Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Biggest Beefsteak Of My Life: Where's the Context, Dude?

First of all, History Fans, let me apologize for the overly religious posts. But as many of you know, when you start digging far enough, you can't meet history without the taint of religion. For better or for worse, and I'm leaning towards the worse, the skills we take for granted like reading and writing were at one time almost solely channeled through the Christian Church. And church is where we must start.

When I was a child, one of my biggest gripes was waking up and going to church on Sunday morning. Church wasn't so bad, but waking up on a weekend was, to me, an atrocity. As I grew older and became more aware of the teachings of the church, my list of gripes grew much longer. But one thing has bothered me from both a student of history and a student of literature: the lack of historical context in the Bible.

Now, I know this is a slippery slope. I'm guessing the narrators and writers of all those books took for granted that we would be familiar with the Philistines and the land of Canaan. From the other side, imagine how many less people would go to church if the pastor had maps and genealogical time lines on his power point instead of bettering life lessons. Some publishing companies have tried to patch up the problem by providing a study bible that has maps and little tidbits of historical information, like what types of food the Israelites would eat.

As I was reading today, something came to light that I've probably always known but had never really grasped. There was, in fact, a world full of people outside of the accounts we have in the Old Testament. Growing up in the church, there didn't seem to be any need to know where in the history of the world these stories fell. But as an adolescent and now an adult, it becomes appallingly clear that no context of any sort was ever taught or provided by the institution of the church. My Christian university DID provide me with an Old Testament class my freshman year. But I was a freshman and it was at 8:00 in the morning so I mostly slept. Give me a break!

Anyway, my goal is not to throw a fit and wail about how poorly the Church is run (I've already been up and down that road). I just wanted to impress upon these readers how strange it is to read from an objective and scholarly point of view the things that were occurring in the bible within the scope of the wider world. In this case, I have been reading a little bit on the Templars. Now before you discard me as a Dan Brown conspiracy-theory-loving fool, at least take in the first few chapters that set up the history of the Templars before you write off it all of as embellished history.

The first thing that stood out was an outsider's perspective on why initially people had a problem with Jews. It wasn't an ethnic thing at all. It was a an exclusive group of people who saw themselves as not only set apart and superior but they were God's chosen people! No wonder people got frustrated with them! Now that's not an excuse for the tragedies that have befallen them over the thousands of years they've been persecuted, not to mention that whopper that popped up in the 20th century. But I think it's a fair assessment of why people took offense to the Jews. They set themselves apart and that drove people crazy.

But it wasn't just their exclusive religion that seemed like an invitation for hatred. They sat and continue to sit in a geographical hotbed of controversy. God promised Abraham some land, so they wandered on up and took some land. After some famines, they went to Egypt where they were subsequently enslaved. Moses got them out of that mess and took them back to the promised land. . .where people were living. So they conquered their one-time homeland and brought back their nation. Again, that's history. I don't feel any more sympathy towards the original Britons who got run over by the Anglos and Saxons than I do towards the Canaanites or whoever was living in Palestine at the time. It's their bizarre inner squabbles that lead right up to the time of Christ that are unbearable. During that time they were conquered by many different nations and every time they fought back and got their land back. Until the dreaded Roman Empire.

The Jewish relationship with the Roman Empire was extremely interesting and just as fragile. After a couple of rebellions and probably a whole lot of whining, Jews were giving some type of autonomy. While they were still under Roman rule, they could still operate relatively freely within the confines of their own boundaries and religion. But there were many who were dissatisfied with this relationship. Understandable. The story with every empire is unhappy countries and states who want their freedom. But I'm not sure there has been a ruling entity in history who tried to accommodate as much as the Roman Empire tried with the Jewish nation.

The emperor sent a handful of people over to Judea to try and watch over these unruly people. And let me clarify that by no means am I slamming the Jewish people or calling them names. But there were many factions within the Jewish faith that either could not get along or refused point blank to be ruled by a pagan leader. We might call them feisty and congratulate them for standing up for themselves. But the reality is that they knew they were God's chosen people and they'd rather fight and die than be ruled by pagans. This disposition would have disastrous consequences in the years to come. But for the meantime, the empire sent the wonderfully entertaining King Herod.

Herod, who was of Jewish faith but not nationality, was first governor of Galilee and later King of Judea (under the Roman thumb). At first, he was the most successful at hushing up the cranky Pharisees and other angry Jewish factions. He rebuilt Solomon's temple, which was one of the most incredible architectural achievements at the time. But Herod grew paranoid. And with good reason. His father and brother were both killed. He began suspecting everyone of conspiracies, from the Caesar down to his own sons. He killed his wife and a son in a bizarre maniac plot, and from there went down a violent road that led to his being remembered not as the peaceful architect but as complete maniac, which is what the Bible suggests.

After Herod's death, his heirs found that they did not have quite the strength or shrewdness that Herod possessed and therefore could not quell the rebellion that had been boiling underneath his reign. The Jews refused to pledge allegiance to the pagan Roman Empire and took to arms, taking a few strongholds that Herod himself had built. Emperor Nero had had enough. Without a middle man like Herod to soften the imperial blows, the Jews were left exposed. They fought fiercely when Titus showed up to take back Jerusalem and the surrounding cities that had rebelled. Every stronghold was taken except the magnificent temple. It held so well that eventually Titus set the temple on fire and burned every man, woman, and child who was left inside.

