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Chapter Thirty-Three

 

The Years Slip By

 

 

 

For two long years, the pattern remained the same, at least for me: classes with Rabbi Aaron in the morning, work in the afternoon, and fellowship with Uriah, my brothers, and James and Joseph’s friends.  Isaac and Jeroboam, the long time companions of my older brothers, became Uriah, Simon, and my friends too, and, as Uriah and my brothers, began learning the craft of carpentry in order to have a profession to fall back on one day.  Only Simon, to everyone’s surprise, would remain behind to practice the craft, the learning disability that Gamaliel once identified overcompensated by an inner resource of energy no one knew he had. 

Rhoda did, in fact, seem to improve, but remained in Uriah’s opinion a mere shell of her former mean and ornery self.  One day shortly before my eighteenth birthday, when Rhoda turned up missing, Mama ran to Joachim’s house and discovered that Hannah and her daughter had once more fled—this time never to return.  It seemed to us that a curse hung over Uriah’s house.  After Hannah abandoned her husband, Mama was again left to care for the rabbi.  This time Joachim seemed better off for his wife and daughter’s absence.  He soon regained use of his voice and could, with Mama’s help, take care of himself.  It may not have been a miracle, but it all proved to be a blessing for our peace of mind.  Of course, despite the improvement, Uriah wanted no part of his old home.  That would come later when he returned to Nazareth with his new bride.  Until he too made his way in the world, he remained a loyal member of the family and faithful worker in the shop.

The first one to leave the household, to Papa’s dismay was not Uriah or myself, but James, who had saved up to study with Nicodemus in Jerusalem.  James had, after all, reached his twentieth birthday and given Papa several faithful years of service.  Papa promised, after their eighteenth birthday, to match his sons’ funds, if they waited to leave, until they reached their twentieth year.  No one was surprised that James and Joseph both wanted to become doctors of the law, but, in spite of the agreement Papa had made with Jesus, my sudden announcement that I wanted to become a scribe and interpreter in the Galilean cohort—caused my parents much grief.  James, after a great ceremony thrown by the aging Samuel, had already departed, as would Joseph, with equal fanfare.  The only protesters left when I put on my finest clothes and gathered my traveling gear, were Papa and Mama.  There was no ceremony this time, for I had not waited until my twentieth year and the querulous old Pharisee had to be sedated by Abner when he was informed that Joseph bar Jacob’s youngest son was joining the Galilean Cohort instead of following his father’s craft.

“It’s scandalous,” Ezra had said, when he heard of my ambition. “A Jew can’t serve Rome!”

“How could he shame your family like this?” Isaac had asked Jesus.

Jeroboam had said as much, as had many townsfolk.  Papa’s drinking had subsided because of so many recent furniture orders, but had taken an upswing during this period.  I found Mama weeping softly to herself at times, and Uriah, Tabitha, and my sisters occasionally sniveling to themselves as the hour approached.  James letter from Jerusalem was so sharply critical of my decision to be a Roman scribe Papa hesitated to read it.  Joseph, who would leave before twentieth year, too, was embarrassed by my decision, yet also envious of my chance to leave home.  Only Jesus remained an advocate for me.  After he had convinced Papa that I would leave anyhow, no matter if he gave his blessing or not, he managed to gather together our family and give me a fair send-off.  Samuel, Ezra, and the townsmen were not present, but Jesus had talked Aaron, our teacher, to add his blessing to Papa’s halfhearted attempt.  As we sat around a roasted lamb, lentils, and a mug of watered wine, now that I was a young man, we joined in a prayer circle, which Aaron thought was a delightful custom.  Jesus prayed, Aaron prayed, and we all mumbled a short prayer, but it was, this time, the farewell speech given by Aaron that helped set my course.

