The countryside viewed from our starting point at Ecbatana to our destination at Taurus was much more diverse than the endless sand dunes and dry, featureless gullies and hillocks I suffered in the desert. The palms and acacia oases of the Parthian Empire gradually gave way to forests of cedar, oak, and pine when we crossed over the frontier into northern Syria and the Roman Empire. There were many small towns along the way that were filled with people similar in appearance to peasants living in Nazareth. The Roman presence in the north was much greater than in the south. Processions of legionnaires passed us on the way, and yet there was not the hostility I had seen in Galilee against the Romans because most of the villagers were Gentiles, not Jews. During the remainder of our journey, Elisha and his friends continued to coach me in the proper attitude about the Hebrew faith, and I, in turn, continued to present to the guards my interpretation of the Torah (minus the law). Like Absalom I hated the letter of the law. The spirit of the law, which included the Word, was another matter, and yet left out of my lectures out of respect for my benefactor, was Jesus’ notions of the Word, constant revelation, and the universal God. As far as my physical training, I knew enough about weaponry to be able to slacken off on my practice. It wouldn’t do for me to have Elisha see me practicing with my invisible sword and spear. In addition to my self-styled role as tutor to the guards and devoted student to Elisha, Jacob, and Nedinijah, I found time, under the watchful eyes of Absalom and Laban, to slip away and explore the land. In addition to being my pupils and onetime trainers, they became, at Elisha’s insistence, my bodyguards. At no time, as I strolled into the woods or searched for rock art in nearby caves, was I out of earshot or visual range, which was fine with me. My experience with Hamid and his men had made me fearful of strangers. It was the absence of such protectors and my own foolishness that allowed me to be captured and almost turned into a slave.
When I wasn’t with the Pharisee, scribe, steward, or my friends, I would visit my mule to make sure he was fit and ready for the road. The guard on watch had one less animal to care for, each time I fed, watered, and brushed him down. Often, I looked after my other mules as well. One day, as I stood beside my mule with Absalom looking on, a century of Romans galloped toward on us on the rode. Upon seeing this spectacle, I felt an immediate tug at my heart. This had been one of my dreams. The officer in front, who rode a big white horse, wore the sideways helmet of a centurion. I was reminded of Cornelius, the prefect of the Galilean Cohort and also Longinus, his first centurion. What also excited me was the sight of the centurion’s horse. In my childhood I had fantasized about such a beast. I had, in my fantasies, a shiny helmet, cape and sword just like this rider, but most importantly I had his white horse. As we watched them pass by, I told Absalom about the dreams I once had about my faithful steed. Absalom, though he was a military man himself, was also a Jew and therefore puzzled by such as dream.
“Thaddeus,” he scowled as the Romans disappeared in a cloud of dust, “I see nothing wrong with this goal for a Gentile, but you’re a Jew. It didn’t work for you. From what you told me about your treatment at the Galilean fort and your journey with Decimus and his men, you’ll never fit in. We guards have a live and let live philosophy of life, and yet we, too, could never serve Rome by virtue of whom we are: Jews.”
“But I fought with them,” I argued gently, “and I learned all the important duties of a soldier, from fighting to setting up camp.”
“You were with a band of misfits,” concluded Absalom. “The only ones in that group you told me about who were actually legionnaires had been put in charge of a band of veterans, auxilia, and one inexperienced Jew. You never explained to me about the purpose of this venture. Why were all these men mustered out at the same time?” “It sounds to me, Thaddeus,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “you left something out.”
As I stroked my mule, I uttered a nervous laugh. I had no intention of admitting that the auxilia and veterans murdered fleeing and disarmed Jews. What would that tell him about me? Consequently, as cleverly as possible, I told him a half-truth, which was, Jesus once explained to me, also a half-lie.
“The purpose of our trip was threefold,” I replied, gazing into space. “The auxilia being sent north were being reassigned. The veterans were old men, one still nursing a wound. All three were being retired. I was sent with them because they didn’t want me at the fort. At first, therefore, the only misfit in the group was me, yet we learned to work together. I won over all my detractors in the group, even the ones who couldn’t accept me at first. I mourn the loss of those men. I’m very fortunate to be alive.”
