Our family’s visit to Elizabeth, Mama’s aunt, would be the first time we had been away from our home in several years. If Elizabeth’s health had not taken a turn for the worst, we might not have made the trip at all, but because of the urgency in the letter sent to my parents, Mama felt we had to go. Zechariah had passed away several years ago. Elizabeth was alone with her young son, and needed constant care. Mama explained to us that, in addition to caring for her aunt, her nephew John was running amuck in town and required supervision. Since she could not make the trip by herself and Papa dare not leave us children alone, we all had to go. It was a chance for all of us to see our great aunt one more time.
Nehemiah was too weak for the trip, so he was left in the care of Samuel’s physician and his servants at the Pharisee’s house. To ease my parents’ conscience was the fact that Abner was scheduled to pay Samuel another visit soon, which meant he would check in on Nehemiah too. Longinus sent Regulus and a company of legionnaires, including two of our guards, to accompany us until we reached the main highway. At that point, Longinus explained to Papa, only Falco and Priam would escort us to our destination. This didn’t seem enough to me if we ran into Reuben and his friends. After arriving at our destination, we would be out of the jurisdiction of Longinus, First Centurion for Prefect Cornelius, and Falco and Priam would have to return to Nazareth to continue guarding our house. Because Sepphoris was a large town, it would not be a squad of legionnaires watching over us but guards sent by the town magistrates, who might not give us the same attention that our Roman protectors gave us back home.
In high spirits Falco and Priam treated this extra detail as a vacation, Falco promising that they would make sure that we were safely inside Elizabeth’s home before they returned. I also heard them tell Papa that Cornelius, himself, had given the magistrates of Sepphoris orders to provide us with protection not only in Elizabeth’s house but anywhere in the precincts of the city. This gave us some comfort, but we still had several hours of travel left. Papa had voiced his doubts to Mama in earshot of me: “There’s not enough of them to protect us from an ambush on the road.”—my thoughts exactly from the start. Unlike the others, who plodded behind us, I carried Papa’s words in my head throughout our trip. Added to these gloomy thoughts was the grim foreboding I saw registered on Jesus’ face about our family’s future.
During the daylong journey on mules and donkeys Papa had rented from the Romans, I pretended that my donkey was actually my great white horse, but I was beset by too many fears to enjoy this fantasy. On a large brown stallion Falco led our procession, occasionally trotting back to discuss something with Priam at the rear. After whimpering constantly about the ride, Abigail and Martha now sat with Papa and Mama’s respectively on their much larger mules. We now had two riderless donkeys. Behind these beasts, rode moody James and Joseph, grumpy Simon, and in front of Priam, who guarded the end of our procession, rode an inscrutable Jesus, as always wrapped up in his thoughts. I wondered if my all-knowing brother was worried like me. Today, hopefully in the late afternoon, he would see his second cousin John. The last time my parents took Jesus to see her aunt and uncle, Jesus was much younger. We didn’t need an escort then, but the heat was unbearable and unlike our quiet journey today, James, Joseph, and Simon quarreled on the way, and during our visit James and Joseph teased our peculiar cousin, accusing him of being addled in the head. I had heard James grumble to Joseph, as we approached Sepphoris, “I hope Elizabeth doesn’t die. Our parents will probably adopt John too.” A hysterical laugh escaped my parched throat as we turned north onto the road leading into Sepphoris. We would soon find out!
Upon seeing, at distance, its gleaming columns, tiled rooftops, and endless rows of buildings, our silence ended and we broke into excited chatter. Mama muttered that it was a sinful city, but Papa’s spirits appeared to rise. His loyalty to his hometown had deteriorated greatly in the past year. I listened, in total agreement, as he compared Sepphoris to Nazareth, our humble village. Unlike Nazareth, a sprawling hodge-podge of white plastered mud huts, Sepphoris had been built by the Greeks and dazzled the eye. There were theatres, pagan temples, a great library, which our religion forbade us to enter, but also many synagogues, two great market places, and many beautiful parks and gardens we Jews could visit. I knew, of course, that Papa and Mama would keep an eye on us at all times.
Suddenly, as I clutched my reigns and looked down the road leading into the city, Jesus’ appeared beside me. With an enigmatic smile, he winked at me, as if to say “don’t worry Jude, everything’s going to be all right.” I was trying not to think about Nehemiah, yet I nodded and returned his smile. The visit to Sepphoris was a pleasant diversion for me—just what I needed. As he exhibited in his letters during his travels with Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus also showed great interest in everything in his sight, both the sacred and profane. During the remainder of our trip to Elizabeth’s house, he looked about him, as he always did, as if he was gathering information to store in his unfathomable mind. How small in its glories Sepphoris must have seemed compared to Alexandria, Athens, and Rome! Our procession, which was viewed with disdain by many of the wealthy folks looking down from their balconies, passed by several beautiful buildings, including temples filled with Greek and Roman gods. Jesus, I’m quite certain, was processing this information too. It always seemed strange, Papa remarked that moment, that so many Jews live in this pagan city. At one point, as a great building loomed into view, he pointed to the palace been built by Herod, the king who once tried to kill the infant Jesus, and uttered a bitter laugh.
“Remember this city, my sons,” he spoke grandly. “Such works are not greater than the builders, though they exist to serve living men. This city, which Herod built, was destroyed by the Romans but rebuilt by his son Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee. I remember when that rascal took the throne. He’s no better than his father, but at least he has an eye for beauty. Though he allowed Greek architects to build temples to a thousand Greek and Roman gods, Antipas built this palace to please the Jews, yet it was this same Antipas who turned a blind eye when the Romans crucified two thousands Galilean men during Judah’s revolt.”
He paused a moment to gather his thoughts. It was a reckless thing for him to say in our guards’ presence. Falco, who must have heard Papa’s mutterings, said nothing, but I immediately took issue with the last sentence of his speech.
“Why do I have the same name as that man?” I brought my donkey alongside of his mule.
Abigail was asleep in one of his arms. Something dark seemed to pass before Papa’s eyes before he answered my question.
“I call you Jude, not Judah,” he replied carefully. “. . .Your father Jonathan and mother Rebecca gave you that name. It’s a great name in Israel. Judah is both your adopted mother’s and my tribe, the family of King David and the coming Messiah of the Jews.”
“It was also the name of a man who killed Roman soldiers,” Falco’s voice intruded into our conversation. “I heard of your King David,” he called back from his horse, “a fine fellow. I’m sure this Messiah will be great too, but that Judah, the Galilean, who caused the rebellion, was a madman, a murderer, and fool.”
“He was a great man!” Joseph muttered to himself.
“The Romans murdered two thousand Jews!” grumbled James.
I had excellent hearing. At first I was afraid the Romans might have heard Joseph and James too. Falco, however, was ranting on the atrocities performed by the rebels, during Governor Quirinius’ rule, upon innocent travelers and citizens loyal to Rome. At the same time, I heard Priam talking to Jesus about his magical powers. As I record now in my chronicle, Papa’s words set up what Greek logicians call a causal sequence, one statement affecting another down the line. Papa’s sarcastic praise of Sepphoris, which alluded to the rebellion, had caused me to question my name, which caused criticism from one of our guards about Judah the Galilean, which, having offended Joseph and James, who were sensitive about their own adoption, caused them to make treasonous statements against Rome. In truth, the Romans hadn’t heard James and Joseph’s comments, so they weren’t in the causal chain, and Falco, though he ruffled their sensitivities, was it the end. This left Papa at the beginning of the sequence, a point I understand now as the “prime cause.” Now that I reflect upon it, it was a classic example of Aristotle’s cause and effect, in which Papa’s statement set it all in motion.
