The Slave Auction
The remainder of the trip found me in actually better shape than the day before when I had drunk much more wine. One cup of wine had helped me sleep last night, whereas the flask which I nearly finished yesterday made me deathly ill. Though I felt fit, as Hamid wanted me to be in order to find a buyer, my mind was in turmoil. I was warned by Fawad that I would be scrubbed clean, my face shaved, and my clothes spruced up in order to make me presentable on the block. Already in my garish getup, I was dressed for the role. Now I would be groomed for the auction block. There was no doubt in my mind: I had to escape. It seemed like an impossible task for me, considering the fact I had twenty-six well-armed men guarding me and a limitless expanse of desert on each side. Yet, only one or two of them watched me at time. When I compared Hamid’s relatively small band to the men in black and men in white that had dogged Decimus’ band, I was not impressed. What would happen if I fled from my captors or future owner, as just another Bedouin and found myself a friendly tribe? As long as I wasn’t a Roman soldier, who I wasn’t, the rule of hospitality practiced by Arabs and Jews should apply. The truth was I had never been a soldier or a Roman; I had always been a wet-behind-the-ears Jew. A plan grew in my head in spite of the sweat pouring down my face and weariness I felt: I would find the right moment, flee just as I was into the desert. Hopefully I could somehow take my mule with me. If I died of hunger and thirst, God had, indeed, abandoned me, and the voice that promised me that I would live had lied. The notion was irrational and foolhardy, but it gave me comfort when, at our final stop on the outskirts of Ecbatana, two of Hamid’s men pulled me off my mount, drug me to a communal well, stripped off my clothes down to my loincloth as they had the hag’s tent, splashed a bucket of water over me, and sitting me down on a fold-up chair gave me my first shave.
Traditionally Jewish beards should never be cut, yet my captors shaved my face clean. The curved dagger they used must have been very sharp. After smearing oil on my face, it was scraped without incident. When I pointed out that this would make me look like a Roman, Akhmid explained that being cleanly shaved was the normal way of presenting male slaves. In their zeal, the bandits had placed fine raiments on me. Because they were now soiled with sweat and dirt, Akhmid had found a new set of clothes—a sparkling tunic with vest, baggy Persian pants, loose fitting robe, and turban much grander than before. Akhmid and Hamid thought it made me look like royalty, but when I looked into the reflecting glass that once belonged to a Greek matron, I laughed hysterically. Hamid and his men also broke into laughter at my appearance. I had been mortified when I was stripped almost naked, dressed in brightly colored raiment, and forced to strut about at the point of Uthman’s spear. What violated my sense of decency the most, however, was the perfume sprayed on me before I climbed back on my mule. Looking up at me as I settled in my saddle, Hamid nodded with approval, his men clapped with delight, and Awud, my harshest critic, said I looked and smelled like a Syrian whore. The fact was, I looked ridiculous, which made me wonder how I was going to be presented and what kind of slave I would be. Would I be a mere house slave, as I hoped, or a eunuch guarding a harem? I had heard stories about slaves being used for pleasure. Around the campfire, members of Decimus’ band told bawdy stories about such men. Now, as I recalled these stories, I wondered if that’s what Hamid had in mind. Was I intended for a depraved eastern buyer? Perhaps this is why they shaved me and dressed me like a clown. What if a customer went one step further and had me clipped. I would rather be dead! If it turned out that I would be a butler or attendant working in a fine house, I would at least not be turned into a eunuch, sold as a gladiator or be used for pleasure in a rich man’s house.
If my family or friends could see me now! I thought giddily, as Hamid inspected his merchandise as he might a prize horse. I was guarded more carefully now that we were entering a city that offered the best opportunity for escape. A horseman, with lance in hand, rode on each side of me. As I looked left and right with precisely this notion in my head, they glared at me, as if to say, “Don’t try it, you Roman pig!” I would learn one day that Ecbatana had been a great city during the Parthian empire, and became an important trading center and crossroads for caravans from different lands. It had the look of a dirty, untidy town at first glance. There were stalls and shops everywhere, with temples poking up above the roofs, and merchants mulling about town. Unlike Jerusalem and Sepphoris with their gleaming white marble buildings, Ecbatana was, due to the lack of stone in this region, made up of mostly mud brick buildings. As I looked more closely, however, I could see many whitewashed houses that were similar to dwellings of my hometown of Nazareth. I wondered, as our procession continued toward the center of town and our final destination, just what sort of place the auction might be. Feeling more isolated and alone than ever before, I stifled a scream as I looked ahead and saw the wooden platform. On the planks stood countless, listless bodies. Below the platform, were enclosures with all manner of beasts. I reached down to pat my trusty mule, uncertain of his future too. Hamid’s promise that I might keep him when I was purchased seemed, after his words and actions, hollow words. I was sad, more than terrified. My life was going to change so drastically in the coming hour I could think of nothing to say when Hamid ordered two of his men to lead me to the block.
“Where are you taking my mule?” I broke down finally. “You said I’d keep my mule!”
“You do well on the block, and I’ll do the best I can,” he promised, personally taking the reins.
The full weight of what was happening fell heavily upon me now. It’s really happening, I thought, feeling a lump in my throat. I’m going to the block. I’m going to sold as a slave. Then suddenly and inexplicably it happened. The affliction I had once suffered as a child and once more as a member of Decimus’ band, returned as we approached the auction block. To the horror of my captors I collapsed onto to ground, blacking out momentarily as I thrashed about, until I saw faces looming over me. Hamid, and Fawad, and two other bandits were muttering excitedly.
“What’s wrong with him?” Fawad asked with concern.
“He just passed out,” Hamid said calmly. “Let’s get him back onto his feet.”
“But he’s foaming at the mouth.” Fawad wrung his hands.
“Yes, yes,” Akhmid, who appeared abruptly on the scene, cried, “he’s having some kind of fit.”
“I saw this before,” one of Hamid’s men said, shoving a dirty stick into my mouth. “It’s the falling sickness.
“This ordeal has been too much for him,” Akhmid shook his head. “It’s a wonder he didn’t slit his wrists.”
