A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Highlights from papers by Richard A. Horsley, research professor in the classics and religion department at the University of Massachusetts, and Susan E. Alcock, associate professor of classical studies at the University of Michigan, delivered at a recent symposium at the University of Pennsylvania.
How Jesus responded to the new Roman world order
In order to deal with the historical Jesus, we need to recognize the transformative impact of Roman conquest and the new world order the Roman Empire imposed on subject people, and how those such as the Judeans and Galileans responded to their transformed life.
Generally speaking, the impact went from West to East and from city, where the rulers lived, to country, where the subject people lived. In the case of Judea and Galilee, the people were living out of the Israelite tradition, the central contents of which included stories of resistance and rebellion against foreign rulers and an ideal social order of free, independent existence for Israel in its village communities. Not surprisingly, given that tradition, the Jews proved to be the most intransigent people the Romans subjected, repeatedly resisting and rebelling against Roman imperial rule despite being conquered and punitively reconquered. Jesus belongs precisely in that tradition.
Beside his huge fortresses and the massive reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Herod sponsored the building of temples and indeed whole cities in honor of his patron, the Roman emperor Augustus. These projects, of course, were built on the backs of the Judean and Galilean peasants. The peasant producers were already paying both tithes to the Temple and priesthood and tribute to the Romans when the latter imposed Herod as king of the Jews. So Herod's demands for taxes came on top of the previous two layers of tithes and tribute. The people then saw a steady transformation of their land and capital city of Jerusalem as Herod installed a Greek administration and Roman institutions and customs that were in violation of their own sacred traditions and the Torah.
As for the scribal rabbinic elite, so also for the ordinary people, resistance under Herod's iron-fisted rule was futile and suicidal. But the minute Herod died, revolt erupted in every major district of the land, and the Romans mounted a massive expedition to reconquer Galilee and Judea. Thus, Jesus' parents' generation and his own generation as children in villages such as Nazareth suffered the slaughter or enslavement of family members, burning of their houses and goods, and the general trauma of war.
Herod Antipas, whom the Romans imposed as Tetrarch after his father's death in 4 B.C., immediately rebuilt the old fortress at Sepphoris as his capital city which he made into "the ornament of all Galilee." The new city was built in lavish Roman fashion befitting a Roman client ruler who had been raised and educated at the imperial court in Rome. In an ancient agrarian society such as Judea and Galilee, virtually the only economic base from which revenues could be drawn was agriculture. Antipas, however, had less than a quarter of the taxable village revenue base of his father Herod. How could he raise the revenues on a sustained basis year after year, decade after decade? By setting a relatively high rate of taxes on the produce of the peasants and by ruthlessly efficient tax collection, which was made easier because the cities which took the produce were in such immediate proximity to the villages from which the produce was taken at harvest time.
The impact on the Galilean peasants and their village communities of the sustained demand for high taxes from Antipas, on top of the tribute paid to Rome and whatever tithes and offerings sent to the Temple and priesthood in Jerusalem, is not difficult to deduce. Hunger. Debilitating malnutrition. And debt. Spiraling debt. If they could not feed their families after paying taxes to Antipas as well as tribute to Caesar and tithes to the Temple, they had to borrow. But villagers quickly exhausted each others' minimal margin of surplus, and had to seek loans from those who held the key to the storage silos, i.e. Antipas' officers, who had collected the crops as taxes in the first place. And the going interest rate, as we know from one of Jesus' parables, was 25% for grain and 100% for oil. Two or three bad harvests and you were sunk so deeply in debt that you either had to send a daughter or son to the creditor's household as a debt slave, or become a sharecropper on your own land. It is precisely when peasants are faced with heavy debts and potential loss of their land that they will join movements and even revolts. We can add to this picture the closely related disintegration of village communities. As peasant families exhausted each others' extra little reserves of grain or oil and sank into chronic hunger, debt, acute tensions arose between them. They were resentful of each other and at each others' throats to pay back even those little neighborly loans to feed their starving children. The Judeans and the Samaritans, unable effectively to fight back against the Roman order that oppressed them, turned their hatred and violence against each other, which supplies the background of Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. So also Galilean peasants within village communities turned against each other in local conflicts and others, ashamed at the prospect of losing their family inheritance and proud membership in their Israelite village community, simply became debilitated and paralyzed.
