Easter without Hindsight, Part 14

Easter without Hindsight:  The Roman ‘gods’ don’t do government…

The Roman Empire covered, at its greatest extent, the Mediterranean basin and beyond. One of the secrets of it’s success was that, whichever country one was born in, there was a common desire to become a ‘citizen’ of the Empire.  Citizenship was not awarded lightly and gave one rights that other residents lacked. One that would become relevant to Jeshua was that he could be tried against verbal accusations. Had he been a citizen he would have needed a formal trial process against written charges. St Paul was executed in Rome but, being a Roman citizen, he was hung. St Peter was also executed in Rome but he wasn’t a citizen. Peter was crucified.

The Romans felt themselves to be a sophisticated culture, above any particular religious belief. Perhaps they felt about themselves much as our modern secular establishment seems to feel now: all religious faith is to be equally tolerated; so long the secular state isn’t challenged, because all religious faith is equally insane.

Because of that ‘sophisticated’ view the Romans could look on the faith of the Judeans as being tolerable. The Romans had their gods but those gods weren’t interested in daily life so the Empire could run this world pretty much as it pleased. The Judeans might be regarded as weird but there wasn’t any real harm in their practising their strange faith in their one God. Intellectual Romans actually coined the word ‘atheist’ to describe the Jews (and also the early Roman Christians who were themselves predominantly Jewish) because the Jews didn’t have the range of gods and idols that the Romans believed in.

As oddities went the Hebrew faith was a fairly minor one too. The Jews, though widely dispersed throughout the Empire, were not that numerous. If they kept their religion in the ‘private sphere’ and didn’t allow it to affect public life, the Romans would tolerate it. Powerful Romans were mainly concerned with their wealth and position in this world and the chief priests in the Temple were rich and powerful enough to see their interest in preserving that status quo. So Pontius Pilate could let things rub along in Jerusalem.

It might be weird to have a “sabbath” day of rest on Saturday, or refuse to eat pork, but it wasn’t really a problem. A religion that made you eat the right things, and shun the people you disapproved of, so that you could go to some heaven in the next world was fine. Unfortunately this Jewish God seemed to have an undue concern over things in this world.

When political change was demanded because of religious belief the political temperature rose. For example Jews in general, and zealous Jews in particular, claimed ownership of the land from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan. Their justification was that ‘God’ had promised it to them. Quite apart from the disruption to their economy, this simply didn’t work intellectually for the Romans: In their thought-world ‘gods’ didn’t do government.

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