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A Note to Readers
In the Beginning . . .
Jesus of Nazareth is certainly one of the most influential men who ever lived. Many people are sure that he is number one on that list. Nearly two thousand years after he was brutally murdered by Roman soldiers, more than 2.2 billion human beings attempt to follow his teachings and believe he is the Son of God. I am one of them, a Roman Catholic who was educated in religious schools all the way through college.
But I am also an historian who investigates the truth about important people. That is what I have done in this book. I believe that in order to understand what Jesus accomplished and why he paid with his life, we have to understand what was happening around him. It was a time when Rome dominated the western world and allowed no dissent. Human life was worth little. Life expectancy was less than forty years and far less if you happened to anger the Romans.
For evidence about Jesus’s life, we look to the New Testament gospels, accounts written by four of his friends. Admittedly these narratives concentrate on the evidence that Jesus was God, but we can gather facts about his life and times in them as well. In addition, the Romans kept good records of the time and a few Jewish historians also wrote down the events of the day.
From these, I have gathered information and written a fact-based book about Jesus the man. I do not address Jesus as the Messiah, but as a man who inspired people in a remote part of the Roman Empire by preaching a philosophy of peace and love and who made very powerful enemies at the same time. This is a violent story about the punishment this man received because he upset the ruling people in government and at his own temple.
I do not suggest that I know everything about Jesus. There are major gaps in his life, and at times I can only suppose what happened to him based upon best available evidence. The sources I used in researching the life of Jesus, and other books, websites, and DVDs that I think you might be interested in, are listed on the last pages of this book.
This is a story of the struggle between good and evil. Thank you for reading it.
A Changing World
63–6 BC ✦ Judea and Galilee
The world Jesus was born into was changing. After hundreds of years of living a fairly consistent life under different invading armies, the Jews had been conquered by the Romans, who had altered the day-to-day life in Judea and Galilee. Long before the Romans, the Babylonians had invaded in 598 BC, followed by the Persians, the Egyptians, and the Syrians. In 63 BC, the Romans slowly advanced from their strongholds around the Mediterranean Sea, engulfing lands and peoples as they went.
And the Romans didn’t take control peacefully. They invaded towns and cities, stealing land by simply occupying it. Soldiers in the Roman emperor’s armies slaughtered anyone who put up a fight or got in their way, even members of groups traditionally considered off limits to civilized invaders—women, the elderly, and children.
Those conquered people who were captured but not killed during the Roman invasions were kept as slaves. The Roman Empire’s economy depended on slaves to plant and harvest crops for its vast territories and to work producing things like jugs and other pottery. Those who had not fought and who lived in small villages like Nazareth were left to plant their fields and work at the crafts they were trained for. The one big change was that now they had to accumulate money in the form of coins to pay taxes to Rome and temple fees to the Jewish hierarchy in Jerusalem. For hundreds of years before this, a farmer paid a portion of his crop as a tax to his rulers. He bartered food for services such as the repair of his roof, or goods such as a baby goat. Now the economy of Judea and Galilee had changed. The taxes and fees were so steep that some people had to exchange all their crops for coins and did not have enough food to feed themselves. Most people suffered quietly. A few brave—or foolhardy—ones spoke out.
Under Roman rule, a rebellious person or tax avoider was often made an example of, sometimes given the ultimate punishment: crucifixion. Judas of Gamala was one such rebel. Judas was a learned man, and a husband and father, who longed to raise his children in a better world—a Galilee ruled by faithful Jews instead of the Roman puppets who crippled Judas and his people with unbearable taxes. Judas traveled through the farming villages and fishing ports of Galilee, preaching a message of revolt to the impoverished peasants, urging them not to pay taxes to Rome or give a portion of their earnings to the temple in Jerusalem. He compared the taxation to a form of slavery and encouraged his fellow Jews to rise up against their oppressors. And he said that bowing down to Augustus Caesar and Rome instead of the one true God was sinful. The Romans might have overlooked Judas as a religious nut, if he had not raised an army of peasants to attempt a violent overthrow of the Roman-sponsored government in Galilee. That action brought an immediate response: Judas of Gamala must die.
By order of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch or administrator of Galilee working for the Romans, soldiers captured Judas and began the crucifixion process. To discourage other dissenters, a crowd was encouraged to watch the agony of Judas. Jesus and many other Galileans bore witness to the horror.
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The soldiers of Antipas strip Judas of Gamala naked in the palace courtyard. They force him to his knees, facing a low post. He is tied to it with his hands above his head. Two soldiers pick up short-handled whips, whose leather lashes are tipped with lead balls and mutton bones. The soldiers stand ready to take turns striking Judas across his back, leaning into each blow with all their strength. As each lash is inflicted, the leather thongs tear open the skin and muscles, even as the lead and bone create deep bruising.
