فصل 16

کتاب: تاریخی کوچک از جهان / فصل 16

فصل 16

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THE GOOD NEWS Augustus ruled from 31 BC until AD 14, which tells you that Jesus Christ was born during his reign. He was born in Palestine, which was then a Roman province. You can read about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ in the Bible. You probably know the essentials of what he taught: that it doesn’t matter if a person is rich or poor, of noble or of humble birth, a master or a slave, a great thinker or a child. That all men are God’s children. And that the love of this father is infinite. That before him no man is without sin, but that God has pity on sinners. That what matters is not judgement but mercy. You know what mercy is: the great giving and forgiving love of God. And that we should treat others as we hope God, our Father, will treat us. That is why Jesus said: ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.’

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And you know that Jesus spent just a short time travelling all over the country, preaching and teaching, healing the sick and comforting the poor. That he was accused of wanting to be king of the Jews. And that, as a rebellious Jew, he was sentenced by a Roman official called Pontius Pilate to be nailed to a cross. This terrible punishment was only given to slaves, robbers and members of subject peoples, not to citizens of Rome. It was also seen as a dreadful humiliation. But Christ had taught that the world’s worst sorrows had a meaning, that beggars, those in torment, the persecuted, the sick and the suffering were blessed in their misfortune. And so it was that the Son of God, martyred and in agony, became for the first Christians the very symbol of his teaching. Today we can hardly imagine what that meant. The cross was even worse than the gallows. And this cross of shame became the symbol of the new teaching. Just imagine what a Roman official or soldier, or a Roman teacher steeped in Greek culture, proud of his wisdom, his rhetoric and his knowledge of philosophy, would have thought when he heard Christ’s teaching from one of the great preachers ­ perhaps the Apostle Paul in Athens or in Rome. We can read what he preached there today, in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

I will show you a more excellent way: If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am but a sounding gong or a tinkling cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can see into all mysteries and have all knowledge and have all faith so that I can move mountains, but have not love, then I am nothing. If I give away everything that is mine, and offer up my body to be burnt, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is long-suffering and kind, love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, it does not behave improperly, it does not seek its own advantage, it is not easily provoked, it bears no grudge, delights not in evil but rejoices only in the truth. It shelters all, trusts all, always hopes, always endures. Love is everlasting.

When they heard Paul’s sermons the Roman patricians must have shaken their heads in disapproval, for this was hardly the language

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of the law. But the poor and downtrodden heard in Paul’s words something that was entirely new, something that had never been heard before: the extraordinary announcement of Divine Grace which was far greater than any law, and was called the Gospel, or the Good News. (Good news ­ or glad tidings ­ is a translation of the Greek eu-angelion, from which we get the word evangelical.) And this good and happy news of the mercy of God the Father ­ the unique and invisible God in whom the Jews had believed long before Christ had lived and preached among them ­ soon spread throughout the Roman empire. Roman officials began to pay attention. As you know they hadn’t previously involved themselves in matters of religion. But this was something new. The Christians, who believed in just one God, were refusing to scatter incense before images of the emperor, which had been the custom since Rome had had an emperor. Like the rulers of the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Babylonians and the Persians, Roman emperors allowed themselves to be worshipped as gods. Their statues were everywhere, and every good citizen was expected to place a few perfumed grains in front of these images as an offering. But the Christians were refusing to do so. And people wanted to make them. Now about thirty years after Christ’s death on the cross (that is, around sixty years after his birth ­ in AD 60), a cruel emperor was ruling over the Roman empire. He was called Nero. People still shudder when they hear the name of this monster. But what is truly repellent about him is that he didn’t start out as a monster ­ ruthless and wicked through and through. He was simply weak, vain, suspicious and lazy. Nero fancied himself as a poet and composed songs which he performed himself. He ate ­ or, rather, gorged himself on ­ the rarest delicacies and was utterly devoid of decency or dignity. He was not unattractive, but there was something cruel and selfsatisfied about his smile. He had his own mother murdered, and his wife and his tutor, along with a number of other relations and friends. He lived in constant fear of assassination, for he was a coward too. One day a terrible fire broke out in Rome which, burning day and night, consumed house after house, district after district, and

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made hundreds of thousands of people homeless ­ for by then Rome was a huge city with more than a million inhabitants. And what do you think Nero did? He stood on the balcony of his sumptuous palace with his lyre and sang a song he had composed about the burning of Troy. To him this seemed perfect for the occasion. The people, however, were enraged. Until then they had not hated him much because he had always given them splendid festivals and had only been cruel to close friends and acquaintances. Now the rumour spread that Nero himself had set Rome on fire. We do not know if it is true. But in any case Nero knew that people thought he was responsible. So he looked around for a scapegoat and found one in the Christians. The Christians had often said that this world must end so that a better, purer world might take its place. Of course, you and I know that they meant Heaven. But because people tend not to listen very carefully, soon they were saying: ‘The Christians want the world to end because they hate mankind.’ An extraordinary accusation, don’t you think? Nero had them arrested wherever he found them, and they were brutally put to death. Some were torn to pieces by wild beasts in the arena, while others were burnt alive as torches at a grand nocturnal banquet in his garden. But the Christians bore all these tortures and those of later persecutions with unbelievable courage. They were proud to testify to the power of their new faith. And these testifiers ­ or ‘martyrs’, to use the Greek word ­ later became the first saints. Christians used to pray at the tombs of their martyrs, whom they buried in a whole network of underground passages and burial chambers called catacombs, outside the city gates. The walls were painted with simple pictures inspired by Bible stories: pictures of Daniel in the Lion’s Den, of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Burning Fiery Furnace, or Moses Striking Water from the Rock, which were there to remind Christians of the power of God and the Life Everlasting. In these underground passages Christians gathered together at night to discuss Christ’s teachings, to share the Lord’s Supper and give each other encouragement when a new persecution

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threatened. And in the course of the next century, despite all the persecution, more and more men and women throughout the empire came to believe in the Good News and were ready to bear, for its sake, the suffering Christ had endured. Christians were not the only ones to experience the severity of Roman rule for things were no better for the Jews. A few years after Nero’s reign a revolt against the Romans broke out in Jerusalem. The Jews wanted their freedom. They fought with extraordinary determination and courage against the legions who were forced to lay siege to each Jewish town in turn to defeat them. Jerusalem itself was reduced to famine during two long years of siege by Titus, son of the ruling Roman emperor, Vespasian. Those who fled were caught and crucified by the Romans outside the city. When the Romans finally succeeded in forcing their way into the city in AD 70, Titus is said to have commanded that the sanctuary of the One God be spared, but the soldiers sacked and looted the temple all the same. The sacred vessels were carried home in triumph to Rome, as we can see today from the pictures carved on the arch which Titus erected in Rome to commemorate his triumph. Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews scattered to the four winds. Long established as traders in many cities, the Jews had now lost their homeland. From now on they huddled together in their prayer schools, in cities like Alexandria and Rome and other foreign towns, scorned and derided by all because, even in the midst of heathens, they still clung to their ancient customs, reading the Bible and waiting for their Messiah who was to save them.

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