Because Uriah’s father had been the town rabbi, Uriah understood our religion much better than me, and yet, due to his father’s tyranny, he cared little for the Torah and had almost no comprehension of Hebrew, except for a few important words. Our family’s collective ignorance included Mama, my sisters, Tabitha, Michael, Simon, myself, and, to a lesser degree, James and Joseph as well. Though we admitted it begrudgingly, we needed education badly. Papa, who appeared to be self-educated, himself, realized this fact the night we gave sanctuary to Mariah and her son. Even before this point, when the synagogue became off limits to us and during moments of inspiration or when he was in his cups, Papa instructed us in what he knew of the law and the prophets. Unfortunately, he was (in Samuel’s mind) inconsistent, perhaps because of his workload and the many concerns for his family. That old unwritten proverb, ‘what you learned today, you’ll forget tomorrow,’ may not have occurred to Papa but it fit his children quite well. Because of our family’s charity and goodwill, we had been, in addition to being outcasts in town, cut off from the synagogue. Without schooling and a town rabbi, our ignorance deepened. My brothers, sisters, friends, and I looked ahead to an uncertain future in Nazareth, until Gamaliel, a learned rabbi, arrived in town to save us from our ignorance and change our lives. I can see this clearly now, but the realization didn’t come immediately.
After a modest lunch, we gathered in Samuel’s main hall at Papa and Mama’s coaxing, apprehensive about our new teacher, each of us given stern warnings from our parents and our host as we filed into the room to mind our manners and treat him with the utmost respect.
According to Gamaliel, our teacher, knowledge, to be effective, first requires repetition. The teacher must pound it into our heads, but simple memorization is not enough. Like all muscles, the brain, where we store our knowledge, requires exercise. In Samuel’s words “knowledge without application, is like uncooked flour.” James and Joseph at least had instruction in Hebrew and an introduction to the Torah, and yet they didn’t have Jesus’ and my memory. Because they didn’t practice what they learned, they forgot much of it. As Samuel might say, the flour spoiled or was blown away by the wind. I was, on the other hand, blessed with almost total recall. All I had to do was concentrate very hard and my memories would come flooding back. It dawned on me slowly, as I sat in the class, that this was a tremendous advantage over everyone else. Nevertheless, like the other students, the knowledge provided by our teacher had to be first planted in my head, which meant that, at this stage in my education, I was ignorant too. Only Jesus had perfect knowledge. I believe now, as I write down his deeds, that he was born with such awareness. All things considered, Jesus’ family, except, of course, Papa and himself, were an ignorant bunch until Gamaliel came along. Our short-term education in Joachim’s synagogue was simply not enough to make a dint on this ignorance, and Michael, Tabitha, and my sisters had no education at all.
As I Look back on this time, I shudder at the ignorance in my family. In both Samuel and Gamaliel’s opinion, we had much catching up to do. The question was “who was to blame for our ignorance?” Was it Joachim, for turning the town against us and preventing us from attending school? James and Joseph blamed our parents. It was Papa who pulled us out of the synagogue after my parents break with Joachim for protecting Mariah and her son. With the exception of our training in carpentry, he and Mama never followed up on their agreement to turn our kitchen into a classroom after we did our chores. I never blamed either Mama, who remained illiterate her entire life, or Papa who cared not a fig for the prattling of Pharisees or the harangue of rabbis. I blamed the rabbi and the town. All things considered, therefore, Joachim was to blame for our ignorance. My parents were devout yet simple folks, as were most residents of Nazareth. The townsmen had been influenced by Joachim’s hateful words. When the town rabbi had his breakdown, as Mama called it, he left the town without a spiritual leader as well as a teacher. All of the other youths in our town, including the friends my brothers and I once had, would also remain ignorant, until a new rabbi arrived in town. But all that had changed—at least for us. We had Gamaliel—the great teacher, who had come to shape our lives. During our studies in the Torah and eventually the language of the holy books, themselves, he would teach us exclusively, as Samuel had intended, for he had no intention of being stuck in this backwoods town.
Someday the world would know Gamaliel’s name, but back then, as Simon, Michael, Uriah, and I approached manhood, Gamaliel was ours. If it had not been for this great rabbi, I would not have been introduced to Greek, Aramaic, and the language of our forefathers. I had no interest in our history and the details of our religion. I decided, as I contemplated my future, if I couldn’t join the army, I would become a scribe. With my memory, all of that other knowledge would take hold in its own good time, and, more importantly, I would memorize as many languages as possible to improve my chances when I set out on my own. With death so close, such blatant confidence seems ludicrous to me, for I have little confidence now, but it served me well in my youth, especially during the years Gamaliel taught my brothers, sisters, friends, and me.
Gamaliel laid down his simple formula for learning at the very beginning of our first class: discipline, repetition, memorization, practice, and application—words he had to define for most of us. In his school, Uriah, Michael, Tabitha, my brothers and sisters, and I would learn the basics of our religion and learn how to read and write. As I said, I had no interest in this, so I would put my memory to work, hoping that it would take hold. It was not customary for girls to attend school, but Rabbi Gamaliel insisted upon the girls joining our group, which angered Samuel greatly but pleased Mama very much. The basics that Gamaliel would teach us included many things, which James and Joseph had supposedly learned in the synagogue before my family’s break with Joachim. The most difficult thing for Gamaliel would be to teach us to read our ancient language, which Papa, James and Joseph had learned well enough to read the scrolls of the Torah Papa stored in his special place. Actually speaking Hebrew, which I had never heard them do, would take much longer. Though he boasted once that his father had taught him how to read, Uriah admitted to us before class that his understanding of Hebrew was limited to the names of the patriarchs and prophets and a few religious words. During his introduction of what we would be learning, Gamaliel discovered that James and Joseph, though they had some schooling, were probably not schooled properly in the language, history, and religion of our people. Jesus, who, to please our sponsor, attended our first session, remained silent out of respect for Gamaliel, until James and Joseph grew insolent toward our teacher when he discovered just how ignorant they really were. Though he carefully laid out his schedule, information I was certain that Simon, Michael, Tabitha, and the twins would soon forget, our first day would start with discipline, which didn’t mean the rod or switch as commonly thought, but how he would conduct his class and how we would behave during our lessons.
