The Pagan Shrine
Jesus Bar Abbas would be known to my family as Adam. In the same way that Reuben would take the name of his uncle Bartholomew, rather than Alexander, which was a pagan name, Adam, the name of the first man, was preferred by our new guest now that he was a fugitive of Rome. He would stay with us for only that night. In the morning he would vanish as quickly and as mysteriously as he appeared. How different Reuben and Adam’s paths would lead them from our house! For the disciples, who knew Jesus Bar Joseph, Adam would always be Barabbas, the thief who was spared crucifixion when the Jews chose Christ in his place. That evening, after an eventful and memorable day, he was just one more orphan sheltered in our house.
Adam had slept on the floor not far from where Simon and I bedded down. Perhaps it was the Evil One tempting me that night. My mind, filled with such great adventures, conjured up a less noble plan of what I would do with my portion of the loot. The decoration on the gold work was pagan and might be recognized as stolen loot, so I would have to sell the objects to one of the shepherds. I’ve heard that many of them were thieves, themselves. With my portion of the loot, I would buy me a horse, and I would give some of the money to Papa to help buy lumber for the shop. If there was a portion left I would, of course, give it to the priests in Jerusalem as a sin offering, for indeed, spending stolen property must be a sin. At least this was my plan. I had shadowy, confusing dreams that night, but no crosses, forewarnings or silly riddles. I remember awakening once and seeing Mama ushering Reuben out the front door, presumably to use the cloaca, but I fell asleep before seeing him return. More silly dreams followed about my big white horse, galloping down the Shepherd’s trail, and a troubling escapade in which I went to our hiding place and found the treasure gone. The next thing I remember was seeing the morning sun streaming into the kitchen window. Adam, I noted immediately, was gone. Recalling my last dream, I reached over and rudely shook Simon awake.
“Whazamattah,” he protested, “why’d you do that? You scared me, Jude, you really
He mumbled incoherently a moment afterwards, probably uttering blasphemies under his breath as I pulled him up to his feet. Jesus was nowhere in sight, but James and Joseph snored peaceably on the floor.
“Adam left. We gotta go check on our treasure,” I whispered frantically, pointing to the door.
“Well, we can’t do it until after breakfast,” grumbled Simon, “and we have to do our chores.”
“I know, I know.” I sighed heavily. “But we’ve got to put our treasure in a safer place. I have an awful feeling that it’s not there anymore.”
“What?” Simon’s voice creaked. “Why do you say that? No one knows about it except us.”
“Shhhh!” I placed my finger on my lips. “You want our brothers to hear?”
“I bet they were spying on us.” Simon looked down angrily at them. “They probably stole it!”
“We don’t know that.” I shook my head. “I had a dream about it. Adam could have stolen it, himself. Sometimes my dreams come true.”
“A dream?” Simon made a face. “This is all about a dream?”
As Mama appeared in the kitchen carrying freshly picked fruit, Simon’s attention was momentarily detoured. Food outweighed all other matters, even gold, in his mind. We sat down at the empty table, silently watching the twins help Mama fix breakfast. Jesus entered the house that moment from the front door and immediately awakened our brothers. James and Joseph grumbled and Simon and I laughed as he tapped their heads several times with his toe. Papa, we assumed, was already at work in his shop to finish another order. The sawdust in Jesus’ hair told us that he had been up early, himself, helping with the carpentry. Whistling happily to himself, Papa appeared next and seeing James and Joseph still in their pallets walked over and gave them both a playful kick. “The Lord hates sloth!” he called down to them through cupped hands. Rising finally onto shaky legs, the boys made their way to a basin to splash water on their faces and then joined us at a distant corner of the table.
