I wonder if the people sitting in churches this week understand how very much Jesus of Nazareth’s last week of life was driven by clashes pertaining to wealth and poverty, freedom and tyranny. Probably not. Theologians generally don’t study history. Historians usually don’t study theology, and neither study economics.
Here’s what happened: For over half of a millennium, Israel had been passed from empire to empire. Each new world power treated Jerusalem as a cash cow, diverting its wealth into imperial coffers in order to finance imperial ambitions. First there was Assyria, then Babylon, Persia, and Macedonia. Then finally Rome was given its turn. It was at this time that Jesus of Nazareth came into the world.
Rome didn’t care much about places like Nazareth; it was much more interested in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was a company town, and the company was The Temple. The Temple was the Herod family business, and it had been created for one reason and one reason only — to squeeze enough money out of the region for Herod and his dynasty to buy their way back into favor with Caesar Augustus.
Rome needed money to buy off the urban mob, and Herod needed Rome to keep down the Palestinian rabble. And so when the people came to Jerusalem to make their offerings to God, they were met at each step in the process of religious devotion with another checkpoint at which tolls were extracted. The journey to Jerusalem often meant crossing a Roman checkpoint — ka-ching! Since the trip was long and hard on the animals, it was better to travel light and buy the sacrifices in Jerusalem — ka-ching! You can’t use pagan Roman coins for that sort of thing, of course, so off to the money-changers — ka-ching again. Tithes, offerings, sacrifices, festivals, Rome got her cut — ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching. In fact, that’s the only reason there even was a temple or a King Herod. Rome would have long ago plundered it and killed him, except you don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
If the temple was the bridge between heaven and earth, Herod was the troll who lived under the bridge. Every pilgrim was forced to pay the toll. That’s what kept Herod in power: no ka-ching, no king. Ordinary Jews hated the regime, and the anger was boiling over, but Herod didn’t care what they thought; he had Rome on his side.
Into this world steps the young son of a Galilean entrepreneur. Joseph was a tekton, a skilled contractor. His adopted son, Jesus, was a rabbi, who gathered around him a small group of apprentices (mathetai, disciples) and set off for Jerusalem. Along the way he said and did things that implied that the temple was losing its status as the exclusive provider of access to the presence of God. Most Jews had already come to similar conclusions. They knew the Temple was corrupt, and turned to small-group Torah study as an alternative. Jesus adopted and intensified this new worship model. He created a network of small, nimble, and self-replicating clusters of people who could study and pray together and care for the poor. In his words: “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, I am there in the midst of them.” This threatened the Templar monopoly.
The Temple hierarchy was enraged by this. Their livelihood was at risk. Eventually Jesus went a step farther and staged a protest in which he overturned the foreign-exchange tables at the Temple where Roman coins were swapped for Jewish ones. The Temple was forced to shut down. That was the last straw. Jesus had demonstrated in a graphic, physical way that the Temple really did run on money. Even worse, he had demonstrated that during the time that The Temple, Inc. ceased to function the world still rolled along just fine without it.
Such knowledge could destabilize the entire world. Palestine was ungovernable without the Herodian Templar system, and an ungovernable Palestine meant the gold would cease to flow to Rome. It also meant the grain would cease to cross the Holy Land. As our tanks and ships run on oil, their horses and galley slaves ran on grain.
The Temple bureaucrats used their superior war chest to pay activists to call for Jesus’ execution, and even to bribe witnesses. The Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, knew how to keep his job in middle management — keep the money flowing to Rome. That meant killing Jesus.
Jesus was a politically sophisticated man. He knew what was coming.
He faced the executioners bravely. He accepted, even embraced his death, and overcame it. By doing this he took the stinger out of Jerusalem and Rome. Behind all the taxes and tolls, price controls, and monopolies, and behind the governors and tetrarchs and consuls and emperors, lurked a tax-hungry greed, and the greed was backed up by the threat of death. The emperor’s colossal ego was fed by the people of Rome; the Romans were fed by the bread and circuses; the bread and circuses were fed by the armies; the armies fed on the captive peoples, and the captive peoples who didn’t like it were fed to the lions, or (even worse) the crucifix.
Such it has always been. When tyrants rule, money flows uphill and pain flows down. At the top is always a Caesar (or his etymological cousins, a Kaiser or a Czar). In the modern age, they usually make a hypocritical nod to democracy by calling themselves “President,” but the suffix “for life” tells us what’s really going on. At the bottom is the enemy of the state and what awaits him is a cross, or a gas chamber, perhaps a syringe filled with poison, or the observation section of a rape room and then a trip to the paper shredder. Every tyrant rules the same way: through threat of torture, humiliation, and death.
But when Jesus said, “Go ahead, do your worst,” and, as his early followers testified, overcame death, he ripped the stinger out, rendering the whole wasp twitching and dying from tip to tail. When his followers chose the cross as their symbol, they seemed to be turning “the world upside down,” but they weren’t; they were turning the upside-down world, finally, right-side-up. To get the flavor, imagine a revolutionary-era Frenchman displaying a tiny replica of the guillotine, or modern Iraqis wearing little rape-room replicas around their necks, or industrial paper shredders. Imagine Russian dissidents making the sign of the syringe, or think of Holocaust survivors who display their tattooed identification numbers with pride instead of shame. This is what the early followers of Jesus did with the Roman cross.
Yes, Rome continued to plunder and murder for a time, but Jesus’ peaceful army grew. The empire tried to wipe them out, but the movement grew faster than Rome could kill. The Caesars gradually lost their grip on the world. Jesus’ new model survived, then prevailed and eventually spread. One by one it has been wiping the little Caesars from the face of the earth in a gale of creative destruction.
The gale blows still, Messrs. Putin, Kim Jong Il, and Ahmadinejad. The gale blows still, Raul, Hugo, Mugabe. House of Saud, the gale blows still.
— Jerry Bowyer is the chief economist of Benchmark Financial Network.