The problem with class discipline began when Gamaliel first stood in the great hall of Samuel’s estate. All of us filed in politely, except James and Joseph, who skulked forward in sullen moods. At first glance, James and Joseph felt intimidated by the teacher. With my almost faultless memory, I recalled Uriah telling me about seeing a bald-headed man in Samuel’s house during my family’s overnight stay. Uriah showed no recognition, himself, so I kept my discovery to myself. That bald-headed man had been Gamaliel, himself. I was not immediately impressed with this tall, hawk-nosed rabbi with the fuzzy beard and gleaming scalp before I heard his voice. There was something about his tone that commanded our attention and made James and Joseph fearful that we would all discover how little they really knew.
“I am Gamaliel, teacher of the law, grandson of Hillel the Elder.” He eyed each of us personably. “It’s the custom in my classrooms for the students to introduce themselves to me: your full name, your age, and what you would like to do in life.” “I shall begin with you,” his voice boomed, looking squarely at me.”
“Judah bar Joseph,” I announced pertly from my seat. “I am twelve years old, but no longer a child. Someday I will have a fine white horse and travel the world.”
“Well, Judah.” He gave me a nod. “That sounds like an exciting ambition. However, you didn’t tell me what you want to do. Do you want to be a carpenter, like your father, a Pharisee like Samuel, or perhaps a merchant?” “Merchants travel a lot,” he added, as if suggesting an alternative.
“Jude’s gonna be a soldier,” blurted Uriah. “He told me once.”
“What?” Gamaliel’s eyes widened. His black pupils shot back to me.
“You idiot!” I swore under my breath.
The rabbi’s probing dark eyes reminded me of Samuel’s bird of prey gaze.
“Is that true, my son?” His head inclined and he drew in a breath. “Unless you plan on being a troublemaker, this means you want to join the legions. Is this correct?”
“I dunno,” I shrugged. “I just wanna a horse and see the world like my brother Jesus.”
“Then you should consider being a merchant like Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’ benefactor,” Gamaliel concluded, with a sly wink.
“I dunno sir,” I repeated, feeling trapped, “perhaps I’ll be a legion courier, like Justin. I just want to ride and travel around.”
“Humph, you don’t know then.” He shook his head sadly. “What you want is adventure, which lacks purpose.” “The question is,” he directed his words to the class, “what do you want to do with your lives?”
Jesus, who sat on a separate chair next to the wall, smiled at me.
“You there,” Gamaliel began calling upon the others.
Uriah blanched before giving his full name and age. Gathering his courage he added defiantly “I shall be a carpenter, like Joseph bar Jacob.”
“Good lad,” Gamaliel said approvingly, “that’s a noble profession.” “And you.” He pointed to James. “What about you?”
“James bar Joseph. Fifteen. Carpenter,” he answered curtly.
“I see no passion in those words,” the rabbi frowned. “What shall be your purpose in the world?”
“All right,” James replied more enthusiastically, “I’d like to study the law.”
“Excellent!” He clapped his hands. “As you know, though, a rabbi or Pharisee must have a profession. What better one than working in wood?”
“Very well.” James sighed.
“What say you?” the rabbi pointed to the next in line.
“Joseph bar Joseph,” the answer came quickly, “fourteen. I want to study the law too, but I shall live in Jerusalem, and work in the temple.”
“Ah, no equivocation there,” replied Gamaliel, stroking his bushy beard, “but let’s not forget our livelihood.” “Not everyone can become a rabbi, Pharisee, or scribe. I was most fortunate to have a wealthy father to finance my studies.”
He studied Joseph a moment before pointing to Michael. Joseph had bristled under his scrutiny. Michael just sat there staring into space, as if he had once again lost all his wits. Jesus stood up silently, shook Michael, and then returned to his seat.
“Samuel warned me about this fellow,” the rabbi frowned. “What’s your name?” He called through cupped hands.
Nervous titters followed, yet Michael remained silent. Instead of demanding an answer from him, Gamaliel shook his head, and directed his questions to the class. “Is he ill? What’s wrong with him? Is he still touched in the head?”
“His name’s Michael,” Uriah answered after some thought. “His father was named Jeremiah, who was a merchant and very rich.”
“That’s enough Uriah!” I whispered into his ear.
Since we had all been warned severely by Papa and Jesus not to say anything controversial during class, the subject of Michael’s mother and his own misadventures was not brought up by the rest of us, and yet I was certain that Gamaliel already knew. I’m sure Samuel told him everything he wanted to know about his students. He was probably also informed by the Pharisee about the town witch and the notoriety of her son. I think all these questions and answers were the rabbi's way of getting to know each of us. It was part of our class discipline. Perhaps the rabbi expected Michael’s condition to have improved. If so, he hid his disappointment very well. As his gaze fell on Simon, Simon promptly sounded off his name and age after Michael’s bad example. Though he didn’t know what his purpose was yet, he reassured the rabbi that he would follow in his father’s footsteps like all the rest of his sons.
