Flavin’s Corner

Stones, Temples, and Pilate

Israel continues to attract the world’s attention.  No, I’m not talking about a recent study of prostitutes in major Israeli cities, Jerusalem’s new ban on smoking in public places, or the assassinations of major Hamas members (helicopters fired missiles into the seventh floor of an office building in a military maneuver as devious as anything Hollywood could produce).  On July 21, 2001, or Tisha B'Av, a Jewish day of mourning for the destruction of their temples (the first in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and the second in 70 CE by the Romans), an ultranationalist group called the Temple Mount Faithful staged a near-event in Jerusalem to draw attention to its plans to install a cornerstone for a proposed third Jewish temple.  It was the near-event as planned, the group departed, but later some Palestinians threw stones at worshipers in front of the Western or "Wailing" Wall, which resulted in a Jerusalem police response with stun-grenades and clubs.  Also in the news was a report about the discovery of a mysterious zinc coffin near where the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  Some have suggested it was the coffin of a very important person, perhaps of Jesus, as in Jesus Christ, son of God, born to a virgin, died under Pontius Pilate, and came back to life after three days.  You know, that Jesus.  History in Israel certainly doesn’t seem to be static.  Apparently new history is being made all the time.

Cornerstone for a third Jewish temple?
Pic from the Temple Mount Faithful website.

It was liberal and generous, as well as creepy and sad, that an Israeli court allowed a small group of radicals to hold a ceremony in a parking lot just outside of the Temple Mount area, especially when the court knew that its members would probably be traveling with a possible cornerstone for a third Jewish temple.  In the U.S. this might be sort of comparable to those occasional K.K.K rallies that are pretty much six guys-in-sheets and six thousand protesters, or maybe close to the infamous example of the A.C.L.U. successfully arguing for Frank Collin’s right to march and wear a swastika armband in the village of Skokie, with its predominately Jewish community (including, at the time, a significant percentage of Holocaust survivors).  Any civil, civic-minded,  and responsible group should be allowed to march with a big stone, right?  Not necessarily.

The Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Ma is a wonderful combination of animal shelter and petting zoo, spiritual retreat, Peace Museum, as well as a place for various workshops and a vegetarian resource center.  Its initial notability was for being home to Emily, a cow on its way to destruction who escaped for a time to the woods of New England and lived with a herd of deer.  Emily was eventually recaptured, but due to sympathetic media attention, she was granted a reprieve from the slaughter-house by her owners and sold to a local couple for a dollar.  Most Sherborn residents are now used to the large statue of Mahatma Gandhi, dedicated in 1994, and the centerpiece of the Pacifist Memorial, which consists of six surrounding brick walls that contain the “names of and quotations from sixty peacemakers, thirty men and thirty women.”  Behind Gandhi, not visible from the street, rests a one ton engraved granite slab which was carted 500 miles in 1999 from Boston to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C.  The Peace Abbey's  founder, Lewis Randa, and some pacifist supporters, wished to honor the civilian victims of our various wars with a headstone, but were refused entry and the stone was temporarily confiscated by the U.S Park District.  Today, a replica of the stone tours other countries focusing attention on pacifism and all victims of war.  I wonder if they have any plans to go the Mideast?

As I’m not Jewish, it’s difficult for me to have a strong opinion one way or the other as to the building of a third Jewish temple.  Oh, as a shallow capitalist I’d be affected if war broke out between the Jews and Arabs over the matter and the price of oil and gas rose significantly.  But, should I care if a Jewish temple is built in Jerusalem and animal sacrifices begin again?  Vegans and animal-rights activists might disagree with the practice, but whacking a cow for God seems little different than whacking it for a kosher McDonald’s.

Maybe the Jews and Arabs will work something out.  Some Christians appreciate the possibility of a third Jewish temple, in that it could bring about Armageddon and the death of all life on earth, while many other Christians maintain that another temple is unnecessary, as the crucifixion of Jesus was the final legitimate Levitical sacrifice, more isn’t needed, and Armageddon and the death of all life on earth is going to happen regardless.  Ouch!

