Advent 2018: Are We Back in the Time of Tiberius?

By John Zmirak Published on December 10, 2018

The grim, cold spitting weather here in Dallas is just one more thing helping to put me in spirit of the season. Which of course, despite the early explosion of Christmas decorations, is Advent. When we’re called to remember how bleak the world was before Jesus came. How cruel, self-satisfied, apparently ordered but deeply chaotic, the world was without Christ.

And is becoming once again, as the lights He kindled seem to be winking out. Or getting snuffed out, by the very hands consecrated to tend them.

Life in Year Zero

Let’s start with the realms of culture and politics. When Christ was born what was the dominant political force in His world? A massive empire built on conquest and plunder. By some estimates, one resident in three of the Roman empire was a slave. He could be killed by his master, usually with impunity. Or sent to copulate, or fight and die, in the Colosseum for crowds’ amusement.

The austere virtues that had built the Roman Republic had drowned in a sea of gold and slaves.

Slaves of any age and either sex were erotic playthings for masters. That helped undermine Roman marriage, for reasons you can imagine. Divorce exploded, and the once-tight Roman family was crumbling into fragments. The birth rate was dropping. Countless unwanted children were left to die on the walls of Rome.

Perversion went public, and even became fashionable. Jesus’ secular ruler, Tiberius, was unashamedly a pedophile, abusing young boys and girls in his pleasure villa of Capri. No one seemed shocked. The austere virtues that had built the Roman Republic had drowned in a sea of gold and slaves.

Rome no longer defended itself with citizen soldiers. Such men once worked small farms and took up the sword in times of need. No more. Instead Rome’s conquests made possible (and necessary) a massive force of mercenaries, ever more of them unassimilated foreigners. They were paid by taxes on vast estates of senators. Their slaves worked farms stolen in the course of Rome’s conquests, while they dithered and schemed in Rome. Political elites controlled more and more of the wealth, and the middle class withered, then died.

Globalism, Roman Style

The Empire squashed and stifled the nations and tribes it conquered. It assimilated their folkways to its own global monoculture. Its language and customs replaced theirs, and homogenized most of a continent. We tend to see the Romanization of Europe through a rosy lens, since the Empire later converted to Christianity, and baptized Romanitas. Roman culture did indeed become a transmission belt for conversion.

But that was five or six grim pagan centuries in the future. History podcaster Dan Carlin reminds us how brutal Roman conquest could be. He calls Caesar’s unprovoked attack on Gaul a “Celtic Holocaust.” Millions died, and among the survivors, their culture would barely outlive them.

Our Ancestors, the Pharisees

The Jews stood out, a thick-necked, contrarian sign of contradiction. Its Pharisees amounted to the Religious Right of its day. They doggedly carried on and tried to live the complex dictates of Jewish Law. It was divinely designed to keep them from assimilating to filthy foreign empires like Rome’s.

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Looking back, we are tempted to sneer at the Pharisees, because many of them would someday reject Jesus. But think about how that happened. Jesus didn’t bother to confront the corrupt imposter King Herod. He didn’t try to evangelize the foreign occupier Pilate. He grew up among faithful Jews who followed the Pharisees, as the best and most sincere representatives of the world’s one true religion. (St. Paul came from among them.)

Jesus preached to the Pharisees, because they really were the best of the Jews. And the Jews were the best that the world could offer. They were God’s own people, as in some sense they always will be. Zealous Christians today are in this sense the heirs of the Pharisees. Fallen like them, we strive to do what good we can by human means. When we fail, then fall, we might listen to Jesus. As a last resort.

I can’t help seeing the Sadducees as the forerunners of Mainline churches and Jesuit colleges today: vast, gorgeous palaces of worship that have made perfect peace with the World.

The Sadducees: Mainline Religion

In Jesus’ day, the priestly caste and sect of the Sadducees accepted a truncated version of the Law. A slimmed-down gospel, stripped of discomfiting mysteries. They didn’t believe in an afterlife. They collaborated with Rome, in exchange for monopoly power over the lucrative Temple in Jerusalem. I can’t help seeing the Sadducees as the forerunners of Mainline churches and Jesuit colleges today: vast, gorgeous palaces of worship that have made perfect peace with the World. Unsure that their ghosts outlive their corpses, they sought to better this life, by adapting to its trends and cozying up to its overlords.

The world in Year Zero still had good things in it of course. God made it, and many marks of His benevolence survived the Fall unsullied. Dogs, for instance. Natural virtues, like love of family and beauty. There was also the gift of divine Revelation to the Jews, clouded though it could be by human failures and compromise. But still and all, the picture for human beings looked pretty bleak.

The world demanded something different. A kind of shock therapy, sent from above, in a form no one expected. And that’s what it got, in Bethlehem, with only three men wise enough to seek it.

It needed Jesus. And needs him still.