Gamaliel’s handling of our diverse personalities was tactful as I consider it now. His treatment of Tabitha and the twins in class was especially sensitive, considering our peoples’ attitude toward girls. Though Papa and Mama were more open minded on the subject, there was, according to our customs, no future for unmarried women. As I write these lines, however, I can’t help laughing at this custom, when I think of the willfulness of Tabitha and the spirit of my sisters when they grew up. Tabitha responded to the first two questions about her name and age with little thought, but answered the third question ‘what will she do with her life’ with the clever reply that she would be a wife and mother and whatever God wishes her to be. Abigail and Martha, who had already grown to admire Tabitha, echoed her words exactly. This left the future wide open for them, for, as Papa often said, who knows the mind of the Lord. Was not Deborah a Judge of Israel and Judith a warrior of our people? Taken back a moment, Gamaliel thought their identical answers amusing and left it at that. It was quite possible that Mama had been lurking in the halls, eavesdropping those moments as the class began.
When he came finally to Jesus, Gamaliel was even more careful. Now that I consider it, I think he was actually deferential to my oldest brother. Jesus reputation had preceded him. All he said to Gamaliel after announcing his full name was “I will follow God’s will,” and the rabbi said no more.
He now tested all of us (except Jesus) on how much we knew about the Holy Scriptures, our history, and the Hebrew tongue. Ultimately, as I suspected, this test would cause outbursts from James and Joseph and bring Jesus finally to his feet. At this point, however, all it caused so far in my elder brothers were grumbles, groans, and frowns. Gamaliel raised a bell I hadn’t noticed before and jingled it vigorously, which brought servants scurrying into the room, each man carrying large baskets in his arms. From the baskets, a tablet and a stylus similar to the type used in synagogue school was passed out to each of us. Gamaliel promised to give us empty scrolls later when we had learned some Hebrew and, at a latter day, for writing down answers to questions asked during class. The most important items given to us were two small cubes—one marked with an X, which stood for true, and the other empty of symbols, which our teacher explained was false. To avoid the student next to us from seeing our choice, both cubes must be brought up at the same time. While holding our hands into the hallow of the basket we would release what we considered the correct cube, while keeping our fist closed around the remaining cube until the answer was given by the teacher. In this way, it wasn’t necessary that we knew how to read. It was, the rabbi explained with a flurry of his hand, our memories that mattered most at this point. This, I brightened, seemed to give me a great advantage over the others.
“Put aside your tablet and stylus for now, he instructed us, as he opened the lid to the third, smaller, basket sitting on the table. “Most of you can’t read or write anyhow,” he added, holding up the basket, “so we won’t need your writing tablets yet. I need to know what level each of you are at in the understanding of the Torah and our people’s history. So when I ask a true and false question, you will walk up with both cubes, as I instructed you, and deposit your answer inside the basket.” “For example,” he demonstrated with his own pair of cubes, “if I were to state Roman soldiers carry swords, I would select the X cube, because this is true. If I had stated Romans soldiers don’t carry swords, I would have selected the blank cube, because this is false.” “Remember,” he reminded us, “keep the other cube tightly clutched inside your hand until the answer is called out.”
“What if it’s neither true or false?” Joseph scowled. “Not all questions are so easy to define.”
Gamaliel, who I suspect was familiar with Joseph’s antics, studied him closely, his shaggy eyebrows plunging into a frown.
“This is not a class in philosophy,” he answered dismissively. “Most issues, you will find, are black and white.” “Does everyone else understand what I mean?” He called out with irritation.
Everyone except Joseph, and his cohort James, nodded their heads. Jesus, I noticed with an intake of breath, seemed poised on his seat after Joseph’s outburst. It was obvious that our brothers felt slighted being in this remedial group. Joseph sat between Michael and Uriah and James sat next to Abigail, an eight year old child.
“Very well—almost unanimous.” Gamaliel grinned, spreading his palms in exasperation. “Now here’s you first official statement, which is either true or false—”
“Oh goodie!” Uriah bounced up and down in his seat.
“True or false?” Gamaliel called out blithely. “Adam had two sons.”
After only a short while, all of us lined up for our turns. One-by-one, under the teacher’s scrutiny, we dropped in our cubes, keeping the second cube clutched in our fists as we sat back down. Jotting down each of our responses on a scroll he had pulled from his robe, he waited patiently as Jesus quietly prodded the laggard Michael up to the back of the line. When Michael had dropped in his cube and took his seat, Gamaliel strolled up and down each side of the table to make sure we kept our fists tight. I understood, even at this early stage, that he was training us to follow the rules—discipline. Nevertheless, he managed to show warmth toward us, by patting each of our heads as he passed by. My thick black raven’s nest received a good tousling, but not for my answer.
“You all failed to answer that question correctly, even Rabbi Joachim’s previous students James and Joseph bar Joseph,” he announced dryly looking at his scroll. “All of your answers, as I’ve recorded on my scroll, are X for true, but Adam had three, not two sons: Cain, Abel, and Seth—from whose line all men descended.”
“That was a trick question,” Joseph protested. “You didn’t say ‘Adam had only two sons.’ You said ‘Adam had two sons,’ which is a true statement.”
Gamaliel waged a long bony finger. “That might have been true if this was a class in logic, but this is an elementary subject of history in which we start at the beginning to learn how much you students know. Adam is at the beginning of the Messianic line. The fact is he had three sons.”
“True or false?” He continued, looking around the table. “Enoch was the grandson of Noah.”
