15 - Zealot Suicide

Once the broad messianic movement of 1st-century Palestine is seen in perspective, and once the apparently diverse sects are seen as integral parts of it, a number of hitherto inexplicable elements and anomalies slip into place. Thus, for example, the apocalyptic and eschatological ferocity of John the Baptist begins to make sense, as does his role in the events recounted by the Gospels.


Thus, too, can one account for a number of theologically awkward passages and incidents pertaining to Jesus' own career. There is, as we have noted, at least one 'Zealot' in his following, and possibly more. There is the violence of his action in overturning the tables of the money-changers at the Temple. There is his execution not by Judaic but by Roman authorities, in a fashion specifically reserved for political offenders. There are numerous other instances, which the authors of this book have examined at length elsewhere.


Finally, there are Jesus' own words:

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth; it is not peace I have come to bring,
but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother...
(Matt. 10:34-5)

And, more tellingly still, in unmistakably Qumranic phraseology:

Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish
but to complete [or fulfill] them... not one dot, not one little stroke shall disappear from the Law
until its purpose is achieved. Therefore the man who infringes even one of the least of these
commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the Kingdom of
Heaven. (Matt. 5:17-19)!

In this passage, it is almost as if Jesus had anticipated Paul's advent. Certainly he could not have warned against it any more specifically. By the standards he lays down, Paul's status in the Kingdom of Heaven cannot be much higher than that of official pariah-in-residence.

Another anomaly that emerges in a fresh light is the fortress of Masada, and the character and mentality of its tenacious defenders. When the Holy Land rose in revolt in AD 66, Masada was one of the first strongholds to be seized - by Menahem, the son or grandson of Judas of Galilee, founder of the 'Zealots'.


Perched high on a sheer-sided mountain overlooking the south-western shore of the Dead Sea, some thirty-three miles below Qumran, the place became the rebels' most important bastion, the supreme symbol and embodiment of resistance. Long after that resistance had collapsed elsewhere, Masada continued to hold out. Jerusalem, for example, was occupied and razed within two years of the insurrection's outbreak - in AD 68. Masada remained impregnable, however, until AD 74.


From within its walls, some 960 defenders withstood repeated assaults and a full-scale siege by a Roman army estimated to have numbered fifteen thousand.

Despite the tenacity of this resistance, Masada's position, by the middle of April AD 74, had become hopeless. Cut off from reinforcement, entirely encircled by Roman troops, the garrison no longer had any prospect of withstanding a general assault. The besieging Romans, after bombarding the fortress with heavy siege machinery, had constructed an immense ramp running up the mountainside and, on the night of 15 April, prepared for their final onslaught.


The garrison, under the command of Eleazar ben Jair, came to their own decision. The men killed their wives and children. Ten men were then chosen to kill their comrades. Having done so, they proceeded to draw lots, choosing one to dispatch the remaining nine. After he had performed this task, he set fire to what remained of the buildings in the fortress and killed himself.


Altogether, 960 men, women and children perished. When the Romans burst through the gate the following morning, they found only corpses amid the ruins.

Two women and five children escaped the carnage, supposedly having hidden in the water conduits under the fortress while the rest of the garrison killed themselves. Josephus recounts the testimony of one of the women - drawing, he says, on her interrogation by Roman officers.2 According to Josephus, she furnished a detailed account of what transpired on the last night of the siege.


If this account is to be believed (and there is no reason why it shouldn't), Eleazar, the commander of the fortress, exhorted his followers to their mass suicide by his charismatic and persuasive eloquence:

Ever since primitive man began to think, the words of our ancestors and of the gods, supported by
the actions and spirits of our forefathers, have constantly impressed on us that life is the calamity
for man, not death. Death gives freedom to our souls and lets them depart to their own pure home
where they will know nothing of any calamity; but while they are confined within a mortal body
and share its miseries, in strict truth they are dead.

