The year is 29 C.E., and Jerusalem chafes under the Roman Empire's oppressive rule. A badly scorched body is found behind the Veil of the Holy of Holies - the Temple's inner sanctum, the most sacred space on earth for the Jews. No one except the high priest may enter this place and he only on the Day of Atonement. This is no casual violation, and the authorities are in an uproar.
Gamaliel, the rabban of the Sanhedrin, is the ranking rabbi in all of Judea. Now he must solve this delicate mystery while dark agents with unholy interests plot to seize control of much of the trade in certain highly profitable imports. As the tangled web of intrigue and murder is slowly unraveled, Yeshua, the radical rabbi from Galilee, continues to annoy the high priest, and holy smoke from the sacrifices rises from the Temple.
About the Author
Frederick Ramsay has published fourteen books that range from historicals (The Jerusalem Mysteries), to Africa (The Botswana Mysteries), to police procedurals (The Ike Schwartz Mysteries). In addition, his stand-alone Impulse was named one of the Best 100 Books of the Year in 2006 by Publishers Weekly. He is an iconographer and an accomplished public speaker. He lives and writes in Arizona.
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Holy SmokeA Jerusalem Mystery
By Frederick Ramsay
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2013 Frederick Ramsay
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBecause his cadre of kohanim had drawn this particular week to perform the priestly functions, Josef ben Josef would be the one to discover the body. Had he remained by the Altar of Sacrifice where he'd been assigned, had his curiosity not willed his feet across the porch and into the Holy Place, had he not paused and looked at the Great Veil, he might not have been the one to raise the alarm and cause the high priest's face to turn as red as Moses. Also, he would not have lost his place on the roster of kohanim and ended his days in Bethlehem herding goats and sheep instead of remaining a priest in the service of Ha Shem. He had one glorious moment as a priest in the city of David, in the Temple, and then—finished.
There could be no doubt about the body, although it had yet to be brought into view. A heavy cord of elaborate construction snaked out from under the Veil and, indeed, provided the only evidence of its existence, but what else could be attached to its other end? Josef 's cries of alarm at the edges of the Holy of Holies brought his colleagues scurrying into the most sacred area of Herod's Temple. The steps of Nicanor Gate, which lead from the Court of the Priests into the Holy Place, the antechamber to the Holy of Holies, seemed to be as far as they dared go. There they gathered, wailed, and seemed incapable of moving one way or the other. Instead, they stood like the pillars of salt one sees down by the Great Salt Sea, like Lot's wife. Even after being joined by the high priest, Caiaphas himself, they remained inert, in a state of fearful confusion. That is until the rabban of the Sanhedrin arrived. His presence seemed to restore a small measure of order and calm. He paused, seeming to measure the mood of the moment, studied Josef, the other five priests, the high priest, and then asked for an explanation. Josef stammered his story as best he could.
"Has anyone determined with certainty that there is, in fact, a body attached to the end of this cord? Pulled on it, perhaps?" the Rabban asked. The men glanced at one another and shuffled their feet, embarrassed. "No? Then doesn't it seem reasonable to do so?"
The kohanim turned to the high priest for confirmation. Holy Writ did not prescribe the lashing of a cord to the ankle of anyone entering the Holy of Holies, although there had been talk about it for years and many assumed it was part of Temple protocol. In any case, there could be no accompanying instructions as what one was to do if the worst actually happened, that is if some unclean person did, in fact, dare to enter the Holy of Holies, approach the Name-That-May-Not-Be-Spoken, and been struck down for his impiety.
The high priest put his fists against his ears, clenched his teeth, and growled something in Aramaic that Josef did not catch. The rabban, on the other hand, had a half smile on his face that he did not attempt to hide. Did this most honorable man find this awful situation amusing? Perhaps his enjoyment derived from the high priest's discomfort. Josef had heard talk. He had not paid it any mind at the time, but now he wished he had.
"High Priest," the Rabban said, "you will have to bring this dead person to light sooner or later. Let's have it done now."
The high priest nodded. There were no precedents for this. How could there be?
"And let us hope that it is, indeed, a man at the end of that rope and not one of your sacrificial animals gone astray."
An animal from the pens that held the bulls and rams: was that even possible? Again, it seemed to Josef that the rabban took some perverse pleasure in the high priest's discomfort.
"Or perhaps this is some pagan's idea of sacrilege and he turned swine loose in there."