As a mere child, however, I was ignorant of Greek thinking. I was angry with James and Joseph for what they said. I was also upset that Judah bar Joseph was my original name. I would learn both sides of the story of Judah the Galilee as I grew older. For now he seemed to be a brutish fellow. What I had seen so far of fanaticism had predisposed me against men like him or Reuben and his band. Deborah, who had caused Nehemiah’s illness and Rabbi Joachim who incited the town against Mariah and her son also helped turn me against fanatical Jews, making me ashamed of the zealots I had heard Papa talk about who wanted our people to rise up again and revolt. Presently, as I listened to Falco relate to Papa the stories told to him by comrades around the campfire, I could envision the rabid terror spread by Judah, as I had imagined Reuben ambushing us in Nazareth or, more recently, on the road. I noted with pride, as Priam joined the discussion, that Papa had not defended Judah. That was left to my foolish brothers, whose grumblings were drowned out by the conversation on the road.
Now that we were riding through the main street looking for Aunt Elizabeth’s house, there was only one topic being discussed in front and in back of me: Judah the Galilean’s rebellion against Rome. I know now that Judah’s rebellion had been based upon Rome’s unfair taxation of our people, much more than Jewish patriotism or hatred of Gentile pollution of our land, yet James and Joseph looked upon Judah as a martyr and national hero. As we made our grand entrance into Sepphoris, I had little sympathy for my namesake. I tended to agree with Papa, though I was fascinated by the gruesome accounts the guards gave of Judah’s atrocities upon Roman sympathizers and military columns. While the guards wrote Judah off as a murderous revolutionary, Papa saw him as a well-meaning spoiler who brought down the wrath of Rome.
Judging by their surliness, as we drew closer and closer to our destination, James and Joseph had mixed feelings about visiting Aunt Elizabeth’s house. Jesus told me recently that their resentment was not merely for the Roman presence in Nazareth but their identity as Papa’s adopted sons. If this was true, I suppose my question to Papa had triggered a reaction—a reminder that they were adopted too. Yet I found such displaced anger, as Jesus explained it, baffling and James and Joseph a frightful bore. We all knew what Elizabeth’s illness might mean. If she died, I’m certain we would be taking her son John home. After having Michael in our house and our ordeal with Nehemiah, what was one more brother in our home?
“We will be there soon,” Mama spoke up at last. “Her house is right down this street.”
“You have been here before?” Priam called from the rear.
“Not too often,” she sighed. “Joseph has clients here. My Uncle Ahab lived in he northern quarter of the city. He passed away awhile back.”
“Ahab? That’s a common name for Jews.” Falco looked back with a sneer. “Almost as common as Judah. Isn’t that right little Jude?”
“I don’t understand,” I muttered aloud. “Of all the Jewish names, why would my adoptive parents give me that name?”
“Shut up Jude,” James snarled.
“Yes, Jude, shut up!” Joseph seconded.
“Why don’t you shut up,” suggested Jesus curtly. “You’ve both done nothing but grumble the whole way.”
“Falco, my friend,” Papa said gently to the Roman, “no one regrets Judah’s rebellion more than I. We lost many young men in Nazareth. I’m certain Jonathan, Jude’s original father, had our ancestor in mind, but I would not have picked that name. As I have done for all my sons, I gave my youngest son the Romanized version of his name: Jude. When my sons are older they may go back to their birth names if they choose.”
“In Rome adoption is a sacred custom,” Falco said thoughtfully. “I heard from Cornelius that Emperor Augustus regretted adopting Tiberius as his heir.”
Priam laughed derisively at this statement. Papa politely asked why this was so, which generated more laughter from Priam. Falco explained to Papa, in a nutshell, imperial politics as told to him by his prefect after his last visit to Rome.
“Because of Gaius and Drusus Caesar’s untimely deaths, Augustus adopted Tiberius and made him his heir. I suspect his wife, Livia, Tiberius’ mother, had her hand in this. Before the old man died, he made Tiberius adopt Prince Germanicus, whom everyone loves, thinking the lad might succeed Tiberius when his stepson joined the shades. By Jove, he’d a made a fine emperor! No one wanted Iron Jaws on the throne. Now, with Germanicus winning all those victories on the frontier, the prince’s popularity has soared, while already, because of recent events, the new emperor’s reputation has sank like a stone. You mark my word sir, that lad’s days are numbered if ol’ Livia has her way. . . .”
This troubling subject, which I had generated, suddenly changed as Falco began gossiping about the latest intrigues and scandals of the imperial court. Before long, to Mama’s relief, Falco’s outrageous anecdotes were interrupted as we approached Elizabeth’s house.
Papa announced our arrival to the Romans, dismounted, and, after setting the drowsy Abigail onto the ground, helped Martha and then Mama off her mule. At a distance, Elizabeth’s house appeared to be a typical Roman villa, not unlike Samuel’s house back in Nazareth. It’s stone walls, like the estates lining the main road, were decked with ivy. Ornate pots on top of the walls were filled with palms and flowery plants. A great wood and metal door, recessed in a niche from the road, protected the building inside from the outer world. A balcony overhead, like the walls below, was decked with ornate pottery on its ramparts. The grand house, like other wealthy houses in Sepphoris, reminded Jesus of the small self-sufficient “fortress” villas throughout the Roman world. For a few moments, perhaps to drown out Priam’s bawdy account, he shared this recollection with us as well as his thoughts about Roman architecture. I made a mental note to ask him more questions about the wonders he had seen. It seemed as though every time we all sat down together and Jesus had a chance to share a moment or two, some emergency came up, such as Nehemiah, Samuel or Elizabeth’s illness, to divert our attention.
While Papa assisted Mama and the twins, Jesus climbed off his donkey and ran over to knock on Elizabeth’s great door. James, Joseph, Simon, and I, eager to put the dust of the road behind us, quickly climbed off our donkeys too. Everyone was tired and apprehensive about the days ahead. The great door opened and a servant appeared at the entrance. Papa motioned for all of us to enter but held back to talk to our guards. As a servant stood waiting by the door, I managed to be the last one in line. I heard Falco tell Papa that he and Priam must find the town magistrates and give them the orders from Cornelius about protecting us now that we had been delivered to Elizabeth’s house. Papa reminded them that we would stay approximately one week and would also require an escort for the journey home. A look of sadness, or perhaps merely concern, fell over Falco’s chiseled face as he considered what their departure meant. Most of my family had grown fond of Falco and Priam. I felt secure around the two guards, and, as the rest of my family, wished they could be close at hand during our stay.
As Papa led me into the house, I expected to encounter another sick room as there had existed for Samuel and Nehemiah, but almost immediately I found myself in a large room I remembered being called an atrium, similar to the grand hall at Samuel’s where we celebrated Jesus’ return. This time there was no table set with fine foods and wine for the adults, but in anticipation of our arrival there was a modest table set with fruit juice, sweet meats, and fruits. The last time we visited Elizabeth we had a fine feast, though not as fine as Samuel’s homecoming for Jesus, and without the Proverb singing cherubs. Though disappointing at first sight, we were thankful that it was waiting for us now.
