BY GABRIEL CALIGUIRI (@GABEONDRUMS)
The Roman Coliseum is the most iconic structure of the Classical world. It towers in the midst of the Eternal City, having survived almost 2,000 years of earthquakes and stone pilfering, with half of the outer wall still standing at an impressive 187 feet. In its heyday, it could accommodate 50,000 spectators. For more than 400 years, the Coliseum was the largest and most impressive venue in the ancient world.
The preceding paragraph is, of course, the predictable treatment of the Roman Coliseum in every Western high school textbook for the last 200 years. Students might learn that the project was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian and completed by his son Titus between 72-80 CE. They might receive a brief description of how the Coliseum represents Roman architecture, the divisions in Roman social strata, or the brutality of pagan entertainment. But it’s less likely that students will learn about how the massive structure was financed, or where the Romans got their labor force to build it. The answer, on both counts, is the Jews.
The Jewish Builders
Vespasian and Titus are known in history for one other significant achievement, not as emperors, but as generals. They respectively commanded the legions that quelled the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE, ending in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple. By the middle of the First Century, the heavy boot of Italy had fractured the politico-religious establishment in Judea with taxation and oppression. When a Roman governor seized a large quantity of silver from the Temple in 66 CE, radical Zealot parties rose in armed rebellion and overthrew the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. From there, the Zealot militias attacked Greek settlements and Roman garrisons throughout the Land, expelled and massacred their inhabitants, and established a revolutionary government in Jerusalem. The strategy was to throw off the yoke of Rome and usher in the Messianic Age.
Rome was indeed provoked to war by the Zealots, but Messiah did not arrive to lead the Sons of Judah to victory. Instead, Vespasian’s legions swept through the Galilee and routed the rebel fighters in their strongholds, killing or enslaving more than 100,000 Jews along the way. The remaining Zealots fled to Jerusalem where they consolidated their hold over the city and prepared to take their stand. They refused to negotiate with the besieging Roman army, now commanded by Titus, after his father left for Rome to claim the throne of Caesar. The siege dragged on for almost 3 months until, in the Summer of 70 CE, the legions entered Zion in a surprise nighttime attack. A bloodbath of massive proportions ensued. It ended with the destruction of the Temple, along with most of the city, and the deaths and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Jews who had managed to survive months of famine and disease.
Titus returned to his father in Rome victorious, like Sargon and Nebuchadnezzar before him, with the spoils of Jerusalem and 100,000 Jewish captives. Imperial coffers overflowed, and with a massive, newly-acquired supply of slave labor, plans were drawn to build a massive amphitheater in the city. And so, the Roman Coliseum was quite literally built on the backs of Jews, who would have worked to quarry stone, transport it, and move it into place. In this sense, visiting the Coliseum is like visiting an ancient Dachau. We can stand on the very site where the forced labor and stolen treasure of Jews was used to build a monument to a pagan empire. It was a horrible woe that portended the sufferings of fellow Jews throughout the Diaspora for the next 1900 years.
The Christian Martyrs
Trajan said, “Do you then carry within you Him that was crucified?”
Then Trajan pronounced sentence as follows: “We command that Ignatius, who affirms that he carries about within Him that was crucified, be bound by soldiers, and carried to the great [city] Rome, there to be devoured by the beasts, for the gratification of the people.”
When the holy martyr heard this sentence, he cried out with joy, “I thank you, O Lord, that You have vouchsafed to honor me with a perfect love towards You, and have made me to be bound with iron chains, like Your Apostle Paul.”
Having spoken thus, he then, with delight, clasped the chains about him; and when he had first prayed for the Church, and commended it with tears to the Lord, he was hurried away by the savage cruelty of the soldiers, like a distinguished ram the leader of a goodly flock, that he might be carried to Rome, there to furnish food to the bloodthirsty beasts.
