A Channel 4 documentary on Saturday night brought home an ancient controversy. Illustrated with a treasure-trove of material from Caesarea on the coast of Roman Judea, what was found is shocking.
The programme was on Roman chariot racing, but that is not what stuck in the mind – it was the physical evidence of life in a city which was not as it should have been.
Today Caesarea is a modern city, and its predecessor was modern in the Roman world too, founded by Herod the Great as his capital, named after Augustus and modelled on the cities of the Graeco-Roman world. This city had all the trappings of a Roman city, including a theatre, a temple dedicated to Roma and Augustus, and a hippodrome, for chariot racing. Around the circus were all those shady stalls found in every Roman arena – the temples, the taverns, the cauponae, the knocking-shops and magicians selling charms and curses.
The city attracted a large gentile community, though the majority of the city’s population were Jewish, until later centuries. What they could see around them in this new Hellenistic city was abomination: heathen temples, murders as entertainment in the theatre, soothsayers and magicians. A foreign culture was taking over and one which offended against every aspect of the Law. In a well in the city Israeli archaeologists have found many curse tablets, rolled sheets of lead with curses written in Greek invoking Greek deities to bring death or ill-fortune on enemies, or on the opponents of favoured chariot racers.
The reaction of observant men must have been of horror that here within the Land of Israel there stood in stone the very antithesis of all the law and the prophets. Further, it was modernity and seems to portray the inevitable future for all, and it was embraced by those who went to live within the city. We do not know if any of those curses invoking the Goddess were laid by Jewish inhabitants of the city, but the fact that pagan idols were being invoked and pagan magicians thriving in the land, seducing even Jewish men, must have looked like the evil that arose in the days of the prophets.
Unlike the days of the prophets though, no end could be imagined as all the civilised world was in the hands of the Romans and the Greeks and all modernity embraced their civilisation. To reject that culture was to reject modernity and to be “on the wrong side of history”. Therefore it could only grow: pagan temples, pagan culture, idols, orgies, indulgence, ritual murder, debauchery, astrologers and soothsayers and all that the Law forbids celebrated in the cities of Israel with official approval.
The men of Judea were strangers in their own land, mocked by those who had come among them for their old-fashioned, joyless religion and stale morality.
There were rebellions. They were suppressed, with brutality: Roma triumphans.
However there may have been a memory of the prophecy of Daniel, the King’s dream in which “a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces”, and “the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth” – this was a vision of the future Messianic kingdom, but for those in the land seeing everything ebbing away, this must have seemed a vain hope.
It was not a vain hope: Roman culture was in time overthrown by “the stone the builders rejected”.
Our western culture, our world culture, has been built on religion and morality that King David would understand and Caesar Augustus would not. Now that foundational culture is under relentless attack we are urged to give up, to accept an inevitability of modernity which claims eternal truth, as did Rome. I hope that the ruins of Caesarea can provide us with a lesson for today.