Letter to Fidel Labrador continued…
Where are we? Always a fine question when I am writing. St James says one is not saved by faith alone, but by works also because faith without works is dead. St. Paul says that one is not saved by works of the law. What’s going on here? I have already explained my theory that St. James, the bishop of Jerusalem is writing a fund-raising letter for the hungry Jerusalem community. Jesus had taught that if we don’t feed the hungry and clothe the naked He will say to us on the judgment day, “…depart from me, I never knew you.” (Matt 7:21)
I have labored mightily to show that St. Paul never says that good works are not necessary for salvation, just that works of the Law of Moses won’t save you. What was Paul driving at? On to the salacious Roman gossip.
The Roman emperor Claudius (ruled 41-54 AD) was the last man standing when Caligula, his nephew and most of the other members of the family of Julius and Augustus Caesar were dead. Claudius pretended he was an idiot and they never bothered to kill him. After the army assassins killed crazy depraved Caligula, the palace guard realized that without an emperor they were out of a job. They found crazy semi-depraved Uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain and made him emperor. The terrified senate went along with it and it turned out that Claudius was a pretty good emperor, except for his weakness for women of very little character. Claudius had been quite close to a Jew, Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great (the baby killer of Bethlehem fame). In fact, Agrippa was raised on the Palatine hill in Rome in the palace of the Caesars, not to be confused with Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The emperors had the habit of inviting the children of client kings to live with the imperial family in Rome. It was a good way to Romanize them and to keep their families on their best behavior, that is if they ever wanted to see Junior again, so Claudius, Caligula and Agrippa were all chums.
After Caligula was assassinated in 41 AD, Agrippa seems to have helped Claudius have the senate and the palace guards agree on the accession of Claudius to the imperial purple. Claudius gave Agrippa control of most of his grandfather Herod the Great’s territory. He also gave part of Lebanon to Herod Agrippa’s brother Herod. (They weren’t real original in their choice of names.) Agrippa became one of the most powerful and consequently most dangerous kings in the Middle Eastern territory of the Roman Empire. Herod started fortifying places and making lots of new friends in the Middle East, which made his friend Emperor Claudius a bit nervous. Could it be that Herod Agrippa was fomenting rebellion and taking himself a little too seriously as a possible Jewish messiah? He was acclaimed as a god by the crowd in the amphitheater in Caesarea on the coast of the Holy Land. The Acts of the Apostles said for this sin of allowing himself to be hailed as a god, he was struck down by an angel and was dead only three years after receiving the enlarged kingdom.
What’s point of all this? Jews had started to make Emperor Claudius nervous. They were 10 percent of the population of the empire. There was a community of them in all the major cities of the empire, maybe a million around Alexandria Egypt and certainly a large number in Antioch, the third city of the empire and a sizable community in Rome. They were well positioned to make trouble. They did in fact revolt in the Holy Land in 66 AD and again in 132 AD, but more ominously they rose up in Cyprus and North Africa in 115 AD. They certainly made the emperors nervous and Claudius, despite what everyone thought, was certainly no fool. When, in 50AD (probably) there were riots among the Jews of Rome about a certain Chrestos, Claudius said, “Enough!” and expelled the Jews from Rome.
This fellow Chrestos was probably Christos, the Greek word for messiah. Christianity had reached Rome early and they were busy fighting over the whole issue of who was in the Church and who was out. Claudius seems to have sent the whole lot packing. Paul met the exilesPriscilla and Aquila from Rome in Corinth around 50 AD and they opened a tent making business together. From them Paul would have heard the sad story of the Church of Rome and I suspect this gave Paul a great idea. He would get his theological point of view in on the ground floor when things eventually opened for Jews in Rome. His opportunity was not long in coming. (More on this later.) Remember his point of view. God loved Greeks as well as Jews and a Greek didn’t have to become a Jew to become a Christian.
The synagogue was a new thing at the time of Christ. The synagogue is never mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament). It possibly developed in the Babylonian community of Jews a couple hundred years before Christ. The religion of Israel was a domestic religion that required three pilgrimages to the Jerusalem temple per year if possible. The prayers and blessings and dietary laws that made up the practice of religion were up to the individual. The sacrifices necessary for purification etc. were performed in the Jerusalem temple, but beyond that, there were no place of religious assembly. The equation changed in Babylon. How could one maintain the religion of Israel without the temple? Pilgrimage was pretty much out of the question if you had to walk to Jerusalem from Babylon in Iraq. The answer? The synagogue! It was a place where one could be an Israelite with other Israelites -- a sort of community center. Gradually the synagogue and the rabbis, religious teachers, came to supplant the temple in the daily life of Jews, especially those not living in the Holy Land. For a couple centuries the rabbis and the synagogue existed alongside the temple and the sacrificing priests, the cohenim, the descendants of Aaron and the tribe of Levi. When the temple was finally destroyed, all that was left was the synagogue. It became the de facto center of what was now truly “Jewish” life.
There were a lot of gentiles (non-Jews) who attended synagogue. They were called the God-fearers. They had pretty much given up on the silly religions of the ancient world. Remember the Egyptian hippo-jackal-cow gods? The Roman and Greek gods looked more like people, but you had to hide your kid sister from them and sometimes your kid brother. They weren’t very nice gods. A lot of well-educated Romans and Greeks were fascinated by the Jewish religion which spoke of one God who was reasonable and actually interested in human beings, a reasonable moral code and a fairly reasonable set of writings. They weren’t going to jump into the deep end of the pool what with circumcision and no pork and temple sacrifices. They came to synagogue and prayed and studied but nothing more. They were Jewish wannabes, but couldn’t go the whole way, then along comes St. Paul…
Next week: More salacious ancient Roman gossip, I promise