“It’s not the service or occupation that makes a man,” he began in a high-pitched yet jovial voice, “it’s the man, as the servant or craftsmen, who makes his mark by his own merit.  God shall be his guide, not Rome nor even Jewish patriotism or loyalty to family or friends.  When the Lord speaks, a righteous man will harken to His will, though it runs contrary to commands from superiors or the mistaken urgings of others attempting to turn his path.  A righteous man should follow Caesar’s dictates but obey the will of the Lord.  He should forsake parents, siblings, or companions if they are at odds with God, even if loved ones only accidentally lead him astray.  For there are no accidents or coincidences in our lives—everything we do is a part of God’s mysterious design.  When you report to your new leader or commander do so girded humbly, knowing that this is also part of the Lord’s plan.  When you sail, march or ride in service to an earthly lord, let He, who created the Universe, be your guide.  Make your first and foremost occupation faithfulness, goodwill, and charity to the poor.  If you are a good soldier or civilian and keep your eye on God, everything else—promotion, power, and money— will follow in course. The Lord gives you an abundant life, but if the day comes when, because of virtue, you are brought low, your faith and righteousness will give you comfort.  The ambitious, who are dissolute, have no such comfort.  On Judgment Day, the righteous shall be raised to the bosom of Abraham to be with the Lord.  The ambitious and dissolute have no such reward.”

Of course, I would ignore most of Aaron’s words, until I was one day, as he warned,  brought low.  Cornelius had been contacted in a brief letter, delivered by Justus, our courier, of my intention of applying for a position as scribe and interpreter.  Papa and Jesus, with Rubrius and Dracho, Gratian and Leto’s evening reliefs, accompanied me to the Galilean Cohort headquarters, now stationed in Sepphoris.  We knew very little about these guards, except that they were both swarthy, vile-smelling fellows, who were not happy with the extra assignment.  Though located in Aunt Elizabeth’s town, it seemed to be a much longer ride.  Papa wouldn’t let Mama, Joseph, Simon, Uriah, or the girls come along.  Tabitha, who had grown into a young woman, was practically my sister now.  Though it wasn’t forbidden, my feelings toward her seemed wrong, and yet, because of our growing attachment toward each other, she was just one more reason why I had to leave.  A third reason beyond my ambition and Tabitha, of course, was the notion implanted in me, perhaps to justify my departure, that I was, according to Jesus, fulfilling God’s will.   I would search out the heart of the Gentile—whatever that meant. 

Tabitha was in the small group standing in front of our house.  As were Mama and the twins, she was crying.  Uriah tried not to tear up but, as we mounted our mules, he began sniveling again.  Joseph and Simon were nowhere in sight—one last sign of protest before my departure.  A few townsmen, who had befriended my family, meandered over to the procession, yet said nothing.  I suspected the rumor had spread that I would be serving Rome.  Looking back, until my neck ached, I continued to wave as long as I could see them on the road.  Smaller and smaller they became.  Finally, a bellow of dust hung over the road, shutting them out of my life for many months.  Ahead of us—Papa, Jesus, our reluctant guards, and myself—were several Roman miles.  Recent reports of a recent bandit raid on the road to Jerusalem made the long ride even more dangerous than before.  As it was, Papa grumbled to Jesus, Regulus had given us a light escort that comprised two surly guards, Rubrius and Dracho, who seemed to share many of guards’ dislike of Jews.  Since they would have to relieve Gratian and Leto, the hill sentries, this evening, they would be working long hours today.  Perhaps they were being punished, I suggested discreetly to Jesus.  Like many Roman guards, they were, according to Ezra, the wool carder, undependable and lazy.  It was rumored by the Arab shepherds that Gratian and Leto bought wine from them, and spent most of their watch with the perimeter guards, Diblius and Zeno, drunk under a tree.  I could just imagine what idle sentries would do in the evening or early morning shifts.  I would learn later that our general treatment by the Romans was quite unusual.  It was only the prefect and first centurion’s high regard for us that gave us preferential treatment, in the first place, and, by proximity with our house and yard, all of Nazareth protection from murderers and thieves.  Nowhere else in Galilee were Jews protected so will—all because of Joseph the carpenter’s family and his extraordinary son.

One day, I would see this, as everything else in my life as, in Aaron’s words, God’s mysterious design, but when we approached the newly built prefecture in Sepphoris I was filled with an inexplicable foreboding.  Something was not right about all this.  It was bad enough that Regulus had been unable to provide adequate security, but our guards had been rude and unfriendly on the way and quick to make their exit when we arrived in front of the building.  For a few moments, Papa and I exchanged heartrending looks on our saddles, almost as if he too would make his getaway from the scene.  Then Jesus climbed off his horse, as we sat there blinking in the sunlight, and attempted to open the great wooden door.

