Simon of Cyrene
Our days in Nazareth remained unchanged while Jesus traveled the world. A longer period of time lapsed between his letter from Gaul and his next scroll. We didn’t know where his ship was bound for this time. Had the Trident encountered bad weather again? Often when we discussed this delay at the family table, we considered the possibility that his ship had sunk. We would gather in a circle and pray to God. Regardless of the content of Jesus letters, we just wanted to know he was all right. Whenever we heard the sound of horses’ hooves, we would stop what we were doing and run to the road and find Romans galloping past. There were times when it seemed as if another letter would never come. The waiting was excruciating for our parents, but mostly just annoying to my brothers and I. To our surprise, however, another letter did, in fact, arrive, from a place called Cyrene. Evidently, Joseph of Arimathea’s business in Gaul had finally been concluded and their ship had sailed safely to the next port. When our courier delivered the scroll, Papa looked it over, discussed it with Mama, and invited Justin to share Jesus’ adventures with us again.
After delivering our cherished letters to us, Justin was almost a member of the family. It gave Papa an opportunity this time to share a mug of wine with him. So our neighbors wouldn’t see a Gentile going in or out of the house, we gathered below the fig tree near Mama’s garden. As I look back fondly on such moments, I’m reminded of those times, during Jesus’ ministry, when he found a shady spot like this and lectured as a father to us, giving us delightful parables or prophesying grimly about the coming days. That day, as Jesus last important letter was clutched in Papa’s hands, we children had mixed feelings about what we might hear. Already, we knew that Jesus was in great conflict with the Torah. Beginning in Jerusalem where Jesus annoyed the priests and scribes to Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Gaul, in progressive stages of controversy, Jesus used his travels as a canvass for his views on faith and God’s design. His opinion, which was, in fact, to be the foundation of his ministry—God was universal and our faith was therefore meant for all people—would one day rankle Pharisees, rabbis, scribes, and priests. Already, in his formative period, members of this religious group had found fault with his views. Joseph of Arimathea, who understood that Isaiah, a great prophet, had spoken about a universal god, agreed half-heartedly with this notion, and yet, judging by what Jesus wrote in his last letters, it was obvious that the Pharisee was ill at ease with the miracles he performed in silencing the storm and the healing of his youngest son. In spite of the association Jesus made between the pedestal to the unknown god and the universal god, Joseph dismissed this connection outright. For him the empty pedestal was merely Greek and Roman equivocation. Because they were thickheaded, uncircumcised, and ritually unclean, it was, Samuel once pointed out, impossible for Jews to accept Gentiles into our faith. Regardless of what Isaiah wrote, I wondered if Joseph might be humoring Jesus on his extension of God’s grace. As Papa would confide to Mama, such an interpretation ran contrary to Pharisaical, Sadducee, and rabbinical beliefs. After everything that he had seen and heard, Joseph simply didn’t know what to make of Jesus. Considering how much it upset his sons, it was a wonder he hadn’t clamped down more on Jesus’ controversial views.
My mind had been stirred by Jesus but was not yet shaken. That would come later when I became his disciple, along with our brother James. I didn’t need the words of Isaiah or an empty pedestal. Even before Jesus left on his trip, I had my own opinions of things. After becoming acquainted with the Romans in our town, I felt no hostility toward Gentiles, only pity. How could they accept our invisible, unknowable god? I barely understood him, myself. Jesus’ experience with Joseph’s fierce-looking guards was just one more reminder of this. If I was a pagan, I doubt very much if I would be circumcised. All of our restrictions about what to eat, how to worship, and those knit-picking rules of behavior are just too much for Gentile minds. My own family could scarcely follow Hebrew laws.
Though I was only a child, the notion that God was here for everyone, not just Jews, struck me as sensible and just. I didn’t require Jesus to make up my mind. Nothing surprised me about his letters. The fact that he performed miracles through prayer was taken in stride by our family. We had seen him bring a dead sparrow back to life and cause Nazareth’s storm. He spoke with a wisdom far beyond his years. He had done many wondrous things. Nevertheless, with Jesus as part of our family, we lived with controversy. Friends and foes alike had criticized his eccentric habits and strange speech, and many of them gave credit to Satan for his miraculous deeds. What would they have thought if they had read his letters from Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Gaul? If the pattern held true, his letter from Cyrene would be the worst. James and Joseph had been outraged with Jesus’ ideas. There were times when Mama had been more concerned with their reaction than the content of Jesus’ scrolls. Though I noticed James mellowing in the past months toward him, Joseph had not changed. Like Matthias and, until his illness, Levi, who scoffed at Jesus’ miracles, Joseph remained hostile toward his oldest brother for the same reasons that troubled the Pharisee’s sons. Perhaps Mama suspected an even greater controversy in the latest letter, for she hovered anxiously around Papa while he glanced calmly over the scroll. Nehemiah and I were growing quite bored with it all. Justin waited patiently to hear the news, savoring his mug of wine.
“Does it look bad?” Mama asked bluntly, wringing her hands.
“The usual conflict between Jesus and Joseph’s oldest son,” Papa answered reassuringly.
“Could he shock us anymore after Gaul?” “Calm down Mary,” he said, patting her head, “let’s see what Jesus has to say.”
“I’m greatly impressed with Jesus,” Justin declared in a loud, heartfelt voice. “Someday he’ll be a prophet or great rabbi. He claimed to have quieted a storm. He brought a youth back from the dead. What other wonders await our ears?” “Mark my word,” he said, raising his arms, “that young man is destined for great things. Nothing would surprise me after what I’ve heard!”
From this rustic deliverer of imperial mail, we heard the clarion voice of prophecy. Justin, however, like everyone else, had no idea what Jesus would become. Nehemiah, who had been jolted awake by Justin’s voice, stood up that moment and cried out “Yes, and Jude saw him cure a dead bird!”
When a few of the town elders, out for a late morning walk, slowed down and pricked up their ears to hear what he was going on, Papa placed his finger up to his lips to shush us, led us into the backyard, then down into the orchard where the ground was soft and there was plenty of shade. The letter began with salutations and a brief rundown of the voyage between Massilia and Cyrene, which Papa read hurriedly as Mama, with Martha and Abigail in tow, went to fetch juice, snacks, and more wine. After a brief salutation, Jesus reassured us that his voyage had gone smoothly this time. Soon, after we had settled down on the leafy floor with mugs in hand, Papa leisurely sipped his wine and resumed reading Jesus’ letter from Cyrene.
. . . . We arrived in the port of Apollonia in high spirits. Levi is still weak from his illness, but his appetite has returned. He has, with his father’s coaxing, been taking walks on the deck. I pray for him every day. Though he has begrudgingly, at his father’s coaxing, made friends with me, Matthias continues to fan the flames of hatred and distrust for me, so I pray for him too. In spite of my failure to make peace with his sons, especially Matthias, Joseph, himself, has forgiven my supposed transgressions, and I believe he’s still fond of me regardless of the venom Matthias pours into his ears. I don’t blame his oldest son for resenting my presence during Joseph’s travels, nor can I fault him for criticizing my point of view. But I am heartsick that he believes that I am a heretic and blasphemer. Of all the persons in our entourage, Loftus is the closest to me now. Perhaps in a lesser degree, though not much, are Strabo and our Syrian guards. These simple yet powerful men are perhaps the most menacing foursome I’ve ever seen, and yet they’ve begun listening to me and encouraged a dialogue on the subjects of God and our faith. I would trust them with my life and, unlike Matthias and Levi, I don’t resent their ribald humor and rustic wit. Alas, though I hope one day they’ll convert to our faith, I’m not encouraged by what I’ve experienced on our trip. Loftus and the others were as pigheaded during our journey to Cyrene as they had been throughout our trip.
As we crowded onto the deck impatient to touch dry land, Matthias began harassing me, which drew Loftus, my chief protector, to my defense. Levi stood by clutching the rail, still recuperating from his illness. That old Jewish saying “idle minds are a tool of the Satan” ran through my mind as I listened to Matthias’ rant. Unfortunately, Loftus’ outrageous claims only made matters worse. The Syrian guards and several crewmen, acting as his audience, laughed heartily at his suggestion that I had more religious power in my little finger than all the Jewish priests. Joseph was giving instructions to the captain and his delegated cargo handlers, so he failed to hear this exchange. Immediately, I raised my hand in protest, but was shouted down by Matthias, who ranted bitterly about my heretical views and acceptance of Gentiles into our faith. More than anything else, he resented my belief in a universal God, because this included all the Gentiles of the world. He was also concerned about my friendship with our guards, who resented his low opinion of them. Thanks to me, in his thinking, they hated him. I was about to scold Loftus for misunderstanding the power of prayer, but, now that Matthias was practically foaming at the mouth, I was forced to shout one simple command to him: Quiet! My antagonist was immediately silent. A warm breeze blew off the African coast, and the guards and crewmen cheered and whistled loudly. Several more seamen trotted over, drawn by the commotion. Belatedly, a frown growing on his face, Joseph ambled up to the rail where the crowd had gathered.
“Matthias, what is the meaning of this?” He called to his shaken son.
“This young man is touched by the Jewish God,” a crewman summed it up.
“Not again,” groaned Joseph.
“This isn’t Jesus fault.” Levi spoke on my behalf. “Matthias should’ve said this in private. ”
“Matthias shouldn’t speak to Jesus at all,” Joseph snapped irritably. “Why can’t you boys leave him alone!”
It warmed my heart to hear those words from Joseph’s youngest son, following his defense of me, but I was alarmed by the lingering ignorance of the guards. As if they hadn’t already heard the story, Loftus bragged aloud to all those who would listen how I quieted the storms, not once but twice, and had (he pointed out the sickly lad) raised a man from the dead—all untruths, of course, and a complete misinterpretation of the facts, but beyond my ability to refute, since the guards would believe that I was simply being modest about my powers, which was natural for a magician or demi-god. Joseph good-naturedly put a stop to the discussion, ordering us all to regroup in our cabin. I thought he would scold the guards, but he bawled all of us out for letting this get out of hand. A wink and a smile, as he glanced back at me, told me that he was simply being tactful and didn’t blame me for the quarrel. Later, just before landfall, I heard him taking Loftus to task for his outburst and the other guards for egging him on, but the worst scolding was given to Matthias for his unwillingness to follow Levi’s example in trying to make peace. I couldn’t yet call Levi my friend, but today he showed disapproval of his brother’s mean-spiritedness. I felt that the battle for his friendship had been half won.
When Simon, our Jewish host and guide, ran up to greet us as we stepped off the gangplank, my feeling of well being soared. Even the gaunt-faced Levi gave him a smile. The gentle giant approaching, clad in the colorful striped tunic of Cyrenaican wool and cap, had a long black beard and large dark eyes that twinkled when he smiled. Here, despite his great size and beefy hands that gripped our forearms with painful affability, was the friendliest of our hosts, and yet the least important for Joseph in a business sense. For this young Pharisee, I was informed later by Levi, was one of his father’s closest friends.
After introducing himself, he and his servants assisted us into the waiting carriage. While his servants took a second carriage back to his estate, he climbed in with us, causing the coach to emit a terrible groan. The four guards, as always, rode alongside of us, chatting in good cheer amongst themselves. As we traveled the main road, which Simon informed us had been built by Roman engineers, he acted as our tour guide, explaining the history of various buildings along the way. Joseph, his sons, and I were crowded on one seat, while the big man occupied most of the other side, save a portion for his delicate wife Ruth.
