That morning Zared bar Ephraim greeted us in the atrium, along with his wife Anna, and son Saul, a short, awkward looking youth much younger than myself. After introducing themselves and waiting for Elisha to introduce each one of us, the tour began. The roof was so high and the estate so vast, Zared and Anna’s voices echoed as if we were in a large cave. I remembered seeing the large houses of Sepphoris, including Aunt Elizabeth’s home, but I had seen nothing like Zared’s estate. Even Samuel’s sumptuous estate couldn’t compare with the merchant’s magnificent house. Though Zared was apparently a Pharisee like Elisha, his home looked very Greek. It also, upon second glance, appeared to be overly decorated and immodestly ostentatious. This was, it was explained later to me, because Anna was Greek, herself, a convert to our faith. There was statues of various animals lining the colonnaded entrance, not actually profane as the statuary in Ptolemais and Sepphoris since the sculptures were not in human form, but, Elisha would whisper to Jacob and Nedinijah, the entry hall looked pagan, reminiscent of the pantheon of gods seen in Rome. Since many of the Egyptian deities were animals, I could see Elisha’s point. In some ways, as I studied the beasts, they might seem more frightening than marble depictions of gods and men. In the center of the atrium was a large indoor fountain with more animal and also plant sculptures surrounding a bubbling fountainhead spewing water.
From the entrance, where the ceiling of the atrium was a dome painted with floral displays (which also brought frowns to Elisha and his associates) into the remainder of the house we were guided by our gracious hosts. Along the corridors were more decorations on the walls: pictures of fine buildings, deers, and trees. There were big vases everywhere holding potted plants and servants pausing to bow deferentially as we passed. Naturally, as a youth myself, I followed behind the older folks alongside of Saul, who appeared to dislike me on sight. At fourteen he already wore the hairdo and sported the phylacteries of the Pharisee as did his father and, while I was dressed in a modest tunic and pants with nothing on my head at all, he wore a similar to-the-ankles garment as did Zared, Elisha, Jacob, and Nedinijah. That moment I wished that the casually dressed guards were present, so the contrast wouldn’t be so great. I would learn later that Elisha didn’t approve of Zared’s snobbery, but the merchant asked that they not be present during the showing. At one point, after we had been shown the other rooms, including the fabulous entertainment hall, I could tell that Elisha, Jacob, and Nedinijah, like myself, were growing weary of this tour. Since Elisha was a businessman and Zared was one of his best clients he overlooked our hosts’ airs and the vulgar display of wealth. Yet, when Saul, who had refused to engage me in conversation earlier, made a disparaging remark about my attire, my benefactor frowned severely at him and shook his head. Nothing was said, however; that would be asking too much. Elisha would not have forced me to wear Pharisee attire. That would have been inappropriate, especially since I had not been ritually cleansed. I was allowed to wear the same common clothes that Elisha’s guards wore, basically the same outfit for most Gentiles and Jews, and yet Saul said I was dressed like a field hand. Had he said it loud enough for his parents to hear they might have disciplined him, but only Elisha pricked up his ear as Zared chatted with the Pharisee and his friends. He was probably afraid I would say something outlandish as I had before, but I kept my peace.
At least in dress, Saul was a parody of his corpulent father. I had never seen someone as young as him in such attire. It looked ridiculous on his small, bandy-legged frame. I wondered why he had been forced to wear these clothes when he was really still a boy, and then I remembered that, in the strictest sense of our religion, a boy became a man at the age of thirteen. Even the worldly Jesus had never worn such a costume. Instead of feeling hostility for this youth, I felt sorry for him.
In the last hours of morning, after refreshing ourselves in our chambers, we reconvened with Zared and his small family in the great hall. I was upset that Elisha’s guards were not allowed in the estate, but Jacob reassured me that the servants’ quarters were quite adequate here and that they would be fed well. The thought came to me then that no wonder the guards were rustic men who didn’t respect the law. Once Jesus said to Samuel, the Pharisee, “the law was made for man and not man for the law.” I would hear these words again as a disciple, but those moments, as I shared a noon hour meal with our host, all those passages I had already memorized rotely and Elisha tried making me accept had come to naught. I knew I could never be like Saul. I could never have imagined that day, after being one of Jesus’ apostles, I would one day also serve him. When I looked at Saul of Tarsus then, I saw everything I didn’t want to be. Upon close inspection he was even less prepossessing. With a nose far too large for his narrow face, close-set eyes, and big ears, his oversized hat and phylacteries only made him look comical. His voice creaked, a common trait for someone his age, but there was a nasally whine emitted when he spoke. At the beginning of our meal, he gave the Shema perfectly and his table manners were excellent, and yet when he engaged me in conversation again all he could think of saying to me was “Are you going to be a Pharisee too?” “Moses bones no,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “I’m going to be a scribe!”
Fortunately for us no one heard my utterance. The other diners were too busy munching delicacies and slurping wine. I had only told Absalom about my original goal of being a soldier scribe. Had Elisha heard this, he would be filled with misgivings. Saul admitted that scribes were also important, but the greatest servants to God were Pharisees, who followed the letter of the law. I giggled hysterically. This time Saul’s squeaky voice turned heads.
“Spoken well, my son,” Zared raised his goblet.
“You wish to be a scribe, eh?” Elisha said, pursing his lips. “That’s news to me.”
“Well,” I stammered, blushing like a fool, “what I meant was if I chose between the two—”
“Well,” Elisha prodded teasingly, “have you made a decision?”
“No,” I said, sinking in my chair, “I haven’t decided what to do.”
Nedinijah, who was already tipsy, blurted imprudently, “Thaddeus wants to be a soldier!”
“Not so!” Jacob, also in his cups, exclaimed. “He wants to guard Elisha’s camels and horses.”