This time the movement toward the basket was slower. I didn’t know the names of Noah’s sons nor his grandsons. I could barely even read. So, sensing it was a trick question, I played it safe by dropping in my blank cube. As before, when the last student (Michael, of course) was seated, our teacher raised up his scroll again and cleared his throat. A collective sigh of both anxiety and boredom rose up in the room. Once again he walked up and down the marble floor, this time with his hands folded behind his back, looking over our shoulders to make sure our fists were tightly clutched. By now, as we expected, the twins were fidgeting in their chairs and sat with blank expressions on their faces. Tabitha acted quite bored, herself, and Simon, to no one’s surprise, was falling asleep. James and Joseph faces were screwed up in thought, as I sat staring dully into space. Reaching down over my shoulders he tapped my fist, retrieved my remaining cube and held it up for all to see.
“This is the correct answer,” he said, displaying the blank cube. “Enoch, as some of you might know, was the first truly righteous man: God took him up whole, without death, into heaven. But he lived long before Noah’s time.”
“I thought this was a beginning class for students,” James called out irritably. “Enoch is a minor figure in the Torah.”
“Oh really,” Gamaliel pursed his lips. “There’s an entire book attributed to him: the Secrets of Enoch. That doesn’t seem minor to me!”
“All right,” James huffed, looking around the table, “maybe so, but how many people would actually know that?”
“I did!” I piped. “The answer’s ‘no!’”
“I didn’t think anyone lived before Noah,” Tabitha confessed.
“You’d be surprised what people know,” Gamaliel said wryly, pacing the room. “The fact is, that was an easy question: it’s either right or wrong. Half of you, I noticed, gave the correct answer, which is false. You, James and Joseph, answered with true, which is wrong. We’re not yet passed the true and false stage, but let me ask the class a really hard question this time.”
“Moses Beard!” Joseph groaned.
“All I need is a number now.” The rabbi scanned the room. “.... How many grandsons did Noah have?”
“Four,” chimed Uriah, “Maddai, Rhodas, Javan, and Lud.”
“What?” James and Joseph cried.
“Ho-ho-ho!” Gamaliel laughed with mirth. “Thus spake the rabbi’s son.”
“Uh-uh,” Uriah shook his head, “I’m gonna be a carpenter. Jesus is teaching me to work in wood.”
We were all in shock. Gamaliel smiled tolerantly at him, yet managed once more to frown. I can see the irony now in this as I write down his words. Uriah, though he cared not a wit for Hebrew or the details of our religion, very likely knew more about our history than either Joseph or James, yet he wanted to work in wood. My brothers, on the other hand, were destined to become Pharisees or scribes in their own right, but had failed twice after dropping in their cubes.
“So what have we learned about facts?” He looked around the group. “You will know whether you have the answer or not.” “It’s right here.” He pointed to his head. “I don’t expect you to know the answers, especially the little ones,” he added, nodding at twins, “but it’s important for us to develop our routine—”
“What’s a routine?” Simon screwed up his face.
“Our way of doing things,” explained the rabbi. “We also need to find how much you know. As you already saw, Uriah has surprised us with his knowledge, while two of Joachim’s students have missed both questions so far.”
“I don’t like the way we’re doing this,” grumbled James. “Joseph and I can read and write. Ask us plain questions, such as who did this or who did that? This true and false method is too random; it doesn’t show what we know.”
“But the others can’t read,” Gamaliel replied testily. “They haven’t had your schooling. For those like Uriah, who just started learning Hebrew an X or blank cube is best. This is not random, young man—this is quite black and white. Considering the fact he can barely read, I’m impressed that Uriah was able to name Noah’s grandsons. You and your brother Joseph, in spite of having a head start on the others, didn’t have a clue.”
“Carpenters don’t need to read,” Uriah muttered unhappily. “I wanna go outside and play.”
“True or false students?” Gamaliel rang out again. “The law is greater than the word of God?”
“The law is the word,” Joseph protested. “How can you separate the two?”
“This isn’t philosophy,” hissed the rabbi. “This is a religious question. Get that straight!”
I knew the answer to this question because I heard Jesus say this once to us, so when we had finished with dropping in our cubes and the rabbi had written down the results, I knew, even before he announced the correct answer that my chosen cube was right. The answer, of course, was no—the blank cube. It turned out, as he called out the “winners” this time that Uriah had also chosen the right cube, but James and Joseph had, ignoring Jesus own words, dropped their X cubes into the basket, which was the case for all the others too. It sounded like a reasonable statement, the rabbi would later explain to us. The word ‘law’ carried authority just in the sound, but this was an illusion, the rabbi also told us, because the word of God, which was defined too narrowly by Pharisees and Sadducees, included the law as will as the spirit, and therefore transcended everything else.
“What does transcend mean?” Tabitha now asked.
“That it’s more important,” Gamaliel smiled. “I’m sorry I keep using big words. That’s
rude of me. I shall try to use plain, simple words.”
As he strolled up and down the floor, chatting with us a moment, he paused behind my chair.
“Who told you this?” He whispered confidentially to me.
“Jesus.” I answered promptly, looking back at him.
“And you?” He tapped Uriah’s shoulder.
“Jude.” Uriah confessed, sticking out his lower lip. “I saw his other cube.”
“I like honesty,” the teacher replied discreetly, “but you mustn’t cheat. There’s no point in that. No one in this room is stupid or smart in my eyes. All of you,” his voice raised progressively, “with the exception perhaps of Uriah and Jude, are sufficiently ignorant of the scriptures to allow us to start on the same level. When we get to Hebrew we might need James and Joseph’s expertise, but for now, let us begin at the beginning in Moses’ first book.”