Archaeology has not been able to find any physical trace of the first Jewish temple, said to have been built by Solomon in 986 BCE (though some doubt such an early date and place construction a couple of hundred years later).  What is accepted, however, is that the first Jewish temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE, and the second Jewish temple (with encouragement from Cyrus and Darius) was built and dedicated in 516 BCE.  Herod the Great added improvements starting in 20 BCE, but the work wasn’t finished until 64 CE by Herod Agrippa II, just a half dozen years before its destruction.  The Western Wall is from Herod’s improvements and the only major remnant of the second Jewish temple.  Other remains are said to be currently in the process of being dug up and systematically destroyed to bolster Islamic claims.

The Islamic claims on Jerusalem? Weak, weaker, and modern fictional propaganda, is the assessment of many, including past Islamic scholars (think S. Rushdie to understand why no current Islamic scholars are eager to reject claims on Jerusalem).  Maybe the Jews and Arabs will work something out.  Maybe not. [Note: That monotheistic and patriarchal religions have really screwed things up, and continue to threaten peace, is why I support women’s rights and encourage a modern Lysistrata and Islamic women rising up against their oppressors.  Well, it’s either that or maybe those wacky Christians might see Armageddon after all.]

It’s a given there’s much of history we don’t fully understand.  New discoveries and scholarship help us gather a few more pieces to the puzzle, but we’ll never know everything about the past.  Most don’t even have much of a grasp on what’s happening today, let alone thousands of years ago!  And that’s probably how it should be.  Be Here Now and all of that.

The discovery of an empty zinc coffin in the Dead Sea area, along with a cache of human remains nearby, is remarkable and almost magical, and on par with the latest Ice Age parietal art discovered in France, and that Oetzi, the Iceman, got shot with an arrow and that’s what killed him.  It’s history, ancient history, and very interesting history, however some attach a great deal of importance to such discoveries, which may be unwarranted.  A zinc coffin found in an area that’s been searched again and again over the last fifty years is truly astounding, but not necessarily out of the question.  No one asked the right question.

I divide the pertinent issues as: 1) the use of zinc on an extravagant scale in ancient Judea, 2) an expensive coffin located near where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, and 3) claims of a Christian or Christian-era connection. 1) is cool, 2) is significant, but shouldn’t be surprising, and 3) is fanatical propaganda and/or political apologetics.

Indian claims of priority in its use of zinc to make a unique form of brass (other additives to copper are arsenic, lead, and tin) are certainly possible, but not fully accepted at this time.  The zinc in brass from Lothal (a 'civilization' next to the Harappan, c. 2450-1900, is probably from naturally occurring impurities and was likely an accident, akin to the bracelet from Urartian Cavustepe in eastern Turkey, dated to the eighth century BCE, containing 11 percent zinc, and regarded as a “natural brass” item.  [Note: See: Traces of the Past: Unraveling the Secrets of Archaeology through Chemistry, by Joseph B. Lambert, Reading, MA: Perseus Books, 1997, p. 191.] There’s no doubt that by the fourth century BCE, the addition of zinc in the making of brass was controlled, though who gets credit for being first is still debated.  The presence of an early Greek roll of pure zinc attests to an ancient ability to process the metal (a technology aside from the cementation process when making brass), a recognition of its malleability, like lead and tin, and its logical (though costly) usage as a covering for a wooden coffin.  Then, as now, it often comes down to how much one can afford.  Soldered sheets of zinc denote wealth, perhaps not up to the gold standard, but surely even with the level of difficulty in refinement and manageability.  It was a special coffin.

