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William Shepard

The Zealots

No sooner had John set foot in Jerusalem than the whole population poured forth in crowds and surrounded the several fugitives, eagerly inquiring what calamities had happened without. The heat and broken breathing of John's party showed that they had come at a very quick pace. But still they put on a blustering air, and said that they had not fled from the Romans, but had come to defend the capital, not thinking it worth while to risk their valuable lives in defence of a little place like Gischala.

When, however, they related the fall of Gischala, it became evident to many that their retreat was no better than a flight; and when they heard the awful details of massacre and captivity, they foreboded the fate that would overtake themselves.

John, however, put on a bold air, and went about inciting the multitude to warlike measures, setting forth in false colors the weakness of the Romans, and saying that even had the Romans wings like birds, they could never surmount the ramparts of the capital; that they already had had trouble enough in subduing the villages of Galilee, and could never take so strong a city as Jerusalem.

The young men eagerly believed him, and were easily incited to take up arms, but the old and prudent men mourned over the prospect of the future. The metropolis now began to be divided into two hostile factions,—one desirous of peace and submission to the Romans, the other desirous of war.

The whole province, indeed, was torn by civil dissension, and everywhere, in every city, the peace party and the war party fought for the supremacy. Whenever the people had time to breathe from the assaults of the Romans, they turned their swords upon each other. Every family was divided against itself.

In the country, bands of brigands collected, and robbed and ravaged the district. The Roman garrisons in the different towns looked on in indifference, and let the people fight it out among themselves, affording no relief to the distressed and those who desired peace.

At last the brigands, satiated with pillage, collected together in one band, and crept into Jerusalem; for this city, according to ancient custom, received all people of Jewish blood. These robbers were a useless burden to Jerusalem, for they consumed those supplies which might have long supported the garrison, and brought upon the people the miseries of sedition and famine.

The different bands of robbers joined together formed a powerful faction, and soon began to exercise their old calling. They grew so bold that they committed robberies and murders in the open daylight; and, wishing to become masters of the city, they slew some of the most distinguished citizens.

Their first victim was Antipas, a man of royal birth, and the treasurer of the city. They seized him and detained him in custody, and then in like manner arrested a number of leading men. The people looked on in dismay, but refrained from interference, each one fearing for his own personal safety.

As the brigands feared that an attempt might be made to rescue the prisoners, they decreed that they should be put to death, and sent one of their number, called John, a desperate villain, with ten men into the prison to execute their orders. John and his band accordingly despatched those in custody. As an excuse for this atrocious act they pretended that the prisoners had held conferences with the Romans to treat about a surrender of Jerusalem; and they gave out that they had slain the betrayers of their liberty. In fact, they gloried in their wicked deeds, as if they had been the benefactors and preservers of the city.

Finding that the people were thoroughly cowed beneath their sway, these robbers took a step even more daring. They assumed authority to appoint to the high-priesthood. Accordingly, they annulled the right of those families from which by succession the high-priests had been elected, and ordained to the office the ignoble and low-born, that they might make them accomplices in their impious proceedings. Moreover, by artifices and slanderous stories they set at odds persons formerly in authority, and so, by creating divisions, increased their own power, united as they were for evil.

The multitude at last, instigated by Ananus, the oldest of the chief priests, were goaded to resistance. The robbers took refuge in the temple of God, and sacrilegiously turned it into a fortress to protect them against the outburst of popular violence, making the holy place their asylum. To these bitter evils they added mockery, which the people felt more deeply than even their violent acts. They pretended that, according to ancient law, the high-priest should be chosen by lot, although the succession was really hereditary.

And so they cast a lot, and the office fell upon a coarse clown called Phannias, who scarcely knew what the high-priesthood meant. Yet they dressed him in the priestly robes, and taught him how to act when offering sacrifice. This shocking impiety, which to them was a subject of merriment, drew tears from the other priests, who beheld from a distance their law turned into ridicule, and wept over the profanation of the holy office.

