Jesus and the Tempest
During the weeks that followed, as Nehemiah, Simon and I did our chores and then romped in the backyard, we caught snatches of conversation between James and Joseph. The dual notion, as Jesus expressed in his letters from Egypt and Greece, that God was universal and meant for all peoples, had filled our older brothers with misgivings. Nothing, however, would be as contentious as the letter Jesus sent us from Rome. Mama would not even let Papa read the letter to us. We were not supposed to know about the letter’s contents, but it troubled us all for several days. Because of Jesus’ heresy—or so James and Joseph claimed—Papa became selective in what he imparted to us. He simply, in an off-handed way, gave us the gist of Jesus’ letter after the courier dropped it off. After the last scroll, this was all right with me. I looked forward to the day Jesus returned and personally told us of his adventures. Perhaps, when he sat before us in the flesh. he would stow all that religious talk and give us concrete details of what he saw on his trips.
For several days, however, as we went about our daily lives, my curiosity about the last letter grew. James and Joseph, who were only worried about the heresies in Jesus’ correspondence, feared that the latest scroll would be the worst, but what if there were interesting portions in the letter? Rome, I had been told, was the world’s greatest city. Jesus latest adventure might be more interesting than his journey to Egypt, certainly more than all that boring stuff during his trip to Greece. It was, after much temptation (probably from the Evil One, himself), when Papa was on a business trip and Mama was making her daily visit to the ailing Samuel, that I went to the cabinet where Papa kept the letter. I knew I would have to make peace with James or Joseph, it didn’t matter whom. They had attended synagogue school longer and applied themselves much more diligently than Simon and I. Nehemiah and I had been learning to read in school, but Simon, as I recall, was as illiterate as Mama and the twins. Unfortunately, Nehemiah and I were still unable to read Jesus’ letter. It would require James or Joseph to decipher the document, especially with all its big, unfriendly words. The question was, Nehemiah and I pondered, how could we talk one of my older brothers into reading Jesus scroll?
Jesus’ third letter would be the greatest of them all. All the letters that followed I was certain would fall far short of his account of his exciting sea voyage to Rome and his escapades in this great city. Of course, I didn’t know that yet; it was just a hunch. I just knew somehow that it would be special. While James and Joseph labored in the shop and Simon idled somewhere in the front or backyard, Nehemiah and I approached, as supplicants, fearful of James and Joseph’s rebuke. Unfortunately, Simon had seen me sneaking out of the house with the letter in my hands.
“Hey, what are you up to?” He appeared suddenly, tapping my shoulder
James looked out of the shop that moment. “You better put that back before Mama returns!” He called out in a singsong voice.
“It’s probably filled with heresies,” Joseph scowled, as he emerged from the shadows.
“Those last letters were outrageous,” James growled indignantly. “That part about accepting Gentiles is insulting. Jesus is being corrupted by pagan knowledge.”
“Please James.” I held it out shakily. “Aren’t you curious? I can’t read very well. I don’t understand the words. Would you read it for us.”
“I can’t read at all,” Simon said, glancing over my shoulder. “It gets blurred together when I try and hurts my head.”
We all laughed at this absurdity. Simon was always saying silly things. One day, however, we would learn that he saw everything backwards, as if in a mirror, and was actually quite smart. James put his scraper aside, blew shavings off the table leg clamped to the bench then swaggered down the steps. It was an opportunity for him to act smugly once more. Joseph vaulted from the doorway, an anxious expression twitching on his face.
“Well,” James snorted, spitting on the ground, “that’s all right boys. Joachim wasn’t a very good teacher. He became lazy, like you. James and I don’t need a rabbi to apply ourselves to the Torah. Not only have we learned some Hebrew but we can read our Galilean tongue as well.”
“So, will you read the letter?” I hopped up and down expectantly.
“Not a good idea,” protested Joseph.
“Here, let me see that.” James snapped his fingers impatiently. “It couldn’t be any worse than the last.”
For a moment, I thought it might be a trick to confiscate the scroll, especially with Joseph reaching out as well. As James waited for me to hand him the document, I glanced back at Nehemiah and saw him shake his head. I retreated a few paces and shook my head.
“Come on, hand it over.” James snapped his fingers. “Let’s take a peek. Humph, it looks fatter than the other two. Maybe it won’t be so bad.”
“We’re gonna get caught.” Simon whistled under his breath.
“No, no,” Joseph cried, waving his hands. “They’ll be furious. Put it back in the cabinet. Don’t read that infernal scroll!”
“Calm down.” James shook his head thoughtfully. “Papa won’t be back for awhile. Mama left chopped fruit, cheese, and bread for our lunch. She won’t be home until this afternoon.” “Don’t worry, Joseph,” he said, pulling the letter out of my hands. “We got time to kill. You’re the one who didn’t want to read it. Let’s finish it before Mama comes home!”
Joseph kicked the dirt angrily. “Why’re are you doing this James? Papa doesn’t want us to read this letter. We agreed not to peek. Lord knows what else he’s written. Simon can’t keep a secret. Papa will never trust us again, if he finds out we’ve disobeyed.”
“Well, I’ve changed my mind.” James set his jaw. “We’ll read it during our noon break.”
“No, no,” groaned Joseph, shaking his head. “What if Mama walks in while your reading it? She might be tempted to eavesdrop outside by the window if she hears your voice. We must read it in the orchard. I’ll read half if you want, but let’s get out of earshot, away from he house.”
“What about lunch?” Simon faced dropped. “That might take a long time.”
“We’ll take it with us.” James signaled to Nehemiah and me. “You two get the bowel of fruit and basket of bread and cheese. Simon, you bring some mugs and the flask of juice.”
By the time Simon, Nehemiah, and I emerged with our lunch, James and Joseph were already in the orchard glancing through the scroll. As we hurried down the path from our yard, we could hear them mumbling amongst themselves. A shaft of sunlight cascaded down upon them as they sat on a rotting log. James, who would one day become an apostle, looked so mature that moment as he studied the scroll.
“Phew! This is really something,” he exclaimed to Joseph. “There was a great whale and a storm. Joseph of Arimathea and his ship almost sank at sea!”
“What?” I cried excitedly, racing through the trees. “Read it to us James. Start at the very beginning.”
Hastily, I offered them the basket, as Simon plopped down the flask and mugs. “Let’s eat first,” he said, reaching for the food.
“Wait,” Joseph said, grabbing his hand. “I don’t trust you. Promise, on Abraham’s grave, you won’t inform on us.”
“No,” James shook his head, “that’s not good enough. This time he has to swear an oath.”
“All right,” Joseph agreed, “but he can’t use God’s name. That’s against the Torah. We’ll have Simon swear to all three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
James, Nehemiah, and I nodded hesitantly. Since the patriarchs were very important to our people, we hoped Simon would take this oath seriously. He gave us a solemn look, mumbled the oath, and joined hands with all of us in our “circle of trust,” an invention of James, who was enjoying his new role. With that out of the way, he began, in surprisingly dramatic tones, to narrate Jesus’ adventures in Rome.
“Greetings my family and my new brother Nehemiah. I’ve also sent Samuel a letter about my latest adventure. When the courier arrives in Nazareth, please give him a letter that will let me know that my family’s happy and well. Hopefully, Samuel will feel up to placing a letter in the courier’s pouch, too. I’m worried about his health. On the subject of health, family, I have a tale to tell.
