On the Trail
That morning in Galilee I was filled with such mixed emotions I could scarcely speak. To make matters worse I suffered from the effects of the cheap, Greek wine given to me by Caesarius and Abzug after guzzling down the camp ration. I knew Papa must have felt that way often enough. Now it was my turn. There was one last salute between Longinus and Decimus, the optio I met at the gate, and several hand picked men, two of which I was delighted to see were Aulus and Vesto, the guards that had watched over us during the first shift. The remaining members of the escort, Decimus explained in his introduction as we mustered bleary-eyed by the main gate, were handpicked auxilia—the type of soldiers I would probably become when I arrived at my post. They were a fearsome-looking bunch, diverse in appearance yet uniformly contemptuous of us, even Decimus, though the optio was the leader of our group. The most imposing auxiliary was Ajax, a Macedonian with black hair and contrasting blue eyes. Though his expression seemed frozen in a permanent snarl, he might have been considered handsome had it not been for the jagged scar on his cheek. The next unfriendly face introduced to us was a dark skinned, shaven-headed Egyptian named, inappropriately enough, Apollo. This evil eyed man was, with the possible exception of Ajax, the scariest member of the auxilia. The third and fourth members, Rufus and Enron, were tall and muscular, clearly the strongest, though not the meanest-looking, of the group. Tow-headed and fair complexioned, they were, I would find out later, identical twin brothers, except for Rufus’ moustache, which was worn by most warriors in Gaul. The remaining two escorts, Ibrim, a small, slightly built little Arab with gold earrings, and Fronto, a large, portly Thracian with a distinctive red beard, were also intimidating. When the unfriendly veterans and courier were lumped into this group, I was left with only Caesarius and the three Roman guards as friends.
Of the nine guards escorting us through Galilee, the square-jawed, ruddy-faced Decimus was the only one who looked the part. The beefy jowled, slightly overweight Aulus and Vesto, didn’t inspire confidence in me as did Decimus nor did the auxilia, who, in their rag-tag costumes, didn’t look like Roman soldiers at all. It seemed clear to me, by the fuss given to our small group of outcasts, that the desire to get the veterans out of Galilee had been Cornelius’ main concern. Whereas the veterans were exiled murderers, Abzug had been thrown into the plan at the last minute because of something he did in the fort. Considering the ambivalent attitude of the prefect, I was probably just an after thought, but it didn’t matter now. Decimus and his friends, if not the auxilia, understood why I was here. Though I had suffered contempt like the others, I had done nothing wrong. I was not being cashiered out of the legion or exiled from the province because I was a murderer or thief. I was joining, not leaving, the army. Notwithstanding the capable Decimus, himself, it could be that the remainder of the guards because they, not regular army, were given this assignment, were considered expendable, themselves. A motley assortment of soldiers, who hadn’t volunteered, were being sent into harm’s way to protect criminals and, in the words of Apollo, one “wet-behind-the-ears Jew.” None of them could be very happy about this, especially the auxilia, and yet, I had great hopes in this diverse blend of warriors protecting us now.
My hope was tempered with doubt and driven by prayer. One, almost unheard statement, would comfort me on our journey. Longinus had already said goodbye to me, but I heard him tell Decimus to take good care of me. Nothing was said about taking care of the other “outcasts,” who were leaving the fort in disgrace. I remembered hearing the optio introducing the auxilia to us then Longinus final words. Now, as we departed in single file, my head hammered so loudly I could barely hear Decimus talking to me as I followed him out the gate. The sun had just begun to brim the horizon, but we rode in shadows until breaking from the fort’s looming shade. At that point, during that magical time Jesus and I shared, called first light, I looked out on the highway to Jerusalem. We would, I learned later, be taking the highway leading to Antioch when we reached the fork in the road. The adventure I had always wanted and prayed for had begun. It would be a long road, and I wouldn’t see my family for a very long time.
“Stay behind me lad,” Decimus was patiently directing. “Keep your legs firmly against the mule like that and wrap the reigns around your knuckles,” “like that,” he reached over to assist.
“You shouldn’t have drunk all that wine.” Aulus, who road behind me a moment, uttered a sour laugh. “Many good men have been destroyed by the vine.”
“Like father like son, they say,” Vesto chimed.
“Now Vesto,” scolded Aulus, “Longinus is fond of that carpenter fellow. He was in his cups yesterday. You can’t blame him. A Jew’s son running off to join the legions. Ho! I’d get drunk too.”
Decimus turned in the saddle and barked, “That’s enough. You’re talking like he’s not even here. “Are you all right Judah?” His tone softened. “Can you hold on for another couple of hours until we reach Jotapata?”
I nodded indecisively, gripping my reigns tightly as he instructed me to avoid falling off my mount. Aulus rode up and down the line now, as Decimus’ second-in-command, barking orders: “Ride two by two—auxilia in front and back, veterans in the middle. Jude rides next to Vesto or me. Look lively men. We don’t want that Jew-hating Geta anywhere near Jude. Keep your eyes on Abzug, too. We should’ve taken away his sword. I don’t trust that jackal. If he so much as sneezes, run him through!”
