The factual historicity of Esther is pretty questionable, but that debate is a bit beside the point for purposes of the present post. As folklore or fact, the story of Esther and Mordecai, of their near-destruction and the consequent execution of their persecutor, is a staple of tradition and literature.
The thumbnail version of the Purim story has Esther (Hadassah), a Jew living in the Persian capital of Susa, plucked out of obscurity to become the (or a) queen of a “King Ahasverus”.
If Esther has a historical basis, this would be about the fourth or fifth century B.C.E., and “Ahasverus” could be Xerxes (the guy who invaded Greece and made Herotodus famous), or the much later Artaxerxes II.
Esther is an orphan being raised by her cousin Mordecai, and when Esther wins “Who Wants To Live In The Persian Harem?” Mordecai advises her to keep judiciously silent about her Hebrew lineage.
Mordecai doesn’t manage the same trick, however, and offends the king’s powerful minister Haman by refusing to bow to him. This gets the overweening Haman upset at not only Mordecai but at all Jews who share his anti-idolatry scruples, and Haman persuades King Ahasverus to authorize their indiscriminate slaughter:
“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; their laws are different from those of every other people, and they do not keep the king’s laws, so that it is not for the king’s profit to tolerate them. If it please the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed.”
13 Adar is the date fixed for the Jews’ destruction, by pur, a casting of lots — hence the festival’s eventual date and name. Haman, of course, does not realize that this policy makes Esther his enemy.
In order to save her cousin and her people, Esther must risk a death sentence of her own by approaching the king unbidden in his inner chambers. Mordecai charges her to her duty with a timeless moral force:
“Think not that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”
Esther pulls this dangerous maneuver off, and gains thereby a private audience with just the king and Haman. There, she springs her trap — revealing her Jewish identity.
The king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.”
Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor in your sight, O king, and if it please the king, let my life be given me at my petition, and my people at my request. For we are sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be slain, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; for our affliction is not to be compared with the loss to the king.”
Then King Ahasverus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, that would presume to do this?”
And Esther said, “A foe and enemy! This wicked Haman!” Then Haman was in terror before the king and the queen.
Word arrives at this inopportune juncture that Haman, who has been gleefully preparing his vengeance, has just had completed a 50-cubit (~20-meter) gallows to execute Mordecai upon. The enraged king instead orders Haman hung on it.
“Hanging” Haman on the “gallows” was traditionally interpreted in the ancient and medieval world as crucifixion,* or some analogously excrutiating way to die.
By any method of execution, though, the dramatic power of the scene — sudden reversal of fortune, virtue elevated over wickedness, the oppressed turning the tables on their oppressors, divine deliverance — is obvious.
At least the guy was remembered. Hands up if you can name any other ancient Persian courtier.
“The Punishment of Haman” is a corner of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.
However, this satisfying palace politics turnabout is not the end of the story, and punishment is not reserved only for the wicked minister.
Esther persuades the king not only to revoke Haman’s order, but to issue a new one — one that Esther and Mordecai will write tabula rasa over the king’s seal.
The writing was in the name of King Ahasverus and sealed with the king’s ring, and letters were sent by mounted couriers riding on swift horses that were used in the king’s service, bred from the royal stud. By these the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to gather and defend their lives, to destroy, to slay, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods, upon one day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasverus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar
So the Jews smote all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. In Susa the capital itself the Jews slew and destroyed five hundred men, and also slew Parshandatha and Dalphon and Aspatha and Poratha and Adalia and Aridatha and Parmashta and Arisai and Aridai and Vaizatha, the ten sons of Haman the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they laid no hand on the plunder. That very day the number of those slain in Susa the capital was reported to the king.
And the king said to Queen Esther, “In Susa the capital the Jews have slain five hundred men and also the ten sons of Haman. What then have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces! Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.”
And Esther said, “If it please the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict. And let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.”
So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they slew three hundred men in Susa; but they laid no hands on the plunder.
Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and got relief from their enemies, and slew seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder.
This bloodbath is obviously a bit more ethically problematic than Haman’s individual fate.