Judas cries out in agony as a soldier delivers another blast of leather onto his flesh. But he knows better than to curse his executioners, because that will only mean more blows. So he endures the torture. In moments, Judas is covered with blood.
As with all aspects of Roman execution, the stripping and lashing has a specific purpose: the public nudity humiliates, while the whip breaks Judas’s will so that he will offer no resistance when nailed to the cross. Crucifixion, Roman-style, is not just a barbarous way to kill, but also a process of mentally and physically destroying the victim—whether it be man, woman, or child. Judas will be nothing but an empty husk by the time he hangs from the cross.
Judas of Gamala lies limp and bleeding after the whipping. Soldiers then bring out a rough-hewn piece of lumber and hurl it to the ground. Despite the blood pouring down his back, Judas is forced to stand. His executioners lift this splinter-filled board onto his shoulders. This will become the crossbar of his crucifix, and like all condemned men, Judas has to carry it outside the city walls to a spot where a vertical pole in the ground will form the second part. He will be nailed to that cross and left to die. His legs will be broken to make the torturous process even more ghastly. He will hang in full view of thousands. Judas will be dead by nightfall—if he is lucky.
The story of Judas’s execution will be shared among the Jews of Galilee. But he is not alone. There are countless other would-be prophets who think violence can bring an end to Roman occupation. They will all pay for this conceit with their lives.
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The Jews were a conquered people when Jesus was born. Although the Roman emperor had instructed his representatives to respect and not interfere with their religious traditions, all other aspects of their daily lives were under his control.
What gave them the strength to endure hardship and humiliation under Roman rule was the knowledge that they were a chosen people. In the Torah, the holy book of Jewish scripture, Moses says, “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.” This chosenness was matched with the promise from God that he would send a savior to free the people.
As the Jewish people waited for their savior and king, they maintained their faith in one God among the Romans, who believed in multiple gods and even that their emperor was a god. The Jewish people listened to preachers who traveled the lands speaking of prophecies soon to be fulfilled. And they journeyed each year to their birthplace for the census count, so the Roman emperor would know exactly how much money he would make from the people of Judea and Galilee.
Young Jesus of Nazareth
The Massacre in Bethlehem
March, 5 BC ✦ Bethlehem, Judea
Joseph and Mary and their infant son, Jesus, barely get out of Bethlehem alive. Joseph awakes from a terrifying dream and has a vision of what is to come. He rouses Mary and Jesus, and they escape into the night.
Now soldiers are walking toward Bethlehem. They have come from the capital city of Jerusalem and are approaching this small town, intent on finding and killing a baby boy. The child’s name, unknown to them, is Jesus, and his only crime is that some believe he will be the next king of the Jewish people. The current ruler of the land, a tyrant named Herod the Great, is determined to ensure the baby’s death. None of the soldiers know what the child’s mother and father look like or the precise location of his home, so they plan to kill every baby boy in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. This alone will guarantee that the threat is eliminated.
Herod first learns about Jesus from travelers who have come to worship the baby. These men, called Magi, are astronomers and wise men who study the world’s great religious texts. Among these books is the Tanakh, a collection of history, prophecy, poetry, and songs telling the story of the Jewish people. The wealthy foreigners travel almost a thousand miles over rugged desert, following an extraordinarily bright star that shines in the sky each morning before dawn. “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” they ask on their arrival in Herod’s court. “We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”
Amazingly, the Magi carry treasure chests filled with gold, as well as the sweet-smelling tree resins myrrh and frankincense. These are learned, studious men. Herod can only conclude that the Magi are either foolhardy for risking the theft of such a great fortune by carrying it across the vast desert to get to Jerusalem, or that they truly believe this child will be the new king.
After the Magi ask their question, a furious Herod summons his religious advisers. He insists that these teachers of religious law and temple high priests tell him exactly where to find this new king.
The teachers whom Herod first interrogates are humble men. They wear simple white linen caps and robes. Then he moves on to the bearded temple high priests. They dress elaborately, in white and blue linen caps and turbans with gold bands on the brows, and blue robes adorned in bright tassels and bells. Over this they wear capes and purses decorated with gold and precious stones. Their clothing signifies their stature as high-level temple leaders. Herod demands of the teachers and priests, “Where is this so-called king of the Jews?”
“Bethlehem, in the land of Judah.” They quote verbatim from the prophet Micah, whose words are recorded in the Tanakh. Some seven centuries earlier, Micah said that the person who would save the Jewish people would be born in Bethlehem. “Out of you [Bethlehem] will come . . . one who will be ruler over Israel. . . .”
Herod sends the Magi on their way. His parting royal instruction is that they locate the infant, then return to Jerusalem and tell Herod the child’s precise location so that he can visit this new king himself.
The Magi see through this deceit. They never go back to Jerusalem.
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For centuries, Jewish prophets have predicted the coming of a new king to rule their people. They have prophesied five specific occurrences that would take place to confirm the Messiah’s birth.
