John 1:46 And Nathanael said unto him, Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?
Acts 21:39 But Paul said, I am a man which am a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city…
Is there a co-advantage that religion and geography creates for themselves? To the ancients it was much so. Political correctness (as we know it) was 2000 years in the future, and the Greco-Roman world was rife with what we would call prejudices and stereotypes — which was accepted as the so-called “Gospel truth”. If we say today that “X are always brutes, gluttons, etc.” you will end up with half a dozen civil rights groups picketing you. If you said it in ancient Rome, you’ll have everyone agreeing with you — sometimes including the group itself.
Jesus’ Jewishness could hardly have been denied by the early Christians, but it was also a major impediment to spreading the Gospel beyond the Jews themselves. Judaism was regarded by the Romans and Gentiles as a superstition. Roman writers like Tacitus willingly reported all manner of calumnies (the making of false and defamatory statements in order to damage someone’s reputation) against Jews as a whole, regarding them as a spiteful and hateful race.
Bringing a Jewish savior to the door of the average Roman would have been similar to bringing one to the door of a Nazi during WWII– though the Roman would have laughed in your face and slammed the door instead of killing him.
Judaism had a very limited inroad in terms of Gentile converts is partly attributable to Judaism not being much of a missionary religion. And yet, the Jewishness of Jesus even by itself means that Christianity should have had great difficulty expanding in to the Gentile world much beyond the circle of those Gentiles who were already God-fearers (i.e., Gentile proselytes to Judaism).
Robert Wilken in The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (ISBN-10: 0300098391) states the Romans naturally considered their own belief systems to be superior to all others. (p 57) They also believed that superstitions (such as Judaism and Christianity) undermined the social system established by their religion – and of course they were right.
However, the point is that anyone who followed or adopted one of his or her foreign superstitions would be looked on not only as a religious rebel, but as a social rebel as well. They were breaking with the status quo, rebelling against the establishment. They upset the Roman concept of piety and Romans were thought to be incapable of that.
In those days, things were not pluralistic or “politically correct. Today, atheists and theists can debate in a free forum, but back then one of the groups would have the state (and the sword and their powerful army) on their side – and in the time we’re talking about, that wasn’t the Christians.
Those who adhered to superstitio therefore found themselves, as a matter of course, associated with bizarre and extreme behaviors – as the Christians did, and as Tacitus also reports of the Jews in his Histories. And it went further: “(B)ecause superstition leads to irrational ideas about the gods, the inevitable consequence is atheism.” (ibid p. 61) Since “superstitionists” bucked the established cosmic order, their view of the universe was regarded as capricious and irrational, and this eventually led to the charge by critics like Crescens ((2nd century was a Cynic philosopher) that Christians were actually atheists (ibid p. 68).
Even within Judaism, Christianity had to overcome another stigma. When Paul mentioned that he was from Tarsus, he didn’t do it so he could compare notes with the centurion. Being from a major city (polis) like Tarsus signified a high honor for the person who laid claim to it – kind of like “being from the right side of the tracks” today.
Christianity had a serious handicap, the stigma of a savior who undeniably hailed from Galilee — for the Romans and the Gentiles, not only a Jewish land, but a hotbed of political sedition; for the Jews, a land of yokels and farmers without much respect for the Torah, and worst of all, a savior from a puny village of no account. Not even a birth in Bethlehem, or Matthew’s suggestion that an origin in Galilee was prophetically ordained, would have gotten rid of such a stigma: Indeed, Jews would not be convinced of this, even as today, unless something else first convinced them that Jesus was divine or the Messiah. The ancients were no less sensitive to the possibility of “spin doctoring” and “talking points” than we are.
There are other minor extensions to this business of stereotyping. Assigning Jesus the work of a carpenter was the wrong thing to do; Cicero noted that such occupations were “vulgar” and compared the work to slavery. Placing Jesus’ birth story in a suspicious context where a charge of illegitimacy would be all too obvious to make would compound the problems as well. If the Gospels were making up these things, how hard would it have been to put Jesus in Capernaum (and still take advantage of the prophetic “Galilee” connection) — and as Skeptics are quick to say, incorrectly, this would be no easier or harder to check out than Nazareth. How hard would it have been to take an “adoptionist” Christology and give Jesus an indisputably honorable birth (rather than claiming honor by the dubious claim that God was Jesus’ Father)?
What it boils down to is that everything about Jesus as a person was all wrong to get people to believe he was deity — and there must have been something powerful to overcome all the stigmas.
We shall continue this at a later date with The Wrong “Resurrection”