I friend gave me a copy of “The Birth of Christianity” and I just got finished reading it. Though I have some interest in both ancient Roman history and early church history, I am more intrigued by ancient Jewish history. They are my people, in spirit and in blood.
The book describes how Jesus, and the early “Jesists” became divorced from their Jewish roots in the eyes of early Christianity. It explains why this was necessary and how the gospels were selected, and edited, to paint a specific (Roman-friendly) picture of the birth of Christianity. Mostly, it describes the cultural and political status of Palestinian Jewry at the time.
Carmichael portrays Jesus as just one of many militant zealots who were executed by the Romans for sedition. Jesus’ goal was the “Kingdom of God” – which was non other than a return to Jewish hegemony over Palestine under a strict theocracy. In other words, the “Kingdom of God” was a political goal, not so much a spiritual one.
Some of the ways Carmichael portrays these ancient Jews, some of them likely my own ancestors, helped solidify some notions I had about them. It makes me wonder, even if they were my people in blood, were they truly my people in spirit?
The activists’ contempt for death was famous. The Romans, indeed, thought them out of their minds. Their fanaticism, their readiness to sacrifice all in behalf of a theory, prepared them as it were automatically for martyrdom. What was extraordinary was the number of people prepared to do likewise (pg. 25).
The Romans thought the Kingdom of God activists madmen, yet were impressed by their devotion. Here is a description of the sufferings of some of the activists who, in the generation after Jesus, were caught after their retreat to Egypt when Jerusalem had fallen in A.D. 70:
“Six hundred of them were caught on the spot; and all who escaped into Egypt… were arrested and brought back. Nor was there a person who was not amazed on the endurance and – call it what you will – desperation or strength of purpose displayed by these victims. For under every torture and laceration of body, devised for the sole object of making them acknowledge Caesar as lord, no one submitted nor was brought to the verge of utterance; but all kept their resolve, triumphant over constraint, meeting the tortures… with bodies that seemed insensible of pain and souls that well-nigh exulted in it. But most of all were the spectators struck by the children of tender age, not one of whom could be prevailed upon to call Caesar lord. So far did the strength of courage rise superior to the weakness of their frames (pg. 35).”
A new variety of Zealot agitator emerged around this time – the “Daggermen,” who specialized in assassinating pro-Roman Jews. Their technique was to mingle with the masses at religious festivals, with daggers hidden in their robes (pg.109).
Jews had some constitutional privileges. They were exempt from army service and did not have to pay tribute to local gods. Famous as mercenary soldiers, they were generally considered vigorous, manly, and stubborn. At the time they had no reputation for cleverness. The Jews seemed to be respected by the Romans even though Palestine itself was a source of constant irritation (pg. 151).
“Fanatical”, “contemptuous of death”, “terrorists”, “macho” and “stubborn”. That certainly does not describe me. Though I can admire these traits, and even recommend them under certain circumstances, I must admit that the closest thing we have to the ancient Jewish Zealots today would be certain members of al-Qa’ida or the Taliban: Swarthy people in flowing robes speaking a guttural language and ready to kill, and be killed, for their god. But this sort of mentality is ideal for the preservation of a nation against powerful odds; it emphasizes the value of the group rather than that of the individual.
Total war, existential threats and an overall miserable existence can bring out these traits in people. The ancient Palestinian Jews suffered crippling taxation, religious indignities and extreme corruption under the Romans. It is likely then, that the Romans themselves were instrumental in creating the culture described above. People don’t normally resort to extremism unless something pushes them in that direction.
As for the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, it could be argued that the relentless advances of Western civilization (an extension of past European colonialism in their eyes) puts them in a similar mindset. This is one, of several, arguments to leave them alone in their own homelands, remove the troops, withdraw all “foreign aid” and stop immigration from those places.