As expected, neither Mama’s aunt nor our cousin were anywhere in sight. Elizabeth, after all, was probably bedridden. There was no telling were John might be. Without asking, James, Joseph, Simon, and I descended upon the table like ravenous wolves.
“Stop that at once,” scolded Mama, “you boys can wait until our hosts enter the room!”
A servant standing by motioned to the food and said simply “Eat!”
“Shouldn’t we wait until Elizabeth and John appear?” Papa frowned.
“Lydia,” Mama spoke kindly to the woman, “where’s my aunt?”
Lydia dropped her head and motioned toward a corridor leading into her room. “My lady has taken a turn for the worse,” she answered softly.
“I knew it!” Joseph whispered to James.
“Looks like we’re going to have a new brother,” mumbled James.
Papa had not heard James and Joseph. Already he and Mama were following Lydia down the corridor to Elizabeth’s room. Jesus turned to us and motioned for us to come. I scurried after him, with James, Joseph, Simon, and the twins trailing behind.
“Where’s John?” Papa asked the servant.
“He ran to fetch her physician,” replied Lydia. “John should be back soon.”
We entered Elizabeth’s room expecting the worst, but found her sitting in bed, wide awake, a wan smile on her skeletal face. My first thought was that she was at least conscious. I could hear everyone in the small chamber sigh heavily, including myself. Alarm growing on her face, Mama shuffled over to her aunt and gently hugged her fragile frame.
“You poor dear,” she blurted. “We got here as soon as we could.”
“Thank you my child,” her voice came out thinly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t greet you properly. . . My physician should return soon.”
Elizabeth felt so poorly, she began speaking incoherently about trifling matters, failing to acknowledge anyone else in the room. After Papa bent down and kissed her forehead, Jesus came forward to do the same. Mama managed to get Abigail and Martha to give Elizabeth a peck on the cheek. I was satisfied just to clasp her hand. James, Joseph, and Simon stood ready to make their escape in back of the room, until Papa gave we four a severe look as if saying “Give you Aunt Elizabeth a kiss!”
James, Joseph, and Simon performed their obligations quickly with obvious distaste. I imagined that it was like pressing my lips to cold, uncooked fowl, but I did it graciously and even patted her thinning hair. Elizabeth had always been good to our family, so we expected that, in repayment, John would be returning home with us soon. Before long, Elizabeth’s eyelids began drooping and she appeared to be falling asleep. As a servant ushered us out of the room, it seemed as if Elizabeth’s days were numbered on this earth. I felt sad for Mama, but also nervous about what lie ahead. The looks on James and Joseph’s faces told me a lot about their state of mind. Our house was already crowded. Papa didn’t need anymore adopted sons. James, Joseph, and Simon had to put up with the incorrigible Michael for several months, followed by the sickly Nehemiah, the second addition to our home. Now, after accepting two outsiders into our family, they were expected to receive John, a youth stranger than Jesus, himself. And yet, though I felt anxious like my brothers, I also felt a degree of excitement to have our cousin in our house.
I remembered when John first appeared before our family in a goatskin outfit, with dirty bare feet and a disheveled mop of hair. Looking back through the misty past, my memory is stirred by this strange, uncouth boy. That he would one day become the herald of Jesus’ mission on earth would never have occurred to us. Of all the relatives who survived the Galilean plague, he was the most peculiar and misunderstood of our kin. He wore the garb of our ancestors Papa had told us about, but when we first laid eyes on him, all we saw was a wild child whooping and frolicking in his mother’s garden, bereft of his senses. Jesus, who was still a normal child back then, was terrified along with the rest of us and ran into the house. I remember Elizabeth explaining to us that John had not been himself since his father had passed away, but this didn’t explain his behavior. From what I understand now about human behavior, John had not been addled in his head or possessed by a demon as some citizens of Sepphoris believed. Because of the death of John’s father Zechariah when he was very young and the recurrent illness of his mother, John had little or no supervision and had become an incorrigible eccentric acting out his fantasies in the sprawling orchard and garden of his mother’s estate. He was, however, no more crazy than Jesus had been in the past few years. I base this view on John’s great admiration for rugged old testament heroes, such as Joshua, Gideon, and Samson, whom John claimed wore the rough cut hides of goats and antelope and fought with clubs and sharp pointed sticks. I’m not convinced that this was completely true, but John’s rustic appearance in later years by the Jordan River proved my hunch.
When he arrived finally with the physician, we found his attire slightly improved since our last visit, but he still appeared with dirty bare feet and his threadbare tunic and pants seemed out of place in the house of a wealthy widow. John was several months older than Jesus but cared little for conventions. Knowing that we would be arriving in the afternoon, he could at least have worn sandals, combed out his tangled hair, and washed his face. His clothes and appearance, which belonged to a beggar not to the son of a Sadducee priest, struck us as boorish, and yet when he presented Micah, Elizabeth’s physician, he spoke eloquently and with grace, warmly introducing each of us to the physician, placing the kiss of greeting on my mother’s forehead, bowing to Papa, and giving Jesus a special embrace.
At this point, John began talking strangely as he so often did when he was younger, making me wonder if he might, in fact, be addled in his head.
“Jesus, my cousin.” His gray eyes seemed to blaze. “Strange thoughts have entered my head. I dreamed last night that I was standing in a river. . .You were coming toward me. There were people gathering all around on the bank. Suddenly a dove flew overhead. . . but then I awoke. . . My dream was unfinished. . .What does this mean?”
“It was good that you awakened.” Jesus placed his hand on John’s shoulder. “I speak only for myself, John. The Lord wants me to obey my parents and cease acting the fool. In spite of our age, we are not yet men. James, who is only a year younger than I still romps in the hills along with Joseph, Simon, and Jude” “Look at you, my cousin.” He laughed gently. “You still play the Israelite warrior killing Canaanites. If you must pretend, get your inspiration from Proverbs and the Psalmist, not in our warlike past.” “. . . . John, I have dreamed many things I don’t understand too,” he added after a pause. “When the Lord calls you, he will speak to you in your thoughts while you are awake, not come as a phantom in your dreams.”
John nodded faintly and said nothing more. Essentially, as I understand it now, Jesus had differentiated between the ordinary revelation that came to the Patriarch Jacob and Papa, who were visited by God in their sleep, and a summons by the Lord to perform some important deed, such as Moses before the burning bush. To James, Joseph, Simon, and I, it was just the sort of thing we expected Jesus to say. We couldn’t have known the bond that Jesus and John shared since birth or understood the subtleties in Jesus’ words. Whether or not they understood, themselves, my parents smiled at the apparent friendship struck up between the two youths. In deed, until this moment, Jesus had been afraid of his cousin John.