“Well, I saw him practicing gladiator moves,” blurted Elisha, with flurry of his hand, “the net and whip, fighting techniques of the arena. After riding with Roman soldiers, he was captured by bandits and sold as a slave—”
“Sir!” both Jacob and Nedinijah gasped.
Zared and Anna muttered with embarrassment. Nedinijah whispered something into the Pharisee’s ear. Jacob quickly changed the subject with an elaborate compliment about the food. Taking a long drink of wine, I grinned stupidly, munching on a pastry similar to one Aunt Elizabeth had served. Afterwards, I took another gulp from my goblet, this time draining my cup. I couldn’t deny what they said. I wouldn’t even try. As Jesus once advised me when being teased by James and Joseph, “the more you deny it, the more guilty you appear,” which was how I felt that moment. In fact, I felt like crawling under the table, yet I gave them all a winning smile. Though Elisha had actually seen me practicing, the crafty steward had come the closest to my original ambition of being a soldier scribe. I wondered, as he carried on, whether it was tipsiness or deliberate design on Elisha’s part to expose me in front of his client. Zared only scowled at me a few times as the conversation turned back to business, but Saul was visibly shaken by this news.
“You were sold as a slave?” He looked at me in horror. “You poor fellow. No wonder you have no aim.”
“I’m all right now,” I patted his wrist. “Elisha,” I added with effort, “saved my life. I’m indebted to him. Now I just want to go home.”
“Home?” Jacob looked querulously across the table at me. “Where did you say you lived? Was it in Galilee?”
“Nazareth sir.” I nodded. “We have a carpentry shop there.”
“Never heard of it,” mumbled Nedinijah, “is it a small town?”
“Not that small,” I shrugged.
“Well, the most important thing,” Anna clucked, “is that you’re safe now. Ambition will come later. You poor dear boy!”
“So, you’ve brought me some of that costly Persian silk,” Zared was saying to Elisha, “That’s a Greek luxury, but I’m not sure I can sell it here in town. The Greeks are up in arms about the conscription.”
“I saw no hint of this.” The Pharisee scratched his beard. “I suppose if we entered the city later they’d of come out to heckle. Are there many Romans in town?”
“Yes,” Zared heaved a sigh, “we have a cohort now, like they do in Antioch, but many of them are Greek auxiliaries. Right now Greeks don’t like the Jews.”
I heard about this,” Elisha mused, sipping his wine, “I wish I’d of known about
this at the auction.”
“Don’t worry my friend.” Zared slapped his back. “I’ll buy your camels and goods. What I don’t sell here, I’ll sell to neighboring towns. You’re safe here, Elisha. Our Roman protectors give our quarter great security. I’m just worried about the unrest uptown.”
The dialogue that followed this declaration and the second cup of wine lulled me into a twilight sleep. Though my eyelids were open my brain was following asleep. Zared, who was on good terms with the magistrates, advised Elisha to wait for a Roman escort into town. I had enjoyed the food and drink and, for the first time since my folly began, I felt at peace with the world. I remembered those treasured naps during my trip to Antioch. This time I had a mattress filled with goose feathers, and, thanks to the delay, as we waited for an escort, no time constraints. I would follow the custom of my benefactor and his associates and take an afternoon nap. Unexpectedly, as our hosts discussed future business with Elisha and his associates and my eyes fell to half-mast, I felt a tug at my sleeve. Jacob, who sat directly across from me, had been watching me with amusement.
“Psst! Psst!” Saul whispered.
“Huh?” I gave a start. “…I’m listening.”
“What was it like to be a slave?” His voice whistled in my ear.
“Uh, not good.” I frowned with irritation. “I’m lucky to be alive.”
“They treated him abominably,” Jacob offered on my behalf. “After wiping out his friends, they carted him off to Ecbatana where they displayed him like a prize bull—”
The discussion stopped in mid-sentence. Zared and Anna leaned forward and gazed down the table at me. Elisha, who sat at the other end of the table waved irritably at the scribe. “That’s quite enough, Jacob,” he retorted, “you’ll offend our hostess.”
“Yes, Jacob,” gasped the steward, “what’s wrong with you?”
“Please gentleman,” Anna spread her bejeweled fingers, “my parents were slaves. It took my father many years to earn his freedom. I’ve seen terrible things. You can’t offend me.”
“Trust me,” Nedinijah raised an eyebrow, “this was bad!”
“Yes,” groaned Elisha, “it was bad!”
“Hah,” she replied flippantly, “I’ve seen slave auctions before! They’re not pretty. Life’s not pretty. The Romans once turned most Greeks into slaves.” “Tell me, Thaddeus,” she addressed me directly, looking down the table, “did they take off your clothes?” I saw that happen in an auction in Greece. It’s a filthy custom!”
“You were naked?” Saul’s mouth dropped.
“Is this true?” Zared muttered in disbelief.
“Yes, it’s true…along with many other people,” I admitted, squirming in my seat, “but it’s much worse for women. They have more to hide.”
“Huh? What do you mean?” Saul asked ghoulishly.
“I remember,” Anna stared into space, “they have two things to cover. Men have only one.”
“Now my dear,” Zared fluttered his hands, “Thaddeus didn’t want to hear this.”
“Well,” Elisha sighed loudly, “thanks to my drunken scribe, the truth’s out.”
“I’m sorry,” Jacob said contritely, “I shouldn’t drink wine.”
“No, it’s my fault,” the Pharisee raised his hand. “I brought the subject up.” “It seems you have a sympathetic ear in the gracious Anna.” He smiled apologetically at me. “Sometime, if it’s all right with you, we can tell our host about your experience. It’s quite a story.”
“I want to hear about it now!” Saul said with disappointment.
“It’s all right sir,” I smiled at my benefactor.