James and Joseph had become outcasts again. In a flash of dream imagery I had found my treasure missing from the bush. After hearing what Simon said, I could not help suspecting them if my fears were real. Looking down at where Adam had slept last night, I wondered fleetingly if he had seen me hide the treasure in the mulberry bush. Though the subject arose briefly that morning, no one seemed to be surprised that he was gone. He had been another one of those phantoms in my life. Michael had been one of them too. In many ways Adam, though a few years older, reminded me of my old friend.
Anxiously, I waited as Mama placed bread in her stone oven and then began chopping up the plums, figs, and grapes gathered by the twins. It took several moments for the bread to bake and for Mama and the twins to prepare the fruit. Mama, always slow and methodical, seemed to be moving even slower this morning. She had, I understood, much on her mind. Reuben was on the mend now, but it was unclear whether or not the plan of disguising him as a Greek-speaking Jew and sending him off to a sister he had not seen for many years would really work. Although we had not seen Papa drinking for a while, he had seemed awfully cheery lately, and I think Mama was worried about that too. Jesus had settled down and began acting quite normal again, but James and Joseph’s standoffish behavior continued to bring frowns upon her normally placid face. When I considered all of the other problems for our family—Elizabeth and Samuel’s health, Rabbi Joachim’s continued enmity, and the fickle attitude of the town—I felt very selfish for thinking only of gold. I almost wished Adam had never scratched that map in the dirt. I had heard Papa once say that gold could bring on a fever as powerful as strong wine. I once snuck a taste of wine in Samuel’s house during Jesus homecoming, and it could not compare with the sight of sparkling gold cups and plates. What would Jesus think of my gold fever? Would he think it was just a childish prank? Or would he think it was the Evil One guiding my steps?
My appetite was dulled by my anxiety and mounting guilt, and yet, as our family congregated at the table and Papa said the morning blessing, I found myself wolfing down the fruit, bread and honey in order to scamper outside into the orchard and check my bush. It would be difficult for me to do such a thing for a while. I would have to wait until Simon and I had finished our chores before scampering off to play. Papa might want us to help him and our brothers in the shop before we worked in the garden or helped Mama around the house. Until then, Simon and I would have to be careful. When our friends came over in the late morning or early afternoon, they would want to inspect the bush themselves. If Simon and I were still doing our chores, they might charge ahead on their own. What if their commotion led Papa or Jesus straight to the bush?
As Papa handed Simon and me a sander, a more important question for me was “what if the treasure was gone?” Why should we trust a bandit chief’s son? Adam might have returned before dawn to retrieve his loot. On the other hand, I thought, glancing at Joseph and James, what if Simon was right about those two? If they hadn’t stolen it outright themselves, they might have been spying on us when we placed it in the bush and were just biding their time.
The period of time between sanding the table legs, picking weeds from the garden, and being excused while Mama prepared lunch, plunged me into such despair family members wondered if I might be ill. Casting me a searching glance, Papa gave us a short blessing before taking his seat. As we embarked upon our second meal of the day, I forced myself to eat the goat’s cheese and unleavened bread sat before me, but I might as well have been chewing dried leaves and candle wax. Reuben, a totally different person in spite of his hulking form, sat next to me on the bench. Though cooped up in his room for several months, he chatted cheerily as he ate his lunch, as if he didn’t have a care in the world.
“Peace be upon Reuben, our honored guest!” Mama raised her mug.
“Peace be upon Reuben!” Papa and Jesus intoned.
No one else joined Mama’s toast. James and Joseph glared at Reuben, as Simon scratched his head.
“Peace,” I toasted belatedly under my breath, “to Reuben’s health.”