Joseph of Arimathea sends his best wishes and regards. So do our guards, Loftus, Strabo, Glychon, and Tycho. I wish I could say the same for Joseph’s sons. They barely talk to me. Hopefully their attitudes will change and they’ll become my friends. Joseph and I have had many talks about our faith. Our guards listened to us as we talk. They don’t understand how we can believe in only one god. Of all the places on our schedule to visit, Rome causes Joseph the most concern. It was, he told me as we looked ahead, a great city but one filled with greed, avarice, and lust. Yet, when our ship left Athens, I was looking forward to another exciting voyage. Our last voyage from Egypt to Athens over the Great Sea went smoothly, but I was shocked to find so many rowers chained below. I could hear the crack of the whip, and groan of the oarsmen. According to a seaman on deck, the ship’s sails aren’t used unless there’s a good tail wind. He explained to me that most military ships are rowed by professional oarsmen, but certain merchant vessels, such as his ship, employed slaves. He spoke matter-of-factly, as though it was but a trifling matter. I was disturbed by this knowledge, but Joseph asked me to keep my dissatisfaction to myself. It was, I learned later, not a common practice, and oarsmen were normally paid good wages. Joseph gave me a proverb this time as our ship set its course for Rome: “when in Rome, you must do as the Romans do.” I knew that this proverb had applied to Greece and would apply to all the lands we visited. Could Rome be any worse than Alexandria or Athens? Even in Jerusalem, I saw things that greatly offended my eyes, but those men chained as rowers offended me the most.
As our ship crossed the Great Sea, I chatted with my benefactor and his guards about simple things. The friendly weather and cloudless sky inspired our discussion. There, above us, flew a formation of noisy sea birds heralding our departure. Those strange, sleek creatures, that looked like the ones I saw in Egypt, leaped out of the water, cavorting beside our ship, until land slipped away in the horizon. That morning I also saw the fins, tale, and a distant spout of water from one of the great sea creatures mentioned in the Tenakh. When I pointed him out to Matthias and Levi, they scowled at me, but Joseph enjoyed this moment with me and encouraged the four guards to join in. The great dark creature, unlike whales Joseph had seen before, who had large lower jaws and rather feeble mouths, had a massive upper jaw and a long row of large, sharp teeth. From a distance, growing larger and larger, this fearsome-looking beast appeared to be heading our way. He came so very close to us, in fact, Matthias and Levi ran fearfully to the other side of the ship. I could hear Joseph gasp with fear, yet, to save face, he and the guards held onto the rails as the beast frolicked alongside of our boat. I laughed like fool. I had never seen such a wondrous sight. Though Joseph left to inspect his cargo, I was transfixed by this scene. Closer and closer came the leviathan. “Prepare for collusion!” I heard someone cry. After slapping the waves a few times, it seemed as if the wake generated by its monstrous tale might swamp our ship, and yet I wasn’t afraid. A strange, innervating feeling of wonder and well-being overtook me. Loftus and Strabo reached out to grip my shoulders, to prevent me, in my foolishness, from being pitched overboard, as I called out gleefully to the beast. I swear, my family, I nor my shipmates were in any danger. That whale was playing with our ship!
As he coasted alongside of us, I could see one of its huge eyes staring with mirth as a waterspout burst from the blowhole in its snout. Suddenly, as water rained down, everyone standing behind us ran for cover. The guards ducked their heads below the rail, giggling hysterically as the leviathan made a wide turn then swam away. Fortunately for us the deluge was deflected by the bellowing mainsail overhead, and yet many of the crewman in the center of the deck, who tried to avoid the deluge were thoroughly drenched. I had no idea yet how I appeared to the guards and crewmen, but there was a look of awe on many of their faces as they approached.
“Whoa!” Loftus slapped my shoulder. “I thought he was going to ram us. We ducked for cover, but not you. You weren’t afraid. You just stood there tempting the gods!”
“Aye,” shouted a crewman, “it was like he was charming that monster!”
“He bewitched him,” a third man cried. “Like Poseidon’s daughters luring sailors, he called to him. I’ve never seen such a beast!”
The spell seemed broken, as the great whale returned to the depths. “What?” I blinked, looking back at the men. Like all Gentiles the seaman were superstitious. Their exclamations weren’t accusations but statements of awe and a good measure of light-headed relief. I couldn’t think of a rejoinder. All I could see were a shipload of drenched, disheveled men.
“ They think you’re a sorcerer,” Loftus said from the corner of his mouth.
“Oh really,” I sighed wistfully, as if awakening from a dream. “That was incredible. I’ve never seen such a sight?”
“It was very stupid.” Strabo made one of his rare statements. “We could’ve all been
“Yes,” Tycho agreed,“that beast could’ve capsized our ship”
“I never saw one act like that,” Glychon marveled. “He seemed to have a sense of humor—like he was teasing us.”
“Exactly!” I grinned at them. “You saw that too?”
Everyone, even Strabo, nodded.
“You showed no fear,” Loftus observed solemnly. “The crewmen and Joseph’s son ran like frightened lambs but you held your ground.”
“Jesus must have great power,” offered Tycho. “It was as if it was under his spell.”
It appeared as though half of my admirers likened me to a snake charmer and the other half to a sorcerer or magician. I should have corrected their misconceptions, but I was still in a daze. The imprint of the whale was hard to shake. Had I bewitched this beast? I thought giddily. It did appear to look me squarely in the eyes. Though I had made a spectacle of myself, no one had called me a blasphemer or heretic as they had back home. Then Loftus said something that moment that caught me completely off guard. “Is it possible your Jewish god protects us because of your presence on this ship?”
For a moment I felt trapped. Though I sensed God, in fact, watched over me and would protect our ship, I couldn’t admit this. What conceit that would be. On the other hand, I reasoned, could I deny what I believed was the truth? Shaking my head slowly, I tried to explain to Loftus that God protected all believers equally. We were protected by prayer, not sorcery, magic or my own special powers. The big Nubian, however, didn’t believe this at all. He was, as was most of passengers, crew, and slaves aboard ship, a pagan. In a conspiratorial whisper, he told me that my god wouldn’t save the scurvy bunch on this ship, if it wasn’t for me. I was in such high spirits that moment I began laughing at his apparent jest. It was, if anything, an improvement over some of the outlandish things I’ve heard him say. In the distance, as the mighty sea creature resurfaced, vaulted magnificently out of the water, then plunged down in a great splash, I recited an appropriate verse:
“God created the large sea creatures and every living creature that moves in the waters and every winged bird after its kind. And God saw that it was good.”
Loftus laughed at my effort at changing the subject. For a moment, as he and the other guards stood there muttering to themselves about the whale, the sea grew agitated. My hand flew up to my mouth as a notion filled my head. Had I angered God with my vanity? I had made a complete spectacle of myself. Why had I acted so foolishly about that whale? There, before my eyes, I could see those telltale whitecaps on the waves. I recalled seeing this before on the way to Greece, but that storm passed, as we made landfall. At this point in our voyage we were several leagues from port. The weather I had praised only a few hours ago began to change quickly through the stages Joseph had once explained to me on our last voyage: a breeze, a gust, a gale, and then a tempest—all within a short span of time. Before taking cover in our cabin, the four guards gave me expectant looks, as I might use my “magic” to dispel the storm. It appeared that God was going to test my faith with a tempest and churning sea. Joseph, his sons, and our guards crowded into our cabin, as I moved to the bow of the ship, unnoticed by the crew scrambling back and forth, pulling in the sails, stowing unfastened crates and equipment, and checking the moorings to the merchandise tied to the deck.
“Lord,” I called out, as the conditions worsened, “have I tempted you with my curiosity for that beast? Did I appear vain and foolish? Please, believe me—I didn’t put those thoughts in Loftus’ head. I don’t presume to be more important than anyone else, but if you would silence the thunder and give us safe passage, I know one man who is at the threshold of believing in the one and only God. Show them all, Lord—the guards and crew—that the power of prayer is enough for any action or change of heart. Stop the storm and bring peace to the waters so that our ship won’t flounder in the waves.”