“Behold my friends,” his voice boomed, “Cyrene—the finest city in Rome’s African province. The port of Apollonia has been our port for over a thousand years. The Greeks, who once lived on the island of Thera, built our city long ago. When our kings lost our kingdom to the Assyrians, my forefathers, along with many other Jews, fled to various corners of the world to escape bondage. Many of them wound up here in Cyrene. The Romans now rule us with an iron fist but are not as bad as the Assyrians, Carthaginians and Greeks.”
“You will note,” he interrupted himself, pointing out the window beneath Ruth’s tiny nose, “those distant hills, which surround Cyrene.”
“I can’t see sir,” I confessed, craning my neck.
“A history lesson,” Matthias grumbled, “that’s all we need.”
I had volunteered to sit in the middle next to Joseph this time to give poor Levi the window seat for fresh air. The other window seat seemed wasted on Matthias. Seeing my interest in his introduction, Simon ordered the coachmen to halt a few moments to allow us all a better view. Climbing wearily out of the coach into the bright sunlight, Matthias and Levi groaned, as we filed out. I felt Matthias’ elbow sharply in my ribs. A fierce backward glance from their father, however, forestalled any complaints as our host’s trunk-sized arms swept the sky.
“Behold,” he exclaimed grandly, “a great valley surrounds our city, protecting us from barbarians. In our harbor Roman mariners protect us from invaders from the sea. We have many excellent synagogues, though our city was dedicated to Apollo, a Greek god. Cyrene is filled with many beautiful, alas, pagan temples. You can see these sparkling white marble edifices, that, from the port side of the city, look like jewels in the morning sun.”
“Beautiful,” I exclaimed, “they do like jewels!”
“You would think so!” Matthias hissed.
“I’ve never seen it sparkle so,” admitted Joseph, stroking his beard. “The last time I was here it was overcast. I’m not sure our ship berthed this far out.”
“That’s why I told the coachman to stop,” Simon replied, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Our vantage point is perfect. Rarely at this hour, during this season, is it so clear.”
“Yes,” Joseph noted wearily, “it reminds me of Athens.”
The port of Athens, I recalled, looked nothing like this. I could tell that he was exhausted. Perhaps that’s why he failed to notice Matthias’ scowl or hear him grumble under his breath. Though my ribs ached, I felt sorry Matthias. In spite of being only a few years older than me, his mind was clamped tightly shut. How could he learn about the world if he didn’t embrace its beauty? After we climbed back into the cabin, Simon continued his overview of Cyrene’s history, which caused Matthias to grind his teeth and Joseph’s eyes to grow glassy with fatigue. Levi napped fitfully in the coach. Loftus and the other guards were not particularly impressed with this distant province but they seemed to be impressed with Simon, as was I. Though hungry and tired, myself, I tried putting on a good face for our host. His little wife had said nothing so far. If I hadn’t seen her right in front of me, I would scarcely know the poor woman was there. I made eye contact with her once as her husband talked. She smiled and looked self-consciously down at her tiny hands in which was clutched an Egyptian lotus fan, the smallest one I’ve ever seen. I had a strong feeling, by the way Simon bent forward as if he was talking directly to me, that much of his discussion was for my benefit. He was an overwhelming presence—everyone around him, even our guards, were taken back, and I couldn’t help feeling drawn into his enthusiasm.
“It’s like this,” he droned, as if I was his student, “the Romans divided our people into four classes. Until the benevolent rule of Augustus, whom the Gentiles of Cyrene have made into a god, we Jews were at the lowest rung. There were in descending order: Romans, Greeks, the native populace (descendents of the Libyans), and then Jews. Since our people first came to the city, the Greeks have treated us as a hated minority. The early Romans encouraged this hatred, and yet have stepped in many times to protect us from the quarrelsome Greeks. Thanks to Pompey and Julius Caesar, the Greeks were finally put in their place. Augustus, Caesar’s heir, has elevated the status of our people. He feared that Rome’s love of Greek things was replacing Rome’s genius and realized that the Greek merchant class was likewise replacing Roman merchants in the business world.”
“What about the Romans in Galilee?” interrupted Matthias. “They don’t love us. They crucified two thousand of Jews.”
“Matthias,” Joseph whispered, “that’s enough.”
“That one needs a good thrashing!” Loftus exclaimed in the background.
“To be accurate,” Simon responded, wagging a finger, “Judas the Galilean murdered hundreds of innocent people. You should know that young man. We Cyrenaicans have been a peaceable people for centuries. All those uprisings from men like Judas have done is get a lot our people killed. If you pay your taxes and mind your own business, Rome will protect you from your enemies. My home and my fortune wouldn’t last one week if the Romans weren’t on guard.”
“Is it really that bad?” Matthias asked, glancing out the window.
“Yes,” he replied with a nod, “but it’s this way everywhere. Your father told me about those brigands in Galilee who prey on Gentiles and Jews alike.” “Jesus here,” he said, patting my knee, “has seen firsthand how Rome protects the innocent. Several companies of legionnaires now tramp up and down Nazareth’s hills on watch for thieves and incendiaries.”
“Yes.” I nodded, feeling a rush of emotion. “The Lord works in mysterious ways.”
“Bah,” mumbled Matthias, looking away.
“Jesus’ father, whose name I share, is a good man,” Joseph said thoughtfully. “It was not easy for him to call on Rome for help. To save my family from someone like Reuben I would’ve done the same.”
“Reuben was the name of one of the patriarch Jacob’s sons.” Levi offered, giving us a weak smile.
“Tiberius hates Jews,” Matthias persisted stubbornly. “He’s ignited resentment for Jews all over Rome.”
“That’s in Rome.” Simon pursed his lips. “This is Cyrenaica, which like most of the other provinces in the empire, are grateful for Rome’s protection and its fine system of roads.”
Looking passed Levi’s droopy face, I glimpsed portions of the great temples we had seen from afar. Simon and Joseph now discussed the current emperor’s crackdown on the Jews in Rome. According to our host, no such enmity between Roman and Jew exists for us in Cyrene, but the Greek majority require constant surveillance because of their hatred of Jews. It is, he quipped, similar to, but on a larger scale, than the Roman protection of Nazareth, with the exception that in Nazareth the Romans are protecting the Nazarenes from other Jews. Simon, who must have read this in one of Joseph’s letters, had not mentioned the other towns in Galilee under Roman protection. Giving Reuben credit for the Roman presence, as Joseph had done, was an exaggeration too. This conversation I found pleasant, if not rather dull, but Matthias was smoldering with irritation for me. I had consorted with Gentiles and was befriending someone he saw as a “Roman-loving” Jew. As Simon prattled on, I could see Matthias’ eyes flash with contempt. That he could judge a man he barely knew struck me as indefensible. I wondered if my presence had started it all. Though I hadn’t meant to, I had come between he and his father. It would be difficult to win him over as long as he looked upon me as both a heretic and intruder.
When we arrived finally at Simon’s estate, I was greatly impressed. Joseph, whom I’m certain had a great villa himself, took it in stride. Sitting on the edge of a stream flowing from the hills, it appeared vulnerable to enemy attack after what he told us about the barbarians, until Simon pointed out the Roman garrison on an adjacent hill.
“Money couldn’t buy that kind of protection,” he pointed, as our guards began gathering our luggage from the second coach.
Loftus, Strabo, Glychon, and Tycho were joined by Simon’s servants, who helped them carry the luggage into the house and, when that was done, the products from Gaul into a warehouse in back of the estate. Simon reassured us that he kept no slaves, and his home, we soon discovered, was a model of Jewish propriety. It was an auspicious beginning. Matthias brooded but said nothing as we filed into his magnificent house. Joseph, Levi, and Matthias were greatly relieved to find a metal box on the doorposts, containing the Mezuzah (chapters from the Torah), a feature missing in the other estates we entered in Greece and Rome. I don’t remember ever seeing a Mezuzah on the doorposts of even Samuel’s house. It occurred to me that such a box might have been vandalized in the Jewish quarter of Rome. Now, as we were shown the premises by Aesop, Simon’s chamberlain, we were treated to a traditional Hebrew household. Instead of murals on every wall and statuary, which even our Jewish hosts in Greece and Rome had placed in their gardens, the entire villa and its garden were filled only with floral columns and beautifully tiled floors. The garden area had many small, florally decorated fountains and a vast assortment of African and Eastern plants, which, Simon explained, grew rampant in the climate of Cyrenaica. Each of us had spacious chambers with our own cloacas. The only Roman or Greek comfort, noted sarcastically by Matthias, was the baths, which, because of the communal nature of these pools, would have been an abomination if we had not used it separately this time. Unlike the smaller bath at Publius’ house, where we were all herded into the pool like sheep, we took our turn at our leisure. During my turn, Achilles, my manservant, began teaching me how to swim. By the time we left Cyrene, I planned on mastering the simple strokes he taught me. Refreshed and clad in a clean tunic and toga, I tardily joined the others gathered in the main hall as they waited for supper.
“I heard you’re learning how to swim?” Joseph gave me a sly grin.
“Since when does a Nazarene carpenter need to know how to swim?” Matthias whispered into my ear.
To avoid another scene, I directed my response to Joseph, who sat across me at the feast. “I thought it might come in handy if our ship sinks.” I gave him a cautious smile.
Matthias tossed his head back and laughed. “If our ship sinks? It might take a little longer if you knew how to swim, but you’d still drown.”
“That depends,” I replied, avoiding his glare, “on how far you are from land.”
“He’s got a point,” snorted Joseph. “Knowing our Jesus, he’d swim all the way home.”
“Ridiculous!” grumbled Matthias.
Levi had been silent, in fact not talking at all since this morning, but now he looked across the table and gave me the faintest of nods. The stabbing realization came to me that he would not last another summer. Tears willed up in my eyes and I looked away until the pounding of my heart slowed and I composed myself. I knew Levi’s voice would haunt me for a very long time.
“There are different ways to drown,” he murmured, “. . . In water, quickly and out of sight—a shipwreck or on dry land where a man’s lungs fill with fluid and he becomes a human wreck.”
“Nonsense!” Joseph reached across to touch his hand. “You’re health is returning. You’re going to be just fine.
“Not exactly a topic for supper,” Simon’s booming voice suddenly echoed from the head of the table. “I propose a toast.” He raised a large golden mug. “To Joseph of Arimathea, his sons—Matthias and Levi, and their companion Jesus of Nazareth. A long, fruitful and prosperous life!”
“To everlasting life!” I blurted.
All eyes turned to me. Everyone, except Joseph, seemed to gasp. Looking down Levi’s side of the table, I could see Ruth tilt her auburn haired head slightly, as Simon’s dark eyes locked in on mine. For a moment I noted the reaction on his face. As Papa often does, he frowned and smiled at the same time, but then chuckled merrily to himself as he raised his mug and invited us to share my toast.
“To everlasting life,” Ruth, Joseph, and Levi murmured obligingly.
Responding to his father’s glare, Matthias followed their example begrudgingly, grunting angrily under his breath.
“This Jesus is going to make a good Pharisee,” Simon commented, descending finally into his chair.
“I’ll drink to that,” Joseph said, sipping his wine.