Though embarrassed by my experience at the slave auction, everything else that happened to me during my journey was but blood and gore. Jews were used to this theme. Had not Joshua and his heirs drenched Canaan with the blood of Gentiles? After giving our hosts the same summary I gave to my benefactor and his men, I once again prudently left out my dietary lapses and general conduct, concentrating upon the most important events leading up to my capture, including my bloody battles with “evil Gentiles,” which appeared to impress Saul very much. In the telling, I distorted it just enough to appear more like Samson or King David than the wet-behind-the-ears Jew who killed six men in his sleep. It was much easier to show my skills when I reached the battles in the desert were I fought on equal terms with my trusty comrades. Saul’s bright blue eyes, which looked out of place in his olive-skinned face, closely set as they were on each side of his large nose, grew wide with wonder. When I arrived at the bandit attack in the foothills of Syria, I performed brilliantly as I tried to protect our horses and mules, but then, when the mêlée turned against us, the story turned dark. What could I tell them at this point in my journey? I was no longer a hero. As a prisoner of bandits I was frightened out of my wits. The rude treatment I received being tied face down on my mule, being dressed like a Syrian whore, and threatened by my captors brought sympathy from my listeners. I was now a victim, not a hero, in Zared, Anna, and Saul’s eyes. What they would never find out, of course, would be my eating forbidden food. As I began relating our arrival in Ecbatana, Elisha waved irritably, saying “they know what happened Thaddeus. You don’t have to talk about this anymore.”
“Thank you,” I exhaled, after emptying my goblet.
Both Anna and my young admirer were both disappointed as we retired to the estate gardens to walk off our food and wine. Like Jacob I was tipsy. Elisha’s tongue was also loosened by the wine. I was no longer embarrassed with the subject, just bored and drowsy. Loose-tongued as I was, I could have rattled on until I fell asleep. For several moments, as we strolled through Zared’s fruit trees, vineyard, and gardens, I felt my energies returning. As I glanced around the small, perfectly planned out orchard, I was reminded of Nazareth’s olive trees that grew wild in the Galilean hills. Nothing in this large estate was reminiscent of my town. There were, as there had been in Zared’s house, statues of various animals on the grounds, many of them inset in fountains, standing alongside the garden path or dispersed amongst the trees. It struck me as peculiar that Zared paraded around as Pharisees when, in fact, he ran a liberal household and his wife appeared to be a freethinking Greek. What had also surprised and delighted me was Saul’s reaction to my story. It had upset him that I was bareheaded and wore common clothes yet he grew excited with my bloody tale.
“What was it like to kill someone?” he asked with morbid fascination. “Did it make you feel good or bad?”
“That was two questions.” I studied him briefly. “It’s not something I enjoyed, but I’m not sorry.” “It was self-defense,” I explained candidly. “I had no choice. They were bad men, and it was necessary to kill those men. I’d do the same thing again!”
“I-I can’t imagine drawing human blood.” Saul made a face.
“Until they forced my hand I couldn’t either. It’s not something I want to do again.”
“All right,” he slowly accepted my explanation, “you defended yourself, but are you repentant? You seem almost proud of what you did. You have been defiled by your contact with Gentiles, Thaddeus. It was a situation you should never have been in the first place.”
Though it was basically the same thing Elisha said, I wanted to shake sense into this pompous youth, but I had to tread lightly with this group. I was a guest in Zared’s house. I had no intention of irritating my benefactor again after winning his acceptance. I remembered something Jesus said after he heard me argue with James: the best way to get out of a contentious argument is to change the subject. That is exactly what I must do. We had straggled behind the others and Zared was talking loudly about the various types of grapes growing in the vineyard, so no one caught wind of our conversation. Zared’s portly wife looked back suspiciously, still curious about Elisha’s protégé but said nothing. That moment, unknown to me, as they looked our way, the conversation switched back to me. Coincidentally, it was precisely the subject I brought up with Saul.
“Do you know why I decided to be a scribe?” I asked, picking a likely plum.
“No,” Saul frowned, “those aren’t ripe. Pharisees are more important than scribes.”
“I wanted to be a scribe because I have certain gifts.” I announced, tossing the plum aside. “It’s what inspired me to strike out on my own.”
“What sort of gifts?” Saul’s eyes widened in disbelief. “You mean god-given gifts?”
“Well,” I said with a shrug, “I was born with them. I have nearly perfect recall, I’ve memorized our scriptures, and I’ve learned to read and write Hebrew, Aramean, Latin, and Greek.”
Taken back by this news, Saul cried, “What? Are you serious? I don’t believe you. You’re not old enough to have such wisdom!”
“I didn’t say I had wisdom.” I replied quickly. “I have gifts—special talents: an excellent memory and the ability to learn. I haven’t read Greek philosophy and science and the commentaries of our doctors of law nor have I learned all that much about the world. Like you Saul, I have much to learn.”
“Oh,…all right,” his envy subsided, “and faith is more important than knowledge, but you must still go to the temple for purification. That’s a requirement for orthodox Jews.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I would never be an orthodox Jew. My liberal interpretation of the scriptures would, in fact, prove to be an obstacle between Paul, the Apostle, and myself. Suddenly, we looked up from our conversation beneath the plum tree and realized we had an audience.
“So it’s true,” Anna looked at me in awe, “I’ve heard about such people. God has blessed you with this Thaddeus. Someday you’ll be a great rabbi or doctor of the law.”
God forbid, I thought, as Elisha flashed me a worried look.
Zared was not convinced. “I’m sorry,” he said apologetically, “I find this hard to believe.
How long have you had these gifts?”
“All my life.” I shrugged.
“Even as a small child?” He gave me an incredulous look.
“Well,...as long as I can remember,” I answered unhesitantly.
“All right,” he said, stroking his beard, “can I ask you a few questions?”
“Of course,” I said pertly.
“Let’s see,” he searched his mind, “What warning did the Lord give Moses as he approached the burning bush?”