“Moses bones,” Papa complained, trying to control his emotions, “what’s wrong with these Romans?  Where are the sentries?  Why is the door locked if they’re expecting us to arrive?”

“Don’t worry Papa.” Jesus waved. “Someone will answer.  It’s high noon, a lazy time of day.  Perhaps the sentries are napping.”

I uttered a hysterical laugh.  Jesus was obviously joking, but there was a worried look on his face.  It appeared to me that our Roman administrator was not looking forward to seeing me.  Perhaps we had taken advantage of Cornelius’ good nature.  After all, I was Jew. Who did I think I was?  The Roman prefect was ignoring us.  That had to be it, I thought grimly.  Maybe we’d just go away, and I would forget the whole thing.  A Jewish scribe in a Roman cohort?  What sort of nonsense was this?

Partially dispelling my expectations was the eventual opening of the door, a head popping out, and a gruff voice rasping, “What do you Jews want?  The prefect isn’t here.  If you wish to make a complaint or suggestion, take it the city magistrate.  Don’t waste our time!”

“Sir,” Jesus took him to task, “my brother Jude was invited to come by the prefect, himself.  He shall be taking up employment with the cohort as its new scribe.”

The stranger grew irascible. “A scribe?  We have ourselves a scribe already.  You’re misinformed young man.  Go way or so help me, I’ll call the guards.”

“Open this door at once!” Jesus called out in righteous anger. “You might not like Jews, my good fellow, but your commander does.  Let us in to see Cornelius—now!

Jesus had a powerful voice, which would serve him well as he preached to the masses.  That moment, however, I knew nothing of his role as the Messiah, and I feared that he might get a knock on the head.

“Jesus, don’t rile the man, we’ll come back later,” I implored from my mount.

“I don’t like this.” Papa looked around fearfully. “I don’t like this at all.”

“Cornelius!  We must see Cornelius!” Jesus shouted through cupped hands.

The shadowy form behind the door charged out suddenly, a Roman soldier of advanced age, far too old to hold such an important post.  What made the man dangerous was the gladius he held in a thrusting position.  Jesus held his ground, however, saying very simply, “Peace be upon Scribonius of Gaul.”

“How did you know my name?” The old man halted, his sword inches from Jesus’ chest. “My name’s Varus.  I haven’t gone by that name since I left Gaul.”

“Does your commander know you’re a wanted criminal who changed his name?” Jesus asked, his fingertip pushing the blade away.

I’ve seen many cool characters in my lifetime, but none so cool as Jesus that moment.  I don’t believe my blameless brother was deliberately blackmailing this man, but that’s the way it sounded.

“We’re short-handed today,” the old man’s tone changed completely. “Almost the entire cohort is on parade at the camp.  Our beloved Procurator Gratus decided to pay us a visit.  He left me and a few of the others to guard the prefecture, until the commander and his staff return.”

“I thought the cohort was stationed inside Sepphoris,” Papa said, shaking his head. “This is where we were supposed to come.”

“Well sir,” the old man cackled, “did you really think five hundred men would fit in this building?   Gratus is stingy.  We can barely fit a dozen felons in our jail.  The prefect’s office is the size of Greek cloaca, and his reception hall can hold but a handful of men.”

“This is just wonderful,” groaned Papa.

“When will he be returning?” Jesus studied Scribonius/Varus.

“Could be anytime now,” the old man grinned toothlessly.

“I hope you can find rest someday,” Jesus replied compassionately. “The plot of land given to you for retirement lies on rocky, unfertile ground.  To keep from starving, you remain a soldier and dare not complain because of your past.  Yet the kindly Cornelius has employed you as a post guard.” “Where are the other sentries?” He looked passed him at the door.

“They’re asleep,” the man confessed, beckoning us to follow him after opening the door.

“I thought Jesus was joking,” I cried, climbing off my horse. “They really were napping!”

“Jesus doesn’t lie,” Papa said dryly.

“But how did you do it?” I stared in amazement at Jesus. “You read that man like a scroll.”

