Archive for the ‘Herod the Great’ Tag

The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’ – part five: First-century Palestine.   Leave a comment

Jerusalem and its Temple in the time of Christ:

006

Until it was destroyed by Romans in AD 70, the temple at Jerusalem was the official centre of Jewish worship, a great place of pilgrimage and an immensely powerful symbol. Although Jewish theology had increasingly stressed the transcendence and otherness of God, the temple was still regarded as being in a special way a divine dwelling place: the scenes reported by Josephus immediately before its fall suggest a confidence, even then, that God would not allow it to be harmed. The temple in the first century was, in fact, the third to be built, following Solomon’s temple destroyed in 587 BC and the one that replaced it after the return from Babylon. Herod the Great began work in 20/19 BC on the same site but according to a different ground plan, in the prevailing Roman-Hellenistic style of architecture. Construction went on for a long time, certainly until AD 64, and it may have been the case that the temple was still unfinished at its destruction. Nothing remains of the temple proper today, apart from the great platform now surmounted by the Dome of the Rock and the substructure of the massive surrounding walls. However, it can be reconstructed in the mind’s eye through the contemporary descriptions of Josephus and others.

The site of the temple was on a hill in the south-eastern part of the present Old City. A great paved court was laid on the temple platform, surrounded by magnificent collonades against the outside walls. This court was accessible to people of any race or faith, Gentiles included and was by no means reserved for purely religious activities. In common with other ancient temples, the Jerusalem temple was used as a safe-deposit for valuables and other quasi-commercial transactions were carried on there. Within the court was an enclosure surrounded by an embankment, with steps going up to a wall with nine gates. Inscriptions, the Greek text of one of which has been found, warned Gentiles against going further:

No foreigner may enter inside the barrier and embankment. Whoever is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.

021

At the heart of the temple lay the Holy Place, elevated by twelve steps. Within was a vestibule which gave on to the main doorway of the sanctuary.  Here were the sacred objects in gold, the seven-branched lampstand, the menorah, the table for the shew-bread and the altar of incense.> a curtain screened the Holy of Holies, containing no furniture whatsoever, which only the high priest might enter, once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Thus the elevation of the temple and its holiness increased progressively towards the centre, as did the elaborateness of its ornamentation. Built of great blocks of gleaming white stone and decorated with all possible splendour, it must have been a breath-taking sight. Josephus’ praise is lavish; he remarks that the outside of the building was covered with so much gold that the onlooker could scarcely look directly at it in bright sunlight. He adds that after the sack of Jerusalem the market of gold for the whole province of Syria was completely flooded so that the standard of gold was depreciated to half its value.

The foundation of the worship offered at the temple was the daily sacrifice, offered morning and evening on behalf of the people. It was never interrupted once during the rebuilding of the temple. A positive understanding of the joy taken in the ritual sacrifice of animals and the significance attached to it is perhaps the hardest thing for modern western Christians to understand, but there is abundant evidence of that joy and of the belief that sacrifice could bring forgiveness. This system was at its height in the last days of the temple, when more care and money was lavished on it than at any other time. Public sacrifice was accompanied by lengthy ceremonial and was followed by private sacrifices, both sin-offerings and votive offerings. The whole of Palestine was divided into twenty-four divisions, each of which was ‘on duty’ in turn for one week (Luke 1. 8f.). Priests and Levites from the course on duty were responsible for offering the sacrifices, and lay representatives were deputised to be witnesses on behalf of the whole people. A yearling lamb was killed and then followed a service of prayer: incense was offered and the lamb solemnly burnt; the priests pronounced a benediction and the choir of Levites sang the appointed psalm, the ceremony being accompanied by the blowing of trumpets.

More numerous sacrifices were offered on the Sabbath and on major festivals. The more important of these were the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), the Feast of Tabernacles (Succoth) following the Day of Atonement, and the Feast Of Passover. The feasts were of great antiquity, having accumulated many overtones of meaning. The Feast of Weeks was a thanksgiving for the grain harvest, but also commemorated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai; the Feast of Tabernacles, or ‘booths’, recalled the time when the Israelites were wandering in the desert and lived in tents, but also contained an ancient prayer-ceremony for rain: the Passover, Pesach, while commemorating the deliverance from Egypt, was also associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which originally also had an agricultural significance. Pilgrims came to all these festivals, often covering vast distances to be present. Passover was the annual peak; one estimate gives the total number of pilgrims likely at that time as about 125,000 compared with the approximately 55,000 permanent residents of Jerusalem. The Passover meal was eaten in domestic surroundings, in table-fellowships of between ten and twenty; pilgrims had by law to stay that night within the limits of Jerusalem itself, as they were ritually interpreted. Despite the flexibility of this interpretation, the crush must have been immense. The ritual was carried out by twenty-four courses of priests and the same number of Levites, who were not in permanent residence. It has been estimated that there were some 7,200 priests involved, and a rather larger number of Levites, who functioned as singers, musicians, servants and guards.

 

016

The temple and its priesthood may have been the most striking symbol of Jerusalem, but had they been its exclusive centre, Judaism would never have survived their fall. The way in which it adjusted to the situation after AD 70 shows that there were other strengths; these had as their common basis the Law, and to a considerable degree the history of the different parties within Judaism is the history of different interpretations of the Law. Even while the temple still stood, even within Judaea itself, there seems to have been an increasing preoccupation with the scriptures and their implications, and this focus will have been even more characteristic of the Jews of the Diaspora. A movement like that found at Qumran would have been unthinkable without the scribal tradition of ‘the book’ in Rabbinic Judaism. The beginnings of this trend are to be found in the Babylonian exile and the post-exilic period. During this period the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, took final form and was accorded its place of honour as the Torah, the Law; the Prophets had taken a place beside it by the beginning of the second century BC and the scriptures were recognised during the first century AD.

‘Law’ is an inadequate translation to give a clear idea of the written basis of Judaism; the Hebrew word Torah means rather ‘instruction’ or ‘doctrine’ rather than ‘law’, since the Pentateuch is far more than a ‘dry’ book of laws, of ‘do’s’ and ‘dont’s’. Nevertheless, that is what it became as it was subjected to more and more intensive study. It is essential to try to see the positive elements which such detailed methods of study were believed to bring out, despite Jesus’ criticisms of some of the more life-denying aspects of the process. The Sadducees’ interpretation of Scripture was literal in contrast to that of the Pharisees, whose oral tradition they rejected. From this basic position stemmed their well-known denials of resurrection, future rewards and punishments, angels and spirits, and Providence. The Sadducees were more interested in their control of land and material resources than in spirituality; they seem to have been more concerned with politics of the Sanhedrin than theology.