My teacher Gamaliel had once told his students that the best answer is a simple one. My answer had been as short and to the point as possible. I also tried to look Absalom squarely in the eyes without my pupils darting around, which was, Jesus told me, the best indicator for the truth. The parts I left out about these men were merely lies of omission. Though Jesus believed these were falsehood, too, what I had told Absalom was the truth. It was true that most of the auxilia and veterans were being transferred for reassignment or retirement. That was enough. With the exception of Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto, the fact that they were undesirables, most of whom had been cashiered from the Galilean cohort and faced uncertain futures, was none of Absalom’s business. After a moment of silence, he shrugged his shoulders.
To my great relief, he changed the subject entirely. “You and that mule have been through a lot.”
“Yes.” I sighed. “I love the beast. He’s more than a means of travel to me. He’s my friend. He goes wherever I go. We’re inseparable.”
Absalom frowned thoughtfully. “What are you going to do when we arrive in Tarsus? Have you a plan?”
“No, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” I answered candidly. “Before all this,” I added, pointing south, “I had it planned out: I would be a soldier scribe. My weapon would be the quill, I would wear the raiment of a legionnaire with a flowing cape and ride a big white horse. Now, if Elisha has his way, I’ll use my gifts to be a Pharisee like himself or become doctor of the law.”
“You’re not gonna do that, Thaddeus.” Absalom shook his head. “You’re a free spirit, like me, but the fact is you’re still a Jew. You have, in eyes of Elisha and his friends, blood on your hands. You’ve been polluted after living a Gentile’s life. The first thing they want to do is have you purified in the temple. After that Elisha, who has only daughters, will probably take you into his household and try to mold you into a proper Jew. You’ll never be a proper Jew, Thaddeus. So before that happens, you must slip away, as I did as a youth. If you can, hire yourself out to a merchant heading toward Galilee or find a ship going south. If that doesn’t work out, report to the Antioch fort. Wasn’t that was your original plan? Who knows, after you give them your story, they might, if nothing else, give you an escort home. Because no one else from your band arrived at their destination and you’re the only one who survived, you’re sort of a hero. The fact is you must, sooner or later, go home. You have people who love you, which is more than I have. What you do between now and then is up to you, but go home!”
This was, I thought wistfully, the same advice Decimus, Aulus, and Caesarius gave me at the beginning of my adventure. It was as if this plainspoken guard had read my mind. Absalom was right, of course, but it was a long way from Tarsus to Nazareth. Much could happen between. It seemed as if everything I had done after leaving my home was purest folly, and yet I was excited about the unknown road ahead.
A large caravan required more stops than ordinary travel. There were far more matters to attend to for camels laden with goods. In addition to honoring the Sabbath, added rest periods and overnight stops were required by the Pharisee because of the rigors of the road. The northern highway, though much safer to travel than the south, presented many potholes and uneven cobbles in our path, often making our trip a bumpy and jarring ride. During my experience on my way to Antioch and as a prisoner in the desert, such stops were relatively few and far between. Because we were no longer in hostile land, it was much more reasonable to poke along. For Romans, the most important reason for haste, when riding through unfriendly territory, was safety, the object being to ride through the day and, with few breaks, stop at night. As I experienced with Decimus’ company, the rule of daytime travel was broken because our belief that Bedouins feared the dark. We also traveled through the night to make up for lost time. For bandits, of course, there was no actual destination, except base camp. Raids were made in the daytime and, like most superstitious Bedouins, the bandits avoided traveling in the night and made camp whenever they wished. Unfortunately, for my companions and I, they had probably been dogging our trail for quite some time. It had only been a matter of time.
We were in a safer climate now, however. There were frequent towns with water and food, Roman soldiers, in increasing numbers, appeared on the northern highway, and yet we moved at a snail’s pace, sometimes barely a few Roman miles a day. I understood the difficulties of caravan travel, but with so many pauses and overnighters on the way, it seemed as though it would never end. When we approached the port city of Tarsus, I was gratified to once again see the Great Sea. Unfortunately, it was almost sundown and we were forced to make camp one more time in order to begin our journey at first light.
I was excited about our destination. Though Jesus never mentioned Tarsus in his travels, Elisha warned me of the evils of this town. Unlike Jerusalem and Sepphoris, it was, with the exception of its Jewish quarter, thoroughly pagan. According to my benefactor, Tarsus was an imperial city, which was a mixed blessing. All of its residents were Roman citizens and had more rights than non-citizens but also paid more taxes. Counterbalancing the evils that Elisha saw in Tarsus (pagan temples, profane statues, and public baths), was it’s reputation as a center of learning that rivaled Athens and Alexandria. Unfortunately, as the Pharisee saw it, we had to travel through the “evil” part of the city before reaching the Jewish quarter where his client resided. It was typical of the merchant half of Elisha, who wanted me to purified in our temple, that he would risk polluting his Pharisee-half in such a town.
