JESUS AS A TEACHER OF WISDOM IN ANCIENT PALESTINE part 1 of 7

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

So far in this series of posts on the wisdom tradition we have been considering two core features of wisdom that are vital for building and sustaining more cooperative relations amid human diversity. These two core features are peaceableness (shalom, as flourishing) and human mutuality (wisdom is for all humankind). And we have been considering reliance on them chiefly in local community and regional contexts.

Soon the posts will be going international. We will be exploring biblical and related narratives in which the wisdom tradition played prominent roles in the international relations and foreign policy of the old-world Middle East. Afterward, we will experiment with ways in which the agency of wisdom may be relied on in international relations today, with a special focus on U.S. – Middle East relations and foreign policy decision making. But just before we go international, I thought it would be good to dedicate several posts to the disturbed, regional context of ancient Palestine in Jesus’ day, and how Jesus as a teacher of wisdom handled it.

Roman empireFocusing on Jesus as a teacher of wisdom can be a bit difficult at first, at least it was for me, because other views of Jesus were prominent in my mind. As a Christian in America, I was taught to see Jesus as a healer and miracle worker, and as someone who was angry with the pharisees, and as someone who told great stories, and as the leader of twelve disciples, and so on. And especially as the savior. “Reading” Jesus’ life through such frames, however, as true as all of those are, gave me a blind spot. I was unable to see Jesus as a wisdom teacher. Sure, I knew that Jesus was a teacher and that the New Testament called Jesus the wisdom of God. And I knew that Jesus told a lot of parables and that the parables were part of the wisdom tradition. But I had never linked “teacher” to “wisdom” or heard any Christian instruction which emphasized that.

It was not until I was well into the research for this new book that I started considering Jesus in his role as a teacher of wisdom. That led to some surprising discoveries in how Jesus handled his own version of our contemporary, pluralist regions, with their great ethnic, political, and religious diversity. These discovers have added immensely to how I see Jesus, and in ways that I would not want to live without.

These discoveries began after I decided to get a good picture of the cultural, social, political, and religious scene of ancient Palestine in Jesus’ day. Here are few vignettes.

It was the time of the Roman empire and the empire’s occupation of Palestine, which affected your aspirations across the spectrum of life. At the top of the empire was the emperor and his imperium, exercising absolute control, with the blessing and favor of the gods. Just as Israel’s political and social life was rooted in its belief in Yahweh, Rome’s was rooted in belief in the Roman pantheon of gods, with “Jupiter Great and Blessed” as its head.

Just below the emperor and his imperium were the aristocratic families and the Senate. These aristocratic families were what we today would call the elite. The fathers had absolute control over these families, and the fathers could be summoned by the emperor at any time for their counsel. Well-reputed fathers of aristocratic families could become elders in the famed Roman Senate, which was an advisory body on both domestic and foreign policy. But the Senate did not legislate or have executive power.

In short, you lived under the dictatorial powers of the emperor and his imperium who, when analyzing a situation or making policy, may or may not listen to his elite advisers in the Senate or to the counsel of the aristocratic fathers.

But there was more still: the complicated and powerful imperial system of the magistrates. It was through the complicated hierarchical structure of the Roman magesterium that the tremendous political and military power of the empire was exercised over its vast holdings. The magistrates were tasked with keeping society moving along like a well-oiled machine. It was a system of government that had authority and power to legislate, to put down rebellions, and even to wage regional wars. In his writings, Luke gives us poignant glimpses of the power, authority, and functions of this system of governance (Luke 23; Acts 16).

And then of course there were “the people.” The empire grew by increasingly conquering and absorbing under its rule all sorts of diverse societies, ethnic populations, religious people-groups, tribes, city-states, and so on. This eventually hugely pluralist enterprise came to be know as the populus Romanus, the people of Rome. But having been conquered, you did not automatically become a citizen of Rome. In fact, one of the more ingenious political and social features of the empire was to make it possible to become a Roman citizen. We know from historians and from Acts chapter 22 that if you were not born a citizen you could pay a large sum of money for the privilege. You then gained the rights of Roman citizenship. But in return for that you served the empire, especially if required to during times of war.

Last but by no means least was the Roman military. Rome was an empire of war, as are all empires. Before Rome conquered the many and diverse peoples that came to rule, those peoples often waged regional wars against one another. It was the increasingly vast military superpower of Rome that clamped down on local and regional aggression and thus held the widespread empire at least somewhat peaceably together. Roman emperors ensured that their military forces – typically arranged throughout the empire as “legions” and “century units” –  suppressed revolts and kept social order. This was done under the authority of local and regional magistrates. The narrative recounted in Acts chapter 19 is a clear example of this authority being exercised during a riot at Ephesus.

We will pick it up from here with the next post.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog for a while to see if you like it. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. Thank you.

2 thoughts on “JESUS AS A TEACHER OF WISDOM IN ANCIENT PALESTINE part 1 of 7

    • Thx, Martin. It was a bit challenging to try to capture the totalistic feel of Empire in a few words. Glad it was felt. As I was studying it, I was surprised at the number of analogues between the Pax Romana and the Pax Americana. Despite some obvious differences. My hope is that the example of Jesus as wisdom teacher in that context opens up possibilities for wiser engagement with our own situations. Glad you are here.

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