On the day before our Coming of Age ceremony, a most unsettling thing happened. Not long after the start of Gamaliel’s school, Samuel had, with great fanfare at one of our dinners, announced his decision to have the ceremony in his great hall. Until the arrival of Gamaliel into our lives, we had all planned on visiting Aunt Elizabeth and Cousin John. My brothers, sisters, and friends had looked forward to this visit with our cousin and aunt. Because of the opportunity offered to us, however, we had to delay our trip. After the ceremony we would give our teacher a rest and travel to Sepphoris as originally planned. In spite of Samuel’s protests, this was Mama’s decision; nothing could change her mind. When Justin, our courier, happened to make his rounds in Nazareth, Papa gave him a letter informing Elizabeth of our trip. We had no knowledge then of a second letter Samuel slipped in the courier’s pouch. This letter, in effect, canceled out the first. To prevent what Gamaliel and the Pharisee saw as a disruption in our schooling, Samuel invited Elizabeth and her son to his house. Ignoring the intentions of Papa’s scroll, the second note’s ostensible purpose had been to insure that John shared in the Coming of Age festivities. John was also invited to join Gamaliel’s school. It was quite sneaky of the old man. He waited until the very day of their arrival to inform us of what he had done, perhaps to surprise us but more likely to prevent a mutiny among the students in Gamaliel’s class. We were all quite upset. Gamaliel, who denied any knowledge of the correspondence, apologized profusely, but Samuel was unrepentant for the trick. He knew he had done the right thing. My parents had been relieved of the burden and expense of travel. Papa’s business would not be interrupted for this period of time.
The most important reason for inviting Aunt Elizabeth and Cousin John, we understood, was to prevent an interruption in Gamaliel’s teaching. Nevertheless, my parents realized, it was a magnanimous act. It was a comparatively short trip from Sepphoris and Nazareth. The wear on our sickly aunt on such a journey was less than a houseful of noisy guests. Samuel, Mordechai reassured my parents, would give her his finest chambers with attending servants, so she could rest well during her stay. Abner, Samuel’s physician, would be at her beck and call, and the chamberlain would personally see to all her comforts while she was here.
There was, of course, a downside to the Elizabeth’s stay, which no one talked about. Until a few days ago, we thought the old woman was going to draw her last breath. It would be dreadful, Papa confessed to Mama, if it was drawn in Samuel’s house. The very next day, after our benefactor’s disclosure, we stood in front of his house, our disappointment compensated by thoughts of seeing our cousin again. In the distance, on the road passing Samuel’s estate, a cloud of dust rose up. The clatter of wheels and neighing of horses proclaimed their arrival as they came into sight. Riding ahead in order to dismount and assist the guests, were four servants. Not far behind, the Roman escorts rode up to the chamberlain, saluted smartly, then, after being handed their pay, galloped back to their fort. Soon, to our delight and our parents dismay, we saw two, not one, large coach rumbling our way. Lo and behold, not only our aunt and cousin returned with the men provided by our host, but several long lost relatives we hadn’t seen in years. After all the incredible things occurring in our lives, we shouldn’t have been surprised by their arrival, but this was unexpected. The children clapped. The adults groaned. What a sight! On the surface Samuel took the addition of these strangers in stride, but Mama was worried that the mounting guest list, which included notables from Sepphoris and Jerusalem, would cause the old man undo stress. Abner, who looked beyond Samuel’s joyful mood and lively step, feared for his racing pulse and shortness of breath, insisting that his heart couldn’t take the excitement and anticipation bubbling in his mind. Now, with the sudden appearance of Aunt Elizabeth’s entourage, a frown twitched on the old man’s face as his jaws jerked up and down in utter disbelief.
As the great door opened and Mordechai, the chamberlain, began reading from the list presented to him by the coachmen, “Mistress Elizabeth, John bar Zechariah, Azrael bar Jonah, Nedinijah bar Zemrid...”, Samuel whispered to Mama, “What is this Mary. I recognize Elizabeth. She looks deathly ill. Who are these other people? I didn’t invite them!”
“I certainly didn’t,” she replied defensively. “These must be her kinfolk. I’m sorry Samuel. I remember you inviting only her and John.”
“I shall talk to the cooks and other servants,” Obadiah, the steward, muttered hurriedly, after calling a greeting to the guests. “Don’t worry Samuel,” he said from the corner of his mouth, as he pivoted and dashed away.
Ishmael, the chief butler, stepped forward then, with Samuel’s guards in tow, to assist Elizabeth’s servants with the luggage, while Samuel, my parents, and Abner rushed up to help Elizabeth emerge from the coach. Uriah, my brothers, and I stood back to watch the show, until we saw John finally hop out of the cab, wearing, for the first time we could recall, fine clothes. His ruddy face had been scrubbed and scraped of dirt and down. A blue turban, similar to the ones I saw Joseph of Arimathea and his sons wear, was cocked rakishly over his forehead. In addition to his silver striped tunic and matching pants, a white robe was tied around his neck, he sported a red sash with a small gold cased dagger attached, and wore blue and gold laced slippers on his normally dirty bare feet.
James and Joseph broke into giggles. Soon Simon and I were doubled up in mirth at John’s attire. Uriah, unaware of our cousin’s eccentricities, couldn’t understand why we were acting like fools. When I described to him the cousin we knew in Sepphoris, Uriah joined in the merriment. Tabitha and the twins, ignorant of the jest, were amused by our foolishness and tittered amongst themselves. In spite of Mama’s disapproving look, even Papa began chuckling as John bowed politely to Samuel and my parents, John’s face reddening with embarrassment, as he looked our way. My family’s friends, whose children weren’t even members of our class, approached the entrance from the main path, pointing excitedly at the arriving dignitaries, Ezra, who was familiar with John’s habits, grinning in amazement as they arrived.
