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By John Hudson PART ONE: THE SYSTEM OF POWER IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE At the end of the first century under the Flavian Emperors, the Roman Empire had many distinctive characteristics. It was a slave state in which there was a tiny minority of super wealthy people, 2000 of whom owned all of Europe. The rest were poor and many were either slaves or virtually slaves, working in mass production industries. It was a military state founded on incessant, constant war, on multiple fronts. The standing army increased in size from about 250,000 (excluding navy) at the time of Augustus to a peak of about 440,000 at the end of the second century; compared to the population of the Empire of about 50 million. Military power enforced obedience with punishments and torture‐‐‐crucifixion being a common punishment. It was also an Empire of mass entertainment. The Flavian Amphitheater which we call the Colosseum, was a place of massive theatrical spectacles as well as public torture as entertainment and extreme pornography: its programming was replicated in theaters throughout the Empire. When they occupied a territory the Romans typically devastated it, but they gave their work a satirical name. One chieftan remarked the Romans plunder and butcher, and call it ‘Empire’. They create a desolation and call it ‘peace’, the ‘pax Romana’. State propaganda extended from slogans on the coinage to Imperial statuary to street processions and censorship of publications. The final component which the Romans used to justify their power was a system of religions which were deliberately created as a technique for ideological control of thought. Of these the most significant was Caesar worship. This religious manipulation was conscious and deliberate and was done because it was useful. As Lucretius wrote “all religions are equally sublime to the ignorant, useful to the politician, and ridiculous to the philosopher”. Seneca similarly wrote “religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” Roman imperial theology claimed that the gods had bestowed on them ‘dominion without end’ and that they were ruling by divine will. False religions created in order to be useful for politicians as a tool of imperialist strategy were entirely self‐serving‐‐‐ providing legitimacy for their actions, and precluding any form of criticism. It gave them an exemption from any normal ethics so they had no hesitancy in breaching international law—for instance in destroying all the forests in Judea‐‐‐or in exterminating entire towns and dehumanizing their enemies as demons. The Romans felt entitled to rule over others since they regarded themselves as the only civilized nation, they felt entitled to speak for all mankind and that others should obey them, since they were born to rule.
Finally, in their conception of the ‘pax Romana’, the Romans practiced the subversion of language, employing a strategy of secrecy that replaced the truth with a manufactured jargon of slogans and misnomers, hyperbole and self‐serving versions of events. Overall, this mixture of warfare, inequality of wealth, slavery, mass entertainment, and false consciousness functioned together in an integrated fashion as an economic and social system to support the power structure. It created a passive, obedient population that was preoccupied with religious fantasy and entertainment and could be easily ruled. PART TWO: DID THE ROMAN EMPIRE CREATE THE NEW TESTAMENT? Rome was skilled in creating propaganda, false histories and false biographies. Could they have created the Gospels in order to give the Jews a dead pacifistic pro‐Roman Messiah to follow? It would have fitted very well with Imperial strategy which needed to find a way of quelling Jewish Messianism. To find the answer we have to look at the implicit values and imagery in the NT documents and what they tell us about the context in which they were created. 1. Pro Roman Values are central to the Gospels and Epistles Whereas the authentic Hebrew documents , the Dead Sea Scrolls, are vehemently anti‐ Roman, and want to drive the Romans into the sea, that is not the case in the NT. In the Letter to Timothy the people must offer prayers for the Emperors and all in high positions of authority so that they may lead “a quiet and tranquil life” in all “piety and dignity” (1 Tim 2:1‐2). The Gospel is also filled with pro‐Roman values: being obedient, paying taxes, not resisting enemies, and assisting the army. For instance “do not resist those who are evil” (Mt 5:39), “if one hits you, turn the other cheek” (Mt 5:39), “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors “(Mt 5:44) “pay the half‐shekel tax” (Mt 7:24),“give to Caesar what is Caesars” ( Mt 27;19‐22) and “if the soldiers ask you to carry their pack one mile, carry it for two” (Mt 5:41). 