But flounder it did. As they dragged me into our cabin, Joseph and Loftus scolded me for my foolishness. No one criticized me for the prayer, itself, except Matthias and Levi, who cursed me for my pretensions. I couldn’t blame them this time. So far my prayer had no effect upon the storm. The ship tossed and turned in terrible convulsions, throwing us back and forth into the bulkheads and, at one frightful moment, rocking forward and backward as the vessel hit a great wave, causing our heads to nearly crash against overhead beams.
“We’re going to die!” Matthias cried out in a panic.
“That was some prayer,” snarled Levi, as he held onto a post for dear life.
“What went wrong?” Loftus looked helplessly at me. “I thought you had divine powers.”
“I’m a mortal being,” I said defensively. “The Lord doesn’t have to answer our prayers.”
Though I was sincere, I knew this wasn’t true. The Spirit of the Lord moved inside me that moment. I had been on the verge of bawling, but now a feeling of peace overcame me. The Lord would, in deed, watch over us. Already, as I closed my eyes and prayed quietly to myself, oblivious to those around me, the shaking of the ship began to lessen. The roar of the storm ceased gradually back to a whistling gale. The cries of shipmates and slaves faded to sporadic calls from seaman, calling back and forth from various parts of the ship. At one point, as the realization sank in, there was a knock on the door. I opened my eyes to see the four guards, Loftus, Strabo, Glychon, and Tycho, looking down at me. Joseph was answering the cabin door.
“It seems, little prince.” Loftus said, placing his hand reverently on my head, “your God listened to your prayer.”
To verify Loftus’ assessment of the situation, came the voice of a sailor who had seen me pray. “It took your God long enough, but the deed is done,” he declared wryly. “We lost some of your goods on deck, but the remainder held firm in the hold.”
“Very good.” Joseph sighed, looking back at me. “Please convey my thanks to the captain and all his men.”
“My name’s Tabor.” The sailor bowed politely. “I’ll be in command of the ship until the captain’s health returns.”
“Is it serious?” I asked with concern.
“Captain Menalek has a recurrent sickness.” Tabor winked slyly, pantomiming a drinking motion with his thumb and fist. “Ever since his wife ran off with that Greek merchant, he has these bouts. When the storm came, he was in his bunk, sound asleep.”
“Sound asleep, in the midst of that storm?” Joseph slapped his forehead. “That’s dreadful!”
“Dereliction of duty’s the word I was looking for,” grumbled Matthias.
“Oh, I’ve handled this ship many times myself.” Tabor gave me an appraising look. “The first thing a good captain does when it looks bad is haul in the sails. Then he brings up the oars, tosses unneeded cargo overboard, and battens everything else, including man and beast, to the deck. Most everyone, except fools, will be waiting it out below. Hopefully it’ll be a head- or aft wind and not come crashing against the ship. That way its possible to steer through it. A side wind would swamp the ship, even break it apart. Much of it, you see, is luck, perhaps fate, or, as some believe, the will of the gods.” “This time,” he said, giving me a nod, “was different. That was a killer storm we had. The waves lapped over the rails many times and no one was lost, not so much as a slave.”
“No, no” I said, waving my hands, “believe me Tabor, the Lord, not me, saved your ship. I’m sure my friends were praying too.”
“Not me,” Loftus mumbled under his breath.
“I was too busy being sick.” Tycho uttered a dry laugh.
A moment of silence followed Tabor’s declaration. A few sailors standing behind him looked in at me. Joseph seemed to be giving me a troubled look, both smiling and frowning at the same time. Joseph sons, were, as expected, appalled at this new heresy. The four guards had expressions of awe or respect on their faces, as word of the apparent “miracle” began spreading throughout the ship.
“You don’t seriously believe Jesus quieted that storm?” Matthias shook his head in disbelief. “I saw their expressions; those men think Jesus is some kind of god.”
“We’re just lucky Tabor could steer the ship,” Levi muttered with a sigh.
I couldn’t understand the attitude of Joseph’s sons, especially Matthias. Didn’t the prophets tell us that if our prayers were strong enough, we could move mountains? Why is it that pagans are so receptive to this idea and my own people aren’t? Even my benefactor Joseph seems worried about this. My guards, however, especially Loftus, grew even closer to me that day. In their presence, with God’s watchful eye on us, nothing could happen to us. I knew this as surely as I drew breath but I wouldn’t dare tell the others. What happened when our ship set out to sea was as incredible as the storm in Nazareth, but only the pagans aboard ship rejoiced. Unfortunately, they didn’t understand our invisible God. Loftus and Strabo couldn’t fathom why our Lord didn’t take corporal form, like Zeus or Poseidon. Joseph, though impressed with my knowledge and perception, was taken back by the evidence before his eyes. He must have been regretting taking me along with him on this trip. Though my prayers appeared to have helped save their lives, Matthias and Levi resented my relationship with God. Would they have preferred that our ship sank with everyone aboard? Perhaps, I should have prayed more quietly and to myself instead making such a spectacle of myself on the deck.
From that day forward until we arrived in Ostia, I was held in awe by the crewmembers but looked upon with contempt by Joseph’s sons, who thought I was a pretentious blasphemer. Joseph, himself, was torn by what he felt. He took me aside the following day, after he had time to brood on the matter, to explain the dilemma he was in. As we looked out upon Mare Nostrum (the Latin name for the Great Sea), I could see another leviathan splashing in the deep. I couldn’t help but marvel again at such a magnificent sea creature. There were few birds this far out to sea, and yet a dove appeared out of nowhere, landing only a few feet from me on the rail. Impulsively, I held out my hand. The little white bird hopped over pertly and perched awkwardly on my finger. It cooed to me and seemed to study me a moment before flying up and disappearing in the rays of the sun.
“Just who are you Jesus?” Joseph asked, stroking his long gray beard.
“I’m Jesus, the son of Joseph, carpenter of Nazareth,” I answered with a shrug.
“No-no,” he said, exhaling deeply, “I mean what are you? I heard about your miracles, Jesus, but I’ve never seen one. I was impressed with your mind and personality, never about those alleged miracles.” “Now,” he added thoughtfully, “after that storm, I wonder if they aren’t true. . . . Did you bedazzle that whale? Did you quiet that storm? Out of nowhere a white dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit to Noah, sat on your finger. How did you manage that?”
I detected nervous humor in Joseph’s questions, and yet I shook my head vigorously at his inquiry. I’m sure that the Pharisee had prayed, himself about this crisis, but I was certain, as I had been other times, that God had answered my prayer. Joseph had asked me a question that has plagued me for many months. I dare not say the words. I have no desire to be special. Am I merely able to more effectively use the power of prayer than others who have less faith? Or, as my parents words and actions imply, have I been given this special blessing directly from God. It comes so easily for me, which leads me to believe it’s God-driven. Because of this, I know I have a purpose in this world, but I don’t know what. Just how great is God’s control over my destiny? What does He have in mind for me? Was I not given free choice from a pure state, as Adam and Eve, to do good or evil deeds. Would I one day fail as had the first man and woman? My cousin John once told me that he had a purpose too but only because Aunt Elizabeth often told him this. I, on the other hand, need no one to tell me I’m special. Always, I’ve felt continually driven by a force beyond my control. From the day when the sparrow flew from my hands, I knew I was not a normal boy. Now, as I journey in the world of men, the fog in my childhood begins to fade: I’ve begun to see my destiny as a servant of God. . . . But in what capacity: rabbi, Pharisee, surely not as a Sadducee priest. I have always thought that I would be a carpenter. Yet my voyage with Joseph of Arimathea has further opened the portholes of my mind. He would not understand it if I tried to explain to him what I’m attempting to explain to you now. That storm should have torn our ship to pieces, according to the crewmen, and yet God listened to me as he had times before.
