Return to Nazareth
On the road from Sepphoris to Nazareth, I grew anxious about how we might be perceived. After our many harrowing exploits and the long journey from Antioch, we looked very much like a band of cutthroats and thieves. We were a sight: a giant Thracian, wild-looking Gaul, shifty-eyed Arab, and sickly Roman ready to fall off his horse. Trailing behind on his trusty mount, guarding his other four mules, was me, the long lost son: Judah bar Joseph, Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper, or, as Argos dubbed me, Jude Thaddeus—I wasn’t sure. On the other hand, as we approached Nazareth, I wondered what my friends would think of my home and town. I had told them a lot about my oldest brother and family members but very little about where I grew up. What could I say to men, who, like myself, had seen great cities, such as Tarsus and Antioch?
According to my father, Nazareth had grown considerably since he, mother, and Jesus returned from Egypt. My father’s carpentry business had been meager, which forced him to travel to surrounding towns for business. Gradually, the community grew, acquiring a blacksmith, potter, and even a tanner, and yet it remained small and insignificant compared to other Galilean towns. We still had no magistrates as they had in other towns. The few Pharisees and elders living in Nazareth had given us our law, along with the Roman sentries posted during those years of unrest. When I mentioned the name of my hometown, few people in the north had even heard of it, and for some of the men I met at the fort in Lower Galilee it drew a snarl. Since that day when my father gave sanctuary to Mariah, whom many thought to be a witch, and that fateful fire in her house, a contingent of Roman legionnaires had been required to protect my family and keep order in our town. The number of soldiers grew after Abbas and his gang began attacking merchants and travelers in Galilee, but the Roman presence had begun in the hills surrounding my house after the townsmen attempted to stone Mariah and burn down her house. The spectacle of sentries riding though Nazareth and patrolling its hills, gave our family an element of notoriety, if not fame, and our backwater village an importance far greater than its size. For outsiders learning about this out-of-the-way center of Roman control, it seemed a great to do about nothing. What was so special about this backwater town? In the future words of the disciple Bartholomew (whom we once knew as Reuben, the blacksmith), “Can any good could come out of Nazareth?” From someone like Reuben who had bitter memories of this close-minded village this question was understandable, but those moments, as we approached the home of Joseph the Carpenter, I could only remember how wonderful my childhood had been.
One day the name Nazareth would be spoken reverently by followers of the Way, but on that day of my return, my place of birth seemed so much smaller than before. The drab, white houses clustered randomly throughout the village said nothing about the two great miracles Jesus had performed or the generosity of my parents toward our town in spite of its treatment of us over the years. Until you entered my backyard, you couldn’t see Nazareth’s lush green hills, look beyond the cliff to see the Plain of Jezreel or glimpse the Arab shepherds below. Nor, at first glance, could you see the fine house of Samuel, the rich Pharisee or the synagogue he built for the town where Aaron, the new rabbi, taught both boys and girls.
This morning, as we entered Nazareth, an old man ambled toward us. I recognized him immediately as Habakkuk, one of the few elders who had befriended Jesus. I waved to him, but her merely frowned, which was understandable considering our dirty, travel worn appearance and the four mules trailing behind. I told my friends who this old man was, but I didn’t attempt to put names on the houses we passed. I sensed that hostile eyes watched our passing, but I kept my eyes forward those moments, until we reached the southeast corner of the village where my family lived. The very first person to look out at the road and catch sight of us was none other than Jesus, himself. My heart leapt with joy. My first thought after seeing his happy face, was where was Papa? Was he all right? Then I wondered where my other brothers where. Climbing off my mule, I ran to him. For a few moments, I rudely forgot my traveling companions. All my attention was focused upon the countenance of Jesus, the carpenter. He wore, as always, a homespun tunic, bleached white beneath his carpenter’s apron, reaching to his knees and fastened around his waste by a strip of cloth. There was, as when I last saw him, a well-groomed beard on his tanned face. His hair was cut neck length in the fashion of many Galileans, a style he would abandon later during his ministry. There was sweat on his brow like any ordinary man and that enigmatic smile he would carry throughout his life.
As he set his awl aside and rushed toward me, a gasp went up from my friends waiting unannounced on the road. The morning sunlight played tricks on our eyes, for as Jesus came forward, his blue eyes blazed like jewels and a strange light caught his light brown hair. He embraced me, as he never had before. Jesus loved me in spite of my folly, raising me up in a bear hug, bouncing me up and down affectionately before setting back on my feet.
“Jude, Jude,” he cried, “you’re alive and well, praise the Lord!”
“I’m sorry I didn’t come sooner,” I blurted immediately. “Much has happened to prevent me from returning home. Please tell me, is Papa well?”
“Papa’s been sick,” Jesus chose his words carefully. “...He’s much better this week. He’ll be so glad to see you, Jude. Because Abner insists that he stay off his feet for a while, he feels helpless. It makes him angry when people make a fuss over him. We’re just thankful that he’s alive.”
“Where are our brothers?” I asked, scanning the yard. “Why aren’t they helping you?”