“Nonsense,” Hamid said, wiping my mouth with a rag. “What he went through before was much worse than this. He just fainted.” “Get up lad,” he ordered as they reached down to pull me to my feet. “Don’t play dead on me. You’re going to do just fine.”
While the auctioneer called out bids from the audience for some unfortunate soul, I managed to regain my wits. As strange as it may sound, I just wanted to get it over with. I had heard horror stories about the treatment of slaves. Perhaps, I told myself light-headedly, I’ll be lucky and find a kind master. The best-treated slaves, I was told, were in the household. Much worse off than them were field, mine, and galley slaves. Anything was better than becoming a eunuch in a rich nobleman’s house.
The two bandits led me up the steps to a wooden platform where a huge, bald-headed and bare chested black man stood with arms folded. He looked like an executioner more than a guard. The auctioneer, who was dressed in a bright yellow toga, sported shiny gold earrings and wore a gaudy silver wreath on his glistening curls. As I waited in line, looking around at the proceedings, a butler, cook, and, to my surprise, a scribe, were presented on the block. In front of me waiting for their turns, were colorfully dressed men and women, possibly entertainers, who had looks of resignation on their faces. There were all types of human chattel around me, most of them with the same dull expressions. Where I found myself was, in fact, a great staging area, no different in purpose to the stockyards below us containing all manner of beast. I saw at a glance four agents in similar attire and bearing, stationed at each corner of the platform, presenting different categories of slaves. Alongside of each agent stood other big, powerfully built guards, who might have been in bondage themselves. The most pitiful of the lot, moving, as the walking dead onto one portion of the stage, were men, women, and children, many of them presented naked to increase the bid. Paraded out in front of the merchants like cattle, they were ogled and cheered by prospective buyers. As a blond, bearded giant stood by, the agent, pulled their hands away from their private parts, auctioning them off one-by-one. A third agent, with a swarthy slanted-eyed monster beside him, presented a group of gladiators, who wore animal skins, helmets, and body armor on their legs and arms.
Almost as terrible as the scenes around me, were the sounds of auctioneers hawking human and animal cargo, the bleats, neighs, and growls of beasts, and those maddened screams of buyers making bids. Looking back, after all these years, I still shudder at my ordeal. Much of the commotion around me I scarcely understood. In a far corner of the stage blocked by other groups stood a fourth agent, with another guard, auctioning more slaves, who, judging by the swift bid and sale must have been laborers, those poor wretches who toiled in the field or worked in mines. The household slaves such as myself, I noted fleetingly, wore outfits befitting their profession, which, after the sale of the butler, cook, and scribe, included a dancer, juggler, and mime. My costume, “oriental prince,” was the most bizarre of them all. After some consideration, I could eliminate myself from this class. I didn’t fit into any of any of the other groups. I was in a class by myself. A multitude of merchants, townsfolk, and general riff-raff surrounded the platform on which we stood; many of them appeared to be looking directly at me. The question reeling in my mind was “What kind of slave am I going to be? It appeared as if I wouldn’t be a gladiator like those men on one corner of the stage. Considering my costume, that wasn’t likely now. The butlers, cooks, scribes, and entertainers were the most fortunate at the market. Many of them were plain looking, not beautiful, which was curse on the block. More immediately, they were allowed to keep their clothes on. For a Jew, the sight of naked bodies had been disturbing, but the women were the most pitiful of them all. Almost all of them were attractive, many of them blonds, even redheads, captured from far corners of the empire. A man could hide his private parts with one hand, but for a woman it required two hands, which only made them look more inviting to those in the crowd. I knew that their journey had been longer than mine. Unlike the frightened, pop-eyed look on my face, most of them had dull, empty expressions on their painted faces. As I looked out upon the animal enclosures were other auctions were being held, I also felt sorry for the cattle, sheep, pack animals, camels, and exotic beasts dumbly awaiting their fate.
“Place the Roman on the block!” the black man boomed.
When my turn came to be placed on the auction block, I was numb with fear. The two bandits now pushed me forward. Each step I took up the steps to the auction block seemed as though it would be my last. When I arrived on this smaller platform, a voice from the crowd of buyers chilled my blood. “Is this a slave at the auction or a prince in fine raiment? Show us the man!” After seeing all those other poor souls forced to shed their clothes, I knew exactly what he meant. Looking down at one of Hamid’s guards, who seemed taken back with the man’s request, I begged him to stop this act, but the two bandits stood by helplessly as the big man stomped up the steps and, with the auctioneer’s assistance pulled off my garments. Once again, as I had in battle, I mustered up my courage and fought back.
“Thaddeus,” Hamid called from the crowd, “remember that I have your mule. Don’t fight those men.”
All I was really doing was flailing my arms and kicking my feet as the big man restrained me and the auctioneer peeled off my clothes, but I put on quite a show. Spitting like a cat and using curse words I had heard in the Roman camp, I tried to bite them and scratch their faces, but while I screamed out my rage, my boots, then my pants came off, followed by my tunic and vest.
The crowd howled with laughter. “Show us the goods!” they chanted.
“Ho-ho,” quipped the guard, “we should sell you as a gladiator!”
“No, not a gladiator,” a voice rang out, “a eunuch. Snip off his balls!”
It was Awud. The two men, who brought me to the block, had slipped away like jackals, leaving me to my fate. After paying the auctioneer his commission, Hamid was waiting for the bidding to begin. Because of the reaction from the crowd, it appeared as if I was the highlight of the auction. The nudes lined up before by the second agent were calm and resolved, a stark contrast to the maniac on the block.
“Stop this,” a lone voice rang out, “these are people. Leave this one his dignity. This is unclean!”
My moment of truth had come. Soon the audience would know my secret. What would happen to me then? Suddenly, as the auctioneer ripped off my loincloth, it was revealed. A gasp went up from those close enough to see. Afterwards I placed my hands on my crotch but it was too late. The secret was out!
“He’s circumcised, just like a Jew!” a merchant cried in amazement.
“I am a Jew!” I bellowed tearfully. “I told those filthy beasts!”
“One thousand denarii,” came the merchant’s bid.