What was Jesus' creative response? His basic message, his proclamation of the presence of the Kingdom of God is directed to the poor, hungry, and indebted. To people who may have assumed they were cursed by God because of their poverty and sickness he declared, "Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God, Blessed are those who hunger, for they shall be filled." In its more original form, following the Lukan length but the Matthean wording: "Father: May thy kingdom come, give us today, day by day our subsistence bread. Forgive us our debts as we herewith forgive our debtors. And lead us not to the test." What is the kingdom of God about: subsistence food and freedom from debilitating indebtedness to the creditors, who were probably Antipas' officers, the wealthy and powerful based in Sepphoris and Tiberias. One of the most fundamental features of the Mosaic covenant tradition was the provision that every seventh year debts would be canceled. The kingdom for which Jesus is teaching the people to pray will involve the cancellation of debts, just as was supposed to be done following the Mosaic covenant. Note in the prayer the people, in anticipation that God is about to act on their behalf to cancel their debts, promise that they "herewith forgive" their debtors. Keep that in mind when we come to "love your enemies."
Besides preaching the kingdom of God, Jesus also manifested its presence in healings and exorcisms. The healings that were included in the gospels are probably the most typical cases for the various sicknesses and malaise that the people were suffering under the new Roman order: hemorrhaging or near death, perhaps from malnutrition (Mark 5:21-43), and paralysis, blindness, and deafness. Jesus also heals the self-blame by which people contribute to their own further debilitation. When faced with the paralyzed man, Jesus does not first say "you are healed, take up your bed and walk." He says first "your sins are forgiven," which in effect means the same thing as "you are healed" If the people feel that they are forgiven, then they are no longer blaming themselves and have energy to heal themselves. In the healings and forgiveness, Jesus thus gives the people a new lease on life.
The fundamental social forms of Israel were family and village community. Early Israel, when the ideal had been established, did not have a Temple and a monarchy. The ideal from early Israelite times was that Israel was a free, independent peasantry living in village communities, each of which ran its own internal affairs according to Mosaic covenant. It is the disintegration of these local village communities under the impact of the new Roman order that Jesus addresses in much of his teaching, some of which is straight out of the Mosaic covenant tradition that dates back to early Israel. Listen to the social context indicated in the content of those sayings: "If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn the other." "If someone asks to borrow from you, give...." "Love your enemies, do good, and lend." Jesus is addressing cases of local social and economic interaction among villagers, not their stance toward the Romans. Jesus is addressing people who are mutually in debt to each other and for that reason and others have become resentful, edgy, spiteful, and "enemies" to one another. He is saying to them, in traditional, covenental teaching such as that found in the covenant codes of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy, get your act together here in the village community. Quit quarreling with one another, but instead help each other out in your mutual need. Lend to each other whatever you have and do not ask it back. Jesus was renewing the traditional Mosaic covenental principle of mutuality, mutual aid in times of distress as a response to the desperate situation they had been placed in the new Roman order.
Insofar as the families and the village communities in which Israel was constituted were disintegrating, Israel as a people was disintegrating. This is not simply something we discern from our historical distance of two millennia. This is the way it appeared to many Israelites at the time, both Judeans and Galileans, the many who led or joined the Dead Sea community at Qumran, the popular messianic movements in 4 B.C. and again in A.D. 67-68, the popular prophetic movements in the A.D. 50s and 60s. All of these, popular or scribal, were movements with programs for the renewal of Israel. If we quit reading certain of Jesus' sayings with Christian supercessionist eyes, it becomes clear that this is what Jesus was up to as well. In both Mark and Q (the non-Markan speeches of Jesus used by both Matthew and Luke), Jesus commissions envoys for a mission to Israel. These speeches include instructions for the missionaries, but are not admonitions of individual discipleship as often read by pious modern Christians. The instructions have two key parts: they are to stay with individual households eating whatever the family can afford. And they are to work in villages, both preaching the kingdom and healing people. In modern-day terms, these are movement organizers, attempting to catalyze local "chapters" of the movement in the individual village communities around Galilee and beyond, from a headquarters in Capernaum.
