Between Jesus’ first and second letter nothing important happened to our family, except a change in Papa’s carpentry business. Papa’s relentless woodwork in his shop was paying off. Some credit must be given to James and Joseph, though they sometimes worked begrudgingly in Papa’s shop. Thanks to Joseph of Arimathea influence, Papa’s reputation had gleaned clients from neighboring towns. Some of the Nazarenes had forgiven our imagined heresies, and we still had a small circle of loyal friends. But the events surrounding Mariah’s rescue and the beating Papa gave the rabbi for insulting Jesus were at the back of most the townsfolk’s minds. Though Joachim had stopped hurling polemics against us in the synagogue now that Jesus was gone, he would never forgive Papa. He would always consider Jesus a blasphemer for his alleged miracles. The relatives of Reuben, Josiah, and Asa would also continue to give us hostile looks as they passed us on the road. There was a rumor, no one seriously believed, that Reuben’s gang was back in Nazareth and hiding in family members’ homes.
Though not a yet a drunk, Papa was drinking more and more wine. His recent libations worried his family, especially Mama, whose Uncle Ahab had died of strong drink. Something—Jesus absence, the unfriendliness of townsfolk, or the long hours working in his shop—troubled him. With Jesus gone, matters also grew worse for Nehemiah and I. James and Joseph, without Jesus’ interference, teased us unmercifully. They couldn’t get over the fact that we were all, except Jesus, adopted and our parents had taken in another orphaned boy. They resented Nehemiah, as they had Michael, and seemed bent on driving him away. By their warped standards, they thought I was a turncoat, who preferred an outsider to them. But the truth is they had always treated me as a nuisance and pest. Simon, in everyone’s opinion, remained the same lazy and shiftless soul, sometimes siding with us against James and Joseph but more often teasing us too. When Papa was busy, Mama would occasionally intervene when were being tormented. We seldom tattled, however, since this would have made my brothers even more resentful of my friend.
Samuel, the Pharisee, had recuperated enough to pay us an occasional visit, but he was growing increasingly frail and sickly looking each day. Many times we visited Samuel to save him the walk, which gave Nehemiah and me a chance to escape James and Joseph’s pranks. That day before the second letter from Jesus arrived, Nehemiah and I swept the floor of shavings and sawdust, while James and Joseph assisted Papa in sanding furniture in the shop. While they finished up their chores, Mama asked Nehemiah, Simon and I to help her in the garden awhile before we scampered off. As we picked weeds from a row of herbs, we heard hoof beats on the road in front of our house. This time we actually saw a courier ride up to our house and hand Mama a letter—a lean, scruffy-looking fellow with a mangy beard, smelly clothes, and a patch on one eye. I was disappointed that this man represented Rome. He looked more like bandit or cutthroat than a courier. After dismounting, he growled a greeting to us as we stood by the gate. Announcing himself as Justin, imperial mail carrier, Papa returned the courtesy for he and Mama, then introduced his sons, as they arrived, one-by-one. Even the man’s horse, a wild, uncombed mare, seemed too unfriendly to be ridden by a representative of Rome. Nevertheless, this time, at Papa’s insistence, Mama fed the traveler and gave him a flask of wine. The courier swaggered back to his horse, clutching his flask, his one good eye moving restlessly in his shaggy head.
We were all called into the kitchen after he rode off, where, as before, Papa stood holding a mug of wine. It had seemed like such a long time since we had heard from Jesus. All of us, especially myself, were anxious to hear about his exploits. I know Papa was glad to hear from Jesus too, but it also gave him another chance to drink more wine. In Jesus’ second letter, which arrived several weeks after the first, we were taken by Papa’s voice across the Great Sea.
“Dear family, it is I, the oldest son, bringing you greetings from Athens, Greece.
Today, as we met Portius, a rich Jewish merchant, at Piraeus, the Port of Athens, I was filled with high expectations for the city of philosophers. Here walked Socrates, Plato, and Pythagoras. Not far from where we disembarked, sits the Acropolis and the finest sculptures in the world. Athens, once the home of Pericles and the host of the Olympic games, was a city where Greek culture reached its peak. Joseph of Arimathea, as a Pharisee, assured me that there were many works of art in Greece that were not idols, but we must still avoid entering pagan shrines. This was of course difficult in such a city. Practically everything in Athens was dedicated to their pantheon of deities. Our first stop, however, was the grand estate of Portius, where we dined on delicacies I had never imagined. Have no fear, my parents. Portius’ Jewish cooks and bakers gave us food fit for King David, not King Herod’s, table. One entertainer sang verses from Psalms and Proverbs, while a pair of dancers interpreted the words in a graceful, though controversial, mime. These renditions made us uncomfortable. I was not used to seeing the holy word performed by entertainers. It was Joseph, confessed later, much too Greek for his tastes.
As we began our tour the next day, courtesy of Adelphos, a freedman employed by our host, we were taken by carriage through the main street. Joseph disdained the custom of being carried around in a sedan by slaves. Our carriage was pulled by four great white horses instead. The driver was not a slave, Adelphos informed us, though he admitted to once being a slave himself.
Our first stop was to a beautiful stadium where the Greeks performed their plays. This seemed harmless enough until we began walking down the stone path leading to the gate of the stadium. On each side stood a naked woman holding a torch. Adelphos explained sheepishly that these were not goddesses, just beautiful women pleasing to the eyes, but Joseph very appropriately asked Matthias, Levi, and I to avert our eyes. Loftus, Strabo, Glychon, and Tycho also promised not to look up at the statues, as Joseph requested. And yet, as we entered the stadium, I looked back at the guards and saw them giggling foolishly amongst themselves. I wouldn’t tell Joseph that Loftus and Strabo were not god-fearers or that I felt they were still pagans, who, in their own way, had mocked God. It was not my place to criticize my benefactor’s guards; it might even insult him, especially if he already suspected this himself. Perhaps, I reasoned, he was hoping to set an example for them, as you did for us Papa. I have been praying for them constantly, but so far God, in His infinite wisdom—or humor—has allowed matters to remain as they are.