For a moment the unfortunate piece of furniture groaned under Simon’s great weight, as he turned to talk to Rabbi Avram, another one of his guests. Joseph took the opportunity to quietly scold Matthias for making an issue of my swimming lesson. I pretended not to hear his whispers and tried to strike up a conversation with Levi about the breathtaking view we had of Cyrene. Levi, however, though polite, was all doom and gloom tonight. I feared greatly for my vision and prayed constantly to myself that it was not so. From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of Matthias’ dour face, no matter how I tried to avoid him. To make matters worse, Arrius, a Greek-looking Jew, who was seated on the other side of Levi, stared at me constantly, though he said nothing as Simon and Joseph discussed business during our first course: a strange dish of vegetables and beef, which Matthias looked at suspiciously, and an assortment of breads that caught my eye—dark, light, honey-colored, and bluish loafs covered with cheese.
Simon gave a hasty, abbreviated Shema, which caused eyebrows to raise: “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is one. Blessed be the name of his glorious kingdom for ever and ever. . .”
As the servants refilled my goblet, I realized that I was wolfing down the first course ravenously. The long day and exercise in the baths had given me an appetite and great thirst. In spite of Arrius probing gaze and Matthias glare, I felt euphoric, which made me feel guilty when I noted how little Levi had touched his food.
“You must try to eat,” I coaxed him gently. “Try the goat cheese bread; it’s very good.”
Levi nibbled a small chunk and sipped his wine but said nothing. Joseph shook his head at me, I’m not sure whether he was expressing sorrow or telling me to shut up, but I was jerked out of my complacency by the voice of Avram, whom I had to crane my neck to see.
“I heard that you performed several miracles on behalf of your benefactor,” purred his nasally voice. “Tell us about these wondrous events.”
Joseph must have told Simon about my miracles. How else would the rabbi found out about these wonders? Yet Joseph’s face fell. He looked helplessly at me, at that point, and shrugged. While Levi managed to give me a sympathetic look, I could hear Matthias snicker to himself, gloating at the predicament the rabbi placed me in. When I bent over to catch Simon’s reaction, I could see that he was, as Joseph, disturbed by this probe.
“Now, Avram,” Arrius displayed exaggerated disbelief, “who told you this fabrication? One of the servants,” “or,” he looked at me craftily, “was it one of those Gentile guards?”
“I performed no miracle whatsoever,” I exclaimed folding my arms. “I prayed as did everyone else during the storms out to sea and during Levi’s sickness. Sometimes, if the Lord wishes, he gives us what we need. During our trip, God has watched over us. I am thankful for that.”
“Well spoken,” Arrius said, pursing his lips. “How old did you say he was?” he called to Joseph. “This one has a honeyed tongue and would make a fine rabbi in deed!”
“I shall be a carpenter,” I replied defensibly, “when I inherit my fathers’ shop.”
“Nothing wrong with that.” Simon raised his palms.
This brought immediate laughter from the two guests and Joseph’s oldest son, but Joseph, Levi, Ruth, and I were not laughing. Simon, I noted, was amused by my brashness. I couldn’t tell whether he thought me a bright lad or a buffoon. For awhile we literally chewed on these thoughts during our meal. I enjoyed my food thoroughly, and I was happy to see that Levi was eating some of the breads. When the second course, roast lamb and an assortment of fish and foul appeared on large steaming trays, we all turned our attention to this portion of the feast. Unfortunately, as it commenced, I had barely filled my mouth when a second topic crashed like thunder into my ears.
“From a servant I talked to earlier, who heard it from one of your guards, there is a strange tale circulating,” Arrius gave me a predatory look.
It reminded me of a cat eyeing a bird. I knew exactly what he was going to say before he said it. Loftus or one of the other guards must have divulged this information after a few mugs of wine. What could one expect if they were treated like servants or slaves? With a bittersweet smile on my face, I heard the Jewish merchant ask me if I really believed that Gentiles shared Lord’s grace and if God was a universal god.”
“The Gentiles share the Lord’s grace because God is universal,” I corrected him gently. “This was said by one of our greatest prophets. Are my words heresy if they’re shared by Isaiah, himself?”
“You’ve taken Isaiah’s words out of context,” Arrius scolded, while munching a greasy chunk of lamb.
“How so?” Joseph pursed his lips, “I went back and read Isaiah, myself, and he did imply that God is intended for Gentiles.”
“Implied is the operative word,” Rabbi Avram’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “There are many different meanings in various passages. Who knows what Isaiah really meant. He also spoke of a suffering messiah rebuked by the world. Are we to believe all the other prophets are wrong because of Isaiah’s controversial words?”
“Controversial,” I couldn’t help protesting, “you call Isaiah controversial?”
“I certainly do,” sputtered the rabbi. “How dare this wet-behind-the-ears youth make pronouncements on our holy books?” he protested to Simon.
“I’m sorry Joseph,” Simon addressed him instead of me. “I had no idea my servants told them this.” “Avram,” he turned to the rabbi, “accept my apologies for any insult, but Jesus meant no harm. At his age I was filled with wild notions, myself.”
“It’s heresy, Simon, plain and simple,” Avram said with a belch. “We don’t cast pearls before swine.”
That expression best expressed the Jewish attitude toward Gentile’s receiving God’s grace. As I considered our guards and all the other well-meaning pagans I’ve known, I resented his words deeply, and yet, after a warning look by Joseph, I held my tongue. Once again I had crossed the line, but I felt compelled. Sometimes it was as if he breath of God occasionally blew my way. Yet it was Joseph who defended me as the rabbi ranted and raved.
“I’m sorry,” I cried out, jumping to my feet. “It wasn’t my intent to insult my host nor his honored guest.”
“You haven’t insulted me.” Simon stood up, waving a hand. “This is a misunderstanding between you and the rabbi. I’ve always wondered about that passage myself. I see no reason why the Gentiles, who are the vast majority on the earth, can’t one day share God’s grace.”
“You’re not serious,” cried the rabbi. “Do you also believe in this universal God?”
“Sure, why not?” Simon shrugged.
“Calm down Avram,” Arrius, of all people, came to my defense. “I remember Simon, as a youth. He was spirited, like this fellow. I’m more concerned with Jesus’ miracles. If anything the boy is modest.”
Avram’s mannerisms had reminded me very much of our own Rabbi Joachim, but it appeared as if Arrius had only been teasing. So I didn’t argue this time. What was the use? I had heard this so many times before. I would expect one of our Gentile guards to say such a thing, but the Jewish appeared to be in his cups. Perhaps due to his wine or his eccentric personality Avram had also spoken carelessly. Simon wasn’t upset with the good-natured Arrius as he was with the tactless the rabbi, and yet Arrius defense, as much as Avram’s accusation, begged a response.
“Jesus isn’t spirited,” Simon replied politely, “he’s spiritual…There’s a difference.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Ruth said, sipping her wine. “Jesus is without guile.”
The rabbi snorted with disdain. Joseph scolded the rabbi so subtly he didn’t know he was being rebuked:
“What generation is this that we can’t see illumination in the eyes of youth? King David was a mere stripling when Samuel anointed him on behalf of God nor was the prophet Daniel much older than Jesus when he began his service for the Lord. Yet Jesus is not anointed and doesn’t claim to be a prophet. He merely prays for needful things: safety from the storms and my son’s health. These are not his miracles; they are God’s. If he quotes Isaiah, he’s in good company. The voices of our prophets, not merely Isaiah’s, have been heard by Gentiles down through the ages. I’ve met many converts to our religion, who are better Jews than many born into the faith.” “.…There are many forms of blindness,” Joseph added after a pause, “things we can’t see but also things we refuse to understand. At least a sightless man can open his mind to the truth. There are men who see clearly, with great intelligence, who are blind about spiritual matters. They are, in many ways, the most blind of them all.”
I understood the meaning immediately, but Avram, whose understanding came more slowly, had drank too much. He probably wasn’t sure if Joseph was making a general statement of rebuking him for his intemperate words. Simon, now quite tipsy, thought Joseph was in his cups, raised his mug in appreciation for his fine wit but changed the subject entirely as Avram sat muttering to himself.
“Arrius,” he called blithely, “tell our friends about your meeting with Tiberius.”
Arrius did a double take from Joseph to Simon. “That was a long time ago.” He made a face. “You really want to hear about that?”
“Yes, yes,” Simon motioned giddily. “That’ll take the heat off Jesus. I mean Tiberius is our emperor now, isn’t he? Ho-ho, Jesus is only a carpenter’s son!”
“Will, I met him before he was emperor,” Arrius began, pausing to take a long swig of wine. “I was doing business in Rhodes. Because it’s unholy to enter the house of a Gentile—” “or so they say,” he winked rakishly, “I waited in the courtyard with other merchants, until our contracts were brought out by a servant. No sooner had the documents been signed and viewed by a magistrate than a wild, uncouth man, dressed in an astrologer’s robes with conical hat and shaggy beard, appeared in the breeze way, holding a jug of spirits, staring blankly into the unknown.”
“Where is this leading?” Avram asked hoarsely. “Wine has loosened your lips, Arrius. Is this not another one of your ribald jokes?”
“Trust me,” Arrius answered with a belch. “This is serious. As Simon understands, I’m trying to make a point.”
Put unexpectedly into his place, the rabbi was glad to change the subject. For a moment, as Arrius stopped to explain the maddening rules that Rhodians placed on merchants, I looked across the table at Joseph and Levi and gave them a nod. Both seemed pleased with this turn of events. I wasn’t sure exactly how Matthias felt, but Ruth was smiling mysteriously at me as the merchant finally told us who the man in the astrologer’s costume, staggering into the street, was.
“No!” Joseph looked at him in disbelief. “Our new emperor? I heard he left Rome for awhile because of his mistreatment by Augustus, but to wind up in such a get-up as a common drunk—that’s beyond belief.”
“It’s true,” Arrius said, with a hiccup. “I swear on my mother’s grave.”
“That’s sacrilege!” Avram spat. “You must really be drunk to say such a thing!”
Arrius emptied his mug that had just been filled by a servant. Simon laughed softly to himself as the servant also poured wine into his cup.
“My apologies again to Joseph.” He stood up shakily to raise his mug. “What Arrius said is fascinating. I wonder if the rumor that the emperor dabbled into the black arts is true. I wouldn’t be surprised, considering some of the proclamations he’s made.”
“Jesus,” Arrius’ voice slurred slightly, “I’m sorry. I’m really impressed with your miracles. All that stuff ‘bout Gentiles becoming Jews is good for business. We all gotta get along....”
Suddenly he stopped talking, his head fell forward, and, after it rose shakily on its spindly neck again, a stupid grin spread across his scarlet face, indicating that he had forgotten what he was saying. Simon began chatting with Joseph about their business, which seemed like bad form, but was welcomed by the Pharisee. Ruth, who was sitting closest to Levi, whispered something in his ear. Levi chuckled, and the silly thought came into my head that they would have made a fine couple! The rabbi, who sat on my right side, and Matthias, who sat on my left, must have been absorbed in their meals, for I heard nothing from them until the third course. When the servants brought in trays heaped with all manner of desserts, most of our enthusiasm had waned after the previous courses, and yet Levi’s appetite suddenly soared as he eyed the wondrous sweet meats displayed on one silver dish. It warmed my heart to see him greedily devour the morsels as he chatted with Ruth.
