Jesus: A Classical Perspective

pietaThe presentation of Jesus of Nazareth in the four Gospels of the New Testament is highly selective in terms of what is left out (most of his life), and in terms of the focus for what is included (almost exclusively his ministry). Moreover the presentation is culturally selective and distorting for the mental world of Jesus, because the contexts of his consciousness could not have helped but be more classical than those presented there. Galilee, Judaea and Phoenicia were parts of the classical world in an age of high culture when knowledge and awareness of the historical contexts were unsurpassed.

St Paul was a certified Roman citizen who could quote Euripides (I Corinthians 15:33). Jesus never took out Roman citizenship but he belonged to the Roman Empire at its most brilliant and peaceful, under Augustus and Tiberius, and his followers included members of the Jewish Senate or Sanhedrin who quite probably did enjoy formal Roman citizenship, like Paul. Jesus was rightly liable for taxes, as he acknowledged, for he lived under the pax romana as a beneficiary of the engineering expertise (roads) and cultural contributions (architecture) the classical centre provided, and which, as a civilised person, he must have viewed, admired and used on every hand. The cultural contexts in his part of the world had been increasingly classical since the time of Alexander the Great, and though Hebrew was still spoken by the Jews there, within a couple more centuries it would no longer be used in everyday conversation, surviving as a literary language.

Jesus spoke Aramaic and probably Greek, the lingua franca of the empire on its eastern side. So it is perfectly valid to consider Jesus not just as a Galilean Jew but also as a member of the classical world of which he was a part. There is nothing in the Gospels to mark him out as an ignoramus. He was fully literate—he wrote, he read. The proximate Jewish world was not his only context, and in this brief article (intended as a research opportunity) I choose to sideline it for the interim. For the sake of countering an imbalance, I opt here to view Jesus within a classical perspective. Although I consider myself a Christian, my assumed point of view here is classical, non-Christian and Greco-Roman, effectively the likely view of Pontius Pilatus and the people to whom Pilatus reports: Lucius Aelius Seianus at Rome and Tiberius at Capreae.

We are in Jerusalem in the year AUC 782—782 years ab urbe condita, from the founding of Rome. Not for hundreds of years will it be referred to as AD 29 (taking that as the year of the Crucifixion—it may have been AD 30, views differ). Pontius Pilatus is praefectus iudaeae. Tiberius is princeps, the first among the Roman senators, adopted son of the deceased and since deified Augustus (or “divi Augusti filius” on the coins Jesus handled—no one else in the empire is the son of a god, at least officially). Numerous times consul, holder of the tribunicia potestas (tribunician power), Tiberius lives a largely retired life on the island of Capreae, while at Rome Lucius Aelius Seianus acts as his deputy and de facto head of government. Pilatus reports either directly from Iudaea to Capreae, or more likely through Seianus at Rome.

The mind of Jesus—literate and hence in some sense schooled—almost certainly included a spot not only for Tiberius among the eminent Romans of his day but also for Sejanus as the de facto executive power at Rome. Jesus may well have been able to tell you the names of the first two elected consuls each year (the most important part of the fasti, or annual register of magistrates), though he could hardly be expected to keep up with the suffect consuls elected to assist them, or anyone lower down in the executive hierarchy at Rome.

Before Pilatus judged Jesus, and judged him innocent, he interviewed him. Putting oneself in the room momentarily, what language are they speaking? It’s a thousand to one that Pilatus spoke Greek, the lingua franca out here, as well as Latin of course. It beggars belief to think he learned Aramaic—all the right people among the Jews spoke fluent Greek, he didn’t need to deal with the vulgus. Either Pilatus spoke with Jesus through an interpreter (not mentioned in the Gospels, though everything cannot be mentioned), or they spoke Greek, and I incline to the latter view. In one of the Gospels some visiting Greeks are brought to converse with Jesus, and again there is nothing about an interpreter.

If Pilatus had heard of Jesus before this, what might he have been told by his lieutenants about this man and his whole cursus publicus, his movement? Certainly it wasn’t a democratic movement. Today many would frown upon it on that ground alone. Not only that, it was a theocratic movement focused on the Kingdom of God and, in that sense, in its political implications would be condemned outright in the modern secular West. We may forget (those of us who still like to think through the Lord’s Prayer occasionally) that when we silently say “Thy kingdom come” we follow it up with “Thy will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven”, thus connecting, syntactically and meaningfully, the theocracy of Heaven to the governance of the Earth on Earth, since without appropriate governance how can His will be properly done here? One thinks of Calvin’s Geneva and modern Iran.