“Now I’m a jackal,” I heard Abzug mutter to himself. “I won’t hurt the Jew. Thanks to his friendship with Longinus, we’re traveling under guard.”
“We might as well be prisoners,” grumbled Langullus. “I wanted to go to Sepphoris. I know people there, but they’re making me leave the province altogether. I have no place to go.”
“Langullus,” Decimus called back irritably, “I’m aware of your wounds. You were a good soldier until being caught with that bunch. All of you veterans could’ve been executed, but you were spared. Abzug is just a low-life thief, but you men embarrassed the legions. You made our prefect look bad.”
“I’m not a thief,” Abzug protested. “I won that stuff fair and square.”
“Crassus said you cheated,” Ajax’s deep voice blared from the rear.
“You think so?” shouted a fourth guard, I would later recognize as Apollo. “What about Flavius, Arrius, and Salvia? You think they’re liars too?”
“They’re all poor losers,” the courier grew agitated. “I’m being drummed out because of a game of toss.”
“You’re a lying sneak!” Aulus concluded. “You’d steal the coins off your mother’s eyes before the boatman rows her to Styx!”
No one could match this insult. As I reflect upon Aulus’ words, I’m impressed with his understanding of Virgil’s hell. The guards roared with laughter until Decimus turned in his saddle and shouted “Silence! We’re on the road now. Save the levity for when we make camp.”
Aulus flashed me a smile as he rode by, murmuring. “I feel sorry for Judah, for being stuck in this group.”
“My name’s not Judah,” I bristled, “it’s Jude.”
“Change the name, before you play the game,” he gave me a clever quip.
Vesto added his own comment, which is too foul for me to record. In this rustic’s mind my circumcised member was going to become a liability when my tent-mates caught sight of it. I had never even considered this a problem until that moment. Now I not only had to worry about food prohibitions but I had to hide my private parts when I undressed.
I wanted to stuff my fingers in my ears and utter la-la-la-la as I did as a child, but I knew their conversation would, like every thing else in my life, be branded in my skull.
Decimus explained the route we would take almost as an afterthought, as if it was but a trifling matter. After reaching the fork in the road, we would take the highway to Antioch. Abzug and the three veterans groaned in despair. The six additional guards remained silent except one lone voice that I would later identify as Ibrim, the Arab, who called out mockingly, “The Jinns will soon be dancing on our bones.” Even I, who had not traveled further than Jerusalem or Sepphoris, knew this would be a long, dangerous journey. From what I gathered listening to Aulus, it was much more complicated than Decimus description. It was a long, winding road to the sea, followed by a rocky, coastal route to the next fort. Though Galilee had reportedly been pacified, at least officially, no one could predict when a band of cutthroats might appear on the road. Marches through this province usually included a century of men or more. Considering Langullus’ injuries and my lack of experience, we had only twelve able-bodied sword arms. Before any of the veterans could argue about our itinerary, Decimus explained—perhaps for the auxilia and my benefit—that it had been decided by Gratus, himself, as a punishment for disgracing the eagles, that these three villains must be escorted out of the province, on pain of death never to return.
“…. But I haven’t disgraced anyone,” I said after a long pause.
“Hah,” he snorted, “you think Gratus doesn’t know you’re a Jew? His nephew Clevus reports everything Cornelius does. Fact is, because of your desire to join the Galilean Cohort, they wanted you out too.”
“What about me?” growled Abzug. “Why am I lumped into this group? Those stingy bastards can’t afford to give us ship’s passage from Tyre? I was carrying the mail before Gratus arrived. I’ve never had to travel that far. Why is he punishing me?”
“Because, you’re a no-account thief?” Ajax called from the rear.
“All right everyone,” Decimus clipped sternly, “keep it down. From now on, until we arrive in Jotapata, no more outbursts. If you’ve got something important to say, whisper!”
“I’ll pay my own passage,” grumbled the courier.
“Me too!” whined Geta. “My bones can’t take another long trip.”
“Psst, he said whisper!” Aulus galloped past, flicking them with his whip.
For several hours we traveled through a bandits’ domain—desert, flat lands, vultures and crows flying overhead, and an occasional oasis in the distance to contrast the desolation on each side. It was a false image, I knew, for the landscape was not much different than that surrounding the lonely hills of Nazareth, my beloved town. Men, not nature, had made this a hostile zone, only recently purged by the Galilean cohort. I wondered fleetingly, as I dozed in my saddle, if my old friend Adam was now dead. Was he one of the Jewish captives who suffered Roman wrath or had that wily fox escaped? Though he shared my oldest brother’s name, I would always think of him as Adam, the name he gave us when my family took him in. So quickly had this youth shown us his true nature when he thought I had stolen his gold. Adam (or Jesus bar Abbas) was probably no better than the average thief, but could he have been a murderer like the veterans, who killed my fellow Jews? He had cursed me once and threatened my life, and yet I hoped he was safe. I also hoped that Caesarius wasn’t as bad a man as Longinus claimed. Other than the capricious will of the guards, he was my only friend.