Because Arrius had switched our topic of conversation to Tiberius, the mood at the table had changed. Avram sat quietly in his seat, staring into space. Perhaps he was sulking or feeling the effects of his wine. On Levi’s pale face there appeared, during our discussion, a familiar glow. I prayed that my fears were unfounded. His illness in Gaul, which the Lord, not I, abated, had given him a contrite heart. As a result, his attitude toward me began to change. That night, as my beliefs were challenged, I saw something else in his eyes: illumination. The miracles, God performed were, because of eyewitness, difficult to refute. I had at least made them all think about the universal god. Simon and his wife had listened with interest. Arrius, whom I thought would be another critic, had also seemed intrigued. One moment the merchant appeared to be on the rabbi’s side, and the next moment, he seemed to be on mine. Of course Arrius was drunk. Strangely enough, like Marcian, the merchant in Publius’ house, there had only the faintest slur in his speech as he guzzled down cup after cup, until, at one point, his head drooped lower and lower, until he could barely speak. To my surprise, Simon, our jovial host, who kept pace with the merchant, miraculously showed no signs of drunkenness. In his mannerisms, he was a bit crass as Ulfius, the Gaul. I liked him, as I had liked Ulfius, in spite of his faults. Unlike Ulfius, though, a thoroughgoing pagan, he was, in spite of his rough manners, a good Jew. Like Arrius, however, his mood and attitude toward me had been tempered by wine.
As I had seen at Samuel’s table, a nod from our host ended the feast. Following the example of the others, I stood up, brushed off the crumbs, and strolled into the garden to walk off my meal. While Simon and Joseph ambled off a ways to talk business, Arrius staggered to his chambers. Levi, Ruth, and I sat on a marble bench near a bubbling fountain chatting about trivial things. Matthias, with a change of mood, retraced his steps from the entryway and rejoined our group. The last surprise for me before I retired to my chambers for the evening was the begrudging voice of Rabbi Avram behind me saying, as he departed, “My apologies to you Jesus of Nazareth. You will either be a fine carpenter or a mover of men!”
Jesus narration, at the end of the scroll, stopped abruptly on those lines. A second scroll awaited our attention, but Papa’s eyes had filled with tears. Mama was weeping, as he sank to his seat, the first scroll slipping from his hand. I could hear the twins playing in the front yard, oblivious of the impact this letter had on my parents. The greatest secret of my oldest brother was but a breath away. While James and Joseph’s expressions were hard to read, I could see clearly that Justin, our courier, had been affected. He kept shaking his head and rubbing his stubbled jaw. Nehemiah, of course, was asleep. I for one, I’m ashamed to admit it, was deeply disappointed that Jesus dwelled upon such uneventful matters. Now, as I write down these lines, I know that the rabbi, in his ignorance, had acknowledged that Jesus, my brother, was the Messiah. Though he had spoken God’s will, nothing could have been further from the rabbi’s mind. On that day, after Jesus last important letter was being read in my home in Nazareth, no one, not even his parents, could possibly see this. Though it was so close—but a small leap of faith—the very idea of such a deliverer had not yet been born. All of Israel—from the farthest outpost of Jews to Jerusalem, itself, saw a conquering Messiah, someone of royal descent, like David or Solomon arriving one day to smite the Romans and set us free....certainly not a carpenter’s son.
“Jesus will be a great teacher,” Papa declared. “Even that narrow-minded rabbi saw that.” “Mover of men,” he repeated the phrase, “a fine title for our Jesus!”
“He was being sarcastic,” Joseph sneered.
“Shut up, you,” Mama said, wringing her fist, “you’ll not spoil this moment.”
“Now, now, Mama.” Papa patted her auburn head. “The rabbi was being sarcastic, but that doesn’t matter. The words came from God. A sage once said ‘from the mouths of children comes wisdom.’ We’re all children in the mystery of God. I believe Jesus will do great things. That is enough.”
“Jesus is but flesh and blood, like we,” Joseph cried bitterly. “I’ve listened to his words, too, but I’ve heard nothing but an adventuresome spirit. Who could blame him after seeing half of the Roman world? All that stuff about quieting the storms and healing the Pharisee’s son comes from his own hand. Jesus is a great writer and thinker—a genius as the Romans and Greeks would say, but a foolish, young man, tottering on the brink of heresy!”
“Enough!” Papa shouted.
Mama was on the verge of throttling Joseph, and yet, for the first time, I saw plainly that Joseph was, himself, a prodigy to weave such words. Papa saw this too. A smile appeared in his bushy beard, as he gauged Joseph’s pain.
“You’ll also make your mark,” he said thoughtfully. “Of all my sons, you’re the most likely to become a Pharisee or scribe. And yet, you, more than any of us, concern yourself about Jesus’ affairs. I can see now that you truly believe your brother is a heretic, Joseph, but, after what I read in his last letter, you must understand that even Jesus’ critics recognize that he has special gifts.”
“Yes, it’s true,” James turned to his brother, “Jesus has mastered the gift of prayer. Until this moment I might have agreed with you, but there were too many witnesses who saw the miracles. I can’t believe our oldest brother will be happy being a carpenter, Pharisee or scribe. There’s something else he must do in his life. Papa said as much himself as did Joseph of Arimathea and Avram, the rabbi.”
“Jesus shall be a great prophet!” the words leaped from Justin’s mouth.
Upon that note, I make this observation. To this day, I cringe at my foolishness. I was in denial—a childish numbskull, too caught up in my own dreams to consider anyone else. After hearing the words spoken at Simon’s feast, even James glimpsed through the fog of reason to see Jesus preaching to the multitude at a latter day, and yet I couldn’t wait to race outside and romp in the hills.
Our afternoon meal that day was brief and unspectacular. Justin had been invited to join in our simple feast, which we at in the backyard amongst the trees. Everyone, even my brother Joseph, wanted Papa to finish the last letter. After Nehemiah awakened from his nap, I waited for him to finish his lunch so we could get some fresh air. Because of his weak stomach, he ate slowly and, it seemed, with little relish. The only morsels he liked to eat were sweat meats and Mama’s honey rolls. He drank juice and water continually, however, which had, we would learn later, much to do with his illness.
Because Justin had to reach Sepphoris before nightfall, he would not hear the last scroll. Papa promised to let him read it on his next visit, but Justin shrugged his shoulders, calling out before he rode away, “I’ve heard enough to know Jesus will one day do great things. The only question is when?”
In barely more than an hour, from both Rabbi Avram and Justin, the courier, we had heard prophecy. This I’ve known since the incident of the Sparrow: Jesus was touched by god. Even Papa wouldn’t admit this. The word I had searched for that day was overkill. Jesus had made it absolutely plain what he believed, but I had heard enough. For only a short while that afternoon, Nehemiah and I were allowed to play outside before Mama called us into the house. There were no arguments allowed this time. Listening to Jesus letters was mandatory. Mama was anxious for Papa to finish the last letter, dreading what came next. For his part, Papa, like the rest of us, was growing weary of Jesus’ thoughts. Intermingled with his view of our religion were glimpses of his surroundings and an occasional exploit, such as his observations in Egypt and Rome. By and large, however, Jesus was more interested in people than places. The beauty, grandeur, and mystery he saw were backdrops to a greater vision. Jesus’ journey with Joseph of Arimathea had triggered opinions he already shared with us and also helped shape the views he would share with his disciples and ultimately the world.
As we began our tour of the city, Simon and Joseph, who sat across from Joseph’s sons and myself, were talking about “the old times,” while Ruth gazed dreamily out the window of our carriage as if Matthias, Levi, and I didn’t exist. She was a mysterious woman. I think Levi admired Ruth’s simple beauty. There was, I believed, a depth to her that belied her timid nature, yet she looked more like Simon’s daughter than his wife. Suddenly, while we all waited for our first sightseeing stop, there was a commotion outside the coach: horses’ hooves, the clamor of armor, and the shout of a Roman office, “halt and desist! This is an unlawful assembly!”
“What’s happening?” Matthias yelped in fear.
“I don’t know,” Simon answered, rising up awkwardly and exiting the coach.
“Loftus, Strabo, Glychon, and Tycho,” Simon called through cupped hands, “climb off your mounts and stand peaceably beside the road.”
“Everyone stay inside,” he called back anxiously. “I know many of the Roman officers in Cyrene. I’ll call one of them over and find out what’s going on.”
“You suppose its one of those Greeks-against-Jews things?” Joseph tried not to show panic.
“Probably a bunch of troublemakers.” Simon’s voice trailed off. “We’re in luck. There’s Proctos, the city prefect. I’ll ask him. He should know.”
None of us could hear their discussion. Joseph stuck his head out once to make sure the guards had followed Simon’s instructions. Levi, like his older brother, had reacted at first with fear, while Ruth sat calmly, her tiny hands folded in her lap. Though I wasn’t particularly afraid, I prayed silently to myself, and noticed that Matthias and Levi were doing the same. The incident with Reuben and the daily parade of Legionnaires in Nazareth had prepared me for such an encounter. I knew that God would protect us. It was fear of the unknown, rather than expected dangers of the road, that troubled us the most. Unlike Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Gaul, where the Greeks and Jews had been forced to get along, there were constant quarrels between Jewish and Greek citizens here that actually predated the Macedonian and Roman empires.
When Simon arrived back at the coach, he stood outside, beyond our view, for a few moments talking with Loftus in a low voice. Joseph seemed vexed as well as frightened by this action. Overwhelmed by the overbearing personality of our host, Joseph had loss control of his guards for a while. When Simon finally returned, he was bubbling over with news.
“It’s those damnable zealots!” He cried, throwing up his hands. “They retaliated against a Greek magistrate in broad daylight just as a cohort of Romans were marching through town. Evidently there was an incident in town last week in which a Greek temple was defiled in retaliation for Greek defilement of a Jewish wedding in which horse dung was thrown at the spectators over a neighbor’s fence. No one saw the first defilement, though it seemed as bad as tossing birds’ eggs on Venus’ statue.”
“Good,” spat Matthias, “she’s the worst of the lot!”
“That’s not the point,” scolded Joseph. “They’ll probably be crucified. Please, let’s hear Simon out.”
“I’m afraid he’s right,” Simon said, frowning at Matthias. “Unfortunately, the ones that got caught were Jews, who were not Roman citizens, as myself and most of the Greeks in Cyrene.”
“You and your Rabbi Avram didn’t mention the incident last night, ” Joseph seemed exasperated.
“Avram is only one rabbi in Cyrene.” Simon shrugged his shoulders. “As you probably noticed, he’s a little touched in the head. To tell you the truth, neither respectable Greeks nor responsible Jews want any more trouble. If those fools hadn’t manhandled that fat magistrate Ofidius, I might not have heard about this until the next meeting of the elders.”
“Are you certain that they’re going to be crucified?” Ruth asked in dismay. “Did they hurt Ofidius badly.”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.” Simon reached into pat her glossy curls. “Don’t cry my dear. Those young men imperil us all with this action. Otherwise this could blossom into full-scale civil war—Greeks against Jews—in Cyrene. I begged Proctos to wait and see if the man actually died. I might be able to reason with Ofidius. I’ve done business with this magistrate before. Perhaps, I could talk him into withdrawing his charges and petition the prefect for clemency in order to maintain the peace. But the stubborn prefect treated me like any other troublesome Jew. Pointing to my sedan he said, through clinched teeth, “Go!”
Matthias gave a wounded cry. “Bastard! It’ll be the prefect who causes an insurrection like the one in Galilee.”
“You’re overreacting,” chided Simon. “It’ll never get that far. This isn’t Galilee, which has a history of that sort of thing. This will be treated by the Romans as an argument between two conquered peoples—Greeks and Jews, not a reaction against the Roman presence. Proctos will obtain permission from the legate to crucify the Jews responsible for Ofidius’ injuries in order to placate the Greeks. He also promised me that he’ll track down Greek hotheads and, unless they’re citizens, crucify them too.”