Looking around at my family as we sat and ate dinner, I was amused by the appetite we all shared. Papa and Mama ate with great gusto, as did Jesus, Simon, and I. Abigail and Martha, having been starved for so many hours, crammed their little mouths with as many delicacies as they could, while John, who was used to such food, munched at a more leisurely pace. As John looked across the table at his counterpart, he exchanged smiles with Jesus. Was it possible, I now wonder, that John and Jesus already shared a secret between them. I will never know. I detected that moment a smoldering resentment in James and Joseph, probably caused by John’s behavior but also for the possibility that we would be taking him home with us if his mother died. Simon and I were not as concerned that this might happen and, following Jesus’ example, befriended our cousin John. For several moments, as we ate our dinner, we listened to John talk about his adventures in Sepphoris and the surrounding hills. While Jesus had discovered only one small cave near the Shepherd’s Trail, John claimed to have found hundreds of caverns in the Galilean hills. He had found paintings of bizarre animals on the walls of some of the caves and bones of the occupants, which his mother made him return the next day. Simon and I voiced our fervent desire to explore these caves. John promised to take us to the site where he found the paintings and bones. Jesus shook his head, reminding John of the dangers facing his family, but I hoped we could change his mind.
For a moment, as I glanced at Simon, I was tempted to tell the braggart John about our own discovery this week, but I remembered our vow of secrecy. A pagan shrine close to our property seemed more important than a bunch of caves. I wasn’t certain if Simon, himself, would not blurt this out one day, but to bring up the horned man carved on the wall would be admitting that we had been disobedient. Papa might be very upset. Praying that Simon would keep his silence, I chewed on my lower lip, stowing away our secret for another, more opportune, day.
As we finished up our meal, there was a knocking on the great wooden door. We felt some relief when Falco and Priam appeared in the doorway with news of about our new protectors. Peeking around Papa as he talked to our guards, I shared everyone’s disappointment when Falco and Priam told us that the magistrates’ sentries would make their rounds every hour but would not be posted on the premises, as our guards were back home. To make us feel better, Falco praised the large, fierce-looking German guards hired by the city, which, in fact, comforted us a bit. Papa had told us about these rugged, blond and red-haired giants used by the Romans as auxiliary troops, gladiators, and guards. That Sepphoris was protected by such men impressed Papa very much. I had never seen such warriors and hoped we might see some of them soon. With a smile replacing the frown on his face, Papa invited the Romans in for dinner. Having anticipated that our guards would return, the servants reacted quickly, cleaning off the table and resetting it with two platters filled with an assortment of food. Like Papa, Falco and Priam were disappointed that Elizabeth offered no wine, but they made up for this deficiency by drinking and devouring everything in sight. We watched them eat with enthusiasm yet great haste. I had thought Simon had bad manners, but these fellows seemed to inhale, not chew, their food, draining their goblets in one gulp. Priam explained they wanted to get on the road before dark. After thanking the servants, they bolted from the table, wiped their mouths with their sleeves, and swaggered contentedly out of the house. On their way out, Priam ruffled my hair, pinched Simon’s cheek, and promised us that they would guard our house well while we were gone. John and Jesus, with the twins in tow, laughed softly as we followed them out of the house. Rubbing his cheek, Simon glared reproachfully at them as did James and Joseph, but I had grown fond of our rough mannered guards. As they climbed on their horses, John, Jesus, and I said goodbye and waved at them as if they were relatives leaving on a long journey. Though our new guards might be giants, I still wished it was Falco and Priam guarding us during our stay.
It was almost sunset. While our parents visited Elizabeth in her sick room, we waited briefly for news about her health. A servant came out and whispered something in John’s ear. John then explained to us that Micah was encouraged by his mother’s pulse and humors but wanted to bleed her once more. From the physician Luke, I would learn about the evils of draining the body of blood when a patient is already half dead. Even as children we wrinkled our noses at the notion. Jesus seemed to sigh with resignation. I wished my parents would come out now and reassure us about all this . . . .Was our aunt going to be all right? Should I be thinking of John as another adopted brother now?
Though Jesus and John talked calmly amongst themselves, the rest of us were growing restless with the wait. Before the sun went down, John suggested that we go outside and play some games. There were unlimited hiding places for the game of hide-and-go-seek. While John counted to one hundred, we all scattered into the garden and nearby trees. After only one round of hide-and-seek, however, Papa came out to tell us to stay close to the house. Jesus explained finally to John that moment what had happened in Nazareth that required our protection from Rome. John gave Jesus a thoughtful look. After presenting us with a primitive bow he had fashioned from gopher wood, he then showed us another game we could play in the garden area, which was much closer to the house. A circle of woven matting he had nailed to a fence with concentric circles moving out from its center served as our target. The twins had difficulty with this operation, but John showed us boys how to pull the string back and aim the crude arrows, he had whittled, at the target. As we took turns shooting the bow, Mama came out this time to scold Jesus for allowing us to play such a dangerous game.
John laughed good naturedly as Jesus stood scratching his head. While there was still enough light, he showed us his favorite tree on which he built a platform in order, he boasted, to survey the world. Because it wasn’t dangerous and was so close to the house, John convinced us it would be all right. It was growing dark, so we took turns climbing up the rude staircase he had nailed on the gnarled trunk. Elizabeth’s estate sat on a small hill overlooking her orchards. This vantage point, even at sunset, allowed a wide panorama of the land below. As Jesus and I took our turn beside John, he pointed out the various landmarks beyond their property. Though dressed like a beggar with an unwashed look about him, John didn’t smell bad up close nor did he have dirty fingernails or stained teeth as peasants often had. Could it be that John was holding onto his childhood “wild boy” role and still bathed like everyone else? It seemed obvious that he lived in a make believe world of pretend. Jesus had seen this clearly when he teased him for playing childish games. Perched high on the ancient oak, we couldn’t see any of the city’s synagogues from where we stood, but in the distance, as John explained, there was a pagan temple to the god Artemis, a shrine to the deified Julius Caesar, and a tall memorial that Herod had built to Emperor Augustus—architecture, Jesus told us, he had seen in Greece and Rome.
After searching the garden where we had been playing, Papa and Mama found us below the tree, just as John, James, and Simon were making their descent, and demanded that we immediately come into the house. It was almost dark, an ideal time to be waylaid by evildoers such as Reuben, Papa said crossly. Mama gave Jesus a playful swat on the arm. It was not easy for my parents to scold him sternly when he and John were becoming fast friends. None of us, even Mama or Jesus, for that matter, understood how significant this friendship would be. I felt a twinge of jealousy for this moment. I’m not certain how Simon felt, but James and Joseph were not happy either with this train of events.
That night, as we waited to find out if our parents must adopt yet another orphan, Reuben and his friends were still out there somewhere this very hour up to no good—probably waiting for their chance for revenge. As we all filed into the garden and were herded into back of the house, I looked around fleetingly for the German guards promised us. Perhaps they would only guard the front of the house. . . . or perhaps not at all.
It had been a long road for our family. After watching Jesus breath life into dead bird, we understood that our oldest brother had god-like powers, and we later discovered that not only was he Mama’s natural son, but we all had different parents except him. Between these milestones, much had happened to the House of Joseph bar Jacob. . . . Papa had given refuge to the widow Mariah, though she appeared to be a witch and woman of ill-repute. Jesus performed another miracle by causing rain to pour on Mariah’s burning house, which flooded Nazareth’s gardens, sparking the rumor that he called upon Beelzebub to put out the fire. After this miraculous event, Reuben, a troublemaker and incendiary, was chased by the Romans and managed to almost kill one of Longinus’ men, which made he and his accomplices fugitives with a grudge to bear. Though we gave Mariah’s son Michael a new home, he proved to be incorrigible. After attempting to rob us, he ran off to find his mother. In his place, because of the death of his Aunt Deborah, one of our sworn enemies, we have taken in another orphan, my friend Nehemiah, who is sickly and almost died in our house.