Before reaching Jotapata, our first camp, we stopped near the village of Cana to rest, eat our rations, and water our horses and mules. One day this town would witness Jesus’ first important miracle when he turned water into wine, but from a distance, tucked away in an oasis of myrtles and oak, it seemed small and insignificant. It was, we were told, one of the towns considered unfriendly by the prefect. To avoid a confrontation, we would take our break at a distance from Cana. A handful of townsmen, that included a very old man with a long white beard, watched with hostility as a motley band of strangers shared a noon meal. This village elder, who left the shadow of a large tree and stood glaring in the sunlight, typified the mood of Galileans toward the occupiers. In a strange way, as I compared the carefree movements of the soldiers with the smoldering hatred in the elder’s eyes, I could understand Rome’s resentment of the Jews. They so often thought of themselves as protectors, giving our people freedoms other captive nations didn’t have. Notwithstanding my own decision to join up, no Jew could be conscripted into the army, nor, as other peoples, did they have to pay homage to Caesar or allow non-Jews of any kind into their home. Already, as Jesus wanted, I was beginning to understand the heart of the Gentiles, but I could also understand, after seeing the intolerance and ruthlessness of soldiers, why the Jews likewise hated them. Longinus was one of the Romans who longed for true peace between Romans and Jews. He thought I shared my brothers and parents’ nobility of heart. I wondered, though, if my heart might not be hardened by this experience. There was no telling what calamities might lie ahead.
“Judah,” a voice interrupted my thoughts, “it’s time to go.”
It was Caesarius. The kindliness of his face belied his bloody deed. For his age, I marveled at the agile way he pulled me to my feet. Geta was a bit on the crotchety side. Langullus was badly lamed. Caesarius, the oldest of the veterans, was a spry and vibrant old man. Yet he was a Jew-killer, I thought, as he helped me onto my mule. Despite the rule that guards would be interspersed among the riders, Caesarius rode alongside of me for a while, chatting about the old days, when he rode with Tiberius and then young Germanicus and fought real, not peacekeeping, wars. In the near distance the elder began shouting and shaking his staff. What he said sounded similar to something I once heard Rabbi Aaron say in the synagogue, but it was misquoted with revisions added to the prophet Daniel’s words.
“Thus sayeth the Lord,” the old man bellowed in a wavering voice. “Three beasts ruled Israel: Egypt, Babylon, and Greece. Rome—the fourth beast is the last. Before our Messiah returns, the last beast will have devoured the whole earth, but a day of reckoning will occur, when the Deliverer smites him and drives him from our land!”
“Humph, that’s us,” Decimus grunted, turning in his saddle. “You’re a Jew, so tell me, why’s that old man calling us beasts? Why do they hate us so much? If it wasn’t for some of your bandit leaders and insurrectionists, Romans and Jews could live in peace. ”
“He’s quoting from Daniel,” I explained as delicately as possible. “The part about the Messiah is his own revelation. Evidently he’s some kind of sage. It’s true that many bandit leaders are murderers and thieves, but Judah, the Galilean, my namesake, fought Roman tyranny. He ignited something in my people which old men like that village elder are unlikely to forget. Compared to some of the stuff I heard my brothers say about Romans, what the elder said was really quite tame. But there’s no mention of Romans in the Torah. They don’t even mention their predecessors the Greeks. You both came too late to be included in prophecy. According to Isaiah, a savior will deliver us from the Gentiles—period! That’s pretty much all he says.”
“Hah!” Decimus tossed his head back and laughed. “We’d probably have strung him up too!”
“Well, I’m no damned Gentile,” Geta grumbled.
“Me neither.” Langullus gave him a nod.
“But you’re beasts,” taunted Aulus, playfully swatting them both with his whip.
“Damn seditionists—all of them.” Geta cried, wringing his fist. “Rome’s been too tolerant with these troublesome Jews.”
“Well,” Vesto spat, “at least they’re not murderers. I don’t fancy sticking my necks out for the likes of you.”
“This Jew boy we got with us,” Aulus said, giving me a swat, “is the best of the lot.”
I nodded dubiously at Aulus compliment. Caesarius’ blue eyes twinkled with mirth. The six auxilia had snarled at us as we ate our noon meal. They had obviously not wanted this detail and would, I feared, remain hostile toward us throughout our trip. So far neither Caesarius nor I had any idea whether or not we would be escorted all the way to our destination or just out of Galilee into the less dangerous climate of the north. When I brought this matter up to Decimus, he reassured us that the auxilia had been instructed to accompany us all the way.
“Will that be enough?” I spoke discreetly. “Some of those robber bands are quite large.”
“I know,” Decimus said, rubbing the stubble on his chin, “but Cornelius doesn’t have men to spare. The fact is, Jude, we need more than one legion in this province. One cohort in Galilee for that matter is not enough. We’re spread too thinly. If a bunch of troublemakers attacked us right now, we’d be wiped out,” “like that,” he added, snapping his fingers. “That’s why we ride two-by-two, so we don’t get picked off.”
