A company of Romans arrived at Zared’s estate at first light, awakening everyone with shouts, the clop of horse hoofs, clatter of armor, and a persistent pounding on his door. Not waiting for the servants to arrive, the optio and his men had stormed unannounced through the gate onto the grounds. Torn from sleep, I followed my grumbling friends and Zared’s frightened guards and servants out the door, where several dismounted legionnaires stood with hands on sword hilts, scowls etched on their square jawed faces, obviously irritated with this assembly of Jews. I immediately recalled the Romans at the Galilean Cohort, who gave me the same hard looks. Decimus and Aulus also came to mind, a haunting reminder that not all Romans hated Jews. I couldn’t see Elisha and his men, but I was certain that this commotion had been our wake up call. There would be no polite amenities for Zared’s household. The smell of smoke in the air reminded us what happened last night. The Jewish quarter’s protectors and our escorts had arrived.
I heard the optio shouting into the rich merchant’s face: “You Jews are nothing but trouble. You won’t serve the emperor yet you want him to protect you. You won’t even let us into your houses for fear we might pollute you. Will, let me tell you Zared whats-his-face, you’re the ones doing the polluting. If I had my way, I’d turn those Greeks loose on you. Thanks to your invisible god, who told you that you were better than other folks, we had to kill a mess of Greeks last night and will be crucifying the others we caught today.”
Turning to Elisha, Jacob, and Nedinijah, who arrived belatedly on the scene, he asked in an equally rude tone, “Are you the Jews I’m suppose to accompany out of town?”
“We are sir,” Elisha said, bowing nervously.
“Then what I said to him goes for you,” he wrung his finger. “You people are nothing but trouble! Get your men and animals on the street. We leave within the hour!”
I felt very sorry for my onetime benefactor, but I also sympathized with the optio, whose cohort would crucify scores of Greeks. Though Anna arrived on the scene shortly after her husband, I wouldn’t see Saul again, which suited me just fine. Nowhere on the grounds did I see the men the merchant hired to guard his property. In place of these idlers would be surly soldiers posted at various points around the Jewish quarter. Elisha had turned away from the crude Roman officer and was ordering his attendants and guards to get their business done and assemble the horses and mules in front of the estate. Like the other men, who had just been rudely awakened, I gazed around at the tumult with sleep-drenched eyes. Following Absalom’s prodding, I made water as Elisha directed (onto a nearby tree), fastened on my sword, and, following the other men’s’ example, strapped a saddle onto my mule. This time we were given day old bread, goat cheese and mere water to drink as we stood by our mounts, waiting for the carriage, which would lead our procession out of the stable gate. I was very glad to see my mule and my other pack animals, which were my property thanks to Hamid, the bandit leader’s contract. It’s strange that this bad man had done such a good deed on my behalf. Jesus was right, I thought, hugging his neck and stroking the other mules, there’s good in all men, even if its only small amount. I was light-headed with relief now that we were heading south. Hearing Aden the coachmen whistle to his team, we climbed onto our saddles, gripped our reins, and, giving our mounts a gentle kick, followed the carriage from the mansion and onto the street, where a large company of square-jawed legionnaires rode single file on each side of our small procession. In the front of the carriage rode the optio, sword in hand, shouting obscenities at the residents lining the street.
“You brought this on yourselves, you sons-a-bitches!” He waved his sword in the air. “You won’t serve, you won’t pay homage to our gods, you shrink from our shadows if they cross your path. You think we’re unclean. Well, the next time there’s a conscription remember those men hanging on crosses in your quarter. That’s unclean! Why should Greeks, Romans, and Syrians die for the likes of you!”?
As the optio aired his contempt, I reached down and patted by mule. The gentle beast had a calming effect upon me. The legionnaires riding on each side of our procession, with horseman guarding our front and rear, enveloped us with a grim yet determined escort. Absalom had chosen to ride next to me. Ahead of us and behind us, proceeding side-by-side as we followed the carriage out of town, rode the remaining caravan guards, probably on their last journey with Elisha bar Simon. Behind our procession, trotting with the extra horses, were my four other mules, now unburdened from heavy loads. On each side of the road, looking on with mixed feelings were residents of the Jewish quarter, suffering verbal abuse by the optio and his men.