2. Imagery from the Caesar cult underlies the NT documents A hundred years ago Adolf Deissman wrote of a “polemical parallelism between the cult of the emperor and the cult of Christ where ancient words derived by Christianity from the treasury of the Septuagint and the gospels happen to coincide with solemn concepts of the Imperial cult which sounded the same or similar.” It is of course not just a coincidence that the concepts that Paul is using in his letters echo the Virtues in Roman morality and the Imperial cult. That is where they came from. The Christological titles of “Savior” and ‘Lord’ are simply technical terms of Imperial ideology. So is the expression ‘Son of God’ which is an imperial formula widely used in first century Imperial titles. So are descriptions of the Emperor as a peacemaker and pacifier. Core concepts of the Emperor cult included faith (pistis), peace (eirene) , righteousness (dikaiosyne), hope (elpis), justice (dikaipsyne), the coming (parousia), 2
Savior (Soter) and the good news of military victory or gospel (evangelion) which was also the term used for how benefits flowed from the Empire. Piety, which is eusebia in Greek, and in Latin pietas, was the chief virtue of Augustus Caesar and one of those “inscribed” on his shield of Virtue. But it was also a major feature of the Pauline letters to get the populace themselves to take on the ”shield of faith” (Eph 6;16), and the “breastpiece of righteousness” (Eph 6;14). Taking two examples, the introductory sentence to the Letter of Titus twice uses ‘faith’ (pistis) and the other terms ‘Joy’ or ‘Grace’ (charis), and ‘mercy’ (eleos) were the qualities that people would seek from the Divine Caesar who would be petitioned ‘kyrie eleison’ ‘Lord have mercy’. Both grace and mercy were also Roman Virtues, namely goddesses associated with the Emperor cult. In Letter to the Colossians one of the key concepts is the Roman virtue fides which refers to good faith, reliability, or mutual trust. It was one of the first Virtues to be treated in Rome as an actual deity. So none of these are Jewish values taken from the Torah, they are Roman religious concepts which form part of the Caesar cult. 3. The Gospels are a Parody of Torah There are three kinds of Hebrew literature against which the gospels should be compared. Firstly, at Yavneh under Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai the Jews took a hundred years to produced the collection of sayings that we know as the Mishnah. Secondly there are the Dead Sea Scrolls, but none assigns halakhot to individuals at all. In the Mishnah very few halakhot and few disputes were attributed to individual masters who lived before 70. Thirdly there is the Torah. Matthew is a kind of re‐written Torah. Far from being a naturalistic account, the Gospel of Matthew is structured into five books like an alternative rewritten Torah. That is why it starts with an account of Genesis (1;1‐2;12). It moves next to an account of Exodus (2;13‐23) then includes passages about wilderness which remind us of the Book of Numbers (3;1‐4;16) which Jews call the book of ‘In the Wilderness’. Then most important of all, there is a Book of Instruction (8;1‐26;1) that opens in a similar way to how Moses begins the Book of Deuteronomy and similarly comprises five sections. Finally the last book about the passion story mirrors the Book of Leviticus which is about sacrifice and atonement (23;34‐.28;16). Each of the five books of the Torah has their specific parallels in Matthew and typology is used to construct the events in the life of Jesus. Although some of the Dead Sea Scrolls do rewrite Torah they do not do so in order to replace Torah. But that is what Matthew does. Matthew also parodies the Torah and does not treat it with reverence. And whereas the focus of Torah is on the history of the people Israel, the focus in Matthew is on one individual. 4. The Gospels and Graeco‐Roman Literary Forms Matthew uses Torah to create a kind of biography. The gospels have some resemblance to Plutarch’s fictional ‘biography’ of Hercules, the fictional biography of Heraclitus by