“They should’ve given us more men.” Aulus shook his head. “Ten guards, three burned out veterans, and one wet-behind-the-ears lad just aren’t enough.”
“It’s enough,” grunted Vesto, “we’ll be out of Galilee pretty soon.”
“Until then,” Decimus continued, looking around the group, “Abzug and the guards ride defensively: bows slung over shoulders and arrows ready, lances close by, and sword sheathed but ready in the saddle.”
“Are any of you veterans hiding swords?” Aulus studied their frightened faces. “This is not a trick question. You’re all damn fools if you’re not.”
At that point, to my amazement, all three of the veterans, with sheepish grins, exhibited their swords. Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto nodded with approval. In spite of their surliness, the auxilia, who, in fact, also carried bows and quivers, were a welcome sight after Decimus’ words. I was also surprised to find that among the Roman guards there was at least one more bow between them, which Aulus produced reluctantly from a large pouch.
“I was hoping I wouldn’t have to use this,” he said, displaying the weapon.
“What about him?” Abzug sneered at me. “He’s still dressed like a Jew.”
“He’ll get fitted properly at his new post,” teased Vesto. “I can just see little Judah, marching around in his boots and helmet. A proper soldier he’ll be, if we don’t get ambushed on the way.”
“I-I brought my knife,” I responded belatedly. “I wanted to bring Papa’s sword, but it’s a family heirloom.”
“Ho-ho,” Aulus teased, “he wanted to bring Papa’s sword. Papa, indeed. Priceless, he is Decimus. I’m growing fond of this lad, but we gotta find him a proper sword.” “Any of you auxilia have an extra sword?” He looked around the group.
The auxilia remained silent. A thought came to me that moment that we were at the mercy of those six hardened men. Decimus barked out another order as we dawdled on the road. “All right, look lively men, pay attention. Remain two by two until we leave Galilee. You, Ajax and Apollo, at the end stay alert. Aulus, Vesto, and Abzug will take turns watching our front, rear, and flanks.”
As we doubled up on the road, I found myself next to Decimus, at the head of the procession, which was much better than being at the end of the march with no one at my back.
“I can’t believe you didn’t bring something Judah.” The optio looked at me in disbelief. “Why didn’t you, in fact, borrow a sword from someone before you left?”
“I dunno,” I shrugged, “I thought they’d give me one at the fort. After the reception I got, I forgot to ask.”
“They?” Decimus frowned. “Whose they? After all the unrest we’ve had, they’re not gonna give you a sword. You should never have broadcasted the fact that you’re a Jew. You, like most Jews, are peaceable enough, but some of you people are fanatics. A lad about your age stepped forth one day and killed Longinus’ brother.”
“As a people, are we judged by a few bad Galileans?” I grew defensive. “I rode in on a mule. I’m still riding a mule, not a fine stallion, without a sword or shield, with only my wits—”
“Even so,” he held up his hand, “you’ve come at a bad time. It would have been better if you had given the sentry a Roman or Greek name or at least waited awhile until all this died down. Cornelius is under great pressure after Gratus’ review. If those veterans weren’t being shipped out of the province, he would have sent you home to Nazareth. This was handled very badly. You don’t deserve being in this crowd.”
Aulus galloped up that moment after scouting ahead, announcing blithely. “Don’t worry. He’ll be all right when he leaves Galilee and arrives at his new post. From what I understand, he’s supposed to be a scribe. No one expects him to carry a sword.”
“Yes-yes, my pen is my weapon,” I blurted, nodding my head.
“What?” Decimus mouth dropped. “Are you daft?”
Vesto now raced up from the rear, causing a great cloud of dust. “Ho-ho, did I hear him correctly? His pen’s his weapon. Is he serious?”
“Aulus, you know better than that,” Decimus scolded affably. “No one marches without a sword.”
“I was joking.” Aulus tapped me playfully with his whip. “Everyone knows that!”
Geta, who rode behind me, replied quickly, “No they don’t. Judah doesn’t. His weapon’s the sword.”
All twelve men, including Caesarius, laughed. In good humor, reaching across my saddle to rustle my hair, Vesto seemed to sum up their opinion of me: “For a smart Jew, you sure are dumb!”
I was close to weeping at this point yet flashed Decimus a brave smile.
“All right, that’s enough. Keep your voices down,” Decimus ordered crisply. “Judah, pay them no mind. You’ve got your whole life to prove yourself.” “Abzug,” he called out irritably, “you got an extra gladius in your saddle. I saw it. Let him borrow it until you reach Antioch. All right?”
“Why didn’t they send a larger group of men,” protested Abzug. “A sword will be wasted in that boy’s hand. Fourteen under equipped legionnaires and auxilia isn’t enough, Decimus. Do the prefect and first centurion want to get us all killed?”
“No,” Decimus answered, shaking his head, “he’s short-handed, at least that’s what he said. Gratus would’ve had those veterans killed. I guess we’re lucky to have them.”