This insult aroused the people. Some of the chief men went among them and urged them to punish these destroyers of liberty, and to purge the sanctuary of its polluters. An assembly of the people was convened, and Ananus addressed them, his eyes filling with tears every time he looked towards the temple. He reproached the multitude with their tame endurance of a tyranny more cruel than that of the Romans. Would they, who would not submit to the masters of the world, bear the tyranny of their own countrymen? It was a cause for bitter tears to see the offerings of the heathen in the Holy Place; how much worse to see the arms of murderers who had slain their own people, those even whom the Romans would have spared! The Romans had always remained reverently without in the court of the Gentiles; those who were bound to observe the law, who called themselves Jews, trod with polluted feet the very Holy of Holies, their hands reeking with the blood of their brethren.

Stirred by the eloquent harangue, the people demanded to be immediately led against the Zealots, for so the robbers styled themselves,—as if they were zealots in the cause of virtue, while indeed they were noted for their pursuit of vice. The Zealots had sent spies to the assembly, and from them received news of what was going on.

While Ananus was mustering his forces they rushed from the temple, and spared none that came in their way. Ananus hastily collected the populace, who, though superior in numbers, were inferior in discipline to the robbers. The two parties fought with the greatest fury, and the slaughter on both sides was enormous.

At first the better discipline of the Zealots gave them the advantage, but before long they were obliged to retire before the superior numbers of their opponents, and they retreated into the temple, Ananus and his party breaking in with them. The Zealots fled into the inner court and closed the gates. Ananus was prevented from improving his advantage, because he deemed it wrong to assail the sacred gates, or to introduce the multitude unpurified into the inner temple. He therefore contented himself with stationing six thousand men as sentinels about the cloisters and gates of the inner court, that they might keep guard over the party within, and he made arrangements that this guard should be regularly relieved.

The ruin of Ananus and his entire party was caused by John of Gischala, whose flight from his native town has been related. This crafty man, always plotting to get power for himself, pretended that he sided with the populace, and daily attended the councils of Ananus and the leaders of his party. But at night when he visited the watch he would betray his secrets to the Zealots. To conceal his treachery, he pretended the greatest anxiety for the success of the people. But he rather overacted his part, and as the people found out that their movements were disclosed to the Zealots, John fell under suspicion. Yet it was no easy matter to punish him, because he was too sly to be detected, and he had a large band of followers.

It was deemed advisable, therefore, to bind him by oath to keep good faith with the people. Without any hesitation John swore that he would be true to the people, and that he would not betray either counsel or act to their enemies, but would assist both by his personal exertions and advice in conquering their assailants. Relying on his oath, Ananus and his party now admitted him without suspicion to their deliberations, and even sent him to treat with the Zealots.

John, however, as if he had sworn fealty to the Zealots, instead of against them, entered the temple and spoke to them like a sworn friend. He represented the dangers he had incurred in rendering them secret service, and informed them that negotiations were going on for the surrender of the city to the Romans; also that Ananus had appointed a purification service on the following day in order that his followers might enter the temple and attack the Zealots. Nor, said he, did he see how they could hold out for any length of time against so many opponents. They must either, therefore, sue for pardon or obtain some external aid. And he warned them against the danger of trusting to the mercy of the people, who had not forgotten their daring deeds. He hinted, therefore, at obtaining succor from the Idumeans; and in order to make the leaders of the Zealots angry, he stated that Ananus made them the special objects of his threats. The leaders were Eleazar, son of Simon, and Zacharias, son of Phalek. These men, on hearing the threats directed against themselves, and, moreover, that Ananus had invited the Romans to aid him, for so John had falsely stated, were deeply perplexed as to what course of action they should take.

It was finally resolved that they should call the Idumeans to their aid, and so they despatched some swift messengers with letters, saying that Ananus was about to betray the city to the Romans, and that they had revolted in the cause of freedom, but were now shut up in the temple, and that unless they received immediate aid they would be soon overcome and the city be surrendered to the Romans.

