The time is the evening of a day in the early autumn of the year 174 b.c. There has been a great festival in Jerusalem. But it has been curiously unlike any festival that one would have expected to be held in that famous city. The people have not been crowding in from the country, and journeying from their far-off places of sojourn among the heathen, to keep one of the great feasts of the Law. Nothing could be further from the thoughts of the crowd that is streaming out of this new building which stands close under the walls of the Temple. What would they who built the Temple some two and a half centuries before have thought of this strange intruder on the sacred precincts? It is not difficult to imagine, for the new erection is nothing more or less than a Circus, built and furnished in the latest Greek fashion, and the spectacle which the crowd has been enjoying, or pretending to enjoy—for it is strange to all, and distasteful to some—is an imitation of the Olympian games. Things then, we see, have been curiously changed. Even the city has almost lost its identity. It is no longer the capital of the Jewish nation, but the chief town of an insignificant province in the Greek kingdom of Syria, one of the fragments into which the great dominion of Alexander had split some hundred and fifty years before. We shall understand something more about this marvellous change if we listen to a conversation that is going on in one of the houses that adjoin the Temple.
"Well, Cleon, you will allow that our little show to-day has been fairly successful. We are but novices, you know; barbarians, I am afraid you will call us. But we hope to improve. You Greeks are wonderful teachers. You can give in a very short time a quite marvellous appearance of refinement to the merest savages. And we are not that; you would not call us savages, my dear friend."
"Savages! The gods forbid that such insolent folly should ever come from my tongue! You have a most elegant taste in art, my dear Jason. Our own Callias—he is our first connoisseur at Athens; you must have heard me mention him—would not disdain to have some of the little things which you have about you here in his own apartment."
And, as he spoke, Cleon looked round the room, which, indeed, was very handsomely furnished in the latest Greek taste. The walls were covered with tapestry, showing on a purple ground a design, worked in silver and gold, which represented the triumphant return of the Wine-god from his Eastern campaigns. At one end of the room stood a sumptuously-carved bookcase, filled with volumes adorned by the most skilful binders of Alexandria. The bookcase was flanked on either side by a pedestal statue, one displaying the head of Hermes, the other the head of Athené. On a sideboard were ranged twelve silver goblets, on which had been worked in high relief the labours of Hercules. But probably the most precious object in the room—at least in its master's estimation—was a replica, about half the size of life, of the statue that we know as the "Dying Gladiator." It was the work of a sculptor of Pergamum, a special favourite of the art-loving dynasty of the Attali. It had been purchased for the enormous sum of half a talent of gold; and Jason had thought himself especially fortunate in being allowed to secure it on any terms. The Pergamene artist was bound, in consideration of the handsome payment which he received from his royal patron, not to execute commissions for strangers, and it was only as a special favour, and not till a heavy bribe had been paid to some influential personage in the court, that the rule had been relaxed in favour of Jason.
And who, it may be asked, was Jason?
Jason was the Jewish high priest, the successor of Aaron, of Eleazar, of Jehoiada, of Hilkiah, and as unlike these worthies of the past in appearance, in speech, in ways of thinking, as it is possible to conceive. His costume, in the first place, was that of a Greek exquisite. He wore a purple tunic, showing at the neck a crimson under-shirt, and gathered up at the waist with a belt of the finest leather, clasped with a design in silver, which showed a dog laying hold of a fawn. His knees were bare, but the shins were covered with silk leggings of the same colour as the tunic, against which the gold fastenings of the sandals showed in gay relief. His hair was elaborately curled, and almost dripping with the richest of Syrian perfumes. The forefinger of the left hand showed the head of Zeus finely carved on an amethyst, that of the right was circled by a sapphire ring with the likeness of Apollo.
His speech was Greek. Hebrew of course he knew, both in its classical and its conversational forms; but he was as careful to conceal his knowledge as an old-fashioned Roman of his time would have been careful to hide the fact, if he had happened to know any language besides his own. His very name, it will have been observed, had been changed to suit the new fashion which he was endeavouring to set to his countrymen. Really it was Joshua—no dishonourable appellation, one would think, seeing that it had been borne by the conqueror of Canaan, and by the most distinguished of the later high priests. But it did not please him, and he had changed it to Jason.
As for his ways of thinking, these will become evident enough if we listen to a little more of his conversation.
"And you think, Cleon," he went on—Cleon was a Greek adventurer who gave himself out as an Athenian, but who was shrewdly suspected of coming from one of the smaller islands of the Ægean—"you think that our games went pretty well?"
"Admirably, my dear Jason," answered the Greek, who really had thought them a deplorable failure, but who valued too much his free quarters in the high priest's sumptuous palace to give a candid expression of his opinion.
