On the Corner
BY ROBERT DOCTER –
Pax Romana, they called it – the Roman Peace. It lasted 207 years – from 27 B.C. to 180 A.D.
It was the product of Roman conquest. They imposed it on all they subjugated – an external power decreeing new systems of values, the model of government, the articles of law, the process of engineering and land development, the language and literature – and late in its time span, the religion that spread through the empire on Roman roads by followers of a Jewish holy man named Jesus. They called it Christianity.
Pax Romana. The lengthy period of compulsory quiescence gave opportunity for the development of dramatic cultural achievement rivaling that of Greece. It started in a blood bath.
In early 44 B.C., Julius Caesar stood before the Roman Senate and proclaimed himself supreme dictator. A month later he was dead at the hands of Brutus and his cohorts in the Senate. In the vacuum that followed, a triumvirate stepped in – Marc Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian, Caesar’s grand nephew. They divided the Roman world three ways – Marc Antony to the east, Octavian to the north, and Lepidus, to Sicily and North Africa. Less than two decades later, two of the three were dead, and Octavian, now calling himself Augustus Caesar, stood before the Senate and outlined his supreme powers. He had prepared more effectively than his great uncle, for all the opposition had been eliminated.
Twenty-seven years into his reign he wanted to know the extent of the population he governed. He called for a census of the Roman world wherein everyone went to the town of his heritage to be counted.
Biographers of Jesus identified the time of the census by naming a provincial administration in power. It was in a province of Syria called Cilicia where a man named Publius Sulpicius Quirinus served as governor. It was during his period of provincial leadership that the census order by Augustus was delivered to the provinces of Palestine. From Kadesh in the northern Galilee to Beer Sheeba in southern Judea, the Israelite nation traveled, each to his own city. Among them was a carpenter from Nazareth named Joseph, an orderly man who followed the dictates of law imposed upon him. With his espoused wife, Mary, now great with child, he set out on the long and difficult journey to David’s town, Bethlehem.
Between Nazareth, located in Galilee, and Judea, in which Bethlehem was situated, lay Samaria. Undoubtedly, they walked around Samaria rather than through it – probably down the River Jordan. Good Jews did not walk through Samaria. When they arrived in the city, crowded with census registrants, they found no lodging and were directed to a stable where Mary gave birth to her first-born son and called him Jesus. Angels proclaimed him to be the Messiah.
Three decades later, the lessons he taught to those who listened introduced a value system, a way of life, an orientation to spirituality directly opposite to those advanced by Rome. Through centuries of persecution and death – even to the death of Jesus himself – his message, could not be quelled. Three hundred years later, the Roman Emperor, Constantine, proclaimed Christianity to be the religion of Rome.
Pax Romana defined the political climate of that day in Bethlehem. It said “live for the moment – take pleasure where you can find it – try to merge with diversity by swallowing the difference and accepting it. Don’t dominate – accommodate. Rome believed all humans could solve all their own problems. All they needed to do was to cope effectively. Order would vanquish chaos.
In Palestine, both the Hebrew church and the political establishment had been accommodated and allowed to continue to exist. They found themselves, however, totally immersed in Roman rule. The leadership, maintaining some authority, had been co-opted – swallowed whole.
In his life, Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem, stood aloof. Somehow, he was never swallowed. He refused to bow to Rome’s civil religion or worship its display of gods and goddesses. He knew who he was – what he was – and what he believed. He acted on his beliefs. He taught that the principle virtue was charity – love for others – that salvation was a communal quest that excluded no one – that service to the community was important – that being complete required faith – and with his own resurrection, he revealed that life on earth was only a temporary stopping place on the way to eternal life.
Jesus ushered in the most significant cultural revolution in the history of all humanity – and it all started in a small Judean town called Bethlehem.
Merry Christmas, everyone.