As Jesus and the other two unfortunate men hung on their crosses, the storm worsened. During crucifixion, a criminal naturally remained hanging on the cross until he was dead. It was obvious that Jesus had died, but the other two men were still alive. Despite Longinus fine words on behalf of Jesus, I hated the Romans then. They might not have accused Jesus and insisted on his execution as had the Sanhedrin, but they carried out his execution and the two thieves with a cruelty I had never seen before. Romans reserved crucifixion, which they considered the most disgraceful way to die, only for slaves, criminals, and revolutionaries (as Jesus allegedly was). It wasn’t about killing a man; it was about killing him in the most horrible way possible. A victim of this barbaric form of execution suffered the maximum amount of pain. Though brutal in its implementation, the breaking of the crucified man’s legs, that was carried out that day on Golgotha, was considered merciful, since it hastened the death of the condemned. For Jesus, who had already expired, a spear was jabbed into his side to confirm that he was dead. Though these measures were considered right and proper by Roman standards, I was revolted that much more.
Of the apostles, only John, who witnessed the entire episode, included these details in his scroll. Unfortunately for the two women, they were witnesses throughout the crucifixion, too. When the Roman soldiers had finished their grisly chores, they looked around self-consciously at us then stared anxiously up at the sky. Lighting flashed overhead, striking the ground here and there, causing us to cringe. Later, we would hear from Nathan, that the temple veil in the most sacred part of the holy of holies was torn. Because of the wind, lightning, and onslaught of rain, we finally retreated from the hill. Several of the soldiers in this grim detail that had wiled away their time as their victims slowly died, gambling on Jesus robe, also fled. Looking back I could see the centurion still standing there gazing up at Jesus’ cross.
The Lord was angry or simply trying to make a point. On these possibilities, the three of us agreed. God didn’t want anyone on the hill. Those moments, as prophecy was fulfilled, Golgotha, the hill of Skulls, was sacred. When we arrived back at Mark’s house, we found, to our surprise, that, along with John and the two Mary’s, all the disciples were assembled in the upper room. When Lazarus and his sisters had heard from them what happened to Jesus, they insisted that the faint-hearted men return and support their shepherd. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary had set an example for them, by going it by themselves at first, until the disciples joined them on the road. Though Martha had insisted that Lazarus, still recuperating after his resurrection, was not up to the trip, Lazarus wanted to be here. Not long after the procession to the hill had begun, they had finally arrived.
There were now, including Mark’s mother, four Mary’s in the room. We weathered the storm together, mostly in silence, congregated on each side of Jesus mother, who remained in deep, unapproachable shock. It was James, reminded us, the Day of Preparation. Tomorrow would be the Sabbath. The Jewish leaders wouldn’t want the bodies left on the crosses during this holy day. Despite James’ observation, as we dealt with our grief, an unspoken question hung in the air.
Mary, mother of Mark, brought us bread, cheese, and wine, but for those moments together in the upper room we had no appetite, so we fasted on Jesus’ behalf, not knowing what tomorrow would bring. The skies had darkened, the wind had blown, and lightning flashed with thunderbolts, as rain drenched the land, but then, just as suddenly as it began, the storm ceased and the sun once again broke through the clouds. That hour, as we discussed what to do with Jesus’ body, three visitors appeared in our midst. After many years away on his travels, Joseph of Arimathea had returned for the Passover. He came without his two sons this time, but brought with him Glychon, one of his bodyguards I remember as a child. Not far behind him, emerging from the stairs, was Nicodemus, carrying a large sack. Entering the crowded upper room, the old men, in their caps, phylacteries and fine clothes, and tall, muscular black guard in light armor were a contrast to the homespun Galilean fabric worn by us. The first thing Joseph and Nicodemus did, of course, was offer their condolences to Jesus’ mother. Looking up with a vacant expression, she nodded faintly. Peter frowned at these representatives of Israel’s religious leaders, as did many of the disciples, but James and I remembered how much Jesus loved these men. Joseph had singled out Jesus long before the Baptist’s call. He came, as a true friend, in an hour of need. For that matter, Nicodemus, who had approached Jesus early in his mission for answers, had done everything he could at Jesus’ trial.