The supreme Jewish council was known as the Sanhedrin, a Graeco-Aramaic term for an assembly. It consisted of seventy-one members. The sources differ over its composition and nature: Josephus and the writers of the Gospels and Acts present it primarily as a political institution, whereas Rabbinic literature presents a more religious aspect. The latter sources were probably reading back into it features which it took on after the fall of the temple, but the very nature of Judaism meant that political and religious questions were inextricably intertwined. The Pharisees were a broader, lay movement, which set out to embrace the whole of the Jewish people and had developed out of the earlier movement of Hasidism. Many Pharisees were Scribes by occupation, but they were more preoccupied with ritual matters than with theological concerns. Being a ‘separated one’ meant striving to be separated from impurity of all kinds. At the same time, the Law and the understanding of it were the means of avoiding impurity, so that the basic work of the scribe was indispensable. The leaders among the Pharisees were, therefore ‘middle-class’ scribes, whereas the Sadducees, although having their own scribes, had a leadership which was dominated by noble families.  By 70 BC the Pharisees had gained access to the Sanhedrin and from then onwards they never altogether lost power, while the Sadducees declined in importance, especially following the fall of the temple.  It was the Pharisaic/ Rabbinic development which shaped the future of Judaism.; the heightened prominence of the Law after the fall of the temple was accompanied by an institution which had been increasing in importance for some time before AD 70, the synagogue and its worship.

The Jewish Dispersion of the First Century:

007

During the first century, as ever since has been the case, there were more Jews living outside Palestine than within it. Estimates vary, but a rough guess would be that there were rather more than two million Jews in Judaea and about four million elsewhere. The diaspora had taken place in different stages and for a number of reasons; there were, of course, the forced deportations to Babylon, where about a million Jews lived, but trade had also taken Jews all around the Mediterranean well before that time. There were particularly close connections with Egypt, where there was a large Jewish community, but there were also Jews in North Africa, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and Italy. These Jews had to preserve their identity in a culture which was predominantly Greek. They therefore organised themselves into communities, living in distinct quarters in cities, with considerable autonomy. Both the Greek states and the Roman government allowed a great deal of freedom to religious minorities, but the privileges of the Jews went far beyond this. In return for the favours of the state, however, they had to suffer the constant antagonism of their neighbours, which on occasion damaged official relations. Although the language of the Dispersion was Greek, these Jews still looked to the temple while it stood, and paid a great deal of money to support it. The synagogue, however, had become a far more regular influence in their day-to-day life. While Pharisaic Judaism culminated in the Rabbinic tradition, Hellenistic Judaism gave way to Christianity. It had no future in the context of Judaism, just as Jewish Christianity had no future in the context of the church. A modern Jewish comment is apt:

Jewish Christianity withered since it lacked survival power; Hellenistic Judaism withered since it lacked survival value.

The Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans:

When Emperor Tiberius died in AD 37, the new emperor, Caligula, made his friend Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, king of Philip’s former tetrarchy. He accused Herod Antipas of being in league with the Parthians. Antipas was duly banished, and his tetrarchy and revenues were given to Agrippa. Although Judaea had been a Roman province for thirty-three years, it was in a thoroughly unsettled condition. The Jews felt themselves to be a unique people, and though the basis of this claim was religious, under conditions of foreign occupation its manifestations were bound to be political. Each of the main religious sects thus had its own political ‘line’, most obviously expressed in the extreme nationalism of the Zealots. The disturbed situation of the province, with these insurgents active in the countryside and with continual sectarian conflict among the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, resulting in frequent changes in the high priests now appointed by the governor, needs to be remembered as the background to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

Agrippa had used his friendship with Caligula to persuade the latter to abandon his orders for the erection of a large statue of himself in the temple in Jerusalem in AD 41. In the same year, Caligula was assassinated, and Agrippa was largely instrumental in securing the succession of Claudius. The new emperor rewarded him by abolishing the province of Judaea and adding it to his territories, thus reconstituting the kingdom of Herod the Great. Agrippa reigned for only three years, but during that time he demonstrated considerable ability. He made Jerusalem his official residence once more, signifying that Judaea was once more Jewish, and he became popular with his subjects. He had James, son of Zebedee, executed, and arrested Peter, two of the leaders of the growing and widely unpopular Christian community (Acts 12. 1-18). On his death, Claudius wished to appoint his son, Herod Agrippa II, to the throne of Judaea, but the boy was only seventeen, and Claudius was persuaded to make the area a province once more, though this time it included the whole of his father’s kingdom. The first two Roman governors, according to Josephus, left native customs alone and kept the nation at peace, but with the third, Cumanus, troubles began again, his government being marked by disturbances and further disasters to the Jews. These continued under the fourth and fifth governors, and on the death of the fifth, the Sanhedrin again took the law into its own hands, executing James, the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem.

According to Tacitus, the endurance of the Jews lasted until Gessius Florus was governor, of whom Josephus claimed that it was he who compelled us to take up arms against the Romans, thinking that it was better to be destroyed at once than by degrees. Florus became governor in AD 64, and the Jewish War began in AD 66. Its short-term causes were a clash in Caesaria between Jews and Greeks, in which Florus supported the latter. Shortly afterwards, he provoked further antagonism in Jerusalem by demanding a large sum of money from the temple treasury on the grounds that it was required by the emperor. In the demonstrations which followed, Florus allowed his troops to loot, and many innocents were killed, including Jews with Roman citizenship. At this stage, Agrippa II sought to intervene, but his attempt to calm his citizens ended with them stoning him, forcing him to leave Jerusalem. Within a month the rebels had taken control of Jerusalem and the greater part of Judaea and had captured the fortress of Masada with its huge arsenal. The disturbances then spread to the predominantly Greek cities of the Decapolis and the coast, and even to Alexandria. In all of them, there were violent clashes between Greeks and Jews, until the governor of Syria, was compelled to intervene and marched south with an army of thirty thousand. Despite early successes, he failed to control the uprising.

Emperor Nero appointed Vespasian, an experienced general, to the command of Judaea. In AD 67 he reconquered Galilee, where the young Josephus was in command, and the next year pressed on into Samaria and Transjordan. Meanwhile, factional struggles in Jerusalem, amounting to a civil war, seriously weakened the ability of the inhabitants to resist the Roman advance. In AD 70, Titus, Vespasian’s son, who had been left in command of the army when his father returned to Rome to become emperor, laid siege to the city. The story is graphically told by Josephus. An attack was only possible from the north or north-west, where the assailants would have to breach three walls in turn. ; even then, there remained the temple itself and the upper city, both of which could serve as well-defended inner citadels. The siege began in May, with the Romans deploying all their resources in siege warfare, building huge ramps and towers, attempting to mine the walls or battering them with huge boulders thrown by their artillery. They eventually constructed a wall of five miles in length running right around the city.  Nevertheless, it was not until the end of September that the whole city was in Roman hands. City and temple were razed to the ground.

Mopping-up operations continued for a further three years, culminating in the long siege and heroic defence of Masada, the great fortress which towers over the western shore of the Dead Sea. When further resistance proved impossible, the surviving defenders of nearly a thousand set fire to the fortress and killed themselves, with only two women who hid in underground water cisterns living to tell the tale to Josephus. The result of the war brought to an end the Jewish state. The Sanhedrin and the high priesthood were abolished, and worship in the temple was forbidden. There were further Jewish rebellions and revolts in AD 115 and 132, but the final guerrilla war, led, with some initial success, by Simon bar Kochba, was finally defeated in AD 135, following which Emperor Hadrian built a new city for Gentiles, from which the Jews were excluded, and a pagan temple was built on the site of Herod’s temple. Zion was no more.

