Obeying the Torah

[The Leaven – exploring the relationship between science and religion (cont)]

As with the Old Testament, the New Testament was written during a time of rapid social change. The Jews were a minority group struggling to find a voice against the vastness of the Roman Empire. There was immense confusion and doubt surrounding religious beliefs with conflicting ideals grappling to become the major influence. The Romans had conquered Egypt and Greece combining a multitude of different Gods and ideals in the process. Greek philosophy had a significant stimulus, impacting social behaviour to influence both life-styles and religious views.

The School of Athens. Fresco by Raffaello Sanzio 1511

Preceding the Romans occupation, Alexander the Great, a student of Aristotle (356-323 BC) brought Hellenic teachings to the Middle East. In addition to recording information about the culture and natural environment of the countries he encountered, Alexander wanted to disseminate Greek knowledge and values. At the western edge of the Nile Delta he founded a city named Alexandria that became a prominent seat of learning. Euclid, Archimedes and Eratosthenes all researched in the museum that he established there. When Alexander died the region fell into turmoil, with Palestine caught inbetween the constantly bickering Egypt and Syria. Rome around this time was heavily influenced by Greek and Oriental philosophies through trading with the Eastern Mediterranean, and was receptive to new ideologies. The fact that other societies had their own Gods made them sceptical about the Gods that they worshipped and many were ready for change.

Once Rome had control over France and Spain in Western Europe it set out to dominate intimidating cultures from the East. It overturned Syria and Palestine and under the leadership of Caesar Augustus gained Egypt from Anthony and Cleopatra. Caesar Augustus was emperor of Rome when they invaded Palestine around 63 BC. He was still emperor when Jesus of Nazareth was born,  the Hellenic-inclined Herod the Great was  King of Palestine. Caesar Augustus was one of the most powerful Roman emperors, who had mediated in disputes amongst Roman leaders following the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC and had successfully policed trade routes within and around the Mediterranean. He was held in high regard by the people of the Roman Empire who saw him as a saviour-king, constructing temples in his honour as if he were a deity.

Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to the people. Ecce homo! (Behold the man!). Painting by Antonio Ciseri, 1871

In Palestine, Herod built a huge temple to honour Augustus called Sebaste, the Greek equivalent of his name. To encourage the Jews to follow a Hellenistic way of life he also constructed gymnasia, theatres and stadia. To pay for these ambitious building projects he collected taxes from the Jews. The Jews resented his  efforts to bring Greek influence to the district. As a consequence of this Herod was always fearful that his position would be threatened and so appointed secret agents to ensure that none of his subjects would be disloyal. In this respect he went to extremes, having his mother-in-law, two of his sons and a wife executed because he questioned their loyalty. Upon his death, Herod’s three sons, Archelaus, Herod and Philip, under the direction of the Roman Empire, distributed his territory between themselves. Archelaus ruled Judea, Herod Antipas ruled Galilee, during the time of Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist, while Philip governed the remaining regions. Rome also appointed a series of procurators to govern the Jews, the most famous being Pontius Pilate. The procurators were as unpopular as the other occupiers because they resorted to cruelty in order to control the Jews, who persistently refused to acknowledge Greek religions in favour of their own. The Jews believed that if they did not understand and follow the words of God as told to Moses in the Torah they would become slaves once more. It was in this atmosphere of intense suppression that the Jews hoped for a redeemer to free them once more from the trappings of servitude. Jesus of Nazareth became a potential contender to fulfil this role.