Luke began his birth story for Mary with a birth story for “Elizabeth daughter of Aaron” meaning a daughter of a High Priestly House if not the High Priest himself.
In the days of Herod king of Judaea, there was a priest named Zacharias of the priestly class of Abijah; his wife was of the daughters of Aaron and her name was Elizabeth. They were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless… Luke 1:5-6.
To get a little background, before we look at Luke’s birth story for Elizabeth, it would be helpful to note this passage from Josephus on John Hyrcanus the Hasmonean High Priest:
Now a very surprising thing is related of this high priest (John) Hyrcanus, how God came to discourse with him: for they say that…he was alone in the temple, as high priest, offering incense, and heard a voice (make a prophecy)… And this he openly declared before all the multitude on his coming out of the temple; and it accordingly proved true…He was esteemed by God worthy of the three privileges—the government of his nation, the dignity of the high priesthood, and prophecy… (Antiquities of the Jews XIII.X.3, 7)
According to the custom of the (high) priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying without…And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord…And…the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John…And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years. And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel…And, behold, thou shalt…not be able to speak…because thou believest not my words…And the people waited for Zacharias…and when he came out, he could not speak unto them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple. Luke 1:9-22
High Priests only entered the Holy of Holies of the Temple one day a year on the Day of Atonement. It involved incense and fasting. The High Priest was expected to emerge with a prophecy for the nation for the coming year. When the couple present their baby boy in the Temple as required by Law, the priests try to name him “Zacharia” but since her husband had been struck dumb by the angel, Elizabeth says:
“Not so, but he shall be called John.” And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs unto his father, how he would have him called. And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John. And they marveled all. Luke I:59-63
“John” as in John Hyrcanus; the man considered to be the last righteous High Priest with the true gift of prophecy? Given names trace lineage…but also could signal intent, for those “with eyes to see.”
Elizabeth’s son John, of course, grew up to be John the Baptist. All four gospels make an issue of the fact that Jesus outranked John, even having John himself declare…
After me is to come a man who ranks ahead of me. John 2:30
Reading Josephus as we have been, we know how important ranking by bloodline was in the last days of Herod. Luke chose to show the ranking through their mothers having Elizabeth declare that Mary outranks her…
And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord (king) should come to me? Luke 1:43
Elizabeth is firmly placed within the high priesthood, even unprecedentedly called a “righteous” and “just” woman…which one would think meant daughter of a High Priest at about the same time that Mariamne II daughter of the High Priest is being blamed for big trouble in the fortunes of their House—the House of Boethus. John the Baptist, though, has always been associated with Josephus’ Essen because of his dining on “locusts and honey” in the New Testament. A Dead Sea Scroll found in the caves in the same wilderness John lived in show that they, too, expected an anointed King to Come but also expected a High Priest Messiah who would outrank the King Messiah.
This is the protocol for a session of the dignitaries…in the event that the anointed (king) should be present among them: The (high) priest, as head of the entire community of Israel, is to come first, and the heads of the Aaronid priestly families…are to take their seats before him in order of rank. After that, the anointed (king), being a layman (i.e. not Aaronid), is to come. (Damascus Document, The Dead Sea Scriptures Edited by Theodore H. Gaster)
What we have learned so far, however, says that an untainted bloodline must also be involved. To have the terms “just” and righteous” and “daughter of Aaron” apply to Elizabeth suggests such a “pure” bloodline. It was especially important at just this time…in the last days of Herod…when Mariamne II the High Priest’s daughter had married Herod and her son Herod was half Herodian. What is being suggested is that Elizabeth had purer blood…and therefore so did her son…than Mariamne II because she had not been married to Herod or any Herodian.
An Unnamed Daughter of High Priest Simon son of Boethus
So who was Elizabeth that Luke went to some trouble to declare was kin to our Mary? Is it possible to find Elizabeth in the pages of Josephus? I set out to see and this is what I found…you decide.