According to Josephus, it was chiefly the belief in the imminent advent of a Messianic king that launched the Jews upon their suicidal war in 66 AD. Even after the destruction of the temple, Simon bar-Kochba was still greeted as Messiah. But the bloody suppression of that rising and the annihilation of political nationality put an end both to the apocalyptic faith and to the militancy of the Jews.  Although in later centuries a number of self-styled messiahs arose among the dispersed communities, what they offered was merely a reconstitution of the national home, not an eschatological world-empire. Moreover, they very rarely inspired armed risings, and never amongst European Jews. It was no longer Jews but Christians who cherished and elaborated prophecies in the tradition of Daniel’s dream and who continued to be inspired by them.

The Samaritans:

Had it been prophesied around AD 30 that the only movements to survive the next two thousand years would be the successors of the Pharisees, the followers of Jesus and the Samaritans, such a forecast would have been worthy of ridicule by contemporaries. Yet this was precisely what happened.

008

A group of the despised Samaritans still lives and worships near Mount Gerizim, despite the long-troubled history of Palestine. Their survival represents a thorn in the side for those Christians and Jews who view Jerusalem as the sole, exclusive and undivided capital of the Jewish people as represented by the modern state of Israel. The Samaritans were the inhabitants of what was once the northern kingdom of Israel. In New Testament times it is clear from both Jewish and Christian sources that there was hatred and hostility between them and the Jews in Judaea and Galilee, so much so that Galileans on pilgrimage to Jerusalem avoided Samaria by crossing the Jordan rather than using the Jericho Road which Jesus described in his parable of ‘the Good Samaritan’.

The Samaritans regard themselves as the true Israel, separated from the rest of the people when the latter were tainted by the sin of Eli, a priest at Shiloh in the time of Samuel. Though they were deported at the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 BC, they returned fifty-five years later. The Judaeans and Galileans, on the other hand, regard the Samaritans as descendants of gentile colonists who repopulated the northern kingdom after the Assyrian conquest. They therefore regarded Samaritan religious observances as totally tainted. The Samaritan view may not be historically accurate, but the ‘Jewish’ view is also exaggerated in the opposite direction. It is not possible, at the present time, to establish the truth of exactly what happened, but it seems that it was post-exilic concerns which led to the constant rivalry between the ethnic groups. It probably began with the extent of inter-marriage between Samaritan ‘Jews’ and gentiles during the period of the two exiles, accentuated by the different experience of exile encountered by the Judaeans in Babylonia. The conflict reached its climax when the Samaritans built their own temple to replace the earlier one at Bethel. This new temple was erected on Mount Gerizim. The exact date of its construction is unknown, but it was certainly there by the early second century and does not appear to have been totally new then.

014

In 129 BC, John Hyrcanus destroyed the temple on Gerizim, adding to Samaritan hatred. Herod married a Samaritan woman, suggesting that relations might have been slightly easier during his reign, and it is even possible that the Samaritans had access to the Temple in Jerusalem. However, Josephus reports that a new act of defilement, the scattering by Samaritans of human bones in the temple grounds, once more stirred up tensions. The first century was a bad period for Galileans on pilgrimage when they were set upon and attacked. In the end, Galileans and Judaeans alike regarded the Samaritans as Gentiles. This may be one reason why Mark describes Jesus and his disciples as crossing into Transjordan to teach before his final week in Jerusalem. Earlier references to the Samaritans contain a number of vivid sayings about their impurity; John 4. 9. has an old comment about the practice of Jews and Samaritans not using the same water vessels for this reason. Yet the Samaritans shared the same Torah with the Judaeans, though not the same prophetic and other literature. These were the people whom Jesus chose to illustrate gratitude and love, deliberately choosing to identify the hero of his story by his ethnic origin and ‘label’.  They provide yet another example of how ancient and first century Palestine was a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic region comprising a patchwork of territories under Roman rule, far different in nature from a twenty-first-century nation-state.

(to be continued…) 

The Genuine Jerusalem and the ‘trump of God’: Part three – Struggles for Independence.   Leave a comment

002

From the top: Caesarea, The Wilderness of Judaea, Miriam’s Gate, Jerusalem

The Resurgence of Jewish Nationalism: The Maccabees

It seems that, in the interests of peace and unity in his Syro-Hellenic empire, Antiochus was trying to eradicate Jewish nationalism, if not the Jewish nation itself, in what would have been an act of genocide of unprecedented proportions. He both underestimated the strength of Jewish national feeling, supposing that their attitude towards religion was much the same as that of the Greeks, and over-estimated Jewish support for his attempt to introduce Hellenistic culture. Not all among the upper classes opposed it, certainly, and there were even those among the priests who supported Antiochus’ general policy, though perhaps more from weak-mindedness than on principle. Opposed to them were the Hasidim, the ‘pious’, who in contrast to those who had abandoned the holy covenant for a covenant with the Gentiles. The Hasidim saw themselves as mighty warriors of Israel who chose to die rather than profane the holy covenant. They first took part in passive resistance, but many then joined the more militant Maccabees to help them to restore the Temple and to regain their right to the observance of their religion.  Mattathias, the leader of this rebel group, was the head of a priestly family who lived near Jerusalem. He had five sons, but it was Judas ‘Maccabeus’, a nickname deriving from a Hebrew word for ‘hammer’, who emerged as their military leader.

One of the first signs of revolt against Antiochus was an incident in the Temple itself. Mattathias saw one of his own people, a Jew, preparing to take part in a service of sacrifice to the heathen god. Mattathias struck him down and, turning to the Syrian guard, killed him. For their immediate safety, he and his sons fled to the hills where they gathered around them a strong resistance movement. From the hills, Judas laid raid after raid against the Syrians, making their occupation of Judaea more and more dangerous and hazardous. They organised themselves into guerilla army, destroying altars and forcibly circumcising babies. They campaigned both against Hellenising Jews and persecuting Gentiles (1 Macc. 2. 1-48). In the midst of all the fighting, Judas regularly assembled his followers to observe the Jewish religious ceremonies, to watch and pray, and to read the Divine Law, the Torah.

003

It was therefore hardly surprising that the fiercest reaction to Antiochus’ policy came from the Maccabees under Judas’ leadership. Their first aim was the regaining of freedom to obey the Jewish law and the recovery and purification of the temple. This was achieved after two years of fighting in 166-165 (1 Macc. 3. 10-4, 35), In December of 164 BC, Judas and his followers recaptured the temple and the priests reconsecrated the Holy Place, erecting new altars to the true God. It was also now protected by external fortifications, which were complemented by a permanent guard provided by the Maccabees. The colourful Jewish festival of Hannuka, also known as the Feast of Lights, commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 165 BC.  It is said that when the perpetual lamp of the Temple had to be re-lit, only one day’s supply of non-desecrated oil could be found but miraculously this oil lasted eight days until a fresh supply could be brought. This is why the festival lasts for eight days and is commonly known as The Feast of Lights. The day which sees the start of the festival is the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the ninth month, which can fall on any day in December. The central part of the ceremony is the lighting of a candle on the eight-branched candelabra on the first day, with an additional candle lit on each of the seven successive days recalling the eight days of light provided by the miraculous oil when the Temple was re-dedicated. In 163 BC Judas’ campaign of resistance was extended to the defence of Jews resident among the surrounding Gentiles (I Macc. 5). The Syrians counter-attacked successfully, but the death of Antiochus forced them into offering terms to the Jews, allowing to live by their laws as they did before (I Macc. 6. 59).

