Tuesday, August 05, 2008

BIBL 5107 Lesson 3:

Antioch played a significant role in the world of Second Temple Judaism, earliest Christianity (as one expression of Second Temple Judaism), and ancient Christianity (second through sixth centuries). Just as an administrative center alone, how often in Josephus's writings is Antioch mentioned as the place from which an administrative or military authority journeys to Jerusalem to address some issue, and/or to which said authority returns after having satisfied himself that matters have been resolved (or quelled)? The technical answer: A lot. As one important example, in Jewish War 2 Petronius marches out of Antioch and into Judea with the unenviable task of erecting Caligula's statue in the Jerusalem Temple. When the Jews, predictably, objected, they moved en masse to oppose the action, and the sympathetic Petronius agreed to intervene on the Jews' behalf and at great personal risk. Caligula, of course, was assassinated before Petronius could return to Rome; we cannot predict how the history of Judeo-Roman relations would be different if Caligula had survived to press his intentions, though the result would likely have been similar to the war that finally did break out in 66 CE. In the course of that war, the Roman legions would march out of Antioch to face the Jewish rebellion (cf. War 2.500 and 3.29).

Antioch also wrestled with the pressures and tensions concomitant with being a so-called "tolerant" or pluralistic city. For example, Josephus describes Antioch as a hospitable place for the Syrian Jews since the days of the abominable Antiochus Epiphanies (War 7.43–45), such that Antiochus's successors "granted them the enjoyment of equal privileges of citizens with the Greeks themselves" (7.44). But a pluralistic city will always have tensions, even if those are kept successfully under the surface. After the outbreak of the war with Rome, after Vespasian had sailed to Syria and anti-Judaic sentiment was on the increase throughout the eastern Roman provinces, a certain Antiochene Jew named Antiochus accused the city's Jewish population of conspiring to burn the city in one night. The Antiochene's burned the Jews Antiochus brought with him into the city theatre and set about attacking the rest of the city's Jewish population, "supposing, that, by punishing them suddenly they should save their own city" (7.49). Antiochus (remember, this was a Jewish man!) set out to demonstrate "his own conversion [to Greco-Roman religion and civic life], and of his hatred of the Jewish customs, by sacrificing after the manner of the Greeks" (7.50), and he suggested this as a means for other Jews to demonstrate their loyalty to the city and their innocence of the charge of conspiracy to burn the city. In other words, in order to be a loyal Antiochene one could no longer be a faithful Jew; this is the tension inherent in pluralistic, "tolerant" societies. To make things worse, Antioch was ravaged by fire shortly after Antiochus's accusations (and the abolition of the Sabbath), which once again stoked the city's anti-Judaic tensions. According to Josephus, however,
When Collega had made a careful inquiry into the matter, he found out the truth, and that not one of those Jews who were accused by Antiochus had any hand in it; but that all was done by some vile persons greatly in debt, who supposed that, if they could once set fire to the market place, and burn the public records, they should have no further demands made upon them. (War 7.60–61)

I draw our attention to this event — the flare-up of anti-Judaic sentiment and violence in Antioch "even though they had not borne an ill will at the Jews before" (7.56) — in order to raise the question for our own day: How does our own pluralistic society enable us to think we live in a "civilized," "orderly" society where the rule of law dictates how people are treated rather than racism, xenophobia, ethnocentricity when in fact we are only one incident away from turning against those who are different from us and yet find themselves our neighbor? As a personal example, I was mugged at gunpoint by a young Black man in mid-July, 1997, and even as late as November of that year I still found myself mistrusting and hating every Black man I encountered on the street, even though I had moved 250 miles away from where I had been mugged and would almost certainly never encounter the man that mugged me! I came face-to-face with my prejudice one wintery night when I was walking through a rougher section of Cincinnati (in Over-the-Rhine), and a group of Black men approached a blind man who was walking in front of me. I prepared myself for the violent encounter I expected, when the men warmly greeted the blind man and helped him to cross a dark street. I was, of course, ashamed of myself.

But I think problems like this are much more widespread in Western society than many of would like to admit. How many of us distrust anyone of south-Asian descent in the wake of the on-going War on Terror, even if the specific individual we're currently mistrusting is, say, Sikh rather than Muslim, or Muslim rather than militant Muslim, or even of other (or no) religious persuasion? Look at the problems France continues to face integrating its Muslim (and Jewish!) populations into French society and culture. In south Wales (UK) a court has just ruled that a Sikh teenager was wrongfully discriminated against when her school refused to allow her to wear a religious bracelet. Even in a predominantly Christian-religious country like the United States, the often-outrageous things that some Christian leaders say and do in public is held over the country's entire Evangelical population. The pendulum seems to be swinging the other way in the current election year, with the media reporting on theologically conservative Christians who are not so strongly committed to politically conservative (or simply Republican) agenda (for example, here). But the fact that this is a news story at all reveals the extent to which stereotypes vis-à-vis the "Religious Right" have marginalized Christians and their political interests in mainstream American discourse. It seems to me that we're a lot like Antioch after all!

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