“And if they’re citizens?” Joseph said, a slight edge in his voice.
“They’ll be beheaded and their heads raised up on pikes on the same hill exhibiting the crucified Jews.”
“This is all quite barbaric!” Levi said in a strangled voice. “I’m trying to keep a level head Papa, but it’s the Romans, not Matthias, who’re overreacting. If Ofidius is only injured and agrees to clemency, it would be better if the Romans don’t make a spectacle of these men.”
“Oh, what would you suggest?” Simon folded his arms, “I recommended a flogging, imprisonment or banishment, but Ofidius will probably die. The Jews did great physical harm to that magistrate, while the Greeks merely threw dung on those folks, and yet they’ll either be beheaded or suffer the same fate.”
“Precisely,” Levi replied, emitting a cough. “The Greeks will blame the Jews; the Jews will blame the Greeks. This will solve nothing, only make matters worse. Several foolish men will die horribly, but death is death, Simon. When you look it in the eyes, the greatest fear is in the last moment of life.”
“Is it true?” Joseph’s eyes rolled from Levi to me. “. . . . Were you in Gehenna those last moments? Did Jesus’ voice bring you back to life?”
“Yes, . . .I think so.” Levi nodded slowly.
“He was but asleep,” I answered, vigorously shaking my head. “The Lord awakened him, not me.”
“I don’t believe it.” Matthias looked at his father in disbelief. “You sound like you believe this charlatan!”
“Imbecile! How dare you sully this moment!” Joseph rose up to strike his son.
“Come-come,” Simon scolded, climbing into the cabin, “the Roman prefect is eyeing our coach. Everyone calm down. I know another route and some interesting caves outside of town.”
I was quite satisfied with his decision. Not only did he change this uncomfortable subject for me, he would keep us safe (at least for the benefit of Matthias and Levi’s minds). What was so great about another tour of pagan temples? Frankly, it did appear at times, as Loftus said, “If you seen one temple, you’ve seen them all!”
As the guards galloped back and forth on our flanks and we huddled inside the crowded sedan, Simon gave the driver an order in a loud booming voice, “Take us to the caves near the road to Tencheris.”
Off we went in our fine coach, rattling and wobbling on the bumpy road, silent and plunged for a while into our own thoughts. My heart pounded fiercely after hearing Levi and Joseph’s words, and yet I couldn’t share my thoughts with my fellow passengers, so I will share them with my family when they read this portion of the scroll. I know this will sound like heresy to some of you (especially Joseph) but I think Levi escaped death because of the Lord’s intervention. Physically he is but a shadow of his former self, and yet his mind has expanded far beyond the narrow-minded Matthias. Nevertheless he fears the dark sleep—death. Does he not know that he was touched by God? With a sad heart, I believe that he’ll soon find out that greatest of mysteries—the after life. I want to give him comfort and reassure him that death’s sting is but a moment in eternity, which I know all believers and righteous men and women share, but I’m afraid, at this delicate phase in my relationship with Joseph and his sons, it would widen the rift between Matthias and myself. I know Joseph is troubled by what this means, and Levi couldn’t comprehend my vision of the world to come; I scarcely understand it myself. So, until the right moment comes, this secret is between God, me, and my family when the courier arrives at our house.
The caves that Simon promised were not apparent at first. He began immediately to give us the background of this site. With fingers folded on his lap and a thoughtful frown of attentiveness on his face, Joseph scratched his head, nodded politely, and stifled a yawn, as his host lectured to his guests. I knew Levi wasn’t feeling well. Ruth, an image of patient humility, shared a look of concern with me. I could hear the guards galloping up and down the road alongside of our slower moving carriage, Loftus chatting loudly with Glychon now that we were so close. Simon’s introduction had begun with the discovery of the ruins by local shepherds who found valuable artifacts in the caves. Some of these pots and urns were displayed in the magistrate’s sumptuous house. As we pulled up to an oasis of cypress and palms, his long-winded introduction, which contained a rebuke for townsmen plundering these sacred grounds, turned into a sketchy history of the site, which Simon extolled in his grand-eloquent manner as we paused to rest in the shade.
“Before Greeks arrived from Thera to colonize this land, the Libyans, whose ancestors we call the Old Ones, built temples to Ammon, an Egyptian god, and also to local deities, whose names are lost to time.” “You will note,” he said, pointing through the trees to a nearby outcrop, “the white vein of rock, which contains the imprints of creatures drowned in the flood,” “or so they say,” he chuckled, winking slyly at us.
“We have such things in Nazareth,” I said excitedly. “I think they’re very old.”
“They are,” Simon said, as if in deep thought. “. . . . It’s one of my own heresies that I think the world is much older than scripture implies. Perhaps it’s a matter of calculation, rather than outright error,” “but I digress,” he interrupted himself, looking self-consciously down at us as we lulled in the shade.
Levi, who appeared to be dozing off during the pause, was shaken gently by his father, perhaps to see if he was alive. Levi blinked and smiled up at the speaker. Simon’s wife, with his coaxing, knelt down beside him with a flask of water and wet scarf to wipe his sweaty face. Matthias, his expression dark, sensing sacrilege, heresy or blasphemy, was given a warning look by his father as Simon resumed his talk.
“If you look carefully at the gorge into its secret recesses, you will see nothing but darkness, but that’s deceiving,” he said amiably. “For security reasons, perhaps sensing the onslaught of conquering Greeks and Carthaginians, the Old Ones hid their sacred places and treasures from discovery by invaders. A scholar I once entertained believes that these people, because of similarities in speech, might be related to the Egyptians. Cyrenaica could once have been the homeland of the builders of the pyramids and Sphinx. But, as you will see, their method of building is very different than what you’ll find in Egypt and, for that matter, Greece and Rome.”
We followed our guide up a steep trail, Loftus and Strabo trailing behind after leaving the Syrians guards to protect the driver and the coach. Levi should have stayed in the cabin, but he insisted on accompanying us until the path worsened and Joseph, who persisted in spite of his own exhaustion, ordered Strabo to take Levi back to the coach. Levi nodded weakly. Strabo, Levi, and Ruth (who was not keen on making the trek, herself) retraced their steps back to the oasis. The incline of the trail lessened as we entered the mouth of the gorge, and we craned our necks to view the caves on each side of the cliffs. By that point, to our surprise, Strabo had returned with a report on the young man’s health.
“Levi is alive and well,” he reassured Joseph. “He and the mistress are resting quite comfortably in the shade.”
“Very good Strabo,” Joseph replied laboriously, wiping his brow.
“I brought more water,” declared Strabo hefting a large container three times larger than our flasks.
“Wonderful!” Joseph clapped his hands.
“Here, let me refresh you,” Strabo chuckled, raising it and splashing the cooler water on his face, neck and arms
Simon stood back, his dark eyes twinkling with mirth as Strabo playfully drenched Loftus too. Knowing that our tunics would dry quickly in this heat, Strabo took the liberty of drenching the remainder of us as we tried escaping from the spray. Matthias was not happy at his antics yet held his tongue during his turn. That a distinguished Pharisee would rejoice at such an indignity caused all of us concern. Slinging the container strap over his shoulder, Strabo guided his employer with his free arm up the winding path.
Dancing on the pale rocks, the sun seemed much hotter in the gorge. Already, the water had almost dried from our clothes, and Joseph and his assistant were lagging further and further behind.
“How much further?” He called through cupped hands. “Will the trail ever end?”
“It’s not far.” Simon laughed nervously. “I’m sorry about the hike. I’ve forgotten how steep the passage is.”
Shielding our eyes from the late morning sun, we took swigs from the smaller flasks provided to us by our host. On occasion, Strabo would raise the larger vessel up and pour it upon Joseph and himself. Unfortunately, our morning meal wore away with each footstep. By the time we reached our destination, hunger will have weakened Joseph even further. I didn’t blame Simon for this oversight. He was, like most of us, in fairly good shape and had probably explored this spot frequently in his youth. Joseph, however, was turning scarlet from the effort. His breathing was ragged and a look of dread grew on his haggard face as we entered the final phase: a trek up a long row of steps carved out of solid rock.
“I’m sorry Simon,” he said wearily, “I reached my limit. You’ll have to go on without me.”
“Forgive me,” Simon said contritely, “this was probably a bad idea.”
“No-no.” Joseph motioned irritably. “I wanted to come. You can all tell me about it when you return to the coach.” “Please Strabo,” he beckoned, holding out an arm, “help me back down the hill.”
Strabo may have been disappointed that he would not see these wonders for himself, but he moved quickly, placing his massive arm under Joseph’s armpit then leading him with great tenderness back down the trail. I noted with concern that he took the container with him, which meant that we would have to ration our water if this exploration covered much more terrain. Simon frowned at Matthias, who carried a scowl on is face, and then smiled at Loftus and I.
“My apologies to all of you.” He sighed heavily. “I’ll give you all a proper tour of the city when that disturbance dies down.”
“Oh I’m fit enough,” Matthias replied with a shrug. “Will I be defiled when I enter one of those caves?”
“As in the temples, we won’t enter the caves that contain idols,” Simon reassured him. “I’ve been up here with my brother many times in the past. There not so bad.”
“Does your brother live in Cyrene?” Matthias asked, puffing and panting as we approached the abyss.
“No,” Simon answered hesitantly, “. . . . my brother died last summer. There was an outbreak of fever in Cyrenaica. It claimed my son too.”
Matthias gasped and mumbled his condolences. I also expressed sympathy, as did Loftus, as we approached the first cave. Simon had not mentioned this to any of us until now. Turning back toward the grotto, after casting us all a troubled look, he led Matthias, Loftus, and me toward one of the Old Ones’ shrines. In the beginning, the carvings in the rock seemed harmless enough, though we could barely comprehend what exactly they were. Gradually swirls and abstract symbols gave way to what appeared to be a serpent. Animal carvings—birds or furry creatures—were not as great an affront to Jewish eyes as a snake or, when our eyes grew accustomed to the shadows, the distinct reliefs of human heads and body parts wreathing in one hideous elongated mass.
“This is an abomination!” cried Matthias.
“Hold it right there.” Simon held out a protective arm. “We haven’t entered the cave. We are not yet defiled.”
“But we’ve been touched by the shadow of overhanging rock, part of the cave.” Matthias’ eyes widened with the fear of spiritual contamination.
“No, Matthias,” I argued gently, “the overhang is a different kind of rock. It’s dark, while what I see in the dim light inside the cave is white rock, much like the white stone in back of my house in Nazareth.”
“Oh, so now you’re an expert on spiritual contamination?” Matthias voice dripped with sarcasm. “I saw your excitement in Greece and Rome. You have no limits!” “Why can’t your eyes be offended by these obscenities, like mine.”
“Offended? . . . By man’s striving for faith,” I struggled with my thoughts.
If I had stumbled upon these offensive-looking reliefs anywhere else I might have agreed with Matthias, but Simon was not offended. Loftus, who didn’t have to worry about defilement walked right into the first cave to have a closer look.
“It’s very primitive,” he called back light-heartedly. “It’s hard to see, but I believe that this one figure with the high hat, sitting on a throne, is Ammon, an Egyptian god, my people worshipped too, but it’s not very good. At least the Nubians hired Egyptian artists to carve their idols.”
