17th Degree

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The 29 Masonic Degrees of the Scottish Rite

17th Degree

17th DEGREE:

Knight of the East and West

  The Stage Drama

The time is a few years before the birth of Christ; the place is the courtyard in front of the main gate of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem.  Three groups of religious Jews – Essenes, Sadducees and Pharisees – are arguing over what to do about the huge bronze Roman eagle Herod has placed over the Temple’s entrance gate, an abomination in the eyes of the city’s Jewish citizens. The Pharisees settle the matter by tearing it down and then beating a hasty retreat. Herod, who is ill and close to death, arrives and is infuriated; he vows death to the vandals. He even orders his own son’s execution, returns to his palace and dies.  

        The Sadducees and Essenes commiserate with each other and debate their options. The Sadducees decide to pray about the matter. The Essenes prudently take off for a new hidden refuge on the shores of the Dead Sea.

   The lessons of this degree are that man will fail in all efforts that are based on power, greed and envy; and that divine guidance is needed to keep us from repeating the errors of history. This degree also teaches that we must seek truth in our way of life, and that we should learn from, and avoid repeating, the errors of the past.

Historical Background

After Alexander the Great died leaving no male heirs, his generals divided up his empire among themselves. One general, Ptolemy, took control of Egypt while another, Seleucus, ruled western Asia. Their descendants, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, took turns conquering and ruling Judah. In 134 B.C., the Seleucids were in power and a Jewish puppet king, John Hyrcanus, sat on the throne of Judah with the support of his master, Antiochus Sidetes, the reigning Seleucid king.

             Hyrcanus was an able ruler and his Judean armies, with the help of their Seleucid allies, conquered the surrounding regions of Samaria, Galilee and Idumea. Idumea was a small region to the south of Judah on the border of Egypt. The Idumeans, much like the original Hebrews, were a mixture of northern Egyptians and nomadic desert herdsmen. They probably worshipped the Egyptian goddess Hathor and the Arabian moon goddess Sin, both patron deities of the Sinai Peninsula. After he overcame them, Hyrcanus forced them to abandon their goddesses and accept Judaism, which most of them reluctantly did. The Judeans, who by then had become quite xenophobic and rabidly nationalistic, never regarded the Idumeans as “real” Jews. Most Judeans thought they were indifferent in their practice and they looked down upon Idumean men and women as ethnically foreign.

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         John Hyrcanus died in 104 B.C. His younger son, Alexander Jannaeus, succeeded him and appointed his own son, John Hyrcanus II, as high priest. After the death of his father, John Hyrcanus II led a revolt to make himself king. He had as a friend and ally a man named Antipater the Idumean, a former governor of Idumea who was Jewish by adopted religion but Idumean by ethnicity.

           While this Judean civil war was going on, the shadow of Rome fell across the land. The Roman general Pompey invaded the area and took Jerusalem after a three-month siege. He strolled into the Holy of Holies just to see what was in there but did not damage it. He also put Antipater the Idumean, not the upstart John Hyrcanus II, on the throne of Judah. Then, a few years later, the forces of another upstart, Julius Caesar, killed Pompey. Antipater was careful to make friends with Caesar and so stayed on the throne.

          Then, in 44 B.C., a group of senators, including Caesar’s trusted friend, Marcus Junius Brutus, assassinated Caesar and Rome was in turmoil again. In the following year, 43 B.C., an agent of some ultra-nationalistic Jewish group poisoned Antipater. Three years after this, while Rome was occupied with its own civil war, the Parthians (the people who at that time ruled Babylonia) invaded Judah and placed a man named Antigonus Mattathias on the throne. They carried John Hyrcanus II away to Babylon and cut off his ears so, as a mutilated person, he could never again be high priest. Everything finally settled down in Judah.

           But Antipater the Idumean had fathered a son named Herod by an Arab woman, Kypros. So Herod was Arabian by blood and ethnicity but Jewish by religion. Under cover of darkness the young Herod escaped from Jerusalem and an almost certain assassination. He managed to get to Rome and persuaded the current ruler, Mark Antony, to support him in a takeover of the Judean kingship.

             Hedging his bets as always, he walked the white stone paths of Rome’s Forum between Mark Antony and Antony’s rival for the Roman throne, Octavian, arm in arm with both of them. To show his solidarity with Rome, he took his two new best friends to the Temple of Jupiter, the holiest site in Rome, and offered sacrifice to the Roman gods. Herod then returned to Judah and, with the help of his Roman cohorts, had no trouble throwing the Parthians out, executing Antigonus Mattathias and declaring himself king by fiat.

The Judean people distrusted Herod as a pseudo-Jew and a foreigner but he now had the full support of Rome to back him up and there was nothing they could do about it. To cement his kingship, he divorced his Idumean wife Doris and married a Jewish noblewoman named Mariamne.  He would eventually marry ten women, one after the other. Paranoid to the point of psychosis, over the next several years he had almost everyone associated with him, including Mariamne (whom he drowned) and most of his sons, executed or murdered. The Roman Emperor Augustus (Herod’s old Forum buddy, the former Octavian), who was familiar with Jewish dietary laws, laughingly said it was “safer to be Herod’s pig than his son!”

