A short essay I wrote for an undergraduate class called “Jesus the Jew” about a year ago.
Understanding who Jesus was is dependent on understanding the social context he was born into. What were the problems the Jewish people faced? What was the religious composition of the country? Was Jesus unique? Or were there others like him? After decades of Roman occupation, would Jesus’ message have been viewed favorably by his contemporaries?
When Jesus was born, Judea was occupied by the Romans. The invasion of the Romans was the last of many such occupations of Jewish lands by foreign powers that gradually diminished Jewish territorial control and sovereignty. Rome’s involvement with Judea began as an opportunistic intervention into a struggle over succession between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. Pompey the Great, a Roman proconsul, backed Hyrcanus and restored him to the throne because he believed that Hyrcanus would be more likely to comply with Roman desires. The illusion of self-rule came to an end in 6 CE, when Judea was incorporated into the Roman empire as the province of Iudea and placed under direct Roman rule. By the time Jesus was born, there was widespread belief that the appearance of a messiah who would destroy the Romans and restore Jewish sovereignty was imminent. There were, in fact, many people wandering the desert claiming to be just such a person, and most of them were crucified by the Roman government.
Contemporary Jewish religion was very diverse, from established denominations to temporary movements built around charismatic individuals. The vast majority of the Jewish people were what today might be called mainstream practitioners. They were not heavily invested in the finer points of theology, but rather followed tradition and relied on instruction from those in their community with religious authority. This figure was usually a Pharisee. In contrast to the Sadducees, a group of priests who performed the required sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem, the Pharisees were accessible to the people. Sadducees were educated, but status as a Sadducee was inherited and could only be inherited. Pharisees were also educated, but could be anyone: your neighbor, your son, or your uncle, and they lived nearby and could answer your questions. Another popular denomination was the Essene community, which lived a celibate and missionary lifestyle. There were also Zealots, or Fourth Philosophy groups, and groups like the one at Qumran, which may have produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. There were also charismatic individuals, typically wandering the country or living in the desert. They usually inspired followers or students, like Bannus, a hermit that Josephus sought wisdom from, and John the Baptist. There was no sense of normative Judaism. Jewish religion covered a broad spectrum of beliefs centered on the acceptance of the Hebrew Bible as scripture.
Jesus, as a man that preached a messianic message about the imminent establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, would not likely have been a surprise to his contemporaries, since he was but one of many such men traveling the country preaching a similar message. He also would not have been seen as a heretic, necessarily. Years later, Josephus defended the Christians because they were viewed as another group of Jews. There is no contemporary record of Jesus’ life, so it is impossible to know for sure how he was received, but he would have been seen as acting within the limits of Jewishness and, chafing under Roman rule, a message that advocated the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty probably would have been welcomed by the average person, or at least not a surprise.
Saint Augustine’s Confessions is a book about the early life and conversion to Christianity of Augustine of Hippo, one of the most famous Christian scholars of antiquity. The book starts off with a description of childhood, then moves on to describe Augustine’s quest for knowledge both among the Manichees and through study of the traditional liberal arts, including oratory and rhetorical skills. An intensely personal account by design, Augustine reveals his internal struggle as he reminisces about the loss of his childhood friend, whose name he does not reveal, as well as his struggles with sexuality and his doubts about the nature of God. Essentially, the book is meant to show Augustine’s path from a confused childhood to a position of solid conviction in the Catholic faith, but Confessions can also be used as a source of historical information. This essay will examine the first seven chapters of Confessions to discover what it implies about the late 4th and early 5th century Roman society that shaped Augustine’s life.