“...[Ignatius was] led with all haste into the amphitheater. Then, being immediately thrown in, according to the command of Caesar given some time ago, the public spectacles being just about to close...he was thus cast to the wild beasts close beside the temple, that so by them the desire of the holy martyr Ignatius should be fulfilled, according to that which is written, ‘The desire of the righteous is acceptable [to God]’...”
Just 27 years after Titus announced the inaugural games at his new amphitheater, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and disciple of John the Beloved, was taken to the Coliseum to receive his long-awaited gift of martyrdom. The groaning of Jewish slave laborers was soon mingled with pagan cheers for Christian blood. The steadfast witness of Ignatius unto death was replayed hundreds of times in arenas across the Empire. Ignatius’ martyrdom in the Roman Coliseum was bookended 280 years later by the stoning of Saint Telemachus, who, according to tradition, stood against the mob to protest the savagery of gladiatorial games.
Even as the legions of Vespasian and Titus marched through the Galilee and besieged Jerusalem, the apostles Peter and Paul were martyred by Nero in Rome, John Mark in Alexandria, Andrew in Patras, Matthew and Matthias in Ethiopia, and Thomas in India. As Jacob’s children bled, trapped in the Jerusalem from below, the nascent Bride of Jacob’s Offspring bled throughout the nations, striving toward the Jerusalem from above. In this way, an alignment of Judeo-Christian suffering was forged, which endured for over 200 years. Israel suffered nationally while praying and fighting for Messiah’s coming. The churches suffered joyfully for the testimony that He has come, He has died, and He is risen. Although the road of Providence was forked after the Cross, the natural and engrafted branches were still on parallel courses, where the former could watch the latter suffer joyfully for the covenant, in order that they might be provoked to the kind of jealousy that can save. This alignment of suffering is embodied in the slave crews and martyrial spectacles of the Coliseum. For it is not only tragically and beautifully poignant, but even emblematic of this age, that the suffering of Messiah’s kinsmen would literally construct an altar upon which the suffering of Messiah’s Body might be put on full display to the world.
Even as Christians were still being thrown to the beasts, the anti-Judaism of some Church Fathers had begun to further widen the rift between church and synagogue. A final Jewish revolt broke out against Rome in 132 CE. It was led by Shimon bar Kokhba, a man who the famed Rabbi Akiva pronounced to be the Messiah. Bar Kokhba’s well-disciplined army expelled the Romans from Judea and briefly established a small, independent kingdom for almost three years. But the legions once again arrived in force to quell the revolt. It is estimated that 580,000 Jews were killed, thousands more died of famine and disease, and most of the rest were deported from the Promised Land.
Obviously the Jewish believers in Judea were not supportive of bar Kokhba’s messianic candidacy and refused to participate in his rebellion. Bar Kokhba, for his part, persecuted the believers in return. After his rebellion collapsed and most of the remaining Israelites were driven from the Land, many gentile Christians interpreted these events as a sign that God had finally revoked His covenant with the Jewish nation. At the same time, indifference grew toward the Hebrew Scriptures, especially among the Alexandrian fathers in Egypt. Origen was the most prominent among them, pronouncing in 220,
“We may thus assert with utter confidence that the Jews will not return to their earlier situation...Hence the city where Jesus suffered was necessarily destroyed, the Jewish nation was driven from its country, and another people was called by God to the blessed election.”
And so, when Constantine united the fractured Roman Empire under the banner of the Cross in 311 CE, he already had a century-old theological well of anti-Judaism from which to draw. Only 4 years later, he enacted laws that targeted Jews, declaring that conversion to Judaism was illegal, and that any Jew who assaulted a fellow Jew for publicly professing faith in Jesus as Messiah was to be burned to death. The emperor also validated the decision of the Council of Nicaea to separate Easter from the Passover, writing,
"... it appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul ... Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd; for we have received from our Savior a different way.”
Constantine’s son and successor, Constantinius, continued in his father’s anti-Judaic footsteps by enacting laws that forbade certain marriages between Jews and Christians. More restrictions were codified in the following decades which forbade Jews from holding public office and from testifying against Christians in court. A regional church council denied the Lord’s Table to Christians who ate with Jews. An ecumenical council commanded Hebrew Christians to divest themselves of their Judaism, including Sabbath observance, on the threat of excommunication.