Herod spent enormous sums of public money on a project he hoped would endear himself to the Jewish people. He restored and enlarged the dilapidated 500-year old temple of Zerubbabel and lavishly embellished it at tremendous expense. He knew that the office of High Priest was a favorite bone of contention within the Sanhedrin (the rabbinical court, made up of the Jewish priestly caste) and that it would generate a lot of time-wasting squabbling. To forestall this he had 46 members of the Sanhedrin executed. Then, as Henry II of England would later do with Thomas à Becket, Herod appointed his own High Priest, a man loyal to him. He also, as this degree’s story relates, placed a gigantic Roman eagle over the temple’s gate to show his Italian bosses where his loyalties lay.


A group of nationalistic rabbinical students tore the eagle down and smashed it. Herod was not amused. He rounded the students up, dragged them in chains to his palace in Jericho and, to show everyone how he took care of dissenters, had them burned alive. Herod may have lacked people skills but he knew how to make a point.

            While all this political unrest was going on, two new sects in Judaism had emerged and become influential in the lives of Judeans. One sect was quite sympathetic to the Hellenism (Greek culture) that had prevailed in the Middle East following the conquests of Alexander the Great. They called themselves the Zadokim (“Followers of Zadok,” the High Priest at the time of Solomon). In English this name has become “Sadducees.” They were mainly intellectuals drawn from the educated urban upper classes; they spoke Greek and were familiar with Greek philosophy and customs. The Sadducees followed only the written letter of the Jewish law and rejected all folkloric belief in angels, spirits and demons. They did not believe in an afterlife or in the general resurrection of the dead. As a group, they were wealthy and politically powerful. As individuals, they were probably stuck-up, condescending and unpleasant to the common citizens. They were all Roman collaborators.

             The other sect called themselves Hasidim (“pious ones”). They were mostly from the rural, poorer classes. The Hasidim had split into two sub-groups: the Essenes (translated as either “healers” or “saints”) and the Perishaiya (“those who keep themselves apart”). In English the word Perishaiya has become “Pharisees.”

           The Essenes, the smaller of the sub-groups, were ascetics who lived in monastic communities on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea. They were a secretive sect and not much is known about them. Their doctrines seemed to have been apocalyptic; that is, they thought that the end of the world was right around the corner.  Researchers believe they are the people who recorded and hid the Dead Sea scrolls, including the forty or so Lost Gospels.

           The Pharisees lived throughout the land among the people and were less strict in their observance of Halakha (הלכה‎), Jewish law and tradition,than the Sadducees. They practiced a milder, traditional religious system that can best be summarized by the teachings of Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus who also made his living as a carpenter. One day, while Hillel was building a house, a heckler approached with a crowd and shouted: “Rabbi, give a summation of the Law that a man can recite in the time he can stand on one foot.”  Hillel replied “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the whole of the Law; the rest is commentary. Go and learn the commentary.” He then chased the heckler away with a carpenter’s yardstick. Today we call this teaching “The Golden Rule.” It became very popular among the people and was quoted by many rabbinical teachers, including Jesus.

         The story line in this degree is not taken directly from the Bible but is a well-researched piece of fiction detailing some of the problems the puppet king Herod the Great faced. He had to practice a political balancing act to placate both his Roman masters and the many fanatical sects of religious zealots and rabid nationalists that were abroad in the land. These political activists and hotheads recklessly taunted the overwhelming military might of Rome. They were constantly fomenting and encouraging rebellion among the citizens of Judah. Herod, who had lived in Rome and hobnobbed with Roman leaders, knew first-hand of Rome’s power and the temperament of its Senate. The constant show of dissent in Jerusalem eventually resulted, as Herod feared it would, in a disastrous war. In A.D. 70 Roman legions under Flavius Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian, sacked Jerusalem and destroyed Herod’s magnificent temple. Most of the rest of Palestine was untouched by the Romans and peace returned to the land.

        Then, in A.D. 132, the Jew-hating Roman emperor Hadrian (who, two years earlier, had made the practice of circumcision illegal) decided to rebuild Herod’s temple, but announced that it would be a temple to the Roman god Jupiter. Naturally, the Jews rose up in rebellion. The rebels were led a by a man named Simon ben Kosiba, whose early military successes caused the people to proclaim him their Messiah. As Messiah, he took the name of Bar Kokhba (Son of the Star). For a while he had the upper hand, and may have actually wiped out an entire Roman legion. But Rome soon prevailed and, in A.D. 135, Bar Kokhba and thousands of his followers were slaughtered at the Battle of Bethar.  Hadrian and the senate had had enough. They decided to solve their “Jewish problem” once and for all. The Roman army ravaged the whole countryside, slaughtered thousands, sold more thousands into slavery, and dispersed the Jewish people into their two-millennial Diaspora that continued up until the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948.

        The political unrest in this degree’s story is caused by the Roman imperial emblem, a gigantic bronze eagle, which, as stated above, Herod had placed over the gate of his newly rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.

