The conflict between the Roman and the Parthian Empires was the historical background
of the death of Jesus. In the Armenia crisis of 35/36 CE the conflict was held on the territory of the client/buffer states from Armenia to Palestine.
In the beginning of the year 35 CE the situation in Palestine was instable because of the death of the tetrarch Philip in 34 CE and the dismissal of the governor Jesus some years before.
The Jewish and Oriental section of the populace was waiting for a sign of Roman weakness to appoint a king independent of Rome and to flee beneath the hegemony of the Parthian Empire – like two generations before, when Herod the Great had been forced to flee to Rome.
The Annals of Tacitus and the Antiquities of Josephus inform us about international affairs and regional conflict. Seeing Jesus as the governor of Galilee and identifying him with the Samaritan prophet we can understand the conditions and the series of events which led to the death of Jesus.
When the canon of the New Testament was put together, every single apostle church
the Hellenistic church of Paul contributed a gospel, letters and sometimes other scriptures. The criteria of incorporation into the canon are that there must be a balanced nature of the origin from each of the four churches and pleas for the unity of the Christian church.
Therefore the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were incorporated into the canon, along with the Acts of the Apostles, the Revelation and the collections of letters of each of the churches.
The Letter of Paul to Philemon and the Third Letter of John belonged, and still belong, to the canon because they plead for the unity of the church as a whole regarding social classes and the creed of faith.
The self-testimony of Mark about his gospel: In the narration of the Transfiguration
(Mark 9, 2-13) Jesus takes the disciples Peter, John and James with him and leads them up a high mountain. Jesus is transfigured in an apparition and stands between the apparitions of Moses and Elijah who talk to him.
Peter would like to make three shelters (= three temples, three churches), one for Moses, one for Elijah, one for Jesus. But the vision ends, the disciples are alone with Jesus.
Jesus stands here in a row with the mythic heroes of Judaism, Moses and Elijah: he himself becomes a mythic hero. Mark also made a statement about his gospel. The Pentateuch records the story of Moses; the books of Kings and of prophets records the story of Elijah and the prophets.
In his gospel Mark records about the story of Jesus with the same authority as the scriptures of Judaism. Mark can only gain the authority this requires if he writes his gospel according to an agreement with the leaders of the apostle churches.
Therefore the founding fathers of each of the three churches were named witnesses of the major theological creeds. Mark writes right from the start for the unified Christian church and right from the start he claims canonical importance.
In the well-known narration of Stilling the Storm (Mark 4, 35-41) Jesus and his disciples
are in a boat. A storm comes up, and Jesus is sleeping on a cushion. The disciples are afraid and wake Jesus up, who calms the storm down. Mark focuses the attention on Jesus: the disciples became a facade, they are helpless without Jesus.
A different situation: the disciples are important. At three places in the gospel according to Mark Jesus picked out three disciples who were going to accompany him and to witness special events: the Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (5, 37), the Transfiguration (9, 2), and the Temptation of Jesus in Gethsemane (14, 33).
The three disciples Peter, John and James were the leaders of the most important apostle churches, and the three events they witnessed and were to bear witness to in each of their churches were the most important creed of the three apostle churches:
the Raising by Jesus (church of John), the Glorification of Jesus (church of Peter) and the temptation, the human suffering of Jesus (church of James).
The religious apostle churches brought the full range of ancient folk religiousness and pagan superstition into Christianity.
The Christian Baptists came from the mystery religions; Peter had a partiality for astrology. Calling him a “fisher” means not his profession, but his astrological hope that the kingdom of heaven would come with the era of Pisces (spring sign of the zodiac) in his lifetime.
Early Christians used a fish as a cryptogram or symbol for Christ or Christianity before they used the cross. Christian women, who were often named Mary after Mary the Jewess, a famous alchemist of Hellenistic Egypt, brought mystic alchemist ideas into Christian thought.
During missionary work the apostle churches met and came to appreciate each other, Mark 9, 38-40. But even in the gospels the reservations against single apostle churches or groups of Christians are clear: the Judas Christians were called traitors, the church of Peter was accused of denying the Lord, the churches of James and John were accused of lusting for power, Mark 10, 35-45.