“If we had a lamp, we could see it better,” I suggested, squinting at where Loftus was pointing. “Do pilgrims still come up here to worship. Perhaps there’s some unlit sticks with pitch on them lying around.”
“No, I don’t know if anyone but curiosity seekers come up here,” Simon shook his head slowly. “I always stop short at the entrance. The other caves aren’t quite so strange.”
“Here’s something,” Loftus muttered in surprise. “. . . . It looks like a burnt out torch.”
“That’s wonderful,” Simon responded guardedly, “but how shall we light it?”
“We can’t, unless we have a sharp stick, a piece of flint, and some dry moss.” I began looking at the ground below us.
“I’ve had enough of this,” said Matthias, stomping his foot, “I’m going back to the coach!”
Charging back down the trail, Matthias flung an oath back at me for bringing bad luck and evil into our journey. Ever since, our trip began, he claimed, I had plagued them with my heretical opinions and high-handed ways. Now, I was excusing devil-worshipper art. I protested his jealousy and rudeness, stopping short of calling him a liar. Loftus called him a unthinking swine, and Simon tried to reassure him that this was an example of primitive art, like the rock paintings the Romans discovered in Gaul. It simply didn’t count as blasphemy as did the profane art of civilized men, so he could go to blazes for all he cared. I’m not sure I agreed with Simon, but I knew that Matthias was overreacting again. For a moment, I was tempted to follow him down the hill before he reached his father. Unfortunately, in spite of my reassurances that we wouldn’t go inside the caves and that we were following his own father’s rule about not entering a profane dwelling, Matthias believed that viewing the crude reliefs was defilement in itself. This, I knew, is what he would tell his father.
“Come back, Jesus,” Simon’s voice boomed. “If you see the remainder of the caves with your own eyes you can tell Joseph the truth about the Old Ones. Don’t worry about what that jackal tells Joseph.”
Once again it seemed as if I was creating needless problems for my benefactor. I stopped a moment on the trail and prayed fervently to God for guidance, for I sensed deeply that Joseph was reaching the end of his patience with his son. Some of his anger, though silent, was transferring to the source of Matthias’ hostility: me.
“Lord,” I cried out, “if it be your will, soften his heart. Don’t let him turn Joseph against me for my imagined heresy. If looking into dark caves is evil, give me a sign. Please let me know your will!”
I didn’t know yet that Loftus had found a flint kit—the equipment used by Roman soldiers and adventurers to light fires—and brought the unlit torch and kit out of the cave. While I tried to reason with Matthias, the big Nubian hurriedly twirled the stick in the hole drilled into the rock, until the surrounding moss caught fire. As Simon called to me once more to come back and see other caves for myself, I saw a most incredible thing in the background in the shadow of the cave: light.
“I found a piece of flint, stick and a box of moss, probably left from sight-seers,” explained Loftus, as he waved the flaming torch.
“You hear that Jesus?” Simon slapped his head in disbelief. “I heard your prayer. This is a sign from the Lord just as you ordered. I’ve never been able to discern the artwork in the other caves.”
“They could be worse,” I suggested, trotting back up the trail.
“No matter.” Simon shrugged. “Let’s check out a few more caves before we go back. I’m going to tell Joseph exactly what happened today. I heard about your miracles. Loftus finding a flint kit at just this time is a miracle as far as I’m concerned. Come on Jesus, for untold generations the Old Ones carved their fantasies and beliefs in rock. I see no evil in their folly. Like many peoples of the earth they have been untouched by our faith. Let us light the darkness and see!”
Simon’s words, though they had a slightly different meaning, impressed me very much. The Lord sometimes spoke through others. I was reminded in his words of all the Gentile idols we’ve glimpsed and especially the pedestal of the unknown god. The striving for understanding the sublime and knowing our maker was a natural impulse for all people. How could their expressions be evil unless they are for evil intent?
Loftus carried our torch and the flint kit in his free hand. I glanced around at the many caves in the gorge, as Simon led us up and down another trail. The second cave was too small to contain very much, yet Simon paused long enough to show us an idol in the darkness that reminded me of the niches in some of the smaller shrines in Greece and Rome.
“That’s Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of love,” Simon announced, giving me a wink.
“Yes, that’s true. How did you know that?” Loftus gave him a look of respect.
“The scholar I told you about interpreted it for me, when I described it to him.” Simon replied, continuing down the trail. “His name is Philo—not much older than Matthias but old for his years.
“Does he live in Cyrene?” I asked, inspecting the cliff along our path.
“He lives in Alexandria now,” Simon said, handing me an interesting rock. “Take a look at that.”
“Let me see, let me see!” Loftus scurried up the trail
“It looks like the swirls I found in Nazareth,” I marveled at the rock, “the bodies of ancient creatures preserved in stone.”
“Yes,” Loftus nodded with enthusiasm, “in my childhood I found these in my hometown in Nubia, but they were much bigger and more ornate.” “Ah hah,” he cried, pointing to the parent rock, “like that one!”
All of three of us stared at the giant swirls, which Simon believed once roamed in an ancient sea. This made sense when you considered that the creature was a shellfish—those Roman delicacies we Jews are forbidden to eat. All of these wonders, I’m certain, Matthias and our friend Samuel would consider polluting even if we merely gazed in speculation at them, but the Lord seemed to be encouraging me each step of the way. Perhaps I would tell Joseph this when I saw him again. Right now, as Loftus and I followed our guide, I was caught up in my education of the Old Ones. The information Simon imparted to us leaped into my mind as memories, as if I already knew about these folk. I’ve felt this way so many times before, since the healing of the sparrow. Now, as we stopped before the third cave, I watched Loftus light the darkness, and before Simon and he had a chance to interpret what they saw, I looked into the depths of the abyss and saw Satan tempting Adam and Eve. The serpent we had seen in the first cave and the wreathing body parts surrounding it, symbolized Satan conquests in the Gentile world. When I told him my opinion about the current reliefs, Simon quietly considered my revelation. The primitive male and female figure, the bizarre looking tree, and serpent, he admitted after a pause, implied that the Old Ones or perhaps their ancestors shared a common lineage with both Gentiles and Jews.
“Why would the first cave follow the third?” Loftus frowned. “Isn’t this out of sequence?”
“No,” Simon said thoughtfully, “I once followed this trail to the other end and discovered a second entrance to the gorge.” “The succeeding caves are filled with pots and urns but the scratching on the rock does not come up to this level of relief.”
“The Lord appeared to the Old Ones to record Creation,” I offered excitedly. “He did this for Moses, the Lawgiver and, perhaps, for peoples in other places on earth. They aren’t Abraham’s offspring but the sons of Noah!”
“Perhaps,” Simon replied, rubbing his jaw, “but I wouldn’t tell Joseph that, at least not in Matthias’ presence. His son might eavesdrop and call you a blasphemer. Yet, thanks to Loftus’ torch, I can make out the tree and the serpent, crawling down from its trunk. Now, as you saw yourself, I made the connection, but Joseph might think we were bewitched by these caves.”
“Awe, Joseph won’t care that much.” Loftus snorted. “He already suspects Jesus is a heretic. In Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Gaul he was never afraid of speaking his mind. I shall back up his story.”
“And so shall I!” Simon clapped my back
During the remainder of our tour of the gorge, we inspected a fourth and fifth cave but found nothing as spectacular as the first three. Loftus and I collected a few small pots and urns from the last caves, stuffing them awkwardly into our tunics. Simon boasted of having collected several specimens during previous excursions, some proving to be a challenge when he and his brother carried them back to the coach. The caves above the ones on the trail and the caves on the other side of the gorge also had primitive wall paintings and scratching on the white rock. After studying the cave paintings and finding crude flint tools, Simon even suggested that there might have been an earlier folk living in Cyrenaica, predating the Old Ones. But the exploration of these caves would have to be done on another day (if it ever came). Joseph and the others had waited long enough in the oasis. It was time to share our treasures with them and perhaps, as we sat around the dinner table, share our revelations with them too.
That night Simon and his wife Ruth entertained us with a puppet show, which would have been scandalous for Rabbi Avram. The Jewish puppeteer had learned his art from the Syrians but instead of the profane stories told by Gentiles, he gave us short religious skits, with shadow puppets of famous people and the silhouetted backdrops of mountains, buildings, and trees: Noah warning an elder of the pending flood, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, Moses talking to a burning bush (a lamp-like contraption in back of the curtain), and for Simon’s wife Ruth, a re-enactment, with Ruth quoting the famous lines to Naomi, “whether thou goest, I goest...” All of the skits we found to be entertaining, especially the last one, which is a testament to friendship sanctified by God.
When it came time to give our impressions of the cave, Simon gave me a telltale wink. I uttered a short prayer in my head that my benefactor would have an open mind. Artlessly, on the way back to Simon’s villa, Loftus had already bragged to him about how my prayer had helped him find a torch and flint kit so that he we could explore the mysteries of the caves. When Matthias interrupted Loftus with the accusation that we had polluted ourselves by staring at these horrors, Joseph silenced him by raising his hand. Loftus argued that there was nothing polluting about the reliefs because the three of us had, in fact, deciphered the carvings in the rock as being Adam, Eve, and the serpent’s conquest of the Gentiles, but Matthias objected that what he saw was not from the Torah—it was Satanic and offensive to our God. Joseph silenced Matthias this time in a shrill, exasperated voice that brought tears to the young man’s eyes. I knew, as I received Levi’s approving nod, that he didn’t agree with his brother, but it seemed clear, after that rebuke, that I would never be friends with Matthias.
Now, as we sat around the table, surfeited by food and drink, Simon expanded upon what Loftus told Joseph, by describing the reliefs (which he stressed contained no evil symbols) and the other, unrelated cave paintings and scratchings from an earlier people who inhabited this land. Omitted from the telling was information about those deformities in the rock that Simon had referred to as creatures from the Flood. This would only add more controversy to the report. Thanks to Simon convincing account, I was supported in my belief in a universal god. I was hopeful that I would be spared a potential cross-examination by Joseph and censure from Matthias when his father was not around. The pots and urns Loftus and I brought back as gifts to Joseph had helped soften the Pharisee’s mood, as did the religious skits performed by the puppeteer, but it was Simon’s confirmation of what appeared to him to be God’s design in the discovery of the torch and the telltale carvings inside the caves that caused Joseph’s eyes to light with illumination, and say something that startled everyone in the room.
“Could it be true?” He looked at Simon and me. “In spite of our dogma and tradition, I’ve always looked upon the Gentiles as distant kinsmen—the sons of Noah, rather than Abraham and Jacob, though they remain for priests, rabbis and Pharisees the descendents of Cain because of their ignorance of the one true god. It is, if you consider the facts, merely their brutish ways, eating habits, and lack of circumcision that separates them from our faith. Even if they accept that there is but one God, whose name is Yahweh, they would be ritually impure and therefore unacceptable to our Lord. I’ve always thought that the Greeks were hedging their bets with the pedestal to the unknown god. Could it be possible that untutored, uncivilized folk, like the Old Ones, might grasp what philosophers and men of science fail to see right in front of their faces? That there is but one god, regardless of what they call him?” “Now my good friend Simon believes this heresy,” Joseph said amiably, “and he’s in good company,” he added patting my wrist. “I recently met a young scholar named Gamaliel, whose words had shocked me then. Gamaliel told listeners gathered in the temple court that our god was intended for all peoples regardless of where they were and what strange customs they performed, and it was our duty as good Jews to enlighten those striving for the truth, not constrain them with mere ritual and formality. Gamaliel, like Jesus and now you Simon, does not believe in a tribal, even a national god but a Universal Lord, who is reachable from many paths.”
