Saturday, December 22, 2018

Christmas Time in 2018: Some Lessons To Consider

Well, Christmas time is upon us once again, and once more we hear the refrain of "Peace of Earth and good well to all", yet when it comes to shopping for Christmas gifts, we're hardly very "peaceful". It seems that it's all about grabbing what you can, including elbowing, punching, scratching, and outright knock downs and drag outs over some toy, piece of technology, or item of clothing which will be obsolete in a matter of months. People have complained for decades about how commercial and materialistic Christmas has become with all its glitz and glamour, around the clock advertising, and mindless buying sprees.

There are currently some 26 wars or conflicts being waged around the world as I write this with Ten of them have the potential to escalate, and none of them have anything to do with Donald Trump being the President. In fact, the majority of them involve religious extremism led by a militant version of Islam versus everyone else (as an example, two young girls on vacation in Turkey were recently murdered---beheaded---by extremist). The next biggest cause resulted from the usual economic reasons, which is control of resources including the Civil War in Syria, the growing situations in East China Sea and the Crimea and the political/economic instability in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere , followed by ethnic violence.

Often these situations overlap with religion, economics, politics, and ethnic or sectarian violence all playing a factor in varying degrees. There is the increasing likelihood of violence in other places, which are currently simmering, such as Europe due to the increasing violence and strain on the social infrastructure caused by the mostly under educated and poorly skilled "migrants"; many of whom having embraced a radicalized Islam.

In today's America, we are facing increasing problems with our decaying infrastructure,an antiquated tax system, and some would argue, even our social system as "Identify Politics" continues to grow, pitting groups and individuals against each other along every conceivable line. Income inequality is growing. Internationally, we are facing challenges not just from old enemies, but from new ones as well.

The old adage, "Peace on Earth and good well to all" seems far more appropriate today than ever before. It seems that not only is America spinning apart, but so too is the whole world. Perhaps we should remember that Christmas celebrates the symbolic birth of Jesus approximately 2000 years ago (scholars will tell you that the actual birth likely took place in the Spring. Early Christians celebrated the nativity on March 28th before the adoption of December 25th). This was a time when Judea was an occupied country, militarily, politically, and religiously by the Romans military along with a puppet government (in those days politics and religion were merely different sides of the same drachma), a corrupt and collaborating religious elite, a pervasive Greco-Roman religious pantheon, and by Greek philosophy.

There was social chaos, uprisings, protests, and violent reprisals, especially in the northern area of the Galilee, known for being a hotbed of troublemakers. Just 9 months prior to his birth, there had been a serious uprising against Roman authority just a short sling shot's throw away, in nearby Sepphoris (Sepphoris, which is largely forgotten today by all but a few biblical historians and archaeologists, was the major Greco-Roman city in region and considered a bustling "modern" city of its time where there was able work to be had).

The short lived revolt was led by a certain Judas ben Ezekias just shortly after Herod the Great died, and when Mary, the mother of Jesus, would have been about 13 or 14 years old. Part of the revolt included attacking the royal palace and its armory. The initial success of ben Ezekias' revolt resulted in other protests and revolts breaking out all over the country. The Roman governor of Syria, who oversaw the Galilee, a nasty individual by the name of Publius Quintilius Varas, led three Roman legions and auxiliary troops, mostly from Greece, to crush the uprising in typical Roman fashion; that is to say, with utter ruthlessness.

As an aside, women, or rather young girls were typically married off within a month of having their first period. Boys were deemed men, and thus subject to marriage on their 13th birthday. Marriages were almost always arranged by their parents; usually within the same village or at most, the next adjacent community. In some cases, if there were no available children of marrying age, an agreement would be negotiated (along with fee or down payment) with any women in the village who happened to be pregnant that if their child was healthy and of the suitable gender, they would be "promised" upon reaching the age of maturity. As a result, most villages were heavily interconnected through marriage.

Sepphoris, which had fallen into rebel hands, was burnt to the ground on orders from Varas and thousands of Romans and auxiliary troops laid waste to almost all of the Galilee, including neighboring Nazareth (which likely had under 30 families living there at the time) with the usual Roman efficiency and zeal , which naturally included executions, beatings, and rape (since this was viewed as a revolt against Roman authority, anyone found or even suspected of being guilty was subject to the Roman punishment for treason par excellence, crucifixion.