Finally, at Joseph’s gentle coaxing I answered, “The Lord has done his will through me. I’ve done nothing that you or anyone else can’t do with prayer. If a man has the faith of a mustard seed, he can move mountains.”
The Lord had spoken through me that moment, and yet Joseph was shocked by my words.
“You, a mere youth, claim to know the mind of God,” his voice shook. “I prayed too Jesus. So did Matthias and Levi. And yet you take credit for this miracle. Is this not arrogance, coming from a carpenter’s son, with little formal education.”
“I made no such claim.” I said, folding my arms. “A man prays and God listens. All men, great and small, have God’s ear.”
“God’s ear?” Joseph waved irritably. “You’re still a youth, Jesus. You believe you have God’s ear? I’ve lived to see fifty summers and I’m not sure I have God’s ear.”
“I pray and God listens.” I stood firm, my hands shifting to my hips.
Joseph wasn’t trying to be unkind. He was, as everyone else, simply troubled by my claim. It was all based upon faith. How could I possibly convince this man of learning that all of this—the bird, the rain, and the storm—were merely answers from God. It didn’t help that I was so young. Was it any wonder that he found these marvels hard to accept? For the Pharisees, rabbis, and priests, the age of miracles had long since passed.
“Jesus, my young friend,” his voice calmed, while he stroked his beard, “perhaps the Spirit moves in you as it once did for Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. I like to think it once moved me. It’s true that David was selected by God during his youth to become a great king. But none of these men were miracle workers.”
“Men don’t work miracles by themselves.” I frowned in disbelief. “God works through men, and without His blessing, they’re empty vessels, incapable of such deeds.”
“Are you, Jesus of Nazareth, such a vessel?”
“Perhaps,” I whispered, feeling trapped in Joseph’s gaze.
“What?” His eyebrows shot up. “After being asleep for so long, Israel’s spiritual greatness has returned in the form of a stripling barely out of childhood, and not a doctor of the law or desert prophet with years of wisdom and service? Why would God pick you out of the thousands of religious men in Judah and Galilee? Moses and the prophets who followed were men well into their years before they found such favor, and yet he looks passed Jerusalem, Sepphoris, and all of the other great cities of Israel into the town of Nazareth and selects a carpenter’s son?”
A rush of warmth and peace filled me, but I dare not answer Joseph with “yes” or an affirmative nod. I heaved a sigh as I turned to meet his gaze. At that point, I realized I must tell Joseph of Arimathea the truth as I knew it to be, at least for now.
“You have said it,” I said quietly. “Whence came my knowledge or mastery of prayer, if not from God? Truthfully, Joseph, I don’t know what’s God’s plan. It’s still a great mystery to me. Perhaps I will be a teacher or just a good carpenter someday. I have no special powers, only the power of prayer, which all believers have.”
Though it was an honest answer, it sounded lame as it poured from my lips. Yet Joseph smiled thoughtfully, giving me a faint, approving nod.
“You try to be modest Jesus,” he replied wryly, “but I know its much more. You are one of those rare souls who can’t lie. You must have God’s ear. He watches over you. If I didn’t know about your father’s plans that you be a carpenter, like himself, I might think that one day you’d become a prophet, another Elijah or Jeremiah.”
I sensed an element of sarcasm in Joseph’s voice and yet I knew it was not mean-spirited. It was foolish for me to expect him to accept my simplistic answers. He was held back by his Pharisaic beliefs, which were, in spite of his worldliness, essentially black and white. Nevertheless, I saw a gleam in his dark eyes. He wanted to believe. His silence, as he reached out to grip my shoulder, said much to me. Looking out over the water, we quietly shared our vision of the Great Sea. After awhile of watching a distant ship break the horizon then reappear and disappear below rolling swells, he changed the subject.
“Have you written your parents and family, Jesus?”
“Yes,” I answered with relief, “I wrote them letters about Alexandria and Greece.”
“I’ve been remiss in my correspondence to my wife and daughters,” he confessed, scanning the sky. “When you’re forced to write so many business letters it’s easy to forget the important things. I’ve been a poor father, Jesus. My wife’s alone most of the time, as are my daughters. My two sons are spoiled and arrogant creatures. I’ve traveled so much I’ve almost forgotten the faces of my relatives in Arimathea, Sepphoris, and Jerusalem.” “What’s that old saying?” He scratched his beard. “Oh yes, you reap what you sow!”
“You’re a good man,” I replied, patting his arm. “Someday, when you retire from your business, you’ll be a excellent grandfather. Your wife and children don’t blame you for your diligence. They love you dearly. You walk with God and keep his counsel. Your only sin, perhaps, is ambition, but my father’s ambitious, and it’s never seemed wrong for him.”
Joseph appeared taken back. “Oh, so now you’re reading my mind. How do you know what my wife thinks?”
My words, though well meaning, had poured recklessly out from my mouth, and yet I knew, as certainly as what I had told him about my knowledge of prayer, that they were true. In spite of his misgivings, Joseph of Arimathea was a righteous man—to his family, friends and God. I sensed something dark yet wonderful in my mind; Joseph’s future was entwined with mine. An awesome event loomed ahead of us shielded from our knowledge, hidden in the shadow of time. As I stood at the rail of the ship with my benefactor and friend, I realized the real purpose of my journey with him was not simply to learn about the world. It was also to learn about myself. The Lord works in mysterious ways. As he had worked through my parents and our neighbor Samuel, he was now working through Joseph. I was reminded that moment, feeling an element of foreboding, that my life was a journey of both mind and spirit. My destiny has some importance for our people. . . perhaps for the Gentiles too, but what could it be?”
James paused in his reading of the letter. I was greatly impressed with his delivery and mastery of Jesus’ complex words. Before becoming a disciple like myself, he would work as a scribe in Jerusalem. Right now, however, he was just showing off. Though Joseph fancied himself a religious scholar, James had a better memory and a gift with words. As Joseph reached out for his turn, James dangled it in front of his nose but then, seeing the reaction in Joseph’s eyes, pulled it back.
“No, not yet,” he snickered, placing it behind his back. “Wait for your turn!”
I was glad James changed his mind. He was also a better reader than Joseph. Joseph was too critical and would make faces as he read and constantly stop to analyze Jesus’ words.
“Now you know why Papa didn’t want to read Jesus letter!” He cried, jumping to his feet. “Jesus so much as told that Pharisee that he’s divine!”
“No,” I said, shaking my head, “he never said he was divine. Jesus said he was special, that’s all, and he is.”
“Quite so.” James took a long sip of juice. “All that stuff about the whale and storm sounds like heresy, but I haven’t heard him say he was divine. Perhaps one day he’ll be a great rabbi or teacher. That wouldn’t be so bad, would it Joseph? I’ve given this a lot of thought myself. I’m not so sure I want to be a carpenter all my life.” “For once,” he announced, raising the scroll back up to his eyes, “I agree with Jude. Jude has great ambition too. Ho-ho, he wants to be a Roman soldier! We all know Jesus is special and has done many wondrous things, so this notion he has that he’ll change the world, in itself, isn’t bad. How could one measly sea storm or whale compare to the miracles we’ve seen?” “No.” He shook his head thoughtfully. “The storm didn’t stop immediately, like poof! It took awhile. It was pretty scary. I can’t explain the whale. Maybe that was an accident too. Jesus continues to say to everyone ‘I didn’t do anything. I just prayed. You could’ve done the same thing, yourselves.’ I’ve heard about storms on the sea, Joseph; they end as quickly as they begin. There must be something else in the letter troubling Papa far worse than what we’ve heard so far.”
Joseph gave him an I-told-you-so look. “I bet there is! You just wait and see.” Looking around at us, he added gloatingly, “Jesus is going to get in big trouble in Rome. You’ll see. You’ll all see!”