“But that is heresy,” Matthias whispered faintly.
“I’m not certain I would state it that way Joseph,” Simon said, sipping his wine, “but I believe that the Old Ones believed in one god. They had carried this belief with them, perhaps from the Cain, himself. There could be pockets of ‘one-god’ believers from one corner of the earth to another. I can’t say for sure, . . . but Jesus helped open my eyes to this possibility and now, with this business with the torch, I sense a strange, mysterious symbolism or connection between it and our discovery.” “And something else I can’t put into words.” He reached out and placed a heavy hand on my shoulder. “. . . . This is no ordinary youth. His heart is pure. His mind is open. Yet he appears untainted by the world around him. I wish he could replace my own dead son. I have this feeling, Joseph, that he has a great purpose in this world, as a great teacher or, as Rabbi Avram said, mover of men. I find it hard to believe that he will be a carpenter and live out his life in so small a town. If this is so, Nazareth is blessed for having him as one of their sons!”
I blushed at his exaggerations. Matthias cringed with loathing. Joseph, Levi, and Ruth exchanged embarrassed looks as Simon extolled my virtues. Though he seemed sincere, he was obviously tipsy from drinking so much wine. When the discussion at the table appeared to be finished, Ruth subtly guided the big man to his chambers, while the rest of us dispersed—Joseph and Levi ambling off to bed, Matthias remaining seated a moment, his eyes filled with hate. Out of earshot of his father, he called to me as I strolled toward the garden, “You’ve fooled everyone else, but not me. I know what you are and who you are. Sooner or later my father will too!”
“I will pray for you,” I replied in a whisper. “The Lord knows my heart.”
Into the garden I meandered, illuminated and troubled at the same time, my first prayer of the evening being that Matthias would not follow me and cause another scene. Amongst the shades of green and many colored plants, I felt a certain harmony. Then suddenly, a shadow crossed by path—briefly much like the silhouette of a bird flying overhead, but there were no birds in Simon’s gardens that hour. I knew that the Evil One worked through lost souls. Perhaps it resided in Matthias those moments at the table, but now it moved in the garden formlessly, rippling over the tiled path, much like the specter Jude and I witnessed the night Reuben, Josiah, and Asa set fire to Mariah’s house.
“What do you want?” I cried out.
At that very moment, Matthias entered the garden, his face dark and fists clinched. Spotting me by a fountain bubbling with spring water, he came toward me wild-eyed and teeth grinding, as if he wanted to do me bodily harm. I said aloud now “Get thee behind me Satan”—the words I had said in the orchard, but this time the Lord tested my will. I stood my ground and was enveloped by flailing fists and growling words. Looking up from the path, where my head struck, I saw the shadowy face of my enemy—the enemy of all men, Satan. I prayed desperately before unconsciousness overcame me. I could not have been in that dark place for very long, but while hovering in the dream world a great form appeared through a cloudy spectrum of colors. It reached down and pulled me up. I opened my eyes then in a sitting position. Matthias was nowhere in sight. In his place, my eyes beheld the great Nubian guard Loftus and behind him the others: Strabos, Glychon, and Tycho.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t harm Matthias.” Loftus seemed to read my mind. “I picked him up by the collar, shook him like the unruly dog that he is and tossed him into that row of bushes over there.”
I looked at the dark green ferns and saw the crude imprint where the plants softened the landing of my attacker.
“Here me well Jesus,” his said, eyes narrowing. “We—Strabo, Glychon, and Tycho will protect you with our lives. Though I’m crucified, I’ll kill him if he attacks you again.”
“No, Loftus, you mustn’t harm Joseph’s son,” I pleaded, as he picked me up and carried me away. “Matthias is touched in the head, an easy vessel for the Evil One. Please trust in the Lord. He won’t let harm come to me. There’s something I must do in the world. I’ve known this for a long time.”
“Well,” snorted Loftus concern lighting his black face, “your Lord wasn’t protecting you this time. That young man wanted to destroy you!”
“What do you mean ‘there’s something you must do?’ ” Strabo asked, as Loftus set me down on the bench.
Strabo, who seldom spoke, gave me a probing look. I could scarcely answer such a question, yet I gripped the silent giant’s big hand and forced a smile. Glychon had produced a wet cloth, soaked by one of the fountains in the garden as Tycho hovered anxiously nearby. The four guards discussed the bump on my head and bleeding lip and the fact that I had been unconscious, which implied that I should have medical help.
“I’ve always felt that God wanted me to be more than a carpenter,” I answered Strabo’s question carefully, knowing my family will be reading these words.
Strabo and the others hung on my words, as I explained the many signs I have had in the past and the times when God intervened after my prayers. Much of this Loftus and Strabo had already heard, but this time I had told them something I had never told anyone before: I felt I had a mission.
“Perhaps,” I tried to explain, “it’s something I will do after I work as a carpenter for many years. I dearly hope so. I love the feel and smell of wood. I can think of nothing finer to do in God’s service than transform one of his creations into a piece of furniture for a neighbor or client. And yet I’m afraid there’s something beyond this that calls me. Shall I be a rabbi, like Joachim or Avram? I hope not! Shall I be Pharisee like Samuel or Joseph of Arimathea? I most certainly could never be a priest. . . .Whatever it is, I hope it will never take me away from my family in Nazareth or the friends I made on my trip.” “You four I pray for the most.” I looked up at the guards. “Someday, when I fly to that Kingdom, I shall be greatly disappointed if you’re not there. All you have to do is believe. I know that now. Everything else is unimportant if it prevents you from seeking God.”
“He really banged his head,” observed Strabo. “Where’s this kingdom he speaks of? He must be delirious to talk this way!”
“Yes,” Loftus nodded gravely, “we must tell Joseph. One of us should also inform the master of the house.”
“No,” I shook my aching head, “Matthias will be punished this time. I’ve been nothing but a wedge between a father and son.”
“That isn’t true, Jesus,” Loftus dabbed my forehead. “What I saw in the garden wasn’t human. That wasn’t Joseph’s son on top of you. That was a demon!”
“I shall fetch the master,” Glychon chimed.
“I’ll bring the host,” cried Tycho.
“No, no,” I pleaded, “this will devastate Joseph. “Let me tell him in the morning
when he’s had a good night’s rest.”
“I don’t think so,” Loftus shook his head, “there’s a demon running amuck. In his state of mind there’s no telling what he might do.” “Go!” He ordered the other two guards gently. “Jesus is not thinking clearly. Strabo and I will watch over Jesus until you return.”
Glychon ran to tell Joseph, and Tycho ran to find a servant in order to waken our host. As they had promised, Loftus and Strabo stood watch over me, until Joseph and Simon arrived. Levi straggled in later in his night robe beside Ruth still wearing her fine dress. Glychon and Tycho then appeared overhead smiling reassuringly down at me, but Matthias, the perpetrator, was nowhere to be found.
“The master of the house has sent for his physician,” announced Tycho.
“Let me see that knot on your head,” Simon murmured gently inspecting my scalp. “It doesn’t look serious, but you can’t tell what’s going on inside a person’s skull. Let’s see what Glaucus has to say.”
Joseph was stricken by the fact that Matthias had done this. “I’m sorry Jesus,” he whispered almost to himself. “There’s something dreadfully wrong with my son’s state of mind.”
“That’s an understatement,” murmured Loftus.
“Please, Joseph,” I said, rising up on my elbows, “it’s not his fault. It’s not Matthias’ nature to act like this. I felt the Evil One’s presence in the garden. I’ve felt it before, along with my youngest brother, Jude, in our orchard. Let me talk to Matthias. This is a matter of prayer, not condemnation.” “Loftus, Strabo, Glychon, Tycho.” I looked around at the guards. “Bring him to me. We shall end this here and now!”
“Jesus, this is nonsense,” Joseph protested strongly. “Matthias must account for his actions. We might pray for his change of heart, but I can’t believe he’s possessed by Satan as you suggest. It’s plain old jealousy, nothing more.”
“We shall see,” Simon said, folding his arms.
Though I didn’t want to confront Matthias again, I felt compelled to help. For several moments, as our host tried to reason with Joseph, I had second thoughts about what I had in mind. I was, in effect, going against Joseph wishes now. Forcing myself into a sitting position, I felt a sharp pain in my head and a dull ache in my ribs and back. When Glychon and Tycho arrived on the scene with Matthias in tow, Joseph flew into a rage. Matthias was disheveled, as if he had been roughed up by the two guards. His wide, unblinking eyes and gaping mouth reminded me of Mariah’s appearance the night of the fire. When they brought him before me, I immediately apologized to him and his father for causing such problems. Then, as I tried to make eye contact with Matthias, I realized by the way his eyes darted around and he mumbled to himself, that he was, like Mariah, not in control of himself. He was possessed! I prayed fervently for only a short while as everyone stood there expectantly wondering what I might do.
“I would like to eat your heart and liver!” shrilled Matthias. “If I could I would grind up you bones!”
“Be silent,” I found myself saying. “In the Lord’s name, depart spirit. Leave Matthias Bar Joseph in peace!”
Simon and Ruth clasped each other’s hand in expectation. Joseph grumbled in disbelief. The guards laughed nervously as Matthias’ head began to wobble on his shoulders, until he crumpled finally onto the path. With a presence of mind, Levi came forward, the first to inspect his brother.
“His pulse races,” he reported to Joseph. “He just passed out.”
“My son, my son.” Joseph bent down to touch his oldest son.
Loftus and Strabo helped me up onto my feet. I stood over Matthias, feeling wobbly myself. Matthias was already stirring. His eyes opened, he groaned, and looked up at me. Joseph ordered Tycho to bring his son some water, but a servant, who had been hovering in the background, had anticipated his request and knelt down with a large mug of water in his hands. Soon Matthias was sitting on the tiled path, his back propped precariously against a copse of ferns.
The words pouring from his mouth caused everyone accept me to gasp. “I was in a dark place. . . lost. . . in a fog. . . As I slept, I saw images all around: from the underworld—Gehenna . . . . One shadow moved toward me, then fled as light broke through the fog.” “I saw you,” he pointed at me, “but you were dressed in a shining white robe. Then I awoke.” “It’s as if a great weight left my mind,” he declared looking around wildly, until he refocused on me. “What happened. Did I do something terrible to Jesus?” He called back to Joseph. “Has he bewitched me? What was Jesus doing in my dream?”
“Is he mad?” Joseph wrung his hands. “Or was there a demon in my son?”
“Matthias will be all right now,” I tried to reassure him. “God gave him peace of mind.”
“Whoa, Jesus!” Simon gripped his head in wonder. “Now your prayers cast out devils. You must have God’s ear!”
“I don’t know, I just don’t know,” Joseph’s voice trembled. “Until he met Jesus, his mind was clear. It’s as if Jesus triggered something in my son. Perhaps it lay dormant all these years. I’ve seen no blame in Jesus, and yet, without his doing, he’s caused the very worst to bubble forth from Matthias. I want to believe Jesus, but I find it hard to accept this simplistic cure for Matthias bad behavior. What power does Jesus have that the spirits of darkness use my own son against him?”
“You don’t believe Jesus?” Simon muttered in amazement. “The pagan guards understand what happened here, yet you would rather believe that Matthias is mad?”