The Pharisees also began to develop in this post-exilic period, fostering a lay spirituality for the whole nation, thus ensuring Israel’s continuity after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. The Essenes, a group referred to by Philo, Josephus and Pliny the Elder, and the related Qumran community broke away from the official orthodoxy of the temple and priesthood in the belief that the future lay with the ‘elect’, separated from the pollutions of the world. The movement of which the community at Qumran formed a part may be seen as an extreme form of Pharisaism, taking the principle of separation to new heights. It probably originated during the Maccabean period. Details of the community are provided by the site itself and two documents containing regulations, found in what came to be known as the Dead Sea scrolls. These documents are known as ‘the Community rule’, formerly called the Manual of Discipline, and ‘the Damascus Rule’, so-called because it describes a group which migrated to Damascus and entered into a new covenant. The latter document was found in the Cairo synagogue, but fragments have also turned up at Qumran; it probably represents a different stage in the development of the community. A third document, ‘The War Rule’, describes the final battle between the spirits of light and darkness, which would be paralleled on earth by a similar battle before a final victory was won.

020

These future expectations helped to condition the day-to-day life of the sect and were an important reason for their continued purity. Their negative attitude to the rest of Judaism around them led to a rejection of the traditional calendar and of temple worship. Their own worship centred on the common meal, which probably represented the eschatological feast that would be celebrated in the last days. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and their contents at first led to some exaggerated ideas about the significance of the Qumran sect in relation to Christianity. In fact, very few direct connections between the two can be demonstrated, and none on matters of central importance. A reading of the scrolls alone will make it quite clear that their main importance is in the light that they shed on the different forms of Judaism to be found at the beginning of the Christian era.

The death of Menelaus, one of the leading Hellenising Jews led to the victory of the Hasidim over the priesthood. The Maccabees, however, continued to resist the Hellenising high priest, Alcimus, who had begun his high priesthood by murdering sixty of the Hasidim. The Maccabees defeated the Syrian Army sent to support him at Adasa in 160 BC. II Maccabees ends with this victory, but two months later the Syrians killed Judas in battle and re-occupied Judaea. The Maccabees fled to the wilderness to regroup under Judas’ brother, Jonathan; Alcimus died and the Syrians departed. For two years there was peace in Jerusalem and in Judah. But now the Maccabees wanted nothing less than political freedom, and the Hellenists did not feel secure while they could be harried from the wilderness. They asked the Syrian general Bacchides to capture Jonathan (157 BC), but Bacchides was defeated and made a final peace with Jonathan, who settled at Michmash, a stronghold north-east of Jerusalem (I Macc. 9. 73; see map above). Like the judges of old, he began to judge the people, and he destroyed the ungodly out of Israel. The Maccabees had won, and until the arrival of the Romans in 63 BC, Judaea was virtually independent. The Seleucid empire was weakening as the Parthians became more powerful to the east. In 142 BC, the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel, and the people began to write in their documents and contracts, “in the first year of Simon the great high priest and commander and leader of the Jews”  (I Macc. 13. 41f.).

However, in 134 BC Simon and two of his sons were killed by Ptolemy. A third son, John, in command of the army near Gezer, heard the news in time to reach Jerusalem before Ptolemy, and John was welcomed as high priest and ruler (I Macc. 16. 11-22). The Seleucid king made a further successful attack on Jerusalem, but in 128 BC was killed by the Parthians, and the internal struggles within the Seleucid empire prevented any further persecution of the Jews. There were a series of civil wars fought for control of the temple between the Sadducean party and the Pharisees. Salome ruled for the Pharisees, appointing Hyrcanus II as her high priest, while his brother Aristobulus led the Sadducees. When Salome died in 67 BC, Aristobulus defeated Hyrcanus, becoming both king and high priest. Then Hyrcanus made fresh alliances, defeated Aristobulus and besieged him in Jerusalem.

Roman Intervention and Imperialism: Herod the Great.

This was the point at which the Roman general Pompey arrived in Syria. Both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus appealed to him to come to their aid. When he reached Jerusalem, some Jews opened the city gates to him, while others barricaded themselves in the temple-fortress. Pompey built a ramp on the north side and brought up his great siege-engines. For three months the strong temple walls stood up to the battering rams before a great tower gave way, and the legionaries poured through the breach. The city surrendered, but no fewer than twelve thousand people were reported to have died in the massacre that followed. Pompey himself broke into the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed to go, to find out what Jewish religion was all about, an act which the Jews could not forgive.

After his sacking and desecration of Jerusalem, Pompey removed Aristobulus to Rome, reinstating Hyrcanus as high priest. It was Hyrcanus’ ally Antipater who gained most, however, for the Romans relied on him to establish a stable government and later gave him the title of procurator of Judaea. His son was Herod the Great, and among his grandsons was Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee in the time of Jesus of Galilee. Once again, religious and political authority was separated and it is noteworthy that even in the independent Jewish state the combination of the two was not popular. The Jews seemed to prefer a secular state as, of course, was the case under Roman rule into the first century. Before we get to the Christian New Testament, these issues were reflected in the previous Hebrew literature, especially the book of Daniel, and in those books included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made at Alexandria, known to Christians as the Apocrypha. 

From the annexation of Palestine by Pompey in 63 BC down to the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-72, the struggles of the Jews against their new masters, the Romans, were accompanied and stimulated by a stream of militant apocalyptic literature. As it was addressed to the common people this propaganda made great play with the fantasy of an eschatological saviour, the Messiah. This fantasy was already very ancient; if for the prophets, the saviour who was to reign at the end of time was usually Yahweh himself, in the popular religion of the post-exilic period, the future Messiah seems to have played a considerable part. Originally imagined as a particularly wise, just and powerful monarch of Davidic descent who would restore the national fortunes, the Messiah became more superhuman as the political situation became more hopeless. In Daniel’s dream, the Son of Man who appears riding on the clouds seems to personify Israel as a whole. Already Daniel may have imagined him as a superhuman hero, and in the Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra, which belong in the main to the first century AD, the superhuman being is incontestably a man, a warrior-king endowed with unique, miraculous powers.

In the Book of Ezra the Messiah is depicted as the Lion of Judah at whose roar the last and worst beast – now the Roman eagle – bursts into flame and is consumed; and again as the Son of Man who first annihilates the multitudes of the heathen with the fire and storm of his breath and then, gathering together the lost ten tribes out of alien lands, establishes in Palestine a kingdom in which a reunited Israel can flourish in peace and glory. According to Baruch, there must come a time of terrible hardship and injustice, which is the time of the last and worst empire, the Roman. Then, just when evil has reached its greatest pitch, the Messiah will appear. A mighty warrior, he will rout and destroy the armies of the enemy; he will take captive the leader of the Romans and bring him to chains to Mount Zion, where he will put him to death; he will establish a kingdom which shall last to the end of the world. All the nations which have ever ruled over Israel will be put to the sword, and some members of the remaining nations will be subjected to the Chosen People. An age of bliss will begin in which pain, disease, untimely death, violence and strife, want and hunger will be unknown and in which the earth will yield its fruits ten-thousand-fold. Such a Kingdom was worth fighting for, and these apocalypses had at least established that in the course of bringing the Saints into their Kingdom the Messiah would show himself invincible in war.