“God did it,” Jesus replied impatiently, pulling me by the sleeve. “Get in here before He changes His mind.”

Papa was reluctant to enter a Gentile building, but Jesus had no trouble at all. 

“Jesus, I don’t understand,” he protested, “you are the most pious person I know.  Aren’t you afraid of contamination?”
            “What is unclean is not without but within us,” he explained, as we stood in a huddle in a relatively large room.

The old man had been exaggerating about the prefecture being small.  The reception hall was actually quite spacious.  Cornelius apparently had good taste.  Though there were large Egyptian pots filled with flowers and chairs along the walls, he had avoided displaying profane paintings and sculpture.  After Varus signaled with a loud whistle, several sleepy-eyed guards emerged from another room.  It was obvious to us that the old man was standing watch so that his comrades could get some shuteye.  None of the men introduced themselves and stood there glaring at our small assembly as if we were the lowest scum.

“Don’t mind them,” Varus jerked his thumb, “they hate Jews.”

“Nice to know.” Papa heaved a sigh.

“So he’ll be arriving soon,” I muttered, fidgeting and looking hopefully at the door.

“Ho!” Varus cackled, cupping his ear. “I hear them coming now.”

“Dear Father Abraham.” Papa said with a gasp. “After standing out in the hot sun with his troops, will he be in a bad mood?”

“He’s a decent fellow,” Varus assured us, throwing open the door. “Let me prepare him first.  He might not be in a mood for a roomful of Jews.”

“Roomful?” I swallowed. “There’s only three of us.  I hope that old man doesn’t poison the well.  What if Cornelius has changed his mind?”

“Calm down!” Jesus scolded, giving me a shake. “I’ve won over Varus.  Where’s your faith?”

“Faith?” I croaked. “After this ominous beginning?”

“Ominous, pshaw!” Jesus grew irritated. “The poor commander was forced to parade his men before the governor.  In spite of that fact, I think Cornelius will treat us well.”

At that moment there was a commotion in front of the building as the prefect and his staff climbed off their mounts, handed the reigns to two of the post guards, and laughed wearily at the old man’s elaborate introduction of the Jews cringing in the hall.  Even Jesus was anxious about our reunion with the Prefect of the Galilean Cohort.  It had been a long time since the fire at Mariah’s house and her flight to Jerusalem, which had been facilitated by Cornelius and his men.  The Roman officer I remembered from the bridge was a decade older now.  A lot could have changed since that time.  What if Gratus took him to task, as he had before, for wasting Rome’s manpower on our small town?  What if my request to become a cohort scribe got Papa on the wrong foot with the prefect, since it played upon his friendship with my family after that dark night?

All my fears evaporated when a tall muscular officer in full armor swaggered finally into the room.  At first, as his figure stood silhouetted against the afternoon sun, we all gasped, as he surveyed our small group.  His subordinates waited patiently behind him as he called out in a loud, boisterous greeting: “Greetings Joseph, Jesus, and Jude.  It’s been such a long time.”

“Martial,” he called out brusquely, “you should have brought our guest refreshments by now.”

A tiny, misshapen little creature we had not seen before darted out mysteriously, bowed in a jerky head-bobbing motion, then went to fetch a tray of mugs and pitcher (I hoped) of wine.  Lately, after watching the way Papa guzzled it down, I had acquired a taste for the vine.  Now, since I was venturing forth as a man, I felt I could drink it openly, rather than sneaking around.  When we all, the other officers included, drank a toast from our mugs, I rejoiced that it was not water or grape juice but a fine vintage, the sort of wine Samuel served in his home.  The toast, itself, made by Longinus, the First Centurion, was disappointing, since it made no mention of my new enterprise. 

The steel jawed veteran simply barked “To everyone’s health—Jew and Gentile alike—and the success of the Galilean Cohort.  Good cheer and bottoms up!”

“And to Jude’s success as a scribe and interpreter,” Jesus added in low voice.

“Well, I must talk to you about this subject young man.” Cornelius turned his attention to me. “I am greatly moved that a Jew would want to join the legions—”

“As a scribe,” Papa interrupted abruptly.

“And a interpreter,” Jesus finished the thought.

