Sunday, March 27, 2016

A Rabbi asks a priest a question... part 12

Continued from last week...

Christians like to think that the early days of the Church were a time of glorious unity and holiness, when there was one united Church of simple folk humbly worshipping the Lord with simple piety, no liturgy, no theology and all this while wearing togas and sandals and hiding out in catacombs. Don’t believe it for a minute. The first Christians were indisputably Jewish, or better put, Israelite as I have been insisting. Jews are great sticklers for theological and liturgical precision. Have you ever been to a Passover meal? Or argued with a rabbi? A good Passover meal takes about four hours, so does a good argument with a rabbi.

The first Christians were quick to adapt temple and synagogue ritual to their own beliefs in the resurrection of Jesus and his teachings.  The rituals of the temple and synagogue involved scripture reading, immersions, hand washing, priestly vestments, bread, wine, water, oil, sacrifices, lamp lighting and music The rituals of Christianity soon involved scripture reading, immersions, handwashing, priestly vestments, bread, wine, water, oil, sacrifices, lamp lighting and music.

There is a fascinating recording called The Sacred Bridge in which there is a comparison of the Sephardic Jewish melody for Psalm114, “When Israel Went Out from Egypt” with the Gregorian chant melody. The melodies are not similar. They are exactly the same. It is thought that the Psalm tones and style of music of the temple were adopted whole cloth by the early Church. The psalms were the hymns of the Church as well as of the temple and synagogue. The first Christians didn’t say, “Wait just a minute! We are Christians now and should be singing, “The Old Rugged Cross” or “How Great Thou Art!’” and not this old temple stuff!”  We kept singing the songs we knew because they spoke to us of the Messiah, the Christ.

In the Catholic Church we still sing them. We also inherited the love of a good religious argument from our Israelite forbears. Just as there were a number of sects in first century Judaism, so too there were a number of sects in the early Church. There were the Ebionites, a kind of Jewish version of Christianity that believed Jesus was the Messiah, but they weren’t so comfortable with the idea that he was the Son of God. As more Greeks and other non-Israelites entered the church all the philosophical fine points of the Greeks created chaos. There were Nicolaitans, Cerinthians, Marcions, the Montanists, the Carpocratians, to name but a few.

Then there was the “great church” or the “church of the bishops.” This largest and most wide distribution of the Christian sects taught that Jesus had formed a structured missionary organization led by elder/supervisors. (The word supervisor in Greek is “episkopos” whence comes our word in English, “bishop.”) The church conferred this episcopal authority by a “smicha,” a laying on hands, just the way the elders of Israel and the rabbis had done since the times of Moses.  By the year 100, this sect of Christians was called the “Universal Church,” that is, “Catholic” (in Greek) and by the year 180AD, it was clear that this sect of Christians looked to the heir of St. Peter, bishop of Rome as its doctrinal authority. (c.f. Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 3) After almost three centuries of theological squabbling with these smaller sects, the Catholic Church developed a completely new headache called Arianism. In the year 311 AD, give or take, an Egyptian presbyter taught that Jesus was certainly the Son of God, but only by adoption. The Father had created Jesus in time before anything else and then adopted him. The Father was thus superior to the Son. This made the Trinity a nice tidy chain of command, much like the Greek idea of the demiurges, one being proceeding from another and much like a Roman army. 

In 313 AD, Constantine had legalized the Christians. He wanted to promote the religion, but which flavor of Christianity to promote? He liked Arianism. It was so tidy and military. He assembled as many bishops as he could get a hold of in the town of Nicaea across the Bosporus from his new capitol Constantinople. The bishops dealt with thorny problems like the ordination of eunuchs, the proper date for Easter and also that problem with Arius. The bishops told Constantine that, “No, we have always believed in a co-equal, co-eternal Trinity, and Arius is nuts.” Well, most of the bishops said that. That should have settled the matter, but it went on to tear the Church and the body politic up for the next two or three hundred years. At least Constantine and his successors had a consistent Catholic creed, the Nicene Creed with which they could figure out who was in and who was out.