Speechless for once in their lives, James and Joseph fell onto their rears, howling with glee. Through guffaws, Simon kept saying, “He looks like a Syrian whore! He looks like a Syrian whore!”
“Abraham’s beard,” Uriah exclaimed, “it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen!”
Unlike Uriah and myself, contempt, as well as mirth, registered on James and Joseph’s faces. Poor John, I chided myself. When I stopped to think about it, it seemed unfair that John was singled out. Had not Joseph of Arimathea, his sons, and his magnificent guards been dressed in colorful, showy garb? I wanted to apologize for laughing at him, but felt sudden intimidation as he approached. John, who had suffered laughter for pleasing his doting mother, must have seen the contempt in my brothers’ eyes. He paused momentarily, gave them both a hard look, as if he might just take them to task, and then, looking straight ahead, continued on his way. Several guests paused at the entrance of the villa as he strutted passed. “Who is that strange looking boy?” a townsman asked. James, Joseph, and Simon continued to snicker under the breaths. Uriah grinned like a fool. John remained the center of attraction. After the look he gave James and Joseph, I decided not to offer apologies and gave a mumbled greeting instead. At this point, apologizing to John would have been an unpopular action to my brothers and friends. James and Joseph, who had never liked John very much, shook their heads with disgust. Simon, still giggling like a hyena, stopped to sneer at him as he proceeded, while Uriah stood there gawking, much like the patrons of the museum in Alexandria probably gazed at a strange beast. I was certain that this was all Elizabeth’s idea. If John had his way he would probably have arrived barefoot in rough woolen garb with a rope tied around his waist. I felt sorry for him, but, for the time being, I kept it to myself.
Jesus appeared suddenly in the atrium as the crowd gathered, dressed in the same plain white tunic as the rest of us, greeting his cousin in the Jewish manner, arm on shoulder, giving him a simple bow, followed by “Peace be upon John bar Zechariah. Welcome to our gracious host Samuel’s house.”
It made me feel ashamed. The twins ran up to grab Jesus and John’s big hands. Without warning Tabitha grabbed mine, bringing a smile to my face. Along with my feeling of shame, other emotions bombarded me now: pity for John, expectation of the coming event, irritation at my other brothers, and a sudden longing for Tabitha whose womanhood was blossoming under her dress.
“There-there,” Mama cooed, as she and Naomi held Elizabeth’s frail elbows and led her into the house.
“They’re still children,” Elizabeth’s voice quivered. “Tonight that shall change. What a wondrous day!”
This, my mind cried out, wasn’t true. Look at the way my brothers and friends carried on. Did she think they would awaken in the morning full-fledged men? Our mother giggled stupidly after her words. The more I thought about her words, the more I realized how absurd Samuel’s expectations were. All Gamaliel wanted from us was that we behave as proper students. Except for our work habits, I don’t think Mama or Papa really cared.
Abner and a servant were helping the wobbly Samuel to his chambers that moment, concerned only with his health. I heard Ezra and Papa commenting that moment upon Elizabeth’s behavior as they looked around the grand house. Ezra wondered if she might be drunk. Papa replied quickly, “She’d have to be to make this trip.” Noting the difficulties the elderly physician was having with his patient, Papa offered a steadying hand. Abner was huffing and puffing. The servant seemed to be carrying most of the weight.
“She’s probably drugged” Ezra decided, as Abner allowed Papa to step in. “I’m surprised her physician didn’t come along too.”
“Thank you, Joseph,” Abner gasped, as Papa led Samuel into the hall, “Samuel needs a strong hand, not these worn fingers.” “I think your right, Ezra,” he responded belatedly, collapsing momentarily into a cushioned chair. “...poor Elizabeth is medicated to calm her heart. It’s what I try to do for Samuel, but he doesn’t always listen. I don’t like her coloring, Joseph. The woman is ghastly pale.”
“She should be in bed.” Samuel muttered querulously. “She never should’ve made this trip. Those relatives of hers should be horse whipped for bringing her along.”
Since Samuel, himself, had invited Elizabeth to his house, this outburst was absurd. Despite hopeful signs in the past, it appeared as if his mind was slipping. Several guests, including ones from Sepphoris, glanced back at the old man. The sound of sandals on the marble floors echoed with the footfall of servants preparing our feast. With the aid of a servant, Abner rose up on his shaky legs. He looked almost as old as Samuel that moment, as he took the servant’s arm.
“What’s that old adage?” He cackled, wiping his brow. “You can lead a lamb to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
As Papa gripped his arm, Samuel grumbled to himself. “How am I going to feed all these people?” His mind began to wander. “We only have one pig and lamb…Where is that fool Obadiah? His place is at the door!”
“Don’t worry,” Abner said, regaining his breath, “there’s plenty of food. It’s lodging you have to worry about. Mordechai will think of something.”
“I have only so many rooms,” whined the Pharisee. “Everyone will have to double up. What will happen if some of them have to sleep in my garden and in the corridors?”
“Master, we have plenty of room,” a servant reassured as they guided him to his room. “You must lie down for awhile. Please stop fretting. Your guests can wait.”
Papa attempted to calm the agitated Pharisee, himself, but in a light-hearted mood. As Uriah, Simon, Tabitha, and I listened in, we could hear him add in a sing-song voice, “Ho-ho, sounds like someone needs a nap.” Ezra tossed his head back and laughed. I noticed, after Papa returned from escorting Samuel to his chambers, that both he and Ezra emerged in the mulling bodies, holding mugs of wine. To my surprise Mama and Naomi were holding mugs too. It might have been the same pomegranate juice that was served to the children of guests and my brothers, sisters, and friends. Simon and I took advantage of the festivities, sneaking sips of Falernian wine when unwary guests set down their cups. No one could blame Samuel for resenting this unexpected onslaught, but the most important concern for my parents and the physician had been to make sure Elizabeth and Samuel got their proper rest. Also worrying my parents was the possibility that Michael might suddenly show up at the feast. Because our benefactor had invited so many guests, Michael would have to lie low.
