so very different from South Africa during Apartheid, the Spanish conquest of the Aztec in Mexico, the double occupation of Budapest which Joyce survived.

Palestine in the 1st century was violent, volatile, and yet bursting with hope for something better. In the midst of such evil and such hope, Jesus began his public work: “The time has come,” he said, “and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15) Something was going to happen. The Romans feared it. The Jews hoped for it.

Responding to Reza Aslan’s Zealot

zealot

Responding to Reza Aslan’s The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

When will the movie come out? Reza Aslan’s Zealot has provoked a tangled web of media attention and conversation. Unfortunately, much of this has been focused on the now famous – or infamous – Fox News interview and on Aslan as a person, a Muslim, an academic. This is not surprising given both the theatrical style of much of the book – we can see the movie scenes already – controversies surrounding Fox News.

But what about the context and credibility of the book itself?  My own blog will focus on Jesus and Jesus and 1st century Palestine. Therefore I want to comment therefore on what Aslan actually says about Jesus of Nazareth, how he arrives at his conclusions and what I think about them. Bottom line? My position is:

  • A Muslim can write a book about Jesus of course, and Aslan claims a strong interest in Jesus dating back to a childhood experience. Enough said.
  • Placing Jesus within the context of the world in which he lived is very valuable. I myself have been studying and writing about 1st c. Palestine for years.
  • Coming to a conclusion about the “historical Jesus” has been attempted by many and cannot be done. Aslan says this himself, although he then proceeds to do just that.
  • I do not believe Jesus was a Zealot and shall explain why – very briefly.

We all come from somewhere and Jesus was a Jew living in 1st century Palestine – where the land and the temple were ruled by the Roman Empire and most of the people were trapped in poverty. Those who saw and heard him and those later responsible for the Gospels were also from this world. Understanding the political, religious, socio-economic realities adds enormously to our reading and understanding of the New Testament. Village scenes, parables, the Sermon on the Mount all come alive in new ways.

And it is very important to know that Jesus was crucified for crimes against the Roman Empire. Romans reserved crucifixion for those convicted of sedition. It is also true that he spoke about a very different kingdom where the first would be last and the last would be first. And Jesus definitely had a pivotal confrontation with both the Roman Empire and the priests they appointed when he entered the temple, drove out the money changers and called it a den of thieves. From that moment his fate was sealed. All of these things and many more make it clear that he opposed oppression, arrogance, greed and lording it over others.

But none of this means he was a revolutionary bent on violent overthrow of the Empire. Aslan’s claim is that the church made a peaceful, soft Jesus for political expediency.  His argument that the church had reason to avoid a portrayal that would get them in big trouble is interesting. It bears thinking about. I can agree that the Christian church as generally preached a “nice” Jesus, avoiding Gospel passages that disturb this image.

But it seems Aslan greatly overreaches with his claims that Jesus was a revolutionary bent on ousting the Roman Empire and becoming king through “zeal” and the sword.  In fact that would make him king of another empire founded, once again, on power and violence.

Jesus is complex and so are the gospels. We try to know him and about him; we ought to beware of claiming to contain him in a particular image, because that is sure to be our own image.

My blog will place Jesus within 1st century Palestine where Rome ruled, Jews were often bitterly divided about how to survive under Rome, and most of the people were poor and oppressed. I will invite readers to ponder Jesus’ very complexity. Indeed, he seems to love everyone and to take “pot shots” at everyone: priests, pharisees, essenes, zealots, villagers, the disciples themselves. This blog is written for all who are interested in wrestling with Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?”

Everyone Comes from Somewhere

Dusk over Sear of Galilee from Pictorial Library of Bible Lands

Dusk over Sear of Galilee from Pictorial Library of Bible Lands

I was part of two worlds, and belonged to neither. My connection with Christianity was largely cultural – sang carols at school, there were nativity scenes outside the courthouse of our Baltimore suburb, and our family celebrated Christmas. We had a tree and presents and one year my mother even carved a manger out of soap. She was English, had happy memories of Christmas and wanted me to have those too – minus the church part. “I am an ethical Christian”, she said, meaning she tried to follow the teachings of Jesus but not any organized religion.

My Jewish father participated in our family’s Christmas celebration by serving as the critical observer of the annual tree decorating ritual, enjoying the feast with its Christmas pudding, and of course opening presents Christmas morning. He even sang “O Holy Night” on Christmas Eve – he had a beautiful baritone voice – and followed this by wondering out loud “why am I singing a Christmas carol?”

My connection with Judaism was strong, but almost exclusively an identification with a suffering people. My parents came to America in 1932, when Hitler was already coming into power. The opportunity to immigrate saved their lives.Most of my parents’ friends were refugees, either Jews or gentiles married to Jews. They all had their stories. They had left family, country, the scenes of their youth, and, in some ways, their careers. They all had their stories of loss: the lives they had imagined and built were gone; families, friends, and sometimes even their own children were dead. In most cases they didn’t know how or exactly when or where loved ones had died. In some cases they had watched, helpless.
My family never went to a synagogue, we did not celebrate Jewish holidays and the family even ate pork. We didn’t go to fabulous weddings where bride and groom were lifted up on chairs and all the people danced. As a young child, to be a Jew meant being connected to a people with strange speech and strange, haunted eyes. It meant knowing a “man of sorrows”, a woman grieving dead children. And it meant not walking away. I knew even then that faced with great human pain, the most important thing we can do is not walk away.

This was my beginning. We all come from somewhere; start somewhere – a place, a people, a paradigm – and then our journey moves forward and becomes our own.
Jesus also came from somewhere. He lived during a particular time and place- 1st century place – Palestine. There was Galilee in the north and Judea in the south. Jews were under the domination of the Roman Empire. Most of the population was trapped in poverty. The Temple – the center of Judaism – was run by priests appointed by and serving Rome. The people were very divided amongst themselves – as always happens when people struggle to survive under an oppressive regime.
This was not the world of the Old Testament and certainly not the world of contemporary Judaism. It was the particular world of Jesus and of those who heard and watched him. Knowing about his world matters when we ponder his question:

“Who do you say that I am?”

Questions in the Heart of a Child

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It all started when I was 5 years old. I was invited to a church picnic – and raced home on my tricycle with the news! This  would be almost like going to church, which I never got to do.  Every Sunday I played alone. I felt funny and different in a bad way on Sundays and on any day when people asked me what religion I was. I wasn’t anything. Maybe going to the church picnic would make it different.

I never knew how my mother found out the bad news about that picnic.  I only know that just before the big day she told me she was so sorry, but I couldn’t go. “It’s going to be at a swimming pool which is ‘restricted”, she explained. “Restricted’ means your father isn’t allowed there because he is Jewish.” I knew my father was Jewish and my mother used to go to a Methodist Church – when she was little.  I didn’t know what any of this had to do with the picnic or with me. “We never go anywhere your father isn’t wanted”, my mother explained.

 “Why don’t they like him?.” My heart was broken and I didn’t understand. Hadn’t I been invited? If they didn’t want my father did that mean they didn’t want me? I didn’t have words for all my questions. It was years before I grasped the terrible irony that all too many worshipers of Jesus had been taught to hate, exclude and even kill relatives of that very same Jesus. 

As a five year old, what I did understand was that I loved my father and I wouldn’t go to a place where they didn’t like him.  I was very sad but I would be brave.

That happened in Baltimore during World War II. My book I am writing was conceived on that day, in the heart of a five year old.