September 9, 2013

A world like ours is coming to be...

An unfortunate result of our disinterest in history is that we are mostly unaware that Jesus lived in a Palestine drenched in blood from religious terrorism. A place with remarkable similarities to today's Islamic world.

Jewish terrorism was a big problem for the Romans for a couple of centuries. One terror group was the Sicarii (dagger-men), a splinter group of the Zealots. Their tactic was to mingle with a crowd, then suddenly draw daggers and start killing people. Then they would drop their knives and pretend to be innocent citizens outraged by this violence, and escape in the confusion. Think of them when you read about car bombs in Baghdad.

there were dozens of false messiahs, who were usually both religious rebels and bandits. A new one would arise every few years, raising an army to force the coming of the messianic kingdom. And the general Jewish population was on a hair-trigger. Mob violence could explode on the slightest provocation.

Rome pursued the same policies western governments are trying now, with the same disappointing results. Bribes and punishments, reprisals and negotiation, direct rule (Pilate) or supporting local strong-men (Herod). Nothing worked, until mass-slaughter was applied in the two Jewish wars. (The book to read is Empires of Trust, by Maddox.)

The terrorism and wars in the time of Jesus happened for the same reason Islamic terrorism happens today. The Jews were threatened by the possibility that their religion was false. Muslims in the Information Age can not avoid the evidence that their religion is false and their cultures are dysfunctional.

In the case of the Jews of the later Second Temple period, their "story" wasn't coming true. The story was exile-and-return, four centuries as slaves in Egypt, followed by return to the Promised Land, leading to the glorious kingdom of David and Solomon. But the return of the Jews from captivity in Babylon did not lead to the expected glorious Davidic/messianic kingdom. Palestine remained part of Persia, and after a short and not glorious period of independence, was absorbed into the Roman Empire. The feeling was that Jews were still in exile. So extremists started using force to make the new kingdom happen. Others went overboard with Jewish purity laws, for the same reason.

Violence is everywhere in the Gospels, but we mostly don't see it. For instance, when the people try to make Jesus a king by force, (John 6:15) they were in fact initiating a violent revolution against Rome. A WAR, starting immediately.

This is the background for understanding Jesus. We today don't quite understand sayings like "turn the other cheek" because it sounds sappy and weak--letting yourself get beat up. To understand, imagine a peacemaker in Damascus or Islamabad right now preaching such things. Preaching forgiveness of enemies. That would be a radical shocking new thing! A courageous act. And Jesus defying the Pharisees on purity issues might be like opposing Sharia in Pakistan or Afghanistan.

This is the sea of Galilee, from the trip Charlene and I took in 2008. It looks so peaceful! No true, of course. Nor was it when Jesus fed the 5,000, and almost started a war...

View of Sea of Galilee, from our hotel in Tiberias
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a multitude followed him, because they saw the signs which he did on those who were diseased. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there sat down with his disciples.

Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him, Jesus said to Philip, "How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?" This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, "Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little." One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, "There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?"

Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost." So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten.

When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!"

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Caper'na-um... (John 6: 1-16)
Posted by John Weidner at September 9, 2013 7:56 AM
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