Digenes Laertius or the fictional divine biographies that were created by the cults of the gods Dionysius and Asclepius. None of these were Jewish. Matthew also uses many pronouncement stories which were rarely used in Hebrew literature but were very popular in Greek biography. The Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius used an average of 6 such stories in each of his biographies of famous sages. Matthew however uses an enormous number, 32 such stories. Many of the sayings attributed to Jesus are derived from classical philosophers. For instance when Jesus is asked why he and the disciples eat with unwashed hands, he replies that it is not what goes into a person but what comes out of them that makes them unclean. Similarly when people reproached Diogenes for going to unclean places he replied that the sun can shine into a toilet without being contaminated. The gospels are also similar to the tragedies of Euripides as transformed by Seneca into Latin tragedy. One can point to a number of examples but they become most clear in Gospel of Mark . There, John the Baptist plays a role in introducing the plot very similar to that in a Greek or Roman tragedy. The accounts of the resurrection are similar to a deus ex machina (god out of the machine) which is found in two thirds of the plays of Euripides. In Aclestis for instance, Hercules appears to bring Aclestis back to life. There are also specific similarities to the Seneca‐like Octavia, which features the resurrection appearance of a ghost of Agrippa. Perhaps the most similar play to the Gospels is Seneca’s Hercules Oetaeus. In this play Hercules has overcome his labors in the world, washes away his guilt in the river and cleanses his hands like in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism and of Pilate cleansing his hands. Then Hercules goes to heaven, from which he speaks to the audience, his form taking shape in the air as he tells the audience that hell has been conquered. The chorus closes asking Hercules as “peace bringer to the world” to still be with us. The portents at his death are similar to those at the depiction of the death of Jesus. But though Matthew is based on the Hebrew epic, the Torah, that is not so true of the other gospels which use other literary structures. It was rewritten using the model of Homer as the gospel of Mark and then rewritten again using the model of the Aeneid as Luke‐Acts. Much of the gospels describe fantastic miracles. In some cases these resemble Roman fantasy literature. In other cases they resemble Imperial propaganda about the miracles performed by the Emperor, for instance Vespasian’s healing of a man’s sight with spittle. The Jewish people knew that the Gospels were not authentic Jewish accounts of a divine event, because they gave them no credence, instructed other Jews not to read hem, and refused to follow Jesus. Indeed yhey participated yn hundreds of debates and disputations in an attempt to show Christians the error of their beliefs. Unfortunately these were all in vain. 4
5. First Christian HQ; The Catacombs of Flavia Domitilla The earliest archaeological evidence of the Jesus cult comes from Rome in the 70sCE, namely the catacombs of Titus Caesar’s cousin Flavia Domitilla, where Titus Caesar’s brother Flavius Sabinus, and his sister Titania were buried. These catacombs lie underneath Domitilla’s family mansion on the Via Argentina. The question this raises is what is the relationship between the formation of Christianity and the Flavian Caesars. A connection between the Flavian Emperors and the commissioning of the Gospel of Mark has already been suggested by at least two scholars. Dungan described this Gospel as possibly being composed “under the direct encouragement of certain members of the Flavian household.” Agnew even suggested that “Mark wrote it for presentation to the Imperial family”. Recent research suggests the relationship was even closer. 6. The Gospels were created in parallel to Josephus The central literary character of the gospels, called Jesus, inhabits a plot with various peculiar features: he begins his efforts by the Lake of Galilee; sends a legion of devils out of a demon‐possessed man and into pigs; offers his flesh to be eaten; mentions signs of the destruction of Jerusalem; in Gethsemane a naked man escapes; Jesus is captured at Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives; Simon denies knowing him; he is crucified with two other men and only he survives; he is taken down from the cross by a man called Joseph of Arimathea; his disciple John survives but his disciple Simon is sent off to die in Rome; after his death his disciple Judas dies by eviscerating himself. Each of these peculiar events has a parallel in the writings of Josephus, our main record of the military encounter between the Judeans and their Roman conquerors‐even to the unusual crucifixion in which three men are crucified, and a man named Joseph takes one, who survives, down. Events at the Lake of Galilee launch the Judean careers of both Titus and Jesus. There Jesus called his disciples to be 'fishers of men'. There the Roman battle took place in which Titus attacked a band of Jewish rebels led by a leader named Jesus. The rebels fell into the water and those who were not killed by darts "attempted to swim to their enemies, the Romans cut off either their heads or their hands" (Jewish War III, 10). Men were indeed pulled out of the water like fish. As for the episode of the