In Jesus’ letters about his journey with Joseph of Arimathea, we heard about his adventures in Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, and Cyrene, though he downplayed the miracles he performed and glossed over the remaining stops. This great odyssey, which Jesus had recorded for us, had given him a chance to see and experience the world, and yet, not for one moment, did he forget his family back home nor the real meaning of his journey, which was to test his vision out on the world. Thanks to Jesus’ letters, we had glimpses of, though we didn’t understand them yet, the core beliefs that would shape his ministry to both Gentiles and Jews. It all seems very plain now, but it was not so easy to sort things out as child. I had not quite reached my eleventh birthday. Jesus was, himself, still a youth. To have experienced what he has before his sixteenth birthday seems almost inconceivable, but, now that Jesus had returned, I hoped that things would get back to normal again. My parent’s protection of a widow and her son and Jesus apparent miracles had made us outcasts in Nazareth. We had, after all, harbored a witch. Michael defaced the synagogue with blasphemies. Jesus had, before his journey, spooked many townsfolk with his alleged powers. Although they are merely watching over our house, the list of my family’s crimes also includes collusion with the Romans. Slowly, our old friends have begun returning to us and Papa’s clients have begun doing business with him again, but we were still known to many as the family who gave sanctuary to a witch and whose oldest son is, himself, a practitioner of the black arts. If they read Jesus letters, their suspicions would seem be justified. Jesus had, during his journey, added to his list of miracles by calling forth the dead and quieting not one but two storms!
With all things considered, my parents were saints, if not angels, for their unwavering patience with Jesus and for taking in so many orphans after Mama gave birth to her own son. As a result of their love and charity, our lives have become very complex with so many children and the knowledge we all shared. The question that would decide John’s destiny and the future of our household, however, was very simple: would Elizabeth live or die?
John, unlike everyone else, was confident of his mother’s recuperative abilities, since she had been sick many times in the past. But this time, she was bled by her doctor, which was, Papa told Mama, an act of desperation. At times she couldn’t recognize her niece or even her own son. Most importantly, the stony look on Micah’s face couldn’t hide the desperation in his eyes. When they thought we were out of earshot, the physician admitted to my parents that Elizabeth was in God’s hands. She needed a rabbi now, not a physician. Instead, when no one was looking (except me), Jesus slipped down the corridor leading to Elizabeth’s room and knelt by her bed. When he saw me silhouetted in the doorway, he shut the door on me. Papa came walking down the corridor, took my hand and led me to the chambers prepared just for me. I bristled at being caught eavesdropping and deprived of secret knowledge, but then I realized that I could ask Jesus tomorrow or better yet, when he came to bed, whether or not he had done to Elizabeth what he had done for the dead bird and Joseph the Arimathea’s son, because Jesus, I recalled, couldn’t lie. I asked Papa where everyone else was going to sleep and he told me that Elizabeth’s house had many rooms. Jesus would probably sleep in the room next to John’s. It turned out to my good fortune that John’s room was next to mind. I heard him talking to a servant in the hall. Perhaps I would sneak down the hall and overhear Jesus telling John what he had done. I was so thrilled with the idea it was hard for me to sleep, so I paced around the room awhile, waiting impatiently to hear Jesus voice outside my door. As I battled slumber, however, the weariness of the road and then romping in John’s backyard overcame me. Against my better judgment, as I fought to stay awake, I sat down wearily on my pallet, slumped over finally, and fell fast asleep.
As I slept, a recurrent theme appeared in my head. Once again I was riding on my white horse dressed as a Roman knight, carrying my spear, my cape flowing in the wind, but this time I was not riding into the unknown. Unlike the other dreamscapes, I knew exactly what lie ahead and was immediately filled with dread. I found myself in the same dark plot, looking up at a small hill at three crosses. A crowd was gathered below the crosses. Longinus appeared beside me on his black horse. This time, however, Longinus took the reins of my horse and led me up the hill.
“No, please, don’t take me there,” I begged.
“You must come Jude,” he replied sternly. “Your mother waits below, and you must comfort her.”
“What’s wrong?” I asked fearfully. “What’s happening over there?”
“You’ll see, you’ll see,” he said in a sing-song voice.
I began sniveling, but he ignored my state of mind. Suddenly, I was no longer Jude, a Roman warrior; I was little Jude, youngest son of Joseph bar Jacob, trapped in a nightmare I couldn’t escape. As we approached the setting, I could see my mother and two other shadowy forms among the crowd, yet the figures on the crosses were dark silhouettes against the bleak sky. I called to Mama, but her eyes remained locked on the crosses. In spite of the clues I had been given, the significance of this moment escaped me. I could not possibly imagine who the man was on the middle cross. The road to Golgotha was far away.
I gave my horse a gentle kick, attempting to spur him on, but he wouldn’t budge. Even when I gave him a stern boot in the ribs, he seemed frozen in place, so I tried hollering at him, only to discover that my vocal chords were frozen too. Longinus rode ahead of me and, rearing up on his horse, said something that I would hear once more in my lifetime but which seemed nonsensical to me during my dream: “Truly, this was the Son of God.”
The sky darkened as a great, spiraling mass of clouds gathered overhead. The crowd below now blackened to shadows, and no longer could I see my mother’s face. A sudden gale swept the spectators from the scene, leaving me alone on the hill with only the Roman and the three crosses. I still didn’t understand why Longinus and not Cornelius was here again in this dark place. Cornelius had been my hero, and yet I sensed already that Longinus would play a more important role in our lives. I began weeping again, as I felt the despair of this scene. I could not move or speak. I wanted to called out to him as he sat on his horse looking up at a cross “Why am I here? What does this mean?” All I could manage, however, was to mouth the words mutely as he turned his horse and galloped passed, leaving me stranded on he hill. The wind and rain and ceased. The sky cleared, leaving one lone clump of clouds that hid the sun. Gradually, as the clouds drifted away, the figures on the crosses turned from silhouettes to dimly lit, shadowy forms. An overwhelming feeling of dread filled me stifling my sobs as I tried discerning the bodies hanging on the crosses. With one last push of physical and emotional energy, I forced myself, with great effort, to mouth a plea of understanding in my dark dream. What came out of my mouth, though, was the most important question I could ask at this time: “Who-o-o ar-r-re you-u-u?”
Upon that thundering note, I looked up in the dim-light of my room, still fearful, though seeing a familiar face looking down at me. Had I slept through the night? Why was Papa in my room?
“Jude, Jude, wake up son!” He was shaking me gently. Behind him, I saw Mama’s face.
Gathering up my thoughts, still drenched in nightmarish imagery, I realized slowly but surely that this was not my normal wake-up call. Something was wrong, I told myself. My parents were acting very strange. As it had happened before when I had such a prophetic dream, something momentous occurred to detour my thoughts. Perhaps, knowing I wouldn’t forget it, the Lord placed important information in my head until I would need it. Jesus had once told me that I had a gift. I know now he meant more than just a good memory. Like my mother and oldest brother, I could see things in the future, but I was too young for such weighty issues. This time, as before, my mind would be filled with a more immediate issue, the nightmare tucked away safely for a latter day.
“Is Aunt Elizabeth dead?” I asked dully, as I was helped to my feet.
“No, my child,” replied Mama, clasping my hand, “Elizabeth is feeling better.”