Now, sure, this is an event of questionable authenticity situated in Iron Age tribal mores and exaggerated by the ubiquitous ancient inflation of head counts. The subtext (“defend their lives” … “relief from their enemies”) also implies something like civil strife, blows exchanged rather than merely blows delivered. The overt text says that the victims were people who intended to do exactly the same thing to the Jews.
Still, the plain words on the page says 75,000 humans were slaughtered by a mobilized ethno-nationalist group, “children and women” among them. Just imagine the same parable about a Serb in a Bosnian king’s court, and say a little thanksgiving that the Book of Esther doesn’t identify these 75,000 as constituents of any specific demographic group that remains a going concern today.
Purim is a beloved holiday among its celebrants, but most any explication of it on the Internet comes with a comment thread agonizing over (or rationalizing) the body count. (For example.)
The fact that the story was told, and that it gained great popularity among the Jews, and by some of those in later ages came to be regarded as one of the most sacred books of their canon is, however, a revelation to us of the extent to which the most baleful and horrible passions may be cherished in the name of religion … it is not merely true that these atrocities are here recited; they are clearly indorsed.
Blessedly Purim Fest is not ultimately defined by the likes of Streicher, nor by the bloodthirstiness that is this site’s regrettable stock in trade. For most observants it’s simply one of the most joyous holidays of the year, a time for gifts and feasting and dress-up and carnivals and celebration sometimes thought of as the “Jewish Mardi Gras” or “Jewish Halloween”. Adherents have even been encouraged in all religious solemnity to drink in celebration until they can no longer tell “blessed be Mordecai” from “cursed be Haman.”
Deliverance indeed. L’chaim.
* The concept of Haman crucified in turn encouraged Jews under Christendom to use the figure of Haman (who once upon a time, could be subject to Guy Fawkes-like effigy-burning on Purim) as a veiled stand-in for the current oppressor Christ, and/or encouraged Judeophobic Christians to impute this intention to Purim observances.
On this date in 1801, 73-year-old James Legg(e) was hanged for murdering his mate William Lamb(e) at Chelsea Hospital.
Both men were pensioned ensigns from His Majesty’s service. According to the trial transcript, Legg was sinking into obvious depression. A nurse of long acquaintance remarked on
a lowness, a melancholy and deranged state; knowing him so long, I took the opportunity of asking him what was the matter with him, and the reason of his melancholy; he told me his mind was confused; that he had no rest night or day; that he was hurried from place to place, and could not tell what he was doing; and I really was afraid he would make away with himself; I was always unhappy when he was out of my sight, for fear he should do himself an injury; I never mentioned it to the doctor, because he was harmless … sometimes when I spoke to him, he would start like a person surprized out of a sleep; sometimes he would give me an answer, and sometimes only just a bow; I still observed that lowness and melancholy, and that his head was always confused down to the time of this unfortunate event.
Ah. The “unfortunate event.” Legg took it to mind that Lamb was “a tyrannical tempered man” who gave him “repeated insults” and challenged him to a duel. (Lamb’s widow, the only witness to the murder, said her husband had no beef with his killer.)
When Lamb quizzically (or scornfully) discarded the pistol that the irate Legg had forced into his hand, Legg just shot him dead.
He probably had no expectation that he’d just punched his ticket to artistic immortality.
It was a natural outgrowth of Europe’s long fascination with anatomical accuracy — a fascination that made liberal use of executed bodies.
Despite the centrality of Christ’s crucifixion to western culture, nobody had seen an actual crucifixion — not for centuries. So, sure, you can make the guy on the cross look like a proportioned, three-dimensional human being …
… but is this really what a proportioned, three-dimensional human being would look like when nailed to a cross?
That Chelsea surgeon Carpue and his artist friends had the best way to find out. (Well … the second-best.)
“A building was erected near the place of the execution; a cross provided,” Carpue recorded. After hanging, “the subject was nailed on the cross; the cross suspended … the body, being warm, fell into the position that a dead body must fall into … When cool, a cast was made, under the direction of Mr. Banks, and when the mob was dispersed it was removed to my theatre.” West supposedly exclaimed that he had “never before seen the human hand” until he saw James Legg’s nailed and stretched.
Carpue proceeded to flay the cadaver and make a second cast from the grisly skin-less ecorche … an artistic/anatomical practice of the age whose best-known product is Smugglerius, also cast from a hanged man.