I can’t speak for the others, but Joseph’s and Nicodemus’ timely appearance, coinciding with Joseph’s pilgrimage during the Passover, was balm to my spirit. Not all Pharisees were bad. Joseph of Arimathea had taken our brother along with him on his business trips, offering Jesus a chance to see the Roman world. Like Nicodemus, who sacrificed his friendship with his peers, and that precious few Pharisees we had befriended, Joseph was one of the good ones. Not only did he bring a bag of gold coins for our needs, but he offered his tomb for Jesus body. In the bag he carried, Nicodemus presented us with myrrh and aloe and linen for Jesus burial in the tomb. No one spoke at first. With the exception perhaps of John, who grunted with approval, now that Jesus was dead it didn’t seem to matter to most of the disciples, but James and I were greatly moved. Our mother merely nodded, as did Peter and John. Mary Magdalene turned to Mark’s mother and whispered something into her ear. “Yes, I’ll go,” murmured Mark’s mother. “I will bring my friends to help.” “I will help, too,” our mother spoke, awakening at last. “Once when Jesus was born, three Magis paid us a visit, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh. The gold will be needed for my son’s followers, but the frankincense and myrrh had been saved for this day.”
“Mistress, do not trouble yourself,” Mary Magdalene bent down and kissed her cheek. “Nicodemus brought those items. The Magis’ gifts will be used for the mother of our Lord. We must go quickly before the Sabbath to bury your son.”
Mary Magdalene was now a pillar of strength, as was Mary, the mother of Mark, who had risen above her discomfort with the Galilean rustics in her house. Nathan, who entered the upper room later, after visiting the hill, recommended that the men stay in doors. With the executions completed, Pilate had removed most of the Roman presence on and around the hill. We had little protection out there now. According to Jeremiah, our eyes in the temple, as reported by Nathan, Caiaphas, savoring his victory over the heretic’s faith, was sending his henchmen throughout Jerusalem to root out his followers. What he planned on doing after Pilate washed his hands of this affair was, as Jesus’ crucifixion, quite illegal. He couldn’t publicly execute us without permission from the procurator nor did he dare even make this demand, and yet he wanted to harass us and do us harm. Perhaps, suggested James, since he had little authority in Judea and Galilee, he merely wanted to drive us out of town. What Nathan feared most, though, was the possibility that we might be waylaid in an ally or even knifed by a Sicarii, those fanatics, who thought Jesus compassion for Gentiles, an affront to God.
We all felt like cowards, as Joseph, Glychon, Nicodemus, and Nathan in company with Martha and the four Mary’s slipped out of the house. Lazarus, who had nothing to fear, was not well enough to be up and about, but Mark, who wasn’t yet a disciple, had no such excuse. Accompanying the four men to the Antonia, Mark would gather information there and at the tomb and return to the upper room with his report. With all this decided, it was, as it had been during Jesus’ trial, a waiting game, but this time overshadowed by the grim realization of Jesus death, which sat heavily over us: a cloak of sadness, misgivings, and doubt.
Mark’s report was given to us after Pilate agreed to Joseph’s and Nicodemus’ request to move Jesus’ body to Joseph’s tomb and during the preparation of Jesus for burial, a procedure Mark was too fainthearted to oversee. Though Jesus was carried reverently by the women to his burial place, the two criminals, who had been crucified with Jesus, would be left hanging for several days, and allowed to rot on their crosses. Hence came the name Hill of Skulls. Once again, in spite of the greater blame Jesus himself placed on our religious leaders, I could think of no group more brutal than the Romans. This, of course, overlooked the facts. It was the cold logic of the Romans compared to the evil intent of the Pharisees, scribes, and priests. Which was worse? One might ask. I had plenty of time to think about all this in the hours ahead. Not only did I blame the Romans, religious leaders, and the Jewish rabble for Jesus’ death, I blamed we disciples for not spiriting him away from all this. Judas might have betrayed Jesus and led his enemies to him but, like frightened lambs, we allowed him to walk into that trap.
After Mark gave his report, we finally ate a few scraps of cheese and pieces of bread washed down liberally with wine. Without our leader, we were adrift in our own thoughts. Only Lazarus, who sometimes seemed addled in the head, had a clear conscience. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be brought back from the dead, and I didn’t care to know. During this time of meditation, there was little chatter, until Thomas, his tongue loosened by wine, asked, “What happened to Judas?”