“Very well,” the prefect frowned, “as a scribe and interpreter.” “The fact is.” He cleared his throat nervously. “We already have a scribe.  Gratus is watching our cohort very closely after our recent return to Nazareth and expansion into the neighboring towns.  In order to justify putting Jude on the payroll, I must create a special title for him.”

“What does that mean sir?” my voice trembled.

“As a Jew he can’t bear arms,” Papa reminded him, “especially against his fellow Jews.”

“Now Papa,” Jesus mumbled, from the corner of his mouth, “let’s hear him out.”

Cornelius looked at Longinus and Servitus, whom he introduced as his adjutant, both men frowning severely after hearing Papa’s words.  Evidently Cornelius chief officers didn’t agree with his decision to bring me into the cohort.  A fourth and fifth officer (who looked even younger than Jesus) looked at us all with unveiled contempt.  For a moment, as the five men huddled in discussion after retreating to the far corner of the room, my heart sank heavily into my chest and my eyes began to brim with tears as I considered what this might mean.

Several servants arrived, as the men mumbled back and forth, to remove their bulky armor and capes, leaving the five men standing with their leather cuirasses intact.

“Have faith,” Jesus murmured, shaking my elbow.

“This is outrageous,” Papa muttered, helping himself to more wine. “These Romans have no manners.  After I sent Jude’s letter, he invited us to come.  Why this change of mind?”

“Keep it down,” Jesus whispered discreetly. “It’s Governor Gratus inspection of the cohort that changed matters, not the existing scribe.  Give Cornelius some credit!”

A moment later, as I stewed in my thoughts—just long enough for Papa to gulp down his wine—the five men returned.  Their commander towered over his subordinates, the facial scar I recalled from our meeting at the bridge, accenting a wide, teethy grin.  This had to be a good sign, I told myself, as Cornelius handed his mug to one of the servants and motioned for the three of us to accompany him into the next room.  In a most perfunctory manner he introduced his staff to us.  It appeared that they already knew who we were.

“How about some lunch,” he asked, looking around at the group.

Jesus and I both gasped when we saw the roasted suckling pig on a platter and the unknown victuals surrounding it on the table.

“I’m sorry,” Papa’s slurred slightly, “but we’re Jews.  We’re careful about what we eat.”

“Papa!” Jesus groaned.

“Ah yes,” Longinus snapped his fingers, “they’re afraid they’ll be defiled.” “Now tell me young Jude, when you’re on the march with the troops and the cook serves up a fine pig or other unsanctified food, are you going to insult him and go hungry or will you swallow that prudish Hebrew snobbery and eat with the men?”

It was a moment of truth for me.  I realized, of course, that neither Jesus nor Papa would eat pork.  My kind-hearted brother was torn between the desire to flee this unhallowed building and not wanting to insult the host.  Papa was tipsy and a much greater threat to my position than him, and my greatest fear was what Longinus had just said about the march.

My voice trembled. “I-I thought I was just going to work here in Galilee with Cornelius and his cohort.  What sort of position will I have with the cohort if its not working as an interpreter and scribe?”

Cornelius took on an apologetic tone. “That’s what we were going to discuss over dinner.  I’m sorry about the suckling pig.  I thought Gratus would drop in for a bite, but he’s going to dine with a rich merchant in town.”

“So that’s why its pork?” Papa nodded thoughtfully. “Sometimes I wish I wasn’t Jewish.  That pig looks downright tasty after our long ride.”

Everyone laughed at this unintended humor.  An awkward moment followed in which the Romans all seated themselves and the remainder of us stood there at the entrance of the dining room not knowing what to say or do.  Seeing our discomfort, the prefect stood up and called a servant over, whispering something in his ear.  As the servant scurried away, he walked briskly over to us and led the three of us into the anteroom.

“I am deeply sorry for this insult, my friends,” he explained quickly. “One of those young tribunes in there is Gratus’ nephew, a virtual spy to the goings on in my camp.”

“I don’t think any of them like us,” I was ready to bawl. “I thought I would just ride in, join up, and that would be it.”

“Jude, Jude,” Cornelius replied with a sigh, “if only matters were that simple.  We don’t need a scribe, but I’ve heard about your talents from my guards in Nazareth.  Your ability to learn languages and quick mind would serve me well in dealing with foreign dignitaries and the locals, but I don’t have a spot for you.”

