The Arch of Titus

The Christian Bible, which you may know, is composed of two parts: the “Jewish” Old Testament and the Good News of the New Testament. The Old Testament is an artifact of an ancient, Bronze-age culture – arguably an extinct one. But the New Testament is something entirely different. This collection of letters and legends served a Roman audience and had a different purpose than the first set.

The original purpose of the New Testament is an open question.

Why was the New Testament written? The naive explanation that it’s a historical eyewitness to transcendental events is unsupported by the historical record. Other reasons are less obvious.

If there wasn’t some kind of transcendental event, then what would have been the purpose for the Gospels? Who would have bothered with them? And why? Since most of the written materials of the time were burned, we don’t have much in the way of evidence.

A larger problem is the great weight of Early Church myth that is so very hard to dislodge obscures much of what we can  know.

The Roman Catholic Church that we know today, based in Italy and boasting of a global organization on every continent and in nearly every country, has its roots in the Roman Empire. I don’t think this is controversial. The story of the Emperor Constantine embracing Christianity is well known, and the edict which made Christianity the exclusive faith of the Roman Empire has also survived from a time when literacy, even civilization, appeared to be failing.

Christianity at the time of Constantine appears to be an already existing, active concern. He makes no claim of having created Christianity. Instead, he makes a show of reforming it from its “Arian” roots to its “Trinitarian” future. Notably, the priest Arius, who had attempted to prevent co-option of the cult in his custody, was Roman, so we can surmise that the Christian cult prior to Constantine was also run and managed by Romans.

And that is where the trail goes cold. There’s nothing else about the creation of Christianity available to us beyond the fairy tales promulgated by the Catholic Church. We can certainly make assumptions and good guesses, and from that, perhaps derive a narrative that more accurately portrays the historical situation. But we’ll never know or be able to know, for sure, because all of the documentation was destroyed, and much of what we have is suspect.

But there is yet a surprising amount of information still present, and it tells a story that may seem different than the expected one.

Consider the Old Testament: Why did the Romans collect and print – at great expense – the holy books of the Jews? Now we know for certain that the only culture the Romans truly appreciated was their own. They were possessed of a sense of nationalism bordering on mass egotism regarding their “fatherland” and were relentless in stripping characteristic elements from their subjugated cultures in order to better Romanize them. It’s very weird that they would have gone to such lengths to have identified and isolated these books, much less to have copied them enough that we have them today.

It may help to know a bit of history about Judea, which was, between Greek and Roman occupation, briefly an independent state. Judea had wrenched their independence from their Ptolomaic overlords, but then found themselves embroiled in a civil war as politically disparate groups began to vie for power. The Romans found themselves invited in to settle the situation but were required to deal with a volitile situation absorbing the vast bulk of the Emperial military strength in the area, just to keep the dissidents in check.

There was a heroic figure baked into the culture of the Jewish peoples known as a “Messiah” who would harken back to King David, then politically and militarily lead the people to freedom. This was the mythos that carried the Judeans over their Ptolemaic rulers, and it was this mythos that caused the Romans so much trouble. Every time they knocked down one inspired military commander, another would rise up to take their place. 

Nero decided that they needed a permanent solution to the “Judean Problem.” So he sent his top general, named Vespasian, to line up their legions on the north end of the Judean state and squeegee the Jews out of Judea. Before he could get far, Vespasian was called back to become Emperor, so he set his son, Titus, to slowly move south and lay seige to every city as they went, until the entire land had capitulated and been silenced. Titus was deliberate and cruel, allowing starvation to do his work for him. This took several years.

To ensure there would be no future confusion about who was God, Titus had the grand temple in Jerusalem torn down from the holy mount and every stone thrown into the valley, and then set the city on fire and selling its surviving citizens into slavery. We know that the destruction of the temple occurred in 70ce, and that this was the end of Second Temple Judaism because there’s an arch in Rome celebrating the destruction of the Jews and the desecration of their temple, called the Arch of Titus. It also celebrates the deification of Titus and his father. 

Not because it’s relevant, but because everyone wants to know – so what about all the Jews today if the Romans killed them all? The answer is an absurdly long story, but basically, Jewish culture had long been a part of cities throughout Asia and the Mediterranean, and had developed an alternative form of Judaism that didn’t require access to the temple, that we now call Rabbinical Judaism. After the destruction of the temple, this was the only form of judaism remaining for the larger body of Jews around the world.

The Old Testament is a collection of the holy books from the Temple of Jerusalem that had been carried back to Rome. They are representative of the history and culture of a people utterly crushed by the Romans.  One reason for the reproduction of the Old Testament, then, must have been a desire on the part of the Romans to memorialize the scale of their destruction. As such, this would not have been an honorarium, but an indictment, and the Old Testament would have stood as the reason the Judean state had to be destroyed and rebuilt.