Over the next century the position of the state church hardened like concrete and within a very short time the ancient Roman cult was illegal. The old Roman religion was pretty much dead anyway. Constantius, son of Constantine, followed his father Constantine on the throne. He was never quite sure if was an Arian or Catholic, but seems mostly to have been a Catholic. He was certainly no friend of the Jews. Constantius turned up the pressure on the Jews. He and his brothers when they still shared the throne, made a law limiting the ownership of slaves by Jews and forbidding marriage between Jews and Christian women. Presumably, Christian men could still marry Jewish women, who would, of course, be expected to convert. Another law which Constantius issued as sole emperor (his brothers having all mysteriously died), decreed that a person who had converted from Christianity to Judaism would have all of his property confiscated by the government. To be fair, this may have been about business. It may have been an attempt to limit the people who were available to work with Jews whose businesses were in conflict with the state in an increasingly planned economy.

Thus, life in the Roman/Christian (Byzantine) empire got a little bit worse year after year after year... After battles with barbarians, relatives, and other usurpers, he died without a clear heir, having only one posthumous daughter, Flavia. So the nephew, Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, was the only possible choice for emperor. He is known to the Jews as Julian the Hellene. He is known to Christians as Julian the Apostate.

Next week: Sometime you eat the bear. Sometimes the bear eats you. Jews make a couple unfortunate decisions.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Rabbi asks a priest a question... part 11

Continued from last week…

In our last exciting episode, the emperor Diocletian was doing his level best to exterminate Christianity, which had taken root in a surprising 10% of the empire’s population. Even more alarmingly it had found a home among a few members of the imperial household which ran the empire, and in the army. Then it all changed. In 303 AD, the followers of Jesus were being rounded up and executed. In 313 AD, just ten years later, Christianity was not only made legal, but was actually given favored status. How had it happened? Simple: a vision.  More about that later.

In 235 AD things fell apart for the Roman Empire. Emperor Alexander Severus was assassinated by his own troops, the generals fought for the imperial throne for the next 50 years, plague broke out, and there was general economic downturn and a dangerous devaluing of the currency. The coinage got so bad that the government wouldn’t even accept its own money as payment for taxes. Taxes were paid in kind. A town would be assessed so many bushels of wheat, so many military boots, so many swords etc. If the local officials couldn’t come up with the taxes that their towns or districts had been assessed, they would be sold into slavery to pay the bill! It got so bad that local officials would pack up their wagons and families and cross the border to join the barbarians outside the empire’s boundaries.

At one point, the empire broke into four parts. For our purposes the most interesting chaos happened in 270 AD when Zenobia (her real name) regent of the city of Palmyra, in Syria, invaded the Roman Empire. She controlled Syria, the Holy Land, and Egypt for three years, after which the Romans captured her and put an end to her and to her rebellion. The Jews hadn’t been much trouble in more than a hundred years, and weren’t trouble now, but somehow the taint of being Semitic, like the Palmyrenes and Zenobia, raised suspicions. The Jews seemed more comfortable with the Persian and Aramaic speaking peoples of the east, many of whom were followers of Zoroaster or the prophet Mani both of which religions were essentially monotheistic. The Jews in the neighborhood had not risen up as far as I have been able to find out, but the Romans were not very forgiving nor very forgetting rulers.

After a half century of disaster, the emperor Diocletian, already mentioned, came to the imperial throne. He realized that the empire was just too big to govern. He divided it into two administrative sections east and west and appointed a co-emperor for the east and two assistant emperors, one east, one west. Things calmed down a bit and as I mentioned, he was busy blaming the Christians for the mess the empire was in. He retired in 305 and was followed by the short lived Constantius, who died a year later and was followed by his son, Constantine. Constantine was a tough soldier and he wanted the whole enchilada. He took to the field and waged war on his rival, Maxentius. He marched his troops toward Rome down the Flaminian road, where, in northern Italy, he went from victory to victory. When he arrived just north of Rome, things didn’t look so good. Maxentius, Constantine’s chief rival had twice as many soldiers as Constantine and was safe behind the city walls of Rome. 

