rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno
(I am posting this today at The American Catholic, and I thought the history mavens of Almost Chosen People might also like it.)
The completely unexpected in history has always fascinated me. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his 2007 book The Black Swan, took a look at the impact of events in history for which our prior experiences give us no inkling. Taleb states three requirements for a Black Swan Event:
First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme ‘impact’. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
Unlike Mr. Taleb I think true Black Swan events, based upon the criteria he sets forth, are rather rare in the history of mankind. Normally they fall down on the first element. Taleb, for example, views the fall of the Soviet empire as a Black Swan occurrence. I disagree in that the dissolution of the great colonial empires of the West had been a salient feature of the post World War II world. Totalitarian controls allowed the Soviet Union to delay the process, but once the reins were loosened, and the threat of mass violence was no longer on the table, the dissolution came rapidly.
The Coming of Christ into this world is the greatest example of a Black Swan Event that I can think of, and over the remainder of this Advent we will see how looking at the Incarnation through this mental prism can give us a new appreciation of how unlikely, and startling, the impact of Christ on History has been.
Before we do this, let us take a moment to recall to mind the world into which Christ was born.
The Jews were a subject people under the rule of Rome, exercised through a confusing mix of puppet monarchs and direct Roman rule. The glories of the kingdom of David seemed long ago indeed as the Jews restively lived under pagan rule, bringing to birth revolutionary movements like the Zealots and other-worldly movements like the Essenes. The surprising feature about the Jews is that they had retained their ancient Faith. They had not endured the usual destiny of a defeated people in the ancient world: to vanish, assimilated into the new conquering cultures. The Jews had successfully eluded such cultural oblivion largely due to the resistance dramatically carried out by the Maccabees, their near miraculous military victories leading to an independent Jewish state just over a century and a half before the time of Christ. The state was short-lived, beset by strong foreign enemies and internecine strife, but the most important victory had been won and proved lasting. The Jews would remain a people set apart; they would not become just another people lost into the Hellenistic stew produced by the spreading of Greek culture and the military prowess of Alexander and his many successors.
The intellectual attractions of Greek thought remained, the older contemporary of Christ, Philo of Alexandria, managing a unique synthesis of Jewish revelation and Greek philosophy, but in this synthesis Greek philosophy remained the servant of Jewish revelation, not its master. Learned Jews could expose themselves to Greek thought and still remain Jews.
Harder to deal with was the oppressive reality of Rome. From a small town on the hills on the Tiber, the Romans had built, in fits and starts, over centuries an immense empire, the lands of the Jews making only a tiny part of it. Jews of the diaspora had no choice but to come to terms with Rome as best they could, but in the Jewish lands of the time of Christ the relationship of the Jews and the Romans was usually tense, with the pagan Empire and the Chosen People finding endless ways to frustrate each other, with even minor conflicts having the potential to end in violence.
A learned observer at the time, neither Jew nor Roman, might have predicted that the Jews would have retained their faith, unless an unwise revolt led to mass extermination of the Jews by the Romans. Perhaps, however, the Jews would be both wise and restrained, with the Jews simply outwaiting Rome until the Roman empire fell, as all Earthly empires fall, sooner or later. What he would never have predicted, however, is that a penniless Jewish preacher from the backlands of Galilee, executed as a rebel by Rome, would start a new religion that would ultimately convert the Roman empire and spread around the globe.
Next week we will look at how the Jews and Romans were both expecting Someone, but not Someone like Christ.