I think only Reuben heard my words. He had become, if only temporarily, a member of our family. Mama was just trying to make him feel at home. All I could think of was the treasure hidden in that bush. I didn’t recognize this clean-shaven stranger, who looked more Greek than Jew. Until recently, he had been Papa’s mortal enemy; now he was our honored guest. What would Reuben think of if he knew Adam had given us some of his loot? It seemed quite possible that Adam had merely stolen these items from the older thief. Hysterical laughter escaped my throat as I looked up from the table. A fearful possibility surfaced in my mind. What if Adam had retrieved his ill-gotten gold after sneaking out of the house? I wouldn’t allow myself to consider Jethro, Obadiah, Boaz, and Jonah as culprits. They knew Papa or Jesus might catch them sneaking into our yard. Though it seemed possible that Adam might have retrieved his treasure, I doubted if James and Joseph had found it themselves. They would be gloating right now and wouldn’t be in such surly moods.
Judging by the conversation and the expressions on their faces, no one in our family knew about Simon and my secret, unless we considered Jesus ability to read our minds. I couldn’t worry about this. The worst thing that could have happened, I realized as I enumerated the possible disasters, would be that the Romans had found out about the stolen loot. For once I was glad that our guardians had left our town, and yet I didn’t trust Adam or even the reformed Reuben in spite of his changed look. What was it that Papa once said about wolves in sheep’s clothing? Who knows how much stolen loot those bandits had buried. It occurred to me, as I listened to my parents prattle on about the disappearance of Adam and Reuben’s improved health, that Reuben and his partners could very well have hidden the main treasure, which Adam dipped into, somewhere in the hills. All this smiling and nodding could be an act. On the inside he could be the same old wolf. On the other hand, Reuben, though thankful for his good treatment, might just be biding his time. What better way to finance his new life as a reformed thief than all those ill-gotten goods? My head swam with these thoughts. I was sweating quite noticeably now and hadn’t touched my food. Greatest of all my emotions—even greater than my lust for gold—was my fear of disclosure. I would throw it all away in an instance, I vowed those moments, all the treasure in the world, in fact, to prevent this. Oh, why did Adam have to appear in our lives? I wanted to shout. It was as if the Evil One, himself, was in control of my life.
“Jude, what’s wrong?” Mama reached over and shook my sleeve. “Are you feeling well?”
“He’s been like this all morning.” Papa frowned. “Glum as goat.”
“Are you sad that the Romans have left?” pressed Mama.
“Sort of,” I mumbled with a shrug, “except Diblius. I didn’t like him much.”
“I don’t miss the Romans,” spat Joseph. “I’m glad they’re gone!”
Papa wagged a finger at Joseph but said nothing. Everyone had grown used to Joseph’s outbursts. As beads of sweat continued to form on my brow, all eyes, except Simon’s, seemed to be trained on me. Simon sat next to me chewing thoughtfully on his food. He appeared to be unruffled by the threats facing us. Upon reflection, I believe it was too subtle for him—out of sight and out of mind. Nothing but immediate terror, like he showed on the trail yesterday, seemed to bother Simon very much. I felt Reuben’s rough hand patting mine, as they stared at me. “Don’t worry lad, they’ll be back,” he murmured in a gravelly voice. Papa tilted his head, as Mama whispered, “This is not like Jude.” As I squirmed in my seat, Jesus leaned across the table and looked me squarely in the eyes.
“I think my little brother is anxious to play.” He winked knowingly.
“Yes,” I replied quickly, “I’m not hungry Mama. Can I go into the backyard?”
Papa nodded slowly and Mama gave me a troubled smile. Simon, who sat gobbling every morsel in sight it seemed, arose reluctantly to follow me out the back door.
“Hurry,” I called discreetly over my shoulder as I ran down the trail, “before our friends arrive or they catch us at the bush.” “Jesus knows,” I added, surging ahead.
“Slow down. They’ll see us running. How could Jesus know?” Simon cried, as I darted into the woods.
Once again an immediate threat confronted him. During our meal he hadn’t given it a second thought. When I reached our special bush, I looked inside and felt light-headed as I saw the shiny metal catching rays of sunlight streaming down through the trees. All of our friends should be finished with their chores and noonday meals. There was little time.
“Quick, we have to put this in a safer place,” I sputtered, pulling off my tunic and placing the items inside.
