The Darkness Thickens
Azariah had read the signs of the times aright. The darker days had come, days so full of trouble that the unhappy people looked back to the past that had seemed so sad and gloomy as to a time of rest. Things had not been going well with King Antiochus, for the Romans had driven him out of Egypt, and in his rage and fear he turned against his Jewish subjects with greater ferocity than ever. One of his motives was the brutal desire to wreak upon the feeble the vengeance which he could not exact from the strong; the other was a genuine fear lest he should lose another province as he had already lost Egypt. He saw that the policy of Rome was to stir up against him the national spirit of subject peoples, and he knew well enough that in the Jews, crushed though they had been by oppression and massacre, this national spirit was not by any means dead. Accordingly he set himself with relentless ferocity to extinguish it. Everything distinctive of the people was to be rooted out; that done they might become really submissive; there would be no more a land of the Jews, but simply a province of Southern Syria.
The first thing, he conceived, would be to strike such terror into the hearts of the people that there should be no thought among them of resistance. For such a purpose nothing could be more effective than another massacre such as that which had already been perpetrated two years before under his own eyes: only this, he determined, should be more complete. He perceived with a devilish ingenuity that his orders would be more relentlessly carried out if he entrusted their execution to some one else, than if he were personally present. Appeals might be made to him to which he might yield out of sheer weariness, whereas a lieutenant, if he were only hard-hearted enough, would simply fall back upon the orders which he had received, and refuse all responsibility save that of seeing that these were fully carried out.
Such a lieutenant he knew that he possessed in the person of a certain Apollonius, a Cretan mercenary, who had already given proofs enough that he was about as little troubled as any man could be with a conscience or with feelings of compassion. To Apollonius, accordingly, the commission was entrusted, and he proceeded to execute it in a particularly brutal and treacherous way.
He marched to Jerusalem, taking with him a picked force of some five thousand men—picked, it may be said, quite as much for their unscrupulous and ferocious character, as for their strength and skill in arms. There would have been, in any case, little chance of resistance, but, to make his task the easier of accomplishment, he had so timed his coming that he approached the city two or three hours before the end of the Sabbath. Secret orders had been sent to Philip, the Phrygian, that he was to relax the severity of his rule; and the people had begun to breathe again after a long period of repression. The Temple was still shut, or virtually shut, but the synagogues were open, and were indeed frequented by throngs of fervent worshippers.
It wanted a couple of hours to sunset when the news ran through the city that an armed force was approaching the walls. The first feeling aroused by the tidings was naturally one of alarm. The appearance of the soldiers, however, was such as to disarm all apprehensions. In the first place they were more like a crowd of men who happened to be carrying arms than an army. They were not marching in ranks, or indeed keeping any kind of order. A multitude of country-folk could be seen mingled among them, soldiers and civilians walking side by side in the most friendly and unconstrained fashion. Some of the new comers recognized old acquaintances among the townsfolk, and introduced their comrades to them; and though some of the sterner sort stood rigidly aloof, there were quite enough among the inhabitants of Jerusalem to give the visitors a general welcome. Apollonius himself, a conspicuous figure as he rode on his white charger up and down the streets of the city, was noticeably busy in renewing old acquaintanceships and making new ones.
And then in a moment the whole scene was changed. A soldier and a citizen were standing on the wall, talking and laughing together, and that in a place where they could be seen by all observers. Suddenly, without there having been even the slightest sign of a quarrel, the soldier was seen to plunge his sword into the side of his companion. It was a preconcerted signal. The wretched inhabitants, who would have been defenceless in any case, were taken absolutely off their guard, and had but slender chances of escape. How many hundreds, possibly thousands, perished cannot be guessed. But the massacre was more general, more pitiless than that which had devastated the city two years before. Apollonius's "picked" men showed themselves altogether worthy of his choice, so brutal and bloodthirsty were they. And Apollonius himself was to be seen everywhere urging his men to make short work with these "pestilent Jews," as he called them, and not unfrequently striking a blow himself. He earned on that day such hatred that thereafter there was not to be found a Jew, save among the vilest renegades and traitors, but uttered a curse when his name was mentioned.
Of course the soldiers had to be paid for their bloody day's work, and they were paid by the plunder of the city. The houses were stripped, and the plunderers, when they had carried away everything that had roused their cupidity, often, out of sheer wantonness, completed the work of devastation, by setting fire to the desolated houses. Altogether Jerusalem presented such a spectacle as had not been seen since the days of the Babylonian conquest.
The spirit of the people having been, as it would seem, thus effectually broken for the present, it remained to provide against its possible revival in the future.
Long gaps were made in the line of wall, so long that it took not a few days to make them, and would certainly require as many weeks to repair. The town thus made defenceless was further overawed by the erection of a fort in the City of David, this fort being held by a strong garrison of Greeks and Asiatic mercenaries.
The means of repression thus provided, the next thing was to extinguish all that was characteristic of the national life. First, the great centre of that life, the Temple, was formally desecrated. Already it had been subjected to such indignities that the pious Jew could scarcely bear to enter its precincts. But the final horror, the "abomination of desolation," was yet to come. On the 15th of the month Chisleu (December) an altar of a Greek pattern, and consecrated to the Olympian Zeus, was placed on the great altar of sacrifice, and ten days afterwards a huge sow was slaughtered on this. Her blood, caught after the Greek fashion in a bowl, was sprinkled on the altar of incense and on the mercy-seat within the Holy of Holies—a hideous mockery of the sprinkling which the Law enjoined to be performed once in every year. From the animal's flesh a mess of broth was prepared, and this was sprinkled on the copies of the Law. The Temple, thus dishonoured, was as if it had ceased to be.
