Stuff from Way Back #24: Jesus, Jews and Romans

Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus, falls of course on December 25, but this is simply a tradition, inasmuch as no one has the vaguest idea on what day of the year he actually first saw the light – or in exactly what year for that matter. From the meager evidence in the New Testament the year of his birth most likely fell in the period 6 to 4 BC. Dionysius Exiguus was apparently the first to date from the birth of Christ in 525, though the practice did not become widespread until the eighth century. The Romans traditionally dated from the presumed founding of the city (753 BC in our system), while the Greeks dated in four year Olympiads from the presumed first Olympic games (776 BC), and it may be that confusion with the latter resulted in a four year error. So it is currently between 2017 and 2019.

Sol Invictus on a date

Sol Invictus on a date

The birth date in December might be calculated as nine months from the spring equinox, when Jesus was believed to have been conceived, but there is no way to confirm the date of conception. Astronomy does not help since the star of Bethlehem, like the three kings, was clearly later added, in this case to fulfill a prophecy. More likely the December date was determined by two Roman holidays, the Saturnalia and celebration of Sol Invictus, both of which occurred around the winter solstice. Placing the birth at this time would provide Christians with an alternative to the pagan holidays, especially as a contrast to the celebration of the birth of the “unconquered sun god.” This latter idea dates back to a 12th century bishop but is challenged by many scholars. If he was born in December, it would have been mighty cold in that manger.

 
Despite the fact that all our knowledge of Jesus comes from the New Testament and sources derived from it, there is little question that he actually existed. It is simply impossible to believe that the religion could possibly have the impact and ultimate success it enjoyed were it all based on an elaborate hoax. On the other hand, we can be certain of very little of his life: he was an immensely charismatic and successful preacher, probably in the Galilee, almost certainly challenged the authority of the Temple and priesthood and was executed as a criminal. All other details of his life preserved in the Christian testament are at the very best suspicious and in most cases clearly false, added by his disciples and later writers to enhance the story. Religion works like that.

 

Jesus as Sol Invictus

Jesus as Sol Invictus

the Aryan Jesus

the Aryan Jesus

Regarding Christmas, for example, the Roman census for taxation was based on residence, not place of birth, which would be an incredibly stupid way to do it. Jesus’ birthplace was probably Nazareth in the Galilee, where his ministry was, certainly not in Bethlehem, which as the birthplace of David (whose own existence is now doubted) conveniently fulfills a number of Hebrew prophecies. The value of associating Jesus with predictions in Hebrew sacred writings regarding the coming of the messiah/king is obvious, since such supports his status as the chosen of the one god, the anointed one. In the gospels he enters Jerusalem seated on an ass, exactly as had been prophesied in Zechariah.

 
Jesus follows a pattern typical of the Hebrew prophets. Communing with god, the man realizes the corruption of the ancestral religion by the authority in the state, the king and/or priests (the fusion of secular and religious authority is a commonplace), and challenges it. He usually comes to a sad end but is remembered as a holy man and an agent of god. The difference in the case of Jesus is that this sad end will become part of the core belief of an entirely new religion, one which will bring a new understanding of the one god. That core belief, incidentally, the death and resurrection that serves as a beacon of hope for man, derives to a great degree from the Greek mystery cult. Christianity might in fact be considered something of a product of the encounter of Judaism and Hellenism.
We of course will never know, but it seems highly unlikely that Jesus believed himself to be the son of god. He was after all a Jew, and the rigorous monotheism of his inherited religion would not likely allow him to consider a divisible deity, a Yahweh with offspring, or for that matter the triune god of the religion he gave birth to. He might in his last years, swayed by the adoring crowds, have thought himself the promised messiah, the man sent by god, but it is difficult to believe that even on the cross he thought himself actually divine.

 
Jesus died because he was in the eyes of the priesthood a heretic and thus a threat to the established order and their authority. In the same way more than a millennium later the Church felt compelled to take action to suppress the Albigensian and Waldensian heresies not just because they were an affront to god but also a challenge to the authority of the Church. The story of Jesus scourging the moneychangers in the Temple is a vivid demonstration of his challenge.
In the interest of ecumenical harmony the Catholic Church has in the last century declared that the Romans and not the Jews were responsible for the death of the Christ, there of course being no advocacy group for the Romans. The Roman procurator of Judea did in fact have to sign off on the execution and was thus complicit, but his motivations would have nothing to do with the religious mission of Jesus. While the Romans found the exclusiveness of Hebrew monotheism offensive, imperial provincial policy was generally tolerant of local customs, so long as the taxes were paid and order was maintained; the Druids were a focal point of Gallic nationalism and resistance to Rome and thus had to go.

