I’m currently listening to Flavius Josephus’ classic work The Jewish War. It’s a history of the Jewish-Roman war fought from 66 to 73 AD, with substantial background. Although I originally wanted to read it as historical context for the development of early Christianity, I’m finding it a very interesting and engaging work in its own right. (I’m in Book 2 right now; the war has yet to begin.)
The work vividly portrays the dangerous political instability of that time — not just in the highest political offices of Rome, but also the regional and local powers. (That sheds light on the enormous challenge faced by the American Founding Fathers in their quest to create a stable system of republican government.) Moreover, even today’s most experienced soap opera writers could learn a thing or two from the lengthy story of King Herod’s treacherous family life. (Lies, murders, manipulations, treacheries, paranoia, and more!)
The work also offers much of interest regarding religious fanaticism. For example:
Now there followed after this another calamity, which arose from a tumult made by robbers; for at the public road at Beth-boron, one Stephen, a servant of Caesar, carried some furniture, which the robbers fell upon and seized. Upon this Cureanus sent men to go round about to the neighboring villages, and to bring their inhabitants to him bound, as laying it to their charge that they had not pursued after the thieves, and caught them. Now here it was that a certain soldier, finding the sacred book of the law, tore it to pieces, and threw it into the fire.
Hereupon the Jews were in great disorder, as if their whole country were in a flame, and assembled themselves so many of them by their zeal for their religion, as by an engine, and ran together with united clamor to Cesarea, to Cumanus, and made supplication to him that he would not overlook this man, who had offered such an affront to God, and to his law; but punish him for what he had done. Accordingly, he, perceiving that the multitude would not be quiet unless they had a comfortable answer from him, gave order that the soldier should be brought, and drawn through those that required to have him punished, to execution, which being done, the Jews went their ways.
Sound familiar? It should: it’s awfully similar to the “pissing on the Koran” story that dominated the news a few years back. These fanatical Jews, like today’s Muslims, demand death for blasphemers. (That is the punishment required in the Hebrew Bible, Leviticus 24
Josephus’ lengthy description of the Essene sect in Book 2, Chapter 8 was also of great interest to me, particularly for the parallels between the doctrines of the Essenes and those of Christianity. To take a small example, Josephus describes the Essenes as follows:
They are eminent for fidelity, and are the ministers of peace; whatsoever they say also is firmer than an oath; but swearing is avoided by them, and they esteem it worse than perjury for they say that he who cannot be believed without [swearing by] God is already condemned.
Similarly, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus admonishes:
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.” But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. (Matthew 5)
If Jesus actually taught this view of oaths, he might have gotten it from the Essenes. (It’s less likely that it was a common Jewish teaching at the time, since Josephus is concerned to explain all the strange and unique practices of the Essenes in this chapter.) Alternately, early Christians might have imputed this view of oaths to Jesus based on some familiarity with Essene teachings. From all I’ve read, I’d have to say that tracing the historical lineage of that idea into Christianity would be impossible: our knowledge of what Jesus actually taught is too uncertain to judge such matters. In fact, I’d say that we really can’t know that Jesus taught anything at all — or even that he existed as anything like any of the various men portrayed in the Gospels. Still, it’s interesting that the idea has some historical precedent in Judaism.
Of course, the full meaning of Jesus’ command against oaths is widely ignored by Christians today. They routinely swear on this and that and the other thing. I’d like to know: How do Biblical literalists justify such selective obedience to Scripture? It’s as if — so long as you renounce reason to make room for faith in Jesus — the commands of a truly merciful God become mere suggestions. Yet other commands, like the injunctions against homosexuality in the Law of Moses, are somehow still in full effect. So what do contemporary evangelical Christians say about that?