If it had not been for Jesus whispering, “You have nothing to fear,” I would have broken down and wept.

“What I do have,” Cornelius resumed after a pause, “is a position in my friend Aurelian’s cohort in Antioch.”

“Antioch!” Papa cried.

“That’s not so far,” Jesus said, squeezing my hand. “My friend Joseph of Arimathea knows a rich Pharisee in that town.”

“So Jude will have a special job with your friend?” Papa chose his words carefully this time.

“Exactly,” Cornelius placed his hand on my shoulder, “if this is what Jude wants.”

“Is this Aurelian an honorable man?” Papa gave him a worried frown.

“I wouldn’t send Jude to him if I didn’t trust this man,” he answered with great conviction. “There are many leaders and rich men who are not honorable,” he added, giving Papa an appraising look. “What do you think of Jude leaving home to serve with Gentiles?”

“If it’s what he wants.” Papa shrugged. “…. I can’t believe that I once agreed to this, but I did…. It’s up to Jude.”

From a well deep inside me, a fount of words poured out, more eloquently than ever before.  Cornelius smiled with admiration.  Longinus, who appeared suddenly in the room, seemed to listen intently, a respectful look growing in his eyes.

“I want to make my mark,” I gave both Cornelius and Longinus a Roman salute. “I know I’ll be an asset to our Roman protectors.  As a member of the army, I will do my very best.  I would rather have served you, my friends, but I promise to serve Aurelian as well.  I have a nearly perfect memory and have already mastered Latin and Greek as well as Hebrew.  I can write fluently in these languages as well as my own Galilean tongue.  Most importantly sirs, I absorb languages as well as historical data quickly and I’ve taught myself how to read the stars and maps—”

“Enough, take a breath lad.” The prefect gave my shoulder a pat.

“He’s convinced me!” Longinus reached out to grip my forearm—a gesture of acceptance as a colleague.

Cornelius followed suit, as did Servitus, who had been drawn to the commotion in our room.  Though worried, as Papa and Jesus were, that I would not be stationed close to home, I remembered my goal to see the world.  Unless I worked for a rich merchant, which didn’t seem likely, I would rather be stationed in a port city like Antioch.  At least I would be close to the sea.  Who knows what missions my commander might send me on.  Already I saw myself as a special interpreter to a foreign king or scribe sitting in at an important meeting.  Then, as I listened to the three officers discuss what I might be doing for the prefect in Antioch, I realized that none of them were sure of what that might be.  It would be, I gathered, as Cornelius sketched out the duties of a Roman interpreter, a shadowy and ill-defined position that required a shrewd, as well as intelligent, mind.  As I listened to Papa ask the prefect that most important question, “Will this be a stationary position?,” I was shaken by the prefect’s casual answer.

“We always hope to stay in one place awhile,” Cornelius answered obliquely, rubbing his chin, “but we can’t read the mind of Caesar.” “We, the Galilean Cohort, are more lucky than others.  Ever since this became a province of Rome, the unruly Jews have required a steadfast, permanent force, well acquainted with the people and terrain, but Jude shall be going to an Imperial province, tame in comparison, to idle away his time.  Yet he’s no ordinary recruit.  When Aurelian finds out what my guards in Nazareth already got wind of, he will try to keep Jude all to himself and use his wit and intelligence to the fullest extent.  If, however, someone outranking my friend, with needs greater than him, hears about Jude’s talents, which I sense is quite possible, there’s no telling where he’ll wind up.”

“Then he shall not go!” Papa stomped his foot. “I understand that this was pure adventurism on his part.  Perhaps a stint in your nearby Cohort and even a voyage or two, if, God forbid, he’s required to go abroad.  But to plunge into the unknown at eighteen years old with no more knowledge of the world than my young daughters is out of the question!”

