Josephus, lastly, tells a story about one final Mary…the last one in his index and on my list. This Mary’s story is pretty awful. She does something that is the crowning evil that a woman could do; and not just any woman but a wealthy noble woman. Even Josephus hesitates to tell her story, except I have innumerable witnesses to it in my own age….
There was a certain woman that dwelt beyond Jordan, her name was Mary; her father was Eleazar, of the village Bethezub, which signifies “the House of Hyssop.”[i] She was eminent for her family and for her wealth, and had fled to Jerusalem with the rest of the multitude, and was with them besieged therein at this time.
When all exits were closed to the Jews, every hope of escape was now eliminated; and the famine, strengthening its hold, devoured the people, houses and families, one after another. The roofs were full of women and infants in the last stages of exhaustion, the alleys with the corpses of the aged: children and young men, swollen with hunger, haunted the market places and collapsed wherever faintness overcame them…Many, as they buried the fallen, fell dead themselves, while others set out for their graves before their fate was upon them. And throughout these calamities, no weeping or lamentation was heard…Deep silence blanketed the city, and night laden with death was in the grip of a yet fiercer foe—the brigands…Josephus and The Jewish War V.XII.3 Cornfeld.
Withholding food from those defending the city was cause for immediate execution. As Vespasian the Roman Legion Commander directing the siege would say,
…he had to do nothing but wait; those inside the walls would do his work for him as the various militia groups fought with each other. Wars IV.Vi.2
Most of the people by then were too afraid or weak to protest but Mary daughter of Eleazar flung reproaches at the zealot defenders, calling them “rapacious villains.” We have already seen how Josephus hated the “seditionists/brigands” and as the author of this story he put these words in her mouth.
While the famine pierced through her very bowels and marrow, when also her passion was fired to a degree beyond the famine itself…She then attempted a most unnatural thing; and snatched up her son, who was a child sucking at her breast, she said, “O thou miserable infant! for whom shall I preserve thee in this war, this famine, and this sedition? As to the Romans, if they preserve our lives, we must be slaves! This famine also will destroy us, even before that slavery comes upon us—yet are these seditious rogues more terrible than both the other. Come on; be thou my food, and be thou a fury to these seditious varlets and a by-word to the world, which is all that is now wanting to complete the calamities of the Jews.”
As soon as she had said this she slew her son; and then roasted him, and ate the one half of him, and kept the other half by her concealed. Upon this the seditious came in presently, and smelling the horrid scent of this food, they threatened her, that they would cut her throat immediately if she did not show them what food she had gotten ready. She replied that she had saved a very fine portion of it for them; and withal uncovered what was left of her son… “This is mine own son; and what hath been done was mine own doing! Come, eat of this food; for I have eaten of it myself! Do not you pretend to be either more tender than a woman, or more compassionate than a mother; but if you be so scrupulous, and do abominate this my sacrifice, as I have eaten the one half, let the rest be reserved for me also.” Wars of the Jews VI.III.4
News spread like wildfire through the city and over the wall to Josephus and the Romans. All were equally appalled…and thereby felt better about what was about to happen when the Romans broke through the wall…the people inside, if they had fallen so low as this “eminent” woman, deserved to die. We are expected to take the story at face value because Josephus said he had “innumerable witnesses,”
Mary as a Symbol
But this Mary could also have been conjured up to fulfill a prophecy such as this one. The gospels writers attributed many things that Jesus did to fulfillment of prophecy and the Essene used the writing tool often, also. I think that Josephus used this “prophecy” in his story of this Mary:
The hands of the pitiful women have sodden their own children: they were their meat in the destruction of the daughter of my people. Lamentations 4:10
Josephus made Mary daughter of Eleazar worse than the zealots. He very cleverly left us a clue for those with eyes to see…the name of Mary’s village Bethezub “signified House of Hyssop.” Googling “Hyssop” I found that it was “a plant used by priests to sprinkle the blood of sacrificial animals on the altar in the Temple.” Josephus, I feel, is using this Mary who sacrificed her son, to call attention to the mothers who had encouraged their sons to sacrifice themselves in this misbegotten war as the mother with seven sons did in II Maccabees during the war with Antiochus Epiphanes…and as the mother of John Hyrcanus sacrificed herself, and as the sons of Mariamne the Great Queen were martyred by their father…and as the young “innocents” and the wise men were martyred for tearing down Herod’s eagle from the Temple. Mariamne III, a daughter of the Tower of Queen Mariamne had a prophecy that her son would be the king to come and she pushed him to declare himself…and he died for it. (My theory)
But these mothers also had the Maccabean promise that if their sons died a martyred death, they would get them back in the Resurrection of the Saints, something expected when Jesus died. Read Matthew’s version. To show that it was not a quaint belief from a by-gone age, though, I am going to re-quote this passage from the Book of II Esdras, a first century writing dealing with resurrection with Christian additions.
Mother, embrace your sons, bring them up in gladness, like a dove; strengthen their feet, for I have chosen you, says the Lord. And I will raise up the dead from their places, and bring them out of their tombs, because I recognize my name in them. Do not fear, mother of sons, for I have chosen you, says the Lord. I…have consecrated and prepared for you twelve trees loaded with different fruits, and an equal number of springs flowing with milk and honey, and seven huge mountains on which roses and lilies grow, with which I will fill your sons with joy…When you find any who are dead, give them burial and mark the place, and I will give you the first place in my resurrection… II Esdras 2:15-24 (As transcribed and commented on in The Apocrypha by Edgar J. Goodspeed)
The New Testament Book of Hebrews also spoke of women and resurrection…
Women received their dead raised to life again: and others were tortured, not accepting deliverance that they might obtain a better resurrection. (11:35)
A lot of what is said about sacrificing sons has a double meaning, of course. One level is directed symbolically at the Daughter of Zion…Jerusalem, herself. Even the Book of Revelation is quite vivid in making “her” the vilest woman of them all…
So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication…And I saw the woman drunken with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus…Revelation 17:1-6, 18:1-8
And yet, Josephus has this Mary say, here, take, eat of the body of my son? Was this “Mary” a dark symbol for the “mother” who devoured her sons or was something more pointed being said? Even Josephus’ would have known the family, growing up in Jerusalem from shortly after the death of Jesus and would have known about one of the first sacraments of the family and followers awaiting the resurrection of Jesus…after his martyrdom…of which his mother played a key role, and for which Josephus blamed her…(my theory)
And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you…Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. Luke 22:19-20.
And what woman anywhere is more associated with the resurrection of Jesus than Mary Magdalene, Mariamne of the Tower of the Queen…his mother.
[i] Also remember Mary of Bethany…meaning House of the Poor…had a brother who was named Lazarus, a variant on the name Eleazar…whose own daughter might well have been in Jerusalem for the siege. She could have been “eminent for her birth” as I suggested, like the Rabbi’s stories of Martha of the House of Boethus. I could find no village named Bethezub, though Wikipedia says it was a village in Peraea beyond Jordan with no footnote.