José María Ribas Alba (Seville, 1961), known in the wide world as Pepe Ribas, is, in addition to a recognized scholar of the arduous issues of Roman Law and the history of Christianity, a graduate in Higher Seville Studies. This is attested to by books such as ‘Crítica de larazon sevillana. An essay on the identity of Seville’ or ‘Theory of the Sevillian climber’ (both edited by Almuzara). An affable and laughing man, loved by his students, this professor of Roman Law at the University of Seville has no qualms about describing himself as a traditional Catholic, although it only takes a little chat with him to know that, as Rodríguez Zapatero would say, we are before a man “of character”. A specialist in the trial of Jesus of Nazareth, on which he has written a book and has taught courses, Pepe Ribas has also signed with Almuzara the titles ‘Prehistory of Law’ and ‘Unknown History of the New Testament’, which appeared very recently. His office is a set of messy books presided over by a Virgen del Rocío, perhaps a nod to one of the great romanists that Hispalense has produced, the late José Luis Murga Gener, a very devoted man who was of the Blanca Paloma. ‘Genesis of Law in Rome’, ‘Roman Constitutionalism’ (both in Tecnos) or ‘Democracy in Rome’ (Comares) are other examples of his intellectual work.
–The question is addressed to the author of the book ‘The criticism of Sevillian reason’. Does Seville have its own identity?
-It is a controversial issue, like the essence of Spain. The book is a cultural game. All cities have, to a greater or lesser extent, a certain personality. But the one in Seville is very pronounced. This is noted, above all, by the enemies he has. Many times you are stunned by the number of people who hate Seville. Rome generated the romanidad and Seville the sevillanía.
–How to define Seville?
-As a lawyer, I have an institutional vision of the city. In this way I can affirm that Seville was born in the 13th century with San Fernando. I know that today this is fatal.
-And what was there before San Fernando?
–From the institutional point of view, other cities, even if they share the same lot. It is under discussion, but it seems that Fernando III was given the semi-empty city and repopulated it with Christians.
–What is the most characteristic of Seville?
–A mixture of spirituality and beauty. Wagner said that the opera was the total work of art, but for me, although I am not a little chapel, it is Holy Week, which mixes plastic arts, music, liturgy…
–And if you don’t like Holy Week, you can’t be from Seville?
-No not at all. But it is true that Holy Week gives the rhythm to the city. The Seville calendar works with a central element, which is Holy Week. Take a look at the Seville Fair and compare it with the tawdry of the rest of the fairs in Andalusia. I am convinced that the elegance of the Fair is due to its proximity to Holy Week. Somehow it infects her. On some trip to Mexico I have seen how there are people who follow Holy Week in Seville very closely.
– Is this Holy Week threatened?
– Freakism can do you a lot of damage, but the way the world is, we can say that we have a real treasure. More knowing that in Holy Week no one is asked for the card, that it is inclusive, as they say now.
–He has another essay on the being of the city: ‘Theory of the Sevillian climber’.
-The book, which belongs to that Sevillian genre that is rambling, was sold as if it were humorous, but that was not my purpose. My theory is that Seville, which is a quietist city, needs climbing for there to be a certain life, even if it is only economic. A journalist interviewed me in which the headline was invented, but the truth is that he was right: “The climber is a sinister creature, but he has my respects.”
-It has always been said that one of the climbing routes is the brotherhoods.
–That is because in Seville there are very few places to climb. There are also football clubs, which is a traditional way of climbing the social ladder. When I published the book, there were many colleagues who called me to give me examples of climbing within the University, many of them very successful.
-I imagine that the climber is always the other.
-Now he has given us to fight with Malaga.
-They are invading us a bit, but lately I have been to Malaga several times and I have seen certain virtues that we do not have here. Sevillians are more unpleasant than it seems. In general, people from Malaga are more open. Malaga is beating us.
–Now he has just released a very different book: ‘Unknown History of the New Testament’ (NT). Let’s forget religion. If you had to make a literary criticism of the NT, in what genre would you classify it?
-The NT, in fact, are 27 books. It even took a long time for it to be considered and circulate as a unique book. The original texts were written between the 1950s and the end of the 1st century. Influenced by the German school, it was previously thought that these books had been written far removed from the events they narrate, but the latest discoveries prove otherwise. Depending on the book of the NT that we take, we can speak of a genre: the epistolary, the travel…
–What is the origin of the Gospels?
-There are many theories. Mine is that at first it was an oral preaching and, when the apostles began to age, they worried about putting their testimony in writing.
– Is the historicity of the NT much discussed?
–The NT abounds in historical data. Also, of course, there are miracles and parables. But I am a practicing Catholic and I believe in the possibility of supernatural interventions. That is, I accept miracles because I have faith. One of the quotes with which I open the Unknown History of the New Testament belongs to The Legend of the Holy Drinker, by Joseph Roth: “For there is nothing to which a person is more easily accustomed than to miracles, when one has known them, two and three times.” There is a sector that insists on denying the historicity of Jesus, who say that it is a myth, but there are extra-biblical sources that show the opposite. Other ancient characters whose existence nobody doubts do not have as many historical sources that support them as Jesus.