Another saying of Jesus that indicates clearly he was spearheading a renewal of Israel is that passage mistranslated in terms of the Twelve sitting on twelve thrones "judging the tribes of Israel." That is an utter mistranslation. In the Psalms, for example, God does not "judge" the poor and the orphans and the widow; God "defends" or "delivers" them. Similarly, in Luke 22:28-30 and Matthew 19: 28, Jesus declares that the Twelve, appointed as the symbolic representatives of Israel, are to be "delivering" of "establishing justice for" the twelve tribes of Israel.
Richard A. Horsley's most recent book is Spiral of Violence: Popular Jewish Resistance in Roman Palestine.
The impact of Rome on the Eastern Mediterranean
This paper is about searching, in various ways, the world of Paul, the world of the eastern Mediterranean around the turn of the millennium. Our first search employs an archaeological technique known as regional surface survey, which involves teams of people walking across the present-day landscape, staring at their feet or--to put it a bit more formally, literally surveying for any traces of past cultural activity. Contrary to popular opinion, there is actually quite a bit to find out there on the ground. This material is all counted up, recorded, mapped and, if more information can be gained, collected for further study. The basic object of the whole enterprise is to reconstruct past human activity in a particular region, where people lived and where they farmed their fields, where they worshiped their gods and buried their dead. When we map our results, we generate period-by-period views of the same region. What must be remembered is that mapped here, however indirectly and however crudely, are the patterns of people's lives. Remember that and any change in our regional "snap-shots" from one period to the next takes on a great deal of significance.
To archaeologists of the end of the twentieth century, one of the great appeals of regional survey is that it allows us to approach what the late Eric Wolf called "the people without history." People dwelling and farming in these countrysides are not the ones that make the history books; they show up occasionally in minor arts, but are rarely recorded or heard from in any formal sense. But these silent populations are the majority of those people who would ultimately listen (or not listen) to the disciples of the disciple Paul.
So, what changes in human landscapes do we see around the "time of Paul" (or in survey terms, the centuries around the turn of the millennium)? Here, I'll be speaking about the Roman province of Achaia (Greece) where the most intensive survey work has been done. To make a long story short, that epoch witnesses one of the most radical alterations ever observed in Greek settlement patterns, a depopulation of the countryside. You could describe it most simply as an "emptying out."
How do we interpret this? Surveyors' first impulse was to assume the obvious, and the worst--that everyone died when the Romans showed up. And there is some good contemporary lamenting literature to back it up. Other takers? Very likely there was a change in land owning patterns, with the rich getting richer. In survey terms we can monitor this by observing the appearance of fancy tombs and rich villas in the Greek landscape. Such things stand out as markers of the big estates that probably pushed some of the "little people" out of the countryside. Pushed them out--and pushed them on. I think we have to look at our survey patterns and think about people on the move, on the move to cities.
We can monitor one other major development over this time period. In the second century A.D., the traveler Pausanias tromped all over Greece, and on his way sometimes refers to sanctuaries and shrines as "in ruins." Archaeological work, both survey and excavation, does suggest that this same early imperial period was again a watershed time for change. Let me give you just one survey example: a little rural shrine found in the Nemea Valley in the northwestern Peloponnese was used well into the Hellenistic period, then snuffs out at about the same time horizon as the loss of rural settlement. Without getting carried away, there does appear to be some correlation between human and divine abandonment of the Greek countryside; we see disruption in both spheres.
