Lee Sandlin
Reification - Belles Lettres
Reification - Belles Lettres
our motto.

There is no antidote against the opium of Time. — sir thomas browne, urn burial


The Gospel of Seeds


This is from a passage describing the social world of the New Testament.

For readers coming to the Gospels from the literatures of classical antiquity, what's most striking about them is how concrete they are. They've got nothing in them of the stylized grandeur of Greek and Latin literature. They're casual, hectic, jumbled, tumultuous and alive. There are no vague conventional settings, before which noble heroes pose and speak poetry; we know the place, the time of day, and the weather; scenes are set in back alleys, jammed marketplaces, worked fields, cluttered docks; we're with the caravans on the dusty Roman roads, and the crowds on the streets of garrison towns; we're following the barges on the rivers, and the lantern-lit boats of the nightfishermen bobbing off the shore before dawn.

Everywhere there are people. There aren't the carefully vetted shortlist of heroes and gods that make up the bulk of the stories of pagan antiquity. They're the people swarming the streets and the markets, trudging down the roads, jamming the inns, riding the cheapest boats across the Sea of Galilee: fishermen, farmers, lawyers, priests, customs officials, merchants, sailors, landowners, clerks, soldiers, artisans, day laborers, beggars, slaves. There are women from all classes of society, aristocratic ladies and merchants' wives and village women and prostitutes. No matter who they are they're invariably shown as busy fishing, mending nets, drawing water, planting and weeding and harvesting fields. There are wedding parties and funeral processions, there are scholars debating doctrine in temple courtyards, there are idle children taunting passersby in the markets. Everything is noisy and jostling. There are wailing flutes announcing that somebody in a household has died; there are big religious festivals that bring whole cities to a standstill.

Mainly, there are people talking. They talk constantly. They talk about religion, when they're not talking about politics; they tell proverbs and they pass on jokes; they talk about the average rate of pay for a day laborer and they debate the best ways of serving wine. They complain that the Jerusalem road getting to be dangerous to travel because of all the bandits, and they pass on news about a tower that fell in Siloam and killed eighteen people. They retell lurid stories about why John the Baptist was put to death, and they bubble over with insiderish gossip about how Herod and Pilate didn't get along.

They live in a tense world. Their heads are filled with dreams and portents and ominous signs. They think epilepsy, mental disturbances, and diseases are caused by demons living within the body. They sense the presence of these demons everywhere, "wandering alone in the wastes of the earth." They are profoundly anxious about the future and see oppression, revolution, war, and cataclysmic natural disasters ahead. They keep their doors locked at night. Every stranger is watched. A woman Jesus meets in Samaria is startled that he's even willing to speak to her, and in Decapolis Jesus is just as startled when a woman who isn't an Israelite asks him for help. Jesus's parable of the Good Samaritan shocks its hearers with the notion evidently a new thought for them that a foreigner could possibly be a decent person.

Looming up over everyone is Rome. Even in back-country Galilee, the Empire makes itself felt: its soldiers and officials and agents are scattered everywhere. They are invariably viewed with hostility. In Capernaum Jesus meets a centurion who is deferential to him and also, according to the town's elders, actually put up money to build a new synagogue. Jesus says he's never heard of anything like it before. That says all that needs to be said about how the Romans ordinarily behaved.

Tensions are particularly high in Jerusalem. The Jewish religious establishment there is regarded as collaborationist one big reason the gospels describe it so poisonously. The energies for a revolt are building (and would break out catastrophically a few decades later). The people are urgently debating the arrival of the Messiah, mainly because they're looking for political salvation. When a local highwayman and insurrectionist named Barabbas is captured with his men, there's a mob clamoring to have him set free. The establishment is out to throttle all traces of this dissent, in order to preserve their own standing with the Romans. According to the gospels, this is why they go after Jesus: they want to demonstrate to their masters that they're willing to do anything to maintain order, even put a local hero to death on trumped-up charges.

This is the world in which Jesus lived - though maybe "lived" isn't quite the right word. The exact term for what Jesus did there is another common but vaguely untranslatable word of ancient Greek: eskeinousen. It's used in the following sentence in the Gospel of John:

Kai ho logos sarx egeneto, kai eskeinousen en humin.

Which is translated like this in the King James Version:

And the word became flesh, and dwelled among us.

"Dwelled" -- not quite "lived," not quite so permanent. The root skein suggests "tent." It might be put this way:

And the word became flesh, and was tented among us.

Meaning, let's say, this:

The word took human form, and pitched his tent to live among us.

Or this:

The word came into the world, and passed through it like a nomad.







New Testament: Jesus