Even though he might not be there in person at all times, Samuel had promised to share the festivities and Coming of Age ceremony with us. Several times, I thought I saw him lurking about from the corner of my eye. While we loitered in the great hall and in the garden, waiting for the remainder of the guests to arrive, our host and Mama’s aunt did, in fact, take a short nap. Abner suggested that Elizabeth might forego the event altogether if her coloring didn’t return. Mama agreed that, if this were the case, they would let her sleep through the meal. Samuel, however, would have been furious if they let him slumber through the ceremony and feast. To prevent this disaster, Abner, who had his own chambers next to Samuel, gave a servant orders to wake both of them up just before the guests were seated in the great hall.
My parents, who were simple folks, would have preferred The Coming of Age ceremony to be simple and unconventional, with a small gathering, rather than this event contrived by Samuel, but Samuel insisted that it be done properly in the presence of townsmen, relatives, and friends, with an important rabbi such as Gamaliel present. A much more sensible way, I heard Joseph suggest to James, would be to have Papa give the Shema at the Shabbat meal during this period of time, as we normally do—no fancy rabbi or fussy old Pharisee to officiate, and give the blessing, with just our family and maybe a few friends. After Papa’s blessing, like the Patriarchs of old, he would turn the scrolls over to his sons to finish the sacred words. I remember James and Joseph attempting this on such a day. Though they stumbled over the passages, James and Joseph were able to read a short Proverb too. It wasn’t an impressive performance. They had, Gamaliel would discover, a rude understanding of Hebrew and had probably memorized most of the Shema after hearing it so many times. Even so, Papa had consoled them before we arrived at Samuel’s house, most of the other children in Nazareth could barely read at all. Only a few households, we were informed, actually contained scrolls of the Torah. Not that poor Jews could afford it anyhow, but there had never been a special ceremony for this in Galilee or Judea. Moreover, now that I think about it, reason was more important that money on this matter. Making an issue about turning twelve, especially to practical minded folks like my parents, when most of us still had children’s bodies and minds, was neither practical nor logical. I’m convinced even now, though this ceremony caught on with wealthier Jews, such festivities should be simple, reflecting merely a starting point in boys (and girls) lives in which our childhood innocence would begin to fade and we would, with greater knowledge of the Torah, be held accountable for our actions and, as Gamaliel put it, become the author of our sins.
It was, when all things were considered, our traditions and the bits and pieces of history passed onto us by our parents that helped shape our minds as Jews, but it was the stern hand of Papa and Mama in our childhood that helped guide our paths. This was true for most Galilean children. Jesus’ counseling and constant example has also influenced his brothers and sisters. There was, however, even in Jesus freethinking, a need for a permanent religious teacher in our town. Ignorance, he once told his disciples, left us unprotected against sin. Without a functioning town rabbi, the people of Nazareth had to rely solely upon the head of the house for their religious needs. For his adopted children, who had been cutoff from the synagogue, and castoffs such as Tabitha, Uriah, and Michael, Papa and Jesus’ counsel filled a religious void. Nevertheless, as Samuel pointed out to my parents, many townsfolk were slipping into heresy and unbelief. Gamaliel had been acting as the students’ religious instructor but would not accept the role as rabbi for our town. There was no financial incentive for him. Frankly, because of Joachim’s bad example, this suited Simon and I just find. We didn’t want a rabbi telling us how to think. For Uriah, who had been smothered with Joachim’s preaching, there was hatred for religious dogma greater even than our own. In their own carefree way Papa and Mama had given us their own views of life and interpretations of faith. Upon glimpsing his Godhood, Jesus had begun to add his own heresies into the patchwork, so that, in addition to a simple foundation for our belief, we had what I now understand to be a framework for Jesus doctrine of salvation, which would be the culmination of the new faith. My family had relied upon Papa and then, like it or not, upon Jesus for our religious training ever since our break with the synagogue, but James and Joseph had never thought that this was quite enough. In spite of my parents and oldest brothers’ efforts, they felt spiritually adrift. The fact that Joachim’s current illness had caused the remainder of his congregation to be deprived of knowledge from the Torah had, in a wider sense, left a void in many of the townsfolk lives. This void was felt acutely for James and Joseph tonight, sense they were being forced to show their limited understanding of Hebrew in front of relatives and guests from town.
Because of its sacred nature, Gamaliel confessed during the feast, the ceremony should have been held on the Shabbat. Although the walk by the local guests and even the trip from Sepphoris made by Aunt Elizabeth’s company complied with the law, his suggestion caused frowns around the table. The Shabbat, after all, was a sacred event. Many of the guests laughed and shook their heads, as if they thought he meant this in jest. So as not to offend those who might think that his suggestive inappropriate, he didn’t press the point, but I sensed he had been serious. When asked bluntly by Azrael, a kinsman of Elizabeth, why this ceremony was even necessary, he frowned at the swarthy, uncouth man. Papa, who was feeling his wine, glared at him too. To my surprise, however, Gamaliel grinned, his eyes twinkling with mirth, and admitted that this was a good way of showing off the school. This occasion, he explained pleasantly, would serve two functions: a coming of age ceremony for the boys and a night of recognition for all the students in his class. The rabbi was proud of what we all learned, even if it seemed to break with tradition. Even the twins, who were not old enough for a ceremony, would read from the Torah. In less than a year, Tabitha would be twelve years old, herself. I know differently now, but it seemed that, in Gamaliel’s liberal thinking, she might “cross over” too.