“You don’t like Jesus, do you?” Nehemiah stuck out his lower lip.
“Humph!” Joseph snorted, folding his arms.
“What do you think, James?” I scooted closer. “You think Jesus is going to get into trouble? Or perform another miracle—a really big one this time?”
“I dunno.” James shrugged, clearing his throat. “Papa seemed pretty upset. Joseph might be right. Why don’t we find out!”
Ironically the most exciting thing that happened to Jesus so far had been downplayed by James, and yet, as I look back on this event, it does appear that making it rain is far greater than merely stopping a storm. As we hung upon James’ words, he continued, with dramatic inflections, to read from the scroll. Even Simon had stayed alert this time. It was a memorable moment for the second oldest son, but it seemed as if he was, himself, looking for difficulties in Jesus’ letter:
“On our last day out to sea we all gathered on deck to witness crew members sacrifice a pig to Neptune as a thank offering for our safe voyage. Matthias and Levi protested this pagan rite. Joseph tried to hide my eyes by raising his cloak, but I insisted upon witnessing this abomination for myself. In truth, I was more concerned for the poor pig. My protector dragged me against my will to the farthest end of the ship. Several crewmen, including the captain, apologized for this affront to the Jewish God. Mariners, Captain Menalek explained, were a superstitious lot and required all the help they could get.
When I thought about it, though it was sanctified by God, our own animal sacrifice seemed just as bad. I’ve never liked this aspect of temple worship. I remembered being horrified by the blood and gore when Papa took me inside the inner sanctum to view these ceremonies. Out of respect for tradition, I didn’t bring this up when I discussed religion with the doctors of the law, but I was sorely tempted this time.
“Perhaps,” I suggested to Joseph, “there’ll be a day when sacrifice will be replaced by prayer directly to God without the intercession of priests.”
Joseph immediately took me aside, away from the others, scolding me for this lapse. This heresy came straightaway into my head, as if the Lord, Himself, said it, but it would only make matters worse if I told him this.
“Jesus,” he sputtered, “you’ve said many outrageous things, but this it the worst. Do you also forsake the law of Moses and the holy priesthood?”
“No,” I replied forthrightly, “I’ve forsaken nothing. The law and the sacrifice are important to our people, but in the days of old sacrifice was a simple affair. All righteous men could be priests. The sacrifice was intended to please God, not man. Our priests have grown fattened on the endless line of beasts being slaughtered, yet most people don’t understand the vast subtleties of our faith. They’re just going through the motions. The ceremonies and endless writ have not made the priesthood or doctors of the law one jot purer in spirit than Noah’s simple faith and Abraham’s offerings to God.”
“Enough!” Joseph held up his hand. “You don’t need to lecture me on Sadducee excesses. I don’t approve of priestly exploitation and the Pharisee’s narrow-minded interpretations of our law. Such sweeping generalizations! This is my fault. I’ve encouraged a free exchange of thought between us, but you mustn’t criticize our religion. It’s not for us to question the sacred books.”
“I’m sorry Joseph,” I said, bowing my head. “The Spirit moved me.”
“The Spirit—the Holy Spirit of God?” Joseph’s mouth dropped and eyebrows plunged.
As Matthias and Levi appeared suddenly on the deck with our guards, he drew his finger up to his lips and whispered, “Say nothing of this to the others. We’ll speak of this another day.”
“I’m sorry,” I whispered discreetly, “I didn’t want to upset you. . . . Things just come into my head.”
“I understand this Jesus,” he mumbled from the corner of his mouth, “but my sons won’t. Already they think you’re a blasphemer. Our guards and half the ship’s crew are half convinced you’re a god.”
“Ho! There’s the wonder child!” Matthias cried.
“You missed the sacrifice.” Loftus cuffed me mischievously. “They’re going to cook the pig before we arrive. What a feast!”
“You know very well we don’t eat pork,” scolded Levi. “This made the sacrifice that much more of an abomination.”
“It’s outrageous!” Joseph grumbled. “Of all the animals on board to use!”
“Forgive me master,” Loftus laughed foolishly, “I was just teasing. The captain should’ve known better than sacrifice a pig instead of a cow.”
“It’s still blasphemy,” Joseph gripped the big man’s shoulder. “You must set an example for the others. Even though you don’t believe in my God, please respect his commandment against idolatry and false gods.”
Nodding faintly, Loftus backed away deferentially to allow Matthias and Levi to bluster in. Joseph’s sons explained the scene at the bow of the ship, the sounds of which we couldn’t avoid. I had cringed at the squeal of the pig, which bothered me far more than the intonations of the pagan worshippers. According to Matthias, they actually stuck their hands into the animal’s entrails after killing it and smeared some of the blood on their faces and arms. This description outraged Joseph so much I thought he might strike his eldest son. Levi then told us about the grisly aftermath in which the sacrificial victim was cut up crudely for the crewmen to cook in sections over an improvised spit near the bow. Such an innovation, Loftus suggested, was irresponsible for the captain, since it might catch the ship on fire.
“So you didn’t join the sacrifice?” Joseph looked around at our guards.
“No, master,” they replied in unison.
“Good.” He nodded with approval. “It’s an abomination.”
“I bet they’d eat the offering.” Levi taunted accusingly. “All Gentiles eat pork.”
“Not so!” Loftus said indignantly, giving my head a pat. “Forgive my gross humor, Joseph, but I respect your invisible god. I much prefer spring lamb than pork. Though it’s tasty when cooked with lentils and herbs, you’ve taught me that pig is unclean, so I avoid it unless I visit my family. In my country pork is the favorite meat, and a guest must not offend his host.”
“What if your host asked you to eat bugs or a snake?” Levi made a face.
“That depends,” Loftus replied after some thought. “Some bugs and certain river snakes, when prepared properly, are quite tasty.”
I smiled with affection at the big Nubian. Loftus, who winked at me that moment, was in a buoyant mood. I don’t believe for one moment that he would purposely offend Joseph, but he loved to tease Joseph’s narrow-minded sons. In good-natured banter, the other guards, Strabo, Glychon, and Tycho, offered their own favorites to the list, including the Roman delicacies of dormice and peacock brain.
“That’s revolting!” Matthias made a face. “I’d rather die than pollute my body with unclean things.”
“So easy for a rich man’s son to say,” Tycho tossed his head. “A starving man will eat anything—pork, snake, even dog meat—to save his life!”
“According to the Torah,” the spirit moved me again, “it’s permissible to eat grasshoppers in the desert. David once stole the sacrifice from the temple to lessen his hunger. What’s unclean is that which pollutes our hearts and mind.”
“You hear that?” Tycho looked back at Matthias. “My thoughts exactly!”
“Yes,” Glychon’s head bobbed, “I agree with Jesus. I certainly do.”
“All right everyone that’s enough!” Joseph held up his hands. “Jesus has brought up an important point: the spirit of our law. We mustn’t forget, however, the prohibition against unclean food was given to us by Moses even though David, himself, didn’t always follow the Lord’s will.”
I didn’t argue with Joseph, but he had almost said it himself: the spirit is greater than the letter of the law. I felt as if I had made a spiritual breakthrough with the stubborn Pharisee. According to the law, David, my father and mother’s ancestor, should not have taken the offering, and yet he felt justified because of his hunger and his righteous cause. The Lord didn’t punish him. Nor did he punish the prophets for eating locusts and wild honey. Joseph had four faithful guards, whose goodwill he needed for a safe journey. Later, I would be scolded for my liberal interpretation of the law, but I was certain the Lord had been communicating with me again. It’s as if, every once in awhile, a whole new chapter of revelation is being written piecemeal in my head. The urge to find a pen and scrap of parchment and write down my inspirations filled me once again as I followed the others below. Fearful that the crew would defile us with pig’s blood in their merriment, Joseph instructed us to lay low in our compartment until our ship reached port.