“Did Jesus cure her as he did Levi and the dead bird?” I blurted, as my parents led me down the hall.
“No, Jude, and she’s still very sick.” Papa sighed heavily. “A courier arrived from Nazareth sent by Longinus, himself.”
I remembered portions of my dreamscape when he mentioned that name. It was all there in my head, floating as pieces to a puzzle, the various pieces drifting further apart each passing moment. When we reached the great hall, all of the children, except the twins, were present. John, our cousin, stood beside Jesus, each holding a look of deep concern. For the first time I could remember, James and Joseph were not frowning at me. Both of them gave me pitying looks. Papa and Mama, though they tried to smile, also had sad looks on their faces. Simon, wide awake for such an early hour, his cheeks streaked with tears, looked down at the floor. It was then, when I studied Simon’s expression that I was certain that this quiet meeting had something to do with me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, looking around the room. “Why is everyone staring at me?”
“Nehemiah is very sick,” Papa’s announced gravely. “Samuel’s servant was able to flag down one of Longinus’ men. A special courier arrived a little while ago with the news.”
I tried to put on a brave face. “Well, I know he’s sick. He’s always been sick, but he’s getting better. Abner said so.”
“Well he’s not son,” Papa grasped both of my shoulders and looked unwaveringly into my eyes. “I wish I could hide this information from you until we return, but your mother and I felt it would be wrong. You would never forgive us, if you weren’t there with him. Mama is going to stay with Elizabeth with the twins. The rest of us will return with our Roman escorts, who’ll be arriving within the hour.”
“My mother wants me to go,” announced John solemnly.
“Yes, John,” Mama reached over to pat his arm, “until she’s feeling better you will stay with us.”
James and Joseph groaned. I shrugged my shoulders and folded my arms. What was one more person in our house? I was not worried about Nehemiah’s health. A memory flashed like a beacon in my head. I recalled seeing Jesus kneeling beside Elizabeth’s bed last night, probably praying. I looked over at him and smiled knowingly. Reading my expression now, he placed a finger over his lips and shook his head. I was not certain if he was signaling “no I had nothing to do with Elizabeth getting better” or was merely telling me to shut up. It did seem a half-hearted effort to only keep the poor woman alive, but I was confident that Jesus would do better next time. Nehemiah, after all, was only a child, with his whole life ahead of him. I smiled at the thought: Jesus would save my friend!
After we gathered our things together and then stood waiting for our escorts to arrive, my parents, cousin John, and Simon stood around me with sympathetic looks. Jesus had a worried expression on his face and looked as if he wanted to say something to me. James and Joseph, I’m certain, felt that this was a prelude to John becoming part of our family. Both of them stood apart from us, with scowls on their faces, grumbling unhappily to themselves. Suddenly, as the gloom of the room descended upon me, I broke down into sobs. Mama, as always, was abruptly there pressing me to her bosom, cooing down at me with comforting words: “there-there little Jude, the Lord’s will is hard to understand. We shall pray very hard—all of us, so Nehemiah, Elizabeth, and Samuel get better.”
“Mama,” I blubbered, “Samuel and Elizabeth have lived long lives, but Nehemiah never had a chance. I just know Jesus can make him better. He cured that dead bird. He put out the fire burning Mariah’s house. Look what he did at sea and in Gaul! Why can’t he save one little boy?”
She looked at me in horror a moment, then, so typical of the mother of Jesus, her mood shifted, and she smiled gently at my folly.
“Nehemiah may very well be dead already,” she murmured softly. “It’s not Jesus place to raise the dead. Only God should do that. You mustn’t ask him to do that.”
It is clear to me, as I write these words, that Mama had not actually denied Jesus’ powers. She was saying that he mustn’t raise up the dead, not he can’t, because it was not yet his time. She was asking me not to force his hand, but knew it was my intention of doing just that. None of us had completely grasped who Jesus was suppose to be. The magnitude of it was too great even for him. All I knew was that I had seen, with my own eyes, as did my brothers, Jesus raise a bird from the dead. In his letters Jesus, himself, admitted that he brought Levi back to life. Had Mama forgotten these facts? Perhaps she felt that raising a bird wasn’t the same as raising a person from the dead. For that matter, Jesus implied that Levi had only been in the dark sleep when he called him from death’s door. In spite of Mama’s doubts, fears, and misgivings, I believed that Jesus could do just about anything with prayer.
During a breakfast of pastries, fruit juice, and stuffed dates, we ate silently, exchanging worried looks, our ears craned to hear a knock at the door. The physician had left during the night to attend to another patient, but returned that morning to evaluate Elizabeth’s health. After only few moments in Elizabeth’s room, he sent a servant out to fetch our parents. We moved, as a group down the corridor intent on eavesdropping on the adults, but we could hear nothing behind the thick wooden door. Whatever was being said was done in such great secrecy we were certain something dreadful was wrong.
Now it was John’s turn, I told myself, as we returned to the hall. All of us, even the scowling James and Joseph, surrounded our cousin. Papa and Mama appeared suddenly in the room with sullen expressions on their faces their hands folded on their stomachs in a posture of bad news. We edged closer to John, silently, with our expressions, trying to comfort him, sensing the worst as Papa began to speak.
“John,” he said, reaching out to embrace him, as he would his own son, “your mother’s in a deep sleep but she’s breathing clearly with no fever. Micah has given Mary medicines to administer to her now that her condition has changed, but it is her heart that is failing this time. We must all pray for her before we leave.”
Papa signaled by touching his index fingers and thumbs together to form a circle—his silent call to prayer. Micah politely refused to participate in this exercise and took his leave. Coaxed gently by Mama on one side and Papa on the other, John took their hands, and watched with great discomfort as everyone else, including the grumbling James and Joseph, clasped hands, until a ring was created in the hall. Abigail and Martha, who would squirm and fuss too much, were allowed to play in their chambers, while the servants looked on in wonder from the sidelines. Though greatly embarrassed, John made no comment as Papa opened with a prayer of healing for Elizabeth, Nehemiah, and Samuel—a tall order considering there were three recipients and so little time. Any moment there would be a knocking on Elizabeth’s front door and the circle would be broken up as a servant announced that the escorts were here. I simply could not concentrate and decided, after reflecting on my troubling dreams, that I would rely on Jesus’ prayers. Perhaps, I reasoned, he would send his healing power to Nehemiah from afar instead of kneeling by his bed as he did for Elizabeth last night. I hoped he would do better this time. Looking around the group, I noticed that Simon had his eyes tightly shut, trying his best to muster up a prayer, but James and Joseph, as expected, were staring impatiently at the floor. John was just standing there wide-eyed and mouth agape between my parents, listening to Papa, Mama, and Jesus mumble fervent prayers.
I found myself daydreaming once again about my white horse, but found my thoughts tainted by last night’s dream. It seemed so ridiculous to me now. Once again I had dreamed of three crucified men. Why had Longinus identified one of them as the Son of God? This time my mother was standing on that dark hill. What was she doing in my dream? Did all this really mean something? I hoped not. The fact that Longinus, not Cornelius, reappeared in my dream, made it more strange and terrible. With Cornelius, I had entertaining dreams, in which he said silly things to me. He never frightened me like Longinus did last night.
As I stood trapped in the circle, I sensed that my dreams might be more important than simple prayers for health, especially the nightmare I had last night. If dreams were influenced by wakeful experience as Papa suggested, why would I have such an awful dream, unless it had special meaning?
