This is the first chapter of Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, to be published next week. Aslan, a contributing editor of LARB, will be appearing at a benefit for LARB on July 25, his only Los Angeles public appearance on this book tour. Details here.
THE WAR WITH ROME begins not with a clang of swords but with the lick of a dagger, drawn from an assassin’s cloak.
Festival season in Jerusalem: a time when Jews from across the Mediterranean converge upon the holy city bearing fragrant offerings to God. There are in the ancient Jewish cult a host of observances and celebrations that can only be performed here, inside the Temple of Jerusalem and in the presence of the High Priest, who hoards the most sacred feast-days — Passover, Pentecost, the harvest festival of Sukkot — for himself, all the while pocketing a healthy fee, or tithe, as he would call it, for the trouble. And what trouble it is! On such days the city’s population can swell to more than a million people. It takes the full force of the porters and lower priests to squeeze the crush of pilgrims through the Hulda Gates at the Temple’s southern wall, to herd them along the dark and cavernous galleries beneath the Temple plaza, and guide them up the double flight of stairs that lead to the public square and marketplace known as the Court of Gentiles.
The Temple of Jerusalem is a roughly rectangular structure, some 500 meters long and 300 meters wide, balanced atop Mount Moriah, on the eastern edge of the holy city. Its outer walls are rimmed with covered porticos whose slab-topped roofs, held up by row after row of glittering white-stone columns, protect the masses from the merciless sun. On the Temple’s southern flank sits the largest and most ornate of the porticoes, the Royal Portico — a tall, two-story, basilica-like assembly hall built in the customary Roman style. This is the administrative quarters of the Sanhedrin, the supreme judicial council of the Jewish nation. It is also where a clatter of merchants and grubby moneychangers lie in wait as you make your way up the underground stairs and onto the spacious sunlit plaza.
The moneychangers play a vital role in the Temple. For a fee, they will exchange your foul foreign coins for the Hebrew shekel, the only currency permitted by the Temple authorities. The moneychangers will also collect the half-shekel Temple tax that all adult males must pay to preserve the pomp and spectacle of all that you see around you: the mountains of burning incense and the ceaseless sacrifices; the wine libations and the first fruits offering; the Levite choir belting out psalms of praise and the accompanying orchestra thrumming lyres and banging cymbals. Someone must pay for these necessities. Someone must bear the cost of the burnt offerings that so please the Lord.
With the new currency in hand, you are now free to peruse the pens lining the periphery walls to purchase your sacrifice: a pigeon, a sheep — it depends on the depth of your purse, or the depths of your sins. If the latter transcends the former, do not despair. The moneychangers are happy to offer the credit you need to enhance your sacrifice. There is a strict legal code regulating the animals that can be purchased for the blessed occasion. They have to be free of blemish. Domesticated, not wild. They cannot be beasts of burden. Whether ox or bull or ram or sheep, they must have been reared for this purpose alone. They are not cheap. Why should they be? The sacrifice is the Temple’s primary ritual. It is the very purpose of the Temple. The songs, the prayers, the readings — every ritual that takes place here arose in service of this singular and most vital ritual. The blood libation not only wipes away your sins, it cleanses the earth. It feeds the earth, renewing and sustaining it, protecting us all from drought or famine or worse. The cycle of life and death that the Lord in his omnificence has decreed is wholly dependent upon your sacrifice. This is not the time for thrift.
So then, purchase your offering, and make it a good one. Pass it on to any of the white-robed priests roaming the Temple plaza. They are the descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses, responsible for maintaining the Temple’s daily rituals: the burning of incense, the lighting of lamps, the sounding of the trumpets, and, of course, the sacrificial offerings. The priesthood is a hereditary position, but there is no shortage of them, certainly not during festival season, when they arrive in droves from distant lands to assist in the festivities. They cram the Temple in 24 hourly shifts to ensure the fires of sacrifice are kept aflame night and day.