“I don’t think so, ” Vesto disagreed. “They could’ve sent regulars, not that bunch of auxilia. Some of our men were sympathetic to Caesarius, Geta, and Langullus. If nothing else, they would’ve volunteered to get extra pay. That’s why I volunteered. I expected to ride with a substantial number of regulars, like us. There’s nothing happening in Galilee, Decimus. There’s plenty of men to spare,” “but no,” he added with disgust, “they couldn’t spare a company of idlers. They sent six auxilia: Ajax and his friends!”
“Aye,” Aulus replied with distaste, “and they didn’t volunteer. They were ordered to go by Longinus or else!”
“I never heard that.” Decimus frowned. “You actually heard Longinus say that?”
“Well, not exactly.” Aulus shrugged. “I saw him wring his finger at them. He was whispering but plenty mad.”
“It’s the same as it was with them.” Vesto pointed at Caesarius, Geta, Langulus, and Abzug. “Here’s your pay, there’s the road. The Galilean Cohort doesn’t want you anymore. Look at the way they’re glaring at us back there. They didn’t want this assignment.” “They’re being punished just like them.” He motioned to Abzug and the veterans.
“Aye,” Aulus replied with distaste, “because they’re doing it against their will, I don’t trust that bunch, Decimus, especially that damn Egyptian and Greek!”
“Well we’re doing this against our will,” grumbled Langullus.
“I didn’t hear anything about those men being cashiered.” Decimus raised an eyebrow. “According to Longinus, as far as cavalry go, they’re the best. I would’ve preferred regulars, myself. They serve Rome. Mercenaries too often serve themselves.”
“Exactly,” spat Vesto, “that’s why I don’t trust’em. I wouldn’t have volunteered if I knew they were coming.” “Right?” He looked at Aulus
“Right!” Aulus agreed.
“That goes for me.” Abzug folded his arms.
“Aulus, Vesto, Abzug,” Decimus exhaled wearily, “enough! You’re scaring Judah. Let’s give’em a chance. We have no other choice. We need those men, and they need us. You men worry too much. Those auxilia get paid only when they deliver us safety to the next fort. Money makes men loyal. As mercenaries, if not loyal Romans, they know how it works.”
I found it strange that the Abzug was lumped in with the Romans. He was a courier, not even a soldier, and a Syrian, which was almost as bad as being a Jew, but he was also, like us, afraid of the auxilia. For a moment, as the Romans, Abzug, and I turned in our saddles, we followed Decimus finger to the six auxilia sitting sullenly on their mounts. Decimus’ hand quickly shifted to a thumbs up then was brought sharply to his cuirass in salute. Though Ajax and Apollo continued to glare at us, the other four auxilia returned Decimus’ gesture, the Arab adding a flurry with his hand and bowing his head. I had seen the Arab shepherds near Nazareth do this many times. Jesus told me that this was an ancient form of respect practiced by the Israelites and other descendents of Abraham. I was hopeful that the respect in Decimus’ words, when he singled these men out again, would help transform these reluctant warriors from brooding participants to active members of our group.
The auxilia, who had sat on their mounts out of earshot from us, closed ranks with us as Decimus directed, so that there was an auxilia beside each one of us, while Aulus and Vesto continued riding up and down our procession, scouting ahead and watching our rear. I felt greatly honored, but also somewhat frightened that Rufus, the big Gaul with the moustache rode next to me and directly behind me protecting my back was none other Ajax, the Greek next to my friend Caesarius. You couldn’t beat that! Before we reached the town of Jotapata, which Decimus claimed was safely out of the worst part of Galilee, I would begin in guarded language to explain to the pagan Rufus what the worship of the invisible god entailed. During his odyssey with Joseph of Aramithea, Jesus had attempted on a much higher level to penetrate his own guards’ thick skulls only to fail. As I recalled Jesus letters to our family and our long talks, I saw a similarity between the auxilia, which represented different peoples and provinces in the empire and Joseph’s four guards I had seen at Jesus’ send-off party and Samuel the Pharisee’s house. Our guards were not as big as the Nubians, Loftus and Suburra, and the Syrians, Glychon and Tycho, in Jesus’ adventure, but they were fierce-looking fellows, especially Ajax and the two Gauls, one of whom, Rufus, who by appearance at least, seemed to be the fiercest of them all.
“So tell me,” he began in a muted yet deep voice, “do you Jews really mutilate your privates to please your invisible god.”
I winced at his crudeness but found this opening a perfect chance to explain what I believed. Decimus allowed us to talk discreetly as long as we kept our voices low and, in fact, appeared to be listening to me, as he rode beside the Egyptian, who despite his sinister appearance was at this very moment bragging to the optio about his beautiful Greek wife. Two important conversations now distracted Decimus: a discussion of Judaism, as I interpreted it for Rufus, and a description of the lovely Arsinoe in the crude language of the march.
“What you call mutilation,” I began carefully, “is a ritual separating us from Gentiles.”
“It’s stupid,” snorted Rufus. “I can’t accept such a demanding god.”