The Okudaira, allies of the wars’ eventually-victorious Tokugawa clan, found themselves besieged by the Takeda. This would result in the important Battle of Nagashino.
Kurosawa’s masterpiece Kagemusha imagines the Takeda where the (real) late daimyoShingen was succeeded after his (real) 1573 death (fictitiously) by an imposter thief posing as the great commander. In the film, the imposter is unmasked and deposed, but witnesses the climactic Battle of Nagashino … and then makes a futile charge under the Takeda banner after that side is slaughtered.
After an initial Takeda attempt to take the fortress by storm, the Takeda settled in for a brief siege — knowing the defenders to have only a few days’ supplies on hand. Enter Torii Suneemon.
Under cover of darkness on the night of the 22nd-23rd, Suneemon slipped out of the Yagyu gate and picked his way through Takeda tripwires to escape the investment … and summon help.
Torii Suneemon embarks on his mission: 19th century woodblock print of Yoshitoshi‘s “24 Accomplishments of Imperial Japan” series. The same artist also depicted that event in this triptych.
He made it on the 23rd to Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga, who upon hearing his report pledged to dispatch a relief force the very next day.
Alas for him, Suneemon’s attempt to sneak back into the encircled fortress to deliver the good news was detected on the 24th, and he came as a prisoner to the Takeda commander. The Takeda prevailed upon their helpless captive to exchange his life for a signal service: approach the fortress walls and shout to the garrison that no help was on the way.
This Suneemon agreed to do.
The legends differ as to whether he walked on up to deliver this bogus bad news, or whether the Takeda lifted him up on a cross to impress upon their new agent the penalty for any funny business. Either way, Torii Suneemon had the last laugh: he immediately began hollering to the defenders that help was coming if they could just hang on a few more days.
The besiegers, of course, crucified him immediately … but everyone could appreciate the doomed man’s heroism.
While the grateful Okudaira elevated his family to samurai rank, even an enemy Takeda commander who witnessed the event was so moved that he adopted the image of the defiantly crucified soldier for his battle standard.
Nor was the brave soldier’s sacrifice in vain. The garrison did hold on — and their allies did relieve them, and did rout the Takeda in the resulting Battle of Nagashino. (The scenario is widely reproduced in video games nowadays).
* Some sites give this as “May 16″, but I believe the primary sources here actually indicate the 16th day of the 5th month on the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar. This date corresponds to June 24, 1575 of the Julian calendar. (1570s conversion aid in this pdf, or use this converter).
Christmas Day is all about that Jesus fellow, but for a break from the usual gold, frankincense, and myrrh, spare a thought for St. Anastasia of Sirmium — whose feast date and purported execution date December 25 also is. She’s the only Christian martyr with a Christmas celebration,* and an apt choice for the depth of winter since her name means “dawn” or “rebirth”.
Byzantine icon of St. Anastasia from the Hermitage, holding a vial that alludes to her antitoxin powers.
Centuries of namesakes have shared that moniker, like the youngest daughter of the executed Romanov family, on the basis of the Great Martyr’s having died during the persecution of Diocletian; though this circumstance scarcely makes her unique, no less a source than the Catholic Encyclopedia avers that the ancient martyrology linking her to St. Chrysogonus “is purely legendary, and rests on no historical foundations.” (It’s possible that multiple historical Anastasias were conflated into a single legendary person.)
Despite later generations’ ignorance of what this early keeper of the faith was really about, she became associated — again, possibly thanks to nothing more sharing the same name as the facility’s local Roman matron — with an early church in Rome, the “titulus sanctae Anastasiae.” Today ruined, this was an important church in the capital of the faith during late antiquity, and helped vault St. Anastasia into the first rank of holy intercessors. She’s even mentioned by name in the Canon of the Mass.
Her celestial department protecting against potions and poisons has, today, a distinctly retro vibe about it; “the last remnant of the former prominence enjoyed by this saint and her church” is the Christmas Dawn Mass, likely the day’s most lightly-attended service at your local Catholic or Anglican parish, wherein Anastasia is invoked by name.
