Cover Story

Appeasers, separatists, and transformers

Issue: "All in the family," March 2, 2002

The battle within Israel of those three groups raged for centuries. The first major political upheaval of the post-Old Testament era began in 333 B.C. when Alexander the Great swept through West Asia and conquered many nations, including Israel. Some Israelites separated from Greek-influenced society and formed a community near the Dead Sea at Qumran. (Two thousand years later their records were found and called "The Dead Sea Scrolls.") Others became Hellenistic appeasers, aping the Greeks. A third group emphasized transformation, sometimes through military means.

Roman rule came in 63 B.C., and not peaceably: Roman legions under Pompey killed 12,000 Israelites, including Temple priests right at the altar. And yet, because those who follow biblical rules tend to honor marriage, work hard, and build big families, by around 4 B.C. Jews made up about 10 percent of the Roman Empire. That's about the time when a Jewish baby named Yeshua, born in a stable, became one of approximately 8 million Jews then in the world, with 2.5 million living in their ancient homeland (according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica).

Almost all of them had to interact with Roman culture, and many attempted to transform it not by warfare but by proselytizing. Some thought the two means of transformation could go together, with Jews, under the leadership of a Messiah, becoming the dominant influence in the Roman Empire. Leaders periodically claimed Messianic status, and Palestine became such a hard place to rule that in A.D. 26 Rome gave the Jerusalem command to hard-edged Pontius Pilate. He tried to quash all opposition by crucifying during the next decade over 10,000 Jews, including that Yeshua, called Jesus in Greek.

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Yeshua's small band of followers soon put out the unnatural claim that their leader was resurrected from the dead. Astoundingly, over the next two decades thousands of Jews believed that. One former Pharisee who came to believe that, Paul, became a major-league transformer as he traveled throughout the Empire to explain to non-Jewish audiences that Jesus is the very Son of God. As new Christians learned biblical patterns of thought, they transformed every aspect of their lives.

But in Palestine itself, most Jews did not believe in Christ. Zealots inspired them to believe that if they battled Rome militarily God would come to their aid. When one failed rebellion led to the demolition of the Temple in A.D. 70, an estimated 100,000 Jews died, with another 100,000 taken to Rome as slaves and more fleeing to other countries. Three years later Rome crushed the last Jewish resistance within Palestine; the last Jewish defenders at Masada, a mountain fortress, committed suicide.

Both sides competed to explain to Jews and others what needed to be done now that the center of Jewish worship, the Temple, no longer existed. Those who believed in Jesus did much better at this, for Jesus had predicted the Temple's destruction and apostles were already explaining how each believer was a temple for the Holy Spirit. As Donald Akenson notes in Surpassing Wonder (U. of Chicago Press, 2001), "the Jesus-faith was much quicker to [develop] a temple-religion-without-a-temple than were the founders of what became known as the Jewish faith ... the Christian construct is older than the Jewish one."

After Christianity and Judaism clearly split between A.D. 80 and 100, the two religions competed for proselytes over the next two centuries. (The word proselyte itself initially referred to converts to Judaism.) The competition became increasingly bitter, with both sides at times acting like warring brothers bringing trouble-making tales about the other to the Roman authorities. Words sometimes turned into sticks and stones, leaving a bitterness that turned back into words about the violence each side purportedly visited upon the other.

Judaism initially was on top, but in Judea and elsewhere Messiah-less Jews went to war under the banner of those who claimed to be God's anointed leader. Jewish rebels in 115 and 116 in Cyrene and Egypt destroyed pagan temples and the tomb of Pompey, the Roman general who had captured Jerusalem in 63 B.C. Counterattacking Roman legions then killed thousands of Jews, and those who survived saw their property confiscated so that the destroyed temples could be restored. The biggest rebellion, in Palestine from A.D. 132 to 135-more on this later-also ended in disaster.

Christians proceeded in a slow, one-by-one conversion process, and they gradually succeeded in transforming the Roman Empire. Where Christianity gained influence, children unwanted by their fathers and left outside to die gained a new opportunity to live. Poor people who had settled for bread and circuses went to work and built families. Slaves received better treatment and sometimes liberation. Women also treated as property realized that God knew them by name, and Paul recorded the names of some in his epistles.


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