I was trapped by the truth, a victim this time of my own success. A voice inside me, perhaps the Spirit of the Lord, told me I must go home, and yet my ambition, guided by Satan, wanted me to stay. After passing between two young tribunes with snarls on their boyish faces, I found myself in the chamber of Plautus Junius Aurelianus, the Prefect of the Antioch Cohort. Inexplicably, the prefect, himself, was momentarily absent from the room. In an antechamber, the prefect was distracted in his conversation with another officer, who bore the rank of primus pilus—first centurion, as Longinus did in Galilee.
Marcellus took this opportunity to whisper into my ear, “Do you want me to tell them what I just heard?”
“No.” I answered promptly. “.... I’m very tired.”
“Good,” he murmured, as the two tribunes craned their ears, “Caesar had men to cover for him. You, who would be a scribe, have only yourself on the march. Such a lapse might even prove to be your death.”
Moving quickly into his chambers with the primus pilus at his side, Aurelian stood appraising me, while the larger, darker man, stood stiffly aside a confused look playing on his face.
“Before we begin,” he handed me a detailed map, “I want you to memorize these locations. I heard rumors about you, Thaddeus, but I must see this for myself.”
“Very well,” I took the scroll casually, “this is easy compared to a document. I will duplicate it on another scroll if you please.”
After a brief period, I handed the map back to him. I took the quill and inkwell offered by a servant, drew a close facsimile of the map on a blank sheet, then handed it pertly to the prefect.
“There,” I said with a crooked smile, “a squiggle here and squiggle there. Nothing to it sir!”
The two men studied my effort, comparing it to the original map, then, in apparent denial, the prefect threw the map down and handed me a scroll from a shelf nearby. It was a copy of Caesar’s battle campaigns in Gaul.
“Latin, my second favorite language,” I replied glibly, “how many pages do you wish me to memorize.”
“This is amazing sir,” the centurion muttered under his breath, “not only did he include the rivers, landmarks, and roads, but he included all of your notes in the margin and spelled everything perfectly, foreign names even I stumble over.”
“All Gaul is divided into three parts,” I began quoting Caesar, after setting down the scroll. “One of first part belongs to the Belgae, the second part includes the Aquitani, and the third are called the Gauls—”
“All right,” Aurelian snapped his finger impatiently, “that’s quite enough. I never liked that boring work, but it’s required reading.” “All right,” he sighed in resignation, “you do in fact have a perfect memory.” “I’ve heard rumors about you, Thaddeus,” he said drumming his fingers on his desk. “Commodus, my first centurion, has told me what is circulating in the ranks now. One of them, a big Thracian auxilia, referred to you as the Reaper—a strange name for a slight fellow like you. While assigning a work detail for the roads, Commodus also met with one of the survivors of that dreadful ordeal in the desert, a fellow named Aulus, who seemed reluctant to corroborate the gossip given by the auxilia that were there. He could have been retired by now and on his plot of land, but he stayed on to make sure you were safe. It’s his opinion that you should return to your family. Marcellus is of the same frame of mind, which seems peculiar after the praise they both gave me about you. Your memory is a very valuable commodity in the army, Thaddeus. I’m very impressed with what I’ve heard, especially from the lips of my first soldier, but I’m concerned about your falling sickness. Many people consider this to be a divine illness, but it can be a liability. Another rumor I heard from Commodus is that, after less than an hours training, you killed six men. That other stuff I heard from my men—you’re ability to comport yourself in battles, survival in the desert, and, from Marcellus, your exploits with that rich merchant are impressive. No one can deny your qualifications as a soldier. I am however, more impressed with your mind. The mind, after all, is our most important weapon.” “The question is, lad,” his voice lowered, “is this what you really want? I see doubt on your face. I might even call it wisdom.”
I did the only thing I could do without throwing my dream away altogether; I equivocated.
“I want to follow my ambition sir. I think I could be a great asset to the legions. But a greater voice calls me—I think it’s God—”
“Oh yes,” interrupted Aurelian, “I heard about that. You’re talking about the Jewish god, aren’t you—the one you associated with the unknown god.” “Only the Greeks would think of that.” He uttered a sour laugh. “Please continue,” he directed, snapping his fingers.