“One thousand and one hundred denarii,” came the second.
“One thousand and one hundred,” the auction looked out at crowd, “who will up this bid.”
Hamid cried out as if to give me comfort, “By the gods Thaddeus, I’ll make sure you keep your mule, ho-ho, all of the mules, if you wish!”
The crafty one-eyed bandit had led me to believe that being a Jew was a liability for slaveholders. He had lied! The bids continued: One thousand and two hundred...One thousand and three hundred...On and on until the extravagant bidding was limited to a few. I raised my head that moment, wiped my eyes with a free hand and, after the big guard handed me my turban and I placed it over my crotch, beheld the multitude of buyers from different corners of the Roman and Parthian empires. Everyone waited with bated breath as three rich men, a finely dressed fellow who looked like a foreign prince, a dignified elder wearing raimants similar to Pharisees in Galilee, and a rough-looking fellow, who looked like a desert nomad, bid against each other. I feared both the prince and the nomad—the prince because his purchase might mean my manhood and the nomad, one of the lecherous voices calling for me “to show my goods.” Even the merchants buying livestock or exotic animals had paused to watch this event.
“Why am I so valuable?” I asked my guard.
The big man, who spoke with surprising intelligence, whispered discreetly, “No one can predict how buyers react. Your owner told Memzet, the auctioneer, that you were a captured Nabataen prince. The Nabataens are enemies of the Parthians, which would have made you valuable as a hostage. That tactic changed when they caught sight of your privates. Now that they found out you’re a Jew, you’re still valuable. I’m surprised Memjet didn’t leave you your loincloth and auction you off as a Nabataen prince!”
As he whispered to me, the bidding continued: eight thousand denarii, eight thousand and one hundred denarii—ridiculous sums, I thought numbly, for a “wet-behind-the-ears” Jew. At ten thousand denarii, when the crowd had grown bored with the bidding and began to disperse, the scruffy merchant bowed out irately, leaving the princely buyer and rich merchant bidding against each other. I was almost certain that the man in fine raiment would outbid the more humbly dressed buyer. While they continued to bid, the other slaves were auctioned off on the other side of the platform and the livestock and exotic animal auction continued in the enclosures below. I looked down at the older man and wondered why I hadn’t made the connection before. I could tell by his phylacteries and clothes. This buyer was a Pharisee. It was his voice I had heard earlier scolding the auctioneer for displaying the slaves in the nude. He was my only hope. If he folded, I might be doomed as Awud hoped and, snip, snip, become a eunuch, which was practically death for a Jew.
At eleven thousand and five hundred denarii, the younger man waved his hands suddenly for the auctioneer to pause. “Why do you want this youth?” he asked irritably, he was never a prince. He’s a Jew. The Romans can’t rule those people. What makes you think you can?”
“The question is,” the elder asked accusingly, “why would you want this young man. You’re motives are suspect sir. Is it because he’s a novelty? Many Romans and Persians hate the Jews because of their unruliness. You don’t want this youth, sir, but I do. The reason I will outbid you no matter how high you go, is that I’m a Jew. How this unfortunate fellow wound up being on the block is beyond me.” “I will up the bid to twelve thousand denarii,” he looked up at the platform. “If that’s not enough, I’ll add a thousand more.”
“You’re a tough old nut,” the young man sighed. “I have other shopping to do. He’s not worth that.”
“Sold!” the auctioneer clunked his staff.” “Urcos,” he barked, turning to the guard, “bring me a scribe.”
As Urcos helped me into my clothes, I felt dizzy with relief. Dislike of forbidden food, temperance from strong drink, and modesty had been cast aside for the sake of sanity and self-preservation. I had been exposed to a crowd of strangers as a pagan prince and then as a frightened youth wearing nothing at all, one of the worst humiliations for a Jew. Now a rich and powerful Pharisee had purchased me. It was the best I could have hoped for, and I had been delivered from a much worse fate. Nothing mattered but that. The scribe, probably one of many serving the auctioneers, arrived with quell, scroll and a portable table for signing the document. Hamid also appeared on the platform, with his inner circle of men, to collect his money. I noticed that the contract had already been prepared, one of hundreds of such documents this hour. It was, I noticed that moment, filled out by the seller, buyer, and the auctioneer, who was, I learned later, paid a commission in addition to his auction fee.
“What is your name sir?” The auctioneer asked, as the elder fixed his seal to the scroll.
The scribe wrote his name above the space provided for the buyer.
“Elisha bar Simon,” the elder answered promptly.
“And your name?” he asked, as the bandit leader turned one of his many rings around and fixed his seal on the document too.
“Hamid,” he grunted.
For all the auctioneer knew, the ring might have been stolen off a dead merchant, but no questions were asked as the payment was divided between himself, the scribe, and Hamid, who took most of the coins. In order to finalize the deal, the two men—seller and buyer—shook hands, which caused Elisha to wince at such contamination.
“And the mules,” I blurted, looking expectantly as Hamid began walking away with his gold.
“What mules?” Elisha frowned.
“They’re his property,” Hamid explained, giving me a nod. “I promised him they would return to him. He’s a good lad.”
“Humph,” the elder shrugged, “I could use a few more pack animals.”
Smiling at me, Akhmid quickly added, “One of them is Thaddeus’ mount. It’s his pet.”
“His pet? Very well,” Elisha stroked his beard with satisfaction. “He even has his own transportation.” Studying the bandit leader a moment, he added sarcastically, “I won’t ask you how you came by this youth.”
“I wouldn’t tell you if you did.” Hamid returned his glare.
“Well, I want all of you to know,” Elisha spoke aloud to everyone within earshot, “I do not own slaves. What you do here is an abomination. Even a slave should have dignity. You treat your animals better than your slaves!”
Except for a few men, who found his words insulting, the crowd didn’t know what to make of Elisha bar Simon. No one, not even those who had paid attention to his words, took issue with him. There was a magnetism and authority about him I sensed immediately that reminded me of some of the Pharisees I met as a child. Since his insult had not been aimed directly at them, Hamid, Akhmid, and Uthman took no offense. As an afterthought, before they left the platform, the three bandits patted my shoulder, touched their foreheads, bowing their heads in parting, a Bedouin jester I had seen before. I had mixed feeling for my captors, especially the bandit leader. They were murderers and thieves preying on innocent travelers, and yet they had kept me alive, fed me, and, unintentionally, found me a kindly master.