The Temple is constructed as a series of tiered courtyards, each smaller, more elevated, and more restrictive than the last. The outermost courtyard, the Court of Gentiles, where you purchased your sacrifice, is a broad piazza open to everyone, regardless of race or religion. If you are a Jew — one free of any physical affliction (no lepers, no paralytics) and properly purified by a ritual bath — you may follow the priest with your offering through a stone-lattice fence and proceed into the next courtyard, the Court of Women (a plaque on the fence warns all others to proceed no further than the outer court on pain of death). Here is where the wood and oil for the sacrifices are stored. It is also the furthest into the Temple that any Jewish woman may proceed; Jewish men may continue up a small, semi-circular flight of stairs through the Nicanor Gate and into The Court of Israelites.
This is as close as you will ever be to the presence of God. Now, the stink of carnage is impossible to ignore. It clings to the skin, the hair, becoming a noisome burden you will not soon shake off. The priests burn incense to ward off the fetor and disease, but the mixture of myrrh and cinnamon, saffron and frankincense cannot mask the insufferable stench of slaughter. Still, it is important to stay where you are and witness your sacrifice take place in the next courtyard, the Court of the Priests. Entry into this court is permitted solely to the priests and Temple officials, for this is where the Temple’s altar stands: a four-horned pedestal made of bronze and wood — five cubits long, five cubits wide — bellowing thick, black clouds of smoke into the air.
The priest takes your sacrifice to a corner and cleanses himself in a nearby basin. Then, with a simple prayer, he slits the animal’s throat. An assistant collects the blood in a bowl to sprinkle on the four horned corners of the altar, while the priest carefully disembowels and dismembers the carcass. The animal’s hide is his to keep; it will proffer a handsome price in the marketplace. The entrails and the fatty tissue are torn out of the body, carried up a ramp to the altar, and placed directly atop the eternal fire. The meat of the beast is carved away carefully and put to the side for the priests to feast upon after the ceremony.
The entire liturgy is performed in front of the Temple’s innermost court, the Holy of Holies — a gold-plated, columnar sanctuary at the very heart of the Temple complex. The Holy of Holies is the highest point in all of Jerusalem. Its doors are draped in purple and scarlet tapestries embroidered with a Zodiac wheel and a panorama of the heavens. This is where the glory of God physically dwells. It is the meeting point between the earthly and heavenly realms: the center of all creation. The Ark of the Covenant was once stored here, but it was lost long ago. There is now nothing inside the sanctuary. It is a vast, empty space that serves as a conduit for the presence of God, channeling his divine spirit from the heavens, flowing it out in concentric waves across the Temple’s chambers, through the Court of the Priests and the Court of Israelites, the Court of Women and the Court of Gentiles, over the Temple’s porticoed walls and down into the city of Jerusalem, across the Judean countryside, to Samaria and Idumea, Peraea and Galilee, through the boundless empire of mighty Rome, and onto the rest of the world, to all peoples and nations, all of them — Jew and Gentile alike — nourished and sustained by the spirit of the Lord of Creation, a spirit that has one sole source and no other: the inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, tucked within the Temple, in the sacred city of Jerusalem.
Entrance to the Holy of Holies is barred to all save the High Priest, who at this time, 56 CE, is a young man named Jonathan son of Ananus. Like most of his recent predecessors, Jonathan purchased his office directly from Rome, and for a hefty price, no doubt. The office of High Priest is a lucrative one, limited to a handful of noble families who pass the position between them like a legacy (the lower priests generally come from more modest backgrounds).
The role of the Temple in Jewish life cannot be overstated. The Temple serves as calendar and clock for the Jews; its rituals mark the cycle of the year and shape the day-to-day activities of every inhabitant in Jerusalem. It is Judea’s chief financial institution and its largest bank — the center of commerce in all Judea. The Temple is as much the dwelling-place of Israel’s God as it is the seat of Israel’s nationalist aspirations; it not only houses the sacred writings and scrolls of law that maintain the Jewish cult, it is the main repository for the legal documents, historical notes, and genealogical records of the Jewish nation.
