Easter Without Hindsight: If you don’t believe in God you end up believing anything.
Looking at Jeshua within the context of Roman beliefs adds perspective to our own, partly because the Roman world view has much in common with that of our own times. A wise man once observed that if you don’t believe in God you end up believing anything. Flick through the content on TV, many channels clearly struggling for material to pack between adverts, and you can see what he meant. Like us, the Romans had many idols to worship.
Most of us learned about the Roman gods (and their Greek counterparts) in school. The personalities in that pantheon cover many of the daily concerns of ‘pagan’ people i.e. those who mainly believe in the physically apparent. Like Rome’s ruling class their gods appeared concerned with their own lusts and rivalries and the life of most citizens seemed to be of marginal interest. Romans thought their gods might visit this world to satisfy a lust, or set a challenge for a mortal that the deities could watch for amusement. The gods were capricious, greedy and often to be needed ‘paid off’ with sacrifices for harvests, fertility and so forth.
Romans tended to see real spiritual belief, philosophy and consequent religious practice as a personal matter. Many Romans prayed regularly and, included in those prayers, were material concerns about family and friends and, of course, one’s patrons and mentors in life. Pilate may well have had an image of Sejanus and certainly one of the Emperor Tiberius, among the other ‘gods’ he prayed to each day. Whatever else the Empire might allow you to believe in and worship, loyalty to the Emperor was compulsory.
The Roman cosmos was divided into three: The earth they lived in was the familiar bit. ‘Above’ were the heavens where the gods lived and ‘below’ was the underworld. This belief was influenced by the ancient Greeks and, though we have the benefit of modern physics, it’s a resilient thought-model even in our age. After death there was an afterlife and one’s ‘soul’ (taught Plato et al) might go to the underworld where one might become a ‘shade’. If you were a notable person, like the emperor, you might become a star visible in the heavens. The literature of the time suggested that no one was looking forward to the trip. It was represented as a place of shadow and emptiness.
The Greek philosophers had taught that the physical world itself was predominantly of pain and corruption and so the ‘flesh’ (of this world) was not to be desired. One should not fear death, since it took you to a better, spiritual, place. Socrates and Plato were insistent to on that. It’s another enduring hope today. The path to death was one-way. No one came back and Socrates might have added that no one in his right mind would want to.
The Jews had a slightly different take on the afterlife. When one died one would rest with one’s ancestors before the righteous rose again at the end of time. The location was unclear but one was safe with God till then.
Resurrection (rising from the dead physically back into this life) was not envisaged by anyone. Maybe that’s why not even his Jewish disciples realised that Jeshua actually meant he would be resurrected after his death.