Wanting to compare himself with Jesus, Peter sank into the water like an ordinary human being, Matt 14, 30; in the narration of Stilling the Storm all disciples are helpless without Jesus.
Jesus did not found the church, he did not appoint disciples.
It was not until after his death that religious communities developed whose leaders referred to Jesus and claimed that they were fulfilling his work as his successors.
These communities, which I call apostle churches, were rivals with one other and with other religious movements in the competitive market of religions and cults in Palestine and the Greek-speaking eastern part of the Roman Empire.
The most important apostle churches were the Baptists of the church of John, which had a special relationship with the disciples of John the Baptist; the Jewish Christian church of James, which had to distance itself from the Rome-hostile Judas of Galilee and his disciples; the spiritual church of Simon Peter, which competed with the Gnostics of Simon Magus (Acts 8).
First Paul tried to achieve church unity and to get away from the schism not only between Jewish and gentile Christians, but also between all different Christian groups. Paul claimed that Jesus and faith in him was important, not in the apostles.
In 70 CE for early Christianity the time of the apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit and sent directly by God, was over.
The authority of the church was given to the local churches and their elders. In the gospels, the Acts and the late letters, the time of Jesus and the apostles is considered to be a completed era whose heroes the Christians after 70 CE could not and did not want to compare themselves with.
As in Rome of the same time, the Christians saw the epoch as over and made a fresh start. The gospels and the Acts ask for the significance of Jesus and the apostles, for the meaning of the fall of Jerusalem.
As a model for interpretation they used the epic poetry of the pagan Ancient World. Redefining the Christian identity they accepted – now bindingly for all Christians – the Jewish culture of the Old Testament as the predecessor culture.
The two cultures were linked accordingly to the well-known system of promise and fulfilment, with promise in the Old Testament and fulfilment in the New Testament.
The years 68-70 CE marked the second turn of an era.
With Nero’s forced suicide the short era of the divine emperors and the hundred-year rule of the emperors of the high aristocratic family of Augustus were over. In 69 CE, the year of four emperors, Vespasian founded the Flavian dynasty. The new emperor understood himself not as a god, but as a human being and did not deny his low origins from the Italian countryside.
In the Flavian time the epos (poetry in the style of Homer and Virgil) experienced a revival by the poets Valerius Flaccus and Statius. The time until the rule of the emperor Nero was considered to be a completed era, to which tribute was to be paid and after which a new beginning was needed.
A fresh start was undertaken by thinking back to Greek culture. The Flavian epic poets give the Romans Greek legends as an Old Testament of Roman culture (Michael von Albrecht).
10. The eras and the turns of eras in Roman, Jewish and early Christian history in the 1st century CE
In about 30 CE a series of elderly gentleman trained under the reign
of Augustus were ruling in Rome and in Palestine. From the Isle of Capri the 70-year-old emperor Tiberius directed events in Rome. In the capital of the empire the knight Aelius Seianus, the chief minister of state, was in control of everything.
In Palestine the tetrarchs Herod Antipas and Philip had ruled the northern territories for more than 30 years. For more than 20 years Antipas had been supported by the governor Jesus.
Judaea and Samaria were under direct Roman administration as the province Judaea, and since 26 CE the knight Pontius Pilate had ruled with a rod of iron. In the following years this peaceful idyll of Augustean stability and Middle Eastern joie de vivre was about to be shaken by a line of events, in the course of which the rulers were completely exchanged.
In the years 36/37 CE responsibility for the political order was handed over to a new generation of political leaders.
Planning and building the new capital of Tiberias was the masterpiece of the government of Jesus.
For this brilliant feat Jesus got the honorary title tekton (tektwn). This Greek word is usually translated as “carpenter”, but here it means “architect”. Those building a new city or a new capital would like make many things better than before: they would like to leave old things and ways behind.
The inspiration behind this was the idea of the New Jerusalem. In the Jewish capital Jerusalem the great Temple, the house of God, had been under construction for more than forty years.
Herod Antipas and Jesus wanted to build a city for the people without forgetting to worship the divine powers. The new capital was built in record time, if not in three days as in John 2, 19.