I wanted to ask Elisha to clarify his position about slaves. He just told the crowd that he didn’t own slaves, and yet he just bought me. I was reminded of a custom I had heard about in synagogue school whereby wealthy Jewish men bought Jewish slaves in order to liberate them. Saluting my captors one last time, I watched them hasten down the steps of the platform. Hamid’s raids had proved to be prosperous undertakings, considering the stolen camels, horses, dead merchants’ goods, and gold paid for me. I felt sorrow for my friends he and his men killed as well the merchants and attendants left dead on the sand. Though I understood why I was captured and why they decided to sell me instead of killing me on that day, my ordeal at the auction was not so easily explained. Out of nowhere, an elderly Jew began to bid on me, out bidding everyone in the audience, including a would-be prince. Briefly, I looked up at the clear, hot sky, and thought about God. The voice had been silent throughout my ordeal, perhaps waiting for this moment. It promised me that I would survive the storm. It had been right...Yet it was silent now.
As, I followed Elisha down the steps, through the crowd of buyers and sellers to the waiting mules, which Fawad handed reluctantly over to one of Elisha’s servants, I bid the young bandit goodbye, surprised at what he said before he vanished from my life:
“Had you been one of us, Thaddeus, you would have been a great warrior. I consider you my friend. Peace be upon you, too, Elisha bar Simon. Treat my friend well!”
“Peace be upon you Fawad!” I mumbled, touching my forehead and bowing as I saw them do.
The Pharisee frowned disapprovingly at this gesture. His caravan was, like the other processions, assembled at edge of town. As we stood by the road, I watched as attendants lead several fine horses he had purchased, camels loaded with goods, and the five remaining mules released by Hamid. To my delight, a fine carriage like the one Joseph of Arimathea had when he came to pick of Jesus, came to pick us up.
“Please sir,” I bowed subserviently, “I want to ride my mule.”
“Get into the carriage!” he barked. “You’re not a bandit. You don’t think I know how they obtained you. I thought you understood, Thaddeus. I’ve freed you. You’re not a slave.”
“What? What did you say?” my voice broke. “You freed me? I’m not a slave?”
“You’re one the chosen people, young man,” he wrung a finger. “Act like it. Now, get into the carriage. We have a long journey ahead of us. At our first stop when we put this dung heap behind us, I will give you a proper set of clothes.”
“Thank you.” I murmured, my throat constricting and eyes filling with tears.
I sensed I would freed by him. I just needed to hear it from his lips. We climbed into the cabin, assisted by his coachman. The men, who followed behind and on each side of us, now mounted their horses. They were, it was obvious, guards similar to Joseph of Arimathea’s protectors, who would, like Loftus, Strabo, Glychon, and Tycho, provide us with protection on the road. As I sat in my garish clothes, my turban angled rakishly over my forehead, Elisha studied me carefully, as if he might be having second thoughts. I could scarcely believe I was out of the nightmare launched by Hamid’s raid. In truth, however, it had started before that day, beginning with the battles fought with the desert people, when members of Decimus’ band were killed off one-by-one. On the outskirts of Ecbatana, where the caravans heading to various points in the Roman and Parthian empire assembled, Elisha and an attendant helped me out of the couch, leading me to a large tent where he and his men planned to take refreshments before the trip. This station and the other tents, I assumed were sleeping quarters, convinced me he was a pious Jew. Not only would he not sup in this city, he would not dine there as well. I was given a tunic, pants, and a fresh loincloth and told to change out of my Gentile clothes. While the meeting tent was empty, I put on my new set of clothes, and then emerged in the bright sunlight—free.
“Humph, that’s better,” Elisha snorted, as I stood for his inspection. “You looked like a Persian whore.”
“Thank you.” I bowed.
“Thaddeus,” he said, gripping my shoulders, “I know you’ve been through a terrible ordeal. What happened in Ecbatana made it much worse. Until we sup together, I want you to go back in the tent and lie down. Take a nap. You’ll have dinner, you, my attendants and me, within the hour. I was angry and wanted to put that stinking city behind me, but it will be dark before we reach the next rest stop. We’ll still not be in the Roman territory. So we won’t leave until the morning. I want you rested up and fit for the journey. We have much to discuss.”
“All right, I’ll take a nap. Thank you.” I bowed again, walking backward into the flaps.
Obediently and gratefully, I lie down on a special pallet. Though warm outside, the silken tent was much cooler. An attendant fanned me awhile until I fell asleep. During my slumber, I dreamed I was back on the block. A man in the crowd chanted “snip-snip-snip, snip-snip-snip!” Then toward the end of the dream, another voice exclaimed mockingly: “Peace be upon Thaddeus Judaicus, friend of the Gentiles. Remember, Jude, you are also a Jew!” I awakened because of the gentle prodding of Elisha, himself.
“Come, eat,” he said, as an attendant helped me to my feet.
Seated around a low-lying table filled with cheeses, breads, and various fruits, were several men, none of whom was a slave. At one end of the table Elisha was seated, with me sitting on his right side as if I was an honored guest. My eyes immediately focused upon a pitcher of wine in front of me. I wanted to lift it up and guzzle it down in celebration. After a short prayer, in which the host blessed the food, I took a portion of cheese, bread, and fruit. After practically living off them during much of my journey, I avoided the dates. What I did do was pour myself a brimming cup of wine and empty it before I finished my meal. At one point, as I gobbled my food, paused to gulp more wine, then continued gobbling everything in sight, I realized, after a poke in the ribs, that I was behaving like a pig. These were not Gentiles, I scolded myself; they were Jews. Those not frowning, smiled mirthlessly or cocked an eyebrow at me. Setting my cup down, I wiped my mouth with my sleeve and belched involuntarily (both desert customs), and glanced with embarrassment around the table.