“Who cares?” grumbled Peter.
No one could argue with that, but now that the subject had been brought up Mark looked up suddenly from his wine cup.
“If I was him,” he said lazily, “… I’d find me some rope.”
“Nah,” Philip snarled. “I’d find me a cliff. Much quicker that way!”
“How about a sharp knife?” Andrew made a cutting motion across his throat.”
“Or poison?” suggested Matthew. “This piss passing for wine might do.”
“No!” Simon shook his head. “All that is too quick. Like Jesus, he deserves a painful death.”
“You’re all wrong!” growled Peter, staring into his mug. “Death is too good for him. Let him walk the earth like Cain—cursed by what he’s done.”
Mark gave Peter a surprised look. “That’s very deep, Peter. You compare him with Cain?”
“Not really,” the fisherman snorted. “Cain committed the first murder. What Judas did was worse.”
“Judas fulfilled scripture,” James reminded them. “It’s true that he betrayed Jesus, but he was misguided—blinded by scripture. If you look at it from the perspective of prophecy, someone had to do it. Cain committed a cold-blooded deed. Don’t forget what we were told. Jesus forgave his enemies from the cross.”
“Yes,” I perked up, “Judas, like the Romans, was a tool. Jesus told me that Judas was important for his cause. Why else did we have to put up with him for so long?”
“You’re his brothers!” Simon looked at us in disbelief. “How could you defend such a man?”
“We’re not defending Judas.” I waved irritably. “Jesus, not us, wanted him in our group. Though it annoyed us, I respected his wishes to keep him in the twelve. James is right: Judas acted on behalf of prophecy and God’s will. It doesn’t make sense to us. It might never make sense. In addition to the Lord’s many blessings, he has allowed many bad things to happen, including the enslavement of our people, in order to fulfill prophecy. The crucifixion of Jesus seems to make the least sense off all his plans, but it’s still based on prophecy, scripture, and God’s will.”
“I’m glad I can’t read,” grumbled Peter.
“Me too!” Andrew slapped his knee.
“Are you serious?” Matthew snickered. “You men can’t read?”
“Yeah, so what?” Peter gave him a challenging look. “What’s there to read?”
“I can’t read either.” Philip looked around proudly.
“Really?” Thomas scratched his head. “I was just a servant, and even I can read.”
“What’s the point?” Andrew shrugged. “What did those words in the Torah bring us? Those priests and Pharisees killed our Lord.”
“The Torah isn’t the only scroll you can read,” Simon said thoughtfully. “There’s all kinds of writing—some really great stories out there, and don’t forget the Psalms and words of David and Solomon. Not everything in the Torah is prophecy about our people and our Messiah. There’s a lot of common sense and good advice in those scrolls.”
“Don’t forget the history!” Thomas raised a finger.
“And those boring descriptions of our laws,” Matthew made a face.
For those moments, their spirits raised by wine, the disciples sounded like their old selves. No one wanted to face the issue at hand. We were, as we were so often in the past, in denial. It was, at least for me, as if I was a sleepwalker, in a bad dream.
“I’ve read the Torah.” I admitted wryly, taking another sip of wine. “The only part I really like is the story of Ruth.” “She was some woman!” I smacked my lips.
James shook his head. “That’s the only scroll that impressed you? What about the story of Adam and Eve, Noah, and all our other tales?”
“They’re all right,” my eyelids fell to half mask. “…I like Ruth the best!”
“What about you?” I looked slyly at John. “Do you share Peter, Andrew, and Philip’s opinion? Can you read?”
“Oh, he can read,” Andrew answered for him. “When we need to know something on paper, we let John read it. He’s always been good with words.”
“We’re not all stupid.” John said glumly. “With the help of our rabbi, I taught myself how to read. I used to like reading the prophets, but not anymore….Thanks to them Jesus got himself killed.”
John’s brother, broke his silence, mumbling, “I can read a little: numbers, signs, and such, and I can write my name. John’s the smart one in our family. I was never good with words.”