Most of our beliefs about the Pharisees come from stories in the four Gospels (out of about forty or more) that the early Church fathers decided to retain in their New Testament canon. These stories usually portray the Pharisees confronting Jesus with hostile intent. Tradition has assigned authorship of these Gospels to four of Christ’s apostles: Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. In fact, unknown parties wrote them at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second. All the men who actually wrote the Gospels were probably born after Jesus died and had never interacted either with him or with any of his disciples.

        Intellectually, the Gospel authors and their congregations in Damascus and Antioch were much more closely wedded to the Greek schools of philosophy than to the Judaism of Jesus and his disciples; they had more of Athens than of Jerusalem in their theology. Much Church spirituality, for instance, derives from the Platonic schools’ mystical philosophy of worshipping beauty for beauty’s sake. In addition, the Church Fathers were heavily influenced by Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which Thomas Aquinas would later say contained everything necessary for living the good life.

      So the political environment and philosophical underpinnings of the Gospel authors and the early Christian Church became somewhat different from that of Jesus and his Apostles. For instance, during his ministry Jesus had preached extensively about a mystical concept that he called “The Kingdom of Heaven.” He invoked simile after simile to illustrate this concept to his listeners (“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a mustard seed; …like a buried treasure; … like a dragnet; …like yeast, etc. [Mathew 13: 31-47]). This seems to have been an apocalyptic vision based on Jesus’ prophetic analysis of certain sections of Old Testament wisdom. Apparently, Jesus envisioned some sort of imminent cataclysmic event (involving the appearance of an entity that he called The Son of Man, a Messianic figure from the Book of Ezekiel whom he soon identified with himself) that would usher in the arrival of a utopian society. The old Jewish law of halacha, with its emphasis on Temple worship, would be replaced by a new law of universal love in which the heart of every person would be that person’s own spiritual temple.

      It undoubtedly required meditation and other spiritual exercises for the average listener to be able to comprehend it. The neophyte would have to arrive at a sufficient stage of enlightenment to perceive Jesus’ vision of the Ground of Being and the advent of the suffering Son of Man that he was trying to communicate. The Gospel of Thomas probably comes closest to an exposition of this doctrine that might have been comprehensible to the average person. The Church, however, found the doctrine distasteful and rejected Thomas’ gospel from the canon. Both Catholic and Protestant denominations now ignore this, the fundamental teaching of Jesus, altogether.

    All of the 40 or so Gospels, including the four currently accepted ones, were written at a time when Christian communities in Greek-influenced Mediterranean centers were downplaying their Judaic origins. They were trying to present a more ecumenical, welcoming attitude toward Gentiles. The Gospel of John, in particular, exhibits a decidedly anti-Semitic twist. This Gospel portrays Jesus as someone removed from his own countrymen and co-religionists. In several cases the Gospel’s author sneeringly refers to them as “the Jews,” as if Jesus were something different. The reasons for this attitude may have been that the new cult of Christianity had come under attack by leaders of the Jewish communities scattered around the Mediterranean region.

    Following the Roman destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 and the dispersal of the Jewish population of Palestine in 135, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time were becoming the rabbis of the Diaspora. They led the efforts to ostracize Christians, whom they looked upon as apostate Jews, from the Jewish enclaves.  Also, around A.D. 90, when the Gospels were being written, the Jews themselves were becoming unpopular in Rome. The Gospels’ authors started to become anxious that Roman authorities not see the new Christian sect as being Jewish in origin. So, in their writings, they went out of their way to portray all rabbinical teachers other than Jesus in a negative light. Consequently, there are numerous Gospel incidents in which gangs of Pharisees “from Jerusalem” try to trap Jesus into making a seditious or blasphemous remark. Jesus, of course, always outwits the villains and they go away, foiled again.

    The actual Pharisees of Jesus’ time were almost certainly different from their portrayals in these Gospels. They were down-to-earth self-taught intellectuals who loved nothing more than a good argument over scripture or the law. If they ever did engage Jesus in debate it would have been because they respected him as a famous teacher, not because they wanted to see him come to harm. Besides, most of Jesus’ recorded teachings were very much in agreement with Pharisaic philosophy anyway. It is very possible that, at some time in his life, Jesus had himself studied with Pharisees. Remember Hillel and his Golden Rule?

The 17th Degree of the Southern Jurisdiction:


In the Southern Jurisdiction this degree has the same name but a different plot. It opens with the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist after he rebukes Herod for his misconduct. Then a candidate who has crossed the desert and has been wandering on the shore of the Dead Sea is brought into a room called the Chamber of Council and is examined. The candidate is then ritually purified and made a Knight of the East and West. Much of the ritual is based on the Book of Revelation. The Book of Seven Seals remains closed because it can only be opened by Christ himself. The plagues loosed by the breaking of the seals and the opening of the book are given Masonic interpretations. The phrase “East and West” refers to the combined wisdom one can garner by studying the Persian Zend-Avesta, the Hindu Vedas, the philosophies of Plato and Pythagoras, and the mystery religions of Phoenicia, Syria, Greece and Egypt as well as the Jewish scriptures. The lessons are that God is one, immutable, infinitely just and good and that light will finally overcome darkness, good will overcome evil and truth will conquer error.

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