If this is so, what, then, is the meaning of the New Testament and of the Bible on the whole? Here’s where things get tricky because it starts to involve egos. If you have it in your head that the Romans were the Good Guys in history, this is going to hurt.  If you identify yourself with Roman culture, or somehow didn’t see this coming, you’re going to have a hard time with this.

The Roman Empire were the bad guys in history. They were brutal and abusive, authoritarian, and smug. Things went off the rails pretty early on and got ugly right away. Sure, you can praise them for their roads and uniform legal system, but the terrible truth was that the cost was a kind of trauma that affected generations of people and altered genomes. The cost of cultural destruction caused by Romans is great. The loss of potential from generations of people either eaten by centuries of civil war or starved because of them is incalculable. They were wrong. They behaved poorly. Any attempt to rehabilitate them just makes things worse.

Take as much time as you need for that. It’s a big pill to swallow.

So now, let’s take another look at Christianity:

  • Promoted by Roman Emperor: Check
  • Made exclusive faith of Roman Empire: Check
  • Authority structure matches that of Roman Empire: Check
  • Christ helped Romans and deferred to Caesar: Check
  • Christ disputed and denied Temple Judaism: Check

Christianity was the exclusive and defining faith of the Roman Empire, and the Roman Empire was categorically evil. Therefore…

Now, we can talk about the purpose of the New Testament. It served a variety of functions, in classic Roman style, all of them pretty awful. At an extremely topical level, these were the replacement sacred texts for the Jews. Their new god was Caesar, and the New Testament speaks to their need to get used to that.

Another purpose was to co-opt the idea of  the Hebrew Messiah into something the Romans could take advantage of and use against the Jewish people. The Greek word for Messiah is Christ. The new Messiah is peaceful, loving, and likes the Romans. The new Messiah was killed by the Jews, just so everyone knows who to blame. Note that this was not entirely successful, as the development of Messiahs began again about two generations later.

There is a lot of black humor in the Gospels that look to the horrors of Titus’ rampage. Remember after the Battle of Galilee when so many Jewish corpses floated on the waters the fishing boats were sent out with nets to pull them to shore? The new Messiah said that they’d become “fishers of men!” Remember how everyone died of starvation during the Seige of Jerusalem? The new Messiah can make food magically appear and bring the dead back to life. Remember the stories of people in Jerusalem with their famously strict dietary rules eating the corpses of their loved ones to survive? The new Messiah said, “Take, eat: this is my body.”

The fact that only a few names were used to denote a large cast of characters, yet all the women’s names were “Mary” (meaning “sorrows”) was meant to mock the Judeans as being simple hicks and layabouts. The virgin birth was meant to demean Jewish women as foolish and unfaithful. The “miracle” of Christ’s transformation of water into wine was a joke about how stupid the Jews were. Other jokes would have been obvious to Romans, but today no one understands that a joke was told.

There’s a good argument that the Gospels were created as the foundational myth for the Flavian dynasty. By this time, the formula of “Father, Son, and Spirit of Rome” had been a long-established shorthand for the authority structure of Empire. “Father” was the prior, deceased, Caesar, who granted his deific authority upon his “Son,” the current Caesar, who ruled through the aegis of the Spirit of Rome. The return of Christ prophesied in the Gospels is reflected in the march of Flavius Titus through Jerusalem. In this case, Vespasian was the Father, and Titus the Son.

It’s easy to get lost in the Gospel narrative and want to associate parts of it to history, and that’s by design. You’re expected to emotionally respond to the story and have a compulsion to react. That’s how, and to no small degree why, it was written. To understand the reasons for the creation of the New Testament requires an understanding of the nature of the world during its creation, and that’s only become harder as time goes on. Popular books that speculate about a historical Jesus don’t help the situation.

The final book of the New Testament and the Bible is the book call the “Revelation of John”, the style and presentation of which is wholly unlike anything else in the Bible, save some of the more imaginative Old Testament books of prophesy. For those unfamiliar, encountering it in the context of the New Testament is like reading a stack of your great-aunt’s moralizing letters and then reading the one she wrote after attending service on mushrooms. Many wide-ranging ideas have been suggested to explain this book, but there is general agreement that it was one of the last to be written.

Ultimately, it is to Constantine whom I look to understand the purpose for the New Testament and the Bible on the whole. The Book of Revelation announces the second return of Christ in the form of the Messiah who conquers the four horsemen of the apocolypse — and for reasons I’ll have to explain later, this specifically references Constantine as this prophecied second return. The purpose of the Bible, as we have it today, was thus to present the foundational myth for Constantine’s neo-Flavian family.

The reason that this became the exclusive faith of the Empire is another story.


One response to “Purpose”

  1. I’m of the opinion that a great many of those missing writings are actually held in the Vatican’s secret sections of their library. Why else would they hide them? They seem so ready to display their authoritarian prowess in so many other matters, what’s in the works they don’t want anyone else seeing?

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