Looking over at this disciple, who would one day be called James the Greater, I couldn’t understand why Jesus placed him in his inner circle. He was moody, a man of few words. Jesus had his reasons. Who was I to question the Lord? It was, in fact, John’s recent words that troubled me now. Once again, I recalled Isaiah’s conflicting prophecies: the conquering messiah versus the suffering servant. As the men lapsed into silence, I wanted to comment on what John said. I half agreed with him, and yet I knew deep down, passed the shock and anger, that what he said was backwards. Jesus got himself killed to fulfill prophecy, not the other way around. For the remainder of our vigil, until the men and the women returned, we continued to drink wine, until we were all shamefully drunk.
I had never gotten so drunk on wine. I recall sitting between Bartholomew and James at the table, across from Peter and Andrew, with Matthew, Simon, and Thomas close-by. Huddled together, we discussed with drunken slurs, the injustice of it all and shared our fears of what came next. Jesus’ death appeared to have wiped away once and for all the animosities between the fishermen and outsiders in the group. Even John and his brother James, who after the Transfiguration fashioned themselves as the Sons of Thunder, were humbled and brought down to earth. Like disenfranchised children without our mother or, as Jesus would prefer, sheep without its shepherd, we were all castaways now, soon, it appeared, to become outcasts from our people, forced into exile for following a lost dream.
It was a dreary and profoundly incorrect vision for the men picked by Jesus to represent him on earth. For our small minds he was, in fact, no longer on earth. Jesus, the Son of God and savior had been crucified as a common criminal. How could that be? Regardless of his promise to return, death seemed so permanent. Our best short-range course was to drown our sorrows and doubt in Mark’s cheap wine.
When the men and women returned, they found most of us slumped over face down on the table, our mugs clutched in our hands. Bartholomew was sprawled on the floor, and Simon lie peacefully at one end of the table, his pack beneath his neck.
This hour, unlike the time in the garden, all of the disciples, including James and I, had fallen asleep. Even Lazarus had managed to drink himself into oblivion. I looked up, opening my eyes, hearing Joseph, Nicodemus, Glychon, Nathan, and Mark break into nervous laughter and Mary Magdalene titter to herself. Though Mark’s mother merely muttered with irritation and Martha and her sister said nothing, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was outraged.
“So!” she shouted angrily. “This is how you mourn my son. I heard about your naps in Gethsemane. Once again, you sleep on watch!” “Wake up! Wake up!” she scuttled around socking and slapping our heads.
“You, you, you, you—wake up!” She went down one side of the table and then the other, thumping and smacking us awake. “I’m ashamed of you—all of you!” “Look at you Peter,” she screamed into his ear. “Some rock you are!” “And you James and you Jude.” She pummeled us. You’re his brothers. Even you let him down!”
Pausing to shove Simon off the table and give Bartholomew a kick, she spared no one, including John, who had been so attentive today.
“Watch it!” Martha cried, when her brother was attacked. “He’s not well.”
“Hah!” she persisted. “He’s well enough to get drunk. Jesus brought him back from the dead! This is how he repays him? He could’ve left him in his tomb to rot!”
“Whazzamattuh with thad woman?” Lazarus tried forming his words. “Why she so ubset?”
“Yeah, Mary, that’s enough!” Peter sat up, clutching his head.
The remainder of us protested more feebly, except Simon, who was badly shaken after being shoved off the table. “Woman,” he growled, “are you insane? That hurt!”
“Good!” she screamed. “You needed waking up! The Romans crucified my son, and you’re all asleep!”
Mark stood beside his mother, shaking his head. Nathan seemed embarrassed by her behavior. Joseph and Glychon, his bodyguard, stood back, taken back by this excess, but Nicodemus, finally spoke up. “Mary, Mary,” he said gently. “You can’t blame them. They feel lost. I might just get drunk, myself.”
“She’s having a breakdown,” Mary Magdalene explained calmly.
Martha and her sister nodded in agreement. Mark’s mother came forward and joined the circle of women.
“I’ve seen this before,” she said. “Her grief is greater because of who Jesus was. He offered our people a deliverer. Where are his people now?”
“Not was, is!” Mary Magdalene’s eyes widened with understanding. “Jesus promised us he would return. In three days he would rise from the dead!”
“He raised me.” Lazarus murmured coherently.
“Yes,” Martha clasped her hands. “Why can’t he raise himself?”
“Please, not now” Peter shook his head. “I saw him…. No one rises from that.”