It was perhaps on this date, that the prophet Mani — he of Manichaeism — underwent his Passion at the hands of the Sassanid Empire in a Gundeshapur prison.
The actual date of this event is an Aramaic (lunar) date whose year is unrecorded, so it attaches only uncertainly to the Julian calendar. (2 March 274 is another possibility, as are other dates in the mid-270s.)
Perhaps more to the point for this blog is that Mani’s “crucifixion” as celebrated by his followers was a literary exultation: the 60-year-old died in prison after 26 days in chains, maybe even sooner than his captors had intended. After Mani “rose [from his body] to the residences of his greatness [in] the heights, and he met his shape,” the Sassanids decapitated the corpse to make the whole scene more properly resemble the awful majesty of an offended sovereign.
But even as merely a metaphorical “execution,” Mani’s martyrdom merits mention.
Born into a Judaic-Christian sect, Mani (also known as Manes) experienced a conversion, went east for enlightenment, and returned with a syncretic theology of a good spirit world and an evil material one — and east-meets-west twist, in other words, on gnosticism, rooted in both Christianity and Buddhism. (And Zoroastrianism, dominant in Persia at this time — to Mani’s ultimate grief.)
This seems like the sort of thing that someone ought to have revived in California in the 1970′s.
The man wrote his own holy book, after all, and it’s a bit more elegant than the likes of neoconservative foreign policy.
the first precept for hearers is this: …they shall not kill …, [and] they shall forgive those creatures who provide them with meat for food so that they do not kill them as if they were evil people. But dead flesh of any animals, wherever they obtain it, be it dead or slaughtered, they may eat …
And the second precept for hearers is that they shall not be false and they shall not be unjust to one another … he shall walk in truth. And a hearer shall love [another] hearer in the same way one loves one’s own brother and relatives, for they are children of the living family and the world of light.
And the third precept is that they shall not slander anybody and not be false witnesses against anybody of what they have not seen and not make an oath in falsehood in any matter …
Manichaeism found favor (though not a conversion) with the broad-minded and long-reigning king Shapur I. (Shapur is most famous in the West as the Persian ruler who captured the Roman emperor Valerian.)
It seems they were able to make use of the prophet’s distaste for war to question his patriotism. Some things never change.
The founder’s laying down his life hardly slowed the faith’s growth; instead, it prospered as one of the more successful entrants in the confusing late-antiquity hustle and bustle of competing cults. Dualism was a hot mystical trend literally from ocean to ocean, and nobody proselytized it like Mani’s followers.
Had it stayed that way, there’d be endowed chairs of Manichean gnosticism at every university and politicians conspicuously rubbing shoulders with Manichean clergy and Major League sluggers with WWMD bracelets. Instead, it’s a metonym for naivete. Them’s the breaks.
In the West, at least, the lost sect’s unflattering reputation comes by way of no less a personage than St. Augustine of Hippo.
You know what they say about the zeal of converts? Well, Augustine used to know Manichaeism from the inside.
St. Augustine Sacrificing to a Manichaean Idol, 15th century painting by an unknown Flemish master.
After spending his twenties as an enthusiastic Manichean, the future Church Father (re)converted to orthodox* Christianity and turned on his former philosophy with vehemence.
His Confessions denounces a Manichean bishop with whom he once had an unsatisfying audience — “Faustus by name, a great snare of the devil.” That association might very well be the etymological root of that great literary devil-bargainer Dr. Faust.
One could, at the minimum, follow a thread from Augustine’s establishment anti-dualism to the Middle Ages practice of calling any dualistic heresy — Bogomilism, Catharism, whatever — “Manichean”, and the intertwining of those forbidden gnostic traditions with Christendom’s devil mythology.
Medieval image of St. Augustine confounding devilish heresies.
At the same time, Augustine’s philosophy draws much of its enduring appeal from that very dualism, absorbed at such a formative age that the writer late into life was still repelling Christian colleagues’ accusations of immutable Manichaeism — “like an Ethiopian can not change his skin, nor the leopard his spots.” Augustine’s City of God proceeds from opposing that virtuous spiritual metropolis to the corruption of the City of Man.**
Nowhere in the early church before 400 does there appear to be such a tender and appealing piety, along with such a prominent place given to the Christ, except for Augustine and the Manichaean writings … In some essential features of Augustine’s spirituality we may perceive one of the most important channels through which the Gnostic religion of Manichaeism has exercised a lasting influence on western culture.