The Mystery of Alignment
The Church and her imperial benefactors had drifted into ignorance of the same “mystery” which the Apostle Paul had solemnly commended to the gentile believers in Rome. Namely, that God had partially, temporarily hardened the sons of Israel as an act of mercy to the nations, until the “full number of gentiles had come in,” after which, “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob...and in this way, all Israel will be saved.” Both Jew and gentile are turned over for hardening, for a time, that God may later have mercy on both. For Israel, that final, consummate act of mercy will take the form of both physical deliverance and spiritual regeneration when the “Deliverer comes from Zion” to “banish ungodliness from Jacob.” Gentile ignorance of this mystery leads inexorably to arrogance, and arrogance to violence. The same Roman church to which the apostle had addressed this exhortation would eventually sanction, and even sponsor, the outright persecution of Jews throughout Christendom. The fellow-persecuted had become the persecutors. The alignment of suffering between the natural and engrafted branches was broken.
In July, 2014, the Israeli Defense Forces began a military operation against the terrorist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip; just days after the jihadists fired over 40 rockets indiscriminately into Israel. During Operation Protective Edge, the Israelis sought to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties through the use of targeted munitions and multiple, redundant civilian warning systems. Despite the unprecedented show of restraint against a clear and present danger, the Israeli government was condemned in parliaments and public squares by hundreds of thousands across the world. Massive protests were held in dozens of cities on almost every continent. Some protestors chanted Anti-Semitic slogans praising Hitler, Jewish expulsions, and the Holocaust. Jewish students on Western university campuses were verbally and physically assaulted, not for being Israeli, but for being Jewish. Anti-Semitic attacks quadrupled in Britain. A mob in Paris surrounded a synagogue and pelted it with bricks while worshippers took cover inside. A synagogue was firebombed in Germany. Graffiti declaring “Dirty Jews” and “Jews, your end is near” was seen on the streets of Rome. “Slaughter the Jews” was heard on the streets of Antwerp. “Jew, France is not for you” was heard on the streets of Paris. Reports of anti-Semitic incidents rose over 20 percent in the United States. Phrases such as “Jews=Killers” and “Jews are Killing Innocent Children” were found near the entrance to a Jewish summer camp near Malibu, California. Leaflets which threatened violence if Israel did not pull out of Gaza were left on cars in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Chicago.
Although incidents of anti-Semitism usually increase during times of Israeli military action, the angry reaction to Operation Protective Edge was much larger than previously seen, and shockingly virulent. The chants in the streets, in the university squares and in the football stadiums made it clear that many, if not most of the protestors, were not concerned for an end to the Palestinian conflict, but rather eager for an end to the Jewish State. The half of global Jewry with Israeli citizenship was not the only target, but also the other half. That is, the 6 million Jews who do not live in Israel, have little or no influence in Israeli government, and who in many cases disagree with the policies of the Israeli government. But these distinctions did not matter to many of the protestors. In their eyes, Jews and Israelis are synonymous, interchangeable words in their street-chanting lexicon. This means that any war crime or human rights violation on the part of the Israeli government, real or perceived, is a reflection on the character of all Jews worldwide. Anti-Zionism has finally taken its rightful place as the new Anti-Semitism.
Rather than abating after Operation Protective Edge, anti-Semitism has continued to metastasize in 2015 and 2016. For the first time since World War II, the French Army has deployed thousands of troops in French cities. Their mandate is to protect every Jewish synagogue, school and heritage site in the country. The Belgians have followed suit. For the first time since the Holocaust, the majority of European Jews feel unsafe in their host countries, and 3 in 10 of them is considering emigration. Thousands are making aliya to Israel from Europe every year. In 2015, a jihadi sworn to the Islamic State killed four people inside a Jewish-owned hypercacher market in Paris. This was followed nine months later by the massacre of 89 people by al-Qaeda jihadis inside the Jewish-owned Bataclan Theater. Many Diaspora Jews have come to the conclusion that they would rather face the world’s threats among their own in Eretz Yisael than face them as a minority among the goyim. And so, after a nearly 70-year respite, another storm of Jewish suffering is threatening on the horizon.