I sensed that Gamaliel singled Uriah and I out in
jest. At this point, though, as I
promised, James and Joseph took issue with the rabbi’s assumption of their
ignorance and erupted into a rant.
“Jude doesn’t care a fig for our faith,” Joseph cried. “He’s a heretic, just like Jesus. What does he know about the word of God?”
“I can’t believe you think Uriah knows more than us,” James added his two mites. “That fat little numbskull is as dumb as a tree!”
This introductory tirade was followed by a stream of pent-up insults that had been brewing for a long time. All of it, in spite of my parents’ efforts to squelch it in the past, stemmed from Jesus supposed pretensions and airs but was exacerbated by the intrusion of Michael, Nehemiah, Uriah, and Tabitha into our lives. Now, after also being compared unfavorably to their youngest brother and the rabbi’s son too, they reached the ignition point, much like the flint’s spark into dried brush. I didn’t know that James and Joseph knew such words. Jesus swooped down upon them, with a righteous anger I’ve never seen in him. Gamaliel, who had shown his forbearance to us, seemed ready to rush upon them, himself, but moved too slowly, and Jesus beat him to it.
“You’ve gone too far! You’ve said too much!” He shouted angrily. “I can’t let you disrupt this class further or insult this honorable man.” “Out-out-out,” he shrilled yanking them up one-by-one and escorting them out of the room by their collars. “Go home, cool off, and meditate upon your sins!”
James and Joseph offered no resistance, which would have been foolish considering Jesus’ mood. When they had fled from the scene, Jesus apologized to Gamaliel on their behalf, after which Gamaliel gave a short speech that haunts me to this day.
“Except for Adam’s sin, which effected all mankind, we are guilty for personal sin. Who are you Jesus bar Joseph to taken responsibility for another’s sins?”
Though the question was asked in goodwill, Jesus face fell as if he had been hit hard in the chest. The rabbi embraced him warmly, reassuring him immediately that it wasn’t a rebuke, yet Jesus seemed on the verge of fainting as he collapsed into his chair. I ran to my brother then, as did Simon, Uriah, Tabitha, and my sisters, but he quickly regained his composure, apologized again—this time for interrupting the class, and insisted he was all right. But Jesus wasn’t all right. Something had flashed before his eyes. I sensed it then, and, as I write my chronicle, I know it now.
Paul of Tarsus once asked me when I thought Jesus learned about his divinity. I answered quickly that Jesus had always sensed his specialness with God, but on that first day of Gamaliel’s class, he learned what his purpose was in the world. I had once thought that the healing of the sparrow triggered the memories he carried since his birth, but I believe that, like so many times before, the Lord spoke through others. In this way, even the words of Gentiles provided him wisdom for his parables. I believe that my dreams of the crosses, helped remind him of who he was, but it was, I’m certain, Gamaliel’s question “Who are you Jesus bar Joseph to taken responsibility for another’s sins?” that pressed the point home. That Jesus was the Lamb of God, the savior of the world, was the furthest thing from our minds. Like everyone else I was in denial, and yet, because of my troubling dreams, I had sensed this all along.
Gamaliel rang his little bell, and, when servants scurried into the room, he ordered refreshments for all of us, especially Jesus, who was to be given a mug of Falernian wine. Gamaliel inquired about his well-being as we sipped our juice and ate the grapes and chopped fruit brought in by servants, but Jesus explained, as he enjoyed his wine and stared into space, that he shared a secret with the Lord that had overwhelmed him momentarily and like poorly cooked food was hard to digest. As much as the rabbi tried to pry out the substance of his sudden fear, Jesus politely refused to give him details, but at no time denied it was not grave news.
“Is Jesus ill?” Gamaliel bent down to ask.
“No sir,” I answered carefully, “it’s his way. . . . Jesus is always having these moments. We just wait until they pass.”
“Dear me,” he muttered, stroking his beard.
Collecting himself, he rose up, snapped his fingers, and directed the servants to distribute wax tablets to each of us, along with a writing stylus, articles I had seen Papa use in his shop.
“In our first class,” he announced cheerily, “I would like to find out how much you all know about Hebrew. Most of you might not know the words, but might remember some important letters, such as aleph and hemet. Before we begin learning the script, we must learn the letters.”
“I don’t know anything,” Simon confessed.
“Me neither,” Tabitha’s face drew into a pout.
“I do,” I exclaimed excitedly. “Here,” I added, writing several of the letters Jesus had ‘magically’ transferred to Michael’s dice, “look at this.”
“Jude!” Jesus groaned. “That doesn’t count.”
“These are the symbols for life and death.” The rabbi drew in a breath. “He wrote them perfectly, as would a scribe. Did he learn these in Joachim’s class?”
“He wasn’t in the synagogue school long enough to learn much.” Jesus gave me a surprised look. “I deciphered those symbols inscribed on a pair of dice.”
“Did he practice afterwards?” The rabbi asked as if I wasn’t even there. “I couldn’t have written them down as well, and I’ve studied Hebrew all my life.”
“I showed him once.” Jesus marveled at my letters. “These are indeed perfect.”
The rabbi asked me if I knew any more letters. I dug back into my memory and found a few more I had not written on the tablet.
“I should tell you sir,” Jesus admitted as if he was divulging a deep dark secret, “Jude isn’t like other children.”
“Neither are you.” Gamaliel smiled. “Are there any other prodigies in your family?”
“No, just us,” Jesus whispered discreetly. Clearing his throat, he declared forthrightly “Jude has perfect memory and is very smart.”