Azrael nodded begrudgingly at his reasons for the event but frowned with disapproval when he included the girls. Receiving approving looks from the other guests, Gamaliel explained how the ceremony would proceed. It was really quite simple. The Shema would be recited by the host, as was proper, followed by the feast. Afterwards, at a signal from the rabbi, all of the students would file up one-by-one for their turn to read from the scroll. The women tittered nervously and most of the men grunted with approval. The aroma of fine foods wafting into the hall overrode their curiosity and suspicion. As I looked around the room, I caught sight John, sitting next to his mother. Elizabeth, who insisted on being seated like everyone else, was propped up by pillows. Her skin was ashen gray, and her eyes were sunk deeply into her skull. John’s attention seemed to be divided between her welfare and the festivities in the room. Though Elizabeth’s relatives were a burden on our host, I was glad that she and John had come. In her own way she was, like Samuel, a benefactor for our family. Though her son was nearly Jesus’ age, he had never experienced such a ceremony, so these festivities were intended also for him. Because he wasn’t a student in Gamaliel’s class, his knowledge wasn’t being tested. I was certain that the other students envied him and James and Joseph resented this fact. John would not have to make a fool of himself, as they would this evening. As the son of wealthy mother and temple priest, it was assumed that he had been tutored in Hebrew, history, and the law, but John never made such a claim. His education would come when he joined a band of hermits in the desert. That fateful day at the river Jordan was a long ways away. This night, with his flashy clothes and sickly mother, he was really only a guest, like most of the others. He must have felt bored and out of place. I was the only one looking forward to this event.
During this glorious time I would shine like a pearl among pebbles, but I had promised Gamaliel to be humble tonight. I would read only what the teacher suggested and nothing more.
Of course, this didn’t prevent me from showing off my skills as a speaker. I had memorized many of the passages, which meant I could, as Gamaliel himself often did, quote scripture from memory. Unlike the stumbling efforts of the others, I could look up at times and make eye contact with the audience. Gamaliel had taught us to use hand gestures when speaking to emphasize certain passages. When I was finished tonight I would show James, Joseph, and many of the townsmen that I was no longer a silly child. In my heart, though, I still felt like a child. I had the conflicting urge now to resume my escapades with my friends and brother Simon. My parents reassured us, as we returned to Samuel’s house after doing our chores, that the ceremony would not immediately transform us into adults. It would be a gradual process. At this stage we were responsible for our actions before God and must set out on our path in life. Judging by the words of old Samuel after delivering a croaking, stammering Shema, however, this ceremony meant that Uriah, my brothers, myself, and Michael (in absentia) were now young men and must put away childish things. As I look back, his words remind me of a passage from Paul’s first gospel to the Corinthians, which I was privileged to read, “When I was a child I acted like a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” During my visit with Paul in Ephesus, when I first read his scroll, I recalled those similar words spoken by our teacher and our benefactor and was deeply moved. I hadn’t read this in the Torah and found it significant that Paul chose those exact words. When spoken by Samuel at the table, they were frightening. They carried conviction, not merely a desire for order in class, which I believe was Gamaliel’s intention. Unlike the rabbi, the old man believed his speech. I might like showing off my knowledge to my family and their friends, but I wasn’t ready to leap into manhood. I was certain that the remainder of the initiates, including James and Joseph, were not ready for such a leap either, so I clung to my parents words as I listened to the Pharisee admonish us for our foolish ways then praise us for the transition we were making on this hallowed eve.
It took all of Samuel’s energy to deliver his short speech. Abner coaxed him into lying down on the divan provided by servants. Mordechai, the chamberlain, had them place his master close to the table, much like my parents did when he visited our house. It seemed to me that poor Elizabeth should be lying down too. Our feast was sumptuous, even by Samuel’s standards. The old man, who could not eat solid food, himself, gave us a seven-course meal—something one might expect for a Roman aristocrat but certainly not a mere ceremony in a Pharisee’s house. The first course naturally was lamb, an appropriate dish for such an occasion, the night before the Shabbat, but this was followed by a second course of fish from Galilee stuffed with mushrooms and rare herbs, a dish that most Jews would never normally eat. The third course was a strange blend of different fowl—quite delicious. For all we knew, though, Samuel’s cook had added crow and other exotic birds to the stew. The fourth and fifth courses, beef and deer meat, whose preparation Mordechai had overseen himself, were so overwhelming that the last two courses—lentil stew (Mama’s specialty) and a variety chopped fruit, intended for the squeamish, were quite forgotten during the feast. My favorite was the mushrooms. If Mama had not slapped my hand, I would have stuffed myself on those morsels. There was all manner of bread, from unleavened to fancy loafs prepared by the baker. Throughout our feast, the servants continued to fill our mugs with juice, water, or wine. Papa, Ezra, a few of Elizabeth’s relatives, and some of the townsmen were becoming drunk. Even so, we were all expected to make room for the cakes and sweat meats served after our meal.
When it came time to take our turns reading from the Torah, Tabitha and the twins and slipped away and were playing hide-and-go-seek in the garden, Simon was asleep, and Uriah had ran to the cloaca to throw up his food. James and Joseph were so nervous they had, like Simon snuck sips of wine from chattering guests until they were dosing off too. Everyone, including the women and other children, were fidgeting badly, with queasy stomachs or swelling bladders. No one cared a wit for our Coming of Age ceremonies at this point, least of all us.
Just when I began searching for an avenue of escape, Gamaliel stood up and looked around the room at his students, his dark, hawk-like eyes settling finally upon me. I felt trapped. A moment of truth had come for me. Giving me a slight nod, signaling, with the upward motion of his hands, for me to rise up and set an example to the others, he walked over solemnly and led me to the rostrum he had set up at one end of the hall.
