While one sometimes hears it said that the gospel message when first heard in the early Roman empire was “shocking” and “turned the world upside down”, it is in fact more correct to say that the gospel message was a product of its age.
In the century or so leading up to the common era and beyond, the idea of winning by losing, of conquering and gaining life through death, and the virtues of patient endurance and self-denial when faced with tyrannical powers and losses in this world, were emerging as a “new morality”. The Christian message of finding one’s life by losing it was the product of its age.
The Christian saviour who is a king who conquers by dying was the kind of hero that resonated with the popular figures of both serious and light literature of the day.
If in another time heroic figures were great conquerors of cities and slayers of giants — Agamemnon bringing down Troy, Dionysus and Alexander conquering Asia, Odysseus outwitting and slaying Cyclops, David felling and decapitating Goliath — there was another value emerging in those generations preceding the time of Christ that came to stand as an alternative virtue for the powerless.
Here is what a non-Christian Jewish text from around the same era as Christ wrote of heroic figures. The conquering king is the loser; the victor is the one who yields up his body to be a public spectacle as it is tortured to death. The blood of the martyrs is even said to be the salvation of the nation.
 They vindicated their nation, looking to God and enduring torture even to death.”
 Truly the contest in which they were engaged was divine,
 for on that day virtue gave the awards and tested them for their endurance. The prize was immortality in endless life.
 Eleazar was the first contestant, the mother of the seven sons entered the competition, and the brothers contended.
 The tyrant was the antagonist, and the world and the human race were the spectators.
 Reverence for God was victor and gave the crown to its own athletes.
 Who did not admire the athletes of the divine legislation? Who were not amazed?
 The tyrant himself and all his council marveled at their endurance,
 because of which they now stand before the divine throne and live through blessed eternity.
 For Moses says, “All who are consecrated are under your hands.”
 These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation,
 the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified — they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation.
 And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an expiation, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been afflicted.
4 Maccabees 17:10-22
Does not verse 16 remind everyone of the centurion who had crucified Christ being the same who stood in amazement and declared Jesus to be the Son of God after all?
That was written to honour the martyrs of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid power. So it is no wonder that the biblical heroes in the same text were not the Davidic conquerors:
 While he [the father of the Maccabean leaders] was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets.
 He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and of Joseph in prison.
 He told you of the zeal of Phineas, and he taught you about Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael in the fire.
 He praised Daniel in the den of the lions and blessed him.
 He reminded you of the scripture of Isaiah, which says, `Even though you go through the fire, the flame shall not consume you.’
 He sang to you songs of the psalmist David, who said, `Many are the afflictions of the righteous.’
 He recounted to you Solomon’s proverb, `There is a tree of life for those who do his will.’
 He confirmed the saying of Ezekiel, `Shall these dry bones live?’
 For he did not forget to teach you the song that Moses taught, which says,
 `I kill and I make alive: this is your life and the length of your days.'”
 O bitter was that day — and yet not bitter — when that bitter tyrant of the Greeks quenched fire with fire in his cruel caldrons, and in his burning rage brought those seven sons of the daughter of Abraham to the catapult and back again to more tortures,
 pierced the pupils of their eyes and cut out their tongues, and put them to death with various tortures.
4 Maccabees 18:10-21
Note that even David’s greatness is not recalled in terms of his conquest of Jerusalem or slaughter of the Philistines, but by virtue of his suffering affliction despite [or because of?] his righteousness.
Once the traits of patient submissiveness in the face of abusive power, of endurance when denied one’s due and basic needs, were considered the sorts of values that made slaves and women praiseworthy. They were a shame for a man and the antithesis of what constituted a “true” (manly) hero.
Here is what Brent D. Shaw, Professor of Classics at The University of Pennsylvania, published in The Journal of Early Christian Studies Vol. 4, no. 3, 1996 (DOI: 10.1353/earl.1996.0037) wrote about this shift in values. The article is titled “Body/Power/Identity: Passions of the Martyrs.” I find myself thinking of the silence of Jesus before those who are unjustly abusing and beating him, and then mocking him as he is left to die on the cross, although Shaw is drawing on the Maccabean martyrs as his exemplars. (My emphasis.)
Having that sort of control over one’s own body enables the tortured to be silent, to speak through their bodies, and thus not to speak the required words. It is, rather, the spectators who will be forced to confess: to admit their defeat and to confess the superior power of the tortured body. A precise parallel is drawn with the thoroughly prepared and trained athlete: if one holds out long enough, one wins. The victim of torture then acquires the greatest value attributed to persons of high social status in this world: they are ennobled, imbued with an aura of aristocratic demeanor—the type of inherent excellence reserved by nature for the ruling élite, but one which could be acquired by a victorious athlete through the exercise of his body.
. . . . Sheer endurance was now lauded both as a behavioral practice and as a high moral ideal. So the spectators are not only amazed and wonder at the courage and manliness (andreia) of the Maccabean martyrs—that was quite traditional—but also at their simple ability to endure (their hypomonê). What is stated here is so ordinary that it might escape notice—so understated that it might be dismissed.