“He’s really upset,” Laban shook his head.
“All our escorts are,” I replied, watching a horsemen flick his whip at a bystander.
Absalom looked over at me with a frown. “I’ve never seen Romans carry on like that!”
“I have,” I sighed, recalling my own experience. “During my journey from the Galilean Cohort, when they found out I was a Jew, they teased me about my diet and mutilated part. That’s another issue. I heard that optio’s line before, many times. Of course, not all of them are like that. I was treated well by a few Romans. Some of them are decent men.”
“I’ve known a few.” Laban looked back thoughtfully.
“Well, he’s not one of them,” Absalom jabbed his finger. “He’s a Jew-hater. I’ve seen his kind before.”
“Perhaps,” I reflected with a shrug, “but you can’t blame those men who rounded up those Greeks. The men who’ll be crucified today were angry because of conscription. The Jews of Tarsus, like those everywhere, won’t fight. They’re exempt from serving in Caesar’s legion.”
Both Absalom and Laban nodded in agreement. I lowered my voice so that only they could hear. “I’ve given this much thought. Here’s how I see it. Since Jews are being protected by Rome and won’t fight for it, it’s understandable why men, who do have to fight, don’t like them. I would resent this myself. I’m sure you agree.”
“I suppose,” Absalom raised an eyebrow, “but that’s our job.”
“Right, we get paid for it,” Laban snorted, “but I see your point: they’re slackers and cowards.”
“That was just one reason Romans and Greeks don’t like them.” I then raised a second finger. “They’re also snobs, yet reap the rewards of wealth and power, many of them living like patricians in their fine houses. Considering our strict laws, Jews must shun aspects of Roman and Greek culture they consider tainted. Pagan religion, unclean food, and crude amusement are out of bounds. This snobbery is seen as unreasonable to soldiers especially, since they have to fight for Rome and pay homage to their gods.”
“It’s also a matter of common respect,” Absalom decided. “Recently, I saw one of our people spit on a statue. It was of a town notable, not even a god. The young fool could have been arrested or given a good drubbing if caught.”
I thought about this a moment. “I recall an incident in which such a slight almost caused a riot—all because of hotheads in our town. My brothers James and Joseph’s friends deliberately provoked the Romans guarding Nazareth. They were beaten by our guards. My father interceded and almost got a drubbing himself.”
I looked around guardedly at the escorts alongside of us. “Those men are no different than other soldiers,” I confided discreetly. “Romans are annoyed by our peculiarities and our invisible god, but our religion and diet don’t bother them nearly as much as our actions. Sometimes it’s not just physical reactions from Jews, it’s the very expressions on their faces.”
“Like hatred?” Absalom turned around in his saddle. “I’ve seen that before. Everywhere I go. It’s worse down south.”
“Yes, hatred,” I inclined my head, “and revulsion and shock.”
“Like Elisha’s reaction to you,” observed Laban with a chuckle. “I can see it in those folks’ eyes.” He pointed to a few recognizable Jews alongside the road. “The Romans have just saved them from the Greeks, yet there’s not a smile among them!”
“Humph, they’re in shock,” Absalom grunted. “Those Greeks tried to burn them out.”
I studied their faces a moment. “I see hatred for Romans in the Greeks too, especially in the youths. They’re the ones who start trouble. For the Jews, however, it’s always been there. In spite of Rome’s efforts to appease them, after giving them a privileged status, which exempt them from conscription and protects their religious freedom, Jewish hotheads revolted several times in Judea and Galilee. In other words, some Jews will fight if it means killing Romans and overthrowing their rule.” “How one-sided is that?” I asked sarcastically, extending three digits from my hand.” “Cause number three, and the most important,” I said, watching a legionnaire gallop by to scold a heckler, “the Romans fear Jewish hatred. How many times have radicals made things worse for other us? I’ve lived all my life in Galilee and have personally seen how unreasonable they are. The most recent uprising was small in comparison to Judah’s rebellion, and yet our town required Roman protection like the Jewish quarter in Tarsus does against the Greeks—this time from our own people! Like that optio, who talked to Zared so disrespectfully, most of Nazareth’s guards had little respect for the town elders and ordinary people—all because of that few.”