“I can’t either,” I confessed, carefully selecting my words, “It’s a painful custom—a barrier to men like yourself.”
“What?” Rufus leaned forward in disbelief. “You’re a Jew, aren’t you? You admit that your god is wrong?”
“I’m a Jew, just not a very good Jew,” I replied, recoiling at his words. “God’s not wrong because of the interpretations of men. There was a time when our people didn’t practice mutilation, before Abraham, during the time of Noah and his descendents.”
As I recounted the history of my people, as I understood it, from Creation through the Flood, and the re-peopling of the world in which one group of nomads kept a covenant with their Creator, Rufus expression of incredulity softened to what seemed gradual acceptance. Jesus had advised me once on how to read a man or woman’s expression. Beware of someone who smiles too much, he cautioned, or a listener who laughs slyly or giggles continually. These were the reactions of fools, cowards, or deceitful men. Learn to judge facial expressions to discover whether my words are being mocked, deeply thought out, or taken at face value. A frown doesn’t necessarily mean anger, in fact, it implies illumination. When the eyebrows raise at the same time this is, of course, an expression of surprise, associated with both disbelief and illumination. One eyebrow raised, however, is a sign of irritation, often preceding the moment when both eyebrows plunged down to indicate disapproval. When your words embarrass or make a listener feel uncomfortable, he might also show other expressions: puffed up cheeks, double-upped fists, stomping feet, or he might just storm away. Fear not, Jesus had said, inclining his head, this reaction isn’t necessarily bad. It also might mean he’s in denial. The clearest and most truthful expressions, Jesus counseled, are in the eyes. They are the windows of the soul. It’s difficult for men hide the truth there. A gaze reflects emotion: anger, love, hatred, illumination, and faith, by bursts of light or, in an evil or insane person, the lack thereof. The worst indicator of emotion is when someone refuses to look you in the eye. Beware of shifty-eyed men, Jesus warned, raising two-fingers, and staring into space. If a man can’t look you in the eye, you must not trust him, but neither should you write him off. There are some—tax collectors, merchants, and timid fellows—who are always on guard. For these men, listen to the tone and rise and fall of their voice. For, as the eyes are the windows of the soul, the voice is the door wherefore the listener must discern his motive. Always speak plainly and unambiguously and look for these traits in the listener. A man’s tone, though not as trust-worthy as his expression, says much about his frame of mind.
Unfortunately, as I looked into Rufus’ expressionless face and pale eyes, I saw none of the indicators Jesus alerted me to, nor could I tell what a squint meant or fathom the meaning of chin or head scratching and the countless facial ticks and bodily jerks of my traveling companions. Did his rules even apply to Gentiles? Perhaps they only applied to Jews. The sun was shining in the faces of those behind me. Those in front had their backs to me, and the faces beside me caught daytime shadows and, in some cases, weren’t paying attention at all. And yet, as I thought about Jesus request, that I learn the heart of the Gentiles, I also wondered if he had not been thinking of the normal stock of men, standing or sitting and looking at me face to face, not on the road, lulled by the motion of a horse or mule. Here on the outskirts of Galilee, as we traveled north, I listened to my youthful, untested voice, and realized that I was, the captain of Jesus ship might have said, charting unknown waters. This was a diverse collection of pagan and barbarian men.
By now the Egyptian, who had stopped talking about the vaulting curves and mischievous antics of his wife and Decimus, as well as the two scouts, Aulus and Vesto, moved their mounts in more closely in order to hear my tale. It seemed, by the sudden silence, that the entire squad was listening to my account, even those facing the opposite way. So far I had been talking in generalities about my faith—our covenant with God, the Ten Commandments, which outlined our basic laws, the Creation and my understanding of original sin, which Jesus explained was at the heart of our belief. I realized that moment I couldn’t hold their interest if I tried to explained what I didn’t completely understand myself. Suddenly, I at least understood Rufus expression. I was putting him to sleep!
“Where is this god? He yawned (a gesture Jesus didn’t have to explain). “Does he have a name?”
“Everywhere,” I replied lamely “We call him Yahweh, but He told Moses he didn’t have a name. He’s like the wind. You can’t see him, you can feel him; he’s just there.
“He’s invisible and doesn’t have a name?” Aulus looked at me in disbelief.
“How could one god, whom you can’t see, create all this?” Ibrim turned in his saddle. “Look at the sky and the earth.” “Hah!” He raised his arms. “My people have a thousand gods, none of whom could perform such a feat. It’s much too vast!”
“It’s just plain impossible,” Geta snarled, “especially when it happened in six days. We can barely build a fort in a week or make a road in a month. And that part about the talking snake is just plain silly. What fools would eat from a tree at the suggestion of a serpent, if it means death. I can’t accept this Judah. Your holy scrolls were written by raving lunatics, particularly that part about the burning bush. Why would your god appear to Moses that way? Zues, Jupiter, and Mars—those are what god’s look like. After creating the heavens and earth, they left us alone as they should, without a bunch of silly laws.”
