Historical Background for Forgiven

Forgiven Carol Ashby cover
Are some wounds too deep to forgive?

Roman and Jew: Irreconcilable Differences Reconciled Through Christ

The challenges faced by Joseph and his family in deciding first to help, then to accept, and finally to embrace Lucius, the Roman tribune, reflect a long history of hostility between Roman and Jew.

In AD 122, the Roman province of Judaea was unique among the provinces that were not recent conquests at the imperial frontier. The initial conquests of the other provinces were brutal, with towns and cities destroyed and thousands taken as slaves to serve the new Roman masters. Still, being part of the Empire came to be appreciated by their surviving inhabitants within a few decades.

Not so the Jews. Fiercely loyal to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who commanded His followers to worship no other gods, the Jews refused to assimilate into the polytheistic Roman world. In other provinces, where adding one more god to a person’s religious rituals posed no problem, being told to offer sacrifices to the emperor and the Roman gods as a sign of loyalty was perfectly acceptable. For the Jews, it was the ultimate sin.

Romans believed their strength and security depended on proper execution of the “faithful ritual” of the civil religion of the Roman state. Even educated Romans who doubted the existence of the Roman gods were superstitious about risking their wrath by failing to perform their rituals exactly right. Belief didn’t matter; perfect performance did. When the Jews and later Christians refused to take part in the national religious rites, many believed it could bring calamity by making the rituals imperfect and therefore ineffective.

Still, the Jews were allowed an exception. They were a nation following their own ancient religious tradition, and that made their refusal to worship any but the Jewish god legal lest the Jewish god be offended. Since the followers of Jesus were mostly Jewish in the first decade after the resurrection, Christianity was treated as one strain of Judaism. As the number of Gentile converts increased, the Jewish laws about circumcision and what was kosher were set aside. Roman leaders reclassified Christianity as a “new and illicit religion,” and its followers lost the exception from offering sacrifices to the emperor allowed to Jews. Following Jesus became a Roman crime.

The people who heard Peter announcing in the temple that Jesus has been raised from the dead were pious Jews, many of whom had traveled hundreds of miles to worship in the holiest sanctuary of Judaism. When they returned to their homes, they would have gone to their local synagogues to share the news that the long-awaited messiah foretold by the prophets had come. The people who heard the apostles speaking in their own languages after the Holy Spirit came upon them at Pentecost had come to worship and offer sacrifices in accordance with Jewish law.

Joseph is one such Messianic Jew, and he raised his children to know Yeshua as the fulfillment of prophesy and the final perfect sacrifice for sin so the temple sacrifices would never be needed again. His love for Yeshua led him to obey Jesus’s command to love his enemy even when he had every human reason to hate. But Christian love is an act of the will, not an emotion. His natural emotions after the murder of his son ran counter to that command. Pulled in two directions, he chose to do what he never wanted only because he placed Jesus above all else.

But why did other Jewish Galileans hate Rome? The first Roman armies under Pompey were invited into Judea by two Jewish brothers fighting over who should be high priest and national leader. When that civil war ended in 63 BC, Judea had been reduced to a client kingdom of Rome. Hyrcanus was only an ethnarch (not a king), and he ruled only at Rome’s pleasure. Rome divided the country into five administrative districts; Sepphoris was the capital of Galilee with Herod (later the Great) as its procurator. Herod’s loyalty to Rome and friendship with both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony enabled him to become king of all Judea. When Herod died in 4 BC, rebels under Judas bar Hezekiah seized the royal armory in Sepphoris. A legion from Syria ended the rebellion, burning Sepphoris to the ground and enslaving the local population that had supported Judas.

After Herod Antipas was made tetrarch of Galilee by Caesar Augustus, he rebuilt Sepphoris in the Roman style. The new inhabitants of the restored city of nearly 30,000 were a cosmopolitan mixture of Jews and Gentiles (Greeks, Syrians, and Romans). In AD 67 during the First Jewish War, the people of Sepphoris didn’t merely refuse to fight. They openly welcomed the Twelfth Legion, leading many smaller Galilean towns to stay out of the fight. Not so Jotapata, about 20 miles to the north. After a brutal siege, as many as 40,000 Galileans were killed, and 1200 women and small children taken as slaves. From all of the Roman province of Judaea, at least 100,000 were taken as slaves, and many times that were killed.

The decision of Sepphoris to stay out of the fight was regarded as wisdom by some and treason by others. While most Jewish inhabitants of Sepphoris stayed out of the battle, that did not mean affection and loyalty toward Rome. Galilee remained primed for lethal opposition to Roman occupation. Desire to cast off the Roman oppressors simmered, boiling over in guerilla-style attacks by zealot groups. Rome kept two legions in Judaea, ready for action.

Forgiven is set in Galilee near Sepphoris in AD 122 during the final years of resentful submission to the pagan overlords. Soon the Bar Kokhba Rebellion of AD 132 will lead Rome to ban all Jews from Jerusalem and merge Judaea with Syria to form Syria Palaestina to erase any memory of Judea.

For those who chose to hear, the words of the apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28 promised a better future. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Joseph makes the unnatural choice to treat his enemy as a friend. Acting becomes reality as shared faith in Jesus brings reconciliation between Roman and Jew.

Fact and Fiction by Carol Ashby