Papa was tipsy but also genuinely upset.  I had mixed feelings about it, myself.  After all my dreams of travel, the thought of traveling that far was frightening.  What I found most unsettling about Cornelius’ statement was the implications that when I joined the Imperial force in Antioch I would be cutoff completely from my homeland and the easy-going air or the Galilean Cohort.  I was thinking emotionally, rather than clearly, for I had always dreamed of seeing some of the world.  Attached to this dream was a youthful desire to ride freely on a great white horse and wear a fancy uniform and sport a helmet, armor, and flowing cape.  There was only one place I could fulfill this dream.  I would never find myself a patron like Joseph of Arimathea.  My intellectual wares were untested.  Jesus had only been fourteen when he left on his journey, but I wasn’t Jesus.  At my age, from such a backwoods town, I would never find a merchant or magistrate as trusting as Cornelius to give me a job…. The Roman army was the only way.

“I will go, Papa,” I announced, tugging his sleeve. “I’ll be safe in an imperial city.  My weapon will be the pen, not the sword.”

Longinus flashed me a dubious smile.  Cornelius and Servitus exchanged worried looks, as the two young tribunes joined their commander in the reception hall.

“A Jew soldier is like having a Roman Pharisee,” Clevus, Gratus’ nephew muttered to his friend.

“Or a Vestal Virgin rabbi,” Trion, the second tribune, replied with a sneer.

If Papa, Jesus and I hadn’t been so anxious, we would have taken offense at their insults.  Cornelius, Servitus, and Longinus were muttering amongst themselves about the advisability of having the military courier and two veterans accompany me to my post.  These men were already scheduled to escort three veterans out of the fort.  This would provide me safe transportation.  After arriving in Antioch, I would be given the chance of swearing in to the Legions.  This last bit of information, almost an afterthought, had been given by Cornelius for my benefit.  When I heard this, I sighed out loud.  This trip, the prefect explained, would give me time to reflect upon my decision.  Even though I had a choice, the words “swearing in,” caused Papa dismay.  Jews weren’t allowed to swear oaths, unless they were made to God.  I would, I had imagined, being swearing a pagan oath.  I wasn’t sure this is what alarmed Papa.  He might have been worried that I would act rashly, as I so often did.  Yet, during this meeting, he remained silent.  He knew I had made up my mind. 

As I expected, after seeing Cornelius call the servants over to the table, a secondary feast, which included bread, cheese, dried beef (a legionary staple), and a surprisingly wide range of sweetmeats, plus a large jug of wine, was quickly thrown together and sat on the table, along with three cushioned chairs.  The dried beef was tough, but the breed and cheese were tasty.  After we hastily ate our meal, the sweetmeats, which were a delicacy, were placed in our saddlebags.  Papa also kept the jug of wine.  Cornelius once again apologized for the miscue today, though it was not his fault, and promised, when Gratus was safely back in Jerusalem, to pay me a visit at my new post.  Rubrius and Dracho appeared suddenly in front of Cornelius’ headquarters, anxious to drop me off at the nearby camp before escorting Papa and Jesus back home.  When I considered how much riding they would be doing today, I could understand why they were testy and might want to get back to Nazareth before dark.  Upon reflection, I couldn’t blame them for not wanting to risk their necks and pulling longer hours.  Even so, I wished the daytime guards had accompanied us.  I was certain Priam and Falco would have been in a better mood and would have been sorry to see me leave.  For all their faults, I would miss our personal guards and the optio, Regulus, whose quick thinking after my scorpion bite, helped saved my life.

In spite of shuffling me off to another commander, I knew Cornelius regretted his decision.  Longinus didn’t think much of a Jew joining the army, but he had given me a look of respect when I accepted this post.  My most important concern, of course, was the fact that I wouldn’t be seeing my family for quite some time.  Papa, Jesus, and I bid Cornelius and his staff goodbye.  As the others re-entered the building, I was surprised to see Longinus remain by the road with his commander, giving me a special arm-against-the-chest salute.  It was very hard to read this fellow’s mood.  Perhaps he acted this way on purpose to keep his men off guard.  Thoughts spun idly around in my head during our ride.  It seemed, in spite of the sadness I felt about leaving Papa and Jesus at the crossing, an auspicious beginning.  I would have my first taste of the army when I stayed overnight in the cohort camp.  It might have been better for comfort’s sake, Papa suggested, to stay in Elizabeth’s house, but I might as well jump right in.  My plan was to become a scribe and interpreter for an imperial cohort.  Camp life, as I envisioned it, would be a great adventure in itself.  Had not Nehemiah, Michael, Uriah, Simon, and I often pretended to be warriors encamped in the woods?  Michael had even built a small bonfire once.  My gang, as I had always thought of them, had explored almost every inch of the nearby hills, enduring thorn and bristle as we spied on shepherds and guards.  Unlike my brothers and friends, I had always admired such free-spirited souls.  My mind was already prepared for the daring and dash of soldiery—as a scribe and interpreter, of course.  I had never really believed I might wield a sword.  I was, after all, a Jew, and the whole idea was quite absurd.  And yet, in my dreams, astride by great white horse, I held a spear and there was a gladius on my hip. These thoughts, with a tinge of misgivings, mingled with memories of my family and the exploits I had with my brother Simon and friends. 