* Manichaeism, at least in the North African context where Augustine engaged it, is probably best thought of as one of the competing strands within the Christian community rather than a rival religious edifice. (Gnosticism’s capacity to syncretize with varying spiritual traditions has always been essential to its appeal.) Manicheans themselves insisted that they were secta, within Christianity, not schisma, like the pagans.
** Augustine had particular cause to be down on the prospects of the City of Man: at the time of writing, Rome had just been sacked by the Visigoths.
That execution of a black slave and his white lover was exceptional — and, of course, the chronicles of the Cape are replete with less exceptional fare, the humdrum penal brutality of an 18th century colony disposed of in a sentence of two between reports of smallpox outbreaks, price fluctuations, the transit of slave ships, and all the other business of frontier life.
A slave condemned to be burnt alive for arson; another to be hanged for theft … Two white men hanged for desertion, sheep-stealing, and attempt to murder … A Javanese “Guru” sentenced to death for instigating slaves to run away, harbouring and arming them … Matthys of Ternate punished for running away and cattle theft, &c. Sentenced to be hanged … A slave hanged for breaking into the house of Lieutenant Captain Slotsboo … Five slaves sentenced to be broken, and a female slave to be scourged … Two soldiers sentenced to run the gantlope …
And so on.
This date marks a number of such executions for a minor slave revolt (incidents of slave insubordination also pepper the Colony records). At three full entries in the chronicle, 16 implicated slaves, and some spectacularly savage punishments, it must have been one of the more noteworthy of its day; what the colonial register leaves us is just enough to suggest the forgotten suffering and resistance of the half-nameless chattel of yesteryear.
January 7 — Some 16 fugitive slaves who had conspired, armed themselves, and did much mischief. They resisted the officers of justice, shot a soldier, and murdered a Hottentot woman. They were now brought up for examination.
February 7 — The sentences passed on the fugitive slaves, and the whole history of the case. “Tromp” to be empaled alive, and to remain in that position till he dies. “Cupido” to be put on a cross, his right hand to be cut off, and with “Neptunus” to be broken on the wheel, and then to be left on a hurdle until dead. “Titus” to be broken with the coup de grace. Jeroon and Thomas to be hanged; three others to be scourged and have their right heels cut off. The eleventh prisoner is merely to look on, and afterwards to be sent home; paying the costs however.
February 8 — The empaled convict found strangled in the morning. He had received some linen from a kind friend during the night for the purpose. He would otherwise have been still alive.
… a Thracian of Nomadic stock, possessed not only of great courage and strength, but also in sagacity and culture superior to his fortune, and more Hellenic than Thracian. It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue.
On an uncertain date roughly around this time in 71 B.C.E., some 6,000 survivors of the shattered rebel slave army of Spartacus in Rome’s Third Servile War were crucified along the Appian Way.
The specific chronology of this legendary warrior, leader of the last major slave revolt against Rome, is necessarily foggy, but in fine, he broke out of a gladiators’ camp in 73 B.C.E. and went on to lead a slave army some 100,000 strong up and down the Italian peninsula for two solid years, repeatedly stomping Roman forces sent to suppress him.
His motivations remain mysterious; if one likes, one can project back on him an anachronistic anti-slavery project, but it’s more likely he was just trying to get by day by day as the greatest empire* on the planet harried his every move and internal divisions tore at the rebel camp.
Nevertheless, Spartacus and army prospered, and plundered, in the very heart of that empire, and gave Senators reason to fret the security of their capital even as their legions carried Roman arms from Spain to Palestine.
The army (for the gladiators organized it with military discipline, realizing a mob would be easy prey for Rome) was trapped, at last, at the toe of the Italian boot by Roman plutocrat Crassus, later to become a patron of, and fellow triumvir with, Julius Caesar. Abandoned by pirates with whom the slave army attempted to negotiate passage, it was a desperate situation. Spartacus, writes Appian, “crucified a Roman prisoner in no-man’s land to demonstrate to his own troops the fate awaiting them if they were defeated.”