When there was finally a knock at the door, I felt myself awakening from my thoughts. I had not prayed, but neither had James, Joseph, Simon, or John. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling a presence in our circle, perhaps only in my mind, that gave me a feeling of peace and comfort. I didn’t know whether or not Elizabeth would live or die, but I was filled with a certainty that Jesus, through his prayers to God, would save Nehemiah’s life. A servant called out the names of our visitors, Falco and Priam, which added to my feeling of well being. Unceremoniously, with hasty amens, the circle broke up. Papa frowned at this interruption, quickly composed himself, and greeted the two guards as they swaggered into the house.
Papa gripped each man’s forearm, the proper way to greet Roman soldiers, leading them graciously into the dining hall, where servants brought out more food, fruit, and juice.
“We’re so happy Longinus sent you again,” Mama said with a bow. “Please refresh yourselves before the return trip.”
Falco emitted a weary laugh. “Thank you ma’am. Please convey are appreciation to the lady of the house when she’s up and about.”
“How is she?” Priam asked, looking down at the table. “Is she feeling better today?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” Papa replied sadly. “My wife is going to stay with Elizabeth for awhile. We shall continue praying for her health.”
“Ah prayer, there’s a pretty word,” Priam reflected, munching on a piece of cheese. “In our religion the priests do that. Thieves and rascals all of them! Rome has so many gods it makes a man’s head spin.”
My parents, who found Priam’s rustic wit amusing, laughed softly amongst themselves. Jesus and John, acting as excellent hosts, kept their mugs filled with juice. James and Joseph, always the rebels, glared at the Romans, as the rest of us gathered around the two old veterans, watching them wolf down their food. I had never seen anyone with such bad manners, but I had grown fond of our guards. I could tell that my parents, Jesus, and John felt that way too. Yet Simon, always highly influenced by others, had a disdainful look now in his eyes, still smarting from when Falco pinched his cheek.
Watching Simon’s expression darken, I wondered if the old distance between us would return. Back home, he would probably side with James and Joseph against me, if Nehemiah’s condition improved and my friend came home. Now that John would be staying with us, I wondered if I might befriend him like I did the other orphans or if he and Jesus would, as religious eccentrics, wander off in a cloud by themselves. In any event, John’s stay, unlike Michael and Nehemiah, was not intended to be permanent. Ultimately, unless Nehemiah began feeling better, I might be left with only one person to bond with in Nazareth: Uriah, the rabbi’s son. Unfortunately, because Rabbi Joachim hated our family, Uriah was not allowed to visit our house.
My biggest concern was, of course, Nehemiah’s health, which depended, I was certain, upon Jesus’ power of prayer. With my head reeling with issues, I followed the others out the door. Mama bid us all a tearful goodbye, one-by-one, as we gathered on the porch. As the Romans climbed upon their mounts, Falco made an announcement that worried us very much. Last night bandits had attacked a caravan on the Jerusalem road. Though our group would be traveling back to Nazareth, Cornelius had ordered the magistrates to supply an additional escort to insure our safety. At this point, I felt overwhelmed with all these concerns but clung to my hope in Jesus. Falco and Priam instructed the servants to bring the donkeys and mules around to the front of the villa only after they returned with the additional men. We were all ordered to stay on the porch. During the meantime, Priam was stationed in front of the house with us, still mounted on his horse.
This struck me as inefficient. A single guard was not enough protection against murderers and thieves. As he rode idly back and forth in front of the villa chatting with us to calm our fears, a band of men appeared across the street. I spotted them immediately, while the others listened to the prattle of our guard. As they slowed down at sight of the Roman guard, I studied their faces and listened to them mutter to themselves. Slowly, recognition dawned in my overwrought mine. I knew some of those men!
Over three years in hiding had changed Reuben and his friends, Josiah and Asa’s, appearance but not significantly. Standing amidst several other villains, they wore a bizarre mixture of armored vests, brightly colored tunics and breeches with leather Roman boots on their big feet. The flamboyant robes of rich men were fastened with silver clasps around their thick necks, and on their wooly heads they wore Syrian helmets, similar to ones worn by two of Joseph of Arimathea’s guards. All of these articles of clothing were probably stolen from victims, alive or dead, which included the short gladius normally seen on Roman belts. What seemed to be a clue that something was amiss as these rogues swaggered toward us, was their hairiness, body odor, and uncouth, rowdy manners. The guards I had seen employed to protect Joseph’s caravan, though rough looking characters, might have been dusty from the road but they weren’t filthy. Unlike this mismatched and multicolored group, Glychon and Tycho had worn the same uniforms as each other and kept their peace in public. Among this gang of Syrians and renegade Jews, the faces that leered at us—the matted beards, and shifty eyes, particularly of Reuben, their leader—grew increasingly familiar as I studied the group. There were, I counted, twelve of them, while we had only one Roman sentry to guard us.
Though I had never seen those other men before, I recognized the obvious features of Reuben. No disguise could hide his red hair, freckly face, and fleshy jowls. In spite of their Syrian helmets, scraggly beards, and mismatched clothes, I quickly recognized Josiah and Asa too. The actions of these men, as they stood watching us from across the street, were, now that I think about it, much like wolves sizing up their prey. At a distance, they had not seemed like soldiers or warriors at all, but cutthroats and thieves, with blazing eyes, fortified by strong drink. I could scarcely believe that Papa and my brothers hadn’t also seen the danger that had just crossed our path. Fortunately, however, Priam saw the fear on my face. Though his other men looked passively our way without actual acknowledgment, Reuben gave me a look of recognition, smiling slyly at me before nudging his friends. I walked slowly up to Priam’s horse, praying that they would just leave us alone.
“It’s him,” I found my voice.
“Who, boy?” Priam frowned down at me.
“It’s Reuben and his friends, but now he has more men.” I said breathlessly.
“Are you sure?” He asked, clasping his sword handle. “They look like Syrian swines to me.”
I nodded emphatically, looking back at the others. It seemed as though Papa had caught sight of Reuben and his men too. He was hastily ushering John and my brothers back into the house.
“They got me outnumbered,” Priam informed me worriedly. “You go inside now. I’m going to ride ahead and see what’s taking them so long.”
I ran faster than I had ever run in my life. The sound of hoof beats told me that Priam was riding safely away from Reuben and his men. The sweetest sound to my ears, however, was the sound of the door slamming shut and being bolted behind me. After hearing all the commotion, Mama scurried down he corridor from Elizabeth’s room. The servants stood uncomprehendingly in the main hall, as James, Joseph, Simon, John, and I cowered inside the house. Papa now explained to Mama why we ran back into he house.
“They’re here in Sepphoris. Reuben now has an entire gang of thieves. Priam rode ahead to find Falco and the German guards. I hope they capture Reuben and his men this time.”
“Sepphoris is a large city, Joseph.” Mama drew her hand to her mouth. “Those men could vanish anywhere in this town.”
