Home > Uncategorized > Imagined faiths: what did the Romans do for us?

Imagined faiths: what did the Romans do for us?

We all know, of course: apart from all the obvious stuff, both the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches are institutions forged by the Roman empire, and with continuities of sorts from it. And without Constantine, no official Church. But there are overlooked aspects, too: if one has a vast empire to run, it is unsuprising if in some areas one has to come down hard, creating millenarian movements among the locals. This is Judea in the year 0. So Christianity is one result. And the coming down harder of AD70, with the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, is equally crucial: without this event, the followers of the various cults of the areas, not to say the Jews themselves, would not have been scattered throughout the empire, nor would they have lost the place in which they lived. Judaism would have remained, like the Samaritans or the Zoroastrians, a middle-eastern monotheism of little wider significance: the followers of Jesus might have withered away altogether, or remained a sect within Judaism. In other words, Christianity, and the wider history of Judaism, and the world-changing events that flow from them, are to some extent the results of an inept foreign policy in a far-flung corner of a great Empire.

But there’s something else, too: something harder to articulate, but very interesting. This moment, the destruction of the Temple, when Jewish priestly sacrifice ceases and the faith turns to its books and its memories, is one crucial moment in the identity of Judaism today; but it’s equally interesting that, as these forces spin away from Judea and ultimately to Rome, one of them ceases sacrifice (and almost ceases liturgy) whereas the other does something rather new: transmutes sacrifice into ritual, at once adopting a liturgical richness unknown in Judaism and a refusal to practise anything other than metaphorical sacrifice unknown to Rome. There’s some kind of a Third Way here, a new direction that in the context of that moment must have been strangely powerful.

 

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