Qumran, on the Dead Sea, 68 CE
When death approaches, your life will play before your eyes.
The elder who told Jacob this, years before, now lay crumpled in a bloody heap before him, nestled in ringlets of his own intestines and oozing the stink of disembowelment. Jacob tore his gaze from the twitching corpse, locked eyes with the Roman legionnaire who lifted his weapon from the lifeless body, and froze when the legionnaire raised his gore-streaked sword for the stroke that would sever Jacob’s neck.
As though with a mind already detached, as though time itself paused to honor him with one last memory, Jacob recalled not his whole life, but only the last hour: He had been hunched over in the bowl of his cave, working frantically to hide the Essenes’ library of scrolls.
One glance out the mouth of the cave at the darkening sky, mirrored in the vast expanse of the Dead Sea below, told him he had run out of time. Why did I ever join the sect of Essene Jews? If they knew my Christian beliefs, they would banish me forever. The instant he conceived the thought, his mind conjured up memories of slashing swords, screams, and bodies tumbling to the dust in pieces. “That’s why I joined,” he said to himself. “For protection.” For a moment he reflected how, thirty years ago, the Romans had hunted down the disciples of Jesus, the Christ. Now, two years into the Jewish Rebellion, the Romans hunted down all Jews, excepting his own sect of Essene Jews.
But every Essene knew their scant protection could end at any instant, and Jacob couldn’t banish from his fears the tales of wild beasts tearing Christians to pieces in the Roman Coliseum, which Emperor Nero had kept lit at night with human candles.
“Martyrs,” he muttered, but found little consolation in the word.
Jacob snatched up the most precious of all the scrolls. The parchment whispered against his fingers as he swiftly rolled it. Despite his reverence for this scripture, his hands shook and he splattered hot wax as he dripped it from his candle to seal the free edge of the scroll. He forced himself to draw deep breaths of the musty cave air until his hands steadied, and then stamped the puddles of fast-cooling wax with the Roman captain’s signet ring. Then he applied a linen wrap and sealed the free edge of the wrap as well.
He shoved the scroll into an exquisite limestone jar, but then froze. Gently, he placed the jar on the floor of the cave, grabbed handfuls of his shoulder-length hair close to his scalp with both hands, and rocked himself until he felt his nerves still. “Calm down,” he told himself. “Just calm down.” Slower now, Jacob removed the scroll from the jar, checked it for damage, and gently slid it back into the jar. Then he fitted the lid with a sandy rasp, picked up his sputtering candle, and poured a ribbon of molten liquid into the seam. After he sealed the jar closed, but before the wax had a chance to cool, his Essene brothers arrived. Jacob jumped up and wrestled three earthenware jars, each half the height of a man and filled with scrolls, to the cave entrance. He stumbled in his haste and nearly dropped one jar. The rough pottery slipped in his fingers, but he caught it in time; it bumped the floor of the cave but didn’t break. The brothers heaved the jars into their arms, cast Jacob a worried glance, and then hurried off to hide the jars in distant caves.
Jacob returned to the cubit-long limestone jar, sized for a single scroll, and applied the captain’s ring to the cooling wax around the lid. Why had the captain ordered him to hide the scrolls? Jacob had heard the rumors, of course. Roman legionnaires with Jewish sensitivities, or “Christian–Jewish” in everything but name. Romans who tormented the followers of Jesus, the Christ, by day, and then prayed for forgiveness to the God Jesus had spoken of at night. He had heard such men existed, but had never met one. Until the captain of the legionnaires.
Jacob buried the limestone jar in the mountain of parchment sheets stacked in the center of the cavern. He said a quick prayer, sweat streaming from beneath his arms as he raised his quivering hands to the heavens, and then bolted from the cave.
The barren Judean desert seemed drawn closer to the heavens by the crimson ceiling of sunset, but Jacob had no time to enjoy the view. With practiced speed he picked his way across the ridge of land that led to the complex, passing groups of legionnaires as they lounged on the terrace, their weapons ever near at hand. He feigned calm when he visited the captain in his quarters, but once he had returned the captain’s signet ring he rushed toward the dining hall’s welcoming glow and the voices of his milling brethren, his fears flailing about in his mind.