Unlike their heathen neighbors the Jews do not have a multiplicity of temples scattered across the land. There is only one cultic center, one unique source for the divine presence, one singular place and no other that a Jew can commune with the living God. Judea is, for all intents and purposes, a Temple-State. The very term “theocracy” was coined specifically to describe Jerusalem. “Some people have entrusted the supreme political powers to monarchies,” wrote the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, “others to oligarchies, yet others to the masses [democracy]. Our lawgiver, however, was attracted by none of these forms of polity, but gave to his constitution the form of what — if a forced expression be permitted — may be termed a ‘theocracy’ [theokratia], placing all sovereignty and authority in the hands of God.”
Think of the Temple as a kind of feudal state, employing thousands of priests, singers, porters, servants, and ministers, while maintaining vast tracks of fertile land tilled by Temple slaves on behalf of the High Priest and to his benefit. Add to this the revenue raked in by the Temple tax and the constant stream of gifts and offerings from visitors and pilgrims — not to mention the huge sums that pass through the hands of the merchants and moneychangers, from which the Temple takes a cut — and it is easy to see why so many Jews view the entire priestly nobility, and the High Priest in particular, as nothing but a band of avaricious “lovers of luxury,” to quote Josephus.
Picture the High Priest Jonathan standing at the altar, incense smoldering in his hand, and it is easy to see where this enmity comes from. Even his priestly garments, passed down to him by his wealthy predecessors, attest to the High Priest’s opulence. The long, sleeveless robe died purple (the color of kings) and fringed with dainty tassels and tiny golden bells sown to the hem; the hefty breastplate, speckled with twelve precious gems, one for each of the tribes of Israel; the immaculate turban sitting atop his head like a tiara, fronted by a gold plate on which is engraved the unutterable name of God; the Urim and Thummim, a sort of sacred dice made of wood and bone that the High Priest carries in a pouch near his breast and through which he reveals the will of God by casting lots — all of these symbols of ostentation are meant to represent the High Priest’s exclusive access to God. They are what makes the High Priest different, what sets him apart from every other Jew in the world.
It is for this reason that only the High Priest can enter the Holy of Holies, and only on one day a year, Yom Kippur, “The Day of Atonement,” when all the sins of Israel are wiped clean. On this day, the High Priest comes into the presence of God to atone for the whole nation. If he is worthy of God’s blessing, Israel’s sins are forgiven. If he is not, a rope tied to his waist ensures that, when God strikes him dead, he can be dragged out of the Holy of Holies without anyone else defiling the sanctuary.
Of course, on this day, the High Priest does die, though not, it would seem, by the hand of God.
The priestly blessings complete and the shema sung (“Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”), the High Priest Jonathan steps away from the altar and walks down the ramp into the Temple’s outer courts. The moment he arrives at the Court of Gentiles he is swallowed up by a frenzy of exaltation. The Temple guards form a barrier of purity around him, protecting the High Priest from the contaminating hands of the people. Yet it is easy for the assassin to track him. He does not need to follow the blinding glare of his bejeweled vestments. He only need listen for the jingle of the bells dangling from the hem of his robes. The peculiar melody is the surest sign that the High Priest is coming. The High Priest is near.
The assassin elbows through the crowd, pushing close enough to Jonathan to reach out an invisible hand, to grasp the sacred vestments, to pull him back away from the Temple guards and hold him in place, just for an instant, long enough to unsheathe a short dagger and slide it across his throat. A different sort of sacrifice.
Before the High Priest’s blood spills onto the Temple floor, before the guards can react to the broken rhythm of his stride, before anyone in the courtyard knows what has happened, the assassin has already melted back into the crowd.
You should not be surprised if he is the first to cry, “Murder!”