As we road silently through town, each of us plunged into our own thoughts, I felt a deep melancholy that overshadowed my excitement for the adventure ahead.  I knew, at this stage, I could change my mind, but when the journey to Antioch began for me the next day there might be no turning back.  I tried not giving in to my emotions but when we reached the fork in Sepphoris’ main road, we could see in the distance the wooden fortress of the Galilean Cohort.  My eyes filled with tears and heart swelled in my chest.  The great camp lie eastward off the main highway to Jerusalem, while the smaller, southern road, would take my father and oldest brother back to Nazareth—my beloved town.  After climbing off my mount, I wept in Papa’s strong arms.  Rubrius and Dracho, who waited at a distance, sat uneasily on their horses, snarling with disdain.  I had shrunk to a small child when I wondered if I would ever see my father again.  He worked too hard and worried too much.  He drank too much wine.  When I embraced Jesus, I felt a strange peace and strength returned to my limbs, though my thoughts were in turmoil.

“Remember Jude,” he whispered solemnly, “learn the heart of the Gentiles.  Also remember this: you can be in the world but you don’t have to be part of it.”

“What is all that nonsense Jesus,” I said, giving him a fierce hug. “Heart of the Gentiles?  Be in the world, but not a part of it?  I’m going to be working for the Romans, who love to eat pork and have, in the past, crucified thousands of Jews.”

“You will know exactly what I mean when the times comes,” he explained softly. “You have a nearly perfect memory.  So I place this information, along with all the other information given to you, in your mind.  One day, when your knowledge of the Gentile world is great and you’ve had enough of their world, you shall return, but not before.” “All of this was foreordained by God, no less than what I must one day do.”

“Hey,” Rubrius called impatiently, “daylight is slipping away.  Finish your goodbyes and lets hit the road.”

Papa set the example, after giving me one more fatherly pat on the shoulder and climbed onto this mount.  The fortress awaited.  Papa called to Jesus to mount his mule.

“Jesus, my brother,” I murmured for only his ears, “of all the people I will ever know, I love you the most.  If, for some reason, I never return to Nazareth and my family, remember that.”

Jesus’ parting words gave me courage and resolve, at least for a while.

“You have been my favorite brother,” he announced in a booming voice, “but you are much more now.  You are the brother of my spirit, tied by prophecy and revelation.  Someday you’ll understand everything.  At that point, when I call you, you must return.  Right now take this thought with you: you have been chosen to do this.  God has selected you.  He will protect you everywhere you go.  In my prayers I shall watch over you too, just like I’ve always done.  Go in peace Judah bar Joseph.  Watch, listen, and learn!”

All his strange words meant little to me, yet he could not have given me a greater farewell.  Though we would be separated by many Roman miles, Jesus, my brother, would watch over me.  What a strange, wonderful thing to say.  After I climbed back on my steed, I raised my arm in salute, bringing it down afterwards into a clinched fix against my chest.  It was, this time, both a Jewish and Roman salute.  I sat a moment longer, as Jesus turned around in the saddle to give me one more burning gaze.  Papa rode slumped in his saddle behind the two impatient guards.  After watching the silhouettes of the four riders disappear south, their backs to the sun, I gripped my reigns, gave my mule a gentle brush of the whip, and galloped into a new chapter of my life. 

 

Book Three /Return to Table of Contents/Writer’s Den

 


 

 







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