One month after the hypercacher market attack, ISIS published a video to the Internet entitled, “A Message Signed in Blood to the Nations of the Cross.” Standing on a Mediterranean shore in ISIS-held Libya, a masked narrator declared in English to those who “have been carrying the Cross delusion” that the Islamic State was “sending another message.” He was flanked by masked cohorts and 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in orange jumpsuits, kneeling in the sand. The video ended with the uncensored beheading of the Coptic believers, even as some of them prayed silently to the Lord. The world was shocked to see such graphic brutality depicted in professionally produced high-definition.
Then in April 2015, another video was released by ISIS showing the beheading and execution-style shooting of 18 Ethiopian Christians. The Coptic and Ethiopian martyrs instantly became icons of Christian persecution in the Internet Age. Across the Islamic world, from Nigeria to Bangladesh, Christian persecution has increased exponentially in the 21st Century, both in its frequency and its intensity. Violent attacks targeting Christians have become a common occurrence across the Muslim World. Even traditionally moderate Islamic nations such as Uzbekistan and Indonesia have seen an increase in state-sponsored persecution, including church closures, police raids on Christian homes, and imprisonment for private worship and the possession of Christian literature.
Outside the Dar-el-Islam, state-sponsored repression and mob violence against Christians has increased in Russia, China, India and North Korea. Even the allegedly tolerant, secular West has become increasingly antagonistic towards Christianity within the last two decades. It would appear that a global storm of Christian suffering is also looming on the horizon.
This “perfect storm” offers the churches a long-lost opportunity. Not since Constantine’s reign have Christians found themselves to be fellow-sufferers with Jews on a global scale. The dynamics of controversy over Jewish political sovereignty in Israel and Christian suffering throughout the nations is parallel to the landscape of the First and Second Centuries. A re-alignment of Judeo-Christian suffering would appear to be forming once again.
It would behoove the churches to consider this: We find ourselves now on the precipice of a unique season of history, when the natural branches, yearning for covenantal identity, can once again see the promised covenant on full display in the glad suffering of the Body of her Messiah. We have, once again, the opportunity to confound, amaze, and provoke Israel to covenantal jealousy. And when Israel joins at times with our detractors and scoffers (and you can be assured that she will), we have the opportunity to correct the errors of our ancient fathers with blessings instead of curses. In doing so, we are faithful witnesses of her Messiah, the very One whom we long for her to recognize and embrace. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps...When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
The Consummation of Alignment
The witness of the believers in the coming storm is critical because it will orient Christ’s Church toward her prophetic role at the end of the age. The Prophet Daniel foretold that while the King of the North profanes the holy place and ravages the Land, “The wise among the people shall make many understand, though for some days they shall stumble by sword and flame, by captivity and plunder.” The alignment of Judeo-Christian suffering is eschatological. As Jacob approaches his Time of Troubles, he will need the “wise” among him, suffering by sword and flame with him. When the Dragon chases the Woman into the wilderness, she will need voices crying out in that wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” For in that Day, unlike before, the trampling of the Holy City and the spilt blood of the Bride will indeed provoke Messiah to roar from the sky and fulfill every hope of Remnant Israel “in power and great glory” beyond her wildest dreams.
At the Final Trumpet, the mystery of the suffering of the covenant people will be gloriously fulfilled. The Judeo-Christian alignment will be fully realized and will continue on into the Kingdom Age. God’s purpose for the alignment of Israel and her gentile commonwealth will be fully realized in Messiah’s Kingdom. As He said, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” We will suffer with them now, so that we may recline with them in the Kingdom.