For association of the divine with the mortal is most improper. Certainly the soul can do a
great deal when imprisoned in the body; it makes the body its own organ of sense, moving it
invisibly and impelling it in its actions further than mortal nature can reach. But when, freed from
the weight that drags it down to earth and is hung about it, the soul returns to its own place, then in
truth it partakes of a blessed power and an utterly unfettered strength, remaining as invisible to
human eyes as God himself. Not even while it is in the body can it be viewed; it enters
undetected and departs unseen, having itself one imperishable nature, but causing a change in the
body; for whatever the soul touches lives and blossoms, whatever it deserts withers and dies: such
is the superabundance it has of immortality.3

According to Josephus, Eleazar concludes:

'Let us die unenslaved by our enemies, and leave this world as free men in company with our wives and children. That is what the Law ordains.'4

On occasion, Josephus is unreliable. When he is so, however, it shows. In this instance, there is certainly no reason to doubt his word; and the excavations of Masada conducted in the 1960s tend to support his version of events. It is, of course, probable that he embellished Eleazar's speeches somewhat, making them perhaps more eloquent (and long-winded) than they might actually have been, availing himself of some poetic license.


But the general tenor of the narrative rings true, and has always been accepted by historians. What is more, Josephus had a unique and first-hand understanding of the mentality that dictated the mass suicide at Masada. At the beginning of the revolt, he himself had been a rebel commander in Galilee. In AD 67, his forces were besieged by the Romans under Vespasian at Jotapata - now Yodefat, near Sepphoris.


When the town fell, many of its defenders committed suicide rather than submit to capture. Many others, including Josephus himself, fled and hid in caves. According to his own account, he found himself in one cave with forty other fugitives. Here, as at Masada, lots were drawn as to who would kill his comrades. Whether 'by chance', as Josephus suggests, or by 'the providence of God', or perhaps by a fiddle which aided and abetted one or the other, he and another man ended up as the sole survivors.


Persuading his companion to surrender, he then himself defected to the victorious Romans.5 He does not emerge from the adventure in any very creditable light, of course. But even if he himself could not live up to them, he was no stranger to 'Zealot' attitudes, including their preparedness for self-immolation in the name of the Law.

In reality, there was a fairly sophisticated logic governing such self-immolation, which would not have been readily apparent to Josephus' readers, either at the time or subsequently. The mass suicides at Masada, at Gamala and at other sites are explained by Eisenman as resting ultimately on the uniquely 'Zealot' concept of resurrection. This concept derived primarily from two Old Testament prophets, Daniel and Ezekiel, both of whose texts were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran.


Daniel (Daniel 12:2) was the first to give expression to the concept in any developed form:

'Of those who lie sleeping in the dust of the earth many will awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace.'

He speaks, too, of an imminent 'Kingdom of Heaven', and of 'End Times', of the 'coming of an anointed Prince', of a 'Son of Man' on whom 'was conferred sovereignty' (Daniel 7:13-14).

In Ezekiel, the relevant passage is the famous vision of a valley filled with dry bones, all of which, God announces, will live again:

I mean to raise you from your graves... and lead you back to the soil of Israel. And you will
know that I am Yahweh, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves... And I shall
put my spirit in you, and you will live...' (Ezekiel 37:12-14)

So important was this passage deemed to be that a copy of it was found buried under the floor of the synagogue at Masada.6

The concept of resurrection derived from Daniel and Ezekiel was picked up and adopted by the original 'zealots for the Law', the Maccabees. Thus, in the second book of Maccabees, it is used to encourage martyrdom for the sake of the Law. In 2 Maccabees 14:42, an Elder of Jerusalem kills himself rather than be captured and suffer outrages.


In 2 Maccabees 6:18ff., a priest and teacher of the Law kills himself as an 'example of how to make a good death... for the venerable and holy laws'. This incident, according to Eisenman, is the prototype for the establishment of later Zealot mentality.


The principle finds its fullest expression in 2 Maccabees 7, where seven brothers submit to death by torture rather than transgress the Law:

Said one brother, '... you may discharge us from this present life, but the king of the world will
raise us up, since it is for his laws that we die, to live again for ever.'

Another said, 'It was heaven that gave me these limbs; for the sake of his laws I disdain them;
from him I hope to receive them again.'