Jesus told Pilatus, in response to a question, that his Kingdom was not of this world, but there is ample evidence in the Gospels that the Kingdom was also to be understood as shadowed forth, or somehow coming into being, within this world also—plus those troubling words quoted above. The Kingdom was of course with Jesus, and already (at least in potentia) “within you” (perhaps “among you” is a better translation), as he told some hostile priests. Various interpretations are of course possible.

In any case we have a strongly undemocratic and theocratic movement talking about a “Kingdom of God” to be brought about, prayerfully, “in Earth”. This is politically incomprehensible to a Roman brought up within a civic culture dependent on elections right up through the various levels of politics (the cursus honorum), just as it is politically incomprehensible in the West today. We hate theocracies—let there be democracy everywhere and theocracy nowhere, except in one’s heart where it can harm nobody.

What else might Pilatus have heard? Perhaps that Jesus seemed averse to priests, flouted the letter of the law, and was not reported as attending a synagogue every Saturday, though he preached with authority in synagogues from time to time. None of that would have predisposed a Roman prefect against Jesus (quite the contrary), nor the fact that the dislike between Jesus and the priests was mutual. It must all have been very puzzling to Pilatus, like everything else in this unwelcoming country. Jesus was apparently a kind of priest himself, generally ambulant, and called “rabbi” by some (was he married?—all rabbis out here are married, aren’t they?). The religion of Judaea was fraught with quarrels, divergent schools locked in mutual hatred. Much that was taken for granted in Rome was anathema out here, or utterly inconceivable—consecrated female virgins, for example, so central to worship at the Temple of Vesta: nothing whatsoever like that in the Jewish religion. How could one bridge a cultural gap like that? What religious Jew could ever conceive of women consecrated to virginity in the name of religion?—something so venerable at Rome, so laughable out here, unsupported by Jewish history, writings or law, as the Jewish scholars attest.

The structure of the movement? Pilatus had probably heard something about it. There was a clear ductus principle, the dux in this instance being both teacher and leader. The movement, understood politically (and potentially almost everything, unfortunately, might develop political implications), was vertical in more ways than that. Under the dux there was apparently a kind of cabinet of twelve presided over by the dux—some sort of duodecemviri. Within that, there was an inner cabinet that included the dux—a quadrumviri, in which just three of the duodecemviri (namely Peter, James and John) had especially privileged access to the leader (as instanced in the revelatory Transfiguration incident, and elsewhere). Beneath the duodecemviri there was reported to exist a militant cadre, ever-growing in number, at one defined point consisting of seventy (a second source says seventy-two), all of them men presumably—though not necessarily, note, for they are called “the seventy”, not “the seventy men”. These fan out from the dux, taking the message of the Kingdom of God and its earthly leader to the wider world, beyond Iudaea even. Indeed Jesus himself had not limited his mission geographically to Galilee and the Roman province of Iudaea (Samaria, Judaea, Idumaea), but had taken it onto a wider street, north into Phoenicia, predominantly Gentile—up around Sidon and Tyre. Pilatus knew those people well. They had apparently been eager to hear the Nazarean, and some sort of miracle had been performed for a Gentile mother up there.

To distance oneself from Pilatus’s fresh but narrow perspective for a while (he had little interest in Judaea, which he loathed), Jesus knew a lot about Rome and Roman history from the coins he regularly handled. What of Rome did he carry about in his consciousness? He handled a great variety of Roman coins, some of which had no doubt been circulating for fifty or more years, struck with inscriptions in Latin, many in Greek, that were intended to educate the ordinary people who used them—they functioned somewhat like newspapers. Jesus was conscious that one of the honours bestowed on Augustus was pater patriae, father of his country (many a coin told him that), that Augustus’s and Tiberius’s authority was constitutionally based on tribunicia potestas, the tribunician power, that Livia was augusta under Augustus and that Julia was augusta under Tiberius, and that the minting of all this informative coinage he was handling (which carried the marks of many different mints) was authorised by the Senate (a common inscription is SC: senatus consultum). He knew that Augustus as Octavian had won the Battle of Actium and captured Egypt from Marcus Antonius and Cleopatra (countless coins remained in circulation struck ACTIVM/AEGYPTO CAPTA). From coins he would also have known of the famous victories of Drusus the Elder, Tiberius and Germanicus in Germania from around the time of his birth. He quite likely knew of the destruction of three legions in Germania under Publius Quinctilius Varus in AD 9, when Jesus was around sixteen, because Varus had been well known in the East, having earlier been Governor of Syria and figuring on coins there.