The burning of the temple happened decades before the rise of Jesus, and I'm just now learning about this. Maybe it was in the Bible and I just missed it. Or maybe I cheated in my Read-The-Bible-In-One-Year challenge and totally skipped whatever book talked about this particular atrocity. Why does this crime against the Jews interest me so much? Because I feel like it really sets the stage for the story of Jesus. The relationship between Rome and Israel was strained at best. After the burning of the temple, both sides resented the other even more, though the Jews probably had more of a reason to be angry. When you take into account what the Jewish nation went through, especially during that last rebellion, the promise of a king and deliverer could not be more enticing. The Romans had really done it this time. And as soon as their king and savior was born, they would throw off the the shackles of Roman oppression and finally live at peace. Rome, on the other hand, was fed up with all this squabbling down in Israel. From then on, they were going to treat these religious outbursts with indifference or with extreme brutality. Both reactions were important to the foundation of Jesus of Nazareth's new religion, but it was the latter that allowed Christianity to take hold.

When Jesus finally poked his head out in public and announced that he was the promised Messiah, you can imagine how disappointed the Jews were. "Really?" they must have thought. "We wanted a strong warrior who would fight our way out of the Empire and all we got was this pacifist lunatic." Or something close to that. Of course this wasn't the Messiah we were all looking for. Therefore he is a heretic and should be put to death. When brought up to Pontius Pilate, a governor for Rome, he famously said, "I wash my hands of this." I've heard a lot of condemnation of Pilate for his non-action. But I believe that those events that ended in the burning of the temple was the final straw for the Jews as well as for Rome. I really think their reaction, no matter how honorable the governor could have been, would be the same: figure it out for yourself.

 We all know the rest of the story. Jesus was crucified, came back to life, a new religion was born. But I thought the author's description of how Christianity was initially received was eerily perfect. Just as the outside word was annoyed with the Jewish faith for setting themselves apart, they were even more frustrated with the Christian faith. At least with the Jews, they only caused problems in their homeland. After Paul of Tarsus decided that anyone could be a Christian, people all over the map were causing problems and ready to be martyred for their beliefs. I just think it's very interesting that Christianity would start as a thorn in people's side, the same was Judaism began. And I think this is the beginning of Christians refusing to look into history and learn one god-damn thing.


Boy, I whiffed on this one! The temple did not burn until 70 AD, decades AFTER Jesus Christ was crucified, which pretty much botches my theory above. However! I think you can make the same case with the two incidents swapped. Jesus arrives on scene, starts show-boating around, walking on water, throwing fits in the temple, and just being an all around menace. The Jews cause yet another uproar, appealing to Rome to condemn him. And Pilate washes his hands and says "Figure it out, you whiny diaper babies!" And so Jesus is crucified. And after all the squabbles over the years, and after The King of the Jews is put down, the Jewish zealots really cross the line and take the strong-holds. This time it is a military move. This time, it is personal. Rome throws the hammer down, burns down the temple, and decides that from now on, we're going to keep a closer eye on these religious nuts. And as Christianity rises, the empire tries to smother it because they are really sick of the Jewish people bothering them, and this new passion seems even worse.
Maybe? I'm probably just trying to save face after I got my events in the wrong order.
Shame on me, History Fans. I'm going to bury my nose in a book and try to learn a couple god-damn things!


Scott David said...

Dude. I thought your last line was a segue into a tantalizingly audacious scholarly rant. It totally left me hanging. :-(

Also, which Herod?

Patrick Eckhardt said...

NT Wright basically offers what you're asking for--Church with context. He does a really good job of understanding the sociopolitical factors at play. I've only read one of his books (Simply Jesus) but it really is just that--responsibly and contextually reading the gospels to understand what the life of Christ meant at the time, and thus what the recordings of it mean today.

Also if you want more information on the fall of Jerusalem and razing of the Temple, Josephus recorded is in the Jewish Wars. I forget which volume, but I'm sure you can find it pretty easily...the accounts are harrowing. Josephus certainly has a pro-Rome slant (the victors write the books) but offers some of the best extra-Biblical historical sourcing for the early church era.

Patrick Eckhardt said...

Scott - has to be Herod the Great, he's the one who rebuilt/expanded the Second Temple.

Two others ruled (Herod Archelus didn't last long, Herod Antipas is the one who beheaded John the Baptist...John was killed for speaking against the marriage of Herod Antipas, Herod the Great's son, and Herodias, Herod the Great's granddaughter and Antipas' brother's wife. Antipas' brother was Herod Philip I. Confusing lineage.)

Patrick Eckhardt said...

By the way (I get really into this stuff, I love the historical/sociological/political/theological context of the Bible. I include all of those because they are so incredibly tied together in Israel's national identity, you really can't separate and study any one thread of study without touching the others), the coming destruction of the Temple, about 40 years after Christ's death, is what most people believe Jesus is referring to in Luke 19:41-44; he weeps during "Palm Sunday" and prophecies that "your enemies...will not leave one stone on another." When Rome destroyed the Temple, they literally tore the entire thing to the ground. The only part that remains today is a wall that was then subterranean.

Coming destruction doesn't really fit the Palm Sunday narrative the modern Church tends to tell, so that doesn't get taught. Which is too bad. Not only is it theologically essential, from a literary standpoint it's an incredibly compelling juxtaposition. The people are celebrating a man whose death, in just a few days, they will demand--while he weeps for their death that they can't see coming.

Luke has some quirks but he really is an incredible writer.

History Books said...

Thanks for your input, Pat! (Also, miss you big time). I had a long talk with the Sullivans about the lack of Church history taught in the Evangelical traditions, which is probably why I'm so impressed by the things I'm reading. And also how poorly the Old Testament is read and studied by believers who demand modern-day truths to affect their lives when it should be read like any ancient text with historical, geographical, cultural context to understand and appreciate where this religion came from. And after that is established, then look for the life lessons.