–The Latinist Juan Fernández made me understand that the Sermon on the Mount is one of the founding texts of the West, like Plato’s ‘The Republic’.
-I totally agree. In Empires of Cruelty. Classical antiquity and inhumanity, Manuel Alejandro Rodríguez de la Peña shows us the most sinister part of the Greco-Latin world: slavery, sexual exploitation, massacres, torture… They were totally internalized things. In the face of this, the Sermon on the Mount was a paradigm shift. This focus on the weak is a Christian value. There are other cultural worlds that are still installed in pre-Christianity. This does not mean, of course, that Rome did not have very positive aspects, such as law or engineering.
-You gave a subject on the trial of Jesus. Did your students know the New Testament?
-Very little. For whatever historical reasons, we all knew the NT pretty well before, but the new generations have no idea. Mainly because it is not read. Formerly the NT competed with the Apocryphal Gospels, but now it competes with the fictional literature on Jesus. People know more Trojan Horse or The Da Vinci Code than the NT. The truth is that the Gospels are a treasure to be discovered. Of course, we continue to use many expressions taken from there: “give Caesar what is Caesar’s” and things like that. Barrabás is a character who gives his name to nightclubs all over the wide world.
“You have spoken of the Apocrypha. What was the process by which some entered Christian orthodoxy and others did not?
-You just have to read both to realize it. There are two types of Apocryphal Gospels: the pious legends and the Gnostics. Let’s say that the first ones have my blessing, because they are like stories for children, with bizarre miracles…
–… Like the one where Jesus made clay birds and then blew on them so they would live and fly…
-Exactly, things like that. The true Gospels are very sparing. Miracles are very few and very specific. There are no strange or grandiose things as in the Apocrypha, which are much later, from the middle of the second century onwards. Then there are those Gospels tailored to the marginal groups of Christianity, such as the Gnostics, fundamentally.
Let’s talk about Paul of Tarsus. There are scholars who claim that he was the true founder of Christianity and not Jesus of Nazareth.
-That is a very old theory that some sell today as if it were new. I think not, that Paul of Tarsus is a continuation of all of the above. It just so happens that, unlike all the New Testament authors, he was a rabbinical-trained intellectual. He had been born in Tarsus, which was a center of philosophy, especially Stoic. This supports the theory that I, and many others, hold about his relationship with Seneca. In the Acts of the Apostles, it appears that he has dealings with Gallio, who was proconsul of Asia and brother of Seneca. Furthermore, the doctrine of the body of Christ that Paul expresses in his letters has Christianized Stoic elements. The corpus doctrine is a basic doctrine of Stoicism. There are many who always want to make conflicting compartments, like the Jude-Christians who were grouped around James the Elder – a stern man who wanted to continue with the circumcision – compared to the Christians of the Gentiles, who were with Paul. But that was simply different sensitivities, as is the case today in the Church.
–Which New Testament passage would you choose?
–For professional reasons with the dialogue of Jesus with Pilate, in the Gospel of John. Records were kept in Roman criminal trials, as is known from the trials of martyrs. Many of these are pious fakes, but there are also genuine ones. In Jesus’ dialogue with Pilate something unique in history is seen, how a judge transmits what he has inside him. How many judges like Pilate have had doubts during a process, have changed their minds, have allowed themselves to be pressured… In Spain we do not need to go into details. This dialogue between Jesus and Pilate is fascinating because of its naturalness.
–About the trial of Jesus, one of his favorite subjects of study, we recently spoke in these pages with his disciple, Aurora López Agüero, so we will not go into it further. It is clear that the law is not always fair.
-I seem to remember that it is article 18 of the Soviet penal code by which millions of Russians were sent to the Gulag. People who do not know the law hold the world of law in high esteem, but those of us who know something understand that it is a child of its time and historical circumstances. A totalitarian regime produces a totalitarian right.
–What was the great contribution of Roman Law to our legal culture?
–The introduction of limits to political power. This also helped Christianity over time. Rome transmitted the idea that the political community must be subject to law, not only private, but also public.
-But the origin of democracy is Athens, right?
-I have the theory, shared by few, that this is very nuanced. Without undervaluing Greece, the origin of democracy is closer to Rome. Let me explain: although it is true that with the Empire the elections of the republican period disappeared in Rome, they are held annually in all cities to elect the duumvirs. This would then be maintained, oddly enough, in the rules of the monasteries (take the rule of Saint Benedict and see how the abbot of a monastery was elected). Later in the Italian city-states… I mean, I think there is a genealogy of political participation that, from the real point of view, comes from Rome, although from the intellectual point of view it also comes from Greece.