Momentarily shaken by his disclosure, yet pleased with the chance to prove myself, I tried gathering my wits as he watched me squirm.
“It’s not just my god,” I replied carefully, “I understand that Rome recognizes all gods, but if I forsake my family in their hour of need, what kind of soldier would I be? Perhaps, if I hadn’t had my dream, I wouldn’t hesitate. As it is, I go to a greater calling.”
“Humph,” he said with a frown, “for your god or your or family? What greater calling is there than serving Rome?”
I felt trapped by his question. I didn’t want to appear indecisive. If I answered “Rome,” I was contradicting what I just said. On the other hand, if I insisted on the importance of my god and family, I would be sent away. My better half wanted to go home, and yet I was tempted to stay. Dropping my eyes to the floor, a suspicious action that Jesus had warned me against when answering a question, I was torn between the two alternatives. Aurelian gave me a thoughtful look when I looked up, motioning with the flurry of his hands for everyone else to leave the room. That moment after Marcellus, the First Centurion, and two tribunes exited his chambers, we were alone. The question I left unanswered, hung thickly in the air.
“I hadn’t heard about your dream,” Aurelian pursed his lips. “Tell me about it.”
“Oh dear,” I groaned, “...the dream.”
“Yes,” he barked, “don’t be wavering, lad—out with it!”
I related, as briefly as possible, my vision about Jesus working in the shop alone then gave my interpretation of the dream. The meaning was simple: I must go home and assume my duties in the family business.
“Did Jesus ask you to come home?” he asked, motioning for me to sit down.
I could scarcely believe what was happening. Descending into a cushioned chair very similar to the ones in Samuel the Pharisee’s house, I felt deeply honored that he was talking to me casually, man-to-man. I understood, from my own experiences, that this informality by such an important host displayed the greatest respect. Furthermore, I realized, as a servant brought us both mugs of wine, that Aurelian was actually talking to me as an equal.
“Jesus would never ask me to return,” I answered finally. “It was he who sent my on my mission in the first place.”
“Mission? What sort of mission?” inquired the prefect, taking a swig of wine. “I thought you wanted to be a soldier scribe.”
“Oh yes,” I gave way to enthusiasm, “I dearly wanted that. Ibrim called me that name. Jesus tried to make the best of my goal for my parents’ sake, by giving me a special task…”
Aurelian cocked an eyebrow. The words caught in my throat. I took a gulp of wine, as he waited for me to explain. The wine took hold of me and made me bolder.
“All right, here goes,” I took another sip.” “Jesus wanted me to learn the heart of the Gentile,” the words flew carelessly out of my mouth. “I think he was disappointed that I wanted to join the legions,” “and yet,” I struggled with a burst of revelation, “it was part of a plan, my destiny...perhaps his own.”
“That doesn’t make sense, Thaddeus.” His eyebrows knit together. “What sort of destiny do you think you have? And your brother, what does he mean by “plan?” Clarify this please.”
“It’s difficult to explain,” I responded, draining my mug, “I have learned much about the Gentile mind. In many ways I don’t think they’re different than Jews, yet this must be what Jesus meant when he instructed me to learn their heart. He never explained to me how it would fit into a plan or what exactly my destiny would be.... He speaks strangely at times, so I gave it no more thought, until now.”
“Strange, very strange indeed. Tell me about this Jesus,” he said in an offhand manner. “Aulus told me that you have great respect for your brother. Why is he so different from other men?”
“.... How do I begin?” I searched for words.
This question had haunted me all my life, and now, here, in the Prefect of the Antioch Cohort’s chamber, I was tempted to tell him everything that I had held back from my Roman and auxilia friends.
“You hesitate, Thaddeus,” he said, motioning for the servant to pour me more wine, “... I won’t be angry with you for telling the truth. I can always tell when someone is lying—by his gaze and the way he fidgets with hands. Why are you afraid to tell me about your brother? What are you holding back?”