Then Constantine had a vision. He later told the historian, Bishop Eusebius, that he saw a cross over the sun and the Greek words “En toutō níka,” or “in hoc signo vinces,” in Latin, which means “In this sign, you shall conquer.” He didn’t understand the meaning of the vision, but the next night he had a dream in which Jesus of Nazareth spoke to him and said that he should use the sign against his enemies. Constantine had his soldiers paint it on their shield to replace the Roman eagle, at least that’s what Constantine told Eusebius. Maxentius had a revelation of his own. He went to see the keepers of the Sibylline Books, Rome's own collection of prophetic utterances. The keepers prophesied that, “the enemy of the Romans” would die in the coming battle. It was the old gods against Christ. Maxentius suffered a complete defeat at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, on October 28, 312. By the way, in the heat of battle he fell off the bridge and drowned.

Now Constantine was the undisputed ruler of Rome and the western empire. He shared power with only one other - Licinius. He and Licinius met to confer in 313 in Milan. Constantine would rule the west, Licinius the east and for good measure Licinius would marry Constantine’s sister, Constantia. By the way, they issued something called the Edict of Milan which guaranteed complete freedom of religion in the whole empire. Property and real estate taken from Christians during the persecutions of Diocletian were to be returned. Things deteriorated, you know how in-laws can be. It seems that Licinius had reopened the persecution of Christians. Over the course of the next ten years hostility between Licinius and Constantine ended with Licinius defeat and execution.  Constantine went on to advance the cause of Christianity and the stabilization of the empire which included moving the capital from Rome to a new Rome built in the east. The renewed empire was to last in one form or another for almost a thousand years until it finally fell to the Turks in 1453 and became Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). 

A lot of cynics like me think, “Of course. A vision. How convenient.”  But if you look a little more closely, Christianity was very unpopular with the great majority of Romans. The Roman senate, aristocracy and military were largely hostile to Christianity. Remember, Diocletian had spent years ridding the military and the government of Christians. It seems quite reasonable that Constantine adopted Christianity out of real conviction, not for political advantage. He himself was not baptized until he lay on his deathbed in 337, some 25 years after his vision, but he advanced the cause of Christianity with government perks and huge building projects, especially in Rome, Jerusalem and his new capital, Constantinople.

A new age of religious tolerance and prosperity had dawned. Sort of. Over the next century Christianity became known as “the religion of the Romans.” The Messiah of Israel became the Christ of Rome. To be a Roman was to be a Christian. The old religion was gradually and often violently suppressed. Heresy was now a crime against the state, not just a religious offense, and the Jews?  The position of that tolerated sect of the rabbinic Pharisees, now universally called “the Judeans” (Jews), was less certain. The long standing theological debate between the sect of the Nazarenes and the Rabbinic Pharisees had become a political problem. As early as Constantine things started to change. Constantine declared that Jews were forbidden to own Christian slaves or to circumcise any slaves they did own. One feels a very cold wind blowing.
Nest week: the cold wind gets windier and hotter.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

A rabbi asks a priest a question... part 10

Continued from last week…

There has always been something irritating about Christians. They always want to change you. That annoying question, “Are you saved?” From what?  I am reminded of the old joke. A street preacher disturbs a priest sitting on a park bench reading his prayer book. “Brother, have you found the Lord?” asks the evangelist. The old priest looks up, says, “I had no idea He was lost!” and returns to his prayers. 

A certain type of Christian always manages to be obnoxious. For most of their history the Jews have just wanted to be left alone. Christians keep worrying about them and their salvation and consistently persecuted them, of course for their own good. The Jews were a bit more difficult in times past. The pagan Romans kept trying to rein them in which, for some reason the Jews resented. Three times they rose up against the Romans in 66AD, (the First Jewish/Roman war) in 115AD, (the Kitos rebellion) and in 132 AD (the bar Kochba revolt). The large Jewish communities in Judea, Egypt and Cyprus were pretty much wiped out, but they were still a permitted religion and, in the rest of the empire, in Spain, Greece and Italy, Jews were pretty much undisturbed. Christians were quite another matter. 