After tying the sleeves together, one large plate acted as a cork, preventing the smaller items from spelling out the neck, as we gripped the ends. Conspicuously bare-chested, cringing as our treasure clanked inside, I led Simon toward our secret place.
“Where are you going?” He looked frantically around the orchard. “We don’t have enough time.”
“I know a place,” I said, leading him to a familiar spot. “No one wants to go down there.”
“No, we’ll get all scratched up,” he protested, watching in horror as I slipped down the trail.
“All right,” I said, puffing and panting, “you stay here. I’ll have to drag it. You stand watch!”
This time I uprooted a dried bush near the entrance and, holding it before me, moved carefully down the trail, while gripping both ends of my tunic awkwardly in my free hand. As expected the cactus needles and thorns brushed against the branches of the bush and not my arms and legs. Nevertheless, it was a slow and agonizing trip. I couldn’t see where I was going and kept stumbling on roots and stones below my feet. My greatest fear these moments was being caught in the act by Papa or having to answer to our friends. If I could just place the treasure in a remote corner of the sanctuary and get back up the trail without being seen, Simon and I could pretend we’ve been romping in the trees. It seemed to be a foolhardy plan, but we couldn’t leave the golden plates and cups in such an exposed place. It would be much easier to explain my change of hiding place to our friends after the fact rather than having them discover me down here or on the trail.
Fortunately, my tunic hadn’t burst open and spelled its contents as I dragged it down the trail. When I reached the bottom, I could hear voices in the distance. They sounded like children, but I wasn’t sure. Voices in the wind are often distorted. As discreetly as possible, I called several times to Simon, but received no answer, which led me to believe that he had abandoned me as he had before. Stumbling around for only a few moments, I let the items fall onto the damp ground not far from the steps leading up to the trail. After slipping the tunic back onto my soiled chest, I scrambled hysterically with my dried bush back up to the top. A scrap here and puncture wound there stopped me cold, for I felt as if I was being torn to pieces. I could not possibly make it up in time. Frantically retracing my steps, filled with numbing dread, I withdrew into the sanctuary, deciding I would hide down here for as long as it took. As I recognized the voices of my friends, I could, when I strained my ear, hear Simon arguing with Jethro. It was far enough away from the orchard trail to imply that they had had gathered around the empty bush. My absence would lead to the conclusion that I had taken the treasure, which was, of course, true. I could see no way out of this dilemma. If I came forward now they would still think I had tricked and betrayed them. The commotion may already have alerted my parents and oldest brother, whose opinion of me would plunge into the darkest depths. I would be severely punished, if not beaten, by Papa and lose Mama and Jesus’ respect. Weeping bitter tears in a dark corner of the sanctuary, I had forgotten even to be afraid of this frightful place, until I heard a faint noise in the darkness. The sound grew progressively louder. This time it was clearly the crunch of gravel as someone or something approached from the direction where we had heard Reuben’s moans. “Jude, keep silent,” a subdued voice counseled me, “I shall save the day.” I could scarcely believe my ears. I saw a light coming from what appeared to be a cave, swaying back and forth as the intruder approached. Attached to the lamp, its eerie glow lighting his face, was Jesus Bar Abbas, whom we now called Adam.
“Where did you come from,” I whispered hoarsely. “Is that how you and Reuben entered the sanctuary?”
“Let’s pick up the treasure,” he whispered, sitting down his lamp. “You carry the bowel and platter. I’ll put all these cups and plates in my sack. Let’s move them into my hideout. Quickly, Jude, before your greedy friends brave the trail.”
“Your hideout?” I muttered in amazement. “I knew it—that’s how you both entered this place!”