I listened to Elisha discuss with Jacob and Nedinijah how we would approach the merchant Zared bar Ephraim’s estate at the first brush of dawn to avoid the crowds on the main street, and I suppressed a smile. Perhaps they thought my eyes would be offended by the temple priests and the naked statuary Jesus had seen in Rome and Greece. I was stripped naked, myself, and sold as a slave after going through something far more obscene than any sculpture or other work of men. It was the Pharisee’s plan to slip in and out, both times at sunrise, to avoid the traffic of shoppers, tourists, and priests, but I learned from Absalom that night that it was a more basic emotion than religious scruples: fear. Absalom explained to me before we fell asleep that word had come to Elisha that the Greek inhabitants of Tarsus were upset about the recent conscription of Greek men and deferment given Jews because of their religion. Normally, the Greeks got along well with the Jewish minority, but the Governor of Cilicia required additional troops on the frontier because of recent Parthian incursions. I had seen first hand in Lower and Upper Galilee and also the lands north of Galilee how sparse were Roman forces and remembered Jesus telling me about how the Greeks of Alexandria resented the Jews special position in Egypt.
That night I had another dream. Unlike previous dreams in which I saw dark visions or heard an ominous voice, the message was peaceful, similar to my recent vision of Jesus working in the shop. This time, however, my brothers were in the shop with him. They were quarrelling with each other. Since I had, in real life, seen my brothers squabbling, the scene didn’t alarm me, until I noticed something I had missed before. My father wasn’t in the picture. “Where is our father?” I called out to Joseph and Simon. (James, I recalled, was in Jerusalem studying with Nicodemus.) “Why isn’t Papa in the shop?” I called out again. There was no response, even when I repeated my questions at the top of my lungs. Suddenly, I was no longer in a lucid dream. It was as if I was a ghost visiting my previous life. When I tried to embrace Jesus, my hands passed through him. No matter how much I attempted to get their attention they continued to argue. Jesus was telling Joseph that he couldn’t leave home yet; he and Simon were needed in the shop. Joseph had a pack on his back as if he was that very moment ready to take to the road. Simon, I noticed that moment, was suddenly absent, after slipping away to avoid his chores. Where were my mother and my twin sisters, I wondered, as I walked toward the house? Tabitha, our adopted sister was also absent. What had happened to my family while I was gone?
That moment I sensed something much more serious than the quarrel in the shop. My intention was to open the front door, but when I reached for the handle, I froze, backed away and called out in a shaky voice, “Mama, Papa, it’s me Jude. I’ve come home. A head popped out of the window curtains, startling me out of my wits then, like a Syrian puppet, it disappeared without a word. “Mama,” I cried. “Open the door?” “Who is it Mary?” I heard my father ask in a rasping voice. “Jude, the great traveler,” she answered with great sarcasm. “Where was he when you needed him? Soon all of our sons will have left, leaving poor Jesus to manage our business alone.” “Let me in!” I shouted, pounding on the door. “I’m here now. I’ve come home!” As I beat on the boards, the scene around me faded to black as dreams do. I tumbled helplessly through the porthole of sleep, awakening in an almost pitch black tent.
Looking around in the darkness, still grappling with the message in my dream, I saw the glimmer of a night lantern through the flaps, recognizing the outline of a sentry making his rounds. I wanted to jump up that very moment, run to the Pharisee, and tell him about my dream, but that would convince him I was touched in the head. No, I told myself, as I tried falling back asleep, I would explain the urgency in the simplest terms. I think Elisha would understand. I’m homesick, which was true. If he plodded along as he done before, I would, if I had to, slip away and, with my mule, strike out on my own. If it was necessary, I might even have to tell Elisha about my dream.
“Dear Lord,” I whispered, “enlighten my benefactor. Give him a sign. Hasten the caravan so Elisha will get his business done and turn south!”