First, there is no woman named Elizabeth in Josephus’ index. Exodus 6:23 does say that Aaron the first High Priest’s wife’s name was “Elisheba,” though, so it may have been a popular name for daughters of High Priests. And, we know that the High Priest’s House at the time was Mariamne II’s House of Simon son of Boethus…Josephus lists two brothers for Mariamne II but no sisters. However, we know that is not unusual…that a sister for Mariamne I the Queen was not listed except in passing and left unnamed as was Antigonus’ sister who held a fortress against Herod for seven years.
Reading Luke again, I noticed that he began his gospel with a greeting to a “most excellent Theophilus,” certainly a greeting to someone of power. So…back to Josephus’ index…where I found the name Theophilus and an eerily similar story to Luke’s story about Elizabeth:
…and he (Herod) took the high priesthood away from his father-in-law, Simeon the son of Boethus, and appointed Matthias the son of Theophilus, who was born at Jerusalem, to be high priest in his room. Antiquities of the Jews XVII.4.2
This Matthias son of Theophilus was married, believe it or not, to an unnamed daughter of High Priest Simeon son of Boethus, a priest from Egypt and would then, coincidentally, be the sister of Mariamne II. In other words, Matthias, though a priest in his own right, was named the High Priest because he was married to a daughter of Simeon son of Boethus the High Priest…though you have to read the whole chapter in Josephus to piece it all together. When Simon was deposed and Mariamne II’s brothers were tortured over the plot to kill Herod—the role of High Priest went to Matthias the son-in-law, for a brief time. This was a common practice from Simon the Hasmonean to Caiaphas the High Priest in Jesus’ day, and beyond, as we will see. The husband of a “daughter of Aaron” could be made the High Priest if no suitable son was available or if said sons had just been tortured by Herod.
But there is more.
Just as “Zacharias” ran into trouble at the “fast,” so, coincidentally, did Matthias son of Theophilus. Josephus gives us this odd story of what befell Matthias before he could officiate in the “Holy of Holies.”
Now it happened, that during this time of the high-priesthood of Matthias, there was another person made high-priest for a single day, that very day which the Jews observed as a fast. The occasion was this: —This Matthias the high-priest, on the night before that day when the fast was to be celebrated, seemed, in a dream, to have conversation with his wife; and because he could not officiate himself on that account, Joseph, the son of Elemus, his kinsman, assisted him in that sacred office… Antiquities of the Jews XVII.VI.4
“Conversation” translates in the slang of the day as sexual relations. Apparently, the High Priest was to abstain the night before he went into the Holy of Holies including dreaming about it.[i] Considering both stories side by side (reading horizontally) you can see the similarities: both take place in the last days of Herod, both are about sexual relations with the wife, both have a dream or vision, both involve the High Priest and the Day of Atonement when it was expected that there be a prophecy received by the High Priest—and—both women are daughters of Aaron and have husbands who are acting High Priest at pretty much the same exact time.[ii]
All this is leading to the “fact” that Elizabeth daughter of Aaron in Luke is the same person as the unnamed daughter of the High Priest who was the wife of Matthias Theophilus AND sister/kin to a Mary/Mariamne AND who had a prophecy that HER son would be the High Priest to Come and his name was to be John even though it wasn’t a family name.
I laid it out in a genealogy chart to see what would happen…could I show that our Mary, Mariamne III was also the cousin/kin of “Elizabeth?” And, as odd as it may seem…just doing the chart does show that they were part of the same extended family of Herod and Mariamne the Queen…by marriage.
[i] There are Talmudic legends about the High Priest needing to wear a rope around one foot when he went into the Holy of Holies in case God struck him dead. No one else could enter so they had to be able to pull him out.
[ii] Except that the story is garbled, probably by Luke. It is not Matthias who would have had the vision in the Holy of Holies about a son for a “daughter of Aaron.” Though by the time Luke wrote his gospel outside of Judea, nobody would have known it unless they had been there or had read Josephus.