Under the procurators, the conflict with Rome became more and more bitter. In 40 BC, the Parthians invaded Syria with the son of Aristobulus and pretender to the throne of Judah. He attracted strong support from the Judaeans, and within a short time, Judaea was in revolt. High priest Hyrcanus was captured and Herod was forced to leave Jerusalem secretly. He and his brother Phasael, who committed suicide, had been made tetrarchs of Judaea by Mark Antony following the murder of Caesar and defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 BC.  Herod was now forced to leave his family in the strong fortress of Masada and then fled to Petra, eventually making his way via Egypt and Rhodes to Rome, where he appealed for Antony’s support. The latter, …

… recalling Antipater’s hospitality and filled with admiration for the heroic character before him, decided on the spot that the man he had once made tetrarch should now be king of the Jews.

016

However, it was not until 37 BC that Herod was able to enter Jerusalem, escorted to his capital by a force of Roman legionaries. He continued to be popular with the Roman rulers, including the Emperor Octavian (now Augustus) and Agrippa, Augustus’ junior partner in ruling the Empire. He was able to secure the latter’s support for the Jews of the Dispersion in Asia Minor, who were being persecuted in the Greek cities where they now lived. Herod never enjoyed the same success in his relations with the Jews in Judaea. He was an Edomite and therefore could not combine the offices of king and high priest. The separation of the two offices served as a permanent reminder to his subjects that he was a usurper and the nominee of a foreign power. It was also a lasting contradiction of what the historian Josephus called the theocratic tradition of the Jews. Nevertheless, his achievements on the material level were far from negligible. He developed the economic resources of his kingdom, rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, and founded two new cities – the port of Caesarea, which took twelve years to complete, and a city in Samaria which he also named after Augustus. When severe famine struck Judaea in 25 BC, he acted promptly and vigorously, selling the gold and silver furnishings from his palace to buy corn from the Roman governor of Egypt. Notable among the concessions made by the Romans towards the Jews of the Dispersion was the right to contribute to the temple in Jerusalem. Herod’s reign seemed to characterise the desire for ‘good government’ which the Jews had longed for since the days of Saul, David and Solomon.

021

It is difficult to reconcile this vital and capable ruler with the tyrannical monster who, in the story told in Matt. 2. 16f. ordered the massacre of the innocents. This appears to have been a local incident, which the gospel-writer seems to have used to demonstrate the fulfilment of a prophecy and to emphasise the significance of the infant king Jesus as a very different ‘King of the Jews’ to Herod. The story is not recorded anywhere apart from the gospel, and a more historical view of Herod derives from the way in which he had to deal, on his death-bed, with a feud within his extended family. In 5-4 BC he was seriously ill when his son Antipater began plotting against him and his half-brothers, Archelaus and Philip, over the succession. Among the symptoms of Herod’s terminal illness were rapid swings in mood and delusions of persecution. In 4 BC, amid mounting pressures from the Pharisees and only a few days before his death, Herod had Antipater executed, and ordered the execution of a number of other leading nobles, either in order to prevent civil war after his death and/or so that the Romans would mistake the mourning of their families for mourning for him, demonstrating his popularity among his own people. He then issued his fourth and final will, under the terms of which the kingdom was to be divided between three of his remaining sons. Archelaus, only eighteen, was to be king of Judaea, Edom and Samaria; his brother Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Transjordan; their half-brother, Philip, tetrarch of the north-eastern territories of the kingdom. The kingdom remained divided into these tetrarchies, with a succession of Roman governors as ‘procurators’ of Judaea (see below), the fifth and most infamous of which was, of course, Pontius Pilate, responsible, together with the Judaean Sanhedrin, for the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

007

(to be continued)

The Fall of Herod the Great: Twenty-Five Years on from The Romanian Revolution.   Leave a comment

001 (2)

The Last Stalinist

At the end of the events of 1989, there was one last, grim, twist. The only Eastern European nation still ruled by an old-school Communist was Romania. The tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu had run the country with a rod of iron since 1965, turning it into a police state. The Securitate, the secret police, terrorised the people into submission while Ceausecu imposed his Stalinist will over the nation and its economy.  At the meeting of the Warsaw Pact leaders in Moscow the day after Gorbachev returned from the Malta summit with President Bush, Ceausescu was the sole Eastern European Communist boss still in office since the last Warsaw Pact summit, only five months before. Gorbachev spoke of eliminating the Cold War, while Ceausescu said the West was out to liquidate socialism. He called for the building up of the Warsaw Pact  against the common danger of NATO. The other Eastern European heads of government ignored him. They went on to support a Czech resolution condemning the Soviet invasion of 1968 which Ceausescu refused to sign. After a frank exchange of opinions with Gorbachev, the Romanian leader flew home in a bad temper.

Two weeks later the Securitate opened fire on protestors who had gathered in the traditionally dissident Transylvanian city of Timisoara in western Romania. For several days the shootings continued, but still people came out onto the streets in ever-growing numbers.  On 21 December, Ceausescu gave a prepared speech from the balcony of his presidential palace in Bucharest to a huge, specially assembled crowd. He intended to show he still had the supporters to restore order, and it was carried live on television. But Romanians had had enough of him.

014

Leonid Brezhnev made a historic visit to Romania in November 1976 (above), only too conscious that the government of Nicolae Ceausescu was being courted in the seventies by western politicians who should have known better. For a time it had been useful to them, since they erroneously believed that his independent policies were turning Romania into a Trojan horse within the Warsaw Pact. He had kept his links with Israel and China, when the rest of the Soviet bloc had severed theirs. He advocated the reduction of short-range nuclear weapons in Europe and ways of relaxing tension between the two power groupings. But as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in March 1985,  Ceausescu’s usefulness to the West dropped away.

It was no secret that Ceausescu’s regime was responsible for serious infringements of human rights. For its size, Romania had the highest number of secret policemen in the entire Soviet bloc: the Securitate had almost a hundred thousand full-time members. One third of the population, it was said, were informers. Every Romanian who talked to a foreigner was required to report the conversation to the Securitate within twenty-four hours. Securitate officers had the right people’s houses under any number of pretexts and confiscate ‘illegal’ possessions.  The illicit goods Law of 1974 declared the ownership of rare metals and precious stones a state monopoly. A supposed shortage of paper meant that writers were not allowed to publish more than one book a year.

004

By the mid-eighties, Ceausescu himself had become a parody of a dictator. The newspapers, radio and television were mostly devoted to his and his family’s doings. In June 1978 the Queen had been obliged, much against her own better judgement, by the then Prime Minister James Callaghan, and his Foreign Secretary, David Owen, to invite Ceausescu to Buckingham Palace. The Labour government was beset with problems at home, and anxious to prove its worth in international diplomacy in relieving the Cold War tensions between the superpowers. Elena Ceausescu, riding in State with Prince Philip along the Mall, enjoyed herself immensely.