"You see we had great difficulties to contend with. You can hardly imagine, for instance, how hard I found it to persuade our young men to run and wrestle naked. They quoted some ridiculous nonsense from the Law, as if we could be bound nowadays by some obsolete old rules that no sensible person would think for a moment of observing. You saw, I dare say, to-day that I was obliged to allow some of them to wear a loin-cloth. They positively refused to come into the arena without it. Well, we shall educate them in time. They must learn to admire the beauty of the human form, unspoilt by any of the trappings with which, for convenience sake, we are accustomed to conceal it. I don't despair of having a school of art here some day—not rivals, my dear Lysias, of your glorious Phidias and Praxiteles, but imitators, humble imitators, whom yet you won't distain to acknowledge."
"But, my dear sir, you forget the Commandment. 'Thou shalt make to thyself any graven image.' "
The speaker was a young man who had hitherto taken no part in the conversation. He also had a Hebrew name and a Greek. His father, a rich priest who claimed descent from no less a person than the prophet Ezekiel, had called him Micah; but he had followed the fashion, and dubbed himself Menander. Still, Greek ways and habits di not sit over-easily upon him. Fashion has often a singular power over the young; but it could not quite drive out the obstinate patriotism of the Jew. He could still sometimes be scandalized at the thorough-going Hellenism of the high priest; and he was so scandalized now. The Commandment was one of the things which he had learnt at his mother's knee, and which he had solemnly repeated when, at the age of twelve, he had been regularly admitted to the privileges of a "son of the Law."
"My dear Menender," broke in the high priest, "what can you be thinking about? I had hoped better things of you. You do discourage me most terribly. 'No graven image or likeness of anything that is in heaven or earth!' Was there ever anything so hopelessly tasteless? Why, this is the one thing that has checked all growth of art among us? And without art where is the beauty of life? Now tell me Menander, did you ever see anything so hideous as the Temple? There is a certain splendour about it—or was, till I had to strip off most of the gold for purposes of state—but of beauty or taste not a scrap. You, Cleon, have never seen the inside of it. Well, you have lost nothing. It would simply shock you after your lovely Parthenon. Bells and pomegranates—things that any moulder could make—and sham columns, and everything as bad as it can be. And then the dresses! You should see—though I should really be ashamed if you did see it—the absurd costume that some of them would make me wear as high priest. Anything more cumbrous and clumsy could not be. A man can hardly move in it; and as for showing any of the proportions of the figure—and I take it that dress is meant to reveal while it seems to hide them—one might as well be wrapped up in swaddling cloths."
"Did you ever wear it?" asked Cleon.
"Once, and once only," answered Jason. "That was on the day when I was admitted to the office. You see it had to be done. Some of my enemies—and I am afraid that I have enemies after all that I have done for this ungrateful people—might have said that things were not regular without it, and when one has paid twenty talents of gold for the office, it would be rank folly to risk it for a trifle. But I have never worn it since, and never mean to again. I did design something much lighter and neater, worthy the Greek fashion, but with just a tinge—it would be well to have a tinge—of our own in it; but it did not please the elders when I showed it to them, a bigoted set of fools!"
"But your worship is very fine, I am told," said the Greek.
"Very tasteless, very tasteless," answered the high-priest, "the singing and music as rude as possible. I tried to improve them when I first came into office. When I was at Antioch I saw some very pretty performances in the groves of Daphne, and I wanted to remodel our ceremonies on something of the same lines. Of course I could not transplant them just as they were: you will guess that there were one or two things that would hardly do here. I am not strait-laced, as you know, but there are limits. However, it all came to nothing. Our people are so clumsy and obstinate. So the only thing will be to let these antiquated ceremonies die out by degrees."
Micah broke in at this point. Disposed as he was to follow Jason's lead, this was going too far. "Surely, my dear sir, if you take away from us all that is distinctive, where will be our reason for existence? After all is said, we are not Greeks and never can be Greeks; and if we cease to be Jews, what are we?"
"Jews! my dear fellow," cried the high-priest, "why do you use the odious word? We are not Jews, we are Antiochenes. Do you know that I paid five talents to the treasurer of Antiochus for license to use the name? For Heaven's sake, let us have our money's worth. By the way," he went on, turning to Cleon, "when does your Olympian festival next take place?"
"In two years' time," said the Greek.
"I propose to send an embassy with a handsome present for your great temple. I should like to establish friendly relations with your people at the head-quarters of your race. Do you think it is possible that our Menon—you saw him in the stadium just now—might be allowed to run? It would take all that your athletes know to beat him."
"Quite impossible. He could hardly make out a Greek pedigree, I suppose?"
"No; he could not do that. But would not money smooth the way?"
"It could not be. Money will do most things with us, as it will elsewhere, but not that. A man must show a pure Greek descent."
"But the embassy can go?"