According to Adelphos, the stadium, which seated several thousand citizens, would be showing a play by Euripides tonight. He took us backstage and showed us some of the scenery and cloth backdrops used for various plays. Make believe trees, mountains, and buildings as well as paintings on cloth of people, animals, and profane forms reminded me that all peoples outside the radiance of the Most High lived in a make-believe world and in the shadow of pagan gods.
To avoid setting foot in idol-ridden temples and seeing pagan rites, Joseph allowed us to look only at the outside, not the inside, of the buildings we passed. Many of them, he admitted, housed great works of art. Some of the statues visible from the street were not naked at all and were, for that matter, not gods or goddesses, but Greek heroes and politicians, clad in finely carved armor or robes. In the garden of Artemodorus, however, rows of deities closed in upon us suddenly and quite innocently, as our guide froze in his tracks. He apologized profusely. Once again our guards snickered amongst themselves. Joseph frowned gravely, as he shooed us back down the path, but, as we exited these unhallowed grounds, I glanced over and saw a pedestal that lacked a graven idol on its top. It was, I thought at first, merely awaiting a new addition to this menagerie of finely sculptured Greek gods, but then my eyes were drawn to the inscription beneath the vacant platform that read “To an unknown god.” I thought then about Isaiah’s reference to a universal God and Noah, who being neither Jew nor Gentile served such a god. I realized then that the pagan Greeks must also yearn for an omnipotent and omnipresent deity to replace the stone counterfeits collecting in their temples, along their streets, and even in their parks. I was so greatly inspired about this I immediately shared my views with Joseph, who was shocked that I would say such a thing.
“The Greeks like their Roman masters don’t wish to offend foreign deities,” he explained severely. “This equivocation doesn’t deserve commendation but condemnation.” “There is no unknown god!” He wrung his finger. “Our God, is God and though inscrutable is well known to our people.”
The words of the Father rushed into my head
“You have spoken truly,” I replied respectively. “There is only one God, but he has been felt by many peoples. The empty pedestal is one, among countless strivings by ignorant peoples. We are the Chosen People. Our mission is not merely to preserve the Word but to spread the word—to the Greeks, the Roman and all peoples. I believe that the Greeks will one day share the One God with us, as all peoples who hear and believe the Word.”
“Oh, how do you know that?” spat Matthias. “Shall we cast pearls before swine? You’re no more than a child. You would teach Joseph bar Ibrim, a learned Pharisee, about our faith?”
“This is heresy!” Levi cried, with a look of horror. “He speaks blasphemes against the Most High!”
“No, he doesn’t,” said Joseph, shaking his head. “I know Jesus’ heart. He has great knowledge of the Torah and Prophets.”
He placed his hand on top of my head as if in blessing. After quietly admonishing his sons for their reaction to me, he gently took me aside. Loftus and Strabo moved between us and Joseph’s sons to insure our privacy. There was a twinkle in Joseph’s eyes.
“Jesus,” he said in a low, conspiratorial tone, “what you said isn’t in the Torah, is it?”
“No,” I confessed, my heart hammering in my chest.
“Where did you learn this?” He asked in a guarded whisper. “What possessed you to counter two thousand years of our history?”
“My Father.” I looked him squarely in the eyes.
Joseph gave me a knowing smile, but said nothing more about my views of the unknown and universal God. The next day we visited a business contact of his in the city, but nothing really exciting happened to us in Athens after my discovery of the pedestal to the unknown god. I will write as soon as I can when the opportunity avails itself. I’ve covered the most important aspects of our trip to Greece.
Your Son and Brother ---- Jesus
When Papa read Jesus’ last words, James and Joseph sat there grumbling again amongst themselves. By now, I was quite bored with this session. Simon’s eyelids were fluttering violently as he tried staying awake. I wanted to hear about Jesus’ adventures in a foreign land, not this religiously inspired report. Though he promised to write soon, I was greatly disappointed that he didn’t tell us more. I sensed that, in order to make his points, he had skipped over many important details. What was his voyage over the Great Sea like? Is that all he could say about Greece? Clearly, he was more interested in greater issues than the details of this world. Now, as I recall the events of our childhood, I realize that his report was—and is today—much more. Where had a fifteen-year-old youth heard such things? Though, as a child, he studied the smallest insect or flower, he also saw the greater picture. He believed that everything, including such grand designs, revolved around God. God was at the center of all things large and small. But to children, such as Simon, Nehemiah, and me, his lofty speculations were becoming tedious and, for James and Joseph, downright heretical to our beliefs.
Papa, who had saved a measure of his daily ration of wine, took a sip and studied his wife and sons. The twins were off playing somewhere in the yard. Their chirping voices in the distance made me wish I was out there, too, with no thought of Jesus’ letter in my mind. When Jesus was here we were unconcerned with the outside world. That day, after Jesus’ second letter, I sensed that he was discovering more about that shadowy purpose even he couldn’t comprehend. It was, I know now, the stirrings of his divinity, as the Messiah and Son of God.
Mama had a look of alarm on her face as she had after the reading of the first letter. Though she and Papa were in denial, they must have known about Jesus divinity, but the rest of us were still in that fog Samuel spoke of when Jesus embarked on his trip. Even with Jesus far away, the mystery continued to unfold gradually before our eyes.