“Don’t come any closer.” I quoted almost verbatim. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
“Very good,” he acknowledged, glancing at Elisha. “Now tell me, Thaddeus, after the death of Moses, what did the Lord say to Joshua?”
I recited promptly, “Moses my servant is dead. You and the people will cross the Jordan River into the land I’m about to give to the Israelites. As I promised, I will give you every place where you set your foot. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, from the great river, the Euphrates, and the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea—”
“Incredible!” Zared cried. “Elisha said you know several languages. You just recited these passages in the language of Galilee. Can you recite one in Hebrew?”
With little effort, I quoted, in our ancient tongue, the Ten Commandments and then an obscure passage from Psalms in Greek. After this, to give further prove of my facility with languages, I quoted my first recitation in Latin and my second in Greek. When I was finished, my audience stood still and silent in the orchard. Though Elisha, Jacob, and Nedinijah were not surprised with my performance, Zared, Anna, and Saul stood staring at me in blank-faced amazement. I wondered if I might have overplayed my hand.
“He claims he can write in them too,” Saul said petulantly, “let’s test him on this too.”
“As you wish.” I snapped my fingers. “Give me a scroll and quill.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Zared said, folding his arms.
I was happy I had kept the subject of my prophetic dreams to myself. I could only imagine what Saul and his father would make of this. Anna appeared to be guardedly pleased, as our host led us back into the house, but I detected disapproval from Zared and smoldering envy in his son Saul.
That evening, during a more subdued dinner, Anna smiled approvingly at me but her husband and son sat in stony silence until spoken to. When I asked Saul if he had a favorite horse, he merely shook his head. I praised the gardens and orchards and received only a grunt from Zared. When Anna inquired about my family, I told her about our successful carpentry shop and confessed to her that I should be there helping out in the business. I remember Elisha mentioning the fact that Zared was of the tribe of Benjamin, whereas Elisha claimed to be a descendant of Ephraim. Since I had never given my benefactor my correct name, I couldn’t boast about my family’s lineage, which would outshine them both. It would make me seem like a braggart, even a fraud, in their eyes. Though my father and mother are both descendants of King David and the tribe of Judah, I could never tell them this, when I’m known to everyone as Thaddeus, not Judah, my god given name.
As we gathered inside the high-walled enclosure of Zared’s large estate that evening listening to turmoil in the street, we were relatively safe against ordinary thieves and troublemakers. When the disorder started after the governor began conscripting non-Jews, Zared hired a dozen burly men to patrol the perimeter of his property and guard the doors of his house. Added to these sentries were Elisha’s own men, who brought the forces up to forty guards, and yet Elisha and his associates were effectively trapped in the estate until Rome brought order to the city. I will never know why Zared resented my abilities. Anna treated me as politely as possible as the mistress of the house, but my disclosure, that was partly Elisha’s’ fault, had made me, as Decimus might have said, persona non grata in Zared’s house. After dinner, as we walked in the garden, I had attempted to make friends with Zared and Anna’s jealous son, but with the disclosure of my god-given gifts, my effort came to naught.
Saul said a most outlandish thing before we retired for the night. “According to Rabbi Ichabod of Tarsus,” he scolded, wringing his finger, “knowledge that comes from an impure heart is a thing of the devil. Truth is greater than mere knowledge!”
“You’re half correct,” I replied calmly. “My brother once told me that truth will set you free. You, Saul, aren’t free. Knowledge can be used for good or evil. Truth can be twisted by words. Nothing I’ve learned was given to me by Satan, certainly not my gifts; they were given to me by the Lord. You, Saul, are not acting righteously now. You’re a prisoner of your narrow-minded belief!”
“How dare you speak to me like that!” he shouted. “You’re nothing but a freedman, Elisha found on in a Persian city—you unclean servant of Gentiles! Who’re you to preach to Saul bar Zared of the house of Benjamin, you Samaritan pig!”
I wanted to throttle this youth. His words were so off the mark they left me speechless. If I opened my mouth, I would have said the foulest things, so I did the next best thing: I laughed. This caused Saul to hiss at me that moment and gave me the sign to ward off the evil eye, which only made me laugh that much harder. When Elisha happened upon this confrontation in the garden, he could hear Saul fling several more slurs at me, including Philistine, apostate, and heretic, sputtering out of his mouth so fast they became garbled. It seemed as if he had become possessed by a demon.
“Thaddeus,” he cried shrilly, “come here!”
Dazed by the outburst, I followed my benefactor out of the garden, with Saul spitting and sputtering on my heels. Motioning me on with sweeping motions, he turned momentarily to Saul and barked, “We’re guests in your father’s house and at his mercy. Thaddeus did nothing wrong. You’re behaving badly to your guest. Leave Thaddeus alone!”
I didn’t utter a word of protest nor look over my shoulder. Elisha shooed me out, uttering, “Go-go-go-go!” Because he would immediately send me to the servant quarters to spend my remaining time with the guards, I wouldn’t see Saul again for many years.
When a house servant escorted me to the servants’compound, I felt great relief that I would be among friends, but I was sorry that I caused such jealousy in Saul. Elisha explained to me before he handed me over to the servant that Saul had studied very hard on the road to becoming a Pharisee, and he couldn’t believe someone like me was so smart. Elisha found it hard to believe himself. He had showed similar resentment toward me on our trip, yet appeared to have accepted my failings and now dared to rebuke his client’s son. When I apologized to him for placing him in this predicament, he told me that it wasn’t my fault but warned me that many educated people might resent my abilities. It might be a good idea to keep this to myself, he chided, until I understood the mind of my listeners. This rebuke, cloaked in fatherly advice, irritated me very much, yet I had gotten off easy. After all, Zared was his client. Elisha was a businessman, and my manumission from slavery was just an afterthought.