Around AD 15, when Jesus was about twenty-two, and following the death of Augustus, the long and famous funerary inscription res gestae divi augusti (“Things achieved by the divine Augustus”), which Augustus had composed a few years earlier as a public autobiography, was inscribed onto large marble slabs (bronze at Rome) and put up all over the empire, in Latin and Greek, for everyone to read. Great fragments of it from excavations all around the Mediterranean exist today, so that we have the complete text—indeed an almost complete copy was found at Ancyra. It was intended that everyone should have access to this public text and read it. The res gestae describes its author’s military and political career including his ending of the civil wars with the defeat of the armies of Brutus and Cassius and his establishment of a general peace following his victory at the Battle of Actium. It sets out his political philosophy and adherence (as he sees it) to the prescribed norms of republican government. His benefactions to the citizens of the wide-flung empire and their pecuniary value are listed in great detail.

The Latin and Greek texts were deliberately written by Augustus in hyper-simple (and yet correct) language so that they could be read and understood by anyone half-literate in either language. Walking past it, any such person with the slightest historical curiosity would naturally glance through it. Jesus did not hate Romans, in fact he healed the servant of a Roman centurio (officer equivalent to our captain) whose nomen was Cornelius, on Cornelius’s request. This officer was a Latin-speaking Italian belonging to the Cohors II Italica, an auxiliary regiment (there were no legions in Iudaea at the time). Nor did Jesus suggest the officer quit his military position. There was another sympathetic centurion present at the Crucifixion.

Given the amount of travelling Jesus undertook throughout Iudaea and Phoenicia it is unlikely that he would never have come across the res gestae. Hadn’t everyone seen it? It was everywhere. And what it provides to all and sundry is an immense amount of information, as a glance at any English translation on the internet will show: a who’s who and comprehensive history of the Roman Empire under Augustus; a survey of all the provinces and their state; an account of social and religious reform programs carried out; and much else of great interest—information practically unavoidable except by those with closed minds.

In the religious context it obviously does not matter much whether Jesus was conscious of what was happening in the wider classical world around him, for the comforts of which he paid his taxes. Most of his life is unrecorded, but for an historian interested in the purely human dimension certain assumptions, such as those offered here, seem reasonable. The Gospels suggest that Jesus was interested in his political world, which included Jewish senators and Italian military officers, and through all the lost years we can be sure he was doing more than sawing timber, cutting stone and meditating on the Father. He could hardly help hearing the news from far and wide, and he could read. The classical world was not absent from his mind. This is a Jesus with whom I could happily walk and talk (as is the other, though he is culturally more distant). The Gospel writers, however, were not much concerned with him.

I have restricted attention to the informative texts Jesus knew—the coins and, most probably, the res gestae divi augusti. What other potential sources exist for an extended inquiry into his classical consciousness? An extendable list would include the classical archaeology of the first-century towns and cities he knew, from which are deducible the styles of the principal civic buildings; the identity of the Roman authorities of whom he was probably aware in the cities, wherever ascertainable from the literary or archaeological record; their political and social connections to the centre; the probable structure, make-up, weapons, uniforms and insignia of Cohors II Italica, and the likely kinds of servants employed by its officers; possible identification of the regiment of the centurion at the Crucifixion; and the relationship of carpentry to bridge engineering—for instance, would an intelligent and inquisitive carpenter take an interest in the Roman construction of bridges round about him? And where were those bridges?

Philip Ayres is the author of Fortunate Voyager: The Worlds of Ninian Stephen, published in September by Miegunyah/Melbourne University Press. He is also the author of other major civic biographies including Owen Dixon, as well as Classical Culture and the Idea of Rome in Eighteenth Century England (1997). He wrote on his interview with Gerald Ford in the October issue.


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