014 (2)015

The Queen’s face, however, seemed to show a lack of amusement as she travelled alongside the President. However, back at the Palace, which ‘inspired’ the Romanian couple to plan their own palace in Bucharest, the Queen was both amused and annoyed by the Ceausescu’s assumption that his rooms were bugged. Every morning he would go for a walk, with all his ministers in attendance, around the gardens of the Palace in order to avoid the microphones which he supposed were everywhere. One of his other obsessions was that the Soviets might try to poison him by secreting a radioactive isotope near him, as he believed they had done with his predecessor, who had died of cancer. The Queen gave him two English-bred Labradors, who lived far better than most ordinary Romanians. They had their own limousines, which drove down the centre of lane in the main streets of Bucharest, and they were fed only the best lean steak. Government ministers were expected to address them as ‘Comrades’, and it was a not very funny joke that their master was thinking of giving them seats in the Senate.

005 (2)

Western politicians of all persuasions were prepared to overlooking his increasing madness and megalomania, together with his government’s treatment of his own people, because they felt that his was an independent voice within the Warsaw Pact. After meeting the dictator on his visit to Britain in June 1978,  the then leader of the Opposition commented,

I was impressed by the personality of President Ceausescu… Romania is making sustained efforts for consolidating peace and understanding, in particular by means of numerous direct contacts leading to the development of bilateral collaboration.

In August 1978, Ceausescu won approval from the Chinese, as their premier, Hua Guo-Feng visited Romania:

015 (2)001 (2)

As late as 1988,  Harold Wilson (above), Britain’s PM in much of the 1960s an 1970s sent the dictator a telegram which read: You have raised the Romanian nation to a unique role in the world. By this time,  Ceausecu’s wild extravagance was making Romania’s economic situation far worse. He decided to build a boulevard through Bucharest longer than the Champs-Elysées, lined with shops and mansions. At the head of it was to be a presidential palace larger than Buckingham Palace. It was to contain more than a thousand rooms, and cost more than a billion US dollars, though most of the labour was supplied by the army. Whole regiments were deployed in building what was to be called The House of the Republic (pictured below), and was scheduled for completion in January 1990.

013

He had declared that he would pay off Romania’s foreign debt by the middle of 1989, which meant a disturbing programme of austerity for the ordinary Romanians while they could see the extravagance of the building programme in front of their eyes. This was all happening in a country which had been kept short of food and consumer goods since the early 1970s.

Romania had once been called the bread-basket of the Balkans: By the end of the 1980s it was an economic ‘basket case’, exporting ninety per cent of its of its food produce. Eggs became a form of currency, changing hands perhaps a dozen times before they were actually eaten. Westerners who stayed in the foreign currency hotels of Bucharest were unto find ordinary Romanians watching hungrily through the street-level windows while they ate. In the largely Hungarian-speaking area of Transylvania, rationing was intensified to five eggs, a kilo of flour, a kilo of sugar and a kilo of cheese per person per month. Conditions were not much better in Bucharest, and for the country as a whole the rationing was worse than it had been during the Second World War. With Ceausescu, there were scarcely any policies which he could not force on the country. The so-called systematisation of the rural areas, for instance, was something only Stalin or Mao Tse-dong had tried to introduce before him. Its origins lay, as Mao’s reorganisation of the Chinese countryside had done, in a desire to reduce the disparities of wealth and opportunity between country and town. As early as 1967 Ceausescu had announced a policy of homeginisation between the two, but the first projects were not begun until un 1979.  Poor villages were to be demolished and their inhabitants relocated in agro-industrial centres; 558 villages were selected for this process. Naturally, this was deeply unpopular, and even the Communist Party bureaucracy opposed it, with local Party secretaries using every available tactic to delay its implementation. Various Western journalists claimed to have seen or filmed this process, particularly in Transylvania, where it became mixed up with the issue of ethnic Hungarian rights. In the end, only five villages, all in the Bucharest area and all on the route of the President’s motorcade route to one of his country houses, were seriously affected. However, the policy, together with the austerity measures, represented a dangerous attack on the values of a largely agrarian society by an increasingly power-crazed dictator.

016

John Simpson, the BBC TV reporter and foreign correspondent was in Romania in the spring of 1989, where a young woman betrayed his crew to the local Securitate in Cluj. He summed up the mood at the time:

As for the woman who had reported us… it was impossible to blame her. Only a handful of Romanians had the moral courage to speak out against the conditions Ceausescu imposed on them. Once they had put their heads above the parapet they could expect to be badly treated. Most people were prepared to put up with the unrelenting hardships of everyday life in silence rather than endure that. She could not have known that we would be allowed to go free; but a regime like Ceausescu’s induces and rewards selfishness and inaction. Later, no doubt, she was embarrassed at what she had done.  But in the spring of 1989 there was no reason whatever to suppose that Ceausescu and his wife would be overthrown before the end of the year. At that time, the regime looked as if it would last forever.  

Arriving in Bucharest, they went out to film the Boulevard with the enormous, elegant and absurdly expensive House of the Republic at its end. By 1989, Ceausescu had become so obsessed with the project that he paid ninety-nine visits to it over the course of the year before his death, examining every little detail. He told the men and women in charge of building it to remember that it was to last for five hundred to a thousand years. The Ceausescu’s were influenced in their choice of interior design, as with the exterior, by their stay with the Queen in 1978. The president’s office, only completed after the dictator’s death, was more than a hundred feet long, with a huge patterned carpet. A little man with skilfully built up shoes, Ceausescu needed imposing circumstances to seem imposing himself.

Rebellion in Transylvania and Revolution in Bucharest

On 20 November 1989, the regime which Nicolae Ceaucescu had run since 1964 seemed to be coup-proof. It was a text-book example of a Marxist-Leninist state. Scientific Socialism,  Ceaucescu had explained to the Congress,  is in absolutely no danger.  They applauded him to the echo, gave him more than forty standing ovations, and re-elected him as President for a further five years. The autocracies of central and eastern Europe might be like dominoes in a circle all around Romania’s borders, but Romania itself was safe for Stalinism. Then, in mid-December in Timisoara, a city in Transylvania with a majority Hungarian-speaking population  (Temesvár in Magyar),the Securitate came to arrest a Reformed Church pastor, László Tökés, for speaking to the Western media. Many of his flock gathered around his manse to protect him. They drove off the Securitate and in the days that followed what had begun as a religious and cultural dispute became broader, as ethnic Romanians joined in. It became an uprising against the government. The tanks were summoned and many people died, but the troops were beaten off. Now the Army’s loyalty was in question, as a little local incident had turned into a full-scale rebellion, the most serious threat that the dictator had faced in a quarter of a century.

017

Ceaucesu was not given the full facts about the Timisoara Rebellion. The Securitate kept some of the worst details from him, fearing that it would be blamed for allowing the situation to get out of hand.  As a result, the president had no real idea of the intensity of the feeling against him, or the extent of the uprising he already faced. His response to what he was told was to call a public rally in the main square of the capital. He would address it and the people would listen respectfully, as they always had done. Some of his ministers tried to suggest a television broadcast instead, but he he ignored their concerns. The Securitate sent its men to the factories and offices to instruct fifty people from each workplace to turn out or face being sacked. Loyal party members were to take up their positions at the front of the crowd, and the pleasant winter sunshine encouraged people to turn out in sufficient numbers to provide anonymity for everyone else there. The loyalists at the front held up their long red banners which spoke of Socialist progress and their leader’s heroism. Above their heads, portraits of a much younger Ceausescu were waved. They clapped in unison as Romanian TV broadcast live. As it turned out, that was a serious error of judgement.