 
The issue in Judea was maintaining order. The priesthood was telling Pilate that with his growing mobs of followers and more important, his threat to the established Jewish authority Jesus was leading the province into disorder. The empire was maintained by alliances with the local elites, who with Roman support actually governed at the grassroots level. Pilate would certainly have been more than willing to sacrifice a seeming rabble-rousing preacher in order to placate the real power in Judea. And if indeed the crowds began calling Jesus “King of the Jews,” the procurator’s attention would certainly be caught, since that sounded like a nationalist movement and a direct threat to Roman rule.

 
So Jesus died, and for two millennia the Jews were blamed, further stoking the flames of anti-Semitism in Europe. What was forgotten was that he had to die. That was the whole point of his stay on earth, to die and be resurrected, to carry away the sins of man and provide hope for rebirth. As Bobby Zimmerman astutely observed: “Even Judas Iscariot had god on his side.”

 
A final element in the story, Paul. Were it not for Saul of Tarsus, the new religion would certainly have died, just another Jewish heresy. Stripping the new beliefs of their encrustation of Jewish ritual practices, he made Christianity palatable for the gentile world, and the easy movement of people and ideas facilitated by the Roman Empire allowed it to spread across the Mediterranean and European world. Paul was, after Jesus himself, far and away the most important figure in the history of Christianity.

photo of the conversion of Saul

photo of the conversion of Saul

Whatever one thinks of the historicity of his life, the message of the Galilean preacher is a good one, urging humans to eschew anger and violence and treat one another with compassion.  Unfortunately, it seems the inevitable fate of a successful ideology is to betray its principles, and Christianity triumphant would become an instrument of intolerance and violence and bring centuries of suffering to the human race.  Nevertheless, Jesus had given the ancient god of the Hebrews now a smiling face.  And Mohammed would wipe off that smile and resurrect the Lord of Hosts.

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Stuff from Way Back #23: Seleucids, Jews and the Birth of Hanukkah

The historian got a bit carried away on this one.)

 

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, began on November 27. Until the 19th century Hanukkah was a relatively minor holiday on the Jewish calendar, nowhere near as important as Passover and Purim, but this began to change rapidly with the growing emphasis on Christmas in the same century. The movement began in Germany, where Jews were more assimilated and secure than in Eastern Europe, when Jewish families began displaying Christmas trees, though usually not referring to them as such. The dates of Jewish religious holidays are determined by a lunisolar calendar, which means that Hanukkah, which begins on the 25th of Kislev, may fall anywhere from late November to late December. This dating consequently helped facilitate the association with Christmas.

 

Further connecting the two celebrations is the tradition of gift-giving. In Christianity the practice probably derives from the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, which occurred around the winter solstice (probably why the feast of Christmas was placed at that time) and included a day of gift-giving. The tradition also has Biblical support in the gifts presented to the infant Jesus by the three wise men. In Judaism the custom dates back to 17th century Poland, where children were given small amounts of money (Hanukkah gelt) to present to their yeshiva teachers. Hanukkah could thus serve as a kind of alternate Christmas, when Jewish children could receive gifts like their gentile friends.

 

Because of these factors, as Christmas became an ever more important holiday, supplanting Easter, the importance of Hanukkah also grew. In the 20th century Christmas was rapidly commercialized in the United States, as business realized the profit potential of the holiday, and American marketing ultimately turned it into the major retail occasion of the year, vital to the American economy. So lucrative has it become that countries with only tiny Christian populations are now celebrating it as a major holiday. With its far smaller consumer base Hanukkah has lagged in this development, but by the 21th century it is every bit as commercialized as Christmas.

 

The Hanukkah celebration lasts for eight days and nights, during which period a nine branched candelabrum, the Menorah, is used to mark the passage of the nights. The ninth candle is actually not part of the ritual apparatus but originally served as a simple source of light. The eight candles are at the core of the holiday, since they reflect the miracle that gave rise to the festival. And that miracle is way back.