"Certainly," replied the Greek, with a smile; we are ready to take gifts from any one. But—excuse my obtruding the suggestion—is it quite wise to run counter to your people's prejudices in this way? Couldn't they get up an agitation against you?"
"My dear Cleon, I feel quite easy on that score. I made the highest bid for the place, and it is mine, just as much as this ring is mine."
"But might not some one outbid you? I have heard of such things being done."
"Outbid me? Hardly. I have squeezed the uttermost farthing out of the people to pay the purchase-money and the tribute, and I defy my rivals, with all the best will in the world, to beat me. Why, my fellows, the tax-gatherers, are the most ingenious rascals in the world for putting on the screw. I make them bid against each other when I put the taxes up to auction, and they really go to figures that I should not have thought possible. And then, after all, they manage somehow or other to get a handsome margin of profit for themselves. I know the scoundrels always seem to have a great deal more money than I have."
Menander, somewhat revolted at his friend's levity, rose to take leave. "Stop a moment," said Jason, "I have a little commission for you, which will give you a pleasant outing and a score or two of shekels to put in your pocket."
"Well, the shekels will be welcome. Those are very charming fellows, those Greek friends of yours," he went on, addressing Cleon, "but they have the most confounded luck with the dice that I ever knew. But what is it, sir, that you want me to do?"
"I want to do a civil thing to our friends at Tyre. You know that we do a very brisk trade with them, and a little bit of politeness is never thrown away. Well, next month they have the great games of Hercules, and I want you to take a present to the Governor, and, as you will be there, just a trifle—a silver tripod, or something of the kind—for Hercules himself. The Tyrian people would take it amiss, I fancy, if you went quite empty-handed."
Micah—for at the moment he felt much more like a Micah than a Menander—flushed all over. "I take a present to the idol at Tyre! You must be joking; but, with all respect, sir, it is a joke which I do not appreciate."
"Come, my dear Menander," said the high priest, with a laugh, "why all this fuss? You must excuse me for saying so, but you are really a little stupid this morning. What nonsense to talk about idols! The Greek heroes are really the same as our own. Hercules is nothing more or less than Samson under another name. You will find in every country the legend of some strong man who goes about killing wild beasts and slaying his enemies, and doing all kinds of wonders; and it does not become an enlightened man like yourself to fancy that our hero is anything better than another nation's hero. However, think the matter over. If you don't choose to go there are plenty who will, and Tyre, I am told, is still worth seeing, though, of course, it is nothing like what it was."
At this moment a servant burst somewhat unceremoniously into the room.
"How now, fellow?" cried the high priest, "Where are your manners? Don't you know that I have company and am not to be interrupted?"
"Pardon, my lord," said the man, in a breathless, agitated voice, "but the matter is urgent. Your nephew Asaph is dying, and has sent begging you to come to him."
"Asaph dying!" cried the high priest, turning pale. "How is that?"
Asaph had been one of the performers in the exhibition of the day. A light weight, but an exceedingly active and skilful wrestler, he had entered the lists with a competitor much stronger and heavier than himself. The struggle between the two athletes had been protracted and fierce and had ended in a draw. There had been two bouts, but in neither had this or that antagonist been able to claim a decided success. In each, both wrestlers had fallen, Asaph being uppermost in the first, but underneath in the second. On rising from the ground he had complained of severe internal pains; but these had seemed to pass away, and he had been conveyed in a litter to his mother's house. After a brief interval the pains had returned with increased severity; vomiting of blood had followed, and the physician had declared that the resources of his art were useless. The poor lad—he was but a few months over twenty—sent, in his agony, for his uncle the high priest. It was a forlorn hope—for how could such a man give comfort?—but it was the only one that occurred to him.
No one was more conscious of the incongruity of the task thus imposed upon him, the task of administering consolation and comfort to the dying, than Jason himself. His first impulse was to refuse to go. But to do so would not only cause a scandal, but would also be the beginning of a family feud. And Jason, though selfish and hardened by base ambitions, was not wholly without a heart. He had some affection for his sister, a widow of large means, whose purse was always open to him when he wanted help, and Asaph—or Asius, as he preferred to call him—was his favourite nephew, possibly his successor in his office. He felt that he must go, but it was with a miserable sinking of heart that he felt it.
"Lead on," he said to the slave, "I will follow. You, my friends, must excuse me."
The worldly priest might well have dreaded to enter the house of woe to which he had been called.
The unhappy mother met him at the door. "Oh, Joshua!" she cried, the foolish affectation of the Greek name being forgotten in the hour of trouble. "Can you help us? My dear Asaph is dying, and he is terribly distressed about his sins. You are high-priest. Have you not some power to do him good?"
"Take me to him," said Jason, "I will do all that I can for him."