“It’s hard to believe we’re still the chosen people.” Absalom sighed.
I smiled sadly, replying, “The Pharisees and scribes believe we’re being tested as we have been tested throughout our history, and someday when the Messiah comes we’ll be back on top.”
“I find this hard to accept,” insisted Absalom. “The Joshua you told us about was an Israelite, not a Jew. We’re not the same people now.”
“The Gentiles have ruled us for a very long time.” I said reflectively. “Most of our people have accepted their plight. The Romans are merely irritated with our habits and ways. It’s that minority you see in the crowd—the few, who try to speak for the masses that are worrisome. No matter how much trouble it brings us, the hotheads amongst us will push Rome too far,” “and bam!” I socked my fist, “down will come the boot!”
“He’s got this all figured out, doesn’t he?” Laban looked back at Absalom
“Aye,” Absalom said with mirth, “not only Jews but those Gentiles as well.”
“It’s perfectly plain.” I held up three digits again. “There are three main reasons why Romans and other Gentiles hate Jews: they’re troublemakers, they have privileges other people’s don’t have, and they think they’re better than them.”
“Fear, jealousy, and resentment,” Absalom snapped his fingers, “—a deadly brew.”
“You have said it,” I quoted Jesus oft said expression. “One day Rome will grow weary and crush us all!”
“It’d be nice if that Messiah came soon,” Laban said light-heartedly, “we need a deliverer, but until then, I’m minding my own business.”
“Me too!” I sighed.
“At any rate,” Absalom chuckled, “let’s not hold our breaths.”
A strange, light-headed feeling came over me, that I know now as illumination. One day, I would understand fully, beyond my own eloquence, what that word, Messiah, bantered about really meant. For now, I agreed fully with my carefree friends. I was still only eighteen during the last days of my odyssey, and yet I had done what few men would do in a lifetime. After being given my education by a renowned rabbi, I had talked my parents and oldest brother into letting me strike out on my own. I had befriended and fought with both Gentiles and Jews. I understood what it meant to be a Jew, but I also understand the Gentile’s mind. I was gratified to find out that there were other Jews who had little in common with our stiff-necked people and, like me, cared not a wit about the details of the law.
During our journey to Antioch, I saw my benefactor only a few times. For the remainder of our trip, I was shunned by the Pharisee and his friends. At the beginning of our flight, which in fact it was, I was comforted by my friendship with Elisha’s guards.
The procession through the Jewish quarter was peaceful enough. The residents of the Jewish quarter were not happy with the attitude of their protectors, who cursed them and threatened them with whips, but they must have understood the Romans were here for their own protection. When we reached the Greek portion of Tarsus, the hecklers came out in force. The optio must have sent word to headquarters. Within the hour, reinforcements arrived to clear the road ahead. As in the Jewish quarter, the optio scolded the hecklers, this time threatening them with swords and spears. The vilest insults were shouted from townsmen along each side of the street, but it was those fool-hearty men, who threw rocks and rotten fruit that brought swift retribution from the horsemen.
“Bring those men up,” the optio screamed. “I will make examples of those agitators.”
My heart was pounding loudly. My poor mule had been pelted with rotten fruit, and Absalom had been hit in the arm with a rock.
“What are they going to do?” I whispered to Laban.
“I know what I’m going to do!” he exclaimed drawing his sword.
“Put that away.” Absalom turned in his saddle. “Let them do their job. The Romans have zero tolerance for this sort of thing. This going to be bloody.”
