Lady Liberty, Patrick Henry & Herod the Great by Lynn H. Cohick
nothing captures the American imagination of freedom and liberty more than the
Statue of Liberty standing in New York Harbor and immortalized by Emma Lazarus
in her poem of 1883.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-side welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Lazarus, “The New Colossus” 1883
In this poem, Lazarus accurately describes the ancient focus on public fame and pomp. Lazarus also presents the United States’ highest ideals of freedom for everyone, regardless of their social status or ethnic background. Of course, the extent to which we achieve those goals is rightly a matter of debate. But the deeply
rooted myth that America stands for individual freedom - the opportunity to
participate in government and to develop one’s unique potential - this myth
still shapes our thoughts today.
In at least two ways, the ancient Roman world would not have understood our myth. First, the government’s job was not to protect the poor and help all people
self-actualize, but to keep the peace and keep themselves in power. Second, most Roman and Jewish historians were deeply suspicious of the “masses.” Instead, they believed that
the best form of government was either oligarchy, as represented in the Roman
Senate, or monarchy, as represented by imperial Rome and the Jewish monarchy of
the Hasmoneans that ruled from 164 to 63 B.C., and whose influence continued
into the first century A.D.
another famous line from America’s past reveals a similarity to the ancient
Roman world, namely Patrick Henry’s statement, “Give me liberty or give me
death.” His call to arms in 1775
included this argument, “if we wish to be free – if we mean to preserve
inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long
contending – if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we
have been so long engaged...we must fight!"
summer I’m reading through Josephus’ The Jewish War (Penguin Classics, 1970) as
though it were a novel. I’m struck anew at the level of violence assumed and tolerated. For example, Herod the Great’s early career was one long series of battles and retreats. He campaigned against nearby Arab kingdoms and fought the Parthians and dealt with treachery from all sides and intrigue within. He also battled repeated claims to his throne by the former Jewish leaders from the Hasmonean dynasty, including Antigonus, the son of the last Hasmonean king Aristobulus. After being declared King of the Jews by the Roman Senate, Herod returned to Judea, defeated Antigonus and his siege of Masada, took back Jerusalem, and expelled Antigonus’ garrisons in Galilee. Herod marched to Sepphoris, endured a blizzard, and took on Antigonus’ supporters holed up in caves within the cliffs of Arbel. I climbed down these cliffs on a sunny summer day; I can’t imagine trying to wage war on the sheer cliff face.
Josephus describes Herod’s campaign of
lowering soldiers in baskets to the mouth of these caves. The soldiers then
slaughtered the resisters by sword, or threw firebrands into the caves. In
gruesome detail Josephus tells of one father who refused Herod’s offer of
clemency for his family, preferring instead to kill each of his seven children
and his wife then throw their bodies and himself off the cliffs (1.309-314).
It may sound as if this father was forced to choose between liberty and death, but he would not have shared Patrick’s Henry’s standards. The difference lies in Henry’s “inestimable privileges” which include self rule and economic prosperity. The father who killed his family had only the choice between different kings –
Herod or Antigonus. He did not imagine “freedom” to include representative democracy, meritocracy controlling the workplace, and the plurality of religious expressions having equal status under the law. He wanted his guy in power so that special favors could be sent his way, what is known as the patronage system.
I certainly have no desire to live in such violent, chaotic times as existed in Herod’s kingdom, or in the rest of the first century A.D. in Judea and Galilee.
I am again reminded how far away from this unrest and fighting my life is in the United States, and how careful I need to be in reading the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ struggles with “that fox” Herod Antipas (Luke 13:31-2), or his exchange with Pilate. That political world is vastly different from my own, and my vision of freedom has taken on new dimensions.
Lynn H. Cohick (PhD in New Testament/Christian Origins, University of Pennsylvania) is associate professor of New Testament in the Department of Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College and Graduate School, Wheaton, IL. Lynn has written on early Jewish/Christian relations, women in the ancient world, and on Paul's epistles within their original context. Her latest books include The New Testament in Antiquity (co-written by Gary Burge and Gene Green), Women in the World of the Earliest Christians and Ephesians (New Covenant Commentary).
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