The meeting-houses, in which, as we have seen, the people had found a substitute for the Temple worship, were summarily closed. An edict was issued commanding that every one who possessed a copy of the Law, or of any one of the sacred books, should give it up without loss of time. To call in cupidity to the aid of fear in enforcing this edict, the King's officers were instructed to pay a reasonable price for the manuscripts thus produced. It was made a capital offence to read or to recite any part of the proscribed writings. Then the practice of circumcision was forbidden. Death was to be the penalty for all who should take any part in performing this rite—for the circumciser, the mother, the father, even the babe itself.
And then to the policy of repression Antiochus added the policy of bribery and temptation. Their own worship forbidden, the Jews were to be allured by the seductions of the worship of their masters. Hitherto little had been done in this way. Insults indeed, had been heaped upon the people; but little attempt had been made to attract them. The Temple gates, closed for more than a year, were again thrown open; and the courts, long silent, resounded with the mirth of sacrificial banquets and the gaiety of festivals. Not only all the splendours, but all the impure pleasures of heathen worship were called in to assist the attempt that was being made to sap what was left of the faith of the people.
Antiochus, who, for all his wrath at Jewish obstinacy, could not help feeling a certain respect for it, took the trouble to send among the people a missionary, if he may be so called, who was to instruct them in the new religion which their King was so anxious to impose upon them.
Theopompus, or Athenæus, to use the name which was commonly given him from his birthplace, was a follower of the philosophy of Epicurus. He had held a subordinate post, as lecturer in geometry, in the famous school of the Garden, but had found his modest income insufficient to meet his somewhat expensive tastes. If he had had but a tolerable competence, Athenæus would have made an ideal Epicurean. He was devoted to pleasure, but there was nothing unseemly or extravagant about his devotion. For the foolish people who ruined their constitutions and emptied their purses by exhausting excesses he had a genuine contempt. "Give me," he would say, "a decent sufficiency of 'outside things,' and I am content." As he had a fair smattering of culture, and a real acquaintance with geometry, and had a venerable appearance which happily hit the mean between hilarity and austerity, he might have been, but for a chronic want of money, a real success among the somewhat dilettante philosophers of Athens. But circumstances were against him. Poverty did not ill become an Academic, and positively set off a Stoic; but an Epicurean seemed to have missed his vocation if he could not be always handsomely dressed and able to give elegant entertainments to his friends. Athenæus, who liked above all things to be on good terms both with himself and with every one else, felt this very acutely, and he was proportionately delighted when the Syrian King proposed to him that he should go as a teacher, not without a handsome salary, of Greek religion and Greek culture.
His success was not encouraging. In the first place he had a difficulty in making himself understood. The pure Attic Greek on which he prided himself was strange to the ears of his new audience, and he could not bring himself to descend to the barbarous dialect to which they were accustomed. And when he was seriously called to account in the matter of his belief he found himself involved in difficulties from which he saw no way of escape. At Athens religion was politely ignored. The common people must, of course, have their gods and goddesses; and the wise man, if he were prudent, would say nothing—anyhow in public—to disturb their belief; but within the privileged walls of the schools the names of Zeus and Athené and Apollo were never so much as mentioned, except, perhaps, in the course of some antiquarian discussion.
Among his new disciples, as he would fain have reckoned them, Athenæus found a very different temper. They were terribly in earnest; abstractions and phrases did not satisfy them; they pushed their questions home in a very perplexing way.
One day at the conclusion of a lecture, the customary invitation to the audience to put any questions that might occur to them was accepted by a young man who sat on one of the front benches.
"I would ask you, venerable sir," he said, "some questions about the gods of your religion."
"Speak on," replied Athenæus, with his usual courtesy; "I shall be delighted to satisfy you to the best of my power."
"Are we to believe the stories that are told us in this book?" and he held up, as he spoke, a little volume of popular mythology, filled from beginning to end with tales that, to say the least, were not edifying. "For, if these be true, these divine beings were such as would be banished from the society of all honest men and women. They are thieves, adulterers, murderers. It would be a thousand times better to have no gods at all than such as these."
"You are right, sir," said the lecturer; "these stories are for the ignorant only, at least in their outward meaning, though they have an inner meaning also, which I will take some fitting occasion to expound. But not such are the gods whom we worship."
"Will you tell us something of them?" continued the questioner.
"Willingly, for they are such that the wisest of men need not be ashamed of them. They dwell in some remote region, serene and happy. Wrath they feel not, nor sorrow, nor any of the passions that disturb the souls of men."
"And do they care for our doings upon earth?"
"How so? They neither love nor hate; and both they must do, I take it, did they concern themselves with human affairs."
"What profit, then, is there in them? How are men the better for their being?"
"That I know not; only that it is part of the order of things that they must be."
"Far be it from me," exclaimed the young Jew, "to exchange for such idle existences the God of my fathers! He may smite us in His anger till we are well-nigh consumed, but at least He cares for us. He led our fathers through the sea and through the wilderness in the days of old. He has spoken to us by the prophets, and He has made His Presence to be seen in His Temple; and though He has hidden His face from us for a time, yet He will repent Him of His wrath, and devise the means by which He shall recall His banished unto Him. No, we will not change our God for yours!"
A loud murmur of assent went round the benches when the speaker sat down, and Athenæus felt that he had made but small way with his audience.
Finding his theology and philosophy but ill received, Athenæus bethought him of what seemed a more hopeful method of proselytizing. Could not a specially powerful attraction be found in the festival of Dionysus, the wine-god? Vintage feasts, he reflected, are common to every country where wine is produced, and it would not be difficult to ingraft the Greek characteristics on a celebration to which the Jews were already accustomed. Some of the less scrupulous might be tempted to take part in such a festival, a beginning would be made, and more would follow in due time. How the scheme prospered will be told in the next chapter.