Before he was even finished talking, horsemen rode directly into the mulling crowds, knocking down onlookers as they rooted out two of the men who had been spotted throwing rocks. Dragging them rudely to the front of the procession, which we witnessed because of the bend of the road, the optio barked out an order: “take them to the other men awaiting punishment!” Wisely, to avoid a riot, he refrained from having the men flogged, yet turned to those protesting the arrests, shouting in a loud voice, “Let this be a lesson to all of you. If you don’t break it up and go home, you’ll suffer the full of weight of Roman justice.” “Sallust,” he called a guard, “when I give the signal, ride to the fort. Tell the prefect the citizens are rebelling and we need more men—a full cohort this time.”
This announcement had an immediate effect on those with earshot of his voice. Notwithstanding hothead Jews, most subjects knew when the Romans meant business. We were relieved to see the crowd begin to disperse, but I would be glad to put Tarsus behind us once and for all.
“Will they be crucified, like the others?” I looked apprehensively at Laban.
“I don’t know,” he shrugged, re-sheathing his sword. “They’ll crucify the men who set fires. That’s the Roman punishment for fire-raisers.”
Absalom glanced back with a scowl. “They might just nail them up too. I’ll be glad when we’re out of this stinking town!”
As we approached the city limits that moment, I looked over at Absalom. “I hope they don’t abandon us. We need an escort through all of this province. They conscripted everywhere in Cilicia.”
“Damn foolish idea,” he grumbled.
“It’s made it worse for everybody,” I replied anxiously, “Roman, Greek, and Jews.”
When we passed the milestone for Tarsus, I was greatly relieved. The additional men returned to the garrison, but our escort continued in full force. Suddenly I was very tired. The urgency I had felt earlier after my dreams about Jesus working the carpenter’s shop alone then him quarreling with Joseph and Simon, had been replaced by my resolve.... It might take awhile but I was going home!
“Greeks have always hated Jews.” I said, drowsily, “Gamaliel, my teacher in Nazareth, told us that men born in Tarsus and other imperial cities are Roman citizens. For those conscripts born in other towns in Cilcia, this isn’t true. Like other provincials, except the Jews, they are not regular soldiers; they’re auxilia. I rode with several of them. They’re bitter men. They’re paid less and treated with less respect, and yet they have to serve twenty-five years before they can retire, whereas citizen soldiers have to serve only sixteen.”
“Humph,” grunted Laban. “That’s one reason to mutiny. They should be mad at the Romans too!”
Absalom pivoted in his saddle, smiling grimly. “Oh, they’re mad at the Romans, and the Romans are mad at us for getting them into this mess.”
“Hah,” snorted Laban, “mostly, they’re scared. Can’t blame’em. They’re sitting targets on their mounts.”
“So are we!” Absalom raised an eyebrow. “Roman infantrymen are safer than auxilia. Our escorts know that. I’ve seen soldiers lock their shields together and mow down their enemies, while the cavalry are picked off one by one. Those citizens of Tarsus are lucky they didn’t face that.”
“Never saw it, just heard about it.” I emitted a yawn. “.... A gang of murdering thieves were terrorizing Galilee. I’m thankful the Romans protected our town. I trust them more than I do Syrians and Greeks.”
“I don’t trust any of them.” Laban made a face.
“It’s a cruel circle.” I said reflectively. “The Greeks are upset with the Romans because of the levy. The Romans are mad at the Greeks for making trouble and mad at us because we made the Greeks upset. But the Greeks have always resented our special status with Rome, and most Roman soldiers have resented this too. Even if there hadn’t been a problem in Tarsus, they’re both upset with the Jews. We can’t win.”
“I see your point, Thaddeus,” Absalom nodded. “I didn’t know auxilia were treated so badly in the legions, but those Greeks were stupid for running amuck. The smart thing to do would be to leave town beforehand or slip away during the march—not go on the rampage. Now they might be crucified as examples to other troublemakers. How stupid is that?”
“I’d rather take an arrow rather than get hung up on a cross.” Laban shuddered.
“The question is,” I directed my voice to Absalom, “are these men going to ride a ways with us—at least to the next province.”
“I don’t know.” He shook his head. “They’re under orders. We’ll know soon enough.”