The image of a dead pig lying behind the Veil with the other end of the cord tied to its leg caused Josef 's stomach to turn over. He swallowed the vomit that formed in his throat. It would not do to add to the desecration by being sick, not now. He took a deep breath and forced the blasphemous image from his mind. The rabban, he saw, stood with his head cocked to one side, apparently waiting on the high priest. Time ground to a halt. Whatever lurked behind the Veil was too appalling for any of them to contemplate. But contemplate it they must.
"Impossible, Rabban. What a thought!" Finally, it seemed, the high priest had found his voice. Turning to the priests he added, "All of you will go to the Laver and wash. Sacrifice an unspotted ram and dip your hands in its blood and sprinkle it on your tunic. You must pray the prayer of consecration as you do so. When you have done all these things assemble in the Holy Place and await my direction. You, Nathan, you climb into the observation room. It is early, but there may be enough light for you to see what lies at the end of this cord."
The priests hurried off to do as they had been directed. Surely Caiaphas would know what needed to be done. Had he not served as high priest longer than anyone in memory—recent memory at least? He had. Josef refused to listen to the talk in the streets of his corruption and political maneuvering. Caiaphas stood last in the line of Aaron, the one man closest to the Lord. Even Gamaliel, the rabban, did not sit so close as that.
Josef rushed to catch up with his co-workers and begin the rite of purification the high priest decreed.
Chapter TwoGamaliel served the Sanhedrin as its rabban, the rabbi's rabbi, so to speak, the final arbiter of what was, and what was not, an acceptable interpretation of the Law. In addition, and more to his liking, he trained young men in the art of disputation and reading the same Law. Because of those two undertakings, he found himself frequently in the company of the high priest. The two of them did not always agree on the nature and enforcement of the Law and were frequently at odds both publicly and, more often, privately. Even so, he would never have anticipated that he would spend the next several days dealing with the consequences of a corpse in the Temple.
On awakening that morning at his usual early hour, he felt wearier than when he'd retired. He blamed Caiaphas for that. They had passed the previous night in disputation. Would the high priest never let the issue of the marginally heretical rabbis go? It seemed obvious to Gamaliel that proper instruction in the righteous interpretation of the Word by those capable of doing so should be sufficient to counter any of the eccentric interpretations being offered by the Nation's wandering band of self-proclaimed rabbis, prophets, and would be messiahs.
Gamaliel told the high priest that when he found the time, he made a practice of drifting along the edges of the crowds gathered around these well intentioned, but ignorant, teachers and almost without exception believed there could be no dangerous outcome stemming from any of their teaching. That is, with the possible exception of the tall one from Nazareth. Yeshua, he was called. That one had a very different view of the Nation, the Lord, and the Law.
"That man seems to prefer teaching by telling stories or asking questions," he'd said to Caiaphas.
"He's Greek? He's studied Aesop or Socrates?"
"I rather doubt it."
He did not add that after listening to him, Gamaliel had decided that with some formal training and a firm hand to guide him, this Yeshua might someday make a good teacher of the Law. At the same time he wondered whether the Galilean might have spent some time with the teachers from Persia or Parthia, which if true, could slow that process down. Gamaliel didn't know a great deal about the tenets held by the worshipers of Mazda, the Zoroastrians, and had only heard of the Avesta. His most immediate experience had come at the hands of a bullying Roman Tribune who'd hawked Mithras as the one true way, not Gamaliel's "angry god." Gamaliel harbored some doubts about the connection between the Mithras the Roman worshipped, who seemed pretty punishing himself, and the Mithras the Parthians held to. What little he did know of their odd monotheistic sect persuaded him that on the whole it was not a bad thing to discuss so long as the declaiming rabbi eventually turned his listeners back to see Judaism as the final and perfected Way. If this Yeshua harbored any notions in that direction, he would doubtless understand that important distinction.
In any event, Gamaliel had needed every bit of his reserve of patience. Someday, he thought, he would end up in a shouting match with the high priest—the sort that when it involved younger men, often led to blows. Gamaliel would never resort to violence, of course. He was reputed to be the calmest of men. Still, there were times when disputing with Caiaphas pushed him close to the brink.
So, on rising after his restless night and still agitated by the high priest's argumentative nature, he'd dismissed his students as they'd arrived and headed for the Temple. Merely standing near the Presence had a calming effect on him. And thus it was that on this soon to be historic morning, he strode through the crooked streets of the Lower City alternately assaulted by the chattering voices of men and women sharing the day's ration of gossip, and the pungent aroma of spices, roasting meat, and excited humanity. It was only when he had mounted the steps to the Temple Mount that he stopped short, perplexed. Something was missing. He paused to stare upwards at the Temple walls. No smoke rose from burning sacrifices, no Shofars sounded to mark their procession to the altar. What could this mean?