When I entered the austere wooden building where both servants and guards were boarded, I felt as I was being punished. Absalom, Laban, and Elisha’s other guards were glad to see me. Absalom told me that he and the others in the compound had eaten lamb and lentils and drank Syrian wine. I confessed that I had been given fine wine and food, but I was happy to be away from the pompous merchant, his spoilt son, and prying wife. Because the walls were much thinner in our quarters, we could hear a gang of drunken Greeks shouting in the street.
“I’d like to get my hands on one of those Greeks!” Laban vowed. “They’ve been carrying on like that for hours.”
“They outnumber us.” Abasalom shook his head. “I’ll be glad when the Romans arrive. It’s about time some skulls are cracked that aren’t Jews.”
“It’s outrageous!” I spat, scanning the candlelit interior. “Zared treats his servants and guards deplorably. I’ve never known such a hypocrite!”
“At least they’re not slaves,” observed Laban.
Absalom cocked an eyebrow. “I don’t blame Elisha for humoring that merchant. He never treated his guards and servants like Zared does. Not all of his clients are such snobs.”
Along each side of the walls of our quarters were rows of sleeping pallets with chamber pots beside them. Discarded clothes, as well as trash, lie everywhere on the floor. Windows, with flimsy curtains, were interspersed at precise intervals between the wooden columns on each wall, with plank doors at each end of the long, narrow compound. There was, I noted with dismay, no order whatsoever to this room. The guards and servants played dice, jackals, and knife toss against a crude target nailed on one of the columns. Many of Zared’s newly hired sentries were drinking wine and a few were already asleep compared to the servants and Elisha’s guards.
I felt disgust at the disparity between the rich Pharisee’s estate and the servant and guards’ quarters. Judging by what Absalom said, Elisha treated his servants and guards as well in his house as he did during travel. Samuel’s servants and guards slept in the same mansion with him, and Joseph of Aramathea even treated his pagan guards with more respect. Yet I was, at the very least, thankful to my host for providing a roof over my head. In spite of the disorder and unsanitary conditions, these accommodations, when compared to my living arrangements in the desert, weren’t bad, and except for the squalor encountered, I felt more comfortable around these types of men. For several hours before I turned in, I sat with them around a lamp in the center of the floor telling the guards and my newfound friends stories I dare not tell Elisha, Jacob, and Nedinijah. Perhaps it was the effect of the wine, but I wanted to tell someone the truth. So I told Absalom and the others the same basic stories I told in the caravan camp before, but this time I filled in the details. I told them that my parents not only took in orphans and outcasts, they took in Mariah, the town witch, and her incorrigible son and Reuben the bandit, who had once been the blacksmith of our town.
My voice grew husky as I recounted a miracle. “You might not believe me,” I said, looking around the room. “Even eyewitnesses are in denial.… But the truth is, I have a special family and a very special brother. I don’t know if Mariah, the wife of the merchant Jeremiah, was really a witch; she never actually denied it. All my parents knew for certain was that townsmen wanted to stone her, so we gave her and her son sanctuary in our home. When Mariah’s house caught fire that night, something miraculous happened. We knew that a gang of men, incited by Reuben, torched her home. While her house burned, Jesus looked up to heaven in prayer. We all thought he was mad, and yet from the clear night sky, clouds gathered overhead. A torrential rain came down, putting out the fire, destroying everyone’s garden except our own. You can imagine how angry the townsfolk became. We were harboring a witch, and, according to Rabbi Joachim, Jesus used the power of Beelzebub to make it rain. Had it not been for the Prefect Cornelius’ men, who escorted her out of town, Mariah would’ve been stoned. From that day forward, the Romans have guarded our town against the bandits roaming throughout Galilee, but their protection of Nazareth started that very night. From that day forward, until recently, our family and its oldest son, have been shunned by many townsfolk—all because of the refuge we gave to Mariah and her son, the presence of Romans in Nazareth, and God’s righteous anger upon our town.”
I paused a moment to let my words sink in. Greatly impressed with my candor, my audience sat with bated breath until I told them about the greatest miracle of them all: Jesus revival of a dead sparrow by blowing into its mouth. This was a mistake.
“Now Thaddeus,” Laban chuckled, “that’s stretching it. The rain can be explained by pure chance, maybe your god’s anger, but that’s too fantastic to believe!”
“I think you’ve had too much wine,” observed Absalom, taking my mug from my hand.
“No,” I protested, reaching for the goblet, “I just got started. I’m not drunk.”
“Listen, Thaddeus,” he whispered, glancing self-consciously around the room, “because of the unrest in town, we must keep our heads. Zared’s guards aren’t going to be much help.”
“You think we might be attacked?” I gasped.
“I think we have to be ready,” he explained coolly. “Being drunk is not being ready. If those buggers get inside the walls, we’ll need every sword arm available.”
“What about the Romans?” I asked, rising to my feet.
“They’re not here yet,” he said discreetly, placing his finger before his lips. “....Let’s not frighten the servants. I, Laban, and the rest of Elisha’s guards, including yourself, must be ready in case of attack.”
“What makes you think that’s going to happen?” I began to panic. “There could be hundreds of them!”
“You only die once,” Laban whispered into my ear, as Absalom guided me toward the door.
I had heard that from Langullus and Fronto. It sounded just as absurd then as it did now. Suddenly all of Elisha’s guards stood up, their hands poised over their scabbards. To my amazement, Abasalom led us out of the compound into the night.
“Listen,” Absalom said dramatically raising his arms, “.... the sound of insurrection.”
In the distance we heard shouts. Shushing our whispers, Absalom drew our attention to the sound of voices, which grew louder in the wind. A mob of Greeks was now, that very moment, in the Jewish quarter, not far from Zared’s house.
“We’re with you,” Laban set his jaw.