Unlike the response we expected from James and Joseph, Simon, my friends, and the girls nodded in agreement at his words. Though only Jesus and Uriah knew about my visions, members of my family had always known about my memory, which Jesus called total recall. A guarded frown told Uriah that he wanted him to keep my visions to himself, and yet Uriah gave me a knowing look while nodding to Jesus. I hadn’t told anyone that I shared one of my dreams with Uriah, which was further proof of Jesus’ divinity. What had struck the rabbi as incredible was taken for granted by my family and friends. My tablet was filled with perfectly formed Hebrew letters. Lifting up his own tablet, he now demonstrated how to press the stylus into the wax. After smoothing out his first entry with the same tool, he inscribed a large aleph symbol on the surface and, looking around the table, directed the other students to do the same. While chewing on grapes and sipping juice, Simon, Uriah, Michael, and Tabitha attempted to draw aleph symbols, but their attempts were crude, and my sisters barely made the effort at all. With a faint smile in his beard, Gamaliel glanced silently at their efforts. Laughing softly to himself, he walked slowly around the table, pausing briefly to inspect my tablet before regaining his train of thought.
“Students, it’s good that you’re trying to follow Jude’s example, but it’s not important to master writing perfectly at this stage; that, after all, is the work of the scribe. I want you to learn to read the symbols and scribble down as best you can what you see when I hold up my tablet to the class, which will be the way you learn—for your own selves—how to write Hebrew words and read the Torah.” “Is that clear?” he asked, looking around the room.
“Yes sir!” Uriah and I chimed.
From this point on, all of his students would answer this way.
Before he returned to his seat as peacekeeper, Jesus smiled at me, a look of pride on his face. I was so overwhelmed with the recognition given to me I beamed with self-importance, though I tried not act puffed up. It occurred to me that moment that I had, like Jesus, special powers. I didn’t feel as if they god-like gifts—that would be blasphemous, but I felt unique and blessed by God. Jesus had said so myself. I wasn’t fully aware of how much my association with Gamaliel would change my life, but already a change had taken place inside of me. The rabbi’s enthusiasm was infectious even before the full disclosure of my talents. It had opened a porthole in my mind and made me want to learn. To a lesser degree this was true for Simon and Tabitha. Most of my eagerness, I must confess, however, was fed by my own childhood megalomania. It delighted me that Simon, Uriah, and Tabitha admired my skill. What would they do when I learned whole words and then sentences effortlessly? After Jesus praise of me, there seemed to be no limit to what I might accomplish in Gamaliel’s class.
Before long, to everyone’s surprise, I had mastered all of the symbols held up to us that day. During the third phase of our first day, which the teacher called recitation (a word he defined as the reading of history), he skipped over the complex laws of Moses, and went straight to the stories of our people, which Papa loved so well. The purpose of this portion of our studies, he explained, would become plain to us when we were able to read and write ourselves as we studied our holy scrolls. Of course, with my recall, I would leap far ahead of the others. When our class broke up finally at Gamaliel’s signal, Tabitha and the twins ran out the door as fast as their heels could carry them, while Simon, Uriah, and Michael walked solemnly behind them their minds reeling with the information crammed into them that day. As I sat practicing on my latest symbol, with Jesus looking down at my work, the rabbi called Jesus and I aside as the others fled the room.
“Tell me,” his voice rumbled hoarsely, “what did you think of today’s lessons?”
“Do you wish me to recite them?” I asked obligingly.
“No, that won’t be necessary.” He gave me an odd look. “Are you serious, Jude?” He cocked an eyebrow. “Could you really recite the entire session?”
“What does session mean?” I wrinkled my nose.
“It’s everything I talked about today.”
In spite of his original dismissal, I gave him a sample of my talents by reciting the story of creation, “God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form or void....”
As I recited, Gamaliel looked at me in utter disbelief.
“Ah, what irony,” he said, shaking his head. “Truly an open vessel to pour knowledge into.” “How is his cognition?” He looked at Jesus expectantly. “Can he deal with abstract facts?”
“Yes.” Jesus nodded, giving me a pat. “If you define the words and facts, he’s quick to piece them together.” “. . . . Something else too,” Jesus added reluctantly, “Jude might have the gift of prophecy.”
“Now, Jesus,” Gamaliel uttered an embarrassed laugh. “You’re talking about seeing the future. He’s but a child. What sort of prophecies?”
“To begin with,” Jesus explained carefully, “I said he might have the gift. The Lord has been silent on this issue. I prayed very hard that He would lift this burden from my brother.”
The rabbi’s head rocked in bewilderment. “What are you saying? Are you serious? How do these visions come to him: in dreams, in broad daylight?”
“In nightmares,” I spoke up finally. “I wish they’d go away.”
In spite of the cautionary look he had given Uriah, Jesus, himself, had let slip my secret. Gamaliel stepped back now in awe as well as puzzlement. Jesus and I stood together, seemingly with a new alliance, under his scrutiny. I no longer felt as small in Jesus’ presence after what the rabbi said, yet I felt a great deal of gratitude that he shared his renown with me. I’m ashamed now for thinking such thoughts. I was foolish and conceited for thinking I was on Jesus’ level, but this was one of my finest hours. It was as if, God forgive me, I shared in his divinity.
Samuel, with a servant supporting each arm, arrived in the main hall as the rabbi was gathering up the tablets and cubes and placing them in a basket. Gamaliel, though deeply religious, was a man of reason and logic. What he had learned from Jesus and me wasn’t reasonable or logical. It was scarcely so to Jesus, himself, and yet, the rabbi, quietly accepted my “powers” at face value because Joseph’s oldest son had said it. The servants began cleaning the mugs, plates, and uneaten fruit off the table as the three of us watched Samuel approach. It took several moments for the decrepit Pharisee to reach the end of the table where we stood. While he wobbled forth, he muttered querulously, “Infernal relatives, can’t wait until I’m dead and buried. I won’t have it! I’ll ask Cornelius and Longinus to post a special guard at my house to keep them out!