“Thaddeus,” Elisha’s voice broke in softly, “are you all right?”
“Oh yes,” I nodded, “you saved my life. So much has happened in the past week.”
“All right, we’ll get to that.” He studied me quizzically. “You eat like an Bedouin. We shall work on that. Something troubles me, Thaddeus. What did that youth mean when he said you’re a great warrior? Look at me, young man, not at the table. You’re safe now. You have food in your belly and wine to loosen your tongue. What happened back there?”
“At the auction?” I looked up nervously.
“No, back on the road,” he said with a sigh, “when your captivity began.”
Bolstered in mind and body by my nap and the modest feast set before me, which included an immodest portion of fine wine, I mustered up the courage to give Elisha and his men a summary of the events that followed the day I entered the fort of the Galilean Cohort. It shocked and dismayed, yet greatly impressed my listeners. From the point I broke with tradition after receiving my father’s reluctant blessing in order to join the Roman army and then Jesus request that I take this opportunity to learn the heart of the Gentiles (both of which caused the men to groan and shake their heads), I realized how horrified they would be when I told them about the first blood drawn. So I softened the blow by telling them about my efforts to enlighten my traveling companions during our journey with stories about Noah, Moses, Joshua, and King David. I didn’t tell them that I failed to illuminate them with tales from our holy scriptures nor share their criticism about our bloodthirsty leaders. I emphasized how thick skulled they were, however, and how difficult it was to be accepted into their group. For a while, no one interrupted me as I went on, skipping past the band’s rest stop, such as at the town of Cana to get to the important points. I wanted also to skip past the encampment at first imperial station, but I decided to get it off my chest. I tried to include everything. As Jesus once said to me, “to omit part would make the whole a lie.” I began with the vision of the crosses, which I had dreamed of many times before, then the second part of my dream when I rode my white stallion to a clearing, dismounted, and found myself in the final phase in my dreamscape in a duel with several men. I knew, of course, that I thought I was asleep at the time when I killed all those men to save my friends and myself, but Geta’s explanation that I was sleepwalking might be easier for Elisha and the others to understand. This was my first blunder of the evening. It was at this point, as I expected, that the first interruptions from Elisha’s men occurred. I remembered the names of each of them from hearing Elisha give them commands. All of them were polite and gracious. Elisha said nothing at first. Unlike what I experienced at the Gentile feasts—rude, boisterous, and cynical listeners, they were all courteous, following the etiquette I had seen during Samuel’s meals.
Jacob, Elisha’s scribe, the first to raise his hand, in order to preface his point summarized my account: “You killed six men single-handedly and yet you were asleep. Is that right?”
“That’s correct,” I replied, sipping my wine.
“If you were a sleep-walking,” challenged Jacob, “how was this possible? I’ve seen a sleepwalker. He walked straightforward, bumping into things on the way. There’s no conscious thought.”
“Quite a feat.” Eden, the coachmen, stroked his beard. “Are you certain you weren’t awake?”
“Oh, I was asleep,” I confessed, squirming on my cushion. “You see I thought I was asleep. I had these experiences before. Jesus called them lucid dreams.”
“Are you serious?” Elisha asked in disbelief. “I think you’ve had enough to drink!” He took the goblet from my hands.
The other men displayed blank expressions. The Pharisee attempted to explain his own experience with the phenomena of waking up inside a dream and controlling it, but quickly dismissed the possibility of displaying super-human feats, which is what I had done that night. One day Jesus would say to an audience, “The truth shall set you free.” That moment, though, it was a trap. It didn’t even make sense to me. For one, long moment of silence, I sank in despair. The wine had, in fact, loosened my tongue as Elisha had hoped. Unfortunately, it had gotten me into trouble. Before I knew it, I was relating the same fantastic excuse for my actions at the imperial station that members of Decimus’ band found hard to believe. Because the sleepwalking version was so absurd, all I had was the truth, but it seemed more unbelievable than a lie.
In spite of their disbelief, my audience didn’t insult me nor dismiss the story outright, for indeed it was not finished. Soon, of course, their tolerance would sour. After I looked around the table and swore by the Most High I was telling the truth, Elisha and his men gasped.
“What Thaddeus?” Elisha sputtered. “You swear? Are you blaspheming God?”
“No,” I almost wept, “I’m desperate. I should’ve known you wouldn’t believe me, yet my story has only just begun.”
“I think you’re ordeal has addled your mind,” he said, shaking his head. “Why’re you telling us this tale?”
“It’s the truth!” I cried, springing to my feet.
“You mean,” Nedinijah, the steward, corrected, “it’s the truth as you see it. A dream can seem real, but reality is another thing.”
“Excuse me sir.” I waved my hands. “That doesn’t make sense. I thought I was dreaming when I killed those men. You can’t believe I did it in a dream state. Is it any more believable that I did this cold sober, wide awake, as fearlessly I did?”
“It’s possible,” Absalom, a guard pursed his lips, “I heard gladiators do some amazing things.”
“Not possible.” Elisha shook his head vigorously. “Thaddeus isn’t tall, he’s slight of build and, no offense lad, not very brave.”
“No offense taken,” I smiled.
Laban, the second guard, looked across the table and, stifling a giggle, raised his goblet in a salute. “I think this youth believes he’s telling the truth.”
There was that word again: believes. I realized, after hearing Nedinijah and Laban, that they thought I was touched in the head. So I spent a few more moments going over the details of my battle with the six men—the sword thrusts, dodges, slicing motions, and backward stab, seeing acknowledgement in Absalom and Laban’s faces.
“How could a Jewish youth know such words?” Absalom’s eyebrows knitted.
“He so much admitted he’s a coward,” Laban said, scratching his head. “Why would a coward risk his neck unless he thinks he’s asleep?”
“Oh, Moses’ beard,” Elisha groaned, giving me a nudge, “this is going nowhere. Proceed!”