Gadarene swine‐ in which demons leave a Gadara demoniac at Jesus' bidding and then enter into a herd of 2,000 swine, which rush wildly into the lake and drown‐‐‐Josephus recounts the Roman campaign in which Vespasian marched against Gadara. In the same way that the demons were concentrated in one demoniac, Josephus describes the faults of all the rebels being concentrated in the one head of the rebel leader John. Then, rushing about "like the wildest of wild beasts," the 2000 rebels rushed over the cliff and drowned. To take yet another example, Josephus describes how Titus went out without his armor in the garden of Gethsemane, was nearly caught and had to flee. The parallel in the gospel of Mark is a naked young man who appears in the Garden of Gethsemane and flees. So far over dozen of these parallels have been identified over a period of a century. More recently Atwill has identified the overall pattern, showing the pattern in Josephus 5
to correspond with the pattern in the gospels. This fulfills the criterion for 'good' parallels namely that "patterns of parallels are more important than individual parallels" and "the larger and more complex the pattern of parallels, the more we should take them seriously." It suggests these parallels were created as a sequence through a deliberate literary strategy employing allegorical typology. Since it is impossible to imagine that for their official war history the Romans would have invented accounts of battles taking place in locations marked 50 years earlier by the ministry of Jesus, we need an alternative explanation, of which there is really only one. The Gospels began to be written in the late 80s CE, about the same time as Josephus' The Jewish War. Key events in the life of Jesus were invented as literary satires of the Roman battles, ambushes, crucifixions, cannibalisms, etc., in the military campaign of Titus Caesar, as recounted in Josephus. Rather than different communities separated in time and space writing the NT Gospels, either as eye‐witness accounts or based on oral tradition, the three Synoptic gospels were written as a single co‐ordinated literary undertaking‐‐‐most probably at the Imperial Court. The Jews who ended up following the false Messianic literary character 'Jesus' would, unbeknownst to them, really be worshipping an allegory for Caesar. Overall this research suggests that the gospels were deliberately created as a parody of Jewish literature, by members of the Roman Court, as part of a covert campaign of war propaganda designed to persuade the Jews to worship Caesar. It suggests that there was no historical figure Jesus but that he is entirely a literary character. It suggests that the values of pacifism and support for the Roman military exist in the gospels because the Romans put them there. It suggests that Christianity was created, like other Roman religions, as a way of manipulating the masses, as a kind of satirical purge of Jewish consciousness, and to keep the existing power structure in place by preventing rebellion. PART THREE: IMPLICATIONS FOR TODAY Today the Roman Empire is being replicated In America. Under the Neo‐Conservative ‘Pax Americana’, the dominant forms of Christianity continue to support a power structure characterized by a militarized State, incessant warfare, the stereo‐typing of members of other religions, and a massive inequality in the distribution of wealth. Corporations and special interests control the Senate, Congress and Government officials, and over 80% of the mass media are owned by a handful of multinational corporations. Those media, especially tv ‘news’ and talk radio, seem to foster a kind of propaganda, which usurps genuine social ties and promotes a kind of intellectual passivity. This intellectual passivity and lack of critical thinking is especially prevalent among the Religious Right. As Mark Noll notes in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, there are substantial barriers to “careful and constructive thinking” in the Evangelical
churches and in their Neo‐Conservative allies. Their thinking is full of appeals to authority, assertions, generalities, over‐simplifications and authoritarian threats of social disapproval. The religion is sloganized and feeds into endless apocalyptic speculation which demonizes opponents and does not engage in critical thought. Yet as a voting bloc the Religious Right has also been extremely significant in supporting the Neo‐Conservatives in actively promoting militarization and especially war in the Middle East, in the hope that this will bring about Armageddon. A belief that the world is about to end in one’s own lifetime, and that the Messiah will return, prevents people from taking actions that will improve society here and now. It prevents people from pressuring Government to remedy