Loftus taught us a new game as we waited to disembark. It’s an ancient game in which one player takes three nut shells, places a small pebble in one of them, and moves the three shells around rapidly before asking the other players, one-by-one, where the pebble is. I can imagine various peoples of the worlds using different items to play this game: cups, sea or snail shells, as well as a assortment of nut shells, and, in place of a pebble inside, peas, dried berries, or nuts. Some how—a feat which my brothers might once have considered magic—Loftus fooled us each time we guessed, winking mischievously at me each time. Stopping short of calling him a cheat, Levi suggested that it was a slight-of-hand trick instead of a true game of chance. Fortunately for Matthias, who accused me of using black magic in consort with the guard, Joseph was just this moment in a heated discussion with our truant captain about the loss of goods on the deck.
Hearing shouts from crewmen to attendants, relatives, and friends on the dock, we all looked at Joseph for his nod. When he gave his silent consent, we rushed out the cabin door to join the sailors and other passengers on deck. Joseph had told us earlier that Publius, a Jewish merchant he did business with, would be waiting on the pier with his family. Gently pushing my way through onlookers to the rail, I joined in this festive occasion with uplifted heart. For here at last was Ostia, the port of Rome. Inexplicably, I also felt a momentary foreboding about this city. I had these feelings before about my future but they had been abstractions: mental shadows and bursts of light. Occasionally, I would have a dream that appeared to be prophetic. It appears to me that Jude has had these kind of dreams too. I know Mama does. The feeling I had, as I looked at the crowd on the dock, realizing that these were Romans, the oppressors of our people, was strong but not hostile. One can’t blame them for their way of life and system of government, no more than our people can be blamed for the machinations of our priests and collaboration of our religious leaders with the Roman occupiers . . . . It was something deeper, darker. . . . But what?
Dozens of well-wishers waited for passengers and crewmen, but as Joseph scanned the bodies bunched up on the wharf, there was no sign of Publius or his family. According to Joseph’s description, the Jewish merchant was short and portly, with a well-groomed beard. His wife, son, and daughter were also heavy-set and squat. So far, as we waited for Joseph’s goods to be loaded onto the dock, no one with those descriptions appeared. The four guards, always vigilant for threats, looked quite menacing with their spears in hand and swords tucked in their belts as they studied the crowd. Matthias and Levi were especially jittery among the noisy relatives, friends, attendants, and hawkers of foods and delicacies.
At one point, when Levi walked over to purchase a bag of sweet meats, Loftus moved swiftly to cut him off. “Your father wants us to stay in one group.”
“Unhand me, you brute,” he shrugged off Loftus’ beefy hands.
“Levi, you know the rules.” Joseph snapped his fingers. “This is Ostia. There must be a hundred or so desperate men swarming in this harbor: thieves, cutthroats, and pickpockets. Let our guards do their job, until we’re safely on our way to Publius’ estate.
“I’m sorry young master,” Loftus bowed to Levi. “My instincts are very strong here. A dock is a place where brigands and prostitutes ply their trade. Some of these light fingered people can steal your innermost valuables before you have a chance to blink.”
“You don’t owe him an apology,” Joseph said dismissively. “Why not call the vendor over here to see if he has anything worthwhile.”
Strabo, who had a booming voice, made the call. Joseph watched the workers haul his goods while the vendor displayed his candied dates and various sweet meats. Because the items were packed in leaves inside his straw basket they looked clean and sanitary to me, and yet Loftus took one look at them and waved the vendor away.
“Why’d you do that?” Levi stomped his foot. “I thought you people would eat anything.”
“Sir, his wares were tainted. I’ve seen quality sweat meats and candied dates before. Those weren’t fit for consumption.”
“With the threat of disease,” Tycho offered politely, “we shouldn’t take the chance.”
“They looked all right to me,” Matthias grumbled. “The man had them in little leaves. He looked clean enough.”
“No,” Glychon said, shaking his head, “that sleazy man put dirty food in shiny little leaves. For all you know sir, he just used the cloaca. Did you happen to notice his teeth when he smiled? They were green!”
Suddenly, as the guards argued quietly with Joseph’s sons, a familiar face loomed through the crowd. “Joseph of Arimathea!” Publius called in a high-pitched voice.
“Dear Publius. At last!” A look of relief fell over Joseph’s face.
“Joseph! Matthias! Levi!” The little merchant waddled forward, arms outstretched.
To Loftus, Strabo, Glychon, and Tycho, whose names he couldn’t remember, he reached out to grasp their hands, after embracing Joseph and his sons. When his eyes fell on me, his mouth fell and eyes popped wide. “Ah,” he cried, “this must be the famous Jesus of Nazareth!”
Publius’ wife, son and daughter politely greeted us, by smiling and patting our arms, and inquiring about our voyage. Publius introduced his family to us and Joseph introduced the remainder of his group. Without hesitation, Loftus immediately told them how Jesus prayer had quieted a terrible storm.
“Where it not for you proscription for eating pork,” he exclaimed, “I might become a Jew myself.”
Matthias and Levi frowned severely, but Publius burst into laughter. “Oh yes,” he declared to his wife Diana, “this is Loftus, the funny one. I remember his rude humor. What a valuable prize this fellow is!”
“Valuable yes, but he’s not a prize,” Joseph gently corrected. “I don’t believe in slavery. All of my guards were purchased and then freed. Were it not for my noble guards, I would’ve never left Judea. They’re loyalty has also made them my friends.”
“Well,” Publius said, bobbing his head, “I have many freed men myself, but I can’t really call them friends.”
I can’t say that I approved of Publius’ airs, but he seemed to be a good-natured fellow. As the workers finished loading the goods Joseph planned on having Publius sell in Rome, he and the Romanized Jew discussed business awhile before Publius told Joseph of the latest gossip in the capital.
“Tiberius was threatening to expel the Jews,” he began discreetly. “It’s been a difficult week for our people. I must’ve drunk a barrel of wine.”
“What?” Joseph’s mouth dropped. “Are you serious? There’s thousands of Jews in Rome. Why would he do that? ”
Publius rolled his eyes left and right, as if making sure no one overheard. “A prominent Jewish matron converted to our faith. Following this affront, a gang of Jews talked her into removing treasure from our temple in Jerusalem.”
“That’s awful,” Joseph grabbed his forehead,” “just awful!”
“What’s going to happen now?” Matthias asked in quivering voice.
“I heard that the alleged culprits will be sent to copper mines in Spain—a dreadful place,” he made a face. “But that’s not all,” his eyes popped wide. “Because the Jews of Rome refuse to offer incense to Jupiter, four thousand young men were shipped to Sardinia to fight bandits. That’s even worse. Sardinia is a pestilential swamp. It’s a death sentence unless Tiberius changes his mind.”
It occurred to me as I listened to them discuss this anti-Jewish sentiment, that Publius had not said Tiberius is threatening to expel the Jews; he said that Tiberius was threatening to expel the Jews. This struck me as significant. I whispered this tactfully to Joseph, as Publius described the public outcry of Tiberius measures. Joseph’s eyebrows shot up but he placed a finger before his lips.
“This all started in the palace,” prattled Publius, “I get along perfectly well with the patricians. Those soldiers roaming the city causing problems don’t represent Rome. There’s strong pressure on Tiberius from senators and businessmen in the city to recall the conscripts from Sardinia.”
“Then the Roman populace isn’t anti-Jewish?” Levi heaved a sigh.
“I wouldn’t say that.” Publius shrugged. “Jews are never completely safe here. The Romans are not happy that we refuse to acknowledge their gods, but most of them accept the status quo. Thanks to our friend Pompey and Augustus, we had been given special treatment, even status in the empire. Even Tiberius had exempted us from military service, until that woman’s conversion and that incident at the temple.”