 

Judea, the southern Jewish state, fell under Greek control with the dismantling of the Persian empire by Alexander, and after his death in 323 BC it ultimately became part of the Ptolemaic empire. It remained under Ptolemaic control until 200 BC, when the weakness of the Ptolemaic state allowed Antiochus III, ruler of the vast Seleucid empire to the north and east, to seize all of Palestine. This exchange of Greek masters probably had little effect on the Jews beyond elevating the pro-Seleucid faction in the aristocracy and priesthood over the pro-Ptolemaic. The tiny Jewish state was, however, of particular concern to its new ruler inasmuch as it was near the frontier between the two kingdoms and covered the main road between Syria and Egypt.

The Seleucid Empire

The Seleucid Empire

The Greek policy towards the Jews was one of tolerance, an important facet of their increasingly cosmopolitan culture. Greek polytheism, like virtually all religions outside the Abrahamic tradition (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), had no impulse to holy war and could easily accept new gods, which were frequently identified with their own. Greek philosophy, which had been steadily moving away from the old Olympic deities towards more abstract conceptions of god, could in fact see something positive in the invisible, non-mythic god of the Jews, though many of the traditional practices of the Temple were considered barbaric superstition. Many polytheists found the aggressive exclusiveness of the monotheists to be offensive, but the Greek rulers, like the Romans later, had no problem so long as order was kept and the taxes were paid.

 

There was, however, a potential problem lurking in the confrontation of Hellenic (Greek) and Hebrew culture. Not only was Hellenization an important tool in the attempt to unify the Greek empires, but many of the economic and political elites in the non-Greek cities were inclined to go Greek, whether to gain advantage or because Greek civilization was simply more sophisticated and attractive. This had an impact even upon the traditionally aloof monotheists, many of whom saw this as a natural development of their religion, that is, maintaining Yahweh but forgoing the ritual and cultic practices. Moreover, since the Greeks accepted the notion of divine inspiration the Torah and the Law would still have a place.

 

The Hellenizing Jews of course stirred a reaction from the traditionalists, who saw their ancestral religion being assaulted and certainly resented such outrages as Greek gymnasia and nude exercise in the holy city of Jerusalem. Further, a candidate for the office of High Priest required the approval of the Seleucid monarch, which inevitably led to political intrigue and corruption. These problems were exacerbated by the existence of the pro-Seleucid and pro-Ptolemaic factions and the constant squabbling of two powerful Jewish families, the Hellenizing Tobiads and conservative Oniads. These conflicts would lead to the emergence of an independent Judea.

 

The sequence of events that preceded the Maccabean revolt is a hotly debated topic, but the following account, while not absolutely certain, is one that makes excellent sense of the information presented in the ancient sources.

 

The 170s BC saw increasing strife over the position of High Priest, during which conflict the Seleucid government played no real role. Matters came to a head in 169 BC, when Antiochus IV invaded weakling Egypt. On the way back north he visited Jerusalem, and always in need of money, while there he looted some of the gold and silver in the Temple, outraging Jews more by his entry into the Holy of Holies than by the theft. This obviously increased the tensions and aided the anti-Hellenizers, but the affair might have passed were it not for developments in Egypt.

 

The Second Temple?

The Second Temple?

Antiochus IV Epiphanes (and friend)

Antiochus IV Epiphanes (and friend)

In 169 BC Antiochus had left Egypt paralyzed by leaving behind two rival claimants to the Ptolemaic throne, one in Memphis and one in Alexandria. But during the winter the rivals reconciled and agreed to rule jointly, causing Antiochus to return in the spring of 168 BC. While he was there, a rumor of his death led the anti-Hellenizers to see Egypt as their savior, and a group led by the deposed High Priest Jason attempted to seize control of Jerusalem. They failed to take the citadel, where the current High Priest, Menelaus, had taken refuge with the Seleucid garrison, but they controlled the rest of the city, and the affair had ignited a virtual civil war among the Jews.

 

Meanwhile, in Egypt Antiochus had been thwarted from ending the Ptolemaic dynasty and compelled to leave Egypt by the Romans (see Stuff from Way Back #10: A Circle in the Sand), making Jerusalem all that more important to his defenses. With Jerusalem in open revolt Antiochus had little choice but to capture the city, free Menelaus and punish the rebels. When he left, the rebels reappeared and captured the city once again, and the king sent his minister Apollonius to crush the revolt and settle veterans in the city, enhancing its character as a gentile and Greek city. The “Macedonian” veterans were Syrians, who promptly established their own shrines and cultic practices on the Temple hill, and Jews felt that their traditional religion was threatened with extinction. Most fled the city and spread the fire of revolt across Judea. Playing an instrumental role in the rebellion were the Hasidim, the scribes and interpreters of the Law, whose livelihood was threatened along with their religion.