His gaze locked upon me. Without hesitation now, I gave the prefect a summary of the Jesus I knew as a child and as a youth. From the moment when my oldest brother released the sparrow from his hands after bringing it back to life, through the dark hours when his prayers caused the skies to open in Nazareth in order to quench the fire set to Mariah’s house, through the letters about his journey with Joseph of Arimathea that recorded wondrous events, until those quiet years when he settled down as a carpenter and occasionally said strange and incredible things, I painted a picture with my tongue of a child, youth, and young man, that, if I had not been in denial and understood the prophecies better, would lead to no other conclusion. To the prefect, a practical minded and irreligious Roman, of course, my words caused immediate mirth.
“Ho, ho, you rascal,” he laughed, raising his mug, “you dare tell a Roman prefect such a tale. If Cornelius had heard that story, he would never have let you go. He would’ve called you mad.” “Are you mad, Thaddeus?” His expression suddenly darkened. “Is this your way of squirming out of a job—make the prefect think your mad?”
“No, no,” I sputtered, “I-I wouldn’t make that up. You asked me to tell you the truth, and I told you the truth. Even Cornelius knows Jesus is special. Ask anyone in Nazareth whether or not Jesus made it rain. Most of them who heard him speak, think he’s touched by God.”
“There’s that word again,” Aurelian waved irritably, “God. There are many gods, Thaddeus. I don’t believe in any of them. Are you trying to tell me that your brother is divine?”
I wanted to say “Yes” that moment, but that would be going too far for the prefect, so I shook my head, and began fidgeting again with my hands.
“Ah hah, caught you again!” He pointed accusingly, a smile belying his words. “Look me in the eyes, lad. What you meant to say was Yes—am I correct? Jesus must be a demigod at least after performing the miracles he did.” “Of course,” he added dismissively, “I don’t believe a word of it, but it’s quite a tale!”
I could tell that the prefect was slightly tipsy, and so was I. Laughing hysterically, I nodded obliquely. “I’m sorry you don’t believe me sir, but it’s true; Jesus isn’t like other men.”
“Well,” he stood up abruptly, “I’m certain that’s true, but we’ve gone off the subject, Thaddeus. The question is simple: do you still have the same goal from that first day you set out with Decimus and his men?”
“Well, yes.” I said, rising shakily, “but it’s not that simple sir. I explained my dilemma to you. I will regret it till my dying day, and yet I must go home.”
“Very well,” he said, gripping his fingers behind his back and pacing the floor, “I respect your wisdom. I wish I could’ve had a son like you. But you’re a peculiar young man.”
“You’re very kind,” I muttered faintly.
Trying not to fidget anymore and look at the floor, I felt overwhelmed by the implications of everything the Aurelian had just said. Stopping at one point to drain his mug, he walked around the desk and placed an arm on my shoulder.
“First let me say that, even if I had not heard about your exploits or that fantastic story, I think it’s extraordinary that a Jew would want to serve in the legion. It’s frankly unheard of in the army. I know that you weren’t lying about Jesus either. You believe in his divinity. That’s troubling, but it’s another matter. The question is, after hearing all this from men I trust and admire, do I let someone like you walk out of my life?”
“Uh, I dunno sir,” I blushed as he stood there, looking into my eyes. “I feel torn...I wish Jesus was here right now to tell me what to do.”
“I’d like to talk to this fellow,” he said with a grin, “but you mustn’t depend on someone else’s blessing. You have to make your own decisions, Thaddeus, based upon what’s right for you.” “The fact is,” he added, dropping his arm and moving back behind his desk, “you’re too young to be a soldier scribe. Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper—how preposterous! Come back when you’ve finished helping your family’s business—in, let’s say a year or so when your conscience is not prickled my indecision and your mind’s clear.” “Remember what I told you, Thaddeus,” he added thoughtfully, as he rang the bell on his desk, “you’re the master of your destiny, no one else. I’m a career soldier in Caesar’s army. If not in the East, I shall serve in the west. I can wait!”
