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JESUS' JEWISH WORLD
Jesus was born in Roman-ruled Palestine, a small, predominantly Jewish backwater in a vast empire that completely encircled the Mediterranean, encompassing Egypt, Greece, the Balkans, and the entire Near East, and extending far into northern Europe and even Britain. We of the modern world know a great deal about the Holy Land during the first century, including its politics and religions, its incessant civil unrest, its constantly changing procession of rulers both local and Roman, and its humiliating fate after the Jewish population's revolt against Rome led to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. This knowledge does not come solely from the New Testament. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-100 C.E.), commander of the Galilean forces during the early years of the revolt, and later a protégé of the emperor Vespasian (9-79 C.E.), wrote four long historical and autobiographical works in which he recounted the story of the Jews, especially during his own fateful century, when the Second Temple, the proud handiwork of a people returning to their land after the Babylonian captivity, was burnt to the ground, never to be rebuilt.
Josephus had little interest in Jesus, whom he referred to briefly as a wonder-working wise man, said by some to be the Messiah, who had been betrayed by Jewish leaders and was survived by a corps of devoted followers in Jerusalem and elsewhere. What gripped Josephus was the total destruction of the Jewish world into which Jesus and Josephus himself had been born. His was the tragic tale of Jerusalem's fall at Roman hands following a grisly starvation siege and the wholesale slaughter of itsinhabitants, which nearly destroyed Judaism in the process, and the parade of imperious, eccentric, brave, ruthless, and fanatically patriotic personalities who had played out their parts in the city's demise. Some of the Zealot Jewish nationalists who had governed Jerusalem during the siege fled to the deserts and caves around the Dead Sea, where Roman troops hunted them down like animals. Their last stand was in 73 C.E. at Masada, a mountaintop fortress near the Dead Sea, where 1,000 men, women, and children committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Roman Tenth Legion.
Many modern historians accuse Josephus of having exaggerated his country's importance to Rome and its rulers, probably out of a sense of religious loyalty. By contrast, the Roman secular historians who covered the century -- Livy, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio Cassius -- dealt with Palestine only in passing. By their accounts, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea and Samaria who sentenced Jesus to death, was essentially a nobody who had a few good friends in Rome. Pilate's title of "prefect," which was later upgraded to "procurator," denoted a second-rate civil-service post awarded to members of the equestrian, or knightly, class of Roman nobility, whose bloodlines were considered inferior to those of the ruling senatorial class. Even more humbling, the governor of Judea answered to the governor of Syria, a blueblood of the senatorial class, as Syria was a larger and more important Roman province whose chief cities, Antioch and Damascus, were major trade entrepôts with the East.
The Caesars consistently made poor or mediocre choices for the governors they assigned to the Jewish homeland during Jesus' time. Stationed not in Jerusalem but in Caesarea, a port city on the Samaritan coast, most of the Judean prefects and procurators served suspiciously short terms of two or three years, either because the post was hardship duty or because they were unfit administrators. Pilate, appointed by the emperor Tiberius, was probably in the middling ranks of competence. He lasted a full 10 years, an extraordinarily long term for a Judean prefect. There was no love lost between Pilate and his Jewish subjects. Josephus and another first-century Jewish intellectual, Philo of Alexandria, report several bloody crackdowns on religious Jews, and the Gospel accounts of Jesus' passion depict a Pilate who taunted Jewish officialdom by dangling in front of it the prospect of freeing Jesus. For the most part, however, Pilate did what was necessary in order to keep the peace. Tacitus, who devotes part of his Histories to Jewish affairs, notes that Pilate's term, as well as that of his predecessor, Gratus, another Tiberian appointee, was by and large uneventful. "Sub Tiberio quies," comments Tacitus in the terse Latin style for which he is famous: "Under Tiberius, all was quiet."
The last of the Roman procurators, Gessius Florus, who served from 64 C.E. until war broke out in 66 C.E., was a dismal failure. Incapable of maintaining law and order (raging nationalist sentiment had spawned terrorist attacks on officials and civilians), he was also unspeakably brutal. According to Josephus, Florus levied punishment for a riot in Jerusalem by randomly arresting, flogging, and crucifying 3,600 residents, including women, children, and even Roman citizens of Florus's own equestrian class, who were supposedly exempt from crucifixion. "The Jews' patience lasted until Gessius Florus became procurator," notes Tacitus in another of his dry comments. The only Roman governor of Judea who made an effort to understand Jewish religious beliefs and customs was Tiberius Julius Alexander (46-48 C.E.), during whose reign escalating Jewish-Roman hostilities enjoyed a brief respite. The succession of inept Roman rulers indicated that the Caesars troubled themselves little to find appropriate governance for Palestine.
Although small and relatively remote, the Jewish homeland was nonetheless vital to Roman interests as a strategic frontier territory. In the desert just beyond its boundaries (and those of Syria to the north) lay Parthia, Rome's most powerful enemy, and the only significant contender for hegemony over the Eastern Mediterranean. Parthia's empire extended from the head of the Euphrates River (nearly abutting Syria) to the Indian Ocean, encompassing nearly all of present-day Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, as well as parts of northern India and Pakistan. With occasional allies in the independent kingdom of Armenia to its north and several small buffer-kingdoms along its borders, Parthia completely controlled the overland trade routes that brought raw silk from China and spices from India to the Roman Empire via Syria. In the vast Arabian desert and along the approximate boundary of today's Turkey (then called Asia Minor), Rome's writ stopped running and Parthia's began.
A semi-nomadic people famous for their horsemanship and skill with the bow and arrow, the Parthians had originally come from a region south of the Caspian Sea that had belonged successively to the Assyrian and Persian empires, and to the "Macedonian" empire that Alexander the Great had patched together from his conquered territories in the early fourth century before Jesus. Around 250 B.C.E., the Parthians wrested their independence from the Greek-speaking Seleucid monarchy that Alexander had established in Syria to govern the Near East. They then embarked on their own course of empire-building.
The Parthians practiced a monotheistic but highly dualistic religion (featuring a powerful devil-figure named Ahriman) founded by the teacher Zoroaster, who had lived in Persia during the sixth century B.C.E. Mitra (who had originated as the Hindu god Mitra), one of the subdivinities of the Parthian heaven, was worshipped as an independent deity from Assyria to India, in Armenia and Asia Minor, and among the numerous Asians serving in the Roman army.
During Jesus' time, the Jewish Diaspora was extremely widespread. Some six million of the eight million Jews of his day resided outside the Holy Land, the majority of them living under Parthian, not Roman, rule. More than three million Jews inhabited the M
Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
1. Jesus' Jewish World
2. The Quarrels of the Ancients
3. The Paradigm Shift
4. The Talk of the Coffee Houses
5. A German Philosophical Hero
6. The Triumph of Materialism
7. A Good Liberal
8. Sex and Death for the Cinema
9. The Liberal Church Crumbles
10. Avant-Garde Fashions
11. The Return