Jesus and Rome
Jesus and the New Testament writers were born, raised, and lived in a culture of oppression and resistance. The Roman empire was infamous for responding to signs of resistance with the destruction of the community the resistance had been born in. The community Jesus was raised in was shaped by the memory of such an event. Near the time of his birth, the region around his hometown of Nazareth, Rome had burned down many homes and enslaved thousands of Jews (Horsely 2). Herod the Great, who served as a vassal ruler over Israel under Rome, established military fortresses and a secret police force to prevent resistance from rising (Horsely 2). The religious leaders of Judaism, despite instances of their own resistance (Horsely 6) were appointed and supported by Rome and Herod (Horsely 3). They maintained the status quo to preserve their own wealth and power. The collaboration between Rome and Jerusalem resulted in a variety of heavy taxes (Horsely 4-5). The consequence of Israelite oppression was the creation of various protest movements and revolts which envisioned a new David or a new Moses liberating the people of Israel as they had been liberated from the Philistines and from Egypt, a liberation annually re-enacted in the Passover festival (5-6). A variety of “messiahs” and “kings of the Jews” were executed by Rome (7). Perhaps a helpful, though inadequate, image for understanding the anger and fear of these ancient peoples is the image of anger and fear America witnessed in the 2016 election and its aftermath. Because of the context the Jesus movement was birthed in, it is a historical misrepresentation to view Jesus as a spiritual savior coming to bring purely spiritual freedom. His audience, eager for a David or Moses figure, would have recognized the political consequences of who Jesus was and would have expected him to be their political savior, delivering them from oppression just as God had done in the past. As we read the Gospels, we need to be careful to hear the political undertones of resistance which would have been expected by those involved in their stories.