 

The revolt was perceived by Antiochus as essentially a political act, compromising the security of his kingdom, but it certainly had a religious content, especially with the leadership of the Hasidim. Antiochus consequently targeted the religion, not because he objected to the faith per se and wanted a holy war – such was a virtual impossibility for a Greek monarch – but because the religion was an integral part of a movement that threatened the state. The result in late 167 BC was the prohibition of traditional practices, such as circumcision (always despised by the Greeks as an assault on the body) and honoring the stipulations of the Law, and the notorious “abomination of desolation,” the establishment of a cult of Zeus Olympios in the Temple. Destroy the religion, the barbara superstitio, and thus destroy the rebellion.

 

But the religion was not destroyed. Rather, Seleucid rule in Judea was. In 166/5 BC scattered opposition to the decrees coalesced into an organized revolt under the leadership of the five brothers of the Hasmonean house, particularly Judas, called Maccabeus. Fortunately for the rebels, the Seleucid empire was in decline and with troubles elsewhere could not spare adequate forces for Judea, and in 164 BC peace was bought by rescinding the offensive decrees. Judas ordered the cleansing of the Temple, and in the process it was discovered that there was only enough purified oil to burn in the Temple for one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight nights, which was long enough for more purified oil to be produced. And thus the festival of Hanukkah was born.

 

Potatohead Maccabeus

Potatohead Maccabeus

Judas Maccabeus

Judas Maccabeus

The truce did not last, and more warfare resulted, ending with the defeat and death of Judas in 160 BC. Seleucid rule in Judea was seemingly restored, but in 150 BC a civil war erupted in the empire, allowing the Hasmoneans to reassert their independence and ultimately extend their power north into the former state of Israel and south to the Egyptian frontier. The Jewish kingdom lasted almost a century. In 64 BC Pompey the Great ended the Seleucid empire, which by then was limited to the city of Antioch, and when in the following year the king of Judea reneged on a deal with Rome, he captured Jerusalem. Judea became a Roman dependency and ultimately a province.

 

One might wonder what might have developed had there been no troubles with Antiochus and thus no desecration and Jewish revolt. The success of the Hasmoneans marked the resurgence of the traditional form of Judaism, and without it the Hellenization of the Jews might well have ultimately resulted in the disappearance of the old religion. And the world would have been spared Christianity and Islam.

An Evangelical Christmas (for Bachmann, Perry, Santorum and their Desert Shepherd God)

SET: fairly stark living room; a fireplace, an end table with a nativity crèche and Bible; on the wall a light switch, a cross, a standard tacky American Protestant portrait of Jesus and some framed homily like “God Bless This Home.”  Initially dimly lit (enough to make out characters) by a night light.

CHARACTERS:

SANTA CLAUS in traditional garb with sack

REVEREND in pajamas and robe

 

 

(Enter SANTA through fireplace with some difficulty and obvious effort; looks around in some confusion)

SANTA   This is the right address, isn’t it?  Now, where’s my book?  (searching about himself)

(Enter REVEREND with shotgun from side; takes up position near table facing SANTA)

REVEREND   (fumbling for light switch) Hands up or I’ll shoot!  What are you doing in my house?  Stealing?

SANTA   (putting up his hands in mock alarm)  Stealing?!  Ho, ho, ho.  Quite the opposite, good man, quite the opposite.  But where’s your Christmas tree?

REVEREND   Tree?!  Pagan rites and blasphemy!  (finally finds the switch and turns on the light; surprised, he drops the gun and picks up the Bible)  You!  Spawn of Satan!

SANTA   (lowering his arms)  Well, spawn of Mr. and Mrs. Johann Claus actually.

REVEREND   Do not try to ensnare me with your lies, Evil One.  Get thee behind me!

(SANTA starts to move around REVEREND to get behind him, but stops when REVEREND holds the Bible out before him)

REVEREND   Stop!  You are helpless before the Holy Writ, and Jesus resists you as effortlessly as he did by the waters of Galilee.  The signs of evil are manifest to the eyes of the righteous.