Duly inspired, Spartacus and his army broke out of the Roman circumvallation around February of 71 B.C.E. Hemmed in by a second Roman force, the slaves turned to fight their pursuer, Spartacus dramatically sticking a blade into his own warhorse before the fight as another one of those conquer-or-die pregame speeches.
In The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss estimates April of 71 B.C.E. for that decisive battle. The slaves lost it; Spartacus died in combat, and his ancient calumniators vied to sing his heroism on the field.
But 6,000 survivors did not go down fighting to the death. These, Crassus staked out along one of Rome’s principal highways, the carcasses left to disintegrate there for months or years.
A few books about Spartacus
He’s easy to admire now,** but slave revolts scare the bejeezus out of slave societies, and the Spartacus rising would keep generations — centuries — of Romans sweating about a potential repeat. (At least, elite Romans, the ones whose voices remain for us.)
Their pejorative take on Spartacus (aside from his personal valor and martial excellence, for which even hostile writers gave him credit) was long the received wisdom on this upsetter of divinely established social order. “From a small and contemptible band of robbers,” sniffed Saint Augustine of the gladiators, “they attained to a kingdom.” They “enjoyed whatever pleasures they wished, and did what their lust suggested.”
The present-day reader’s readiest association is likely the much more admiring — and famously homoerotic, which is now yet another connotation for the gladiator’s name — Stanley Kubrick classic Spartacus, which turns 50 this year and gave to the cinematic canon the stirring “I’m Spartacus!” scene as the captured slave army defiantly embraces death.
This episode is completely ahistorical, but so what? One of the wildest things about this sword-and-sandal production is how much of it isn’t made-up. Like the premise: in the lifetime of Julius Caesar, a few guys busting out of gladiator school using nothing but kitchen utensils threatened for two years to turn the Eternal City and its far-flung realms upside-down.
A number of sports clubs in the former Soviet bloc also carry the Spartacus name, including Russian football power Spartak Moscow as well as several clubs in Bulgaria, which currently governs most of the rebel slave’s ancestral homeland of Thrace.
But the decision to move to silver coins backfired a century later, when a variety of converging factors cut the silver supply to China and caused a spike in the price of the metal. As a result, the economy sagged. In the mid-1640s, a drought also gripped the country, and the Ming government was in the unenviable position of watching over a collapsing nation. It didn’t help that the government was highly centralized, with almost all activity occurring in Beijing; a working regional governing mechanism may have allowed it to dig out of the hole, but with the rise of an elite class — and prospective officials seeking every opportunity to serve as close to the power center as possible — there was no hope of a savior once the emperor’s power waned.
Originating in Northeast China and Southeast Siberia,* the Manchu occupied their own territory under a local khan. The Manchu army was building strength at the same time that the economic woes under Ming rule increased. While the Manchu originally considered themselves distinct from and superior to the Han Chinese, they made several legal concessions to match the social mores of those they ruled over which enhanced their credibility.
With the Ming Dynasty weakening, the Manchu saw their opportunity to move south.
But even as the Ming fought to repel those Manchu invaders, an internal insurrection was brewing under a man named Li Zu’cheng, an apprentice ironworker from Yan’an. The Chuang Wang (“Roaming King”, Li’s regnal name) was considered a savior of the common folk, even earning a widespread local song looking forward to the day he would arrive:
You’ll feed your mates,
You’ll dress your mates,
You’ll open wide your city gates.
When Prince Chuang arrives, there’ll be no more rates.
Li had a strong foothold in the heart of the country, and he was persistent. More importantly, the Ming government was hemorrhaging cash to its frontiers. Eventually, the money began to dry up, and even the ministers within the Chongzhen Emperor’s circle saw the writing on the wall. By mid-March, the Manchus were known to be marching through nearly undefended lines; by mid-April, the treasury stopped paying its military entirely.
On April 24, with Li Zu’cheng at the city gates, Emperor Ch’ung Chen tried in vain to escape his own compound. In his wake, he left the corpse of the empress (suicide), the corpse of his daughter (killed by the drunken emperor in a rage), and a seriously injured crown princess (maimed by the drunken emperor). Having mowed through his family, the emperor joined his chief eunuch Wang Cheng’en, climbed atop a local hill, and, shortly after midnight on April 25, hanged himself.