The guests looked up groggily as I passed, yet Jesus, like my parents, beamed with pride. For most people in the hall this was a frightful bore. Simon was asleep. The twins and several of the other youngsters in the room, including Tabitha and Uriah, were fidgeting in their seats, while James and Joseph, in spite being tipsy, managed to give me a proper snarl. Everyone else in the large hall appeared to be in various stages of drunkenness after so much wine or frowned with physical discomfort from eating so much food. The expressions of all these onlookers made my performance even more difficult. Using the traditional yad, my teacher selected, I recognized with a gasp, one of Isaiah’s prophecies: the Messenger of the Messiah. As a disciple, I would recognize these passages as pointing to our cousin John, but that night in Samuel’s house it sounded, as so many prophecies, like gibberish. Why couldn’t Gamaliel have given me a simple psalm, proverb or passage about the law? The psalmists and author of proverbs had written in a simple, poetic style. The five books of Moses, which James and Joseph treasured so much, though boring at times to read, were constructed in easy to read sentences. Probably thinking he had done me favor in picking a favorite subject for Jews—prophesies of the Messiah—he now pointed to this difficult passage for me to read.
“ ‘Comfort my peoples,’ sayeth the Lord,” I began after clearing my throat. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries in the wilderness, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low. The uneven shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Gamaliel’s hand upon my shoulder seemed to tell me I had read enough. Sighing with relief, I realized it had not been so bad. I had not been forced to read the entire chapter. As I turned away, however, the teacher moved his yad down the scroll to a new passage, tapping it several times. A strange sense of foreboding filled me as my eyes fell upon the first lines, and yet I no longer feared for my delivery. Many of the guests, whose heads were not drooping or were nodding off to sleep, gave me thoughtful looks. James and Joseph had looks of envy upon their faces. Simon looked on sleepily those moments as Uriah, Tabitha, and my parents clapped their hands with joy. Inexplicably I looked at Jesus, who was frowning those moments as I quoted the prophet’s words, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings. Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings. Lift it up, and fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” Then, as if to drive the point home, Gamaliel moved passed this chapter to a prophecy no one clearly understood. At first I thought it must be an accident. Though he wouldn’t admit it for many years, I think the Lord might have guided his choice. Jesus face fell as my clarion voice filled the hall. Instead of the ringing lines “Behold, I have given him for a witness to the people, a leader and commander to the people,” from a preceding chapter, the words “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our grief and carried our sorrows. Yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. He was wounded for our transgressions, and he was bruised for our iniquities. Upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed—”
“Enough!” cried Samuel from his couch. “Jude’s skipped several chapters. Where’s the part about the conquering Messiah, who brings peace and happiness to his people?”
“Yes,” blared Ezra, clanking his mug on the table, “give us happy lines. These words don’t belong in this ceremony. We need cheerful words that give the students hope.”
I noticed, as I scanned their faces, that—with the exception of some of the men, who were drunk—the adult members of my audience had troubled looks on their faces. Jesus’ frown had deepened. Mama was clutching her hand to her mouth. James and Joseph’s snarls were replaced by raised eyebrows and parted lips. Uriah and Tabitha had blank expressions, Simon was rudely awakened by Gamaliel’s yad, and the twins had snuck away into the garden to play childish games. Everyone else it seemed, including Cousin John, Aunt Elizabeth, and my parents, had been shaken one way or another by these mysterious words.
“You may take your seat,” Gamaliel dismissed me gently. Under his breath he added, “Well done Jude. Your execution was flawless. Soon, we shall begin your training in Greek.”
Samuel was grinning slyly at me as he reclined on his couch. Not sure what my words meant, both Uriah and Tabitha nevertheless clapped with delight as I sat back down. Everyone else, however, sat in moody silence.
“James bar Joseph,” Gamaliel called out, “you’re next. Please come to the rostrum.”
To his delight, James was given a passage from the first chapter of Exodus, one of the most important chapters for the children of Israel. As he had during his recitation of Jesus’ letter, James’ booming voice read the beginning lines of Exodus in grand style and with perfect inflection: “ Now these are the names of the children of Israel, which came out of Egypt; every man and his household came with Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulon, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. And all of them that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls, for Joseph was in Egypt already...”
James delivery had been excellent. I was proud of him and told him so. The begrudging nod he gave me, as Joseph replaced him at the rostrum, was equivalent to a Roman salute. If only the others could do as well as James and I, I thought jubilantly, we could all share equally in Gamaliel’s good graces as colleagues. Alas, as the third son began his recitation, I realized that this was not to be. Joseph, who was actually smarter than James, had been dreading this event all day and it showed. Though he read a chapter from the same book as James, he did it haltingly, wetting his lips and coughing nervously, until Gamaliel rescued him from his torment by clapping his hands and telling him how excellent had been his understanding of our tongue.
“For his first time in front of an audience,” extolled our teacher, “this isn’t bad. Joseph is a fine student and will make a great scribe.”
Lies, all of it, I told myself, as Uriah took his turn. Unlike Joseph, Uriah didn’t stammer or stutter; he just went blank as he gazed out at the listeners. With Gamaliel’s prodding, he managed to utter a few lines from a psalm, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all ye lands...” From this point, Uriah went blank again, read a few more muted lines until being directed politely to his seat.
Compared to the bumbling efforts of Tabitha, who was far to shy for such a display, Uriah did quite well. We would never know how Michael might have done. Simon, however, surprised all of us with his rude effort. “Heart thine strengthen shall he and courage good of be Lord the on wait—”
“Why, that sounds backward,” Samuel cackled aloud. “Is the boy drunk?”
“Gibberish,” grumbled Ezra. “What’s that man teaching these children?”