The Idumeans were a warlike people, and as soon as they knew the contents of the letters they flew to arms, and marched towards Jerusalem with an army of twenty thousand men. Ananus heard of their coming, and closed the gates. He was opposed, however, to warlike measures, and so determined to try persuasion before recourse was had to arms. Accordingly, Joshua, the chief priest next in age to Ananus, addressed the Idumeans from a high tower. He endeavored to persuade them to do one of three things,—either to unite with them in the chastisement of the robbers, to enter the city unarmed and act as judges between the two parties, or to depart and leave the city to settle its own affairs.

But the Idumeans would not listen to the proposals of Joshua, and were greatly irritated because they were not allowed to enter the city at once. Simon, one of their leaders, sternly answered Joshua that they had come as true patriots and defenders of their country against men who were in a conspiracy to sell the liberties of the land to the Romans. "Here before these walls," he said, "we will remain in arms until the Romans grow weary of listening to your proposals, or a change of sentiment leads you to espouse the cause of freedom."

The Idumeans loudly applauded these words, and Joshua withdrew in dejection, finding them opposed to all moderate measures, and anxious on account of the city, now threatened with war from two quarters. The Idumeans on their part began to grow uneasy; they were greatly irritated at being shut out of the city. But when they perceived no aid at hand from the Zealot party, whom they supposed to be in considerable strength, they became perplexed, and many repented that they had come. Still they were ashamed to return without having accomplished their purpose, so they encamped before the walls. With night came on a terrific storm of wind and rain, lightning and terrible thunder. The Idumeans huddled up together in order to keep each other warm, and locked their shields over their heads to keep off the rain. The Zealots became greatly concerned about their allies exposed to this terrible storm, and held a consultation to devise means for their relief. The most impetuous wished to force the sentries, sword in hand, and boldly rush forth and open the gates to the Idumeans. But the more prudent restrained them from making this attempt, because the sentries had been doubled, and they expected Ananus would be going the rounds at all hours. This had been his practice every night, but this night alone, trusting to the strength of his doubled sentries, Ananus neglected all precaution. As the night advanced, a great many of the sentries in the cloisters about the inner court fell asleep. The watchful Zealots perceived this, and, taking a lot of saws belonging to the temple, they severed the bars of the gates, the noise of the tempest aiding their purpose by preventing them from being heard.

A few of them stole out secretly from the temple, and when they reached the walls, they sawed open the gate nearest to the Idumeans. They, supposing themselves attacked by Ananus and his party, were at first seized with alarm, and every man drew his sword for defence, but quickly recognizing their visitors, they entered the city with them. Had they turned immediately upon the city, so ungovernable was their rage that nothing could have prevented the entire destruction of the people; but they hastened first to liberate all the Zealots from custody, at the request of those who had let them into the city. These men besought them not to neglect those for whose sake they had come, surrounded as they were with difficulties, nor yet to put them in still more serious danger. Were the guards mastered, they said, it would be easy to conquer the city; but if they first attacked the people, the citizens would rally around the guards, and would form an irresistible force to keep the invaders from the temple, wherein the Zealots were shut up.

In obedience to these requests, the Idumeans marched to the temple. As they were entering, the Zealots inside took courage and attacked the sentries from the rear. Some of them who lay in front they killed in their sleep, till the entire force, roused by the cries of those who were awake, snatched up their arms and hastened to the defence. So long as they supposed themselves assailed only by the Zealots, the guards fought with spirit, hoping to overcome them by numbers, but when they discovered that the Idumeans were in the city, most of them threw down their arms and gave way to lamentations. A few of the younger ones, however, fencing themselves in, gallantly fought the Idumeans, and for a time protected the feebler crowd, who by their cries informed the people in the city of the calamities that had befallen them. But the people were too frightened to venture to their assistance. All the houses resounded with lamentations and the piercing shrieks of women. The Zealots joined in the battle cry of the Idumeans, and the shouting on all sides was rendered still more fearful by the howling of the storm.