The thought or suggestion of a zinc-covered coffin in antiquity is previously unattested and, as far as I can tell, no mentions or possibilities have been brought up.  A recent online search for “zinc coffin” took me to odd places of awareness I hadn’t considered before.  Chernobyl victims in zinc coffins (beneath a billion dollops of cement), recent European airline policy stressing only zinc coffins in the cargo area (as wooden coffins could be shaken and putrid corpse-juices will slosh around and stain other people’s luggage), as well as attributing the current near-miraculous condition of Pope John XXIII to a good, airtight zinc coffin; these are all recent examples.  Apparently zinc-plating must be popular.  In first century BCE Judea it was possible and it happened.  Maybe it was necessary.  The so-called “Copper Scroll” from the Qumran area describes hidden treasures, metals, manuscripts, and other things of great value.  Most write the Copper Scroll off as allegory, but some allow for a cryptic accuracy.

The Dead Sea Scrolls have to rate in the top-ten archaeological finds of all time.  Or close.   Now, how the general public regards the Dead Sea Scrolls has largely been dictated by those concerned with politics and academic priority, and it's only recently that the field of study has been genuinely open to more than a privileged cadre.  And, as is our fetish, there’ve been spins on the Dead Sea Scrolls and how they match an individual or organization’s agenda to such exactitude that not getting out a check-book immediately must be considered the basest of sins!

Images of a group of Jews in the desert who didn’t agree with other Jews in Jerusalem (the so-called Pharisees and the Sadducees), who were into a monastic lifestyle, were renowned as healers, did things a little differently with a solar calendar, and may have been the cool guys that Baptist John, Jesus, and Just James hung out with, have been with us since the early fifties.  The trowels to cover their pooh in the desert even made it into Scorsese’s 1988 film, The Last Temptation of Christ, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960; trans. by P. A. Bien).  The Essenes were at Masada, the Essenes did mushrooms, the Essenes undoubtedly did this and that, but connecting that esoteric bunch with the Dead Sea Scrolls has always been a reach.  Prof. Norman Golb has argued for years that the scrolls represent the best of individual libraries from prominent citizens of Jerusalem and were stored near Qumran to preserve and honor them.  The Dead Sea Scrolls are individual libraries rather than the work of a single desert community of monks.  I’m comfortable with this approach; it solves problems rather than creates them. 

Prof. Golb holds to a multiple-library model of a nation’s will to survive. At some point, before Titus leveled Jerusalem, those with libraries and individual scroll collections chose to save their most prized possessions.  It was to their scrolls, their sacred literature, their casual reading, their really weird turns, that the Jewish communities made noble decisions, sacrificed (read: died), but ultimately things didn’t turn out that well for the “City of Peace.”  It wasn’t a Carthage-like smack-down with salt, however Jerusalem was efficiently leveled   Maybe the last to deliver scrolls from Jerusalem was also transporting some individual’s (or, with a nod to imaginarians, the Temple’s) stash/cache of reasonably pure zinc, and whoever at Qumran  buried him/her respectfully and utilized the zinc to ...do something with it.  I wonder if other deposits of precious metals (according to the Copper Scroll) are still out there.  Maybe recent opportunists made off with a coffin-cover several inches thick (though zinc doesn’t fare as well as a common Coke can when recycling), but any metal covering would be just as much fun with the past.  Especially if we could buy it back.

It’s a fine burial and, it should go without saying, I’m not sure if the skeletal parts of an estimated 1178 individuals discovered nearby have any direct bearing on the zinc-coffin.  The area was highly regarded over an extensive period of time and previous associations need reexamining.  The bodies were interred after conflicts, though whether they date from c. 70 CE, to the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132-135 CE. or sometime in between remains unknown.  Still, the zinc- coffin is way cool and it’s the finest of tributes.  I’ll regard the matter like Anne Frank's memoirs and appreciate it as a desperate way to survive and contribute.  Guesses as to who once resided in the zinc coffin are best considered over a cup of coffee and a dram or two of Drambuie.  What-ifs are cultural requirements, but moving on sounds good, too.  Somebody got a fine goodbye.  I'm sure it was deserved.

not washing my hands, this time,

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