The unhappy lad was lying on a couch, the deathly pallor of his face showing with a terrible contrast against the rich purple of the coverlet. His eyes were wide open, and there was a terror-stricken look in them that was inexpressibly painful to witness. As soon as he saw his uncle, he burst forth in tones of agonized entreaty. "I have sinned; I have sinned; I have followed in the ways of the heathen, and, see, my God hath called me into judgment. Help me! help me! Save me from the fire of Gehenna! "
The high priest strove to say something; but his faltering lips seemed to refuse to do their office.
"Speak! speak!" cried the young man. "It was you who told me to go into the arena. You said there was no harm in it; you encouraged me, and now you desert me. O help me!" and his voice, which had been raised to a loud, angry cry, sank again to low tones of entreaty. "You are high priest; you surely can do something with the Lord. Pray for me to Him. Quick! quick! the evil ones are clutching at me!" and, as he spoke, he turned his eyes with a fearful glance as if he saw some terrible presence which was invisible to the rest.
His uncle, more unhappy than he had ever been before in his life, stood in dumb despair. It seemed impossible to mock this wretched creature with words in which he did not himself believe. And, indeed, the words themselves seemed to have fled altogether from his memory. At last, with a tremendous effort, he summoned up some of the words, once familiar to his lips, but which had not issued from them for years. It was what we know as the fifty-first Psalm in our psalter that he began—"Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness, according to the multitude of Thy mercies do away mine offences." He began with a faltering and uncertain voice, which gathered strength as he went on. The dying man listened with an eagerly-strained attention, and the words seemed to have some soothing effect upon him. When the speaker came to the words, "Cast me not away from Thy presence," he clasped his hands together. At the very moment of the act a strong convulsion shook his frame: a stream of blood gushed from his mouth; in another moment Asaph was dead.
His unhappy mother had been carried fainting to her apartments, where her maids were endeavouring to restore her to consciousness. The high priest was almost glad that she was in such a state that there could be no question of attempting to administer to her any consolation. No one, indeed, could have felt less like a comforter than he did at that moment. As he walked slowly back to his palace he felt less satisfied with the Greek fashions, for which he had sacrificed the faith of his fathers, than he had done for many years.
The news that he found awaiting him at home changed the current of his thoughts. A letter, carried, in Eastern fashion, by a succession of runners, had arrived from Joppa. It was as follows:
"Josedech, Chief of the Council of Joppa, to Joshua, Governor of Jerusalem.
"Know that a swift pinnace has arrived, bringing news that the fleet of Antiochus the King is on its way hither. It will arrive, unless it be hindered by weather or any other unforeseen cause, on the second day. Let us know so soon as shall be possible how the heathen should be received, whether we shall admit him into the city, and to whom we shall assign the task of entertaining him. Farewell."
Jason's face flushed as he read this curt and not very courteous epistle. "Governor of Jerusalem, indeed!" he muttered to himself. "So the old bigot won't acknowledge me to be high priest. I shall have to give him a lesson, and teach him who he is and who I am. 'How the heathen is to be received.' What is the fool thinking of? As if he could be shut out of the city if he chooses to come in! Well, I see plainly enough that there will be mischief here, if I don't take care. It won't be enough to write. I must send some of my own people to receive the king.
He pressed a hand-bell that stood on the table. "Send the letter-carrier here," he said to the servant who answered the summons. In a few minutes the man appeared.
"When can you start back with my answer?" asked the high priest.
"This instant, my lord, if it should so please you."
"And the other posts are ready?"
"Each at his place, my lord."
"And when will the letter be delivered in Joppa?"
"Let me think," said the messenger. "The distance should be about two hundred and eighty furlongs, and the way descends. 'Tis now scarcely the first hour of the night. I should say that the letter should be there an hour before midnight."
Jason at once sat down and wrote his answer:—
"Jason, the High Priest, to Josedech, Chief of the Council of Joppa, greeting.
I charge you that you do all honour to the most mighty and glorious lord Antiochus. Let him have of the best, both in lodging and entertainment, that your city affords. I doubt not your zeal and goodwill, but that you may not fail for want of knowledge, I will send certain of my own people, who will welcome the most august King in such manner as shall be worthy both of his majesty and of our dignity. Farewell."
The messenger, who had been standing by while this letter was being written, received the document with a salute, and placed it in his girdle. A few minutes afterwards he was on his way.
"And now for the deputation to meet his Highness," said Jason to himself. "I cannot expect them to get off quite so quickly as this good fellow. But they must not start later than noon to-morrow. And now, whom am I to send? Cleon, of course, and Menander——"
He stopped short and reflected. "It's really very hard to find a respectable person who is quite free from bigotry—if, indeed, it is bigotry." For some minutes he seemed lost in thought. "Send the secretary to me," he said, when the servant came. This official soon made his appearance, and we will leave him and his master to settle the details of the deputation.