Not far behind the Pharisee was the chamberlain Mordechai, a worried expression on his face. I remembered hearing my parents discuss the concern Samuel had that Lot and Phoebe, his nephew and niece, would visit him in the summer, but this was only the spring. Suddenly, the wondrous events that had occurred today in Gamaliel’s school were eclipsed by this bad news. Jesus saw my face drop and placed his arm around me as I glared at the old man.
“When are they arriving?” He asked thoughtfully. “Did you ask them not to come?”
“I forbid them from coming,” Samuel growled fiercely, slamming down his cane. “Justin arrived with a letter from them this morning. Can you believe it, Jesus? In a few months, they’ll be at my doorstep! They’re like vultures, my nephew and niece. I’m not even dead yet, and they want to pick my bones!”
“Calm down Samuel,” Mordechai cried, wringing his hands, “you’ll have a stroke.”
“There-there, master, here’s a mug of wine,” a servant pressed a cup to his lips.
“Stop that.” The old man waved him away. “Let me sit down. Phew! I’m changing my will, Mordechai. I’ll make it so they needn’t come at all.” “Yes, yes,” he added gulping down the wine, “I’ll send some of my men to turn them away. They’ll tell them that Nazareth has had an outbreak of the plague. If that doesn’t work, I’ll post my servants and guards around my house, perhaps with a couple of Romans, to keep those vultures away.”
“Sir,” Jesus bent down to say, “perhaps, face-to-face, when they arrive, it’ll be a good time to show them your will and set them straight.”
“That’s nonsense, Jesus,” scolded Samuel, “you don’t know my relatives. Lot, that money-grubbing jackal, and Phoebe, that blood-sucking shrew, can’t be set straight. They’ll hang around my estate until I’m dead and buried to make sure they get their share.”
Samuel emptied his mug, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and sat there a moment as if he had forgotten what he was saying. Gamaliel whispered something to Jesus, as the chamberlain ordered one of the servants to summon the physician now making his rounds in Nazareth. I think the rabbi told Jesus that we didn’t have to wait around. Jesus nodded politely and squeezed my hand.
“Go into the garden, Jude,” he counseled after pulling me aside. “When Samuel calms down, Gamaliel will give his report for the first day. It won’t take long.”
“You there, Gamaliel,” I heard Samuel call piteously, as I exited the hall. “Please help me keep their greedy hands off my estate.”
“That can be done.” The rabbi nodded thoughtfully. “You have plenty of witnesses in this house. I’ll amend your will, if that’s what you wish.”
“Amend nothing! I want them cut out completely,” Samuel wrung his gnarled fist. “I haven’t seen them since they were snot-nosed brats, tormenting my servants and fouling my home like hyenas before they left.”
Mordechai shook his head in dismay. “I hope Abner arrives soon. This could be fatal for your heart!”
“Bah!” Samuel snorted, after a loud belch. “There’s nothing wrong with my heart that isn’t wrong with anything else wearing out in this old bag of bones.”
The servants giggled hysterically, and Gamaliel offered a nervous laugh, but Mordechai knew how many times the old man had come close to death and fretted anxiously as his master sat fuming and fussing about his potential guests. That silly, stupid old man! I thought, as he ranted and raved. Slipping out finally after eavesdropping awhile, I heaved a broken sight, greatly irritated with him for breaking the spell. Feeling suddenly weary from today’s events, weighted down with my thoughts, I used one Samuel’s fine cloacas and then, after picking a plum from a tree in the garden, found my favorite bench. Munching on the plum a moment, I thought about my adventure in class and what Jesus had told Gamaliel. Nothing could change that! Before long, after bunching up my cloak behind my head, I lie back on the bench and, feeling drowsy and weightless, fell quickly asleep.
No sooner had I taken a short nap, in which I had a nonsensical dream, than I felt myself tumbling back down that long dark corridor from the nether world. This time, after being shaken vigorously, I found myself looking up into the face of Jesus. In the background, as this vision cleared, I also saw Gamaliel. When I sat up groggily and scanned the garden, however, Samuel and his servants were nowhere in sight. This was fine with me, I told myself, I didn’t like that old man. My opinion of Samuel would change drastically, though, after what Gamaliel and Jesus told me about his thoughts on Gamaliel’s report.
“Jude, we have good news,” Jesus was saying when I was fully awake. “Samuel was impressed with what Gamaliel told him. Here, let him tell you himself.”
“Yes, Jude,” the rabbi sat down next to me, “most remarkable in deed. It seems that our good fortunes—you, Jesus, your parents, and I are intertwined. I shall teach my students, as before, but I will help shape your mind in order for you to one day attend Nicodemus’ collegia in Jerusalem. You are going to be a scholar!”
“Kind sir,” I responded delicately, “I just want to travel and see the world—”
“I know, I remember, you also want a white horse,” the rabbi replied good-naturedly. “Many great rabbis see the world. I’ve been to Rome three times.”
“Really?” I glanced at Jesus. “I don’t have to sell Egyptian pottery and Syrian rugs?”
“No, you don’t,” Gamaliel replied, patting my knee.
Gamaliel and Jesus laughed heartily.
As I reveled in my new status, Gamaliel explained to me the good fortune that awaited my parents and himself.
