I just finished reading The Jewish People in Classical Antiquity: From Alexander to Bar Kochba, The authors provide a critical procurement of the scattered events surrounding the final years of the Jewish nation and society in the 1st and 2nd century.
John H. Hayes and Sara R. Mandell do an excellent job of curtailing invalid assumptions held about the Jewish nation from 200 B.C.E. – 200 C.E. as well as carefully nuancing historical facts while avoiding the usual conjecture and presumptions. They really cleared the air for this era, but did it in a succinct and short read.
What I found fascinating was how applicable their text is to the current state of affairs in Western Christianity and how much we mimic the last enterprises of Jewish society. The most sordid of affairs they record was the infighting and slaughter of Jews by other Jews that took place throughout this era. It is reprehensible that till the point of death and utter destruction at the hands of Rome, the Jews were warring amongst themselves inside the walls of Jerusalem for control of the city. To the last day, they were belligerent towards one another, seeking to take control of an ancient religious tradition centered in the Jewish temple without thought or cause to repel their ominous defeat at the hands of the most powerful kingdom the world even known: Rome.
Throughout Jewish history there had regularly been continuous infighting for dominance of Palestine, with a few exceptional eras. The last years of Israel’s existence in the Promised Land is a litany of backstabbing, ongoing usurpation, political intrigue and despair. This era, before and after Jesus’s time in Israel, was volatile to say the least, but as was noted, it was primarily from internal fighting. Hayes and Mandell summarize the three reasons Jewish society couldn’t desist from their own self-destructive path. They are as follows (Hayes & Mandell, 204-207).
1. A lack of effective and continuing leadership at the upper echelons of Jewish society (Hayes & Mandell, 205-206).
2. Religious concerns and the messianic and eschatological beliefs of the Jews. Many believed that the end of time was near, the Romans would be driven out and that faithful Jews were God’s instruments to bring these about these ends. Josephus, Tacitus and Suetonius all reported on this trend. Tacitus wrote, “the majority [of the Jews] firmly believed that their ancient priestly writings contained prophecy the this was the very time she the East should grow strong and that men starting from Judea, should possess the world.” (Hayes & Mandell, 206-207).
3. The third reason is probably the one most important to the downfall of the Jewish nation and society – the relentless infighting and internal competition for power over the Jewish nation. They were their own worst enemy on the path to their own demise. A number of aspects are noted under this reason but the most troubling was the degree to which they were willing to kill and harm their own people for the sake of accruing power and it was usually done with the most pious of reasoning. As one friend of mine has said, “If God’s on your side, you don’t have to count the bodies.” A passage is worth quoting in length to demonstrate this:
Many of the paradigms of success drawn from people’s scriptures and traditions were heroes supported by minority movements who had risen to prominence and acquired dominance by internal warfare and violence: Phinehas, whose zeal burned in the slaughter of apostates (Num 25); David, an outlaw who fought the house of Saul certain of divine election; and the Maccabees, whose civil war against compromising fellow countrymen led to their triumph and glory. One might say that such paradigms suggested that the slaughter of fellow Jews was a prerequisite for success against outsiders. A movement’s or leader’s lack of widespread support was not deterrent when viewed in light of the biblical promise that few true believers could overcome overwhelming odds (see Lev. 26:7-8) – Hayes & Mandell, 205.
So, is the Western church in a similar situation? While there may be exceptions, is there a lack of mature and wise leadership? Are we too focused on the end of things and too justified by our religious zeal to be concerned with how our actions/inactions effect the present? Are we captured by our own desire for influence and piety that we are willing to hurt, maim and even kill our own to gain success and purity over and against the outside world? Do we justify our violent zeal towards each other for the same reasons late Jewish society in the 1st and 2nd century did?
So are we doing the same thing? Are we willing to “shoot our own” if it means achieving our understanding of piety, purity and influence? Should our zeal for our convictions overrule treating people with mercy and dignity if these two sides come into conflict? What say you?