Li Zu’cheng entered the city unopposed, the gates (as the ditty had promised) flung open for his invading army.
Government officials hid in an attempt to escape retribution, but Li’s forces were reportedly quite orderly and did not seek revenge. Instead, they marched slowly through the city, where many of the locals marked themselves as Shun-min, or subjects of Li’s Shun dynasty.
Looters and bandits, however, were not tolerated, and the well-disciplined force dispatched them quickly and without trial. Their bodies were put on display by nailing them to local streetposts, and by noon, the city was calm.
The Roaming King only managed to hold power for a few weeks before his army was swept away by the Manchus. Li Zu’cheng lived almost two more years on the run, still claiming his title of Emperor of Shaanxi as he fled the newly installed government. It would be several more years before the Manchu would retake Southern China,** but the Q’ing Dynasty would dominate China until the Xinhai Revolution in 1912.
* The Manchurians were technically Tungusic, a significant Chinese minority both then and now. The Manchu largely resisted integration into Han society until the latter half of the 19th century.
** Southern China remained, technically, a distinct entity called the Southern Ming Dynasty, south of the Huai River, until 1662.
(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)
On Good Friday every year,* Christians around the world commemorate the death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, rabbi, prophet, Son of God, Son of Man, messiah, and all-around trouble-maker.
The truth is that very little is known of Jesus’ life and teachings from verifiable accounts, but this has not stopped generation after generation of Christians from telling his story, beginning with Jesus’ semi-official biographers, the evangelists of the New Testament. Almost everything we know about the life and teachings of the physical human being Jesus are in those writings, which do not portray him always in compatible ways, and which are almost entirely unconfirmed by any external source. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions (with disdain if not disgust) Jesus’ cult following, as does the Jewish historian and philosopher Josephus, but neither gives us anything to work with as historians (or, for that matter, as theologians). For the record, Suetonius and Pliny also talk about Christians, but these piecemeal sources tell us much more about Roman perceptions of Christians than about Christ and his teachings, or even necessarily Christian beliefs and practices.
What, then, can we reasonably say about Jesus?
It is almost impossible to find universal agreement around anything more than a few basics, including most importantly Jesus’ crucifixion. The Gospels narrate it; Paul the Apostle (who never met Jesus in the flesh, as it were) hangs his theology on it, together with the equally important resurrection; and no contemporary sources (Christian or otherwise) dispute it.
But it’s when we ask why Jesus was crucified that things start to get interesting.
What did he do? The two men he is traditionally said to have been crucified with are commonly understood to be “robbers,” but that they were common criminals is highly unlikely. Crucifixion is a horrible death designed to make a very public statement about the crucified, the sort of thing you use on gladiator-slave rebels like Spartacus, not on pickpockets and roustabouts. The Greek term used for these two men (lestai) is consistent with the description of the released Barabbas as one who had participated in rebellious activities, whose “criminality” was related to his revolutionary business. Moreover, the name “Barabbas” means literally “son of the father,” a purely symbolic and surely entirely fictional name, and that the people choose to have him released indicates their affinity for him as a thorn in the side of the Romans. He is thus contrasted with Jesus, the other son of the father, the peaceful (apocalyptic) revolutionary.
So Jesus would have been crucified as a political criminal, a rebel. This would make sense of accounts of his having been identified by the Romans as “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Anyone claiming to be king (and “son of God” was a Jewish way of talking about the king of Israel recorded clearly in Psalm 2), would, if taken seriously, be understood as challenging Roman authority.
Insofar as Jesus seems to have been deliberately poking the Romans’ local running dogs, the Sadducees and the Temple priests, his seizure and termination were surely inevitable. If his teaching is as opposed to violence and unconcerned with “politics” as it seems to have been, it’s hard to believe the Romans would have noticed him without some prodding, this coming not from the “crowd,” but from the leadership (who in Mark and Matthew incite the crowd). Indeed, the priests and scribes look for ways to arrest him when the crowds are not around, because they fear a riot.