“So,” Joseph pursed his lips, “there’s not really a threat.”
“Dear me no,” Publius tittered, “nothing immediate. Don’t worry folks. We should be safe for a while. Tiberius’ friends in Rome have strong business ties with the Jews. This should blow over soon.”
“You sounded worried.” I studied the merchant.
Shaking his head indecisively, Publius squirmed a moment before regaining his composure. Matthias and Levi seemed greatly irritated with the merchant. I sensed something dark behind his idle chatter. After listening to my benefactor during our journey and hearing this feedback from our host, I was reminded of the general attitude between Gentiles and Jews. I had always heard from my father and others that Rome was tolerant of its melting pot of peoples. There was every race and language constituted in the empire, living and doing business in the great city, and yet there would always be that undercurrent of resentment for Jews and the division between pagan and Jew.
As Joseph and Publius talked business a moment, we moved out of earshot to discuss this important subject. Matthias, Levi, and even the guards gave their opinions. Joseph’s sons, like me, were suspicious of Publius’ words. Why would he even bring this up if the emergency had passed?
“What if the emperor just wanted to confiscate the wealth of rich Jews?” Loftus suggested wryly. “You people own half the real estate in Rome.”
“The fact is,” shrugged Tycho, “you people have influence. Joseph is the most respectable merchant in Palestine or Rome.”
“That doesn’t change deep-seated feelings.” Matthias frowned. “It’s there below the surface. Believe me. I’ve seen it. We’ve all seen: that hatred for Jews.”
“Precisely,” I chimed, “an undercurrent. I thought the same thing myself.
“Humph,” grumbled Matthias.
“I’ve often wondered,” I followed this train of thought, “if it’s not the privileged status of Jews that’s perceived as a problem by Romans and Greeks. Everyone else has to observe the gods with incense and obeisance, while we Jews turn up our noses. When the legions march off to war, Jewish men remain snug in their homes, safe from conscription into the army.”
“That’s not fair.” Levi protested. “Our religion doesn’t allow Jews to serve in foreign armies. Roman soldiers eat pork and all manner of vile foods. They murder innocent people and must bow to Roman gods. We have commandments, Jesus. We obey the Lord’s will.”
“The little prince is right.” Loftus gave Levi a severe look. “I once resented Jewish exemption myself, but that’s not the issue. Jews can’t be blamed for not wanting a split skull or arrow in the gut, but on the matter of respect for other people’s religions they’re unreasonable and hardheaded. What would it hurt to give Jupiter or Mars a friendly pinch of incense? Why, for that matter, when soldiers move about freely in the cities in protection of Jews don’t they allow Gentiles into their homes?”
Though rarely talking, Strabo, now voiced his objection that he and the other guards couldn’t even set foot in the master’s house whom they guarded with their lives, and yet because of Jesus, Samuel, a Pharisee in Nazareth, allowed them to enter his estate.
“The Jews think they’re better than anyone else,” exclaimed Tycho. “And look at them—a conquered people like the rest of us, not paying homage to their conqueror’s gods.”
As Syrians, Glychon and Tycho, had seen firsthand the arrogance of the priests in Jerusalem who posted a sign on the door of the temple promising death for anyone entering the inner sanctum. Realizing that the guards were trying to goad them into another argument, Matthias and Levi had stomped away from the circle, grumbling amongst themselves, but with Tycho’ last slur, the two young men came racing back, eyes ablaze.
“What did you say?” Levi looked accusingly at the speaker.
“I was saying,” snorted Tycho, going one step further, “anyone can visit Jupiter or Mars’ temple without threat, and yet curiosity would be fatal in yours. What’s so special about a temple built for an invisible god? I heard there’s nothing in your holy of holies but an alter and a few dusty old scrolls. How could a visitor defile that barren room?”
“Are you listening to them?” Matthias looked over at his father in disbelief.
Joseph and Publius were still in a quiet discussion when Levi pointed an accusing finger at his father. “You’ve always given these men free rein, but this is going too far. It’s disrespectable of our faith. It’s sacrilegious!”
“I’m not sacrilegious.” The big Syrian spat on the ground. “I could care less what you do quietly, unseen from Roman eyes, but you must be more careful here than in those provincial towns. This is Rome, not Jerusalem or Sepphoris where you’re a majority.”
“No, no, you don’t understand our religion,” Matthias shook his head, “we can’t appease blasphemers or heretics. You cross the line Tycho—you too Loftus and Strabo—when you tell us how to behave.”
“These are common opinions among our Gentile neighbors and friends.” Joseph laughed good-naturedly. “I’ve heard much worse. Matthias and Levi, our guards, have reason to worry this time. Trust me. I know their hearts on this matter. They would give their lives to save us. Through their eyes, I know the Gentile mind and I’m alerted to threats on our paths. They’ve come along way since I gave them their freedom. One day, I pray, they’ll give up their pagan beliefs and become children of God, but until then their rude wit serves a purpose: they see the world not how we would wish it to be but how it is.”
“I don’t know if I can ever pray to an invisible god,” I heard Glychon grumble to Strabo. “What would be wrong with a little statue to carry around, like Loftus has around is neck—perhaps, for the Jewish god, an old man with a long spear in his hand. How can you focus on thin air? A god needs an identity, just like mortal men, and yet we’re told that Yahweh is a powerful god.”
Such was the dilemma of most Gentiles. I reached out that moment to pat Tycho muscular arm. I heard from Loftus that this fellow, though much shorter than himself, was as strong as three men and had once pulled a small tree out of the ground to prove a point. All four of Joseph’s guards, the Pharisee once boasted, would have made fine gladiators if he had not come along. Now, by God’s graces, they were his servants. He felt blessed with such powerful and brave guards. At that moment, however, I saw, as the Spirit moved me, children seeking reason in the mystery of our faith. Tycho’s dark eyes, belying the snarl on this face, yearned for inner peace.
“You’re not far from the Kingdom,” I whispered to him, as Matthias shook his head.
I had, Matthias probably thought, bewitched the guards.
“So,” he muttered to Levi, “if we let him whittle a little idol like the serpent around Loftus’s neck, he’ll convert.” “You ever hear of the first commandment?” He taunted me.
“Yes, Jesus, what kingdom are you talking about?” Levi frowned. “Heaven or Gahenna, where pagans and sinners roast in internal fire.”
Overhearing this discord, as he chatted with Publius, Joseph made a slicing motion into this palm. Silence fell over the group. I had been tempted to answer Levi’s question and set Matthias straight. I fully intended to make believers out of the four guards, but I knew it would take patience and time. The Kingdom, I spoke of, appeared in my mind one day as I strolled the hills in Nazareth talking to God. Pictured in my mind then was a wondrous place much greater than the intangible, unknowable heaven discussed by Pharisees and rabbis. There were trees, animals, and singing, laughing people, who walked with angels in the presence of God. It was a place of endless day, perfect peace, without want or care. Though Levi was referring to that vague paradise hinted at in the Torah, I knew it was much more.”
“With his goods and merchandise safely stored in a rented warehouse, the doors of warehouse locked tight, and a detail of paid attendants left watching over his goods, Joseph and his company followed his host and his family to the waiting carriages. Fresh horses had been requisitioned by Joseph for the guards. Once again, as I withdrew into myself, a feeling of urgency filled me, this time about the Kingdom. I was certain this notion was not in the scriptures. What did it have to do with me, a carpenter’s son? It comforted me as a warm blanket as I was lulled by the rocking of our carriage. I knew I had a great destiny. My parents had told me this as did Samuel, our friend, and Joseph, himself. As our guards road alongside of us on their mounts, chattering about the scenery and what they expected to happen in Rome, I could hear Matthias and Levi grumbling about their boisterous talk and Joseph scolding them gently for their intolerance toward the guards. I had been moved by the sincerity of these simple men, though I couldn’t blame Joseph’s sons for being offended by what they said. I felt great sympathy toward the guards because of their resentment at being left out. A part of me, perhaps the heretical part Joachim had ranted about, wished that all men, Gentile and Jew, who believed in God, could share in our faith.
