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What Does the Bible Say About Migration? (III)

By Ricardo López, P.HD

With this installment, we begin to explore some of the most representative migration traces provided by the New Testament writings. Let us first draw a generic framework that will help us better understand what we have in hand.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that the Bible is crossed by many cultural influences and currents of thought.

Among them stands out the Hellenization of the world known as (“the common house”), the empire conquered by Alexander the Great (+ 323 AD) from Greece to India, including the nations of Palestine. Hellenizing meant a new way of understanding the identity of individuals in such diverse peoples (philosophy), a new understanding of the forces that govern the world (sciences) and a purpose that guided national events (history).

That was living Greek. It was an immense wave of modernization that involved many changes (from safer trade routes to educational systems and innovative social organizations), which did not break through without cultural resistances or bloody wars.

Notorious examples of what the Hellenization process (to become Greek) meant for Judea are the revolution of the Maccabees (167-164 a.C.), and the subsequent internal struggles. But remember that the territory and its inhabitants were under the yoke of the Roman Empire from the intervention of Pompey in Jerusalem (64 a.C.).

The resulting world, however, more than a cultural fusion where everyone found a place, largely ignored the diversity of languages and peoples, because it is visualized as bipolar, divided into “Greeks and barbarians”, from the Greek perspective, and in “ Jews and pagans”, from the Jewish angle. This generalization, like all global judgments, is insufficient to understand the complex reality.

The cultural conflict in that Greek and Romanized world occurred on different fronts and with different intensity, although it can be encapsulated as governed by intolerance.

On the one hand, the dominant culture feeds persecutors, discriminatory and denigrating attitudes towards the subjugated culture, in our case the Jewish ways of life that are faithful to their religious context.

The expression of such attitudes is easily perceptible in cultural stereotypes (jokes are the pearls of this), because they are rooted in appearance, the way of speaking or expressing themselves, in local customs, and even in geography.

The Romans, heirs to the Greeks, the Carthaginians seem perfidious, the superstitious Egyptians, the light and disloyal Greeks, the Numidians, and in general the Africans, dragged by sex; Jews are considered atheists and superstitious, because of their absurd and incomprehensible customs. Although their religion is respectable, it ends up meaning a social danger because it undermines the “piety and religion” that is the most Roman of the virtues.

These stereotypes obey evident ethnocentrism, which derives in xenophobic and racist prejudices, which says more about the victimizers than about the victims.

Among the victimized or dominated two divergent attitudes are perceived. In some, perhaps a minority, adaptation to the new sociopolitical circumstances are noted to peacefully socialize with everyone, leading to the abandonment of patriotic customs. Many denied their faith and their Jewish identity, not only by adopting a Greek name but by surgically reversing circumcision and ceasing to contribute to the Jerusalem temple tax. Others, radicalized the features of their own religious and social identity, cultivating it as a spiritual internalization, or openly indirect shock against everything foreign.

By the time of the New Testament, the Palestinian land was deeply Hellenized, but throughout the Roman Empire, the Jews of the Diaspora had maintained their religious identity and had gained certain privileges from some rulers, which allowed them some autonomy even in judicial matters, because they could live under their own laws.

That same exceptional status fueled the aversion of non-Jewish villagers.

This broad contextual framework, fragmentary by necessity, seeks to help us better understand what it means to be a Christian or a follower of Jesus Christ, in the ways that the various books of the New Testament represent us.

The Christian identity was modeled not only with the Jewish traditions of Jesus of Nazareth but of others that subsequent generations of disciples forged as their distinctive marks.

Gradually, the new faith ceased to consist of adherence to the customs of a people (ethnos), and passed to the imitation of a person (Jesus the Christ) who, moreover, will soon come as judge, that is, someone who stopped being adjusted to social parameters, to become their absolute judge.

Broken ethnocentrism, new options open for all, and the real possibility of becoming Catholic (universal).

However, we are already far away.

Let us start with some traits “migrants” or foreigners in the very figure of Jesus from the Gospel accounts. Practically, Jesus remained within the limits of the Jewish territory, except for the incursions into Gerasian territory (Mc 5,1) and Canaanite (Mc 7,24), which left a trace in the Gospel accounts.

This did not save him from being persecuted or stigmatized by his own countrymen, so the locality becomes a significant record.

Should we remember it? Jesus was executed on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

The provincials, those who have not grown up in an urban center, know the experience of going to the capital or to a city or population that is not their own. Even speaking the same language and with similar customs, they are easily converted into strangers, dependent on the locals and vulnerable even in their physical security.

Perhaps the most notorious trace we find in the epigraph of the cross, on the same crime of the accused: “The king of the Jews” (Mc 15,26, Matthew and Luke write the same).

John enlarges the brief summary: “Jesus the Nazorean, the king of the Jews” (Jn 19,19) until it became legible to the many Jews who pass by, “since it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek” (19,20). Two points must be highlighted from our angle.

Let us assume that the name of the executed in Saint John refers to the people with whom Jesus has linked: Nazareth (Jn 1,45, 46, 18, 5, 7), although the term has messianic rather than locative resonances.

Nazareth is a dark Galilean village of dubious fame, but it marks Jesus to his destiny of power and glory (see Acts 2:22; 3:6, 4,10 and 24:5).

That mark of the peripheral locality, dishonorable, is never diluted but becomes a substantial element of the primordial Gospel.

In Christian terms, we would say that it is a mark of the incarnation, knowing that without incarnation there is no resurrection, and therefore, no nucleus of faith.

The second point is that the Jews who enter and leave Jerusalem, that is to say, those pilgrims from the diaspora, outsiders, but capable of reading the inscription of the cross. Hebrew is the mother tongue of religion, Latin is the language of the Empire, and Greek is the language of commerce and culture.

Those who read are people capable of communicating or transmitting later what has happened in those days in the capital of the Jewish world. They will make it possible for what happened to become a Gospel for the nations.

The fact that Jesus is executed outside of his land speaks of the need he experienced to go out in search of the means to realize his life project.

Your authentic followers will do the same. In the next installment, we will explore other migratory features of Jesus of Nazareth and his first followers.

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