It wasn’t gibberish. I knew for a fact that Simon had been sneaking wine, but this problem had been noted by Gamaliel before. The teacher whispered something into my brother’s ear. I would learn later that he told Simon to begin at the end of sentence instead of the beginning, reading the opposite way. Simon nodded and began the psalm again, but haltingly, “Wait...on...the...Lord, be of good courage,...and he shall strengthen thine hearts...”
Papa’s jaw fell. Mama, who had groaned with dismay, during his first effort, beamed at him with delight. Jesus gave them a knowing smile, as the audience looked on in amazement. Simon had stolen the moment, and I stood up to applaud him loudly when he returned to his seat.
“Is it true?” Papa jumped up like a Persian stick puppet. “Does Simon see words backward? Can you cure him rabbi? He’s always been slow. Thanks be to the Most High that you’ve found this out. Simon must learn, like the others, to read—”
“Fear not.” Gamaliel reached out with a restraining hand. “I’ve seen this condition before. A Greek I knew called it mirror vision. Simon was learning to read, as he saw it with his mirror vision, backwards. Now to train his mind, his will start at the end of a line or verse. He is learning to write this way too. Everything else, including his skill at adding, subtracting, and dividing sums, his logic and reason in class, and his ability to memorize historical facts, is quite above average. If he is slow, Joseph, it’s a simple matter of youthful sloth. Simon, like your other sons, could be anything he wants. I have great confidence in him.”
“And,” Malachi, the town potter, called out resentfully, “you’ll teach some of our sons too!”
“Yes, indeed.” Gamaliel gave him a curt nod. “If your town fails to find itself a rabbi, those of you honoring Joseph’s family and Samuel’s house can send their sons to me to learn Hebrew, history, and the law.”
This was a great revelation to us all. Gamaliel’s response to Malachi sounded almost rehearsed. Most of the boys and girls attending the feast with their parents were, considering the precedent he made for Tabitha and the twins, eligible for his school if a new rabbi wasn’t found. Joachim had undoubtedly taught many boys the rudiments of Hebrew and history yet many of them, Malachi implied, like his own son, were still ignorant of the Torah. It seemed only natural that the children, whose parents had been hostile to my parents in the past, hadn’t been invited to our feast, but I wondered if they might be included with Malachi’s son, Ezra’s daughters, and all the other children of my parents’ friends, if, in fact, a new rabbi were brought to our town. I assumed that the good rabbi told my parents’ kinsmen and friends this fiction in the belief that Nazareth might once again have a rabbi, and yet expanding the enrollment of Gamaliel’s class hadn’t been Samuel’s intention at all, though Gamaliel had just implied that other children in Nazareth would be taught too if a rabbi didn’t arrive in our town. Although they weren’t present in the hall, Caleb and Horib, who were fair-weather friends, had sons too. The very thought that Jethro, Obadiah, and Boaz might wind up in our school made me fearful of the future.
Samuel had wanted to restrict Gamaliel’s class to just Joseph’s family. Now Gamaliel had, in the words of the Psalmist, opened the floodgates. Since it seemed unlikely that a new rabbi would come soon, the word would get around. All of the rustic villagers would want to send their unwashed and uncouth sons and daughters to our school. Was not Joachim still alive? James asked his brother under his breath. “What if those miserly elders wait to see if he recovers before paying the wage of a new teacher? Would the townsmen not take Gamaliel up on his offer and demand that he enroll their children in his class?”
In spite of our misgivings, James, Simon, Uriah, and I were happy to be in Gamaliel’s class. We didn’t want things to change. Joseph, though embarrassed by his recital, was also afraid of the undesirables that might wind up in our school. The remainder of Gamaliel’s students, however, proved to be a big disappointment in class. Michael, who remained hidden somewhere in the big house, had proven that he cared nothing about learning. Unlike the rest of us who had goals in life, he seemed content to have a fine meal and soft pallet to sleep in at night. Tabitha, Abigail, and Martha, had dashed Mama’s hopes for their continuing education after Gamaliel confessed that the three girls could still barely read and showed little inclination to do so. We thought that this would be the end of it and they would suffer the same ignorance and illiteracy as Mama and all the other women and girls in our town, but our teacher promised to give them another chance. The same offer was made for Michael, who was even lazier than Tabitha and the twins.
“After all,” I heard him confide to her as the guests filed out of the hall, “they’re younger than the others. They can’t all do as well as Jude and James.”
That night, after we bid Ezra, his family and our other friends good night, and Mama made sure Elizabeth was resting comfortably in her room, we expected Papa to gather up his sleepy wife and children and lead us home. In spite of Papa’s sleeping arrangement set for us during busy periods, it was obvious that poor Samuel had too many guests in his house. John had even volunteered to come home with us during the feast. After Papa’s magnanimous gesture, the doorman sighed with relief and the servants nodded with approval as they scurried back and forth in the hall, but Mordechai, arriving in the nick of time, called out in a wavering voice. “Samuel’s not feeling well, but he asked me to give you this message.”
“Oh dear, not again!” Mama cried, her hand flying up to her mouth.
“Don’t worry.” The stuffy chamberlain held up his hand. “He’s just overly tired. Abner gave him a potion. He’s sound asleep now. Before he drifted off to sleep he said: ‘Elizabeth’s relatives were not invited, but Joseph and his family are my honored guests. If anyone sleeps in the garden, it shall be those strangers, not my good friends!”
It seemed as if the chamberlain always had a rehearsed statement ready. He didn’t seem too happy about Samuel’s decision. He looked worn out, himself, and quite perplexed. Except for Abner’s medical aid, the old man relied upon the chamberlain for everything, from running the household to his business affairs.