With the handle of the most valuable piece of the loot—the tureen—clutched in one fist, I followed Adam down the lighted path into what was the ruins of a temple that my guide explained was once a pagan religious shrine. There were painted figures similar to the fiendish drawings in front of the steps and sculptures of naked priests and priestesses in various niches, whose hollow eyes, Adam explained, had once held jewels, which his father had long ago pried from the sockets. When we were in the center of a great chamber, I looked down to see a tiled floor much more fantastic in design than my parent’s floor. A horned alter, which reminded me of the one found in Deborah’s house by Papa and Samuel, sat in the middle of the chamber. Adam motioned me over to a stone bench, similar to the benches for worshippers in synagogues, though I shuddered to think of what went on in this room.
I could see that Adam had managed to keep himself fairly clean and well groomed since I saw him last. Most of the grime was gone and his long hair had been tucked up into a turban much like the one I saw Joseph of Arimathea wearing, except that it was simple homespun and, in fact, was probably stolen from someone’s laundry drying in the sun.
He drew near to me, as if even in this inner sanctum we could still be overheard. “Listen carefully to me Jude. . . You must never tell your friends where I put the treasure now. It was foolish of me to play that silly game. As you must know, I lied to your parents. My father wasn’t a merchant. He was Abbas bar Ibrim, the bandit chief.”
“Of course I know.” I nodded faintly. “Reuben told us about you.”
“Ah, Reuben and his friends!” Adam uttered a tired laugh. “They were never good bandits. Too squeamish about using their knives. The Romans killed my father and my uncles, and he managed to escape. They caught Reuben’s friends and crucified them, along with members of my father’s band, on the road to Jerusalem. I was able to drag Reuben into this temple. If I didn’t know better, I would call it a miracle, especially now that the Romans have left Nazareth and Reuben is alive and well. I thought for certain his wounds would kill him, yet your mother saved his life. Now he’s going to get a second chance, with a new identity. I think another miracle is that Reuben dragged himself out through that corridor, instead of staying inside the temple to perish. Perhaps he was out of his mind or perhaps the Most High directed his movements, but somehow he found the back entrance. Otherwise he would be dead.”
“What about the treasure?” I looked at the items we stacked on the pagan alter.
“I’m going to go up to the orchard, through my secret passage, which I shall show you. I’ll tell your greedy friends that it was a mistake to hide stolen treasure. All that it will accomplish will be to get you in trouble with your parents. If the Romans get wind of this, it will go hard on you and your family. This might be close to your property, but no Jew, even if he knows about it, will visit this place. It’s unclean. Promise me that you’ll leave the treasure where it is on the alter, until you’re grown up.” “Remember this though,” he said, raising a finger, “this will always be stolen loot. If you take it Jude, you, too, are a thief.”
“I promise,” I responded quickly, “to leave it where it’s at.”
“Good,” he said, slapping my back, “now let’s go find your friends.”
I followed Adam, as he carried his torch, through a much longer corridor than the one leading into the temple, until we reached a point were only a small stream of sunlight broke through the blackness ahead.
“There was a cave-in,” he explained, raising his lamp, “but I found a way inside much better than that thorn patch you and your friends took.” “What do you think, Jude.” He looked back at me, as I cringed in the shadows.
“Think of what?” I squinted into the darkness. “All I see is one tiny pinpoint of light.”
“Follow me.” He advanced forward. “There’s more than meets the eye.”
After we walked down a hallway, whose walls were painted with profane art, his lamp fell upon the arch of a great doorway filled with rubble, but that’s not where the secret entrance was. Laughing softly at his little joke, he led me to a more narrow passage and, after several moments, toward a growing shaft of light, which, Adam explained, was the proper way into the temple. I expected to find some form of camouflage to hide the entrance but, as I trotted behind Adam, I realized that no one, unless they had been here before would have been able to find this hidden access. The light of the lamp was no longer necessary as sunlight streamed down onto our passage. The walls on each side of us were natural formations, part Nazareth’s rock strewn hills, similar to many crevices Simon, my friends, and I had discovered during our hikes, with the exception that Adam’s hidden entrance now led to a treasure that sat on an alter in a Canaanite temple where pagan sacrifices were made.