The Idumeans gave no quarter. They slaughtered all the guards, and when day dawned the sun shone on over eight thousand corpses. Then the invaders rushed upon the city, pillaging all the houses and killing all who came in their way. The high-priests, Ananus and Joshua, were killed, and their bodies denied the rite of burial, although the Jews were so attentive to the rites of sepulture that even malefactors who had been crucified were interred before sunset.

The bloody work went on for days. The Zealots and their cruel allies butchered the people as if they were a herd of beasts. A great many youths of noble birth they threw into prison, hoping to induce them to join their party. Not one, however, listened to their proposals, all preferring to die rather than array themselves with the wicked against their country. Twelve thousand young men were thus doomed to destruction.

At length, weary of slaughter, the Zealots began to affect the forms of law, and set up mock tribunals and courts of justice. There was a certain distinguished man, called Zacharias, whom they wished to get rid of, because they dreaded his influence with the people and wished to possess themselves of his wealth.

They therefore formed a court composed of seventy of the leading men in the character of judges, but really without authority, and before them charged Zacharias with treasonable correspondence with Vespasian in order to betray the state to the Romans. They brought forth neither proof nor witnesses, but insisted that he should be convicted upon their charges alone.

Zacharias boldly ridiculed their accusations, and in a few words refuted the charges brought against him, and then rebuked the wickedness of his accusers. Stung by his taunts, the Zealots with difficulty restrained themselves from killing him then and there. But they were anxious to see if the judges would obey their will. The seventy, however, preferred to die with the accused rather then be guilty of condemning an innocent man, and so brought in a verdict of acquittal.

The Zealots raised a cry of indignation, and two of the most daring rushed upon Zacharias and slew him in the midst of the temple, crying out in derision as he fell, "You have now our verdict, and a more effective acquittal." They then threw him headlong from the temple into the ravine below. The judges they beat with the flat blades of their swords, and drove them in disgrace back to the city.

The Idumeans, dissatisfied with these proceedings, now began to regret that they had given aid to such a band of murderers as the Zealots. A man attached to the Zealot party called them together privately and pointed out to them the lawless acts of those who had invited them, and set forth in detail the injuries they had inflicted upon the city. He urged them to return home and no longer give countenance by their presence to the murders and atrocities of the Zealots, who had deceived them into becoming their accomplices by representing Ananus and his party as guilty of treason,—a groundless charge, since no treason was feared, and the Roman army had not appeared before the city.

Induced by these arguments, the Idumeans returned home from Jerusalem; but first they liberated about two thousand prisoners, who fled from the city to Simon, the son of Gioras, of whom we shall hear more presently.

The people, ignorant of the repentance of the Idumeans, supposed themselves relieved from enemies, and began to feel more easy. The Zealots, on the other hand, as if released from control rather than deprived of assistance, became all the more audacious, and continued in their wicked courses. They put to death all the brave and noble men, the leaders of the people. For they thought that their own safety depended on leaving none of those in authority alive. No one escaped death but those whose safety lay in the utter meanness of their birth or fortune.

Hearing of the dissensions in Jerusalem, many of the Roman officers urged Vespasian to march immediately upon the city, thinking it a good time for an attack. But the politic general replied that an attack from the Romans would instantly extinguish these internal dissensions and unite the Jews against the common enemy; while if they were let alone, they would go on destroying each other and give the Romans later an easy victory.

Every day people fled from the tyranny of the Zealots in Jerusalem, although flight was difficult, because all the outlets were guarded, and every one caught in them was instantly put to death unless he could pay a certain sum for his freedom, in which case he was allowed to go. Hence it followed that, as the rich purchased escape, the poor alone were slaughtered. In the city and in the roads they lay dead in heaps. For to such an excess of cruelty and impiety did the Zealots proceed that they forbade the rites of burial. He who interred a relative was put to death. But the living under so awful a rule deemed themselves less blessed than the unburied dead.

The Zealots laughed at every human law, and scoffed at the oracles of the prophets as the fables of mountebanks. Yet did these very men bring down upon their country the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy, which declared that when civil war should break out in the city and native hands defile God's hallowed temple the city would be taken and the sanctuary burned to the ground.