Of the three roots of western civilization ─ Greece, Rome and Palestine ─ it is the influence of the Jews which is the most extraordinary. A tribe of desert nomads seeking land of their own between the great kingdoms of Assyria, Babylon and Egypt, these were a people whose struggles against adversity had convinced them that they were a chosen race, especially made in god’s image.
We know more about the ancient history of the Jews than we do about any other people. So well known is ─ or perhaps we should now say was ─ their story that no less than eight percent of all the entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations come from the Bible, or from the Prayer Book. The Jews came out of the desert and probably reached the eastern shores of the Mediterranean nearly four thousand years ago. They were survivors from a tough place; as any member of the SAS will explain, to do that you need a rigid discipline, and a belief in your mission. The Jews had both. The Ten Commandments and the Book of Deuteronomy were uncompromising; truth had to prevail at all times for, amongst nomads one bad apple destroys a tribe1. While the Jews were as sexually aware as the hedonistic Greeks (try reading the song of Solomon [970 – 930 B.C.] ─ “Let thy breasts be as clusters of the vine, and thy mouth like the best wine”), their laws were savage in ensuring that no child was born out of wedlock for, as the tribe moved from campsite to campsite, who would care for an unwanted child?
Driven repeatedly into exile, doing time as slaves, suffering innumerable military defeats, and finally being driven from their homeland nineteen hundred years ago, the Jews are survivors. With everything apparently stacked against them the Jews remain a force to be reckoned with long after their ancient rivals, the Assyrians, the Babylonians and Pharaoh’s Egypt have passed into oblivion2. Their beliefs were very different to the Greeks and Romans; Plato foresaw the family becoming redundant, while the Romans had no qualms about murdering unwanted babies. While the Romans prided themselves on their manliness, and the Greeks on their aestheticism, the Jews had no wish for self-sufficiency… to the Jews God, not man, is the measure of all things3.
It was the Jews who first identified religion with morality and that, in the ancient world, was far from an obvious assumption. The Greeks and the Romans were far too uncertain about god for that. Maybe it had been the very toughness of the Jew’s history that gave them such a certainty ─ a certainty they have passed on to the two largest religions of this day, Christianity and Islam, accounting for more than half of today’s total population4.
A hundred years before Homer’s gods were sporting with their ladies on the slopes of Mount Olympus, and setting a shocking example to mere mortal men, Nathan the grand prophet of Israel was striding in upon his royal master and condemning him for a sin that would have been part of the daily round of Zeus5. Nathan didn’t mince his words; “Thou art the man… wherefore hast thou despised the commandments of the Lord?” To the Jews god and morality were inseparable. So it is with god and human behaviour that Jewish education is concerned6.
As rigorous as was their intellectual life the Jews were essentially a down-to-earth people; their priests and prophets had to earn their daily keep, so their teaching was mixed with the homely truths of the carpenter, the smith, the potter and the ploughman and one of the most famous of them all ─ Saul of Tarsus, better known as St. Paul ─ was a tent maker, the creator of the RVs (recreational vehicles) of his time7.
The Jewish vision was of a world united in the belief in one god and subscribing to one absolute standard of moral values, including respect for life, peace, justice, and social responsibility for the weak and poor. The family has always been central to Jewish life, and children a sign of God’s blessing. It is the role of children in celebrating the annual Passover Feast that binds the family, and the tribe, together. To the Jews honour of father and mother are absolutely fundamental. In the little noted incident of the twelve-year-old Jesus separating himself from his parents as they left Jerusalem after the Passover so that he could question the learned doctors in the temple, it is recorded that his parents were shocked at his disobedience. His response so typical of a modern adolescent was, “Do you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
It was the life and teaching of Jesus, the radical Jewish educated man, that has made an understanding of Judaism fundamental to an appreciation of western thought. While the Greeks were ambivalent about the ultimate meaning of life, and Romans fearful that they could at any time fall foul of the junketings of their gods, it was in the teaching of Jesus that the world first came to appreciate the concept of forgiveness of sins8. It was Christ who taught that there’s a greater strength in being merciful than in being legalistic, that life has an eternal significance, and that one’s responsibility to one’s neighbour is almost as great as one’s responsibility to one’s god. Ultimately Christ taught that God is a god of love. Jesus was crucified as a Jew, but within only a few years Judaism was being translated by the energetic, intelligent, often bigoted, St. Paul into a combination of religious belief and the Roman passion for good order, into a new religion ─ Christianity9.
Thesis 22: 24th August 2006