Rummaging around his desk, he found a small scroll that had already been prepared but was unsigned. “Here,” he murmured as he stamped his insignia on the document as his aides entered the room, “I wrote this down after considering Aulus’ words. All I needed was an interview with you to make up my mind. When you’re ready, go to the Galilean Fort and present this to the prefect.”
“I don’t know what to say,” I said huskily, tears gathering in my eye. “I can go home and help my brother, but I can still come back?”
“That’s what I said,” he replied, reaching out to grip my forearm. “Don’t lose that scroll. You have a future on my staff if you choose.”
“Thank you sir,” I bowed, giddy with excitement.
“And Thaddeus,” he said snapping fingers, “Aulus explained your change of name, which he and Decimus felt would help you to fit into the army. Suspecting what I had in mind, he decided to come clean. Perhaps he thought it might eliminate you from service so you might safely go home, but I think he trusted me to make up my mind. I’m not like some of my peers, Thaddeus. I judge a man by his worth, not his race. You can use that other name if you wish, but I wrote your real name on the scroll. Be proud of whom you are. Your parents are lucky to have such a son!”
The two tribunes, who had never been properly introduced to me, now stood at attention in the chamber. I would learn one day that they were aristocratic youth sent by patrician parents in order to perform their military service before settling down in Roman society. Aurelian, like many officers, who worked their way up through the ranks, had contempt for such dandies, and yet he had treated me almost as an equal. Arriving that moment after a short delay, as I stood beaming foolishly in front of his desk, was Quintus Marcellus, who saluted the prefect smartly as had the tribunes. I backed up, in imitation of what I saw the tribunes do before, and, slamming my fist to my chest in the military manner, pivoted and followed my friend out the door. When were out of earshot of the prefect’s office, and among my Roman and auxilia friends awaiting the results of my interview with Aurelian, Marcellus began asking me questions.
“How in Zeus did you pull that off, Thaddeus? Did I hear him correctly? Did he offer you a future position on his staff?”
Before I could answer, Fronto lumbered up, a grin spreading across his bearded face, shouting, “Good news, Thaddeus, the first centurion gave us our orders: we’re going back to Galilee. We’re all going home!”
“That’s good to hear!” I exclaimed. “Now look what the prefect gave me!”
Aulus, Rufus, and Ibrim beamed happily as I exhibited the scroll.
“May I see that?” Marcellus reached out.
“Yes, Thaddeus,” Fronto said excitedly, “let’s have a look.”
It seemed unusual that the optios of the fort were absent now. By now, several hundred men were gathered around us in an undisciplined crowd. Carefully untying the ribbon, Marcellus unrolled the small scroll and read it aloud for all to hear.
Plautus Junius Aurelianus, Prefect of the Antioch Cohort
To his friend Julius Arrius Cornelius, Prefect of the Galilean Cohort:
Greetings and salutations:
I have met Judah bar Joseph, whom his friends call Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper, and I’m greatly impressed. Much had happened to him after you sent him north to join the Antioch Cohort. He has proven himself in encounters with renegade auxilia and bandits. Eyewitnesses have recorded his prowess with the sword and javelin and testify to his bravery in battle, but it is his mind that I value the most. Men, whom I trust, claim he has the gift of learning languages and is quick of wit. I personally saw him recreate a complex map that I let him read after glancing over it briefly then tossing it aside. So that he may have swift passage to the Antioch Cohort, I enclose on this scroll my personal seal, for the adventurer known to his associates as Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper, whom you know as Judah bar Joseph, brother of Jesus, the Carpenter of Nazareth, when he is ready for his service to Rome.
Considering the rumors they generated, Fronto, Rufus, and Ibrim thought I might be sworn in immediately upon arriving at the fort, but my auxilia and Roman friends were glad that my plans had been delayed. I wasn’t ready. My first responsibility was helping Jesus in the carpenter shop. Marcellus, Octavius, Sergius, and Nabalus had seen me succumb to the falling sickness and had worried about my fitness to serve, whereas Aulus had thought, from the beginning, that I should return home. The old soldier, even before my first attack, had made this decision. And yet all eight men seemed pleased and congratulated me on receiving the scroll. Though proud of their praise, I doubted that I would be using it soon.