Adam blew out his lamp and sat it on a flat rock. The climb up the rocky path, which the bandits themselves must have made, was not difficult. From here, we turned a corner of black stone, Adam claimed had come from an ancient volcano, trekked through a stream bed with dense foliage on each side, until emerging on the Shepherd’s path.
“I’m not suppose to be here,” I confessed trying to keep pace.
“Let me do the explaining,” he called over his shoulder. “If we run into your father, I’ll tell him the truth, but I’ll also tell him a lie. I’m not sure what it will be yet, but I’ll think of something. Your brother and your friends won’t dare tell them about the missing treasure. I’ll explain that to them, and that will be the end of it. All right?”
“All right.” I nodded jerkily.
Soon, with my heart hammering loudly and lungs laboring for air, I could see, beyond my fearless guide, all of my friends. Simon, to my dismay, was nowhere in sight. My mind raced with unanswered questions. What if Simon told my parents what we did? What if my friends, angered by my treachery, told their parents, and my parents’ fair-weather friends, when the Romans arrived for a visit, told them about the stolen loot? What have I done to my family and friends?
My one good fortune that moment was looking around and not seeing my parents or oldest brother overseeing Adam’s short speech.
“Jude tried to talk me out of it, but I’ve decided to rebury my treasure. It would have gotten you all in trouble with your parents. Of course, if the Romans found out, it would be a far more serious matter. Jude was very brave to argue with me. You see, I’m not what I appear to be. . . . I’m a bandit, not a merchant’s son. My father was the bandit chief Abbas bar Ibrim, yet I consider Jude my friend.”
For one terrible moment I thought he might slip and mention Reuben, my family’s guest, but instead of a long-winded speech, the sort of mistake that so often got the outspoken Peter into trouble, he raised a hand in salute, pivoted and trotted back down the path. Though I had no intention of following him this time, I made a few token steps in his direction, a determined expression on my face.
“Don’t follow me Jude,” he shouted back sternly. “Be satisfied that you have a family and warm place to sleep at night with plenty of food. I must use my wits just to survive!”
“Good bye Adam, son of Abbas.” I gave him a Roman salute.
The cowardly Simon appeared suddenly out of nowhere grinning like a jackal. My gesture brought only contempt from Jethro and Obadiah.
“Not only do you consort with bandits, but your becoming a Roman,” Jethro sneered.
“Did you really try to save our treasure?” Obadiah frowned. “Why were you walking up the trail with Adam. If he’s a bandit, why would you salute him like a friend?”
“I think Jude’s brave!” Jonah raced up and gave me a hug.
“Me too!” Boaz pounded by shoulders.
Simon remained silent, his smile turning into a snarl. I was greatly relieved he had not informed on me, but I sensed his displeasure. I didn’t feel as if I had to elaborate on Adam’s explanation, but we talked about it for a while as we sat in the yard. I was not certain about Jethro and Obadiah’s lasting friendship but my standing with Boaz and Jonah had grown considerably that hour. I simply reminded my friends of the importance of keeping all this a secret from our parents. It was a great adventure, and I promised them more exploits in the future. Simon, however, was not happy that our treasure was gone. He accused me later of hiding it somewhere else, but he couldn’t argue that we were much better off without it. We could never spend it without profiting from someone else’s misfortune and likely death. That rascal Adam had, I wanted to believe, done us all a favor. He removed temptation from us by placing the treasure in a place no faithful Jew would go. Such noble thoughts now that temptation was removed! Questions haunted me after his disappearance. Was I giving Adam or myself too much credit? He was, after all, Abbas’ son. What better way of helping him relocate the treasure than placing it out of bounds? That crafty fellow! I could picture him sneaking back in the dead of night to retrieve his loot. I could also picture myself yielding to temptation and returning to the pagan shrine to snatch the treasure first!