Nazareth's Abu Ghraib moment


If, as two of the four Gospels report, Jesus was born shortly before the death of Herod the Great, then very early in his infancy his family would have experienced a defining moment of Roman Imperial oppression that would have burned a deep hatred of the Roman Empire into the hearts of Galileans.

I am not referring to the "slaughter of the innocents" that Matthew claims took place under Herod. That story, clearly a mythological reference to the Exodus and the Pharoah, has no historical basis, and was instead invented to make a theological point that Jesus was the new Moses. I am instead referring to the actual historical events that took place after Herod died, when a rebellion rose up against his son, Archelaus, who had taken over from his father as ruler. The Romans responded to that rebellion in typical Roman Imperial fashion--with cold-blooded brutality. As Richard Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman put it in their book The Message and the Kingdom,

Revolution against the civil order, no matter what its motivation, was a capital crime. The governor of Syria, Quntilius Varus, immediately proceeded southward from Antioch at the head of two legions, accompanied by the mobilized forces of the Hellenistic cities and of the region's other loyal client kings. By autumn, the Roman armies had swept through many of the towns and villages of the country, raping, killing, and destroying nearly everything in sight. In Galilee, all centers of rebellion were brutally suppressed; the rebel-held town of Sepphoris was burned to the ground, and all its surviving inhabitants were sold into slavery. (p. 20)
Sepphoris, only four miles from Nazareth ("an hour and a half's walk", as Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan put it in The First Christmas), was burned to the ground by the Romans when Jesus was only a baby. But did Nazareth, where Jesus lived, itself escape Roman wrath? Probably not. Borg and Crossan point out:
Josephus does not give any detailed description of what happened around Sepphoris in 4 BCE, but we can apply to Nazareth what happened when the Syrian legions under Vespasian marched southward against the next rebellion in 67-68 CE. At Gerasa, or Jerash, on the other side of the Jordan from Sepphoris, Lucius Annius "put to the sword a thousand of the youth, who had not already escaped, made prisoners of women and children, gave his soldiers license to plunder the property and then set fire to the houses and advanced against the surrounding villages. The able-bodied fled, the feeble perished, and everything left was consigned to the flames"

For Nazareth, in 4 BCE, either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. "They make a desert and call it peace."

Jesus grew up in Nazareth after 4 BCE, so this is our claim. The major event in his village's life was the day the Romans came. As he grew up toward Luke's coming-of-age at twelve, he could not not have heard, again and again and again, about the day of the Romans--who had escaped and who had not, who had lived and who had died. The Romans were not some distant mythological beings; they were solders who had devastated Nazareth's backyard around the time of his birth. (p. 77)
This would have been a sort of Abu Ghraib moment for Jesus and his fellow Galileans. They had first hand experience with the brutality of Empire. But they also had first hand experience with the failure of open rebellion against Rome. Herein lay the genius of Jesus's way of rebellion against Imperial authority; for what he proposed was a program of nonviolent resistance, in contrast to the more violent forms of resistance that others favored.

Borg and Crossan suggest that Jesus's father could have been one of the victims of Roman brutality during the suppression of the rebellion at that time. That is pure speculation, of course, but it is an easy inference to make. The absence of a living father would have been consistent with the myth of a virgin birth, of course, although the virgin birth story itself was, in my view, not invented to explain the absence of a father but to give a mythological underpinning for the proclamation that Jesus, not Caesar, was Lord. Nevertheless, it is true that Mark 6:3 has people saying the following about Jesus:
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’
One could argue that "Son of Mary", rather than "Son of Joseph", would have been a strange thing to say in a patriarchal culture unless there was no living father. The patriarchal assumption is further reinforced in that passage by the fact that the brothers were identified by name, but the sisters were not. (And if Jesus had lots of siblings, as Mark suggests, and if Joseph had died shortly after Jesus was born, which is of course pure speculation, then Jesus would have been the youngest child of a fairly large family containing five boys and at least two girls).

Whether or not Jesus's father was murdered or enslaved by the Romans, the important point still remains that the people of Nazareth would have experienced a bitter resentment towards Roman Imperial oppression.

It is my contention that Jesus understood that the solution to the problems of Empire in those times lay not in finding a more benign Emperor, but rather in dismantling the entire Imperial system that lay at the heart of the brutal oppression that the people of Galilee experienced. The replacement of Augustus Caesar with an Emperor Obama or Empress Hillary would not have solved the problems of his time. By analogy, what the world needs today is not better Emperors, but an end to Empires altogether. I believe that it needs radical, systematic replacement of a worldwide order based on military power and corporate profits with one based on the principles of the Kingdom of God--where all are included and cared for, where an ephemeral "peace" is not established by military force, but rather by compassionate inclusiveness and respect for all people, where no one rules by dint of force, but rather where all the people have an equal say in the political and economic decisions that affect their lives.