That night I stayed in the visitor’s barracks with my Roman escorts, and Aulus and my auxilia friends returned one last time to their quarters in the fort. It was necessary to rest our mounts and make preparations for the journey south. A requisition document given to us by the first centurion would provide us with supplies for the next morning. In spite of the Roman military custom of changing mounts at every station, I would be allowed to keep my five mules, four of which would carry light loads of supplies and our military issue tent.
After a hearty stew, which tasted suspiciously like pork, and freshly baked bread, we finished our wine and turned in for the evening. I would much rather have spent the evening with my old friends. Octavius, Sergius, and Nabalus were cordial to me, but only Marcellus engaged me in further conversation as the four of us lie on our pallets.
“Had I not known better, Thaddeus,” he remarked with a yawn, “I might think you were a demigod. Hercules started out like you. He was, according to the Greeks, once a mortal, who did miraculous deeds. I heard that from one of the tribunes in Fabius’ staff. Of course, it’s all nonsense. There are no gods, only lying priests. That said, I don’t think even Hercules performed some of your feats.”
“Which ones?” I asked, sensing mockery in his voice.
“All of them,” he answered with a yawn. “What I heard is incredible. You really impressed Aurelian. You better hope Fabius doesn’t get wind of this. He’ll have you conscripted like those Greeks.”
“Oh, he can’t do that!” I tried making light of it.
“Yes, he could, Thaddeus,” Marcellus said with conviction. “As a famous general, he can do pretty much what he wants.”
“I suppose you’re right.” I sighed uneasily. “He seems like a nice fellow, but the conscription in Cilicia made it that much harder on the Jews.”
“It was necessary.” Marcellus seemed to shrug in the dark. “Pure blooded Roman citizens refrain from serving, sometimes paying men to serve in their places. Even the plebian classes of Italia would rather flee into the country to avoid the levy, which leaves legates such as Fabius to rely on conscription of provincials, even non citizens for the auxilia. Many hungry and unemployed men welcome this opportunity, but not Greek and Syrians, who’re citizens of the empire.”
I was growing sleepy. Marcellus’ deep, resonant voice grew faint, as I dozed off a moment, until I was jerked awake.
“If I were you, Thaddeus,” I heard him say, “I wouldn’t be in the fort when Fabius arrives. If he gets wind of your feats, he might want to talk to you before you depart. In the presence of Aurelian and his attendants, who seem convinced of your feats, it could prove to be awkward. You might wind up as another conscript.”
“Huh, when will he be arriving?” I bolted up into a sitting position.
“Shush, you’ll wake the others!” He laughed softly. “I have a hunch Fabius will make camp on the outskirts of town. That’s generally the custom with marching legions. There’s no room here. We don’t want to upset the locals, especially the citizens. At first light, get up without delay and fetch your friends.”
“What?” I began to panic. “I didn’t see what direction they went in the camp. I don’t even know where they’re at.”
“Calm down.” He reached out to pat my arm. “Ask one of the guards on watch. Wake me before you leave. I’d like to see you off. I also want to be awake in case Fabius pays Aurelian a visit.”
That an eminent general such as Fabius might take an interest in me should be flattering, but the very idea I might lose my freedom like those poor Greeks filled me with dread. Fabius, after all, was marching off to battle fierce Parthian warriors. I had enough of that!
No sooner did I lie back down on my pallet than Marcellus had fallen asleep. I mumbled a prayer then, rolled over on my side, and gradually, in spite of Marcellus’ warning, and the chorus of snores I suffered in our quarters, drifted into a dark, troubling sleep. In my dream this time, as I approached my home in Nazareth, I heard the sound of women wailing. The shop was empty. None of my family members were about, and yet I saw townsmen filing from the street in front of our house and up to the door. There was old Samuel, being assisted by his steward, Aaron the rabbi, Ezra, Naomi and their daughters, and several other neighbors and friends. The sky overhead was dark, and I felt cold. When I began moving toward the house, I moved like a phantom, which was true for many of my dreams. I zoomed up past those at the front of the line, unseen and unheard, and I called out, “Please, tell me. Is this a vision of what is or what will be?” When I entered the house and saw my mother enter my parents’ room, I was fearful and, passing my tearful brothers and sisters, approached the source of their grief slowly with trepidation. I rephrased the question: “Is this prophecy? Can it be undone?” I must have cried out in my sleep. Suddenly, I was awake and Marcellus was shaking my shoulders, cursing me for startling him out of his wits. The other men had jumped up too, and stood glaring at me in the lamplight, muttering in disbelief.