“Yes, Judah,” Caesarius said thoughtfully, “your god has great power, but he was unfair in his treatment of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, for simply eating a piece of fruit, and harsh for making such laws. What man does not covet his neighbor’s wife? What fool will not lie to save his neck or kill in anger if provoked. And what god expects children to honor parents that beat them and, many times, sell them into slavery to pay their bills. There are exceptions to all sins, Judah, even murder and theft. Would you not steal the very sacrifice on an alter to save your life?”
“Why yes, of course,” I immediately disarmed him. “Our greatest king, David, ate the offering from the temple. He wasn’t struck dead. God gave him permission. There are exceptions. As far as the Creation is concerned, no one knows how long His days are. Jesus said as much himself. There is much that I don’t agree with in our holy scrolls. I was merely telling you about what I’ve read. Was the Torah not written by mortal and fallible men? Our Lord gave us the same freewill he gave Adam and Eve, to chose right or wrong. Because of their sin, God condemned Eve to the pain of childbirth and Adam to lifelong toil.” “Thanks to their sin,” I added as an afterthought, “the first parents, begat Cain, Abel, and Seth. From Seth’s offspring, came all the peoples of earth!”
I was trying to explain my religion and nothing more. I hadn’t intended to preach to them; it just came out that way. Expecting censure by the optio, I was surprised to see a collective nod of approval ripple through the ranks, expressed by Decimus, himself:
“You have the gift of speech Judah. As a soldier in battle, you thought quickly. I’ve heard Longinus speak of Jesus. He’s not closed minded like your rabbis and priests. You have an open mind too. This will be important when you reach Antioch. Life is full of exceptions,” he added with a nod. “You’re proof of that!”
“Aye,” Aulus said, reaching over to slap my shoulder, “that a Jew wants to join the legions is the greatest exception of them all.”
I decided, heresy stoking my spirit, to maintain this line of thought. There would be no more talk to these rustics about matters such as the Ten Commandments. I would not dredge up all the points of our law, such as circumcision and dietary rule and the monotonous rituals that I’ve never liked and concentrate instead upon the great forces of Judaism, including the battles of Joshua to capture the Promised Land and the triumphs of David over King Saul. Since I disapproved of our God’s harshness and caprice, myself, my heresy was worsened by hypocrisy, by including Joshua’s murderous conquest of Canaan. During my interpretation of the faith existing for both Jew and Gentile in the Roman world, I was careful not to preach again, since I was in no position for such a task. Nevertheless, as careful as I treaded, I saw resentment in some of their faces. For most of them the subtleties of my religion fell on deaf ears. I had been wise to de-emphasize matters I scarcely accepted myself. Now, by showing them my forefathers deeds, I was introducing to them the Chosen People—the Jews, a conquered people, despised in some quarters for their stubborn faith.
My words at this early stage of self-realization and illumination were more a defense of what I thought was the most interesting (if not the best) part of my faith. Though I was careful not to delve into spiritual matters, the majesty of God burned through. Ironically, without knowing it then, I was following the tactics of Paul the missionary, a onetime Pharisee and persecutor of followers of the Way. Though I would not be able to read his important writings for many years, I would one day hear him revert to such methods. In order to arouse Gentile interest, he would relate an interesting episode from the Bible, such as the Great Flood, God smiting the Egyptians with seven plagues, and the conquest of the Promised Land. This time, during my account, I noticed frowns and cocked eyebrows—facial expression indicating irritation and disbelief. I was merely giving them the most interesting stories from the Torah. The history of my people was a testament of God’s power and dominion over the earth. The implications were quite clear, especially after the Flood and when the Red Sea swallowed up the Egyptian army: the Hebrew god was god. This claim, in itself, was difficult for Gentiles to accept. Shaking their unwashed heads, they muttered to themselves, as we rode two-two down the road.
For a few moments, I searched my mind for another epoch conquest between God’s Chosen and the Gentiles. I had a nearly perfect memory. There were many historical events crammed in my head, just for the picking. Most of them, however, lacked the military characteristics of Joshua, Gideon, and David or the sensational aspects of Moses, Jonah, and Samson. I expanded upon on a few passages, but found my voice fading in my parched lungs. I thought my traveling companions had lost interest in me that moment, until, with a mixture of interest and amusement, the thirteen men gathered around me on the highway. With a sneer, Apollo asked me why Jews mutilated their private parts. Not wanting to go there again, I shrugged my shoulders. When Ajax, Fronto, Ibrim, and the others persisted on the terrible custom of circumcision, our restricted diet, and our people’s peculiar ways, I was, as a fisherman might have said, in deep water. Answering most of the questions, “Does it hurt?” and “I How much do they cut off?” were easy to answer, but the question “Why would my God require such a dreadful thing?” was difficult for me to answer. They simply couldn’t accept the fact that circumcision was the Chosen People’s covenant with God. What kind of God required such a painful mutilation? “Before Abraham, my people were uncircumcised,” I answered carefully. “In a sense, we were all Gentiles.” This might not have satisfied them completely but put an end to the subject of circumcision. The questions of “Why don’t you like pork?” and “What would you eat if you were starving?” required a more evasive answer. I was forced to downplay our food laws as I did with circumcision by reminding them of David stealing sacrificial offerings from the temple and Jesus telling me once that, if it’s the will of God, a starving Jew, like David, can break the rules.
