Who was Rabbi Ishmael the High Priest? Few tourists visit his tomb, but his modern obscurity obscures his ancient importance.
One of the sites in Israel least visited by Western tourists is the tomb of Ishmael, the last high priest (“Kohen Gadol”) of the Jewish temple of Jerusalem. And there is good reason for this. The tomb, in the small Druze village of Sajur (Sagur) in upper Galilee, halfway between Acre and the Sea of Galilee, is a sparsely decorated modern building, essentially an empty room surrounding the purported cenotaph of Ishmael.
But this unprepossessing building obscures the significance of Ishmael in rabbinic Jewish tradition. Ishmael was the son of Elisha, but other details of his background are obscure. Ishmael's father, Elisha, is not among the high priests of the temple during the first century A.D. as identified by Josephus.
Ishmael's dates can be approximated because he is said to be one of the “Ten Martyrs” — rabbis who were executed by the Roman emperor Hadrian, presumably during the Bar Kokhba rebellion (A.D. 132-136). Ishmael was flayed alive by the Romans, and the skin of his head stuffed with straw as a trophy. Another of the Ten Martyrs was the prominent rabbi Simeon, the son of Gamaliel the Elder. This Gamaliel was the teacher of Paul (Acts 22:3), who famously opposed the persecution of Christians during the trial of Peter and the apostles (Acts 5:38-39).
It should be noted, however, that Jewish traditions are generally vague and ambiguous about dates from this early period, sometimes confusing rabbis of the same name who lived at different times. Since Gamaliel died around A.D. 52, his son Simeon would have been approximately 83 in A.D. 135 even if (as seems unlikely) he had been born in the last year of Gamaliel's life. It is more probable that Simeon was martyred during the first Jewish rebellion in A.D. 70, or perhaps that he was the grandson or great-grandson of Gamaliel.
If the tradition of Ishmael's martyrdom by Hadrian has any basis in history, then Ishmael would have lived during the early second century A.D. and died in roughly A.D. 135, around 65 years after the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70. Why, then, was he universally called the “High Priest,” if at best he was a young child when the temple was destroyed? During the revolt of Bar Kokhba, the Jews began to offer sacrifices on the altar of the ruins of the temple. Presumably, Ishmael acted as high priest at this partially restored temple of Jerusalem during the Bar Kokhba revolt and, hence, was the last functioning high priest of Israel. This would explain his ubiquitous title in rabbinic tradition.
But Ishmael's significance does not end there. He is the purported author of 3 Enoch, anciently known as “The Book of Rabbi Ishmael the High Priest,” or “The Revelation of Metatron.” In it, Rabbi Ishmael asks God for a vision of the divine “Merkaba” — the “chariot” throne of God as described in Ezekiel 1. God responds by sending the archangel Metatron, who leads Ishmael to the celestial temple, where he learns the mysteries of God. Much of the book consists of Ishmael asking questions of Metatron, who reveals that he is the deified Enoch. God clothed Enoch in “a robe of glory” and gave him a new name, “Lesser Yahweh (Lord),” because God's “name is in him” (3 Enoch 12). Enoch was then given power over all the angels, and all the angelic names were revealed to him. Enoch, here, is a Jewish version of the celestial Christ. Enoch/Metatron serves in the celestial temple as God's high priest, and Ishmael is permitted to worship there with him, singing the angelic Trishagion/Qedusha hymn from Isaiah 6. After this, the future of the world is revealed (3 Enoch 45). (A translation can be found online at archive.org/details/pdfy-lFh2SRV-tLJq15wg.)
In 3 Enoch, then, Ishmael plays the role of John the Revelator, and Enoch/Metatron that of John's angelic guide (or perhaps Christ), who reveals the mysteries of the celestial temple where John sees God and Christ seated on his celestial throne.
The import of this tradition is that, although the earthly temple had been destroyed by the Romans, the righteous faithful could still worship and serve God in the celestial temple, just as John does in the book of Revelation. Thus, Ishmael was the last high priest to officiate in the ruins of the earthly temple (during the Bar Kokhba revolt) and the first to serve with Enoch in the celestial temple.