By the doorway and to the right, the captain had instructed.
Why? Jacob wondered, even as he entered the dining hall and sat as bidden.
That why haunted him during the conversation and dinner that followed. Midway through the meal, and fighting the quivering weakness in his legs, he made to stand when the doorway filled with the bulk of a legionnaire, his sword naked in his hand.
Like shadows in an unfocused nightmare, Jacob could barely make out the mass of forms behind the soldier. He cast a glance at the only other exit. It, too, was filled with a clot of legionnaires. He scanned the room to find his brothers frozen, their food and drink suspended midway to their mouths.
The Roman captain shouldered his way into the chamber and shouted, “Stay sitting!”
The words caught a few brothers as they rose, and they lowered back to their seats while the captain repeated his command, this time more gently, as if to reassure a child.
A child about to be slaughtered, Jacob realized.
The captain let his eyes rest on Jacob a split-second longer than on the others. Then he said, “I have been ordered to kill anyone here who refuses to swear loyalty to the Roman Empire.”
So that’s it. That’s why the captain wanted the scrolls hidden.
“Until now your protector, Agrippa II, has never demanded an oath of allegiance,” the captain continued. “That has changed. With the rebellion of your people, an oath is demanded.”
“Our hands are empty and you know it,” one of the Essenes said. “We have no weapons. How are we a threat to you?”
“My orders are absolute,” the captain replied. “You swear allegiance, or die. Who is first?”
One of the brethren stood and strode toward the captain, a short, squat man of timid demeanor Jacob knew but slightly. The lead soldier stepped between the two and met the Essene’s chest with the tip of his sword. Unshaken, the Essene said, “We swear devotion to One, and to One alone,” and then looked past the soldier and locked eyes with the captain. “And the One to Whom we swear devotion is the One Who made us, and the One Who made you, and the One to Whom we shall all return.”
Another step closer, and the Essene forced the soldier to retract his arm into a fully cocked position, resting its tip against the brother’s chest.
“The same One Who will judge all of us, and assign the righteous to Paradise, and the sinful to hellfire,” the brother continued. “To this One, The All-Mighty, we swear allegiance, and to Him alone.”
For a moment, Jacob felt the brother’s words fill the chamber and bolster the faith of the believers. But then the soldier drove his sword home.
The blade exploded a foot out the man’s back. The soldier gave the sword a sharp quarter-turn, then wrenched it back out with a sucking sound and a gush of blood.
The squat man, bent forward by the blow, abruptly straightened and turned around to face his brothers. Triumph on his face, he pointed to the heavens.
The second thrust drove the sword in the man’s back and out the front. He staggered forward and looked down, and blinked as he watched the blade retract through his chest. Then he dropped to his knees, coughed up a great gout of blood, fell sideways into the lap of a brother and died, a smile on his bloodied lips.
The captain stepped to the side, and Jacob watched as soldiers surged from the darkened doorway like emissaries from hell. The air filled with shouts of testimony from the faithful, grunts and curses from the soldiers, and the wet, chunking sound of metal meeting flesh. Swords swept in great arcs, blades plunged into bodies, and battle-axes cleaved the air and buried their blades in flesh and bone. An occasional groan escaped the dying, but never a scream or sob, and not one oath of allegiance to the Romans.
Jacob found himself on his hands and knees, sheltered between the wall and the legs of the captain. The soldiers were crazed, the chamber poorly lit, and the legionnaires flowed through the doorway, straight past him, with nary a glance backward. Jacob’s favored elder fell to his knees nearly in front of him, groaning incoherently as he scrabbled to scoop up the guts that spilled from his slit-open belly. The Roman who stood over the elder beheaded him with a swipe of his sword, kicked the corpse to the floor, and then knelt beside it and hacked at the headless torso. Horrified, Jacob nestled closer to the wall.
The legionnaire pulled his sword from the elder’s body, turned and latched eyes with Jacob. Standing, he lifted his blood-streaked sword and stepped into striking range . . .