“. . . . I don’t want to believe that,” Joseph answered slowly. “. . . . Prayer is one thing, but this is just too much. Matthias has no memory of what he did to Jesus. He claims to have been asleep during his attack. Was he in an evil trance? What reason do the dark spirits have for using my son?”
“You would believe that Jesus’ prayer could quieten a storm, but not an evil spirit?” challenged Simon. “Do you also not believe his prayer awakened Levi from the dark sleep?”
“I want to believe,” Joseph said lamely, “but the thought that one wet-behind-the-ears youth can harness God’s energy goes against all logic. Not even the Prophets’ have stopped the rain or brought back the dead. Though I admire his mind and wit, it strains credulity for me to accept what I’ve seen today.” “Jesus seems to have,” he struggled for the word, “what the Romans call stupor mundi. His personality and words appear now to captivate crowds. I saw this among my guards and on the ship. I applaud his belief that he has personal relationship with God, but I can also see natural reasons for his miracles and know that there are powers of persuasion, used by Syrian and Egyptian mystics, that can explain his control over my son.”
“Stupor-what’s-it?” Glychon wrinkled his nose.
“So now I’m a sorcerer!” I gave a wounded cry.
“No, not at all,” Joseph replied, waving his hand. “It’s just one possible explanation. There could be another reasons beside divine intervention: coincidence.” “Why would God test me this way, Jesus,” he reasoned. “Sickness is one thing, but to allow a demon to enter my son. I can’t accept this. Matthias must be touched in the head. I’ve never really accepted the excuse ‘the devil made me do it,’ that perpetrators often claim. Matthias is accountable for his own sins.”
“Unbelievable.” Simon slapped his forehead. “I know that you’re an enlightened man, Joseph, but you’re a Pharisee, not a Sadducee priest. I’ve seen demon possessed men and women in Cyrene. They exist. You certainly remember the old proverb ‘faith can move mountains.’ I believe that Jesus is one of the chosen ones, who has God’s ear. His prayers are powerful because of his faith, and because he’s not afraid to confront evil when it appears.”
“I know Jesus is special. ” Joseph glanced self-consciously at me. “He has great faith and has mastered prayer, but I’ve seen too many righteous men and women perish at God’s whim, in spite of lifelong prayer and service. As far as praying for wellness is concerned, I sometimes wonder if it’s not tempting the Lord to demand a healing for incurable diseases or wounds.”
“You wouldn’t pray for Levi’s healing yourself?” Simon’s eyebrows knit.
“Of course, I prayed. I do it automatically at such times,” Joseph replied defensibly. “I pray every day to myself, glorifying God but asking only for needful things.”
“My father is a Pharisee,” Levi muttered aloud, as the two men argued.
As if he had explained everything, he walked over and sat next to me. Joseph was adamant, citing the Torah for his logic as well as great Hebrew rabbis who supported his stand. Simon, though apologizing for questioning Joseph’s faith, remained firm on the power of prayer and demons. Laying his hand on my knee, as the two Pharisees now wrangled over points of the law, Levi announced with great conviction, “I believe you, Jesus. You will be a great teacher someday. Your prayers brought me back from the dead!”
The remainder of my experience in Cyrene with Joseph and his sons can’t compare with that one moment. I won over, only with God’s intervention, a one-time foe. Without even trying, I’m blessed with Simon’s friendship too, and I was reassured once again of the undying loyalty of Joseph’s guards. And yet, despite what happened to Matthias and everything else that had come before, a mental porthole slammed shut in Joseph’s mind. I had, though I felt the Lord guiding me those times, offended his sense of propriety with my prayers for Levi’s health and, more importantly, the dispossession of Matthias demon. I’ve heard Samuel talk noncommittally about the prayer of healing and casting out demons, but I could never have imagined a scholar of the Torah could ever underestimate the power of prayer. That fateful night when I dared call upon God again for Matthias benefit I crossed a line where a wise man might not have gone, but believe me, my family, I was following God’s will. Simon and his wife understood this, our guards understood this, and Levi, the recipient of God’s grace, understood it the best of all. I’m still not sure of Matthias state of mind.
Joseph, who had been so supportive of me, made peace with his friend Simon. We all retired quietly from the garden, Simon, his wife, and the guards exchanging cordialities with me, but Joseph and Matthias saying nothing at all as they walked ahead of us. Levi turned and smiled at me as he followed them down the corridor to their rooms. I slept fitfully that night. I prayed for understanding, but God was silent this time, which was, I fear, his answer to my request that Joseph accept the Lord’s miracles for what they were. God, I decided before I fell asleep, will not change someone’s nature, for we are all born with free will. Joseph saw and heard everything the guards and Simon experienced. He was in denial; he knew the truth. It was hard for even an enlightened Pharisee to accept certain facts. Most of my prayers will be made for Matthias, who now treats me indifferently—neither hot nor cold.
Neither Simon nor Joseph mentioned the miracle or argument the following morning at our morning meal. Word had come to our host from a servant that the unrest had quieted down in town, so, as our host promised blithely, our coachmen would pick us up once more in front of the villa for a grand tour of Cyrene. That day, as Simon, Ruth, Joseph, his sons, and I crammed into the coach, our host reassured us that we would not be harassed by the Greeks. Simon confessed that occasionally a drunken soldier accosted a Jewish matron and her escort in town, but it was nothing like the treatment of Jews in Rome. Nevertheless, it was a chilling thought. Perhaps, Matthias suggested, the Romans were growing tired of protecting unruly Jews and had begun harassing the Jews themselves. During our tour, however, there were no incidents. Our guards patrolled our flanks and a detail of legionnaires followed close behind. A few jeers from Greek youths, who recognized Simon, and the surliness of our Roman guards were the only harassment we received.
We stopped to gawk at several of the city’s temples, which looked very similar to Greek and Roman buildings. Even the pagan statuary we encountered, seemed identical to themes I had seen in Athens and Rome. Loftus said it once again, as our coach pulled up to a temple dedicated to Jupiter, Rome’s chief god, “you’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all!” This view was shared by Levi, Ruth, and I. Our tour culminated in a visit to Joshua Bar Ephraim’s estate, where, after escorting us around the beautiful Greek-style building, the merchant and his wife Esther provided us with a modest mid-day meal. Later, after a few more stops, where Simon pointed out various landmarks and one ancient Phoenician temple, whose ruins turned gold in the late afternoon sun, we returned finally to Simon’s estate, weary from last night’s episode and the day’s jaunt.
After refreshing ourselves and climbing into clean garments, we idled in the garden awhile before the evening meal. I chatted with Levi about his ambition to be a scribe, rather than join the ranks of the Pharisees. I listened to his reasons for becoming a man of letters, instead of a theologian—his desire to find meaning in the Torah but also study other great books—and I advised him to wait awhile before discussing this with his father. Joseph and Matthias did not reappear until the meal began. Our dinner was the best I can ever remember: tender lamb, many different kinds of foul, fish, and savory dishes, topped off by Syrian and Egyptian pastries, an assortment of sweat meats, and candied, nut flecked dates. Simon had invited several important people to the table: Philo of Alexandria (who had arrived as we were touring Cyrene), Rabbis Avram, and Gershom, a Pharisee, who boasted that he was accosted by Greeks as he left the presidio last night. Arrius, we were surprised, had also been invited back after his deplorable performance last night, as was Othniel, a Jewish elder, whose crotchety mannerisms reminded me of Samuel, our friend.
When our meal was finished, to the cleric’s dismay but delight of everyone else, Jewish dancers performed traditional Judean and Galilean dances to the music of lute and harp. Following their performance, there was a lively discussion between Philo, Joseph, Simon, Arrius, Gershom, Othniel, and the rabbis on the ‘closed house’ vision of Israel. I didn’t intrude myself into this discussion. I was already positioned on the wrong side of my benefactor on some issues. I think everyone understood my view that our Lord was a universal God and should therefore be open to Gentiles too. There could be no ‘closed house’ vision in my mind. As the men argued about whether or not Jews should actively reach out to those outside our faith, Levi motioned subtly by tossing his head that we should retire to the garden. I reacted slowly, drawn to the debate. Matthias sat immovable alongside of Joseph, whose opinion seemed to waver between both views. It was, Joseph believed, not an easy issue to put forth in communities that had long suffered because of Greek and Roman occupation. Simon, I was not surprised to hear, agreed with Philo, who boasted that many Greeks in Alexandria had converted to our religion with his help. Rabbi Avram, to no one’s surprise, disagreed vehemently with proselytizing to Gentiles, who had no intention of being circumcised. In Avram’s blunt words came the catchphrase “Why cast pearls before swine?” Arrius, who gave no opinion whatsoever, but was amused by the heated words exchanged between Avram and Simon, joined Levi, Ruth and me, as we excused ourselves and retreated to the garden.
The four of us talked about the many strange plants in Simon’s garden. Ruth, who had ordered all of the ferns, flowers, bushes, and trees, gave names to each one and extolled the virtues of her favorites as if they were her children. From here, though night was falling on Cyrene, we strolled to the stables where Ruth lit a lamp and displayed Simon’s prize Arabian and Gaulish steeds. Then, as we paused on the hill on which Simon’s estate stood, we watched night descend upon the city, which could, upon close inspection, have been any city in the Roman world. There was one thing different about Cyrene that we could not see from the hill—the Old Ones, those ancient people who had recorded the Flood of Noah and who, before this terrible time, had known the serpent in Eden. How small we mortals are who stare at the firmament with its untold stars measured against our tiny world, then look down upon the countless lamps lighting this city, gazing at just one spot of God’s vast realm. For those moments, as I stood with Levi, Ruth, and Arrius admiring the scenery, I remembered a verse written by Isaiah, my favorite prophet:
Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted for as dust on the scales.
It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to live in;
who brings the princes to naught,
and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing....
Tomorrow Joseph and his company will take ship for Joppa. I won’t write again until we reach the seaport, at which time I’ll enclose a short note to let my family know when I’ll be home. Until then, may the Lord of heaven and earth, protect my loved ones. I have much to tell you—those details I failed to report, which shall include the remainder of our voyage that will end in Joppa. From there, we’ll continue our return trip by carriage. It matters not so much to me, after Cyrene. I shall not be greedy after all I’ve seen and heard. God has blessed me greatly. I’ve learned more in mind and spirit than at any other time in my life. Yet I feel strongly now that my relationship with Joseph of Arimathea has been strained, especially after the incident in the garden in which Matthias demons were cast out and, because of my meddling, which caused Simon to rebuke his old friend. I bring disorder into the world for many people, while trying to do good. Is this my destiny—to cause dissension because of my views and to bring dismay to ordered minds by exhibiting God’s design? When I return to Nazareth it would be best if I stifled my tongue and put away my visions, many of which I scarcely understand. Remind me of this decision when I arrive at your door. Papa, give me a sanding block or a bucket of varnish. Mama, turn my wandering mind back to your victuals and cool pomegranate juice. My brothers, have patience with me. Jude and Nehemiah, take my hand and lead me through my beloved hills of Nazareth, and ask me to tell you about the Old Ones and the wondrous rocks with imprints of creatures of the past. All of you, my family, Samuel and Ezra too, listen to me as I praise the smell and feel of wood, the cooking fires of the hearth, and the sweet sound of a sleeping house, in which I sit once more at the table listening to the song bird and cricket, and those many heartfelt sounds of my home and town.