As he attempted to reconcile these anomalies, a frantic young man dashed up to him and began to babble. Gamaliel had to ask him to repeat the message twice before he could make any sense of it.
"The Holy of Holies ... defiled," he gasped. "A man, unclean ... dead."
From this, he assumed that death had somehow visited the Temple. He picked up his pace and hurried across the Temple Mount, through the Beautiful Gate, across the Court of the Women, then through the Nicanor Gate to the Court of the Priests. There, the rostered kohanim and their leader, all in a state of high excitement, chattered and gestured, glancing furtively at the Veil that screened the Holy of Holies from them. He listened as the youngest of them, Josef Somebody-or-Other, blurted out his story. With some trepidation, Gamaliel ventured into the Holy Place but only far enough to confirm the presence of the cord which disappeared under the Veil.
The situation presented a certain irony and in spite of the obvious seriousness of the situation, he had to smile. The practice of attaching a rope to the ankle of the high priest when he entered the Holy of Holies had not been his idea. The possibility of having to retrieve a body thence, the result of the Lord's anger at an unworthy entrant, had circulated in the vestry and palace for years. If he remembered correctly, it was first suggested during the time of the Maccabees as that complicated revolution wound its way through history and ended in the ascent of Herod, the builder of this gaudy Temple. Then, as now, the perceived distance between the appointed high priest and the line of Aaron had been called into question by some of the Nation's more conservative leadership. Gamaliel did not know if their scruples made any difference in the first place—who could say after a lapse of four millennia how closely related to Moses' brother-in-law, Aaron, anyone could claim to be, or whether the practice of attaching the rope had ever been instituted.
The previous year when he suggested that it might be something to consider, his colleagues had shouted him down. There is no mention, they'd insisted, in any of Torah that could support such a thing. He'd replied that he knew that and suggested that if one thought about it, there wouldn't be—that even admitting the possibility of an unprepared, unrepentant priest meant that the builders of Zerubbabel's Temple and the drafters of Torah as they knew it had doubts about the Truth and the Way. No, they would not have written anything of the sort into the documents. But he asked them to consider their current situation.
"Pause for a moment and ponder this," Gamaliel had said. "We worship in a Temple built for us by a king who practiced the faith only when and as it suited him. His successor son shares that marginal faith. The Temple is far removed from the simple Tabernacle the Lord decreed as to size, construction, and more importantly, spirit. King Herod built this one as a memorial to himself more than to glorify the Lord. And as much as it pains me to say it, our leader is an unreconstructed Sadducee appointed not by our elders but by our Roman overlord who has no interest in nor respect for our ways. What do you suppose are the chances Caiaphas, or indeed, any high priest who owes his selection and allegiance to a pagan, could survive a confrontation with an out-of-patience Elohim in a place designed and built by a king who was for all practical purposes also a pagan? If, as you claim, you cherish him as your leader, you must consider the possibility. If I am wrong, will any harm be done? If I am correct, how will we proceed if the worst happens?"
It had been a delicate conversation, as some of those in the disputation were close supporters of the high priest and any question of his position and legitimacy would be awkward.
"But he has been in and out of the Holy of Holies every Yom Kippur for years and the Lord has not been offended yet."
"Operative word, friends—yet."
They had reluctantly agreed with his argument, but had insisted it not be made public knowledge.
"What will people think if they were to know we have doubts about our high priest?"
They decided that on next celebration of Yom Kippur they would urge Caiaphas to adopt the cautionary cord.
Now, it seemed that the worst had happened. True, it was not the high priest who lay inert behind the Veil, but someone else, and he or she—one had to acknowledge that remote possibility—most certainly had to be removed lest the Lord's anger increase.
It did take a push to put the high priest into motion, but soon whoever lay within would be brought to light. Then a determination could be made as to what must happen next. As an afterthought Gamaliel sent a messenger to fetch the healer, Loukas.
"Exit through the north gate and go out from the city through the Sheep Gate," he said to a still agitated Josef. "You will find the man in the house that backs up to the hillside. Tell him The Rabban of the Sanhedrin requires his presence. Tell him it is urgent. No, tell him it is a puzzle. That will bring him when urgent might not. Hurry."