One of the more interesting things that can be discerned from the book is the potential for mobility available in Roman society, both in terms of physical and social movement. Of course, Augustine’s case is not indicative of the norm, but he was able to advance from being the son of a modest family in Tagaste (in modern day Algeria) to being a well-respected and socially connected professor of rhetoric in Milan, before his conversion, which is related in chapters outside the scope of this essay. Augustine’s reasons for leaving his home village were originally related to study opportunities and a need to leave a place that reminded him strongly of the death of a childhood friend. His ability to travel within the empire for education purposes is interesting because it implies that there was a system in place that allowed for the boarding and education of students during his time. His ability to rise through the ranks of society based on his intellectual abilities shows that class distinctions were not set in stone and he specifically mentions that many Roman offices were available to anyone with the right amount of money. In a modern context, this has a negative connotation, and perhaps it did in Augustine’s time as well, because in his writing he felt the need to explain that as a system it allowed the state access to needed revenues and acted as a pathway to success for those born to lower classes.
In his writing, Augustine mentioned that not all families were willing to support their children’s education outside of their local towns, even when they were better-off economically than Augustine’s own family. Augustine did not go into detail about this point, but it leaves the reader wondering what motivations a family might have for not wanting to promote the education of their children at all costs, as Augustine’s did, when it might lead the family to greater success. If the story about Alypius and the responsibility of a “house” for a crime is any indication, the Roman family unit probably shared equally in success as well as culpability for crimes and failures. Was it a cultural expectation that children would follow in the footsteps of their parents, leading to a lackadaisical attitude towards aggressive social advancement, or was the lack of interest in education outside of Tagaste something specific to that locality?
Much of Augustine’s writing in Confessions deals with education, because he wrote about both his time as a pupil and as an educator. His writing makes it clear that corporal punishment was a well-used form of discipline that acted as a motivator for children to pay attention to their studies. The fact that Augustine and, presumably, other children endured caning as a punishment and prayed for respite instead of abandoning school indicates that there was some measure of compulsion in attendance, either from families or from the state. Also, unless the phrase was added by the translator, the inclusion of the “three Rs” as a figure of speech (reading, writing, and arithmetic) shows that areas of study for primary school students in the late 4th century were fairly consistent with modern education standards. His later education reveals a break with modern ideals about the purpose of studying the liberal arts, however. According to Augustine, forming logical arguments that revealed the truth about a matter were of secondary importance to style and delivery. Eloquence and the ability to convey a sense of conviction were more important than being able to logically argue a truth.
Similarly related to education, student culture in Roman society is revealed through Augustine’s writings. Bullying was alive and well in the 4th century. Schoolyard gangs even had nicknames, like “The Wreckers”, who would find “shy and unknown freshmen… to persecute…by mockery…to feed their own malevolent amusement.” Augustine dealt with this group as a student by staying on friendly terms with them, but refused to participate in their mockery and acts of vandalism. Augustine wrote that in Carthage, students would burst into a classroom and purposely disrupt it with “mad behavior.” Later, as an adult, Augustine complained of a practice common among Roman students, who would sit with a teacher for a number of classes and then transfer en masse to another instructor to avoid making payment.
Augustine’s writing reveals quite a bit about religion during the late 4th and early 5th centuries in the Roman Empire, most obviously because the book is about his journey to conversion to Catholocism, but the first seven chapters of the book also discuss the Manichees and give an example of religious syncretism among professed Catholics. Augustine wrote that he spent nine years as a follower of the Manichee religion and through his writings, we can see that it was institutionally similar to the Catholic Church, including having Bishops, but professed very different concepts of God. The instance of religious syncretism that Augustine took time to mention was his mother’s practice of tomb veneration through the offering of plates of fruit and the ritual sipping of wine at the burial sites of Catholic martyrs. Augustine mentioned that his mother was not alone during these ceremonies, so the practice must have been widespread. I also make this conjecture based on the fact that in later centuries, and continuing up to the present, Islamic scholars in the Middle East have been condeming the same practice among Muslims regarding veneration of the tombs of saints, martyrs and especially Sufi pirs.
