Jesus and the Romans

Could it really be that he had no harsh words for the hated occupiers?

jesus 88 (photo credit: )
jesus 88
(photo credit: )
Either the night before Passover, or the Seder night itself, is the time Christians believe to have been Jesus' Last Supper. So, as I sat on Pessah rereading the New Testament in preparation for an upcoming debate in the UK on whether belief in Jesus is compatible with Judaism, I was struck by a powerful insight made by the brilliant British-Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby. I shall sum it up, as he does, in a single word: Romans. How could it be that Jesus, the man who defended the innocent and condemned the wicked, the man who drove the moneychangers out of the Temple with a whip, the man who declared it his objective to be the light of the world, never opened his mouth against the Romans? Here was Jesus, a man impassioned in his commitment to justice, a man of extreme sensitivity to the sufferings of others, condemning the Jews, but never the Romans. The Romans were some of history's cruelest despots. They invaded and occupied countries for no other reason than to expand their empire and extract a crushing tribute from the innocent peoples whom they enslaved. Resistance brought in its wake punishments so severe that the human mind bristles till today from their brutality. Even Nazi Germany never implemented a death as ruthless as crucifixion, where a body is left to die of thirst and starvation, and where the limbs are slowly pulled apart by the body's own weightiness. Could it really be that Jesus, while living in the shadow of one of the most oppressive regimes in history, had no harsh words for the hated occupiers? Yet, as portrayed in the Gospels, with the rarest of exceptions, he does not even criticize them. FROM THE time of Moses, the Hebrew prophet had been at the forefront of the fight against oppression and injustice. Moses himself led the Jews out of slavery, from the very maws of a tyrant. His successors, too, railed and fought against the succession of oppressors that rose up to tyrannize innocents and brutalize the helpless. In modern times, Martin Luther King, Jr. breathed new life into the Bible's ancient call for justice by using its powerful verses to dismantle segregation. Was it really possible that Jesus, who cast himself in their mold, would not criticize the Roman army of occupation? Could it really be that as Pontius Pilate crucified tens of thousands (and some say hundreds of thousands) of Jesus' fellow countrymen, he would turn his scorn away from the murderous Romans and inveigh instead against the afflicted Jews? The book of John quotes Jesus as saying of the Jews, "You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning." (8:44) But how could a just prophet accuse the victims of Roman oppression of being in league with the devil, but let the Romans themselves off the hook? It beckons a deeper understanding of why the Gospels seem to excoriate the Jews while vindicating the Romans. The Romans hardly feature in the Gospels at all. When they do, it's as benign onlookers or else, at the climax of Jesus' passion, as hapless tools of the manipulating Pharisees. In fact they seem almost gentlemanly, simply doing their best to keep things running in an orderly manner, a civilizing force amidst a tribe of primitive and stubborn Jewish extremists. Aside from the injustice of this portrayal, it is utterly unhistorical. NOWADAYS WE tend to have a somewhat rosy view of the Romans. In an ancient world populated with barbaric hordes and frenzied cults, what was the Roman Empire if not civilization on the march? We owe the Romans the decorum of the Senate and the beauty of surviving ancient monuments. In truth, however, the Romans were a warlike people whose principal axiom was that might made right. They lived by the sword, ruled by the sword, and made others die by the sword. The real Rome was not the splendor of the Coliseum, but the barbaric gladiatorial combat that took place within it. The real Rome was to be found not in the carved images of the Arch of Titus, but in the thousands of captured slaves who were dragged in chains through its marble. Yes, the Romans had a civilized outer veneer, borrowing heavily from the beloved culture of the Greeks, to lend them an air of artistic, poetic and architectural superiority. But scratch the surface and you had an empire whose principal engine consisted of brutal soldiers imposing the Roman will on weaker adversaries. If Jesus had lived in Nazi Germany and, during the years of 1940 to 1945, focused his preaching exclusively on matters of faith while ignoring completely the gas chambers and blitzkrieg that was all around him, would we have considered him a righteous leader? In fact, is this not precisely the argument brought against Pope Pius XII, the man said to be his human representative on earth, nearly two millennia later, when he was utterly silent during the Nazi Holocaust? In his passivity he severely compromised his own moral integrity. The gospels relate that Jesus famously proclaimed, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." In my view, this is an incredible statement. Would Jesus really endorse the greed of the Roman emperor by endorsing his right to exact cruel and unjust tribute as he enslaved peoples throughout the world? Would Jesus really have made himself party to the Roman occupation by directly endorsing the Romans' right to invade and occupy Judea and mercilessly slaughter the patriotic Jews who battled the occupation? Surely a man as great as Jesus would be on the side of the victims rather than of their oppressors, and would never have advocated blindly accepting Roman rule. IT IS for this reason that we have to rethink Jesus' mission and what he was trying to accomplish. I have written many articles arguing that it is time for the world Jewish community to reclaim the Jewish Jesus by understanding his original mission and his great love for his people before his story was later edited by Pauline writers and before he was made into an enemy of the Jews and a friend of the Romans. In my next column on this subject I intend to summarize Maccoby's conclusions that will, based on the sources, make the real Jesus known not as an enemy of Judaism but as a Jewish patriot who sought to win Jewish independence from Rome, and who was thus cut off mercilessly by Pontius Pilate for his act of rebellion. The writer is currently completing a book on the Jewishness of Jesus.