“Aye!” a chorus of guards murmured.
I, on the other hand, was mute as I clutched the handle of my sword. My heart sank in my chest, my head clanging with the realization: there would be another battle. I could feel it in my gut. While everyone else had been wiling away the time, Absalom had, in spite of long hours of inaction, kept himself vigilant, his senses alert to danger and instincts sharp. I had seen him exit once as I entertained the men, returning with an anxious look on his face. Because of the behavior of Zared’s guards in the compound I assumed he was checking on the sentries, which was probably true. I was shocked when Laban told me that many of them were Greek and Syrians, not Jews at all, whose only qualifications were their size, fierce-looking appearance, and apparent willingness to fight.
Absalom sent a man back into the compound with the message for Zared’s lazy guards: stand ready. A second and third man went inside to fetch lamps, and a fourth ran ahead to make sure the sentries were guarding the wall and gate. Meanwhile, the noise grew louder. They weren’t far away, Absalom told us, as he handed Laban, one of the other guards, and myself a lamp and kept one for himself.
“If Zared’s men hear that noise,” he said with disgust, “they’re going to panic. I’ve seen that type before—idlers whose only experience with battle is brawling in the street. It’s a wonder they’re not uprising themselves. Who’s to say they’ll even fight against their own kind. Zared was a fool to hire Greeks.” “I don’t trust them,” he said, shaking his lantern, “they’re lazy and unreliable.”
“Most Jews won’t fight,” I informed him. “Elisha believes I’m contaminated because I fought with Gentiles. Tonight I found out that Zared and his pampered son feel that way too.”
“We’re Jews,” Laban frowned. “Don’t forget Joshua and King David.”
“Don’t remind me,” I groaned, “it’s hard to live up to them.”
“Just keep your head,” Absalom counseled me. “I’m going to do my best to frighten those jackals.”
“How? You mean like Joshua did?” I smiled, recalling the battle for Jericho.
“Yes,” he said with a nod, “and for that we’ll need a great many lamps and torches if they can be mustered up.”
“We can beat them Thaddeus!” Laban boasted.
“Aye!” the others agreed.
“They’re nothing but rabble,” Absalom informed us. “We might just scare them away!”
As we foraged in the compound for more lamps and torches, the guard sent to check on the sentries returned with his report: they had run away like sheep. There was in effect no one guarding the wall. After telling the off duty guards and servants what he had in mind, Absalom tried shaming them into cooperation. Where they men or lambs? He taunted them. Zared’s guards who were sober enough to act and about half of the frightened servants agreed to join the rest of us in the “Jericho attack.” Almost all of the available lamps and a handful of torches used for sentry duty were parceled out by our self-styled leader. Gathering in front of the compound, we awaited our orders.
“All right men,” Absalom cried, “those buggers on the other side of the wall are cowards. I’ve seen their kind. They’re mustering up enough courage to charge the wall. We’ll be waiting for them with a big surprise!” “Ho-ho,” he laughed, looking around the group. “Remember Thaddeus’ story about Joshua—the one about Jericho? Well, this is different men. When ol’ Joshua and his men took that city they were on the outside of the wall. We’re on the inside. We have to wait for them to knock down the wall!”
Absalom’s lamp gave his face an eerie glow. Though he was brave, his plan of attack was stupid. It was, I believed that moment, a harebrained idea. Onward we marched toward the wall facing the street, lamps and torches held aloft, collectively terrified except Elisha’s bravest guards: Absalom and Laban. Shouts from the street were loudest then. The noise and commotion made it appear as if the gate would be crashed or the walls would be breached at any moment. Though made of stone and iron, it sounded as if hundreds—nay thousands—were on the verge of breaking through. All around Zared’s property, in various sectors of the Jewish quarters, flames shot up and dark bellows of smoke rose, slowly, into the darkened sky. By the time we reached the unguarded gate, the torch and lamp bearers had broke away one-by-one, until only Elisha’s men and myself were left, and yet as the first rioters broke through the gate, we charged them, lights in one hand and swords in the other.
“Death to the Gentiles!” Absalom cried recklessly.
“In the name of the One God!” Laban cried.
“Yea though I walk through the Valley of Darkness,” I began quoting my favorite psalm.
“Now scream like the Furies,” Absalom commanded us. “One-two-three—Scream!”
I remembered how bereft I had acted during my first attack on the dunes. With my scariest yell, I joined the chorus of Furies. This time I’m going to die, I told myself, as we tried, as one unit, to plug the breach. Unlike times before, there was no archers or lancers nor were there shields or armor to protect us from our foes. All we had were our swords and torches, which we used frantically, along with our voices in an effort to shock the enemy and make them think there were many more than the number facing them now. That seemed to work, as we lunged at the first men to enter Zared’s property. With the gate only partially smashed, the sharp spikes on Zared’s formidable wall prevented more men from breaking through. Upon seeing this barrier up close I realized it was foolhardy for some of the invaders to attempt climbing over the wall, yet several of them, after climbing up ladders threw stones and rotten vegetables down upon us. With fire and iron, our voices already hoarse from hollering various oaths, we cut down the first six attackers. I personally, without compunction, sliced off a hand poking through the remains of the gate, the first to draw blood. I had been hysterical, reacting on fear more than rage. The other men were angry and gave no quarter to the fools who leaped past the first shrieking man through the breach. Brandishing our torches in one hand, which were also used as weapons, Absalom, the other guards, and myself hacked our foes to death.