A more immediate question in my mind, however, took a hold of me as our carriage rattled and bumped on the cobbled road winding its way to Publius’ estate: Would Rome prove to be a hostile and dangerous place for us with the new emperor in power? It seemed as if there would always be someone like Tiberius persecuting our people. I just hoped it wouldn’t be as bad as Publius implied. To witness the persecution of Rome’s Jews firsthand is not what I had in mind during our visit to Rome. It appears, like it or not, that God was leading me into the Shadow of the Valley of Death spoken by of the Psalmist.
As I write this letter, I pray that our Lord will protect the Chosen People living in Rome.
This letter, the first installment of my letters from Rome, I have dashed off and entrusted to our captain upon his voyage back to Joppa. Joseph of Arimathea and his guards send their greetings and prayers for your good health. My prayers for our family, Samuel’s health, and the success of Papa’s business. Forgive the hastiness in this chapter. There was no time to waste.
Your son, brother, and subject of Our Lord,
Jesus of Nazareth
“Well,” James snorted, “it started off good.”
“That part about the monster and the storm was fantastic!” Nehemiah clapped his hands.
“Until he started preaching,” Simon grunted. “That ruined it.”
James stood up and stretched, glancing self-consciously up at the house.
“Wait!” I reached out to the scroll. “Is that all you’re going to read?”
“It’s quite enough,” James sighed with relief. “I’m sure another letter will arrive this week, but Mama will be home soon. I can understand why Papa didn’t want to read this aloud. Jesus said some strange things. We’ve got to get this back in the pantry before our parents return.”
“But when will another letter come?” Nehemiah’s small mouth drew into a pout.
“Whenever the courier returns,” James replied, out of breath as he scurried up the path.
Catching his urgency, we fell into step behind him. Joseph had grown quiet during the reading. Upon entering the empty house, however, he broke into sharp criticism of Jesus’ latest heresies.
“So tell me,” he began self-righteously. “What’s this business about sacrifice being replaced by prayer and there being no more priests? And that notion about the universal, unknown god—where’s that written? Did Jesus just make that up? Why did Joseph of Arimathea allow such talk? When Jews eat pork and bugs, as Jesus condones, is that not heresy? When he questioned our faith, is he not blaspheming the Lord? Who is he to question our faith? Who is he to interpret our laws? That Pharisee gives Jesus great license. He should have been more offended by his words!”
“He was offended,” James cocked an eyebrow. “In the letter he scolded Jesus several times.”
“Hah!” Joseph tossed his head. “Why did he tell Jesus he might be a prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah? That’s outrageous! Why would Joseph of Arimathea tell him a thing like that?”
“I don’t know,” James waved irritably, “but keep your voice down! They could walk up any moment. Let’s go outside, out of earshot. We’ll pretend we’re playing a game: tag, stones, or hide and go seek.”
Placing the food basket, pitcher and mugs on the table, Nehemiah, Simon, and I followed our brothers out of the house. I wasn’t surprised with Joseph’s reaction. He was simply being himself, but James responded differently. He was showing control, even leadership, qualities that resurfaced later in his life. Looking back at us, he pointed to the spot where we gathered before.
“All right,” Joseph said, sitting on the log, “we’re away from the house. Explain to me, James, why Jesus is reinterpreting scripture? Who is he to criticize our laws against unclean food? He speaks of a spiritual breakthrough, as if he is the Lord’s anointed. What is this special Kingdom he speaks of? What did he mean when he implied that revelation was being written in his head?”
“I dunno,” James heaved a sigh. “I wish I hadn’t of read it now.”
“I’ve heard him talk that way before,” I came to Jesus defense. “Sometimes he talks in riddles. He thinks he hears things.”
“Those weren’t riddles.” James shook his head. “Those were plain statements. I’m half certain Jesus has God’s ear. How can you explain the sparrow or the rain? That bird was dead, and the sky opened up as Jesus prayed. The only really serious issue, I believe, is his criticism of the temple and the priests. That’s important stuff. Except those statements about the Kingdom, all those other words aren’t much worse than what we heard in his letters from Egypt and Greece.”
“But why is he trying to make everyone think he’s God’s anointed?” cried Joseph.
“Stop it!” James put his hands on his ears. “We mustn’t talk about this anymore.”
“That’s fine we me,” grunted Simon.
“I know,” Nehemiah chirped sweetly, “let’s play hide and go seek,”
James looked down at the frail youth and laughed. While Joseph sulked in the backyard, we strolled back to the woods, leaving Joseph to grumble fitfully to himself. Instead of hide and go seek, the four of us threw rocks at tree stumps and boulders until our parents returned. Not much was said about Jesus last letter. I was glad that James didn’t criticize Jesus this time. In spite of his many gifts, it did appear as if Jesus might be speaking heresy, even blasphemy, at times, and yet Joseph of Arimathea seemed to be a tolerant host with both his guards and guest. I was not surprised that, under these circumstances, Jesus’ views had grown more radical. After awhile, Joseph joined us in the shadow of the tree, where we stood in moody silence, reflecting upon Jesus first letter from Rome.
Later, when Mama returned home, we were called into the house for dinner. She and the twins had visited Samuel, now on the mend, and brought her herbal potion to Habakkuk’s wife Rachel, who recently suffered a stroke. Mama was tired and cranky. The five of us kept silent about the letter’s contents, while she set about fixing a hasty dinner and Papa, who now had three new orders, went into his shop to take inventory of his supplies. For the first time since the healing of the sparrow, James and Joseph treated me civilly and were even polite to Nehemiah as we amused ourselves by chasing a snake across the floor. Mama put a stop to this at once, scooping it up frantically and running for the door.
“Who brought that serpent into my home?” She looked at us accusingly.
We stifled our laughter that moment when the little snake slithered up her arm and onto her bosom before she could toss it into the yard.
“You think that’s funny?” She glared at us. “What if it got loose in our house?”
“Sorry, Mama!” we chimed.
Nehemiah, the only one of us actually contrite, dropped his chin to his chest, receiving a pat on his head. The remainder of us, recalling her comical expression, giggled foolishly behind our hands. The last time we witnessed her jump and gyrate like that was when a wasp flew into the window. To change the subject and avoid further scolding, I turned to my brothers and suggested we play a game I shared with my friends. James, Joseph, and Simon continued to snicker as I made scooting motions to the table. Mama stood there a moment, her hands on her hips, as I explained the rules, then turned back to the kitchen, shaking her head.
“This is nothing but a stupid guessing game,” Simon grumbled.
“Come on.” I elbowed him. “It’ll be fun.”
As we waited for dinner to begin, we divided into two uneven teams—Joseph, Simon and Nehemiah versus James and me (the smartest of the five.), keeping a tally of our points with pebbles collected from the yard. James and I, of course, won, which made Joseph grow sensitive and defensive of his knowledge. Though he prided himself on following our law and tradition, he was basically close-minded and ignorant. I can’t remember when poor Joseph was in a truly good mood. He was, as James at times, jealous of Jesus’ popularity and power and resented his high-handed ways. Considering Joseph’s frame of mind, it was logical that he condemn Jesus’ opinions of religious sacrifice and ritual after what James read. Some of Jesus’ views shocked even me. Jesus was, from his first miracle, a revolutionary, going against many things we believed.