“What is the will of God?” Langullus frowned. “How do you know?”
“It’s a feeling,” I tried to explain, “... like the effects of strong wine, without the headache afterwards, just a feeling of peace.”
“That makes sense,” both Caesarius and Rufus remarked at the same time.
I had escaped answering ‘yes or no’ to the last question. Suddenly, as I looked around at the group, I realized I had connected with these Gentiles. By using common things, as Paul would do, I had introduced a word Jesus tried explaining to the Nazarenes, by alluding to strong wine. As I look back, I realized I had felt it that moment: grace, the Spirit of the Lord. I still can’t comprehend this term; one must feel it, not understand it, for that is the essence of belief. My traveling companions might have felt it, but I doubted whether they would ever understand it. They looked at me with the same mixed emotions of curiosity and humor. The Gentile mind had trouble grasping the fine points of religion, and yet I was surprised to discover how much they understood our peculiarities. The inquisitiveness about our food restrictions and our lack of foreskins made me wonder how widespread this understanding was among Gentiles. The ritual of circumcision, our dietary laws, and the belief that our God was invisible seemed insurmountable even when I told them I didn’t believe that God placed ritual and law over faith and devotion and it didn’t matter how one pictured God. My mistake was admitting that no one had ever seen Him. This made Him invisible to these simple men, and the fact that God told Moses he had no name almost robbed him of his identity entirely in some of their minds.
“Interesting stories Jude,” replied the optio, “I’m not sure how much of it’s true. Most history is written by the conquerors who can write what they please. You are, I heard it said, a stiff-necked people. But I’ve seen too many crucified Jews to believe that you’re chosen. Chosen for what? You, like the Syrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Gauls, and all the others in the empire, are a conquered people. One day, I suspect, Rome will be conquered too. It’s the way of things, Jude. No one stays on top. The fact that you people don’t eat pork, my favorite meat, doesn’t bother me. The Egyptians eat all manner of disgusting foods they relish that I wouldn’t touch. That your God is invisible, though, I find troubling. This doesn’t make sense. Did you not say that he walked in Eden? That implies that he was a man, but does not tell us who he is, for he has no name. A proper god should have a likeness, like Zeus or Jupiter, maybe Mars. He should have a proper name too.”
“I just remembered,” I bolted in my saddle. “Jesus came across a pedestal in Greece that was inscribed: To the Unknown God. That proves that all men seek a universal God.”
I couldn’t believe I had blurted such a foolish thing. Decimus shook his head vigorously, replying, “Jesus’ discovery only serves to prove that he’s invisible with no name. What kind of God is that? Those wily Greeks added that pedestal just to be safe. Who knows which god is the most important or powerful? Who cares?”
“Makes you think,” muttered Vesto as he galloped away.
“It’s nonsense,” spat Apollo, glaring back at me, as he kicked his horse. “No name, no body means no god. Phittt! He doesn’t exist.”
“Now that’s just plain stupid.” Rufus shook his head at Apollo. “You think a god needs a piece of carved stone to exist. You Egyptians worship everything—crocodiles, cats, and bugs. Disgusting—all of it. I don’t believe in anything but this,” he cried, holding up his sword. “With this Alexander and Caesar called themselves gods. They were hopeless fools too.”
“Well, I think Jude will make a fine scribe with stories like that,” Aulus reached over to ruffle my hair.
“My thoughts too!” I heard Caesarius exclaim.
“All right, lets keep it down,” Decimus called out good-naturedly. “No more loud outbursts!”
Our brief, unplanned stop on the road to Antioch ended. Instead of feeling frustrated about my attempts at explaining and defending my faith as I could have been, I took this discussion as proof that Decimus and the others were at least thinking about it. That moment when I likened grace to strong wine elicited reaction in their eyes. I could see why Jesus thought that the eyes were the windows of the soul. In a half-hearted way, Rufus had even defended my position, though I don’t think any of these men, including the Gaul, took me seriously yet. “Who does this little wet-behind-the-ears Jew think he is?” Geta had grumbled to Langullus. Already, though, most of them appear to have accepted my people’s history, if not its religion, by showing interest in some of the lively stories of Joshua, Gideon, and David. The problem was, of course, I was in no position to press the issue by quoting my brother Jesus’ words. Though I had memorized his wisdom and wit, I scarcely understood all of it. I also felt unworthy to preach it to others. How could I explain the Living Word and those other concepts Jesus taught me when I was still grappling with them myself? It was enough that I had, as a slip of the tongue, shared with my fellow soldiers Jesus’ notion of the Universal God. During my second day as a recruit I had begun what would become a pattern that would give me strength in the days ahead: keeping alive the memories of my brother and family’s faith.