“I remember him saying that,” John replied thoughtfully. “He said it more than once.”
“He said a lot of things.” His brother sighed deeply.
“Some of it never made sense.”
“Many time he spoke in riddles,” Thomas said with a sigh, “seldom speaking plainly. Often I saw his listeners scratch their heads. Perhaps they didn’t understand. When the rabble called for his death, where were his followers?”
“Nowhere in sight!” spat Philip.
“Fleeing like frightened children!” Andrew shook his head.
“Yes.” James stared into space. “Jesus warned us of this too…. The man of sorrows—that’s who he was.”
“Is!” Mary stomped her foot.
For the second time the question ‘Where had his followers been?’ had been asked. Even James, as a scribe, who understood more than anyone what Isaiah meant in his scroll, was befuddled and lost in doubt.
“I saw some of them as he carried his cross.” I stepped forth, groggily. “…. There were few supporters in the crowd, but they were there. Claudia Procula, Pilate’s wife, was one of them. She had wanted her husband to spare Jesus. She believed God would punish the Romans for killing a god. She didn’t understand who Jesus was—I mean is, but she understood more than many in the crowd. Dozens of the people lining the procession, taunted Jesus. Some threw rotten fruit at him. A few spit on him. I could see a mixture of pity, hatred, or amusement on members of the crowd. Some of those tormenting him I saw in Bethany and in front of the temple. Now that they knew he wasn’t going to deliver them from the Romans, they had turned on him…. as had Judas.”
“Say,” Matthew changed the subject, “where is that rogue?”
“Who cares?” Simon looked down into his empty cup.
James thought a moment. “I can’t imagine what’s going through Judas’ mind. He thought he could force Jesus’ hand. Considering what Jesus said to Jude, its obvious he knew Judas would betray him.”
“Yes,” I marveled at my stupidity, “he so much as told me!”
“That’s still no reason!” Peter snarled. “There’s no excuse for what he did!”
Joseph walked over to me while the disciples discussed this issue, placed his hand on my shoulder, and spoke discreetly: “You know him better than anyone…. The prophets have confused our people. After everything I saw and heard, though, I know who he is. From the moment I met him, through our journeys together, I grew in this knowledge. Now, those passages of scripture that really matter have borne this out. I want to believe what Mary Magdalene said, but it defies everything I believe…. It’s a waiting game, Jude. Regardless of what happens in the coming days, our lives will never be the same!”
I gripped his forearm in the Roman manner. “Joseph, you’re a good man—a faithful friend. We’ll wait this out, but I’m worried about my mother. This will destroy her mind. If you’re traveling near Nazareth, please take her with you. Get her out of this town. If what I fear is true, none of us will be safe here in Jerusalem. One dead son for her is enough.”
“Don’t worry.” Joseph raised a hand. “Pilate’s reach is only so far. When this is over, you men can go home. You’ll be safe in Galilee. That’s Herod’s kingdom; Caiaphas won’t bother you there.”
“My mother,” I pressed him, “will you take her with you? Please, Joseph, take her away from here.”
“Of course,” he reassured me, “if she’s agreeable, I’ll take her along.”
As we turned our attention to the argument in progress, I thought about what Joseph had said. I knew very well my mother would do as she pleased. She was as stubborn as Bartholomew’s mule. She sat there being consoled by the four women, while the men stood in the background scratching their heads. Nicodemus, who appeared to be unwell, gave us his best wishes and guided by Nathan, his faithful chamberlain, made his exit. Joseph and Glychon, who would stay at Nicodemus house, followed behind, promising to return as soon as word came; Mark and his mother, weary from the ordeal, likewise retreated temporarily to their quarters below; and Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary, who would wait until the morning before returning to Bethany, sat with the women, while the disciples kept to their side of the room. None of us were apologetic for our drunkenness. In the evening we would be served a simple meal, that we hoped included more wine. It would be a restless night for all of us. The future, if there was a future at all, seemed bleak, a formless void in front of us, the haunting words of Mary Magdalene teasing our minds with futile hope…. Three days, Jesus had promised us. Tonight was the first night without Jesus, and tomorrow would be the second day. After that we would be trapped in the upper room, holding on to the promise inherent in his words that on the third day after his crucifixion, he will defeat death and rise from his tomb.