Despite my misgivings, I fell back to sleep. When I awakened the next morning, I staggered out yawning and rubbing my eyes. The camp was struck quickly. We all grabbed a hunk of bread and piece of cheese. I checked on my mule and then, after making water, joined Elisha and his friends in the coach. I had enough of riding on the hard Roman saddle. The guards rode up and down the procession inspecting and protecting the caravan. With lanterns held high to navigate until the first rays of sunlight, Absalom and Laban led us down the main street, with Eden on top steering our carriage. There were only a few citizens about, which had been the reason why we left at first light. Now in dawn’s light it was our purpose to reach the client’s estate before the human traffic was great. As was his habit, Elisha chatted with Jacob and Nedinijah about the business ahead, as if I wasn’t there, then, on occasion, acknowledged my presence with a congenial smile or nod.
“Sir,” I blurted as we approached the Jewish quarter, “I regret my foolishness which resulted in my captivity, and I’m eternally thankful to you for saving my life, but my family needs me. I must go home!”
“I know Thaddeus.” He reached over to pat my knee. “That’s as it should be. When we reach Antioch, I’ll arrange an escort to Galilee. Antioch is where I live.”
“Really?” I gasped. “Antioch’s your town?” “The Lord provides!” I closed my eyes.
“Indeed,” Elisha said with a chuckle, “you’ll be home soon.”
“Wouldn’t it be faster if he traveled by ship?” suggested Jacob. “It takes so long to travel by land.”
“Not necessarily.” The Pharisee shook his head. “It takes time to find passage, and I don’t want Thaddeus traveling alone.”
I nodded vigorously in agreement. I was, because of my ordeal, afraid to be alone. There was, of course, another reason why I wanted to travel on land: my mules. It was explained to me by Absalom that cargo-laden ships wouldn’t have enough room for personal pets. If I wanted to travel by sea, I would have to leave Gladius and the other mules behind. This I couldn’t do. Gladius had been my most faithful companion. Everyone, who saw me dote on Gladius in camp, understood this. I also felt protective of the other mules, who had been with me throughout my journey. Traveling by ship, I told Jacob politely, was out of the question. Behind my request to go home was my recent dream, and yet my priorities—protecting my mule and my own safety—lessened the urgency. In Elisha’s mind I was just homesick. How could I tell him that, based upon a dreamscape, I thought my father might be ill? Because I hadn’t told him the truth, I wondered if he would continue moving as slowly as before.
As if he had forgotten what he said to me this hour, he and Jacob discussed possible business stops in the nearby cities of Mallus and Adana before returning home. They would be quick trips, Elisha reassured me. I could stay with Zared while they were away. It shouldn’t take more than a week. I wasn’t surprised. Elisha was a businessman as was Joseph of Arimathea, my brother’s benefactor. I would be stranded for an indeterminate period of time as Elisha and Zared, his intermediary, haggled over business and the merchandise found its way to shops in town. As Elisha sought other clients, my trip home would be postponed even longer. As we entered the Jewish quarter, I stifled the urge to tell him the truth. How could I explain it to this narrow-minded man? He scarcely believed my other stories. Would he believe a vision I had in a dream? I couldn’t wait much longer. I had to try.
I tried rehearsing the words in my head: “According to a dream I had sir, my father’s sick. It could be the wine again or something much worse. I heard Jesus arguing with my brothers who were about to run away. If my father’s sick and Jesus has to run the business by himself, my family will need me to help in the shop.” It sounded reasonable enough to me, and it was the truth, but the words never came. I couldn’t bring myself to utter what was, in fact, a dream. My only other option I realized, if I didn’t want to wait, was to separate my mules from the other pack animals and slip away in the dead of night—a notion that filled me with dread.
That moment residents of the wealthy portion of the quarter came out of their homes to gawk at the great caravan as we approached Zared bar Ephraim’s estate. Then suddenly, as the caravan and coach drew finally to a stop, my impulse to tell Elisha the truth vanished in the morning breeze. I followed the other men out and stood there as the camels moved ahead into Zared’s stables before we were led on foot through a smaller gate up to a great mansion on the hill. A feeling came over me in the chilly Cilician air, as would a warm desert breeze. If nothing else now, I was in good hands. Wordlessly it seemed, the Spirit of the Lord (or perhaps the honeyed wine Elisha and his associates shared with me in the carriage) gave me counsel. It seemed to say stay put, be patient, and bide your time for a short while longer before making your next move. I just hoped it would be soon!”