The battle was quickly over. When the men peeking down from the spikes on the wall saw this horror, they yelped in terror. Our torches had scorched several of them. Absalom’s defensive plan had worked. The mob backed away. Many of those attempting foolishly to climb over the wall scrambled off their ladders onto the street. After the attack, I found myself covered with blood. I was relieved that our attackers backed away from the wall, but I was numb and sickened. Though still agitated, they appeared to have given up their effort to break into the estate. In blood lust frenzy, however, Absalom, Laban, and the other guards, as the auxilia I once rode with had done, continued to hack at the dead Greeks, who had broken through. Then, taking stock of himself, Absalom, drew back his sword and ordered the others to do the same. A guard was sent to reassure Zared that the attack had been rebuffed and advise him to have his servants repair the gate in a timely manner. Several of the men on the other side of the wall promised that they would return in greater numbers to revenge their fallen comrades. One lone voice vowed to bring the city magistrates, which only brought laughter to the guards. According to provincial law, trespassers could be dealt with harshly if they posed a threat. If the Romans showed up right now, those fools might wind up on crosses. There was zero tolerance, especially in imperial provinces, for civil disorder. I didn’t wish crucifixion upon anyone, even them, yet I prayed that the Romans arrived soon. We were trapped in Zared’s estate, surrounded by an angry mob, not knowing how much his uprising might grow.
As we stood guard, a frightened pair of servants arrived in torchlight to repair the gate. Only the boards had been smashed. As a temporary fix, the servants, nailed on several planks pell mell onto the frame, then gathering up their equipment fled the scene. Zared’s hired guards were wandering about like scared children, a few arriving sheepishly, swords drawn, holding lanterns in their free hands in an effort to make a show of their bravery. Arriving last, moving fearfully in the distance, as servants held lamps to light their path, were Elisha and his toadies, the merchant, and his wife.
Lying dead on the ground were six of the attackers, hacked up so badly they were unrecognizable as men. Once more I recalled that day on the dune when the Roman auxilia displayed the same savagery. The difference was that Elisha’s guards, like myself, were Jews. I expected our host and my benefactor to be grateful that we had prevented a mob from attacking them and destroying Zared’s estate, but I would have a rude awakening.
Farther away, near the entryway of the house, as Zared, his wife, and guests approached, stood several servants and a smaller shape that might have been Saul. Absalom shouted furiously, while pointing at the absentee sentries and guards, “Those slinking jackals were nowhere to be seen while we fought these men. You wasted your money hiring those cowards.” Unfortunately, at the very moment, as Absalom was defending our bloody deed, the Romans arrived finally in the Jewish quarter, the commotion overshadowing his protest. We could hear a trumpet sound and officers barking orders in the distance, screaming, and the clatter of swords. It was over for those fools, but it had just begun for us.
“Oh, how dreadful,” Zared clasped his pudgy hands. “Don’t come any nearer Anna. I’m glad Saul isn’t here!”
“What happened to those men?” she clamped a hand on her mouth. “Why is Thaddeus covered in blood?”
“They’re all covered in blood,” Jacob gasped. “This is a butchering sight.”
“The Romans were coming Absalom,” Elisha scorned his chief guard. “If only you waited just a little bit longer.”
“If we had waited,” snarled Absalom, “those men would’ve ran straight for the house. Many of them had swords and some had torches. By the time the Romans came to the rescue, they could’ve set fire to the house and slain you all!”
“I had my own men to handle this,” Zared muttered dully. “Where are they? Where are the men I hired?”
“He told you,” Laban said with great contempt, “they ran like frightened lambs.”
I hadn’t butchered those men; I had only cut off a man’s hand, but I stood there with the other guards in support of the bloody deed. Perhaps, Absalom, Laban, and the others had carried a long-standing grudge against Gentiles, but it was no different than what happened on the dune. I had been horrified at first after Apollo and Ajax’s bloodlust, and yet I understood it now. I was truly contaminated this time. Despite my break with Elisha, which, after that night, was permanent, I knew I had not acted through evil intent. Jesus once told me that if you do evil even in your heart, you have sinned. Using this same logic, it would seem that if you actions were pure you hadn’t committed a sin. I can’t speak for the others nor did I know what was in their hearts, but I wouldn’t apologize for my actions that night.
“Tell me Thaddeus.” Elisha focused his lamp upon me. “Did you help them do this?”
“Yes,” I said forthrightly, “those Romans in the distance couldn’t have stopped the men charging through the gate.”
“You enjoy the fight, don’t you?” Nedinijah said with scorn. “You’re covered with gore!”
“So are we, steward,” Laban pointed at himself. “He’s a brave lad. Joshua’s band were covered with blood too. Thaddeus told us about our warrior leaders. You Pharisees and scribes won’t fight yourself, yet you condemn and call polluted one of your own who does.”
“Be that as it may,” Elisha’s voice shook, “Thaddeus is no longer welcome in our company. I saw him smiling just now. He has no remorse.”
“If Thaddeus goes, so will I!” Absalom stood forth defiantly.
“That goes for me!” Laban appeared by his side.
I don’t remember smiling, but if I did smile it was due to shock or hysteria. The other guards muttered indecisively amongst themselves, but most of them nodded in agreement with Absalom and Laban. Zared took Elisha aside and whispered shrilly to him: “get rid of that heretic!”
“He’s not a heretic,” Elisha defended me lamely, “he a troubled youth. I’ll take him with us as far as Antioch. After that he’s on his own.” “The rest of you men can make up your mind what you want to do when we arrive in Antioch. It’s where I live, and I may just retire after this trip.”
