I have long been interested in Judea during the early Christian era. I saw an advertisement for John Merrill’s Sons of Light in Biblical Archaeological Review. The book was highly praised. It is a well-bound hardback with a beautiful illustration on the front cover, but, after reading it, I’m very much disappointed.
Merrill’s novel opens in 47 B.C. Hezekiah, the founder of the Zealots, his two daughters and his parents are trapped in a cave high on a steep cliff. They are hiding from Herod the Great and his Roman allies at the base. Faced with capture, Hezekiah slits his daughter’s throats while his father slits his mother’s throat and commits suicide. Hezekiah then stabs himself and jumps to his death. It’s surprising that a novel about the “Sons of Light” should start off with the founder murdering his own family and committing suicide. I soon discovered reading the book that the main topic wasn’t merely a historical novel about the Zealots (the Sons of Light); it goes into considerable detail about the young Yeshua (Jesus), his mother Miriam (Mary), his father Joseph, and his cousin John the Baptist.
Merrill distorts the historical account of these persons considerably. Miriam is raped by the Roman Centurion Julius Panthera, who, therefore, is the father of Yeshua. When Miriam visits her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth takes Miriam to visit Elizabeth’s friend, the elderly Joseph, to ask Joseph if he would agree to marry Miriam because Elizabeth did not want to report Miriam’s rape to the Bet Din. Joseph agrees.
King Herod sends an assassin to Sepphoris to bring back the head of Miriam’s newborn baby. Menachem saves Miriam and the baby by killing the assassin. After Miriam’s husband Joseph’s dies, Menachem proposes marriage to Miriam. She accepts. Miriam has five children with Menachem: Jacob, Joseph, Jude, Simon, and Diana, plus Yeshua, her first born. Yeshua is learning to be a fisherman.
Because of the planned Zealot attack against the Roman army, the Baptist tells Miriam that he will take her six children to Egypt to get them out of danger. Miriam insists that Yeshua remain with the Zealots to bolster their hope. When the Zealot forces leave to engage the Romans, Miriam takes Yeshua and Jacob to Sepphoris. The Zealots are defeated. Of their 3000-man force, 2960 were killed in battle and 40 were brought back to Sepphorus to be crucified. Miriam searched through the crosses for her husband, Menachem. She found him while he was still alive on a cross in the same position as the Gospels described Jesus on a cross.
This fictionalized account of the lives of Mary, Jesus, Joseph, and the Baptist is such a strong thread is the main thrust of Merrill’s book. This fictional account is so different from traditional accounts of these people’s lives that I have reservations of how accurate Merrill’s history of the Zealots is. I know from my own research that Josephus, an eyewitness, paints a very critical picture of the Zealots. During the war of A.D. 66-70 (not covered in Merrill’s book), Josephus relates that the Zealots fought a three-party civil war in Jerusalem while Vespasian was conquering all the towns surrounding Jerusalem. So vicious was the civil strife that the warring parties destroyed all the stored food in Jerusalem. By time Titus was ready to lay siege to Jerusalem, the people were starving and doomed to defeat.
After the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the remaining Zealots at Masada committed mass suicide. From beginning to end, the Zealots look to me like an unruly group. Judea survived the conquest by Titus in A.D. 70. Sixty-one years later, their descendants rebelled again; this time led by Bar Kochba, a man with extraordinary charisma. He organized all the people from Judea, Galilee, and Perea into a unified force with a 400,000-man army. They defeated three Roman armies and liberated all of Palestine. Bar Kochba set up the First Jewish Commonwealth. The present Israelis government, incidentally, is the Second Jewish Commonwealth.
The statement I most disagree with in Merrill’s book is “The Redeemer will be more than a king. . . The Messiah will be a mighty warrior!” God forbid that we all have to spend eternity ruled by a warrior king with all the military might and police required by a warrior. My idea of heaven is that everybody obeys God voluntarily and completely because they all respect God and love God. There is no need for a warrior, for armies, police, jails, etc. There is no conflict in heaven, no difference of opinion about the real world because everyone knows the truth.
I’m harsh on this book because it disappointed me very much.