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  • Andy6M

    At it’s beginning, this article puts forth a statement so preposterous as to bring into question the validity of the rest of the article, and the writer’s general perceptions as they pertain to life…”The grim, cold spitting weather here in Dallas…” Join me up here in “The True North Strong and Free” and we’ll talk about weather that puts you in the Spirit of the season. 😉 Merry Christmas Mr. Zmirak! I enjoy your writing and wish you the best of the Season in whatever weather you find yourself, be it warm, cold, or otherwise.

    • Zmirak

      It was in the 40s, raining, and I was coming down with the flu. Just walking the beagles felt like bathing in fire.

      • Andy6M

        I realize that’s cold for you. And being sick would compound it for sure. Let me know if you want any tips on how to dress warm so you can survive the -22F we get weeks at a time up here in the winter months.

        • Zmirak

          I used to live in Manchester NH, but summer down here. I remember walking beagles in the snow, finding it impossible to pick up after them with gloves on, relying on poop-warmth from the bag to avoid frostbite on my fingers….

          • Andy6M

            Yes – doggy bag warmth. Been there! Good gravy that’s a good chuckle on a Tuesday morning! HA!

  • Stratusrunner

    Thank you Mr. Zmirak for your contribution to the public dialogue and Merry Christmas. Your articles are always interesting and thought provoking. Comparing the culture of the Roman empire to our present day globalism makes one pause and portends a frightening future. Maybe it is time for the second advent. I am wondering who you consider to be the modern day Pharisees, the religious right? It seems the left will call anyone a Pharisee in an attempt to silence those who hold a Biblical definition of sin. In your observation is there any group who comes close to the legalism of the Pharisees? That is an honest, not a rhetorical, question.

    • Zmirak

      Thanks! I wasn’t pointing out anyone in particular as being a futile legalist. I was saying that it’s the universal temptation for GOOD people, as I think most of the Pharisees were. It’s OUR temptation, a subtler one than the liberal Christians, who are straight-up Sadducees.

  • Up_Words

    I too appreciate Bro Zmirak’s comments. However, what first caught me about this article was its challenge as to whether or not we are now in a time like that of Tiberius. After reading his article it seems that we are looking at a mirror-image, in a reverse order (of sorts): For Rome had pagan beginnings while America’s were based upon (Pilgrim) Christian underpinnings, particularly in the wake of the Great Awakening. We have banished slavery, while Rome increased slavery as it rose in power.

    Yet, in another sense (sadly) we now see a new slavery based upon political correctness, which would ban (if possible) the very mention of the Christ Child in this holiday season.

    I do appreciate you reference to the “year zero.” Another such year (advent) is becoming increasingly visible upon our horizon. With many Christians I look forward to His second Advent, when we will have a material (physical peace) upon earth.

    In the meanwhile: peace to you, in the name of the Prince of Peace!

  • Patmos

    “with only three men wise enough to seek it”

    I’m going to go full Pharisee on you here, it wasn’t three, just “wise men”.

    Supposedly these wise men were connected to Daniel in some way as well, as they came from the East where Daniel resided, and followed the star they were told to look for (“Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs…” -Gen. 1:14).

    It’s a great tragedy that so many write off scripture so easily, when all it takes is just a cursory glance to capture the curiosity of the listener. A great tragedy not only in a lost soul not having been found, but also that so many are disinterested in even taking just a cursory glance at something!

    • Patmos

      To this point, I recommend the ministry of Chuck Missler, in particular his learn the Bible in 24 hours series:

      youtube[dot]com/playlist?list=PLRj8AJuzeJRwHdeFua3pzmwPB_JCS0mIq

      I think he’s not quite accurate on a few things, or at least there are a few things that he says that are up for debate. That’s pretty much the case with every ministry I’ve come across though. Also, he goes at about 150 mph in that series, which is understandable considering all that he’s trying to cram in. Worth watching though, from wherever you’re coming from, believer, non believer alike.

  • Deacon Keith Fournier

    This is among your best contributions John. And, that’s saying a lot, because you write so many good ones. Thank you for sharing your gift in this New Missionary Age of Christianity.

  • Kathy

    “They doggedly carried on and tried to live the complex dictates of the Jewish law,” Certainly, but Jesus reserved some of His strictest condemnation for the Pharisees. They perfectly kept the Jewish law, but on many occasions, Jesus chastised them for forcing numerous extra rules and burdens onto the faithful.

  • James

    “Jesus preached to the Pharisees, because they really were the best of the Jews. And the Jews were the best that the world could offer. They were God’s own people, as in some sense they always will be. Zealous Christians today are in this sense the heirs of the Pharisees.”

    I don’t think Jesus’s attitude towards the Pharisees was always quite so positive.

    I’m pretty sure he called them Blind guides, hypocrites, “white-washed sepulchers”, etc.

  • olhg1

    I can imagine a world without Jesus, but I can’t imagine a world without the Blessed Trinity of Divine Persons.

  • Irene Neuner

    My world would be dark without my belief in Christ and hope of heaven.

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