This statement caused more mutterings, and yet no one protested his threat. I would learn later that his guards felt betrayed. They had saved the life of their master, who even now sided with the merchant who had treated them like unclean Gentiles in his house. Now Zared saw us, especially me, as reprobate Jews. He reproved his hired men in our presence, but almost as afterthought. He would not dare fire them until a Roman contingent was established in the Jewish quarter. I was sad that my benefactor had turned on me, but I considered Antioch to be my final stop anyhow. That it would be Elisha’s final stop, too, at just this moment in time, caused me some concern. Had I been a deciding factor in his decision to retire? I wondered. Perhaps the normal burdens of travel had merely caught up with him. He was an old man now. How could one, prodigal youth cause a rich Pharisee merchant to retire? A speech swelled in my throat, but it was not what he had wanted to hear:
“I am, who I am. If I feel remorse, it’s not because of my desire for self-preservation or protection of my friends. I have never committed murder nor do I relish killing men. I will do so again if I’m threatened, which is righteous in the eyes of God. My regret is that I have disappointed the man who saved my life, but I regret more than anything that I have abandoned my family in Nazareth to seek adventure in the Gentile world. I have learned that there are good Gentiles as well as good Jews, just as there are bad Gentiles and Jews. I won’t apologize for being who I am. I hope I improve with time. Like wine I will either turn to vinegar or improve with age.”
The guards burst into laughter. Even Jacob and Nedinijah smiled with mirth. I understood the old man’s stance. I doubt very much if Joseph of Arimathea would have reacted differently than Elisha. Of course, during his travels with this great Pharisee, Jesus would never have shed blood. My benefactor explained himself very well:
“You are who you are. I agree that men must fight to protect themselves and others, but a righteous Jew resists evil. In the days of our fathers, it was righteous to fight an enemy invading our land, but you were not fighting for your people or protecting your home. You aligned yourself with Gentile soldiers for the adventure and sport. This is not resisting evil! What else could one expect? Consorting with such men was bad enough—it’s, in fact, ritually unclean, but you fought with them, you drank and ate with them, and you’re proud of the warrior’s life. You, Thaddeus, have no intention to walk righteously if you have no remorse. Without a change of heart, there’s no sense in bringing you to the temple for ritual cleansing. You can compare yourself to wine, if you wish, but I find your attitude reprehensible and unconscionable. After what you did tonight, I wonder if you grinned like an ape when you killed those other men!”
“That’ll be enough!” Absalom cried. “I have served you faithfully for many years without complaint but this is wrong! Everything you said about Thaddeus is small compared to what your own guards have done. We’re men who live by the sword. We, not Thaddeus, killed most of those men on the ground, and we’d do it again. Thaddeus is a good lad. His only mistake was trusting his fate to Roman soldiers. Look what it got him. From that point, everything that happened was forced upon him, including the battles he fought. In the end he was captured by bandits and sold as a slave. Please sir, give him some credit. He has a good heart. That’s how to read a man!”
“We’re with you, Absalom,” Laban spoke up. “Thaddeus is our friend. I’ve never known such a lad!”
“Aye!” the others chimed.
Elisha said nothing more that night. He and his toadies followed the torchlight of servants back to the house. As if they had been faithfully guarding the estate all this time, the night sentries were marching around in the darkness holding lanterns and spears in each of their hands. Now that the commotion had died down in the distance, Zared sent a message, hastily written in lamplight, with one of night guards to the Romans rounding up troublemakers, requesting an escort for Elisha and his company out of town. I listened to him dictate his message to a scribe, including clarification from the officer in charge on whether the Romans would be guarding the Jewish quarter now or was this only a temporary measure. I remembered how well the Romans guarded towns in Galilee after the last insurrection. Knowing how much they liked order I would have been surprised if they hadn’t remained in force around the clock. It was Laban’s opinion that a detail of Romans would arrive at the house within the hour. But we wouldn’t tell the frightened Zared this. “Let the fat merchant stew!” Absalom whispered in my ear. We had only contempt for Zared and his house.
It was left up to the merchant what to do with the dead men. Elisha’s guards refused to help clean up the mess. As I walked with them back to the compound, we freely discussed the implications of what happened tonight. I learned something important about Absalom and the others that hour. All of the other homicides committed by Elisha’s guards against potential and actual threats had been done swiftly and on the sly. Usually the very appearance of the Pharisee’s fierce-looking guards was enough to deter criminals. For the first time since they began their service to Elisha, however, they were caught with blood on their hands. Since he depended upon their protection, the Pharisee would not dismiss his protectors, and yet he singled me out for rebuke. I might not approve of mutilating corpses, but I agreed with my friends that we acted righteously. The Roman cohort, of course, would see it the same way as would the magistrates in Tarsus, so there would be no investigation of the killings of the malcontents on Zared’s property. With nothing more said, the corpses lying near Zared’s gate would be hauled away by relatives or, if no one came to claim them, buried in the morning somewhere on the grounds. We would be leaving as soon as an escort could be arranged with the officer in charge, which was quite fine with me.
Though it might take awhile, I was going home. I had made many friends during my travels—all of them Gentiles. Now I would ride on my mule with fellow Jews and men of the sword. The irony of this situation, after being told time and time again that a Jew could not be a soldier, emboldened my spirit. I felt sorry for my one-time benefactor, who had become my greatest critic, yet it was because of the loss of his good opinion, not anything I had done. He was an educated man, who lived in a narrow prism of right and wrong and black and white, when in fact, as I knew for certain now, the world was made up of shades of grays and degrees of right and wrong. A deed, such as killing another man, could be right if it was done to save one’s self or another, but also wrong if you enjoyed the kill; nevertheless, the effect was the same. I had killed first and foremost to preserve life. At the command of the Lord, himself, was not the great Joshua a murderer of innocent women and children? On his own right, could not a lesser man be both good and bad? What if he simply stole to feed his family? Was that also not right and wrong and black and white. Jesus might not agree with me, for he had gone one step further and told me that you could sin even in your heart. Yet, even though he upheld the law, he had reminded me that the spirit was more important than the letter of law. Unlike the Pharisee and his kind, he saw good in almost all men, regardless of whether they were Gentiles or Jews. I realized, before I fell asleep that night, that the most important thing I discovered about the Gentiles was not merely their differences from us, but how much we were all alike. I had learned enough, I told myself with satisfaction.... It was time to go home!