Men and even some women would be nailed to a crossbeam and hoisted onto a fixed post all along the main roads and left to die, which could take up to a week, after which their bodies were ordered to be left to rot where they would be devoured by birds and wild animals (as an aside, because wood was so scarce, the crosses would be repeatedly reused; often removed and transported to where they were needed except in Jerusalem, where there was a fixed point for execution of those convicted of treason). The point of this form of punishment was to both inflict a slow painful death and to serve as a warning to all to might think about defying the power of Roman. So, in effect, it was to inspire terror). The trauma of Varas' brutal response left the entire region in shock and fear of the Romans for years to intended. Those rebels not killed in the fighting or later executed were sold into slavery with many going to the mines in Spain or Britain, which was as good as a death sentence.

It was into this particular world that Jesus, or Yeshua as he was actually known, was born (the fact that he survived childhood was itself something of a miracle given the extremely high rate of infant mortality and death of the mother). Life in occupied Judea was never easy. In addition to be a political/religious hot spot, it was also one of the more poorer areas where there was few private ownership of land except by rich estate holders. Many worked for these individuals, working their fields on the few arable tracts of land which was available or tending to the grape or olive orchards (wine and olive oil were major commodities).

Others earned a living fishing and selling their catches in the local marketplaces while others, who tended to be on the lowest end of social totem pole just above beggars, were the tradesmen. Common belief was that Jesus, like his father, Joseph, was a carpenter. However, that's not accurate. Wood was a rare commodity and usually only used by the well to do. Thus, most tradesmen were engaged in some sort of stonework, though they were by necessity, jack-of-all-trades (the term used to describe Joseph's occupation is "tekton" which actually means simply a builder and typically applied to someone who built with stone, which was the most common building material available. By the way, unlike today, children started helping out almost as soon as they could walk. In fact, everyone contributed in some way as a matter of survival. Women would tend to the children as well as weave if they were able, or make and/or paint pottery, help their husband sell their wares or catches in the marketplace, and whatever else they could do.

Life was a daily struggle, and under the yoke of Roman rule, it could be especially hard especially when it came to taxation, which could take the form of coinage or produce (by weight). In addition, religion was not something optional; something you did one day a week. It was a daily thing. Practically everything act was governed by some religious law, which is one reason many younger or particularly ambitious Jews decided to embrace the Greco-Roman influence of their occupiers. Greco-Roman philosophy and especially its religion still involved a certain amount of religious "duty", but far less than required under strict Judaic law. However, there were certain obligations that even the most lax Jew tended to follow, and that included donations to the Temple during High Holidays such as Passover, which was hard especially for the poor, which, no doubt, Jesus' family was.

For example, when Jesus was born, his parents were required to participate in practice called "Redemption of the First Born". In theory, the first born child or animal had to be "redeemed" based on a passage in the Bible which said that the first born child or animal belonged to God (Numbers 8:17). Obviously no one was going to sacrifice their first born child, so they were required to buy them back. The costs was five silver shekels. In lieu of cash, a lamb could be offered. Well, if you were wealthy, that wasn't a problem, but if not, that became an issue. Heck, you may not even own a lamb or know anyone in your village who owned a lamb! But there was an out. The Torah stipulated that in case of dire poverty, the parents could offer either two doves or two pigeons as a burnt offering (Leviticus 12:8).

Is this what Jesus' parent's did? Well, they were likely poor enough to qualify. Well, in the Book of Luke (Luke 2:24), that's exactly what we're told they did. Both Joseph, Mary, and Jesus make a trip to the Temple in Jerusalem (which was no easy day trip. They likely had to travel the 65 or so miles on foot, which could also be dangerous, and likely spend the night beside the road if they were unable to complete the journey during the day. Once there, they likely made the Temple their first stop. While there, they may have stayed with relatives in order to save money, which they didn't have much of to begin with. They may have done some sightseeing, as long as it was free, and headed back as soon as possible. I can imagine Joseph seeking a day job in order to earn extra money to feed his family. After all, this wasn't a vacation. If they weren't working, they weren't eating.

