Last week, explaining a wall-hanging in my study, I brought history to life for a remodeling consultant. He asked for reading recommendations; more of a boost seems proper.
That wall-hanging is a reproduction of a bas relief from the arch of Titus. It depicts the Roman triumph awarded to Titus as he returned to Rome after sacking Jerusalem and destroying the Temple in AD 70. The story weaves through the revolt in Judea “first Jewish war”, Nero’s order to Vespasian to crush it, Nero’s flight and suicide followed by four emperors the first three of whom were killed by the next to rule: Galba, Otho, Vitellius, then Vespasian who founded Flavian Dynasty. Vespasian was conducting the siege of Jerusalem and left his son, Titus, in charge when he left Judea to remove Vitellius and become the emperor of Rome. Four emperors in a single year.
Nero was a very popular emperor, contrary to what we often read – popular with the people, despised by the Senate and the aristocracy. He was also the last of the Julio-Claudian line started by Julius Caesar.
But the money was running out, the taxes were too high and ever increasing, and his many crimes, antics, and theatrics were not a suitable mixture for the ruler of the world. And there was of course the fire in Rome. It was devastating, and regardless of what Nero did while Rome burned, after it burned he took the land and built a golden house for himself. That may have been the last straw but suffice it to say that revolution was in the air from Spain to Germany to Judea and throughout Italy.
The praetorian guard dropped their support of Nero, and he seemed alone. He fled, thought of suicide, and when confronted by a false report that the senate had declared him to be an enemy of the people and sought to beat him to death in public, he chose death but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Neither could he compel others, but his freedman finally gave him release. When the actual message of the senate arrived, seeking to bridge between Nero and the aristocracy and find some way to let Nero live, they attempted to stop the bleeding from his wound but it was too late. Galba marched into Rome and became emperor. Then Otho overthrew and killed Galba. Then Vitellius arrived from Germany and overthrew and killed Otho. Then Vespasian approached from Judea and his loyal followers dispatched Vitellius.
In this turbulent time, AD 70, the Temple in Jerusalem burned and was sacked as the Jewish war was ended and the rebellion crushed by Vespasian and Titus. Josephus’ “Wars of the Jews” records this – he was there, having been captured by Vespasian’s men. That book, among his complete works, is on my shelf near the bas relief.
A triumph was granted, and the arch of Titus depicts that triumph. As was customary, spoils from Jerusalem and the temple shown on the arch would have been placed under guard on public display near the arch. And those very spoils funded a building project undertaken by Vespasian and completed by Titus.
Repurposing the land seized by Nero’s after the fire and heaping dirt on and over the embarrassing golden house, Vespasian and Titus sought to provide a venue for the aristocracy and public entertainment. The colosseum was completed in AD 80 and still stands today. Nero did blame Christians for the fire, he did burn Christians alive to light garden parties, but he killed no one in the colosseum. It did not exist as you now know.
When Vespasian died, his son Titus followed, and when Titus died, Vespasian’s son Domitian followed. Domitian’s stringent controls and harsh punishments led to his assassination, ending the Flavian dynasty his father started. Domitian was famous for Christian persecution and stringent control of trade. He may have been a model for the beast of Revelation.
How do you get familiar enough with history to rattle off a tale like this? That is really what this fellow was asking.
I didn’t start my studies with that in mind; it just happened. What I had in mind was understanding biblical texts as they were understood when they were first written. To make a dent in that goal, one must realize that then, as now, there were a wide variety of hotly debated views and one can only approach from afar. That approach requires some understanding of people’s outlook on daily life – their worldviews. That, in turn, requires study.
Making a story compelling requires not only who, what, when, and where but also how and why – with the last two serving men (cf. Kipling’s poem) being the most controversial and the most compelling parts of any tale. In this time period, there’s never a single how or why, there are dozens. That’s true today if anyone would think it through, and your source of information will tend to color their tales with their favorite worldviews which strongly influence “why”.
How would one begin? Well, I’m weird, I prefer study of source material written during my study period. Accordingly, my first suggestion is to start out small: The Gospel according to Mark and the Book of Tobit would be my first choices. Select an easy to understand translation – there are a lot of them. The version most used by scholars New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). The New King James (NKJ), the English Standard Version (ESV), and many more are quite suitable (note however that the book of Tobit is not in most protestant bibles unless they have the “Apocrypha”).
I’d shy away from literal translations and the King James version (to avoid the thee/thou difficulties) – save it for later. Yes, I have a favorite. I most often use the NRSV, but my favorite for a cover to cover Bible read is hands down the 1966 Jerusalem Bible, but it useth that pesky thou shalt English.
Why did I pick those two books? They are short, and they are relevant. Mark writes a breathless account of the ministry of Christ – hopefully your translation will use the word “immediately” a lot because that’s the way Mark writes. This happened and then immediately that happened.
The book of Tobit is a different matter, it’s the first level of understanding the various Jewish beliefs at the time of Jesus if you’re looking for nutshell type of things. You see, this book (circa 200 BC) sheds light on why Jesus ate fish with the disciples after the resurrection (John chapter 21). He is showing them that He is not an angel. Angels do not eat, even if they appear to eat, and they do not have wings. You can figure that out elsewhere, but Tobit is fun and is a wholesome reading for everyone. You can also get some notion of why Jesus mixed spittle with mud to cure the eyes (John 9:7)– not that it was necessary of course but because it is what people believed at the time.
Next, with all due humility, I’d recommend reading a few entries on my blog. See what, if anything, strikes your fancy. I’d recommend “Egypt to Babylon: What happened?”, “Tetrakis Legomenon”, “The Risen Christ in John and Luke”, and if you’re in for a wild ride, “Jesus and White Waters”.
Then perhaps we could have an e-mail exchange or a talk. The French have a saying : À chacun son gout – to each one his own taste, and that’s very much the case with self-learning. This is your leisure time, and you need to find what you do with it pleasant and in some way rewarding. Most people, as in the vast majority of souls on this earth, have no patience with the lengthy source material that one must consume in order to approach an ancient worldview. If you’re too aggressive, you’ll be bored to tears and quit, or your family will object.
I am unlike the vast majority in this regard, and my study regime is between an eccentricity and an obsession. The truth is that I am called to study, and I’ve only in the last decade or so begun to understand why. When one studies honestly, one becomes humble in the vastness of material and the expertise of those who translate and comment upon it. And when one studies what I study, well, it’s not much of an advantage to know for certain what people used for toilet paper in 400 CE (by the way, that would be dried grass and pottery shards – very carefully – pottery shards). Or to know exactly what to do when reading the Torah and passing gas (move four cubits forward or to either side and keep reading. Four cubits is six feet, should you need to employ that Talmudic rule. Whatever you do, do not back up.)
Advantages come in better understanding allowing more intimacy with scripture and ancient documents in general. Things like the east meaning life and the west meaning death – very likely still shaping views in the middle east today. Things like Jesus asking Peter if Peter loves him, twice asking for the unconditional Agape love with Peter offering friendly Philo love and Jesus settling on Philo the third time (John 21:15-17). Or like Babylon being used in place of Rome in Revelation – both Rome and Babylon had destroyed the temple, you see. Lots and lots of little things that help, even more that challenge interpretations of scripture, yet none to lead towards arrogance, not if you’re honest about it. The more you know, the more you understand how deeply you misunderstand.