Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Pax Romana - NOT!

Most history books list the years from 27 B.C. to 180 A.D., which is from the time that Augustus Octavian took power until the time that Marcus Aurelius died, as the "Pax Romana" - "the Roman peace".

In reality, this was an era filled with nearly constant military action. The empire was defending itself against attempted foreign invasions, and also against domestic uprisings in various provinces and annexed territories. Marcus Aurelius himself spent most of his career, not in Rome, but fighting in Europe with the army.

Perhaps the reason that this violent and war-torn era was named "the Roman peace" was because it was a time when, in terms of domestic politics, the authority and the power of the emperor remained relatively unchallenged. For nearly a century, prior to 27 B.C., the Roman world had been savaged by a vicious civil war. Only in comparison with this bloody power struggle of Roman against Roman could the later era be seen as peaceful.

If not a time of "peace," it could perhaps at least be described as an era of domestic political stability.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Who Killed Jesus?

For the last two thousand years, historians have discussed the death of Jesus. All agree that it is historically an important event, shaping culture for millenia aftward; but who is responsible for this murder? This question is somewhat controversial, and has even been considered by some people to lead to anti-Semitism.

We'll present four interpretive options:

First, we can see the Roman occupational forces as responsible for the death of Jesus. He was, after all, crucified by Roman soldiers, under the supervision of a Roman governor; the records of the event say that Pontius Pilate "turned him over to be crucified." Pilate and his soldiers can be seen as the killers.

Second, we can see Jesus as a victim of class warfare. The majority of ordinary Jews were tyrranized by the upper-class Jewish elite. Jesus represented a threat to the power of this aristocracy, teaching that an ordinary Jew could worship, study, and pray in his hometown synagogue, and did not need to make piligrimages to Jerusalem's Temple. This directly threatened both the economic and spiritual hegemony of the Jersualem power class. The hotel and restaurant industry in Jerusalem, a huge source of income with the thousands of pilgrims coming to the city, would evaporate overnight if a religious leader told them that they could stay home and worship in the neighborhood synagogue; the religious leaders in the Temple would likewise lose their status as the top-most layer of the spiritual hierarchy. It was these leaders who demanded that Jesus be crucified, in order to ensure their continued dominance over the majority of ordinary Jews.

Third, Jesus can be seen as a victim of human nature. The literary critic Rene Girard points out the societal pattern of finding scapegoats; Jesus made a convenient sacrifice for the political tensions of the moment.

Finally, Jesus may bear some responsibility - given a chance to offer a defense, Jesus declines to speak, virtually guaranteeing a death sentence. Under this interpretation, it might seem that Jesus manipulated events toward an outcome that one would normally strive to avoid.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Archeology and History

Archeologists are constantly digging up artifacts which interact with our historical narratives. These objects, by themselves, give us little information, and can, in fact, mislead us toward false conclusions about events and people. Taken in the context of text, they can, however, deepen our knowledge of what has happened and who did it.

("Archaeology" can be spelled with or without the second "a"!)

A recent example: in that highly disputed bit of land called "Israel", "Palastine", "Judea", or "the Levant", a team of archaeologists has recently discovered the earliest verified Christian church in Israel. It dates to the early 200's, and is located in the Valley of Armageddon, north of Jerusalem. Mosaics and inscriptions identified the site.

Questions quickly come to mind - why would oldest remaining Christian church in Palastine date from the early 200's, when we know that large numbers of Christians were there as early as 35 A.D.? Why are the Christian churches in other parts of the world so much older?

Texts give us the answer: during the first decades of Christianity, the followers of Jesus met in synagogues and in the Jersusalem Temple, because they were still viewed, at that time, as Jews. Yes, the early Christians were simply one type of Jew. There were several different varieties of Judaism at that time, and Christianity seemed, at first, simply like one more version of the Jewish faith. So there were no separate buildings designated as Christian churches.

When the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, and Christians and Jews were scattered across the Roman Empire, shortly before 100 A.D., the construction of Christian churches, as distinct from Jewish worship structures begins in larger numbers. So why do we find that oldest Christian church in Palastine is from around 200 A.D.? Why not one hundred years earlier?

In fact, there were many churches built a hundred years earlier in the Roman province of Judea. However, they were destroyed, and are not there for today's archaeologists to find.

Unlike the early churches in Greece and other areas of the Roman Empire, the churches in the Levant were the targeted for destruction. In the late 600's, Islamic armies swept through the area, destroying both Jewish and Christian worship structures.

That's why today's archeologists don't find old churches in that part of the world.