As we huddled fearfully inside Elizabeth’s house, the normal street sounds of the morning were muted by the thick walls of the house. Unless there was a banging on the door or rumble of thunder overhead, we wouldn’t know what’s happening outside. The weather was good today, and there was a normal flow of traffic, which presented a false sense of calm. We seemed to be insulated against the outside world. Papa assured us that Reuben’s gang would not be foolhardy enough to attempt a break-in with Roman soldiers nearby. Yet I was not yet confident of our new protectors in Sepphoris and was not impressed with the Roman glass windowpanes installed in the house. What if they climbed over a wall on Elizabeth’s property? Glass, I reminded Papa, breaks easily. For that matter, doors can be broken into with the proper force. Except for an ancient sword John’s father left to him, the only arsenal of weapons we had at our disposal were the kitchen knives and the bow and arrows John fashioned for himself. With a show of bravery, John fetched his sword, bows and arrows, and the crude spear he made then brought out the cooks biggest knives, which caused James, Joseph, Simon, and I to laugh hysterically amongst ourselves. As far as we knew, there were only two Roman soldiers and an unknown contingent of guards to protect us against Reuben’s gang, which from the sidelines appeared to number a dozen, with possibly more lurking in the shadows. If they broke into the house right now, we wouldn’t stand a chance.
A sudden knock on the door startled everyone, sending most of us racing into the back of the house, until Papa recognized the familiar thump-thump, thump-thump-thump on the door.
“Listen everyone,” Papa exclaimed “it’s Falco and Priam.”
“Are you certain?” Mama asked in a quivering voice.
“Mama! Papa!” squealed the twins.
“Be careful Papa!” Jesus called from the corridor leading to Elizabeth’s room. “Wait until you hear their voices.”
James, Joseph, Simon, John, and I approached the atrium where Papa, Jesus, Mama and the twins stood, still clutching our weapons. The large chopping knife I carried was removed delicately from my hand by Jesus, as was the meat cleaver Simon brandished, but John remained poised with his bow and arrow. Joseph gripped the spear in an attack position and James gripped Zechariah’s sword, reading to strike a fatal blow.
“Who is it?” Papa shouted through the door.
“Falco and Priam, your guards,” came the muffled reply.
After removing the door latch and peeking cautiously out, Papa heaved a sigh then slowly opened the door. Falco and Priam entered brusquely, almost knocking him aside. I looked passed the Romans, whooping with glee when I spotted the large armored Germans on the Porch. Before the guards caught sight of their show of force, Mama and a servant removed the weapons from James, Joseph, and John’s hands. Typical of our family’s hospitality, Papa insisted that the magistrate’s guards be given refreshments. Four blond-haired and blue-eyed giants entered Elizabeth’s house, politely waving off the food and drink offered. Everyone, even the normally sullen James and Joseph, were greatly impressed with this assembly. It seemed to be sufficient for our protection in Sepphoris, but, after seeing Reuben and his men emerge from the shadows, I wondered if it was enough for the road. We might need more men to protect us on the way back to Nazareth. When I suggested this possibility to Papa, he silenced me with a simple “Jude!” Frowning severely, Mama and Jesus scolded me too, but I could tell by their expressions that James, Joseph, and Simon agreed with me. John, though he tried to be brave, also gave me a nod.
Considering the fact that our fierce-looking guests would not only protect us in Sepphoris but would accompany us to Nazareth, gave us some comfort, but it was the “unknown”—that nightmarish nether world were Reuben lurked—that bothered us now. After bidding Mama and the twins one more goodbye, we mounted our mules and donkeys and found ourselves, with guards in the front and guards in the back of the procession, trotting out of town. Idling towns folk stopped to gawk at the specter of Roman and German guards protecting Jews. Suddenly, my fears were dispelled completely as several more men galloped up belatedly, bringing the number of guards up to fifteen.
“Now fifteen guards should be enough!” Falco called back cheerily.
“What if we’re ambushed?” blurted James. “There could be a hundred men in his gang.”
“Yeah,” Joseph agreed. “they could be lying in wait. We could be riding into a trap!”
“Shut up! Shut up!” Simon placed his hands on his ears.
“What do you think?” I looked back at John. “You think they’re lying in wait?”
“I just hope they don’t have bows and arrows,” John replied grimly.
“James, Joseph, Jude, John,” scolded Papa, “stop this talk at once!”
“John, I’m surprised at you,” Jesus chided him gently, “where’s your faith?”
Our Roman guards, who understood Aramaic, thought our conversation was amusing. I could hear Falco teasing Papa about his “brave sons.” Far in the back of the procession Priam was also laughing, but at something he had said to Jesus. I’m not sure if the Germans spoke anything but Latin and their own barbaric tongue, but they seemed friendly enough. A few of them rode up and down the line, scanning each side of the road. Falco and Priam, however, seemed unconcerned about the dangers of our trip. I could see numerous trees and large boulders that bandits might hide behind. Incredible as it seemed, Simon appeared to be falling asleep on his donkey. Several times, as he trotted in front of me, I saw his head bob forward and his body wobble to and fro. Jesus road up suddenly beside Simon on his own initiative, reached over, and gave his shoulder a pat. He then turned his donkey sharply and, on his way back to the rear, reached over to scruff my hair.
A German guard now galloped back to motion for Jesus to return to the procession. We heard laughter again, as Papa good-naturedly defended his cowardly sons. I felt better after Jesus’ gesture. Simon turned around to smile sleepily at me. In spite of Papa’s scolding, I could hear James and Joseph grumbling back and forth. Jesus was laughing at something Priam had said, when we heard a horrible yell up ahead on the road.
Suddenly, after only an hour on the road, we were under attack. Papa shouted “Its Reuben and his men!” and we thought that there would be terrible fight, but to our amazement a dozen riders galloped peacefully past us. Reuben called back jubilantly in a sing-song voice “We’ll see you in Nazareth!”
“Why did you let them pass?” James cried indignantly to the guards. “You outnumber them. You should wipe them out!”
Joseph screamed out word-for-word almost the same thing, while Simon, John, and I muttered dumbfoundedly to ourselves, and Papa argued heatedly with Falco about the missed opportunity of his men. Jesus rode up to Papa, I imagine to reason with him. I knew he would never counsel war. I heard Falco explain to Papa that it was foolhardy for our guards to chase down an enemy and leave us vulnerable on the road. This same logic was echoed by Priam and several of the German guards, who simply nodded their shaggy heads.
Falco summed it up by saying. “I’ve never personally seen this Reuben fellow and neither have our German guards. If we had a company of the original legionnaires who chased he and his friends into the hills, we could bring him before the prefect, but that’s not part of our orders. The best I can do, Joseph, is continue guarding you on your trip and send one of the Germans ahead to the Cohort headquarters to alert them of Reuben’s destination. Please don’t call this a missed opportunity. If we attacked Reuben’s band, some of you might have been caught in the crossfire and killed. I know the mind of these wild, barbarian men. They are loyal, and would lay down their lives to protect whom they guard. It doesn’t matter to them whether they’re guarding Herod Antipas, himself, or Nazarene Jews. They will not, however, deviate from their orders and neither can I. Be thankful, praise be to the gods, that Reuben didn’t ambush us. There’s no profit for him attacking us now. He’s out numbered—fifteen trained legionnaires and auxilia against twelve undisciplined villains. The man’s not a fool!”
“Those are fine words, Falco,” Papa said hoarsely, “but I have an awful feeling we’ll see Reuben again.”
“Aye,” Priam raised his sword up to catch a glint of sunlight, “and we’ll be there to run the blackheart through.”
“He was just taunting us,” Jesus said in a somber voice. “The Lord will deal with him in His own way.”