Now let's follow those people I've argued were displaced from the countryside and let's turn our attention to the cities of the eastern Mediterranean. Major centers such as Ephesus or Athens have long been explored through architectural study of often impressive standing remains or through long-term excavation. Less recognized perhaps is that this world of cities was also a world of change and of flux, also adapting to the new global framework established by Rome. Or trying to adapt, for some cities do die at this time--blown out of the water by Roman foundations. In Greece, for example, we get the new city Nikopolis (literally "Victory City," near the site of Actium) and colonies at Patras and at Corinth. These had a negative impact on nearby pre-existing cities. Land and natural resources were reassigned; population and even cult statues left their home towns and moved to new and Roman-backed cities. So some cities fail, or turn into villages, and this all adds to the number of people on the move.
If you look at the eastern cities as measured by size and wealth (relying on archaeological work, numismatics, textual sources), you find that there are a few very large, dominant centers and lots of much much smaller cities (and you don't find much in between). In other words, the Roman east saw the rise of super cities--very influential, busy, cosmopolitan, and populous places, places sucking in those people on the move. Included among these few super cities are places familiar from the Pauline itinerary: Corinth, Athens, Ephesus, and ultimately the super-city to end all super-cities, the black hole of Rome itself.
If you put together the results of our first two searches--into the countryside, into the cities--you see two common elements emerging. First, that the eastern Mediterranean world of Paul was a world in a state of great transformation, even dislocation, from previous patterns of life, with people on the move, on the hop. And second, that the presence and interventions of Rome are everywhere implicit in these changes. As my students like to ask--so what? Well, it is a very big "so what" going on here. These developments can be linked directly to conditions of Paul's mission and reception. In part, there is the fact that he could travel easily and reach wide audiences in super-sized cities. But more than that, the disruption we see, this interference in eastern landscapes and communities, would have shaken people out of traditional social frameworks and would have contributed to the creation of an audience arguably more responsive to new messages and new ways of thinking about their altered world.
I would argue that the dislocation we've been observing--the movement, change in settlement patterns, loss of cult places, urban variation--all this didn't just "soften up" people so they might consider new ideas. These changes would actively have worked to undercut and displace long-standing memories and long-standing identities; not the least of which was the powerful heritage of pagan Hellenism. Many factors have been advanced to explain Christianity's expansion across the eastern empire: but we might now need to add another: and that is a failure, or a breakdown, in shared social memory. Simon Swain, author of Hellenism and Empire, has remarked: "We should at least note in the Greek world the likely appeal of a very different set of priorities and paradigms to those who had no secure or direct interest in the Greek past and who were excluded from its benefits." And he identifies Christianity as one form of these new "priorities and paradigms" made possible by the slackening hold of one particular version of the Greek past upon a new and--as we've seen--very different present.
This rejection of the classical heritage shouldn't be overstated. Christianity and its institutions were built firmly on a classical base, and there were many individuals such as Bishop Synesius of Cyrene who, in the late fourth century A.D., was still boasting how his family tree went back to Sparta. But there seems no denying that new forms of social memory evolved, invested in new monuments (such as churches or martyria) or in new ways of dividing up the world (such as the distribution of bishoprics). Even when old and venerated pagan buildings were adopted and "converted," it was no simple matter of continuity. The most famous case is probably the Parthenon, turned to the worship of the Virgin in the fourth or fifth century A.D., and later becoming a mosque. According to some authors nothing really changes here, Athena equals the Virgin, and so on. That's not so: the building was much reworked (given an apse for starters), its external decorations often took a beating (a literal beating!) unless the images could be interpreted in appropriate ways. The most famous example of this is the metope at the Parthenon's northwestern corner, which was read in Christian terms as the Annunciation, and thus spared. The Parthenon now was not the same building as its classical incarnation; it conjured up different associations and meanings; it integrated its community in a different way from its pagan predecessor. All of this involved a reconfiguration of social memory, of what identified these people, gave them a sense of their past, and defined their aspirations. This reconfiguration, and these new "priorities and paradigms" can be traced back, at least in part, to the radical social transformation of the east around the time of Paul.
Susan E. Alcock's most recent book is Graecia Capta: The Landscapes of Roman Greece.