As prompted, I finished my narrative, deciding to briefly mention our visits to Tyre and the second imperial way station, quickly explaining the personalities of my traveling companions, and then launching into the most important phases of my journey with Decimus’ band. This time, the men, who thought I might be addled in the head, kept silent for a longer period of time. Perhaps, Elisha, the scribe, and the steward thought I should be humored. There were eyebrows raised and grunts at the descriptions of some of the men. Absalom, Laban, and the other guards, however, seemed more curious than skeptical, and the laborers, who had assisted Elisha, now stood by the open tent flap listening intently to my tale.
“And so it was,” I continued, looking fondly at the wine jug, “instead taking the safe road with towns along the way to refresh ourselves, we were forced, because of that rock slide, to enter the desert, a place of quarreling tribes and robber bands. According to Decimus and Caesarius, there should be rest stops along the road with water sources and date palms. Though it was cooler and more scenic than the interior, the coastal road had been, after all, a rocky, perilous route. The desert, though hot and dusty, at least offered a flat surface to travel on, which would be easier on the horses and mules. Of course, we didn’t know then of the dangers ahead. It turned out that the desert tribes were angry at the Romans. The optio believed that they resented the new road cut through their domain. A recent murder of a Bedouin in Raphana had sparked reprisals. Two such encounters occurred for us as we traveled north, and a third, the worst, by a gang of thieves who, after almost wiping out our band, took me captive to be sold as a slave.” With this introduction to wet their appetite, I looked again at my empty mug and watched with silent gratification as Elisha reluctantly poured me more wine.
All of my listeners sat on the edge of their cushions and the laborers by the entrance pricked up their ears as I related the first attack in the desert, in which Vesto, one of the Roman guards, and Enrod, a Gaulish auxilia, were killed. Using hand gestures as I had seen Jesus and the town rabbi do, I explained how I left my post watching the horses and mules to join the fight. Seeing my friends besieged by black robed nomads with keffiyehs, brandishing lances, I lost my wits and chased one of them down. Though, he had already been brought down by Abzug’s arrow, I stuck my sword in him to prove I made the kill. I gave my listeners these details not out of honesty but because I had slipped and told them the man had fallen down as I chased him. Unlike my previous “kills” at the first imperial station, which were plainly self-defense, if I killed a defenseless man it would have been murder. So I brought back evidence of my supposed kill, a deed that caused Elisha, Jacob, and Nedinijah to shake their heads with disapproval, but, judging by their nods, seemed reasonable to the guards
Absalom raised his goblet in a salute. “You went after him. It wasn’t your fault he was dead. I would’ve done the same.”
“Yes,” agreed Laban, “you were robbed of your kill.”
“Humph,” Jacob grunted, “you sound like a gladiator. He should never been in that bunch. He’s been defiled by the Gentiles and must be purified in the temple.”
“Of course.” Elisha nodded. “He knows that.” “Continue.” He inclined his head thoughtfully. “You’ve captured our attention. Even the Persian laborers are intrigued.”
A quick swallow of wine refreshed my memory. Skipping past the grueling miles between rest stops, I resumed my story at the point when the second band of men in black attacked. There was so much action this time it was difficult to give them a clear picture. Despite my reputation as a fighter, Decimus ordered me to watch the animals again. It was here that I killed two more Bedouins in defense of our horses and mules, before Aulus rode in to cover my back. This recollection included my first exaggeration. He didn’t cover my back. The fact was, I was outnumbered by horsemen, and he had saved my life. Once again we lost men: Geta and Langullus, who were killed on the dune, as our band seemed to make a last stand. What saved us was the caprice of the nomads. Evidently tired of the effort, they gave up the fight and retreated into the desert. This time, when I admitted to killing two more men and had proven my mettle, Jacob and Nedinijah shuddered and Elisha took a long swig of wine. But the guards nodded at each other in agreement, again raising their goblets in acknowledgment as I resumed my account:
“The next episode—the death of Caesarius, my friend, and his burial in an oasis, was followed by our meeting with the men in white, which Decimus identified as Nabataens instead of Arabs.”
“I’ve heard of them,” Jacob mumbled to Nedinijah.
“Yes,” the steward nodded, “—a troublesome bunch!”
“Perhaps,” I smiled solicitously, “but the Arabs and bandits were worse. The men in white, as we called them, did not attack us on the desert or ambush us at the oasis. It wasn’t a raid; it was a confrontation. The Nabataen leader was not looking for plunder. He and his men were agitated by our presence in their land. We learned that his brother and a tribal member’s cousins had been killed by the Romans. We were outnumbered this time and caught off guard. It even appeared as if we would be executed when they forced us to kneel as though they might just cut off our heads (another exaggeration). Fortunately, due to Bedouin caprice again, they left us off with our lives, horses, and mules, and yet Decimus decision to travel the desert instead of the coastal route now loomed as a grave error. Though we had survived two battles and kept our heads, it would soon be evening. A few of the men still wanted to leave the Nabataen’s domain in case they changed their mind or another tribe decided to attack, but Decimus and the majority of his men, though filled with misgivings, decided to stay until first light.”
Taking a sip of wine, I thought a moment about what I would say. I also thought about what I wouldn’t say. I decided not to mention the prophetic dream I had as I napped in the oasis, when a voice warned me that disaster would soon strike but that I would be safe and must trust in the Lord. How would that have sounded to the Pharisee and his associates? Though skeptical of my faith, the men I rode with had been a superstitious lot. When I told them about my dream, many of them seemed shaken. Decimus scolded me for my lapse. I had been told countless times to keep my invisible god to myself. In a watered down fashion therefore, I told my current listeners that I had a bad feeling about staying the night and that Decimus had decided that we would travel through the night.
“That’s insane,” objected Absalom. “No one travels in the desert at night.”
“It would seem so,” I shrugged, “but most nomads fear the jinn. According to Ibrim, the Arab in our group, these spirits are mischievous at night. Not only did it seem like a bad idea to many of the men, but it struck those, who wanted to weather it out, as a waste of effort. It had been backbreaking work to build our stronghold of palm and acacia trunks. We were even more worn and hungry than before, yet we were abandoning the only protection we might have. There in the oasis we were secure in a self-made fort against attack, and we at least had water and dates to supplement our shrinking rations. Despite their pleas, however, we slept only a few more hours until the waning moon, then we struck camp, climbed wearily onto our mounts, and headed north, led by torchlight as the moon continued to wane.”