Chapter ThreeBy the time Loukas the Healer arrived, neither the high priest nor any of the kohanim had made any progress toward removing the body, which by this time had been confirmed by Nathan, who'd climbed into the observation chamber built high on the wall that allowed visual access to the Holy of Holies. He had called down that, though little light penetrated the place, he could see what he was certain must be a body lying on the floor.
Gamaliel managed to bring the priests together and calm them down enough to take direction. Unfortunately, no help came from the high priest, who stood immobile like one of the ubiquitous statues of the current Caesar that seemed to grace all the city corners where the Romans gathered. Caiaphas' face by this time had turned as white as the marble used in those same busts and the alabaster slabs that lined this Holy Place. He had given his initial instructions about the need for purification and appeared to have run out of ideas as to what to do next.
Gamaliel met Loukas at the steps and briefly described the situation to him and the lack of progress in retrieving the dead man.
"What is the hold-up?" the healer asked.
"Two things. Our priestly class seem reluctant to admit that a body exists behind the Veil in the first place, even though it has been confirmed, and then there are the mechanics of pulling it free from its folds. I am told it is very thick and heavy, which would make an extraction nearly impossible and might defile the fabric in some way."
"You've been told? You don't know?"
"I'm not sure anyone does. Well, the high priest might. He has to make his way through it once a year."
"How long have those sheets of material been hanging there?"
"It is hard to say. As long as the temple has existed, presumably."
"From Solomon's time? Surely not."
"No, not that temple. This one is Herod the king's attempt to rival Thebes, Athens, and Rome for grandeur."
"My, my, Rabban, do I detect a small hint of Greek cynicism in your tone?"
"To be a Cynic is only to accept a certain view of things. It is not the exclusive property of your Greeks."
"Not my Greeks, please, but I take your point. And so this temple ...?"
Excerpted from Holy Smoke by Frederick Ramsay Copyright © 2013 by Frederick Ramsay. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As the story opens, kohanim (Hebrew for ‘priest’) Josef ben Josef discovers the remains of an unknown man beneath the Veil of the antechamber to the Holy of Holies—the Temple’s sacred Chamber. The only remains visible to the kohanim are the ankles of the mystery person; bound in the heavy cord wrapped around his lifeless ankles. As priests gather ‘round the spectacle, it is only when Caiaphas, high priest of the Temple, arrives before initial shock begins to subside. Fear, however, remains high among the group. It is not until rabban of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel, appears that a semblance of order begins to unfold. Gamaliel’s initial investigation tells him the mystery body is not the result of a divine or holy occurrence. Rather, someone has dumped the charred, lifeless body beneath the Veil and was careful to secure it with the cord in an attempt to stage the scene as a suicide. Sometimes what seems the obvious is nothing of the kind. Gamaliel intends to prove the body was placed there and, by no means, did that man take his own life. The story is set in the year 29 C.E.—a time when more than distinct differences prevail between Jerusalem and the oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. Gamaliel is an arbiter—interpreter of the Law. Satisfied he has ruled murder being the obvious situation, his job now is to solve the egregious wrong doing. He elicits the help of his confidante, Loukas, a powerful healer among the Jewish community. It seems the further Gamaliel immerses himself into the quest for truth, the greater his challenges become to uncover the truth. There are foes among them who wish to bury the truth, no matter the expense to do so. If only it were one murder to solve, but as the story progresses, a trail of bodies mount the closer Gamaliel and Loukas get to the absolute truth. It would seem hul gil, a powerful opiate, is the key to unlocking the answers the two seek in order to gain ultimate resolution. Frederick Ramsay has done an outstanding job of weaving fascinating and historical information under the cover and plot of a murder mystery. It is obvious to me he spent a respectable amount of time studying his periodic subject matter because of his confident delivery of a very credible story. This is what I call a successful formula. Ramsay is patient. He presents just enough to build intrigue across the pages, yet commands a willing readership attention in so doing. There is never a moment throughout Holy Smoke where the reader will experience a lull or plot confusion. Rather, there is a tremendous amount of history lesson going on and the treat is the reader gets to experience fascinating information from an epic period of time for mankind while collecting facts to solve the mystery. Ramsay captures the period with superb eloquence in his word placement. Holy Smoke is a terrific tale of murder, mystery and intrigue and what makes it so captivating is the period of time within which he elected to place the tale. Quill Says: Holy Smoke is a worthy novel that will appeal to historians as much as murder mystery fans because of the religious and secular period of time it was written.