Herod Agrippa the First scattered the Christians in 41 AD. It started with Stephen the Deacon who raged at the judges before whom he had been arraigned. “You are stiff necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit: as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets didn’t your fathers persecute? And they killed those that appeared before of the coming of the Righteous One of whom you have now become betrayers and murderers. You received the law as it was ordained by angels, and did not keep it.” (Acts 6: 51-53) 

Talk about contempt of court!  Stephen was just looking for trouble and he got it! Herod Agrippa started a persecution that ended with James, the brother of the Lord and the first bishop of Jerusalem being killed. The Rabbinic Pharisees and the Nazarenes took their brawl to every corner of the Roman Empire, and the Romans really hated civil disturbances. Wherever Saul, now calling himself Paul, went there seem to have been fist fights and riots. The emperor Claudius expelled the Jews (probably just the Jewish Christians) from Rome around 50AD. They had been rioting about a certain “Chrestus.” They had probably gotten into a royal donnybrook (fight) over who or who was not the Messiah. 

Then things got really bad for the Christians. Nero decided to blame the Christians for the burning of the city of Rome in 64 AD. People were blaming him, so a few dead Christians might take the heat off him. After all weren’t the looney Christians always talking about the world ending in fire? How convenient. They were obnoxious and nobody liked them anyway. Christianity became and remained illegal for the next three centuries. Christians were always criminals, but the outright prosecution of Christians was intermittent.  Nero (64-68) decided to rid the world of Christians first, then Domitian (81-96), then Trajan (112-117). Under Trajan, Christians were not sought out, but were executed if, having been discovered, they refused to sacrifice to the gods. Then there was Marcus Aurelius (161-180), then Septimus Severus (202-210), then Decius (250-251). Decius was pretty thorough. He wanted the nonsense to end and required people to make public sacrifice to the gods or else.

The bishops of Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch were all killed by Decius. There was Valerian (257-59), who martyred the Bishop Cyprian of Carthage and Pope Sixtus II, then Maximinus the Thracian (235-38), then Aurelian (270–275). And then the big one: Diocletian and Galerius (303-324). Despite being illegal and occasionally persecuted, Christianity grew at a geometric rate perhaps, 10% a year. By the reign of Diocletian in 300 AD, they comprised perhaps 10% of the empire’s population.  In some areas they were a substantial minority, perhaps even a majority. Though it was a legal religion, Rabbinic Phariseeism, (i.e. Judaism) had diminished in the empire. Its center of gravity had moved to Babylon, in the area of modern Baghdad. The Jews were always more comfortable among the Persians than the Romans. The Persians had freed them from the Babylonians, centuries before and the Persians were followers of the prophet Zoroaster, and thus were also monotheists, unlike the Romans who had a god for every occasion and every vice.

Diocletian knew that Rome was in trouble, barbarians trying to storm the border, the Persians threatening to invade the east, the currency collapsing. Something was seriously wrong. The Christians were as obnoxious as ever and in 299, Diocletian was offering sacrifice in an attempt to predict the future. The priest in charge of the divination failed to get a reading because, as he said, “profane men” had interrupted the process. Certain Christians in the imperial household had made the sign of the cross at a crucial moment during the sacrifice which ruined the whole thing. Diocletian went ballistic and ordered all members of the court and the army to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. In other words, all Christians who remained faithful to Christ were thrown out of the army and the government.

In 302, it went from bad to worse. Romanus, an ordained deacon, was visiting the imperial court just as the sacrifices were getting under way to begin the court session. He denounced the sacrifice in a loud voice, was arrested and sentenced to have his tongue ripped out.  Enough was enough. Diocletian decided that Christians were the reason for the mess the empire was in. They had displeased the gods and need to be obliterated. He did his level best to eliminate the whole lot of them by any means possible. Those wacky Christians seemed to welcome the challenge. There are stories told about Christian monks in the Roman province of Egypt who would come in form their desert monasteries and demand to be martyred. There were just not enough judges to handle all the cases so they would be turned away with something like “Sorry we’re only executing bishops today.”  People were dying by the boat loads, and then something amazing happened.

Next week: something amazing