If we take the Gospel of Mark at all seriously, Jesus was preaching a new kingdom of God, an apocalyptic redemption of the people of the earth by God’s direct intervention (and with Jesus as the sacrificial pesach lamb). If we take the Gospel of Luke seriously, Jesus spoke in a classic prophetic mode, calling people — Jew and Gentile both — to care for the oppressed of the earth, the poor and the hungry and the helpless. Both Jesuses called for people to be better to each other, to love each other, and indeed to love each other when love was, according to common sense, the foolish thing.
Why would this get you executed?
Well, in itself, it wouldn’t. But the Gospel of Mark tells us of Jesus speaking with a man who realizes that all the animal sacrifices in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans (in that crazy world). When love counts more than sacrifice, we are undermining the Temple. When we go into the Temple, start knocking things over, and say it’s become about robbing the poor and not about loving God and one’s neighbor, we are undermining the Temple. And to undermine the Temple’s authority is also to undermine Rome’s authority, and Rome’s cash flow.
Jesus, like the Essenes he may or may not have associated with, was a purist.
The Temple was full of collaborators and exploiters, the kind seen before in the history of Israel (and berated by prophets like Isaiah and Amos), the kind hated also by the Dead Sea community of apocalyptic purists awaiting a final showdown between God and evil (i.e., the Roman Empire and their local potentates, the Temple authorities).
Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, thought that Judaism was about something. That it was somehow about justice and not just about following rules or waiting around for things to get better: that it was about our making the world a better place, and not just making our own lives better.
* Though the actual date (even the year) of the execution marked by the movable feast of Good Friday is fundamentally unknowable, there are some present-day astronomer types who’d like to sell you April 3, 33 A.D.
Concrete dates** are going to be hard to come by, of course, and the purported historical doings of New Testament Christians are inextricably conjoined to theological ox-goring.
But it is their lives and not their deaths that make them memorable, and to judge by the conquest of the faith they propounded, their feast day honors are richly deserved. Some scholars with no fear for their soul will tell you that Paul in particular can be rated a more consequential historical person than the Nazarene himself, having formulated the doctrine and conducted the ministry needed to turn a dead-end Jewish sect or inchoate reform movement into a surging universal religion that would play to Praetorians.
However they sublimated that awkwardness, their respective offices as Apostle to the Jews (Peter) and Apostle to the Gentiles (Paul) allude to an oft-explored problem whose resolution would prove decisive for the nascent faith: did Christianity require adherence to the strict Mosaic law?
Paul looks like the firebrand, boldly enacting his revolutionary faith-alone revelation (so central to the Protestant Reformation 15 centuries later) on the pacified highways and sea lanes of the Pax Romana; Peter seems the compromiser (or a vacillator), instinctively granting precedence to the Jewish tradition but being carried along by events towards Paul.
Peter is seen in the Bible acceding to Paul’s opposition to making Greeks eat kosher and circumcise, and even persuading the most august Judaizer and leader of the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, Saint James.
Amongst these illustrious names, we may perceive or imagine — “through a glass darkly”, as it were — what must have been a blossoming multitude of contending beliefs and practices.
Paul made Christian doctrine amenable† to the practices that would make it a phenomenal evangelical success (and separate it from the faith of Abraham), but on that same winners-write-history basis one is entitled to wonder whether the authority of Peter and James have been appropriated ex post facto by the Biblical writers of the Pauline party. If so, you wouldn’t say his reputation has suffered for it: the pope still claims to speak as “the unworthy heir of St. Peter” … and in St. Peter’s Basilica.
Whatever the faithful and the merely interested may speculate about their historicity, their names are on the founding charter of Christianity.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day … (St. Paul, 2 Timothy 4:7-8)
A very few of the very many books about Peter and Paul and their times
** Italian archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, however, argued that Peter’s death could be assigned to a precise date: October 13, 64. We can pose against this skepticism that Peter ever went to Rome at all, a sometime Protestant hobby-horse supposed to undermine the primacy of the Holy See.
† But not so decisively that he wasn’t soon at loggerheads with the Jerusalem Jewish Christians again.
Update: Just as this post was getting set to publish, the Vatican announced the discovery of what it claims may be the oldest image of St. Paul, a 4th century fresco uncovered in a Roman catacomb.