“Luck has played into the hands of God,” he declared pleasantly. “Samuel was in good spirits after I promised to rewrite his will—a simple matter. This, he promised, will include your family. He also has big plans for our school. He will have his chamberlain send a letter off to Phoebe and Lot telling them not to come. All I have to do now is find a magistrate to notarize the will. He was also cheered by the fact that your family has another gifted son. By then, of course, Samuel was tipsy on wine. He’s an old man, a little addled in the head. So let’s wait until tomorrow to make sure he doesn’t change his mind.”
“Samuel does that a lot.” I smirked, looking back at Jesus.
“Don’t worry.” He winked slyly. “He needs my counsel. For that matter, he needs your mother’s tender care. But just to be sure, let’s not celebrate yet. Tomorrow morning, if he doesn’t remember what he said, I shall remind him of his promises. No matter what, Jude, you’re a genius. Do you know what that means?”
“No,” I answered truthfully, “but it sounds important.”
“It’s a Latin name,” Gamaliel explained, ruffling my hair. “It means you’re smart, but naturally so, unlike the rest of us—quite like Jesus and my own teacher Nicodemus of Jerusalem.”
In a distant time, Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus would help define his mission. That moment in Samuel’s garden, however, I was perplexed by all of the rabbi’s big words. Gamaliel and Jesus laughed at my ignorance. Hah—me a genius? The implications of all this were just too momentous for my twelve year old mind. I giggled foolishly at the thought of wearing a shimmering teacher’s robe like Gamaliel or fancy clothes like Joseph of Arimathea. From that point, my untutored imagination stopped. All I wanted, or I thought I wanted, was a white horse and a clear road ahead. Nevertheless, in spite of my foolishness, the rabbi placed his hand on my head as if in blessing, “He doesn’t yet know the word for what he is. His vocabulary may be small. By the beard of Abraham, he doesn’t even know what vocabulary means, and yet, with his memory and intellect he’ll know more than me by the time he buys his horse!”
The years have piled up behind me as the slabs of stone depicting ancient life encased in the rock in Nazareth’s hills. As Jesus, himself, speculated one day, the oldest such relics would lie at the bottom and the youngest would naturally lie at the top of rock, which struck me as one of the most heretical things he had ever said. That these treasures are infinitely older than the six days required to create the world was a troubling factor when I pounded the impressions, molds, and, in some cases, the hardened bones of strange animals and plants that supposedly lived before the Deluge. Though he never tried to explain the conflict between word and fact, Jesus was correct. My own eyes, touch, and reason, proved him right. This heretical way of thinking, Jesus and I shared, was encouraged by my many journeys in which I collected countless relics in hills and the bedrock of streams. Remembering Jesus ideas on this subject and his discussion of such wonders in Nazareth makes it easier for me to envision each year of my life as a slab filled with the relics of my past. Now it appears that the final slab with the final relic—my execution—sitting at the top of the stone awaits life’s finale—my own personal Deluge, while deep down toward the base of the abyss sits one of the important relics of my life: my education at Gamaliel’s school.
But I digress again. Each day that I attended Gamaliel’s class in Samuel’s house with Uriah, Michael, Tabitha, and my brothers and sisters was a period of growth for me, as well as for them. For them, however, as I understand it today, it was a normal and gradual growth in learning. For me it was period of rediscovery. All of the promise Jesus claimed for me blossomed quickly, after lying dormant, like a flower in Mama’s garden. Each day, after hearing lectures on our history, we would be tested, using our true and false cubes. During the second half of the class, he would teach us Hebrew, from learning the symbols to the formation of simple words. The first words we learned would enable us to write our answers to questions, as either ‘true’ or ‘false’ on our tablets instead of the cumbersome method of dropping our cubes into a basket after our answers were recorded on a scroll. James and Joseph, after apologizing to the teacher and working in the carpenter’s shop without pay for several weeks as punishment, were given one more chance to attend school. In spite of our schooling, we all had to do our chores, which meant that we had only an hour or so each day to romp in the hills.
After several months, an important test was given to determine how much the students had learned. Gamaliel then divided his class into groups on the basis of how many answers we got right on our tablets and how much Hebrew we had learned. At the top of the learning pyramid, as Gamaliel called it, stood myself—alone, far ahead of everyone else. On the next level were James and Joseph, who had entered the class with some knowledge of history but a limited comprehension of the language, except for well-memorized verses gleaned before their self imposed exile from Rabbi Joachim’s school. Below this level were Uriah, Simon and Michael—with a decreasing understanding of language and history, followed by Tabitha and the twins, who were almost totally ignorant of these subjects. From this point on, the teacher posed different questions to each group that reflected their level of understanding of history and Hebrew. In this way, he didn’t hold back one group nor show unfair expectations of another. Occasionally, he would throw in a more difficult question to a member of a lower group to see how much they had learned. This allowed each student to move upward to a more advanced level. In less than a month, after the pyramid method was introduced in Gamaliel’s class, Tabitha moved up to Simon’s group, and Uriah joined Joseph and James. Even before the pyramid test, I was tutored by Gamaliel after class, which meant less chores for me but also less play time. This preferential treatment irritated James and Joseph, who showed it in various subtle ways after class. Though I was far beyond them, Jesus, who occasionally sat in on our classes to monitor our behavior, counseled me on showing humility—a word I understood because of my expanding vocabulary but, because of my new status in Gamaliel’s eyes, was difficult to do. Like that fast growing flower in Mama’s garden, I sprouted up and beyond the others so quickly it was very hard not to have a swelled up head. I’m reminded today, as I recount those heady days, of King Solomon’s lament: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!”