INTERLUDE TO THE GRAIL’S STORY: THE MESSIAH POINT SYSTEM
The picture The Grail painted of the social and religious life in first century Palestine—those two terms were by and large inseparable—was nothing like the way I’d imagined it when I heard the Bible stories as a kid. But there is no substitute for an eyewitness account to give flavor and color, even an admittedly somewhat biased eyewitness. What few facts my research has unearthed since then have substantiated her story.
Compared with the Assyrians and the Babylonians, Roman rule was relatively benign. No hauling a large segment of the population off into bondage, for example. In exchange for quite reasonable taxes, trade flourished, crime was low, and the borders protected. The Romans even allowed the Jews to have their own kings and practice their own religion. But for a people who regarded themselves as the chosen of Yahweh, relatively benign wasn’t good enough. They wanted a return to the glory of David and Solomon, the heady days when the revolting Maccabees triumphed over the Seleucid Empire, Joshua’s divinely-inspired victories at Jericho and Gibeon. So they waited—and not very patiently—for the Messiah to come and lead them against the hated Romans.
Sunday school had led me to believe that when Jesus proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, he was the first one ever to have done so. According to The Grail, nothing could be farther from the truth. Judea around 30 AD was messiah-happy. John the Baptist was a prophet, but Joe the Presbyterian and Fritz the Catholic as well as Arnold the Greek Orthodox and Jude the Obscure had all shunned the prophesy business to try their luck as messiah. The whole area was so thick with them, the Promised Land had lost much of its promise. They had even begun to spread into neighboring lands so they didn’t have to shout over each other whenever they tried to preach.
All you really had to do to become a messiah was declare yourself to be the Messiah, give up your job, and wander around preaching. Depending on how well you sermonized, people would spare you a few coins to live off of while you clawed your way up the messiah ladder. The ultimate objective was to have enough people follow you that you were anointed the Messiah by popular acclaim. Hadn’t happened so far, but hope springs eternal.
Messiahs got much of their social standing by the size of the crowd they managed to pull. If a holy man stood on a hillside and preached to a multitude of a thousand, he was among the elite already; less than five percent of all aspirants could claim to having harangued a thousand people at one time. But you got bonus messiah points if a hundred or two of those had traveled from a neighboring town to hear you. Of course, you were likely to get in big trouble with the authorities if you had hoards of people traipsing around the countryside after you, camping on hillsides without sanitary facilities or even shovels and having to beg for food or steal it, since people who could afford to buy food didn’t normally follow wandering preachers from one town to the next. The Romans, ever sensitive to budding rebellions, frowned on such assemblies but seldom had to take direct action themselves. The Jewish religious leaders were so fiercely jealous of their status that they were most likely to meet such interlopers with direct and mostly fatal opposition. If they had their way, there wasn’t going to be any messiah unless he promised to keep the clerical status quo.
But the biggest number of messiahdom status points came from the number of your disciples. In order to be counted, a disciple had to leave whatever job he had and work full time at being a disciple. That didn’t mean if he was a cobbler he couldn’t fix the shoes of his messiah and his staff; he just couldn’t work at his former occupation for money. In addition, he had to state publicly that his messiah was the Messiah. This was normally no big deal, but if your messiah managed to get in trouble with the priests, a disciple could easily catch a stray stone or two.
There were practical limits to the number of disciples a messianic hopeful could maintain. Disciples all had to be fed from the funds collected from the crowds. Having a few disciples to work the crowds during your sermons made a big impact on revenues. But there came a point where additional disciples didn’t equate to additional income. So the number of disciples a messiah had was perhaps the purest indicator of how persuasive and powerful he was.
The system was such that it would have been easy for a sensible person with wealth to manipulate himself right up to the top circles of messiah status. He could hire a score of disciples for a couple of years, which would have been enough to give him such a reputation that crowds would gather to see what all the excitement was about, particularly if a few coins were tossed out after each sermon. But sensible people with money didn’t become messiahs, so the system was self-regulating.