Though everyone else, except Mama and Jesus, cheered the news, Papa replied quickly with a bow, “Absolutely not, there’s not enough room. The chamberlain and our friend Samuel have already been too kind. I saw the strain on his face when Elizabeth showed up with all those people. It’s no bother for us to sleep at our own house. Please convey my deepest thanks to our ailing friend for the feast honoring my children tonight. We shall pray for Samuel’s health when we return home.”
“If you wish sir,” he replied with a shrug. “He’ll be angry when he wakes up, but the truth is some of Elizabeth’s relatives would be sleeping in the garden if you stayed.”
“Samuel’s lucky to have a servant like you.” Mama squeezed his arm.
“I’m his friend, not his servant,” he corrected gently. “I’ve served him most of my life.”
“Well,” Papa piped, giving him a pat, “you’re our friend too. Tell Samuel we’ll be back in our normal routine when Elizabeth and her relatives return home.”
“When do you suppose that will be?” The chamberlain gave him an anxious look.
“Oh, I suspect her relative will go on without her.” Mama chirped reassuringly. “Abner’s worried about her getting on the road too soon.”
This was both good and bad news. With that said, Mordechai uttered, “Peace be upon Joseph and his family” before shutting the great door. With a lamp in one hand, Papa motioned us on. A Roman sentry galloped passed as we filed two by twos onto the road.
“You didn’t tell me that,” Papa said under his breath as Mama took his arm.
“I just found out from Abner,” she said with a yawn. “Dear Lord I’m tired.”
“You do too much,” he grumbled. “I suspect now you’ll be nursing her too.”
“Abner will be watching over mostly,” she prattled. “He’s not been feeling well, himself. I have a feeling the old physician will soon retire.”
“That’s just great!” Joseph muttered to himself. “Another patient for our mother.”
“That means John’s going to be staying with Samuel,” groaned James. “I hope he stays put!”
“At least those unfriendly relatives will be leaving.” Mama sighed contentedly. “All in all I think the evening went quite well.”
Papa nodded begrudgingly. In spite of our disappointment, no one could argue with this fact. Samuel, and now Gamaliel, were a part of our lives. Quite unexpectedly that moment, John trotted up to us still wearing his princely garments, a torch clutched in his hand.
“Don’t worry my kinsmen.” He crowed, ruffling James and Joseph’s hair. “It’s not my mother’s time yet. She doesn’t want to be a bother. She’ll be in a hurry to return home.”
Mama embraced her nephew. Although I had been idly listening to their conversations, I was in a daze as I walked next to Tabitha holding her soft hand and gasped with surprise as he vaulted down the road.
“John!” Simon and Uriah cried.
“You’re suppose to stay put,” Papa scolded. “There’s no reason why you have to sleep on a hard floor.”
“I’d rather be with my cousins,” he said giving Simon and me a hug.
“This is ridiculous,” Joseph growled. “We’re packed like smoked fish. You had a room at Samuel’s estate. Why would you want to stay in our crowded house?”
“I barely know those people,” he explained with a shrug. “Suddenly they’re all attentive now that mother seems to be on death’s door.”
Jesus, who had been quiet since the feast ended, draped an arm around his kinsman but said nothing as they discussed Elizabeth’s greedy kin. Papa informed John that Samuel had greedy relatives too, but the Pharisee had forbidden them to come uninvited to his house.
“I’m sorry son,” he added as kindly as possible. “Your mother’s unexpected visit shouldn’t have included all those people.”
“We can make room,” I said beaming up at my cousin. “John can stay with our family now!”
“Cousin John’s always welcome in our home.” Papa gripped his shoulder. “We would be happy to share a pallet with you, but not tonight.”
“Yes, our home’s more crowded than Samuel’s house!” blurted James.
“That’s not the main reason,” Papa sighed, fumbling for words. “Your mother will be upset if she finds you gone in the morning. Look at your fine garments. Tomorrow morning will be a busy time in my shop. Did you even tell her you’d be gone?”
“No,” John admitted sheepishly, “she was asleep.”
Papa had summed up his reasons why cousin John should return to Samuel’s house, but James and Joseph’s words rang most truly. We didn’t have enough room, and it was silly for him to forsake a soft-feathered pallet for sleeping on our floor. John confessed, before he said goodnight to us that he had snuck through the back way of the villa—an unlocked door that lead into the garden. From there, after borrowing a torch, he climbed over a fence to complete his escape.
“You rascal!” Jesus found his voice. “Our cousin—always the adventurer.”
“Dear me, will you have any trouble getting back in?” Mama gave him a worried look.
“I’m surprised you could manage the fence in that getup,” snarled Joseph. “It’s a wonder you didn’t set yourself on fire!”
“Don’t worry my relatives,” he chimed, patting the twins blond heads. “I’ve done this plenty of times back in Sepphoris.” “By the way,” he called, as he walked back to the villa, “I met two strange men in the garden—Michael, he calls himself, and an older fellow name Bartholomew.”
“Moses ghost!” Papa groaned.
“Where they trying to escape?” the words flew out of Joseph’s mouth.
“Shut up Joseph!” grumbled James.
John paused on the trail leading to Samuel’s estate, holding his torch high, majestic, almost other-worldly in the light. “They claimed to be servants of the Pharisee. Why would they be trying to escape?”
“Why, I have no idea.” Papa uttered a nervous laugh, “no idea at all.” “Joseph, why would you say such a thing?” He turned to face him, his expression belying his tone.
Joseph answered haltingly, “I-I was thinking of the bandits we had. That’s why the Romans are here. You remember John—all those threats, Mariah’s house on fire, those men running amuck in our hills. You never know when one or two might be lurking about. They might be out there right now.”
“Humph.” John frowned in the light. “They’re not bandits. I thought they might be father and son.”
“Is that what they told you?” Mama’s voice quivered.