“There’s no such thing as desert spirits,” Jacob huffed.
“Yes Thaddeus,” Nedinijah scowled, “what a foolish thing to do.”
“It worked,” I looked defiantly around the table. “We rode through the night unmolested by nomads. Had we stayed at the last oasis, another band of Nabataens may have returned in greater numbers and wiped us out.”
As I recounted the next episode, tears trickled down my checks, because I knew what came next. Though it seems irrational now when I think about it, I felt some responsibility in our decision to leave. Perhaps if we had stayed in our fortress and left at first light we would not have ran into Hamid’s band when we did. Briefly, almost as an afterthought, I mentioned the death of Caesarius in the desert and, though it might have been unnecessary, reminded my listeners that we gave all of the fallen men, including my friend, burials at subsequent stops.
“Nedinijah is partly correct,” I acknowledged the steward. “It seemed foolish to leave our fort, but it was necessary to move on. We were low on food and the horses and mules were worn out, yet the effort brought us more quickly to disaster. We passed through the remaining stretch of desert without incident, but catastrophe waited for us in the hills.”
“Are you all right, Thaddeus,” Elisha gripped my shoulder. “You have been through a lot. If you wish, we you can finish this at another time.”
“No, I want to get this off my chest,” I said, wiping my eyes. “The end was near...We had stopped at an inviting grove of trees on the foothills of the mountains of Syria. There were caves on the slopes that offered sanctuary in case of attack. Soon we would take the turn leading toward Raphana, our next destination, which was much closer now. For a while it seemed as though we might make it the coast to finish our journey. Though we had little food, we had water, shade, and our lives. All seemed well, until the bandits struck.”
“Merciful Lord,” Nedinijah gasped.
“You should write this down, Thaddeus,” the scribe exclaimed excitedly, “Homer would be proud. He wrote epochs about such deeds!”
“Pshaw, they’re mere legends.” Elisha seemed genuinely impressed. “What Thaddeus is saying is real life. No youth could make up such a tale!”
“You believe me now?” I looked at him hopefully.
“Most of it,” shrugged the Pharisee, “—it’s hard to digest. It’s a miracle you’re still alive.”
“Go on.” Absalom made scooting motions with his hands. “What happens next?”
“They nearly wiped us out.” I heaved a sigh. “It was awful. While I stood watch over the horses and mules in the meadow, the bandits struck in the forest. I was on foot when the first horseman broke through the trees. I managed somehow to unhorse one of them, but it took an arrow from Abzug’s bow to bring down a rider who nearly got me with his lance. I remember killing another man with one of the nomad’s curved swords, but I was obsessed with protecting the animals from those thieving men. Had it not been for Fronto, the big Thracian, and Apollo, the Egyptian, who detoured two of the lancers, I would have been killed outright. As Fronto, Apollo, Rufus, and Ajax stood back to back, the horseman rode playfully around them like jackals toying with their prey. Meanwhile the archers, Abzug and Ibrim, took aim at the raiders. Aulus soon appeared with the wounded Decimus’ arm limply hanging over his shoulder. I was found of the optio. Next to Caesarius, he had been my best friend. While Fronto, Apollo, Ajax, and Rufus, held off the bandits, that unpredictability of the nomad occurred at just the moment when it seemed all was lost. We were, as we had been as temporary prisoners of the Nabataens, greatly outnumbered. Ajax was struck down by a lance, Apollo was stabbed in the arm, and Decimus, who was seriously wounded, was being carried by Aulus and Fronto to one of the caves. As the nomads turned their attention to gathering up our horses, which, after all, was what they wanted in the first place, Rufus, Ibrim, and Abzug took the cue and scrambled up the hill too. I was in a daze, as I watched the men escape. All I could think of those moments was that they were stealing our horses and mules. One of the mules was mine. I love that gentle beast. As I hung back foolishly, several of the bandits caught sight of me and charged up the hill. Abzug, who had never showed much warmth toward me, ran down the hill to cut me loose and was immediately brought down by a lance. After throwing ropes around me, the bandits netted me like a fish. I was thrown face down over a pack animal, not knowing yet that it was my mule. With the image of the remnant of Decimus band standing at the mouth of the cave, I was taken by the bandits, along with the horses and pack animals, into the desert whence they came.”
My voice trailed off in the distance as I envisioned those men. Had they died of hunger in the foothills or managed somehow to find a friendly caravan heading to Antioch? I might never know, but here I was in the company of a rich merchant, just as Jesus had once been. Fate or the will of God had been with me. Along the way, men had died and, for a brief spell, I had been a slave. Now I was the friend of a great Pharisee drinking fine wine.
“Go on!” Elisha voice broke into my daze.
Left out of my account were certain facts, such as Caesarius, Geta, Langullus, Apollo, Ajax, and Ibrim’s murder of unarmed Jews and my disregard for the dietary laws when I ate dried pork. The last detail was easy for me to ignore. King David had, as a youth, stolen food from the temple. What was worse—being defiled or committing blasphemy? That I consorted with Jew-killers was another matter altogether. With the exception of the food and certain facts about the men, I had tried not to omit details of my ordeals with Decimus and his men and my treatment at the hands of my captors. Now, at the current point in my account, I would not, for the sake of their sensitivities, gloss over my experience with the bandits in the desert.
“And so,” my voice rose a notch, “I was hauled like a peace of merchandise to the bandit’s settlement where I was stripped down to my loincloth and dressed in a dead merchant’s clothes. Everything the bandits owned, I’m convinced, was stolen from murdered travelers, including the rings on their fingers. I was surrounded by men even more uncouth than my previous traveling companions, and yet I was treated better in my new set of clothes. Unlike the members of Decimus’ band, they didn’t make fun of me, except to refer to me occasionally as a Roman pig. There was a short while when Awud had fastened my hands to my saddle and pulled me along in back of his horse, but for the remainder of the journey to the auction in Ecbatana, I was allowed to hold the reins of my mule. I even made friends with a youth name Fawad, and found most of the other bandits congenial during our trip.”