And then Shaw’s discussion of the moral shift that this entailed:
It is a subtle part of a movement or shift that constitutes a moral revolution of sorts. Praises of active and aggressive values entailed in manliness (andreia) by almost all other writers in the world of the Maccabees could easily fill books. The elevation to prominence of the passive value of merely being able to endure would have struck most persons, certainly all those spectators, as contradictory and, indeed, rather immoral. A value like that cut right across the great divide that marked élite free-status male values and that informed everything about bodily behaviour from individual sexuality to collective warfare: voice, activity, aggression, closure, penetration, and the ability to inflict pain and suffering were lauded as emblematic of freedom, courage, and good. Silence, passivity, submissiveness, openness, suffering — the shame of allowing oneself to be wounded, to be penetrated, and of simply enduring all of that — were castigated as weak, womanish, slavish, and therefore morally bad.
The equation of these two virtues — nobility (gennaia) and passive endurance (hypomonê) — would have struck the classic male ideologue of the city state as contradictory, a moral oxymoron. But this was precisely the concatenation of values which the author of Fourth Maccabees wrote about quite explicitly, and which he vaunted and advocated . . . .
And what relevance might this have for anything else that was central to Christianity? (The concepts are at a high level of abstraction, so are best understood by the more interested readers in their context. But I have highlighted the key points for my theme.)
Therefore, the conscious production of a rather elaborate conception of passive resistance. Or perhaps, to put it more honestly, the explicit co-optation of passivity in resistance as a fully legitimized male quality — a choice that could be made by thinking, reasoning and logical men. That choice could be exercised in specific dramas of political legitimation in which, since the stakes were so high, the body itself was at the epicenter of its viability. It is therefore no accident that the extraordinarily strong ideologies that came to be attached to the body and its replacement came to fruition simultaneously with this practice. The conceptions of life after death and of the resurrection of the body are also precisely concurrent with the Maccabean rebellion.
This was not only a Jewish development. (And Shaw discusses other Jewish texts in addition to 4 Maccabees, such as the Testaments of Joseph and Job, to illustrate this cultural development.)
But we see the same change emergent in the non-Jewish writings at the same time. Cicero equated the Greek “endurance” with the Latin “patience”. Of Seneca’s philosophical discussions of this Shaw writes:
The problem for Seneca is that such bravery is seen by the dominant values of his time to be “womanish.” The way he counters this is, once again, to deviate from his ostensible primary deployment of endurance in illness to the more striking cases of endurance by athletes and by those who are suffering political torture. First, he notes that although athletes endure enormous bodily punishment, they do not do so merely because they are fighting (he is clearly envisaging the martial contests) but in order that they might fight better. The distinction might seem picayune, but it does transfer the endurance from a passive to an active mode, and therefore removes from it the stigma of being “womanish”: “Quid ergo? Non sentis si illum muliebriter tuleris?” Secondly, he compares the type of training one undergoes to fight better in an athletic contest to the active role that the passive sufferer can assume under torture. One can win by smiling as one experiences overwhelming pain; the more the torturer applies tortures, the more your body can actually challenge the torturer. One can speak with the refusal of silence
We know, of course, Paul’s similar analogy of the Christian’s struggle with the training of athletes.
The same theme is seen in the popular novels. Shaw’s example is from a relatively late novel, but the same idea can be found expressed in the earliest novel that is also dated to around the time of the newly emerging Christianities.
Here from a novel by Achilles Tatius are the words of the heroine Leucippê defying a tyrannical male power, and forcing him to lose all legitimacy by her submission of her body to his abuse in order to preserve her inner freedom from him:
Take up all your instruments of torture, and at once; bring out against me the whips, the wheel, the fire, the sword. . . . I am naked, and alone, and a woman. But one shield and defense I have, which is my freedom, which cannot be struck down by whips, or cut by the sword, or burned by fire. My freedom is something I will not surrender—burn as you might, you will find that there is no fire hot enough to consume it.
I have not read of this particular value being applied to Nero, but it does seem to me that it would be one of the preconditions for the emergence of the Nero redivivus myth. After Nero’s fall from power as a result of military rebellion, there developed in the Eastern areas of the Roman empire a popular idea that Nero would one day return and destroy his enemies and rule once more. Through defeat one is guaranteed to rise up once more even greater than before. This was the vindication of the value of pro-active endurance through torture and death. One through this achieved the equivalent or greater of being considered “noble” or even of “royal” character.
The Gospel narrative of a Davidic Messiah/Christ who is crucified like a defeated rebel is exactly the sort of story we would expect to be composed and loved within the Roman-Greek-Jewish cultural world any time between the first-century b.c.e. and the third-century c.e.
Such a hero epitomized a value that among Jews was seen as having been “pioneered” among the Maccabean martyrs. Biblical heroic virtues were filtered to match. The Son of David was an ambivalent title in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus acknowledged the title one moment (as when he entered Jerusalem), but denied it the next (as when he debated the scribes). Like other Jews of his era, the author of the gospels looked to David being the exemplar of the suffering righteous one.
So it is no coincidence that Jesus, like David, walks with his few followers to the Mount of Olives to pray at his moment of betrayal and imminent death. That is the signal that what follows will be the new David’s victory though the new ethical value of the day.
This is the message that empowered the powerless. (One thinks today of suicide bombers finding no meaning in their daily existences, but only meaning — and life in a martyr’s reputation — in death.) Life is only found by losing one’s life. Victory is to the one who does not flinch in the face of the Roman governor, and it is the Roman centurion who will confess defeat over the bodies of those he kills.
Fundamentally the idea was not new. The gospel of Paul and the Jesus narrative was a product of its time. That is not to say that there was not something distinctive about the unique melding of Jewish and Greek presentation of it, however.
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