The first is that a great star will rise in the east.
The second is that the baby will be born in Bethlehem, the small town where the great King David was born a thousand years ago.
The third prophecy is that the child will also be a direct descendant of David, a fact that can easily be confirmed by the temple’s meticulous genealogical records.
Fourth, powerful men will travel from afar to worship him.
And finally, the child’s mother will be a virgin.
What troubles Herod most deeply is knowing that three of these events have occurred. He would be even more distressed to learn that the remaining two are also true. The child is from the line of David, and his teenage mother, Mary, attests that she is a virgin, despite her pregnancy.
Herod gazes out of his palace window, waiting to hear that all the baby boys in Bethlehem have been killed. He is afraid of what will happen if a king rises up to save the Jewish people. One result is likely: it will mean the end of his good life. Even though he is half Jewish, Herod’s allegiance is to Rome.
Judea is part, though only a small part, of the vast Roman Empire—a sprawling kingdom stretching the length of Europe, across Asia Minor, and including almost the entire Mediterranean rim. But Herod’s kingdom is different from any other under Rome’s iron fist: it is the only Jewish territory. The Jewish people are an ancient civilization founded on a belief system that is at odds with Rome’s. The Jewish people believe in one true God; the rest of the empire worships many pagan deities and even considers its emperor divine. Herod stands between the Jews and the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar in their uneasy relationship. Rome will leave the Jews alone as long as Herod keeps his people productive so they can pay the high taxes that Rome demands.
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Herod doesn’t know it, but Jesus and his parents have already traveled to Jerusalem twice before to pay visits to the great temple, the most important and sacred building in all Judea. Perched atop a massive stone platform that gives it the appearance of a fortress rather than a place of worship, the temple is a physical embodiment of the Jewish people and their ancient faith. The temple was first built by Solomon in the tenth century BC. It was leveled by the Babylonians in 586 BC and then rebuilt nearly fifty years later. Herod recently renovated the entire complex and increased the temple’s size. Now it is not just a symbol of Judaism, but of the king himself.
Eight days after Jesus’s birth, his parents made their first visit to the temple so that he might be circumcised. There the child was formally named Jesus. The second visit came when he was forty days old. The baby boy was brought to the temple and presented to God, in keeping with the laws of the Jewish faith. His father, Joseph, a carpenter, dutifully purchased a pair of young turtledoves to be sacrificed in honor of this solemn occasion.
Something very strange occurred as Jesus and his parents entered the temple on that day, something that hinted he might truly be a very special child. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were traveling quietly, not doing anything that would draw attention. Even so, two complete strangers—an old man and an old woman, both of whom knew nothing about this baby called Jesus or his fulfillment of the prophecy—saw him from across the crowded temple and came to him.
The approaching old man’s name was Simeon, and he was of the belief that he would not die until he laid eyes upon the new king of the Jews. Simeon asked if he might hold the baby. Mary and Joseph agreed. As Simeon took Jesus into his arms, he offered a prayer to God, thanking him for the chance to see this new king with his own eyes. Then Simeon handed Jesus back to Mary with these words: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
At that very moment, a woman named Anna approached. She was an eighty-four-year-old widowed prophetess, who spent her waking hours in the temple, fasting and praying. Simeon’s words were still ringing in Mary’s and Joseph’s ears as Anna stepped forward and also praised Jesus. She loudly thanked God for bringing this special baby boy into the world. Then she made a most unusual claim, predicting to Mary and Joseph that their son would free Jerusalem from Roman rule.
Mary and Joseph marveled at Simeon’s and Anna’s words, flattered for the attention, as all new parents would be, but also unsure what this talk about swords and redemption truly meant. They finished their business and departed into the bustling city of Jerusalem, both elated and fearful for the life their son might be destined to lead.
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There are many more prophecies about the life of Jesus outlined in Scripture. Slowly but surely, as this child grows to manhood, those predictions will also come true. Jesus’s behavior will brand him as a revolutionary, known throughout Judea for his startling speeches and teachings. He will be adored by the Jewish people but become a threat to those who profit from the populace: the high priests, the temple elders, the puppet rulers of Judea, and most of all, the Roman Empire.
And Rome does not tolerate a threat. The Romans have learned and mastered the arts of torture and persecution. Revolutionaries and troublemakers are dealt with in harsh and horrific fashion in order that others won’t be tempted to copy their ways.
So it will be with Jesus. This, too, will fulfill prophecy.
All of that is to come. For now Jesus is still an infant, cared for and loved by Mary and Joseph. He was born in a stable, visited by the Magi, presented with their lavish gifts, and is now being pursued by Herod and the Roman Empire.
And it is Joseph who will train the boy to be obedient and strong, to follow Jewish ways and obey Jewish laws.
Copyright © 2014 by Bill O'Reilly