“At one stop, however, as Fawad and I conversed, the bandits raided a caravan, murdered the merchant and his attendants and stole the laden camels, which they added to their previous loot. I could not have imagined such carefree, unconscionable killers. Returning with their bloody swords and plunder, they whooped and laughed as if it had been great sport. I felt great pity for those dead men but said nothing. Numbed and dispirited by everything that had happened to me since my odyssey began, I shut it away among all the painful memories of my past. On we marched over the old caravan road, suffering sudden dust storms and relentless heat until Hamid’s bandit caravan arrived at a final rest stop not far from Ecbatana . My throat was parched, I was bone-weary, and uncomfortably warm in my finery as I climbed shakily off my mule. As I chewed on a few scrapes of dried fish, sitting in the shade of the overhanging rock in which we found refuge, Hamid had one of the mules slaughtered and roasted to feed his men. Though I wouldn’t protest the murder of innocent men, this single act epitomized in my mind the callousness of Hamid and his men. I was almost beaten when I protested this barbarity. The only thing that saved me from being roughed up by Hamid or his men was the fact that I was, like the livestock and merchandise, potential profit. They didn’t want to damage their goods.”
“Mule is unclean,” Jacob muttered.
“So is eel,” replied Absalom, “but that’s not why Thaddeus was upset.”
“That’s correct.” I smiled at the guard. “I was like a shepherd to the horses and mules I watched over when I rode with Decimus’ band. I knew each of them well. They were like my pets, especially the mule assigned to me. I was thankful the bandits had not eaten him, and yet I hated the bandits more than ever then. To calm me down, Hamid, the bandit leader, promised I could keep my mule.”
“Well, he’s still yours,” Elisha said reassuringly, “as are the others. What happened after that?”
“A lot,” I gathered my thoughts. “.…At first light we assembled on the road to finish the last leg of the trip. I knew, as we came closer and closer to Ecbatana, that the worst part of my suffering was about to begin. Arriving at the border between the Roman and Parthian empires, we stopped at Roman garrison to exchange goods for safe passage and Persian delicacies, but a guard informed Hamid that the fort was filled with plague. Whether or not this was a fact or an excuse to avoid further dealings with the bandits, it worked in Hamid’s favor because he wouldn’t lose merchandise to the corrupt prefect and still could pass over the border unchallenged. On the outskirts of Ecbatana, before I was taken to the auction block, I was cleaned up, shaved, and my sweaty garments exchanged for fine raiments from the murdered merchant’s caravan. All this, as you men know, was but a prelude for what men in the crowd really wanted to see. From the point I was led up the steps to the auctioneer’s platform is the worst part of my journey but also the best, because a kind-hearted and generous merchant saw my travail and rescued me as I stood on the block. After parading for a few moments like a Syrian whore, my clothes were torn from me, and the price rose higher and higher until only two men were left to bid on me: a Pharisee and a would-be prince. If I had been purchased by the would-be prince, there’s no telling what would have happened to me. I would have been taken to a distant palace and branded as a slave. I might have even been turned into a eunuch.” “But that didn’t happen,” I said, looking around at the group. “Thanks be to the Most High, Elisha bar Simon bought my freedom. I shall forever be grateful.” “I’ll always be indebted to him for delivering me from a fate worse than death,” I added tearfully, rising to my feet.
Looking down at Elisha, who was embarrassed by this display, I bowed deferentially and touched my forehead. This gesture, though respectful, was a pagan action. It immediately caused furrows in Elisha, Jacob, and Nedinijah’s forehead but struck the guards as amusing.
“You’ve been with those desert folk too long,” Absalom laughed, rising to his feet. “You’re an interesting lad. I’m glad your ordeal is over.”
“Yes,” Elisha exclaimed with emotion, “and this is a new beginning. You’re a Jew, among your people, foolish but brave, both stupid and wise—all the wondrous ingredients of youth unspoiled by days of tribulation.” “For that I salute you,” he gripped my shoulders then took me weeping into his outstretched arms.”
Elisha and his men embraced me as they would a long, lost friend. I knew it was much more than that. Our tradition protected us even as slaves. On a matter of principle, Elisha had bought my freedom from my persecutors. Had I been a pagan, he would not have bid on me. We were both sons of Abraham; he took care of his own. For me this was more proof that we were better than the Gentiles. I was filled with bitterness but also renewed faith in my religion, and yet I realized, with mixed emotions, that I had failed in my dream to become a legionary scribe. Though I was eternally grateful, I also had misgivings about why it was just me and not those poor Gentile men and women freed that day. I knew that not all Gentiles were bad. In fact, I believed most of them were good. The fact could not ignored, however, that many of them like Hamid, the bandit leader, were basically evil. Throughout our history the Gentiles have persecuted my people, and now I had experienced it first hand.
As Elisha had explained earlier, we would stay the night at the assembly point outside of town then be on the road. All that mattered to me then was that we were not heading south on the old caravan road. That was a land of desert bandits—thieves, villains, and murderers. It didn’t matter to me that we were heading northwest on the Roman highway to Tarsus instead of journeying to Antioch. I had given up my goal of reaching the Antioch garrison. My destiny, though not certain, was at least secure in the Pharisee’s care. I wondered, as I crawled onto my pallet in one of Elisha’s fine tents, when I would see my family again. Reluctantly perhaps, Jesus had expected me to make the best of my decision to join the army as a scribe. In so many ways, mostly negative, I had done just that, but would he be proud of my efforts so far? I had done nothing purposeful. I had been carried along by accident and misdeed, a bystander to my own fate. I understood the Gentiles’ minds, at least the ones I had rode with so far. If that was a mission, God has a sense of humor. There had to be something deeper in Jesus’ motives than humoring his youngest brother. What would trouble me in the days ahead was a notion growing in my mind that Jesus was thinking of something much more important than personality traits and the habits of non-Jews. I had already learned about Gentiles from the Romans I had known in Nazareth. I couldn’t have known then that my experiences among them would toughen me up for service as an Apostle to my brother and help prepare me for my the mission to the Gentiles as a disciple of Paul.