Education was a luxury which only a very small handful of individuals could afford, and those were mostly the elites such as the political and religion class, and certain individuals in the upper echelons on the military and perhaps a few well-to-do merchants. In Jesus' case, it's extremely doubtful that he was literate, at least not fully. He would have been taught a passage or two for his Bar Mitzvah. Whether or not he was able to read the passage or simply memorized it is open to debate. If he did learn any more than that, he was indeed a lucky child because that meant that he lived close enough for someone educated to teach him (for free, which was rare in itself) and that his family could afford for him take time away from work (highly unlikely), but there were some extremely rare exceptions.

Most learning took place after work and the evening meal, and was primarily oral (the day started just before sunrise and ended when there was just light enough to walk home, which was about 45 minutes to an hour from Sepphoris to Nazareth). Learning by listening and memorizing stories was the most common form of education, especially among the poor. Even in Greece, known for its higher learning, the use of oral traditions was still common. Children would either listen to stories told by their parents, or other parents and the village elders (if there was an actual reading taught, this would have been the time and place).

It would have been a difficult childhood for anyone of this place and period. Life under Roman occupation could be brutal, especially in a place known for its active opposition as the Galilee was. However, the Romans did tend to be tolerant of most religions, including Judaism. By and large, most religions had no problem with the Romans when it came to religion. As a general rule, subject peoples were usually denied the right to practice their religion by a conquering power. A conquered people were typically required to destroy their old gods and adopt the new ones. Temples or other places of worship were either destroyed or "purified" with fire to make temple fit for the new religion. In the case of the Romans, they allowed their subject peoples to believe as they saw fit provided they paid at least a nominal homage to the Emperor, usually in the form of a statue in the main temple. Normally, this wouldn't have been a problem, except for the Jews of Judea. Their religion explicitly prevented them from doing so (Exodus 20:1 -17). Specifically, it was the Second and Third Commandments which were the problem.

The Second Command read "Thou Shall Not Have Any Other Gods Before me". The Third Commandment, which followed along the same lines, said "Thou Shall Not Make Unto Thee Any Graven Image(s)". Plus, we have to recall that the Temple was considered sacred in the extreme, and while local Roman appointed governors might contribute money and labor to its repair or building, there was simply no crossing the line when it came to placing a statue of the Emperor or Imperial eagle or any other symbols on or near the Temple. Ultimately, this was to the result in being the biggest source of opposition by the Jews, and to their downfall.

We can try and imagine what this moment in history must have been like, but truthfully it's difficult at best. It's almost as if we trying to look at an alien society. It was one which, on one hand, was devoted to the Torah and to its religious institutions and priestly class, which it followed to the letter. On the other hand, it had become unwieldy and corrupt. It's most powerful religious leader, the High Priest, was appointed by the Roman governor, who also made the recommendations for the Sanhedrin who were then appointed by the High Priest. In short, Roman controlled the religious life of the people.

Roman also controlled its social and economic life through taxation and the issuance of licenses (which usually came with a nice kickback). Judea also face the encroachment of a fundamentally different religion, along with a system of philosophy which attracted its young people (some males went as far to reverse the procedure of circumcision, which was extremely painful, just to fit in with the sons of Greeks and Romans). It was increasingly common for young Jewish men not just to abandon the faith of the fathers, but to even adopt the customs of the Greeks and Romans; of going to public baths and exercising in the nude, which was forbidden under Jewish religious law. They stopped learning the Torah and started learning Greek or Latin, and studying the works of Greek authors (many of those Jews who could afford an education usually sought out a Greek one instead of a religious based one). Thus, it was feared by the more traditional that Judaism and Jewish Identity may fade away along with the nation itself.

This was the world into which Jesus was born. Perhaps by knowing a little more about the reality of it, we may come to appreciate ours a little bit better, and that just might help us strive a bit harder to find "Peace on Earth and good well to all".

10 Conflicts to Watch in 2018

CFR: 26 Global Conflicts

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