Historical Setting of The Eighth Scroll

Sixty-eight was an interesting year. 

Halving the time, John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded around 34 CE (Common Era), a date of no small significance, for the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ began his ministry following John the Baptist’s imprisonment (Mark 1:14). The New Testament tells us Jesus completed his mission three years later, and was raised up. Some Christians claim his death was an atoning sacrifice. Others deny the crucifixion, atonement and resurrection outright.

Following Jesus’ ministry, the Romans murdered any disciples they could find. Others evaded both the Romans and the historical record. Ironically, the most influential voice to have emerged from this period of Christian origins was not of one of the surviving disciples, but of one of their pursuers. This hunter was a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish priesthood Jesus openly condemned (and who, in turn, condemned him), and a Roman collaborator. I speak, of course, of Saul of Tarsus, better known to the present age as the apostle Paul—the spiritual cornerstone upon which Trinitarian doctrine would construct its canon centuries later.

On the basis of an alleged vision, Paul set about preaching “in Jesus’ name.” But strikingly, virtually everything Paul preached contradicted, rather than confirmed, Jesus’ teachings. Nonetheless, the Romans eventually caught up with Paul and imprisoned him around 61 CE. We presume the Romans executed him, but this has never been proven.

Now, none of this history makes 68 CE more interesting than any other year, but it does remind us that during this period the mission and message of Jesus Christ and Paul were the talk of the Holy Land.

What does make 68 CE interesting is Nero’s death. Nero, the fifth and last Roman Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, sullied his fourteen years in office with a litany of notorieties. Perhaps we should not be surprised, for Nero’s mother was Caligula’s sister and his father was . . . well, nobody knows. But Caligula himself would not be a bad bet.

Nero’s mother, Agrippina, was married. However, Agrippina and her two older sisters were reputed to have maintained close ties with her brother, Caligula. Now, I’m talking about exceedingly close ties. So close, for that matter, that we don’t know whether Nero was fathered by his mother’s husband or by her brother. So the cards of genetic and psychopathic aberrance were not exactly stacked in Nero’s favor.

Nero’s transgressions were legion, his excesses legendary, his perversity horrific. However, as background for The Eighth Scroll, we only need to remember the accusation that Nero started the Great Fire of Rome in 64 CE, and then laid blame upon the new and growing sect of Christian-Jews. Claiming justice, he assigned some to the lions or wild dogs at public “contests” in the Roman Coliseum, crucified others, and ignited still others as human candles to illuminate the arena at night.

The Great Fire of Rome burned for a week, and provided the backdrop against which Nero, who considered himself a great artist, was rumored to have played his lyre (alas, despite more popular traditions, the fiddle was not yet invented), sung and recited poetry atop Quirinal Hill. Nero’s pyres and “contests” of the Christians lasted considerably longer, were similarly accompanied by poetry and song, and were of even more questionable artistic taste.

Far from home, in the Holy Land, Nero pushed too far when he ordered his governor in Judea to tap into the treasury of the Jewish Temple. The Jewry of Judea were already terrorized, oppressed and impoverished by sixty years of Roman occupation and taxation. This final demand broke their tolerance and fueled revolt. The Jewish rebellion against Roman rule began in 66 CE, and subsequently developed the intriguing complication of civil war on both sides.

The Jews were in civil war almost from the beginning, owing to the conflicting and uncompromising ideology of the differing Jewish sects. The Sadducees were the priestly class in control of the Temple in Jerusalem but, due to their uncomfortably strict interpretation of Jewish law in combination with an unfortunate association with the wealthy minority, were considered both religiously outdated and temporally corrupt. The Pharisees, having proven more flexible in interpretation of Jewish Law, eased the restrictions of orthodoxy and predictably gained popularity. The Essenes represented the third major theological division. They were a Jewish sect devoted to ritual purity, monastic lifestyle, exhaustive worship and strict observation of Mosaic Law.

Other subdivisions included militant extremists, namely the Zealots and Sicarii, or “dagger men.” The latter earned their name by assassinating their opposition with sicae, or small, easily concealed daggers.

This internal strife ultimately led to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, for the city was well-fortified, amply provided with water and huge storehouses of food, and populated with defenders willing to die for their Holy City. It was not Roman superiority of arms that destroyed Jerusalem from without, but rather sinat chinam, or “senseless hatred among the Jews,” that destroyed the city from within. When the moderate Sadducees and Pharisees sought control of the Temple, the Sicarii and Zealot extremists imported Idumean mercenaries to slaughter the moderates who opposed them. With events moving too slowly for their tastes, the Zealots destroyed the city’s food stores and forced the populace, in the throes of starvation, to cancel the advantage of their fortifications and take the fight to the enemy, outside the gates of the city. The rashness of this move proved disastrous, the fall of the Holy City the result.

Whereas civil war among the Jews followed a protracted and smoldering historical course punctuated by episodic flare-ups, the Roman civil war was an acute event precipitated by the deposing and subsequent suicide of Emperor Nero in June of 68 CE. The difficulty, although a person could be excused for considering it a blessing, was that Nero had left no successor. He had no heir, and had murdered any and all he had considered a threat to his sovereignty. By the time he was deposed he had killed not only all the male descendants of Augustus, but also his wife and adoptive brother. He did not spare even his mother, who history tells us asked her assassin to stab her in the womb in retribution for the ill fruit it had borne. 

For the first time in the history of the Roman Empire, the throne was left open to any who could claim and defend it. Over the following year four sat the Roman throne, but only Vespasian survived to keep it for any appreciable length of time. This was the same, battle-hardened Vespasian who Nero had sent through Agrippa II, the Roman client king of Judea, to subdue the rebellious Jews in the Holy Land. And subdue them he did.

Beginning in the North in 67 CE, Vespasian worked his way south, commanding submission or death. He utterly destroyed any village or township that refused to surrender, slaughtering the men, raping the women, ransacking their homes and razing them to the ground. He sold survivors into slavery and rendered their lands useless by cutting down fruit trees, burning crops and lacing the fields with salt.

The atrocities were so horrific that the Zealots at the fortress of Jotapata chose to kill their wives and children with their own hands and then commit suicide rather than fall into the Romans’ hands. Similarly, at the city of Gamla in the Golan Heights, roughly 5,000 Jews cast themselves from the cliffs surrounding the fortress to evade capture. A few years later, following the fall of Jerusalem, the Zealots at Masada did the same thing.

Sixty-eight, most definitely, was an interesting year. And it is in the midst of this turmoil of history and religion that The Eighth Scroll begins, among the community of Essenes at Qumran, suffering the occupation of the Romans.

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