019

The Great Dictator stood on the balcony overlooking the Square and surveyed his people. In his black Astrakhan hat and his coat with matching collar, he looked very presidential, standing on an unseen box to make him look taller. Beside him were his wife Elena and assorted courtiers, together with his personal head of security, Neagoe, a large man in a fedora hat. Shortly, a few words from him would help change the course of Romanian history. But for the time being, each time each time the president paused, there was more clapping in unison. He waved back,  in a way that was perhaps intended to show humility, but actually made him look more imperious to most of the crowd beyond the loyal front ranks whom he was thanking for organising the rally.

Suddenly, there was a low groan from a section of the crowd, which quickly grew louder and higher and then erupted into booing, whistling and cat-calls.

018It was a total surprise to Ceausescu. He had been reading his speech in his hoarse, old man’s voice, his eyes on the sheet of paper in front of him. As the sound of the booing gradually penetrated him, he looked over to his right, where it was loudest. But he went on pumping out the bland words for a much more slowly now, not thinking what they meant, but trying to think instead about the booing. At his words faded altogether, and he stopped. It was a laughable and shocking moment: a tyrant coming face to face with the hatred of his people:  Macbeth watching the wood begin to move. He put up his right hand, trying to order the crowd to be silent, but it looked as if he was warding off the noise of the booing  and what it meant. One of the group of ministers to his right must have offered some advice, off-mike, because he waved him away angrily. Then, from the right of the screen, the head of the President’s personal bodyguard, Neagoe, came into shot, walking swiftly towards Ceausescu. He paused behind him for an instant, and the microphones picked up his voice and boomed it out over the Square:

They’re getting in.

The general headed for the big French window behind Ceausescu, holding his coat open as though he had a gun in a shoulder holster and would soon pull it out. Elena Ceausescu’s thin, harsh voice was also picked up by the microphone:

Stay calm, please.

Her instincts were right. The crowd wasn’t getting in. There was no plot, no coup. no insurrection, but simply booing, the reaction from years of repression. At that point someone at the television station decided to cut the transmission. The evidence that Ceausescu could be threatened was therefore transmitted live to every home and workplace where the television was switched on, throughout the country. He was vulnerable, after all. However, the moment swiftly passed, when it became obvious that the crowd was not breaking into the Central Committee building and that the rally was continuing, the television cut back to the President.  Ceausescu was continuing with his prepared speech as though nothing had happened, warning about the consequences of the rioting in Timisoara. But it was too late. There were thousands of people out on the streets that afternoon and evening with the same sense of burning grievance. They had realised that the regime was momentarily weakened and that it might just be overthrown if they all stuck together and kept their nerve. They chanted, we want free elections and Don’t leave the streets. They were rewarded by many more, who had been watching the live broadcast, coming out onto the streets, from all over the city, as the Securitate forces hesitated to break up the existing dissenting crowds from the rally.  A full-scale rebellion was taking shape.

002

As night fell, the Securitate received orders to shoot to kill.  The crowds built barricades and set fire to cars, as street-fighting became general. The insurgents had no guns or bullets with which to answer the fire of the Securitate, but they made use of Molotov cocktails and the cover of darkness. By dawn on 22 December the outcome was clear, as the crowds had taken control of the main avenue and squares with the Securitate troops having melted away. The insurgents had demonstrated the power of numbers and determination.  The key to their eventual success now lay with the Army, who had so far refused to support the Securitate troops.  At this point the defence minister, General Vasili Milea was shot by Ceausecu’s bodyguard for refusing to pass on the orders for the Army to fire on the insurgents. When the news of this  was broadcast on the TV, the Army was infuriated, and began to change sides,  thus bringing about a revolutionary situation. Ceasescu tried to make one last appeal to the the crowds in the Square, but this time there were no plain clothes Securitate among them, and the crowd hurled stones at him, so that his bodyguard had to quickly bundle him back into the building. This time, the the insurgents did break into the building, and many of those defending it gave up their weapons to them. However, there was just enough resistance from the Securitate troops to enable the  dictator and his wife to escape by helicopter from the roof. A National Salvation Front was declared and , consisting of former Ceausescu aides and a few prominent dissidents. The Army transferred its allegiance to the new government. There was sporadic fighting between soldiers and the remaining Securitate, but by Christmas Day the fighting in Bucharest was over and the revolution had succeeded. Only the fate of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu remained to be decided.

023023 (2)

Top left: A couple of volunteers carrying water to the pro-revolutionary troops are stranded in no-man’s land.

Top right: 22 December – a casualty of the sniping. The building in the centre of the picture is a block of where the Securitate men lived.

021

Above: The poet, Mircea Dinescu, newly free, declaims to camera at the studios of Romanian Television on 22 December.

Eighth Day of Christmas: Christ’s Name Day: Jesus presented in the Temple, Luke 2 vv21-40   1 comment

New Year Carol:

‘The name-day now of Christ we keep,

English: Icon of Jesus Christ
English: Icon of Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Who for our sins did often weep;

His hands and feet were wounded deep,

And his blesséd side with a spear;

His head they crowned with thorn,

And at him they did laugh and scorn,

Who for our good was born:

God send us a happy New Year!

From the ‘Greensleeves’ Waits’ carol in New Christmas Carols, 1642.

This carol shows us that until at least the seventeenth century in Britain, today was celebrated as the ‘name day’ of Christ. The reason is contained in the fact that, possibly until about this time, New Year’s Day was April 1st, so this carol, sung in alehouses, was perhaps designed to get the English population used to the coincidence of the two events, following the change in the calendar.  Most holidays were eight days in all, so it’s possible that most people returned to work after the eighth day of Christmas as well, so it served as a reminder of the true significance of the day in the Christian year. In keeping with this, the third verse is a reminder of the more sober duties of the New Year festivities, and may well have been viewed as useful ‘propoganda’ by the increasingly powerful Presbyterians in Parliament and elsewhere who were, at the very least, lukewarm in their attitude to what they perceived to be excessive merriment at this season:

‘And now with New Year’s gift each friend

Unto each other they do send:

God grant we may all our lives amend,

And that the truth may appear.

Now, like the snake, your skin

Cast off, of evil thoughts and sin,

And so the year begin:

God send us a happy New Year!

Jesus
Jesus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following passage from Luke’s gospel (NIV) reveals the original importance of this day among the twelve in the Christmas Festival:

‘On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.’

‘When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons”.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

Rembrandt - Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord...
Rembrandt – Simeon and Anna Recognize the Lord in Jesus – WGA19102 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,

you now dismiss your servant in peace.

For mine eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the sight of

all people,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.”

‘The child’s father and mother marvelled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

‘There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old: she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying. Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.

‘When Joseph and Mary had done everything that was required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.’