In a city which Elisha had wanted to visit on the way back to Antioch, but which we passed through this hour, it was quiet at first. Absalom’s warning, “we’ll know soon enough,” hung in my mind. For several moments, we lapsed into silence conscious of the escorts’ fidgety movements, wondering when they would turn back and leave us alone on the road. By the time the roadside was filled with onlookers, we were halfway through the town. After several moments, after riding through hostile clumps of townsmen who had not heard the warning given in Tarsus, then hearing the optio repeat almost the same words at each hot spot, our nerves were jangled. In the countryside travelers moving in the opposite direction glared at our procession, but said nothing. When a group of young men, being escorted by Roman guards, passed by in the opposite direction, our escorts raised their spears in salute.
“Nasty business, eh Clodius?” the optio called out.
“Aye,” Clodius replied, shaking his whip, “all because of that trouble on the border.” “Half of these scurvy dogs will turn and run when they get the chance.”
“Rome never rests,” the optio laughed, glancing back at the procession. “A while back in Galilee they were having trouble with Jews. I pulled duty escorting a mess of them out of town.”
Clodius studied our procession as they rode past. “Whoa,” he exclaimed, looking into the carriage, “got yourself a rich one! Who’re those other fellows—his slaves?”
The optio looked back us, snarling with disdain. “Not slaves,” he grunted, shaking his head, “guards—more Jews. Can you believe it? Killed themselves of bunch of Greeks in Tarsus. They’re lucky we’re not nailing them up!”
As they chatted a spell, the contingent surrounding the conscripted Greeks sat restlessly on their mounts. The Romans were in no mood for mutiny. The unfortunate conscripts dare not utter a word. Several of them were bruised and bleeding with bandages on their heads. Clodius and our optio discussed Rome’s problem with the Parthians a few moments as the two processions halted on the road. I gathered from their brief conversation that this was a serious matter. I wanted no part of it. When we had resumed the march, an hour slipped by, and a second batch of the levy under guard passed by without incident. Fields of wheat and orchards in this rich province sat unattended as we rode unmolested toward Syria. Except for the bark of a dog in the distance and crows flying overhead, there was an unsettling peace. It was, both Absalom and Laban observed, too quiet. Unable to avoid Cilician cities that sat beside the highway leading south, our procession had encountered its first hostile gazes since leaving Tarsus in the last town, and yet, because of the presence of Roman legionnaires and auxilia everywhere, not one townsmen dare heckle us after the optio gave them a short, abbreviated version of his previous speech. It appeared as if greater Cilicia would not become another problem area as had Galilee; at least this is what the optio told his men. It seemed as if our concern that we might encounter Roman and Jew haters on the road seemed unfounded. The one exception seemed to make a mockery of our fears. An old man and his wife appeared by the roadside and cursed the Romans for taking their sons. Laughing wickedly, the optio rode into the wheat field to chase them away. It was a playful gesture this time, however. Everyone laughed as the elderly couple ran like the furies back to their farm. Cracking his whip, the optio, reared up on his white horse, then galloped back onto the road. Remembering an old dream of mine of having such a horse, I sighed with contentment, as I patted my mule, knowing I wouldn’t trade him for the finest steed.
We spoke very little as we listened to the Romans tell bawdy jokes, many of them aimed at us, wondering if they would abandon us when we reached Syria. Though most of the citizens in Cilicia hated both the Romans and the Jews, Absalom reassured us that we would be much safer in Syria where Greeks and Jews behaved themselves and the imperial garrison ruled with an iron fist. I almost laughed at his statement after recalling the problems Galilee had in the past.