injustices of wealth, because these will be corrected in heaven and through prayer. A Gallup poll in 2004 found, 61 per cent of the US population believe that "religion can answer all or most of today's problems." On this logic, the only action needed is further evangelism. Any possible energy that might have been devoted to social or political change is channeled into religious expansionism. To change that situation, it would have to be entirely reframed. However, Right‐wing media promote the idea that there is no alternative to the status quo and the pacifist values of the gospels create a culture of passive acquiescence and a lack of social critique. Because of the underlying pro‐war assumptions, it is considered ethical to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in war, which could have gone towards education and social services or a better standard of living. For instance in 2008 cuts were made to social programs such as housing assistance for low income seniors and home heating assistance for those on low incomes in order to fund additional billions for the military budget. Finally, the misuse of language that the Romans pioneered is endemic in a society that is constantly marketing propaganda. Political causes are packaged and branded with names that often are completely the opposite of what they will actually achieve, in a kind of Orwellian double‐speak. Although classical rhetoric had categories for persuasive speech, in today’s world language becomes a suspect vehicle for deceit and manipulation. These ways of seeing, these ‘frames’ as Lakoff would put it, which underlie American Christianity, are replicating a version of Roman Imperialism. Like Rome, America is the largest global power. Like Rome it is arrogant and believes it is doing the will of God, and that through "full spectrum dominance" it should impose its values and beliefs on the rest of the world and should do so by military force, by torture and divine right. It seems from this review that Christianity is not part of the solution to the social and economic problems that face America today, but rather that it is one of the prime causes. As a system of ideas, through the deep underlying assumptions and logics of its worldview, Christianity is colluding with, and sometimes actively constructing, the Empire which it was created to support.
Is it possible to change this situation ? Although this understanding of the origins of the gospel‐‐and its social impact‐‐is more acute than previous work by writers like D. F. Strauss and Bultmann who revealed the mythical and non historic materials in the gospels there is no reason to suppose that it will have any greater impact. Marginal and challenging theological perspectives are easy to ignore, especially any that require people to engage in complex analysis. In our visually orientated culture such an invitation is simply uninviting. As a social intervention it simply will not have any impact on a change project as vast as the need to begin reversing Federal spending priorities and dismantling the American Empire. If however a set of material could be distributed, commoditized and internalized, and could then be ‘exploded’ to reveal the true nature of Christianity , then this might potentially have an impact on the Religious Right. That might in turn have a knock on effect on the entire system which is coming under increasing strain as military spend causes massive indebtness, and by having diverted investment away from more productive deployment, causes job losses and slowing economic growth. There is now an opportunity to test one possibility of using an ideological approach to promote a re‐evaluation of Christianity. The plays of Shakespeare have recently been shown contain a system of Jewish allegorical structures which recount a new story of how Christianity was created. Moreover as several demonstrations by the Dark Lady Players have shown, these allegorical structures can be depicted on‐stage ‐‐‐the Company’s current work demonstrates that Hamlet is an allegorical comic parody of the Book of Revelation. The message of the allegorical levels in the plays should in itself be shocking and disorientating—especially the comic parodies of the crucifixion such as the death of Bottom/Pyramus. Since in addition it appears the plays were co‐authored by the dark skinned woman who was England’s only Jewish poet, if it could be correctly positioned this work might possibly promote a process of rethinking and re‐framing. So far, the limited audience feedback suggests that these productions have potential for enabling people to rethink their basic assumptions about the play and the material it is parodying. This possibility deserves in depth exploration. John Hudson www.darkladyplayers.com
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