Thus concludes the nativity stories of the two gospels. These texts are powerful. In one sense, Simeon and Anna are the first ‘Christians’, testifying not only to little ‘Yeshua‘, or ‘Joshua’, not just as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, but also to his mission as the saviour of the ‘gentile’ world. As a Greek doctor, Luke must have fully understood the significance of what he was recording to its context. Jesus was not just a child challenging the dictatorship of the Judean tyrant, Herod and his family, but also the might of the Roman Empire, which by then was controlling most of the Greek-speaking world. Being born just before Herod’s death into a territory which was bathed in the blood of innocent children and the citizens the tyrant also had murdered, even on his death-bed, Jesus was also born into a very precarious political atmosphere. It took an old man with vision and an old woman of great dedication, to utter the truly revolutionary words which would eventually bring down both the evil dynasty and imperial rule, through the Christ’s sacrifice. Even his mother is not spared the pain contained in the prophecy, and, far from keeping the identity of the baby a secret, Anna told the good news about his birth to all who were waiting for the Messiah to set Jerusalem free from tyranny, to her fellow ‘revolutionaries’. This was a risky strategy indeed, as there must have been many spies posted, not just the unwitting wise men, by Herod, to bring him news of the child’s whereabouts, and the child’s significance and threat to his power was being confirmed under his very nose, in the very heart of Jerusalem, not from their temporary refuge in Gaza. Herod’s death shortly afterwards, before the Passover Feast, did not relieve the pressure on his people from the continuing dynasty, and the child was taken to the relative safety of Mary’s home town, when they would perhaps have preferred to remain in Bethlehem, with Joseph’s family. Jesus’ birth had taken place in a hard winter, and this was no ‘Arab Spring’. This was occupied Jerusalem, controlled by a tyrannical dynasty who knew that if they did not control their people by means of terror, the Romans would.

So, the real message of the Incarnation is that it broke the wall between time and eternity, temple and city, sacred and secular. It allows no division of the Gospel into personal and social, permits no surrender to evil, lets no injustice escape judgement. The God who assumed flesh sought the redemption not just of one nation, but the whole world; not just of ‘the spiritual realm’, but of the whole of human and earthly life in all its circumstances and conditions. Forgetting this, and refusing to take the risks in proclaiming the Gospel in the uncompromising terms and means of Simeon and Anna, the Church ceases to be the Church of the Incarnated Christ. Perhaps New Year ‘resolutions’ are not just the preserve of individuals. As Canon Burgess Carr, the Secretary General of the All Africa Conference of Churches, wrote forty years ago, ‘God’s intervention in human history is not to endorse man’s powerlessness: He came to take his position with them in order to free them.’ Amen to that!

Related articles

Sixth Day of Christmas: 30th December: The Refugees’ Return from Gaza   1 comment

Matthew 2 vv19-23 (Good News):

‘After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go back to the land of Israel, because those who tried to kill the child are dead.” So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went back to Israel.

‘But when Joseph heard that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as king of Judea, he was afraid to go there. He was given more instructions in a dream, so he went to the province of Galilee and made his home in a town named Nazareth. And so what the prophet had said came true: “He will be called a Nazarene” ‘

English: Herod Archelaus was the ethnarch of S...
English: Herod Archelaus was the ethnarch of Samaria, Judea, and Edom from 4 BC to 6 AD. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an historian, I find this piece both fascinating and puzzling, because it underlines the differences between the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke’s gospels. Up until the end of Matthew’s account, the accounts can interlace. However, Luke ends his account with the passage above, whereas Luke concludes with Jesus’ naming and presentation in Jerusalem, which he dates, according to ‘the Law of Moses’ as a week after the child’s birth and the visit of the shepherds. Also, this is the first mention Matthew makes of Nazareth. All his ‘reports’ come from Bethlehem, and here he feels the need to explain why the family settled in Nazareth and not in Bethlehem. Of course, he doesn’t say they were a Judean family either, but whereas Luke makes clear the reason they were ‘only visiting’ Bethlehem at the time of the birth, Matthew seems to suggest that they had to settle in Galilee because Judea was far too dangerous, despite the death of ‘Herod the Great‘. This also seems to suggest that, at the very least, Joseph had strong family ties to Bethlehem, which would have made an ‘undercover’ return to Judea possible. Indeed, the fact that Matthew does not refer to the birth taking place in the ’emergency accommodation’ of Luke’s ‘manger’ suggests that they had a family home in ‘the little town’ where they could stay, and that perhaps they had been on their way there when the baby arrived ‘prematurely’.

This view finds support from the apocryphal Gospel of James, which focuses in detail on the birth narratives, recording the birth as taking place in a cave used for keeping livestock, by the road to Bethlehem. For me, that makes the story even more human, having been through the ‘will we make it to the hospital before baby arrives’ scenario, like many other ‘expectant’ fathers!

English: This is a map of first century Iudaea...
English: This is a map of first century Iudaea Province that I created using Illustrator CS2. I traced this image for the general geographic features. I then manually input data from maps found in a couple of sources. Robert W. Funk and the Jesus Seminar. The Acts of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco: 1998. p. xxiv. Michael Grant. Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels. Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1977. p. 65-67. John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew. Doubleday: 1991. p. 1:434. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However, the more important difference, since the basis of the Christian faith is the historical Jesus, the incarnation in Earth’s space and time, is that, for the flight to Egypt, Herod’s death, the return and the presentation in the Temple to have all taken place within a week, would have been meant an action-packed week for a young mother and child, even if they had not gone much further along the road to Egypt than Gaza, as first century Palestinian refugees. Certainly, right up until the time of his death, which has been accurately dated to the end of March/ beginning of April 4 B.C., Herod was committing terrible atrocities on his own people. The following comes from the biblical scholar, Daniel B Wallace from www.bible.org, on the record of these provided by the Jewish historian:

‘Josephus tells us much about Herod. The best word to describe his reign is ‘overkill.’ He murdered his favourite wife’s father, drowned her brother–and even killed her! He executed one of his most trusted friends, his barber, and 300 military leaders–all in a day’s work! Then he slew three of his sons, allegedly suspecting them of treason. Josephus tells us that “Herod inflicted such outrages upon (the Jews) as not even a beast could have done if it possessed the power to rule over men” (Antiquities of the Jews 17:310). Killing babies was not out of character for this cruel king. And killing them up to two years old–to make sure he got the baby Jesus lines up with his insane jealousy for power.

‘Josephus might have omitted the slaying of the babies for one of two reasons: first, he was no friend of Christianity and he left it out intentionally; or second, just before Herod died he locked up 3000 of the nation’s leading citizens and gave orders that they were to be executed at the hour of his death. He wanted to make sure that there would be mourning when he died. . . Israel was so preoccupied with this that the clandestine murder of a few babies might have gone unnoticed. . .’

Watching again the scenes from North Korea at this time of year, three years ago, it was easy to see how, even in a world of mass and instantaneous communication, how it’s possible for dictators to hide the real truth of their tyranny behind a thin veneer of carefully choreographed, if seemingly spontaneous, devotion to a leader. When Jesus was born in the late winter or early spring of 4 B.C. he came into a country, Judea, which was a state living under terror, likely to continue under Herod’s successor. So, he became a refugee on the road through Gaza to Egypt, and grew up ‘in exile’ from his father’s ancestral home, in northern Palestine, or the kingdom of Israel, outside the jurisdiction of Archalaus, Herod’s son. There’s both a contemporary and timeless message in all that history somewhere, isn’t there? That’s what makes Christianity so unique as a faith. Emmanuel. God with us in every human experience.

%d bloggers like this: