The sun burned Babylon as it had for countless centuries. Its intense heat lay like a bright death shroud upon the city as two men, one tall and one short, wearing flowing, spotless, white robes, made their way through the narrow passageways formed by the city’s tenement walls. Centuries later, this maze of man-made canyons would be called streets. While the two brothers gave no outward sign of their agitation, their blood boiled hotter than the sun burning the rapidly shrinking Seleucid empire. No one held the sun to account however, for it wasn’t the sun that desiccated the empire, but the dreams of men that shriveled it towards demise.
This region had once been unified as part of Alexander’s expansive empire, but after his death in 323 BC, it was ruthlessly dismembered by greater and lesser leaders of other nation states. The true test of man’s power is what remains after his death. Alexander’s power was as ephemeral as all dreams from which one must awaken. Romans, Indians, Macedonians, Parthians – collectively served as crowing rooster for Alexander’s great dream. However, the Jews of Babylon were not truly roused from their slumber until Seleucus’ younger brother, Antiochus IV Epiphanes seized the throne.
He was referred to by his contemporaries as “Epimanes” or “The Mad One”, a pun on his title, Epiphanes. The sobriquet lent itself well to Antiochus’ treatment of Jews under his dominion. In 168 B.C., Antiochus was leading his second attack on Egypt, but before he could reach Alexandria, he found his path blocked by an old Roman ambassador. Gaius Popilius Laenas, stood firm that day to deliver a message from the Roman Senate, a challenge that would survive history as “a line in the sand”. Popilius demanded Antiochus either withdraw his armies immediately from Egypt or consider himself at war with the Republic.
According to the Roman historian Livy, “After receiving the submission of the inhabitants of Memphis and of the rest of the Egyptian people, some submitting voluntarily, others under threats, Antiochus marched by easy stages towards Alexandria. After crossing the river at Eleusis, about four milliarium from Alexandria, he was met by the Roman commissioners, to whom he gave a friendly greeting and held out his hand to Popilius. Popilius, however, placed in his hand the tablets on which was written the decree of the senate and told him first of all to read that. After reading it through, he said he would call his friends into council and consider what he ought to do. Popilius, stern and imperious as ever, drew a circle round the king with the stick he was carrying and said, ‘Before you step out of that circle give me a reply to lay before the senate.’ For a few moments he hesitated, astounded at such a peremptory order, and at last replied, ‘I will do what the senate thinks right.’ Not till then did Popilius extend his hand to the king as to a friend and ally. Antiochus evacuated Egypt at the appointed date, and the commissioners exerted their authority to establish a lasting concord between the brothers, as they had as yet hardly made peace with each other.”
“Mad” though he may have been at times, Antiochus was quite sane when faced with the prospect of war with the rapidly expanding Roman Empire. Understandably, the Greek king deferred to the demand. Antiochus returned home, his soul burning from the nasty sting of ignominious defeat by a simple circle drawn in the sand, but even as he struggled with Rome’s rude, iron-fisted diplomacy, the Jew’s seized their chance. While Antiochus was busy dancing in the sand, rumor spread of his death. Shortly before, the High Priest Onias III had been replaced by his brother Jason. For financial reasons Antiochus supported Jason and his reform party. In return for a considerable sum, he permitted Jason to build a Greek style gymnasium in Jerusalem, where the Greek mode of education would be introduced to Jewish boys. Jason’s tenure as high priest, or kohein gadol, came to an abrupt end when he sent Menelaus to deliver an even larger tribute to Antiochus. Instead, Menelaus used the money to buy the priesthood for himself. The predictable result of this subterfuge was Antiochus’ confirmation of Menelaus as High Priest. Jason quickly fled Jerusalem to find refuge among Ammonites. Hearing the rumor that Antiochus was dead, the deposed High Priest gathered a force of 1,000 soldiers to launch a surprise attack on Jerusalem.
Enraged at the humiliation of defeat by a single Roman envoy, Antiochus now vented his wrath on the Jews by furiously attacking Jason’s forces in Jerusalem. After the battle, Menelaus was reinstated and resumed his priestly duties while Antiochus executed Jason and his followers. Second Maccabees describes the event in the usual horrific tradition of Biblical accounts.
“When these happenings were reported to the king, (Antiochus) he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.”
To consolidate his empire and strengthen his hold on the region, Antiochus had sided with the Hellenized faction of Jews. He outlawed Jewish religious rituals such as the Sabbath and circumcision. Worse, he defiled the HaMikdash by opening the shrine to non-Jews and erecting an altar to the Greek god Zeus. Ordering the worship of the Greek god opened the Mikdash to sacrificing pigs, a true horror to traditions kept by observant Jews. The new order was blasphemous anathema to Jews. When they refused to comply, Antiochus sent an army to enforce his decree. Because of their resistance, Jerusalem was destroyed. This account is again described in Second Maccabees.
Antiochus however, was merely another supporting actor in the grand, historical play of the Jews. The Maccabean Revolt was the beginning of the civil war between orthodox and reformist parties forming the main factions of Jewish religion. The revolt of the Maccabees, or “hammers” in Hebrew, was a break between traditionalist Jews in the country and urban, Hellenized Jews in Jerusalem. Traditionalist Jews, with Hebrew/Aramaic names like “Onias”, contested the Jewish Hellenizers sporting Greek names like “Jason” and “Menelaus” over who would ascend as the “Kohein Gadol” or High Priest of the Jews. Of course, it would be far too simplistic to ignore both the social and economic motives that lay behind the religious fervor fueling this civil war. More than religion, ultimately a nation’s wealth and power was at stake – and it was winner take all.
War between the two dominate factions escalated when the Hellenistic kingdom of Syria sided with Hellenizing Jews. It was during this escalation that Antiochus sided with the Hellenizers by prohibiting the religious practices upheld by the traditionalists. Banning traditional religion of a whole people was a radical departure from traditional Seleucid practice, but among these warring Jews, it was imperative if order was to be restored. Unlike their traditional country cousins, the cosmopolitan, Hellenistic Jews were rapidly assimilating into Greek culture. It was only natural for Antiochus to support the friendlier of the two factions.
Though many Jews had been seduced by the virtues of Hellenism, persecution by Antiochus had temporarily united the two factions in a common front. When a Greek official tried to force the priest Mattathias to sacrifice to a pagan god, the Jews murdered the Greek. Predictably, Antiochus began harsh reprisals, but in 167 B.C., the Jews rose up behind Mattathias and his five sons to fight for liberation. This family, commonly known as Hasmoneans, soon became known as the Maccabees. Antiochus, underestimating the resolve of his adversaries, sent only a small force to put down the rebellion. When his troops were annihilated, he led a more powerful army into the battle only to be defeated.
After the death of Antiochus in 164 B.C., Jerusalem was recaptured by the Maccabees and the Mikdash was purified. This triumph is celebrated with the observance of “Chanukah”. Perhaps the most gruesome legend associated with this Jewish holiday is that of a mother and her seven sons. No one knows her actual name, as it was never provided by the authors of the Maccabean book, but the name assigned by popular Jewish culture is “Hannah”.
The story is told that a woman named Hannah had seven sons who refused to eat the pork sacrifice as ordered by Antiochus. Hannah’s eldest son spoke up for the others, telling Antiochus that he would die rather than violate God’s law. These words angered Antiochus who then ordered all the pans and cauldrons be brought out and put on the fires. The story alleges that as the cookware was heating, the king ordered his men to cut out the boy’s tongue and to amputate his hands and feet. His mother and brothers looked on in horror as the boy was mutilated. The king then ordered the boy to be fried alive. Hannah and her sons knew refusal meant death, but were willing to suffer and die for their piety. Each, in turn, proclaimed that while the king might deprive them of their life, in the afterlife they would be raised up by the King of the world, and that they were willing to die for the laws of that King.
After watching six of her sons suffer torture and death, the mother was given the opportunity to persuade her youngest to eat the pork or perish like his brothers. According to legend, Hannah told her youngest to follow the example of the others, for it was better to die, than to break the Torah’s strict, dietary commandment to avoid non-kosher meat. Hannah then kissed her youngest son and whispered, “When you die and see the great patriarch Abraham, tell him not to feel too proud he built an altar for the sacrifice of his only son, because I have sacrificed seven sons! While Abraham’s sacrifice was God’s test, my test was real.” In the end, not only were her seven sons martyred, she too suffered the same fate. The message to pious Jews was clear – meat was an issue to die for.
It took two more decades of Maccabean revolt before the Seleucids finally retreated from Palestine. By 143 BC, the Maccabees had fully established their independence. After 500 years of subjugation, Jews were now their own masters. When Mattathias died, the revolt was taken over by his son Judah Maccabee. Jonathan, or Apphus “the wary”, the youngest of Mattathias’ sons, succeeded Judah, whose defeat and death left Maccabean leadership in a deplorable state. It was left to Jonathan to reunify the Hasmonean dynasty. He would do this by warily calling for aid from the various rivalries competing for the Syrian throne. Manipulation of these rivalries resulted in sixty-five years of independent rule by the Hasmoneans. It was only a short time between the fading Greek rule of Syrian kings and the newly established Roman empire rule enforced by Pompey.
By the end of the war, the kingdom had regained boundaries not far short of what had been reputed to be Solomon’s realm. Most notable among these events however, was the Hasmonean claim to not only the throne of Judah, but also the critical post of high priest or “kohein gadol”. This assertion of religious authority conflicted with the tradition of the priests who claimed to be descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron and the tribe of Levi. The rivalry developing between these factions threatened the kingdom. Ultimately, the internecine rivalries, along with the appearance of Rome’s imperial power, put an end to Jewish independence. However, the original break between the Jews had led to other schisms among the increasingly fractured religion.
Babylon had long been a residence for Jews, an occupation that began with their expatriation from Jerusalem in 586 B.C. by Nebuchadnezzar. Now part of the Seleucid empire, the city lay at the nexus of the western termination the silk road on an ancient Nabataean trade route. From here, caravans of Far East traders took their wares to points north like Nineveh, South to Ur and Gerrah and further west to Damascus. Many merchants and traders made their way through what even then, was a thoroughly cosmopolitan city. Jews found this atmosphere much to their satisfaction, for many had enriched themselves as middlemen in the bustling trade.
For some fifty years, Jews were held in Babylonian captivity. Over the years the kohanim, like many of their tribesmen, had become comfortable with their captivity. Thus, while many of their members returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and re-consecrate the defiled Mikdash, others remained in Babylon. Many Jews believe the Torah took its final shape during this exile. According to the Torah, about one hundred years after being sent into exile, the scribe Ezra returned to Jerusalem bearing the law books of Moses. Here he reportedly read the law aloud to the Jewish community. Jewish tradition credits Ezra with the compilation of the books of the Torah. An ancient, apocryphal account called second Esdras claims the Torah was actually “channeled” by him. What Ezra had written down was a hodge-podge of religious traditions and cultic practices the Hasmoneans called the “Law of Moses”. It was this version of the Torah the Essene rejected.
“The Nasaraeans . . .They acknowledged Moses and believed that he had received laws – not this law, however, but some other. And so, they were Jews who kept all the Jewish observances, but they would not offer sacrifice or eat meat. They considered it unlawful to eat meat or make sacrifices with it. They claim that these Books (of Moses) are fictions, and that none of these customs were instituted by the fathers. (Panarion 1:18)
By fifty B.C., this story was ancient history to the two brothers wending their way through the narrow alleyways of Babylon. These were Essene priests, members of a splinter faction of Jews that held even greater quarrel with both traditionalist and Hellenistic jews. The fundamental break lay in their opposition to the traditional priest’s highly profitable blood sacrifice. The schism stemmed from the Essene veneration of all living creatures and opposition to the slaughter of animals. Such opposition was considered even more egregious than the break between traditional and Hellenistic Jews as this presented a direct attack on the priest’s livelihood. The pace of the two brothers quickened for they were making their way to a midday meeting with members of the traditional Hasidim priesthood. The plan was to present their grievances and call for an even more profound reform than either traditional or Hellenized Jews would tolerate.
When the brothers arrived at the tenement in the upper city, they found the place opulent by the standards of the day. They knocked on the door and waited impatiently, but there was no reply. They knocked again, this time with more fervor. Finally, the door was opened by an imperious servant who asked, “What is your wish”?
The taller of the two brothers replied, “We have come to meet with the kohanim, they are expecting us.”
The servant cast a jaundiced eye on the two, as if suspecting some form of foul play was hidden within the request. As he surveyed the white robes of the men, a voice from within said sharply, “Allow the brothers entry, we are expecting them.”
The servant stepped aside allowing the two brothers entry into the cool, dark interior of the dwelling. As their eyes adjusted from the bright sun, to the gloom within, the two realized that seven men stood in a semicircle within the room. All seven were dressed in the traditional regalia of the priesthood, white robes covered by bright blue tunics overlaid with prayer shawls and held fast by wide, ornate girdles around the waist. While their heads were topped by softly crushed turbans that would one day resemble a butcher’s cap, their feet were bare. There could be no doubt these men were kohanim, only the ephod breastplate was missing that would denote a kohein gadol.
The shorter brother began the interchange, “We have come to discuss the matter of the sacrifice.”
“We have made our position clear on this matter. There can be no discussion” retorted the tallest priest standing central among the seven.
“Why is it you are intractable on this matter? Can you not see this issue fans the embers of hate between Jews and Greeks from both sides?
“So you have come to ask for an end to our sacrificial tribute? Are you mad? Even Greeks offer sacrificial tribute!”
“True enough, but consider they are lesser men unwise in the ways of the true god. Were we to renounce the sacrifice, would not this be the mark of the greater God of greater men?”
“It would be the mark of an idiot! How then might we atone to God for our sin? Do you propose to absolve sin by dancing and singing like children? How would Greeks view our faith in God then? Without sacrifice, Judaism would be the butt of Greek jokes. Enough! This is nonsense! There can be no rhetoric concerning God’s demand for sacrificial tribute to atone for our sins. This is the fundamental law of our sacred Torah!”
“Levirate law is written to enrich the kohanim as much as to atone for any sin. Do you not demand ten percent of the sacrificial offering?”
Withdrawing the symbol of their power from under his robe, the kohein shoved a crude hammer in the brother’s face and hissed, “Enough of this blasphemy! If you or any of your members are within the walls of Babylon when the sun rises, we will smash you along with the evil Greeks and all others following their sacrilege! The meeting is over, BE GONE! Tarry not, lest you fall under our wrath!”
The brothers looked at each other; the taller of the two asked, “Where are we to go? Is this not our home as well?” “We care not where you go. Perhaps the sheol would be best, and to the darkest pit of the underworld is where we will send you if you remain. Have we not been clear enough on this matter? Remain here and not one of your members will be alive when tomorrow’s sun sets upon the walls of this city.” Still standing beside the brothers, the servant motioned towards the door, “This way”.
Before exiting, the shorter brother turned to face the seven scowling faces, “This is not the way, your way only leads to greater strife and suffering for our people. Your greed will be your undoing!”
Wielding his hammer, The kohein moved menacingly towards the two yelling, “Be gone! NOW! Or you will find yourselves passing through the gates of sheol before you pass though our door!”
The brothers turned and left. Moving into the empty alley, they could hear a sharp report from the hammer hitting the door that had just closed behind them.
That evening the brothers met with the other ten members of their group. After reporting their encounter with the kohanim, a decision was quickly reached to depart Babylon that evening. The Essene owned nothing outside their collective body and the collective itself owned very little. They made ready with a few animals and scanty provisions for a journey to an unknown destination. Departing the city that evening, they made their way towards the hostile desert regions once claimed by ancient Edomites. As they walked, little conversation was made among the group. At last a member asked, “Where are we going? Are we to travel aimlessly until we perish in the desert?”
Without turning or missing a step, the taller brother replied, “We will return home to the remote region of HaGalil; to the holy mountain called Carmel. There, we will establish a community at the foot of the mountain and reside in peace, far from the strife created by the false traditions of our brethren.”
The journey would take the small band of brothers 435 Gallic leuga west, across the farthest northern regions of the great Arabian Desert. It would not be an easy journey as the region between Babylon and Jerusalem lay vast and desolate. The brothers chose a trail of commerce well known among travelers. This path took them southwest from Babylon to a small, bustling, oasis called al-Jwaf. The route avoided the harsh, unforgiving, desert sands to the south, and likewise, the less passable terrain of Wadi al-Sirhan to the north.
Located at the edge of the northern curve of Arabia’s great Nafud desert, Al-Jwaf was where trade routes converged, linking Mesopotamia, Persia and Syria with Arabia. It was here Sumerians erected the great temple of Ishtar. However, the first business of al-Jawf was business. Fertile soils made the oasis a virtual breadbasket surrounded by drier, harsher lands. For centuries, merchants met here to buy, sell and exchange goods. The steady flow of commerce was further enhanced by Pilgrims drawn to Ishtar’s temple.
By this time, the oasis had become a wealthy city, renowned throughout the region. When the brothers entered the city, they were amazed at what they saw. While they had been made aware of its existence, they were unprepared for this bustling desert community. To the brothers, al-Jawf seemed almost as great as Babylon and just as corrupt. Caravans moved through the oasis lined with merchants and vendors hawking their wares.
As they walked the road, baked hard by an unrelenting sun, the brothers pulled their cowls, now khaki colored from the dust, over their shaved heads to hide from the penetrating rays that seemingly sought to expose even the tiniest shadow of darkness. A nearby vendor implored passersbys to look at his fine carpets. Another voice droned rhythmically about fresh fruit for sale. The brothers marveled at the energy of this great hive of activity that equaled the markets of their native Babylon.
“Why is it we flee?” A brother mumbled to no one in particular. “Are our differences so great that we cannot agree to live in peace with our brethren following Mikdash law?” The brothers walked on in contemplative silence for a while before another answered, “There are fundamental differences in our view of this world. First is our approach to the material desires encountered in this world. We shun this material world for we know these things attracting our physical body only serve to distract one from the spiritual path. However, we know this is by design. These things are here to be recognized for the impediment they present to one’s enlightenment. Our brethren in the Mikdash work only to obtain the material wealth of this world. Their only interest is how much wealth and comfort can be gleaned from this life. This is the fundamental difference between false religion and the true spiritual path.
“We seek to be of service to others on this material plane, while our brethren seek only to be in service to themselves. Worse, their efforts are usually achieved at great expense to others. We believe all men to be equal in the eyes of God, while our brethren of the great Mikdash believe they are set above and apart from others. Those outside the Hebrew bloodline are considered unclean; naught but beasts to be used and consumed, even as they use and consume their sacrificial animals. We abstain from slavery while the Hasidim employ them.
“Our differences are as of night and day. These men have a certain darkness of the soul, while, like the sun overhead, we seek to enlighten others and ourselves. As men of light, we therefore stand in opposition to those seeking the darkness of this existence.”
The brothers passed through al-Jwaf as they passed through life, simply observing without partaking of its pleasures. From al-Jawf, the Essene brothers followed the trade route northwest to Bostra, the northern Nabataean capital located in southern Syria. By this time, the Romans had annexed the Nabataean Empire and Bostra was now made capital of their new province, Arabia. This change in Roman trade routes had led to the shift of the capital city from Petra to Bostra, now Petra began to die.
This move however also provided an unusual advantage for traders. Bostra’s location to nearby lava beds was said to aid and abet smugglers avoiding Roman revenue agents. When approached by authorities, smugglers would quickly dissolve into the hardened crevices of the forbidding lava flows. As fitting for a capital, Bostra had many fine public buildings including a bathhouse, theater, forum and temples. The city was noted for a form of Nabataean pottery prized for its delicate, egg-shell-thin construction. Once again, the brothers passed quickly though the city, partaking of none of its pleasures and never noting its resemblance to Petra, the former Nabataean capital that lay 120 Gallic leuga southwest.
Heading north toward Damascus, the small band took an abrupt left at a bend in the road and walked west into the wilderness.The brothers squinted into the rays of the setting sun spiking the horizon. The days were longer now that spring had arrived. This was a time of year known to Jews as Nissan. In more ways than one, the Essene brethren had embarked upon a lesser traveled path. While their spiritual path would take them through time and space, their corporeal path would take them fifteen Gallic leuga to Adraa, then to the small village of Capitolis and finally to the larger city of Gadara, the focal point for Gadarine society. Situated on a small plateau, the city overlooked Lake Gennerasset, which lay to the northwest. A thoroughly gentile region, Gadera was noted for its large heard of swine, an animal declared “unclean” by the Torah. As pointed out by Hanna and her sons, these were animals to die for. Considering Hanna’s ghastly abhorrence of swine, some might have thought it odd that Gadera was also home to a small, Jewish graveyard featuring sepulchers first described in the story of Abraham’s burial of Sarah.
Sepulchers served as housing for the dead. Those in Gadera were fashioned from small caves carved by nature into the plateau’s rock face. Inside, shelves had been cut into the walls. These recesses were smoothed slabs where a body would lay in state until the flesh rotted from its bones. As with swine, Jews considered the dead body ritually unclean. Their law described a corpse as “the most unclean thing of all.” A kohein was required to purify himself for seven days for simply being under the same roof as a body. Thus, like swine, graveyards, and the bodies therein, were considered unapproachable. The brothers passed Gadara with nary nod before continuing their journey westward to a small village called bet lehem.
The agrarian culture of the Galil region was largely closed in nature. People traveled little, often living out their lives without ever seeing another village. Since there was no post or overriding political structure, it was not uncommon for villages to have the same names. More than one village in the north had a sister namesake in the south and so it was for the village of bet lehem. The northern village of bet lehem was located a few milliarium north of the great plain of Megiddo. The name means “house of bread” or in Arabic “house of meat”; the ancients often confused the terms. As the village was located at the Southern end of the verdant bet Netofa Valley where grain crops flourished, it is likely the name alluded to the former. It was here at the northern village called bet lehem the Essene brothers took a brief respite to establish contact with the community with those whom would soon become their neighbors.
After a few days respite the brothers left bet lehem, spreading out to scout the region in search of a suitable location for their monastery. It took several weeks before the brothers reconvened at the village to make their final decision. The brothers chose a small, level, plateau situated atop a chalky ridge nestled in the bet Netofa valley. As they stood atop the remote plateau, the brothers breathed the delicate spring scents of honeysuckle and jasmine permeating the valley. Surveying the sight one spoke, “It is decided; this is where we shall establish our monastery. This will be a place where truth shall be found by those who seek.” The brothers set to work.
The monastery of the Nazarene brotherhood was a small place and true to Essene tradition, quite humble, consisting of only a few small mud and stone huts surrounding a central fire pit and water well. From here, the brothers would go out among the surrounding communities to help those in need. Primary among the assistance provided by the brothers was that of healing. Essene were noted healers and through their service, gathered many followers. As Flavius Josephus wrote of them in the first century, “They are ardent students in the healing of diseases, of the roots offering protection, and of the properties of stones.”
Traveling among the locals of the region, the brothers could not help but note the grinding poverty and privation encountered along the way. The Galileans were mostly fishermen and farmers. Agricultural production was primarily grain and vegetable crops. Part of their economic problem lay in the fact that fish were excluded from the sacrificial system. The other part lay in the fact that even though grain was an acceptable sacrifice, it was a poor second to the animal sacrifice. The precedence for the blood sacrifice had been set long ago in the story of Cain and Able. Cain, a farmer, murdered his shepherd brother Able over God’s preference for Able’s blood sacrifice. Once again, meat was something to die for.
Galil was a part of Rome’s Judean Tetrarchy. Herod, both unwelcome and unpopular among the Jews, had been appointed king by the Roman overlords. Barely tolerated by the people, Herod might never have maintained his power over the Judeans but for one reason – the priesthood. It was the priests, or kohanim, who truly commanded the people for they were God’s chosen intercessors. It was the high priest, the kohein gadol, who wore the ephod holding the magic stones known as the Urim and Thummin. These semi-precious stones were cast to divine God’s words that, in turn, were delivered to Judea’s faithful followers.
The problem for the Hasmonean usurpers was although they had won their bid for power over the priesthood, many among the faithful refused to accept their authority. Those Jews refusing to pay the tribute proscribed by Levirate law were considered outcast by the kohanim. Thus, while Canaanites and Samaritans sacrificed to God, they denied the priesthood their cut of sacrificial meat. The denial was held as sacrilege, for the laws of Moses brought forth by Ezra during Babylonian captivity, demanded this tribute for the Mikdash.
Because of their weak authority and resulting division among various groups of Jews, the kohanim needed a symbol that would amplify their claim as God’s chosen power and authority. No better symbol could be found than a magnificent Mikdash consecrated to God. It was decided the magnificence of this new structure would exceed the Torah’s description of Solomon’s Mikdash. While no physical trace of Solomon’s Mikdash had ever been found, the scale alone of the new Mikdash would leave no doubt of its existence. The only question remaining for the kohanim was how to fund the immense project.
Herod the great had been a builder. Like many leaders throughout history, he was a king who loved the grand structures marking his reign. Even so, it took some effort to convince Herod to expend the necessary money and resources required to build what would become the largest structure in his kingdom, a structure far exceeding the scale of his royal palaces. The agreement was simple, Herod would build the Mikdash to the kohanim specifications; in turn, the kohanim would deliver their followers to unquestioning authority by officially recognizing and sanctioning Herod’s Kingship. Herod would also receive credit for the largest single structure marking his reign; it would hence be known as “Herod’s Mikdash.” The cozy agreement strengthened the power and authority of both parties weakened from the outset by a general lack of recognition and acceptance.
For the two usurping parties, it was a winning agreement all around and they couldn’t have been happier with the deal. Only the people would suffer from the continual demand for the sacrificial tribute that paid for both the Mikdash and its administration. For poor Judeans, the price far exceeded even the grandiose physical dimensions of the Mikdash. It was a price impoverishing people to the point where they cried out in agony and grief for a savior to deliver them from their sins, for it was sin alone that imposed the onerous, sacrificial burdens weighing heavily upon them. What was needed was a savior, a messiah, who would willingly shed his blood as final sacrificial atonement to God’s Mikdash. The Jews gnashed their teeth and rent their garments in anticipation of the savior who would offer himself as the final Paschal lamb.
The immensity of the problem was not lost on the Essene brothers. They dealt daily with the suffering caused by the Mikdash demands. More than once they would hear the refrain, “We work a day to pay the rent, a day to feed our families, a day to pay Rome’s taxes and the rest goes to the Mikdash.” The people were quite literally being bled to death. However, it wasn’t their blood being shed, but the blood of their sacrifice.
By now, other Essene brethren had filtered in form the east, making the journey from their former captivity. These new brothers joining the small monastery, swelled its numbers to the point they became a noted asset to the surrounding communities. Daily, brothers moved in and out of the monastery, sharing all work. Some lived abroad while others maintained the community. As brothers returned from their healing ministrations among the community, they would discuss the joy and grief encountered along the way. Here a son was born, yet there a daughter had been handed over to a kohein in lieu of a sacrifice.
One evening at the communal fire, a brother addressed the others sitting around the circle, twelve in all. “This has gone too far. These Hasmonean thieves are the whores of Babylon. They have written a false account of the law. Their Torah is naught but lies enticing people into a deadly liaison with promises of religious ecstasy. Yet they serve only to deliver ever more misery and suffering to our people. Not only have they stolen our homes. They have driven us from our land! They bleed the very life from our people. They care nothing for the people and less for their suffering. The Mikdash’s corruption is so blatant the kohanim often no longer even attempt hiding their criminal activities.”
The brother took a stick and stirred the remaining coals among the dying embers. “The laws have been written to sanctify their illegal actions and protect them from prosecution. They steal the wealth of the Israelites with their ever-increasing demand for sacrificial tribute, not to mention the vast array of fees for a myriad of useless services. Every jar of wine must be blessed and every blessing requires a fee. The purification services of the mikveh are now reserved for the wealthy, for only they can afford to bathe in those holy waters overseen by the kohanim. Every jot and tittle of their law must be observed, lest onerous penalties be invoked far in excess of any crime. With their wily financial machinations, they steal houses from widows, leaving them destitute.”
The brother carelessly tossed the stick into the fire before continuing. “With no home or family, how many of these women have become prostitutes? Worse, how many have been found dead; how many have died from their grief? How many loved ones have been taken to the sepulcher while still breathing only because a priest pronounced them dead in an effort to extort yet more tribute for imagined sin?”
A tear glistened on the brother’s cheek. “And these are but a few of the horrors these sons of Satan wreak upon the innocent to feed the Mikdash coffers! The kohanim have amassed so much wealth, even Rome and her kings come to them for loans! How much longer will this be allowed? What can be done to alleviate this terrible suffering? There must be a way to end this sacrificial madness. As son of Adam, the first man, we are tasked in finding a way to help our people!”
Another voice replied, speaking slowly and distinctly, “So be it, let seven among us decide what must be done to alleviate the pain and misery of those suffering under Mikdash law.” Seven heard the voice. Yet there hadn’t been a voice, for no one had spoken. The seven nodded once in mutual agreement.
In the following days, these seven met in secret and proposed different ideas for possible solutions. After some deliberation on the matter, all twelve met at the communal fire.
After lengthy meditation, one of the seven rose and spoke. “Here is the design to alleviate the suffering of the Jews. First it has been decided the Mikdash must be destroyed, for anything less will fail to root out kohanim authority. This is made clear by observing their actions in seizing the priesthood and by their close ties to Herod. Furthermore, due to their strength, their system must first be weakened. The only possible way to achieve this is to work within the Mikdash. A priest must be found who is willing and able to challenge their authority with his own. To succeed he must have unquestionable blood ties to the house of David and he must be well versed in both Levirate law and religious customs. He will also be trained in the art of healing as well as the esoteric knowledge of our brotherhood.
A second among the brethren stood and spoke, “The problem is our members are recognized by the usurpers; therefore, an attempt to recruit a priest from their ranks would undoubtedly lead to the discovery of our design and quick destruction. It has been decided that several young women of marriageable age will be chosen from among our families. These women will be trained in the art of seduction. Each will seduce a priest we have chosen as candidates most likely to sire a son. Our brothers working secretly within the Mikdash will research the linage of each candidate to assess this potential. Of those sons born, we will choose the best and brightest. He will be trained intensively for this mission. When the time is right, he will begin his ministry with the brotherhood providing assistance as needed. The brothers and this design will be unknown except to the chosen candidate. The assistance will be provided beyond the sight and knowledge of outsiders. The candidate will appear as one who is sui generis, our hidden support will make his actions appear divine.”
The first spoke again, “Thus, by both teaching and action, our candidate will be perceived as the messiah, the new YHVH of the Jewish people. Of course, the kohanim will be outraged at the claim and never permit him to continue in this role. Again, this will be to our advantage, as we will use their dark hatred and corrupt laws to our own end by turning these things against them. Our kohein shall become the final blood sacrifice, the last paschal lamb. We are aware the Romans have long been at odds with the Mikdash. Rome’s administrators are constantly manipulated by the threat of yet another revolt or general uprising by the kohanim and its militant followers. If anything, the Romans are even more disgusted and sickened by the corruption than our people. Therefore, we will collaborate with the Romans in whatever manner necessary to achieve our ends. Although we will work entirely outside the Mikdash, the system will provide it’s own destruction. We are then, a conspiracy – the conspiracy of man!”
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