Normally, considering the mettle of Elisha’s guards, I wouldn’t have been worried, but now, because of the unrest in Cilicia, even Absalom, Laban, and the other guard were nervous. The landscape changed gradually from farms and groves of trees interspersed with gentle hillocks to rocky terrain, with forests of cedar and oak and running streams—a perfect place for an ambush, Laban reminded us. We had taken only two brief stops to rest our mounts, refill our flasks at communal wells, and eat a frugal meal. The further we moved from Tarsus, the less did we fear trouble. The dark, hostile looks transformed gradually to curious or simply unfriendly expressions, until at a town close to the border of Cilicia a handful of villagers we encountered gave us inquisitive frowns but mostly blank, disinterred stares. During our travel I didn’t have a chance to talk to Elisha nor did any of the guards. Even during our rest stops, he and his friends retreated to a hastily set up tent from whence he sent word that they didn’t want to be disturbed. He was still angry and in shock over our bloodlust, even though we fought to save their necks. When we finally stopped, it was evening, and we had just passed an important milestone: Syria. Nearby there was an imperial station, but none of us planned to trade our mounts. The Romans, who never become attached to their horses or mules as we Jews, made the exchange. They also took provisions, which they begrudgingly shared with us. That night, after the tents were set up around a fire pit filled with burning logs, both Roman sentries and Jewish guards, stood watch in shifts, as we bedded down. Absalom advised me not to attempt communication with Elisha until he was ready. I was too exhausted to really care.
That night I had another dream about Jesus working in the shop, but this time, as I hovered about the scene as a phantom, I saw a face I had not seen in my dreams for many months: Tabitha. She looked out at of the shop, as if she saw me, but when I called to her she looked away with a sad look on her small face.
“Tabitha, it’s me Jude,” I shouted.
“No,” another familiar voice replied, “you are Thaddeus Judaicus. Your hands are covered in blood.”
Looking around toward the road, I saw my old friend Uriah. My mother, other brothers, and sisters appeared, as I looked toward the house—all frowning at me and shaking their heads. Nowhere in my dream, however, did I see my father. Jesus smiled at me, however, and, with no malice in his calm gaze, said, “I need you little brother. Come home Jude!” The words jolted me awake as I lay in the darkened tent. He had said I need you, not we need you? Was Papa ill...or worse? I pushed that thought from my mind. What did any of my silly dreams mean? If something had happened to my father wouldn’t I have seen it in my dreams? This could also mean something good, I told myself, as I sat there on my pallet. What if the business was going well or, at the very least, a large order had come in, which required everyone to pitch in, even Tabitha...Then again, I thought, feeling the chill of doubt, why was Jesus working alone in my dream? This implied that my brothers weren’t helping Jesus and that something had happened to our father.
I realized, as I tried to go back asleep, that the camp was too quiet. Neither a bird nor a cricket could be heard.... Something was going to happen. Mischief seemed to be afoot. Springing up, my hand gripping my sword, I awakened Laban. Because we couldn’t trust the Roman sentries, Absalom was on watch with some of the other guards, so I awakened the remaining men in the tent.
I knew what was happening. As we emerged near the smoldering fire, I looked through the smoke and saw Absalom and the other guards standing there gazing at the road. It was not quite dawn. The sun was just breaking over the distant hills. The Romans had ridden away quietly in the dark.
“They stole away like jackals,” one of the guards grumbled.
“Well, we’re in Syria.” Laban shrugged.
“Yes, they fulfilled their bargain.” I sighed.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Absalom said with disgust. “We watched them leave. Good riddance. At least they didn’t try to steal our horses and mules.”
After walking over to check the animals, Laban tossed dried brush into the ring and stoked the embers of the fire. Elisha, his attendants, and his servants were stirring in the other tents. Now that dawn was imminent, the guards decided to break camp. Immediately, upon Absalom’s signal, they took down the goatskin tents, fed and watered the animals, and saddled their mounts even before our morning meal. While Elisha, Jacob, and Nedinijah ate their cheese, bread, and dates in the Pharisee’s tent, the guards, servants, and I shared our provisions around the fire. After a jolt of wine from one of the guards, my tongue was loosened, so I shared my thoughts with the men.
“When I awoke I was afraid it might be an ambush. This happened to me at an imperial station in Galilee. That’s when I killed all those men. I’m glad it wasn’t an attack. I’ve had enough of killing. I don’t know if I’ll be able to tell my family about what I did. Strangely enough, though, I think Jesus will forgive me.”