From the year 20 CE there are the first coins of Herod Antipas with the inscription Tiberias and the reed, which was a symbol of the city by the Sea of Galilee. The coins celebrated the new capital.
Anyone who knows biblical narratives will be sure to remember the parable of the Great Supper,
Matt 22, 1-14; Luke 14, 15-24. A king invites guests, but they do not come. So the king decides to invite the poor and the beggars. Fortunately Flavius Josephus sketches the historical situation of this parable, Ant 18, 2, 3.
The prince Herod Antipas had built the new capital and had named it after the ruling emperor Tiberias. When he invited the upper class to live in the new city, they all made excuses. Herod Antipas invited the lower class to live in the capital and enticed the impoverished with properties, building sites and start-up capital.
None of the new settlers were asked where they come from or what they had been before. Former slaves, Josephus sneers, also settled in Tiberias and got full civil rights.
In the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matt 20, 1-16) there are still signs of contemporaries’ amazement that all new citizens are treated equally, irrespective of their social background and their work (the equal wages symbolize the same civil right they all got).
The Call of the Levi (Matthew). Duties and taxes were leased in the Hellenistic states and in the Roman Empire. Wealthy men guaranteed with their fortune that the demanded sum of taxes in a city or a region would be paid.
Their job or their risk was to divide the tax paid to the king among the other wealthy citizens of the city or the region and collect the money from them. In the principality of Herod Antipas the system of leasing taxes and duties probably worked the same way.
The leaseholders of duties (the publicans) the governor Jesus dined with can originally only have been rich Jewish aristocrats. Only these upper-class people were able to guarantee a sum of taxes or duties. Understanding the narration this way, the meaning of the parable is as follows:
Jesus, as governor, did not ostracize the Jewish aristocracy in Galilee, but integrated it in monarchic society. When the rich aristocrats demanded benefits from the monarch like the poor Galileans, Jesus’ answer was negative: It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick, Mark 2, 17.
This miracle has central importance for the early Christians; it is told of Peter and of Paul too (Acts 3, 1-11; 14, 8-18). In the Old Testament help for the weak is a symbol of the Messiah and the last days, Micah 4, 6s, Zephaniah 3, 19.
The paralytic is again the Galilean people. He is so weak that he cannot do anything to bring about the healing himself. But there are friends in need who demonstrate the weakness of the people to Jesus. In the parable Jesus’ help consists of pronouncing an order.
In the historical situation the governors Jesus help was to order people to help themselves. But Jesus did not just issue orders: he ensured that the people were legally and economically able to meet his orders.
The good policy of the government was followed by an economic boom which has been proved by historians. In this context I will later speak about the founding and populating of Tiberias.
The leper is the non-Jewish people of Galilee. Leprosy is a contagious disease; in the Ancient World it was incurable, and the leper was put under strong quarantine: the disease ostracizes the sick.
In parables leprosy and the leper symbolize ostracism, i.e. exclusion from the religious community (probably 2 Kgs. 5). The governor Jesus wants to take all the people under the authority of the monarch: he needs them all for the economic boom, strengthening the economic power of the tetrarchy.
Jesus wants to tear down the barriers erected by the Jewish aristocracy to exclude the non-Jewish Galilean from the profits of the economic prosperity.
Jesus cleanses the leper. The miracle is not that he can break the laws of nature: the wonder is that someone is suddenly able to give the same rights to the Galilean lower class as to the Jewish upper-class.
8. The measures taken by the governor according to Mark 1-2
Mark 1-2 keeps – as miracle stories – a catalogue of the measures taken by the governor Jesus.
The miracle narratives are not historical records of healings of individuals, but parables which describe the activity of Jesus for the benefit of the Galilean population.
First Jesus heals the Demoniac. The man symbolizes the people of Galilee: the unclean spirit which possesses the man is the Jewish aristocracy which justifies its supremacy by its alleged cleanness and the uncleanliness of the non-Jewish population.
The spirit gets to the point: Jesus has come to destroy the supremacy of the (Jewish) aristocracy in Galilee. The man, the people of Galilee, is freed from the jurisdiction of the aristocracy and comes under the authority of the monarchy.