This brief selection of information from the first seven chapters of Saint Augustine’s Confessions shows how historical information about an author’s society can be revealed by analyzing that author’s work, even when recording historical information is not the main purpose of the work. This essay examines the chapters on their own, but by comparing what Augustine wrote to other available information, one could further the process of reconstructing Roman society and elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Augustine’s life and conversion to Catholocism.
 Saint Augustine, Confessions (Oxford University Press, 2009), 101.
The following is a short essay I wrote about The Yacoubian Building for an undergraduate history course.
In Alaa al Aswany’s book, The Yacoubian Building, Islamism and Islamists are primarily presented through the point of view of the character Taha El Shazli, the son of a doorman who lives on the roof of the Yacoubian building. As the story progresses, the rise of Islamism in Egypt is presented as being directly related to socioeconomic background, the lack of adequate economic opportunities and corruption present in government and society.
Taha’s family was of very modest means. Despite this, Taha was very intelligent and was able to excel at his studies because of his desire to become a police officer, which he believed would allow him to advance in life and gain the respect and dignity that he lacked while growing up in the Yacoubian building. As the son of a doorman, he was often ridiculed and looked down on by the other residents, which he was forced to put up with because he had no other option. Taha was sure that he would be able to succeed in his endeavor because he believed firmly in God, prayed regularly and avoided major sins (Aswany, 20).
Taha almost reached his goal, but his socioeconomic status caused his application to be rejected. Before attending the character interview, he had spoken to officers in his district who told him that because he had no rich and influential family members he would have to pay a bribe of 20,000-pounds to guarantee his acceptance into the police academy. Taha wasn’t financially capable of paying a bribe of that amount and given his religious devotion, he probably wouldn’t have done it anyway. Instead, he believed firmly in his abilities and hoped that his devotion to God would enable him to overcome that obstacle.
Unfortunately, the board wasn’t interviewing for ability or the marks of a good police officer. They were only interested in the corrupt practices of giving out government positions to family members or people with the right amount of money. Even though they were impressed by Taha’s answers, when it was discovered that his father was a “property guard,” he was dismissed. This was Taha’s first taste of corruption, another in a long line of blows to his dignity, and a serious threat to his chances of ever having a respectable life.
Taha’s next attempt to push past the boundaries set by his socioeconomic background was his enrollment in the Faculty of Economics at Cairo University. In his new surroundings, however, he still felt the sting of class divisions and was drawn towards other people who, like himself, came from humble backgrounds. These people were more religiously observant and Taha finally felt like he’d met people that would allow him the respect and dignity he was seeking. The level of respect and the sense of belonging he finally felt with this new group of people, student Islamists, made him far more open to radicalization. He felt that he was valued. He was brought into an inner circle and introduced to an influential and charismatic leader, Sheikh Shakir, which validated his need for respect and purpose.
The event that crystallized Taha’s emergence as not just an Islmaist, but a jihadi Islamist, was the trauma he experienced when arrested after a demonstration protesting Egypt’s involvement in the Gulf War. Already having spent most of his life being bullied and pushed around because of circumstances out of his control, he was bullied, tortured and raped by the very government entity that he had at one time hoped to work for. The corruption that prevented him from serving his country as a police officer now served to facilitate his torture and radicalization. When Taha was finally released from prison, his dignity as a man and a human being was shattered. His faith was shaken. Through coaxing from his Islamist mentors, however, he was convinced that he could best recover through renewed devotion and military-style training, which Taha readily agreed to out of an intense need for both healing and revenge.
In the end, Taha became a “martyr,” dying in the process of taking revenge on the man who ordered his rape. Because of Taha’s socioeconomic background, he had limited options to start with. Because of the corruption in the police department (and the government office that denied his claim of unfairness) he was pushed down a path that led him to associate with Islamist oriented people of a similar background. Further government corruption in the form of sanctioned torture and degradation in prison caused Taha to pass the tipping point. While not all Egyptians may follow the same path to Islamism, Aswany’s message is clear: the lack of opportunities open to people of all classes and the government’s enabling of and participation in corruption helped to create violent Islamists.