Friday, December 23, 2011

Insurrection and the Holiday Season - From Hanukkah to the birth of Christianity

Hanukkah is a rather well known Jewish holiday; however, it is less well known that Hanukkah is not an important religious holiday. Instead it gained prominence in Europe due to its proximity to Christmas, a holiday which similarly was promoted as an alternative to earlier pagan mid-winter solstice holidays. It does however have a lineal relationship with the Christian tradition.

Hanukkah is a celebration of a nationalist insurrection against the Seleucid Empire in around 166BC, known as the revolt of the Maccabees. The revolt started as a response to the perceived Hellenisation of Jewish culture under the Seleucid empire, a Greek-Macedonian state, and was initially quite conservative. However, it often happens in the course of revolutions that the population’s realisation of power can have lasting consequences. In the case of the Maccabees, what had started as a radical cultural conservatism led to a new Jewish anti-clerical movement known as the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were a movement, a political party, and even a schismatic church. In traditional Judaism, overseen by the Sadducees observance of the religious law and the various religious functions was carried out by a priest class. Membership of this class was inherited - supposedly populated by the sons of Aaron, a character described in Exodus. By contrast the Pharisees were the more literate exponents of the Judean proletariat and did not have official status.

The Maccabees were eventually successful in displacing Hellenic influence and establishing the Hasmonean dynasty (during which much of the codification of the Old Testament is assumed to have taken place). It is this success which is celebrated during Hanukkah, with the Menorah representing the eight nights for which a signal lamp miraculously burned with only one day’s worth of oil. This success and the need of the revolution to have broad popular support cemented the importance of the Pharisees all the way up to the early part of the first century CE, which saw the birth of Christianity.

The Pharisees were a rabbinic tradition (rabbi meaning teacher), and as such there was much interest in discourse and debate about the correct observance of the scriptures and theology in general. In addition, Hellenic culture had introduced many new theological ideas and knowledge of other social structures. The Pharisees saw themselves as existing in opposition to the Sadducees, who had a relatively simple answer to the question of correct interpretation; namely that interpretation was performed by the priestly caste. The Pharisees, however, adopted much of what had formerly only been thought to apply to the priest caste, particularly the observance of various rituals of purity and observance which before had not been adopted by the general population.

Roman Rule and Jewish Resistance

Judea became a protectorate of Rome in 63 BC. They were allowed to retain their King and religious laws restricting their administration to taxation policy and trade law. With the Pharisees opening the door to non-priestly interpretation, together with the influx of new cultural ideas from both Hellenic and Roman rule, we see the formation of many new theological and social movements. Significant among these are the Zealots and the even more radical Sicarii.

The Zealots come out of the Pharisaic tradition, but were much less tame. They were willing to employ violent means towards their aims of liberation from Roman rule. This included everything from insurrection to the expropriation of capital from the priest caste and their supporters. It is very probable that early Christianity found its supporters largely from the Zealots. In the book of Luke, for example, we hear that Simon was a Zealot. [1]

Although much of the New Testament is devoted to polemics against the Pharisees, this is not so much because the Pharisees were the greatest perceived enemy, but because they were the portion of society which was viewed as most in need of convincing by the more radical groups. It is probably more sensible to view the criticism as attempts to move the mass of society to a more radical position. In Luke we hear: "Damn you, Pharisees! You pay tithes on mint and rue and every herb, but neglect justice and the love of God. You should have attended to the last without neglecting the first.” [1]

According to the New Testament, Capernaum in Galilee was the base of operations for Jesus. This is significant as it was only several miles from Gamla, which was rife with Zealot insurgents. The belief in Messianic assistance was widespread amongst the Zealots. Many thought that some Messiah, though most often not a divine one, would assist in overthrowing Roman rule.

Perhaps the most extreme of the religious groups was known as the Sicari. The Sicarii's major base of operations was Galilee. The historian Hayim Ben-Sasson stated that the Sicarii "were fighting for a social revolution, while the Jerusalem Zealots placed less stress on the social aspect". [2] He also states that the Sicarii "never attached themselves to one particular family and never proclaimed any of their leaders king". Some scholars have contended that Judas Iscariot was himself a Sicarii although there are debates on which period the Sicarii became significant in.

The New Testament - A Contested History

The historical accuracy of portions of the New Testament is very hard to establish. It took quite a while for the New Testament canon to be assembled; dating of authorship is spread over a fairly large period and we have good evidence that some parts of the New Testament are likely to have been inserted at a later date. Many of the individuals in the New Testament might be allegorical. For instance, some scholars contend that Judas Iscariot means "Jew from the township". Suffice it to say that a conclusive determination is impossible, but some of the interpretations are interesting.

Based on the associations with the Zealots and Sicarii and some information from the New Testament itself, some scholars believe that Christianity may have been far more insurrectionary than the portrait we now find. Among the various quotes from the New Testament that point to a possible insurrectionary history is the famous quote of Jesus from Matthew 10:34: "I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword". In Luke he says: "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." Also in Luke we hear Jesus proclaim: "I came to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already ablaze." [1]

Just as the Zealots were not averse to the expropriation of capital, we also see vestiges of class war in the New Testament. In Luke again we find "Damn you rich! You already have your consolation. Damn you who are well-fed now! You will know hunger. Damn you who laugh now! You will learn to weep and grieve. Damn you when everybody speaks well of you! Recall that their ancestors treated the phony prophets the same way. " [1]

Although these quotes come from the canonical gospels, they are viewed by the majority of biblical scholars as being from the Q Manuscript, which is believed to have been one of the common sources for Matthew and Luke. Q would have been a radical gospel indeed, even if it was more meek than some of the radical ideas which would have been circulating around Galilee at the time. The modern polite and obsequious versions of Christianity are at least partially the result of alterations by Hellenic and Roman Christians in later years and many of those changes would have been quite conservative.

It is clear that the religions of Christianity and modern Judaism actually arose in the crucible of insurrection, even if their current forms have been moulded to buttress established power structures. Perhaps the "reason for the season" should have less to do with pious proclamations of spirituality and financial over-extension and more to do with radical change and disruptive opposition to injustice.

[1] The complete Gospels, Robert J. Miller, Editor, Polebridge Press, 1992
[2] History of the Jewish People, Hayim Ben-Sasson, Harvard University Press, 1985

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