“Oh yes, the miracle worker,” Laban said sarcastically. “If he had been there he would have turned them all into stone.”
I was disappointed that he didn’t believe my account of Jesus’ miracles, but touched that he remembered one of the stories I told to the guards.
“Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt, not stone,” I explained politely. “Her sin,” I added slyly, “was that she didn’t believe.”
“Believe what?” Absalom asked, taking two long swigs from the flask.
“The Lord!” I cocked an eyebrow. “Don’t you remember Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed and how God warned Lot and his family not to look back?”
“Oh yes, I like that one,” he replied, wiping his mouth. “It’s one of my favorites.”
“Tell me, Jude,” Laban gave me a challenging look, “do you believe Jesus got his power from God?”
I was hoping no one brought this subject up. This troublesome question had been debated even by members of my family. When I told the guards about Jesus miracles during our journey to Tarsus, all of them had registered looks of disbelief. My Jewish companions were no more gullible than my Roman friends.
“I can’t answer your question.” I exhaled nervously. “I’ve told you what I saw Jesus do with my own eyes. I won’t blame you if you don’t believe.”
“That’s good, Thaddeus” Laban said, taking the flask, “because I don’t. None of us do. Mind you, I’d like to, I really would, but I don’t believe in miracle workers. Maybe someday our deliverer will have god-like powers, but not a carpenter from Nazareth.”
“Nazareth?” grumbled one of the guards. “I’ve heard of that town. What good could come out of Nazareth?”
One day I would hear Bartholomew, the oldest disciple, say such an outrageous thing. Looking back now, I realize that the difference was I didn’t know, myself, who Jesus was then. Nevertheless, I bristled with irritation that moment. Not only did these men think I was a liar but they had little respect for my town. Prudently this time, I changed the subject, which suited them just fine.
“How long do you think it will take to reach Antioch?” I asked, looking around at the group.
“That depends,” Absalom answered thoughtfully. “We were riding more quickly than normal because of the escorts. Now we’re on our own. Elisha may slow down the pace and have us take more breaks. It depends upon the caravan master.”
“Caravan master,” I pondered, “is that what he’s called? It almost makes us sound like slaves.”
Several of the guards laughed sourly. Absalom and Laban smiled wryly at me as I took another swig from the flask being passed around the ring. It must have been the wine talking. The wine skin was almost empty. As we chatted in muted tones, the guards, who appeared to have an uncertain future themselves, seemed also to be tipsy. For several moments before Elisha and his friends made their appearance, we discussed, in good humor, what lie ahead. “Would there be anymore troublemakers on the road?” and “What was going to happen to Elisha’s guards if he retires?” were the most important questions discussed around the fire. Though I was worried about trouble on the road, I had nothing to say about their futures. They were all good men. I hoped they would all find employment as guards elsewhere, but I couldn’t imagine any of them fitting into the Jewish community I grew up with. What was going to happen to them? I wondered, as I thought about Elisha’s views. If they had lived during our bloody, warlike past they would fit right in, but how could our current religion accept Jews who fought for pay? They were mercenaries—hired swords.... But then, I realized with a shudder, I had blood on my hands too.
When Elisha appeared in the dawn light by the fire, he startled us. The glow of the sun breaking through the trees bathed his whiskers, cap, and raiment with golden light, giving him an unearthly, celestial look. In the background the servants were dismantling the remaining tents and Jacob and Nedinijah were discussing something with Eden, the coachmen. Without a speech or explanation of any kind, he pointed to the horses and mules, who were saddled and ready, and told the nearest guard to prepare for travel, not knowing we already were. The fire was doused and the camp was left, as it was when we arrived at the imperial station. Unlike the last stations I had visited, no one came out to greet us or bid us goodbye, perhaps because we were Jews rather than Romans. When we were back on the highway south, our spirits were high. I knew I would have a headache from the wine but I felt safe and secure in this group. Soon, I reminded myself, I would on the road to Galilee.... I was going home.