Easter 2011

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under ...

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This year is marked by uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. The people have gathered in numbers of sufficient size to challenge their authoritarian governments. They are successful, in part, due to the reluctance of the various militaries to shoot at their own people. How all this takes place and works or fails to work depends on the particularities of each country.

In first century Palestine, the Jewish people were subjects of yet another empire. The Roman Empire was the fourth such political unit to subject the Jews in the Holy Land. Rome needed taxes from its vast empire to fund grain for the people of Rome and to pay its armies stationed over most of the then known world.

98% of the people of the Roman Empire were poor. There was a very small middle class, smaller than the elite. The wealthy elite ruled the empire. They were exempt from the taxes that the poor had to pay.

In the face of this extremely unjust system, the Jews wanted to stop sending money to Rome and they wanted the freedom to decide their own political opportunities and challenges. More importantly, they wanted to go back to the time of the great King David. There were many legends about David and some of them were true. During David’s rule it was a time of military might and a time of peace. It was time dedicated to God. David’s kingdom was the largest the Israelites ever had, going from the Euphrates River to the Sinai.

Kings, as well as priests and prophets, were anointed (pouring over the head) with olive oil. The Hebrew word for “anointed one” is messiah. They wanted a messiah to come and reestablish David’s kingdom. For some Jews, Jesus fit the bill. There were also others, in addition to Jesus, who were seen as potential messiahs. They wanted a military messiah to overthrow the Roman government.

They never would have imagined or accepted a messiah whose throne was a cross, an execution device. They never understood Jesus’ preaching about peace and loving others. A messiah would not go to a cross without fighting back. Jesus’ disciples scattered after his arrest. They did not protest. They did not take arms against the Romans.

Yet, it was this messiah, this Christ (Christos is Greek for “anointed one”), whose followers eventually conquered the Roman Empire in the fourth century. The Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.

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