SANTA   The signs?

REVEREND   Do not play the innocent with me.  Do you not wear the suit of scarlet, the color of the Devil, the hue of revolution, communism and godlessness, the evil red of spilled blood and violence?

SANTA   (looking at himself)  I always thought it was merry.

REVEREND   Do you not possess the bloated body of the glutton?  Are you not a helpless slave of the flesh?

SANTA   (patting his belly and chuckling)  Perhaps I do carry a few extra pounds, but it’s come to be part of the image – “shakes like a bowlful of jelly” and all that.  And the table set by Mrs. Claus.

REVEREND   Bride of evil!  Whore of Babylon!

SANTA   Now wait a minute.  Mrs. Claus has never even been to the Middle East, and…

REVEREND   Of course she never leaves your vile palace.  She is the concubine of the Devil, barren and loathing the company of good women.  She shuns the light…like you, whom no man has seen abroad in the bright sun of the day.

SANTA   Well, it’s true that I work at night, and in any case it’s usually too cold at the North Pole for me and the missus to want to go out.

REVEREND   (contemptuously)  North Pole, you say?  In truth it is Hell wherein you dwell, the frozen waste that is devoid of light and warmth, that is the lowest circle of perdition.  Even heathens, deprived of the Word, have recognized Hell for what it is, a darkling plain of ice and cold and hopelessness.  And there you rule, served by your demons.

SANTA   (taking a seat on his bag and pulling out a traditional long white clay pipe)  Demons, you say?

REVEREND   Your evil minions.  Your elves.  The stunted misshapen creatures you have fabricated to toil in your workshops of greed and temptation.  (he strikes a match to light his pipe)

REVEREND   (holding up his arms)  In the name of Jesus, I command you to stop!

SANTA   Oops, sorry.  (he puts out the match)  I forgot I was in the United States.

REVEREND   You’ll not frighten those of God with your fire and brimstone, Sandy Claws.

SANTA   That’s Claus, Santa Claus.  Or old St. Nick, if you will.

REVEREND   (even more animated)  Behold, before the righteous he cannot but reveal his true name – Old Nick!  You are indeed the Beast, the Evil One who seeks to set his claws in the innocent and to corrupt, especially the children.

SANTA   I bring gifts to the children…

REVEREND   You fly through the night with your enchanted animals, sneaking into the houses of Christian folk and tempting our children to sin with the toys created by your demons.

SANTA   Not at all.  I judge who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, and then I…

REVEREND   (pointing at SANTA, triumphant)  You admit it then, you are the fallen angel!  You usurp the power of God, the power to decide good and evil!  You dare to judge peoples’ lives, to approve and condemn our deeds, a power that is God’s alone…  (he is interrupted by a stomping sound from the roof)

SANTA   (looking up)  Hold your water, Blitzen.  (rises and looks at REVEREND, speaking patiently)  It appears that you have never recognized the true spirit of Christmas.

REVEREND   (almost raving)  Christmas!  What blasphemy!  Celebrating the birth of the Savior with Mammon, with trees and logs and mistletoe, with greed and gluttony.  What have these to do with the Christ?  Sweet Jesus, the heathen Japanese even practice your foul rites.

SANTA   (gently)  Let me give you a gift.  (he pulls a toy train out of his bag)

REVEREND   (with a bitter laugh, but his eyes are riveted on the train)  You seek to tempt me with a child’s plaything?!  A toy made by demons?

SANTA   Oh, it’s the perfect present for you.

REVEREND   (his voice and demeanor are becoming softer, hesitation and doubt become apparent)  But I am become a man clothed in righteousness and serve the Lord.  I…I need no such silly amusements.  I have long ago put aside childish ways.

SANTA   Maybe that’s the problem.  (extending the train to Reverend, who follows it with his eyes and begins to reach for it)  Go ahead.  Take it.  It’s for you.

(REVEREND hesitates, looking sheepish and beginning to grin; with wide eyes and a big smile he finally, quickly snatches the train and goes down on his knees to play with it on the floor, making appropriate noises)

SANTA (watches for moment, smiling) Merry Christmas, then.

(SANTA picks up his bag and turns toward the fireplace, sizes it up, muttering, then turns back to REVEREND, who is completely absorbed in his playing)

SANTA   Hey, sonny, where’s the front door?

(not even looking up, REVEREND points off stage and SANTA exits; fade to black)