The next said to his tormentors, 'Ours is the better choice, to meet death at men's hands, yet
relying on God's promise that we shall be raised up by him; whereas for you... there can be no
resurrection, no new life.'

Here then, in the pre-Christian book of Maccabees, is the principle of bodily resurrection that will figure so prominently in later Christian theology. It is available, however, as the third of the above speeches makes clear, only to the righteous, to those 'zealous for the Law'.

But there is another point of relevance in the passage devoted to the death of the seven brothers. Just before the last of them is to be executed, his mother is brought in to see him. She has been urged to plead with him to submit and thereby save himself. Instead, she says to him that 'in the day of mercy I may receive you back in your brothers' company' (2 Mace. 7:29).


At the end of time, those who die together will be resurrected together. Thus Eleazar, in his exhortation to the garrison of Masada, urges them to die 'in company with our wives and children. That is what the Law ordains.' Not the Law of the 'Sadducee' establishment or of later Judaism - only the Law of the so-called 'Zealots'. Had the women and children in the fortress been left alive, they would not have been exterminated by the victorious Romans. But they would have been separated from their menfolk and from each other.


And many of them would have been enslaved, raped, consigned to Roman army brothels and thereby defiled, bereft of their ritual purity according to the Law. At Masada, separation and defilement were feared more than death, since death, for the 'Righteous', would have been only temporary. Here then, among the ferocious defenders of Masada, is a principle of bodily resurrection virtually identical to that of later Christianity.

The garrison who defended Masada can hardly be reconciled with traditional images of placid, peace-loving Essenes - who, according to adherents of the consensus, made up the community at Qumran.


And indeed, as we have noted, adherents of the consensus continue to insist that no connection can possibly have existed between the Qumran community and the garrison at Masada, despite the discovery at Masada of texts identical to some of those found at Qumran - found at Qumran and, in at least two instances, found nowhere else - and despite the use by the defenders of Masada of precisely the same calendar as that used by the Qumran material: a unique solar calendar, in contrast to the lunar calendar of the official 'Sadducee' establishment and of later rabbinical Judaism.

Once again, there can be discerned the configuration of what Eisenman has described: a broad messianic nationalistic movement in which a number of supposed factions, if there was ever any distinction between them, effectively merged. Eisenman's explanation accommodates and accounts for what has previously seemed a welter of contradictions and anomalies. It makes sense, too, of the mission on which Paul is dispatched by James and the hierarchy of the so-called 'early Church' - the 'Nazorean' enclave - in Jerusalem. In biblical times, it must be remembered, 'Israel' was not just a territory, not just a particular tract of land.


Even more important, 'Israel' denoted a people, a tribe, a 'host'.


When Paul and other 'evangelists' are sent forth by the hierarchy in Jerusalem, their purpose is to make converts to the Law - that is, to 'Israel'. What would this have meant in practical terms, if not the recruitment of an army? Since Old Testament times, and especially since the 'Babylonian Captivity', the 'tribe of Israel' had been scattered across the Mediterranean world and beyond, on into Persia - where, at the time of Simeon bar Kochba's rising in AD 132, there was still enough sympathy to elicit at least a promise of support.


Were not the emissaries of the Jerusalem hierarchy sent to tap this potentially immense source of manpower - to 'call to the colors' the dispersed people of 'Israel' to drive the Roman invaders from their native soil and liberate their homeland? And Paul, in preaching a wholly new religion rather than mustering recruits, was, in effect, depoliticizing, demilitarizing and emasculating the movement.7


This would, of course, have been a far more serious matter than merely lapsing from dogma or certain ritual observances. It would have been, in fact, a form of treason. For the Law, as it figures in the Dead Sea Scrolls, is not wholly confined to dogma and ritual observances. Running throughout the Qumran texts, as a sacred duty, there is clearly a thrust to build a legitimate messianic persona, whether royal, or priestly, or both. By implication, this would involve the re-establishment of the ancient monarchy and priesthood, to drive out the invader, to reclaim and purify the Holy Land for the people chosen by God to inhabit it.


In the words of the 'War Scroll':

'The dominion of the [invaders] shall come to an end... the sons of righteousness shall shine over all the ends of the earth. '8

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