“Thaddeus,” he cried, “you’re lucky my sword wasn’t handy. That was the most awful caterwauling sound!
“Is he daffed?” growled Octavius.
“I had a nightmare...another vision.” I explained, still grappling with the dream.
“A vision is it?” Nabalus grumbled. “Were you being chased by monsters, lad. You scared us half to death.”
“I was back at my home...I think my father was sick, then I woke up—”
“Enough already!” Octavius held up his hand. “We all have nightmares. I dreamed I was being crucified once. What’s worse than that?”
Sergius trotted across the floor and opened the door. “I wonder if a sentry heard you,” he muttered, looking out. “Fortunately, we’re the only ones in these quarters. Some of these fellows get pretty nasty.”
Marcellus sat back down on his pallet, running a hand through his hair. “Let’s get some sleep men,” he uttered, casting me a weary smile. “No more visions, Thaddeus. You’re going to be up bright and early.”
“I’m really sorry, Marcellus,” I said pleadingly. “Please believe me. I’ve had this vision before. It’s the reason I have to go home.”
“Yes, that’s what I gathered,” he replied thoughtfully. “Considering your malady, it’s just as well. If your family’s carpentry business does well enough, you might be freed up for service to Rome. But some things won’t change, Thaddeus. You’ll still have the falling sickness if you report for duty. I’ve seen this sickness firsthand. It’s unpredictable, there’s no warning, and you never know when it’ll occur. On the march or during a battle, it could prove disastrous. It might even cost you your life!”
“That might never happen, Marcellus,” I confessed, staring into space. “...I have this feeling that Jesus has other plans for me. Once I return, I might never see the legions again.”
“Oh you’ll see the legions again,” he reassured me, “Rome’s here to stay. The question is, Thaddeus, where will Aurelian be. That man’s ambitious. He’s a sly one. I’ve seen his kind before.”
“I’m certain,” I said, with forced sincerity, “he’ll forget all about his silly promise. Nazareth’s a long way from Antioch and the imperial fort. ”
“Humph, let’s hope so.” Marcellus slumped wearily onto his pallet. “Now let’s get some sleep.”
“Yes, Thaddeus,” grumbled Octavius, “clear your head of that rubbish. Think of something pleasant before drifting off: a pretty wench, a meadow with deer scampering about or a table set with fine food. No more outbursts!”
Even after Marcellus’ sound logic, I would treasure my scroll. It was, if nothing else, a token of honor, given to me by an imperial prefect. I tossed and turned awhile on my pallet, filled with foolish, stubborn pride. Though I was embarrassed by my outburst, I was much more troubled by its cause. In spite of the premonitions in my dream, I was haunted equally by my journey, still in progress. Who knows what might happen on the road home? For me to fall asleep, Jesus had suggested something different than Octavius’ recommendations. Thinking of girls and fine food, as Octavius proposed, would not work for me. My brother suggested that I perceive, in my mind’s eye, a clear, cloudless sky. It had seemed like a silly idea. How in the blazes could anyone think of such a thing, I thought groggily. It was like concentrating upon nothing, and yet I tried, as I had before, blanking out my thoughts, which is essentially what Jesus meant. The effort gave me a headache this time, so I switched to another dreamscape Jesus finally gave his blessing to: my great white horse. Galloping toward me, without saddle or reins, he continued on his way, and in his place, trotting slowly in the distance, appeared my five mules, signaling my decision to return home. I grew increasingly dowry as I pondered my fate, until I was again fast asleep. Unlike before, however, my head was filled with nonsensical imagery—the sort of dream I needed most that night. Tomorrow was a big day.... I was finally going home!