“No,” John shook his head, “after giving me their names, they ran into the darkness, I assume back through the garden door”
“Let’s hope so,” murmured Papa, “that was a damn fool thing for them to do.” “Goodnight John,” he called back to our cousin. “Please visit us soon. We’ll check on Elizabeth tomorrow.”
With that dismissal, John pivoted quietly, his torchlight fading as he sprinted up the trail. Were Bartholomew and Michaels now friends? No one spoke of this again until we turned in for the night. Weary and surfeited with victuals, we lapsed into silence as we continued our trek home.
As we filed into our small house, I remembered with regret that I had forgotten to bid our teacher goodnight. I promised myself that I would thank Gamaliel again when I saw him again. Maybe I would bring him a basket of Mama’s honeyed rolls. The realization would grow in my mind that his ability to teach the dull-witted Simon to read and write Hebrew was a far greater feat than teaching me to use my God-given talents, something another scholar, half as good as Gamaliel, could do.
That night, before crawling onto our pallets, we sat around the kitchen table discussing the highlights of our feast. None of us had ever eaten such fine food, even on the night of Jesus’ departure with Joseph of Arimathea. A seven-course meal was always welcome after eating Mama’s simple fare. Our successes and failures as speakers, however, were spoken of in a general sense. To avoid making Joseph jealous after his poor performance, Papa, Mama, and Jesus said they were proud of our efforts. Each of the boys had shown progress. They admitted, of course, that James and I had shown exceptional ability and were disappointed that Tabitha, Abigail, and Martha hadn’t even tried. Michael, of course, had given the teacher little encouragement. He would have made a fool of himself if he were allowed to speak. When no one was looking, Papa winked at me. Jesus, because he couldn’t lie, would confess later to me in confidence that my readings had been spectacular whereas James had been merely good. James, after all, he pointed out reluctantly, had read only one passage. In spite of Gamaliel’s encouraging words, Simon’s problem reading had filled our parents with misgivings. They could scarcely comprehend the Greek notion of mirror vision. Nor could anyone understand the meaning of my reading of Isaiah. I don’t remember who coined the title Suffering Messiah; it’s not written as such in the Torah. Isaiah’s passage about this character is so different from the conquering Messiah extolled by rabbis and Isaiah, himself, it makes little sense as prophecy. None of us, not even Jesus, could have known the impact this mysterious figure would have on our family and the world.
Very briefly, almost in passing, Papa asked us all what we thought of the visitors in the garden.
“Well, it was very stupid right after the feast,” James replied quickly. “What if John tells Samuel about this? What if they were thinking about striking out on their own?”
“I dunno,” Papa said, stroking his beard. “. . . it wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t get caught. Bartholomew will have to be leaving one of these days.”
“John won’t make an issue about this.” Jesus shook his head. “I’m amazed they have stayed hidden this long.”
“It really isn’t a problem,” Uriah offered innocently. “That’s a lovely garden. They probably just wanted some fresh air.”
Mama clapped her hands with delight. “From the mouth of children comes wisdom!”
“Indeed!” Papa good-naturedly mussed Uriah hair. “All of us tremble like frightened sheep, searching for reasons but you see the obvious!”
“He has a pure heart!” Mama brought him to her bosom.
“And an empty head,” quipped Joseph, rising from the bench.
One by one, after embracing our parents, Joseph the carpenter’s sons and daughters turned to their pallets. Uriah, grinning with pride, settled down beside me that night. For a few moments before we both drifted off to sleep, we discussed, in muted tones, the readings of the Torah, which I had shone brilliantly in, and the great feast, which Uriah loved the best. Now that Uriah was privy to our family secrets, we also talked about Samuel’s secret guests and Uriah’s simple explanation. “Why should they want to escape that lovely mansion?” he asked, as I mulled it over in my mind. “Where will they go? The Romans would surely catch them.” It sounded so logical, even Jesus liked Uriah’s reason for Bartholomew and Michael presence in the garden. Considering the alternative of escape, what Uriah just said was likewise sensible, but Uriah didn’t know Michael like I did. He was sneaky and unpredictable. Bartholomew, for that matter, must have been getting restless being cooped up like a prisoner in Samuel’s house. I wasn’t so naive, and I don’t believe my parents and brothers were really fooled. I didn’t need a revelation to know that Bartholomew and Michael were at least thinking about escape. What stopped them cold in their tracks were the sentries riding back and forth down the road and the guards posted throughout our town. The first chance they had, if, in fact, the opportunity arose, they would vanish like phantoms in the night. With the exception of Uriah, my parents, siblings, and I received John’s report at seeing the pair with alarm. Why had they run away at seeing John enter the garden? What were they doing there in the first place?
I would be seeing Michael at school when Samuel’s guests were gone. Perhaps, I would pay a visit to our old friend too. Sound reason seemed to agree with Uriah’s words. Those two rascals were safe and sound where they were. No longer a liability to our family now that they had found a sanctuary, the problem appeared to be, least temporarily, solved. This was the hope when they were escorted in the dead of night, each at a different time, to Samuel’s estate. With the return of our protectors in force, Bartholomew’s departure, in fact, seemed indefinitely delayed. Given the memory of Mariah and her incorrigible son among townsmen, Michael would lay low too. Yet, I told myself before I drifted off to sleep, neither one of these troubled souls had been ruled by reason. Reuben had become a bandit. Michael, I suspected, was slightly mad. On the other hand, even a madman and thief must have a shred of reason. Rome, Regulus once told us, never forgot, and Nazareth’s townsmen, I learned by experience, never forgave. If they were caught escaping his villa, it would incriminate our friend and benefactor Samuel. Michael would prove to be a great embarrassment. The Romans wouldn’t understand Samuel hiding a fugitive in his house. Nazareth was no place for Michael and Bartholomew, but for now, I prayed, they must both stay put. Samuel’s estate was the safest place in Galilee for them to be.