“Much has happened since you left,” he confessed, heaving a sigh. “You recall James departing shortly before you left on your trip. Now Joseph wants to make his way in the world. He resented James flight from responsibility and, of course, your decision to leave. He feels put upon and trapped. Fortunately, James came home for a visit, but the truth is he ran out of funds. Because of our family’s crises, Papa had forbidden Joseph to leave as you and James had done. Because James needs income now, I sent him along with Joseph to buy lumber.”
“Is James going back to Jerusalem?” I frowned. “We could use him in the shop?”
“Sooner or later,” he said, looking into the future, “James will go back to Jerusalem, and Joseph will strike out on his own. I’m just glad James accompanied his brother to Sepphoris. In Joseph’s frame of mind, he might not return.”
“Where’s Simon?” I asked, glancing around the shop. “Is he resentful too?”
“Yes, but mostly with me,” he answered with a shrug. “He was helping me a few moments ago. I don’t know where he is now—” “Jude,” he interrupted himself, “are those men on the road your friends?”
“Yes.” My hand flew to my mouth. “I totally forgot. Let me introduce them.”
By now there were a few more idlers on the road gawking at the Gentiles: the quarrelsome Gideon and his son Eli walking alongside of Eleazar, a neighbor of Joachim, the old rabbi. Feeling like spectacles in their saddles, my friends frowned at the townsmen as I introduced each of them.
“This fine fellow is Fronto,” I announced, pointing first to the Thracian, “this blond haired rogue is Rufus, next to him Ibrim—”
“Welcome to Nazareth,” interrupted Jesus, “but who is this poor man. He looks ill.”
“This my friend Aulus,” I quickly replied, “he’s recovering from the fever. I was hoping Mama might help.”
“Bring your companions into the house,” he added with a whisper, “away from our nosey neighbors.”
“That’s not necessary,” Aulus said weakly, “your neighbors will be offended if Gentiles enter your house.”
“More offensive to the Lord,” Jesus said, raising an eyebrow, “have been my fellow townsmen. Would that there were no Jews and Gentiles, but only one race.”
We were all in a hurry to get into the house. The first thing my friends did, however, was tend to their mounts. Jesus promised to make sure that water and feed would be provided to the horses and mules shortly. Tying them to the posts by the road, they reluctantly parted from their horses. Likewise, I was concerned about my mules. I felt indebted to them. Throughout the long journey, they had been my constant companions. I was gratified to see Jesus, grab a water pale in the garden, hail a trio of boys standing by the road, and pay them from his own purse to water the beasts. Directing them to our backyard where the unpicked grasses grew rampant now, he gave them a few extra drachmas to feed them too.
Meanwhile, as the boys went about their tasks, we gathered, as five bedraggled wayfarers, in the house. Mama, who had been tending to Papa, ran to me, arms outstretched, with the twins Martha and Abigail close behind. Both Tabitha and Uriah were absent, which was disappointing. A smell of herbs, Mama’s potions, hung in the air, reminiscent of a sick room. Papa rose from his bed that moment and, with Simon’s assistance, was led into the kitchen.
“My son, my son,” he exclaimed, “you were lost to us, but you have returned?”
“Mama, Papa, Simon, Martha, Abigail,” I cried, “I’m so glad to be home!”
I embraced them singly and then in a crowd hug, in which everyone was hugging me at once. Afterwards, Jesus eased Papa down into cushioned chair. Reacting almost as quickly on Aulus’ behalf, with my mother’s help, I gently seated him into a second chair. Turning to my dirty, travel-worn friends, I introduced them one-by-one to my family. Fronto, Rufus, and Ibrim bowed awkwardly. Aulus nodded feebly, as a mug of fruit juice was placed in his hand. After the introductions, I presented each member of my family to my friends. I noted once again that Tabitha and Uriah, my friends, who had also been part of our family, were not present in the room. After reading my expression, Jesus explained briefly that Uriah was now living with relatives in Jerusalem but promised to one-day return. To my surprise, I also found out that Tabitha had returned to the house of her uncle. He needed someone to help him with his bakery, and now paid her a wage.
With Martha holding a pitcher and Abigail dispensing mugs, the remaining four travelers eagerly drank Mama’s famous pomegranate punch. Unwashed and smelling of the road, my friends had felt self-conscious at first, not knowing what to make of such hospitality from Jews. Then, when my saintly mother sat them down at our family table and fed them fresh bread, cheese, raisins, and figs, they remembered what I told them about my family’s generosity, smiled and gave me thoughtful nods. In spite of his illness, Aulus managed himself well during his meal, but Mama had been studying him closely since the four men entered our home.
“How do you feel sir?” she asked, reaching out touch his forehead.
“Please have no fear,” he said, looking around the room, “it’s not the plague, merely a recurring fever I picked up in Egypt.”
“Swamp fever?” she inclined her head.
“In deed mistress.” Aulus sighed, shaking his head. “I’ve been taking black wart root. I feel much better, but I’m weak and so very tired.”
“I’m well aware of that root,” she pursed her lips. “It works all right, but it can’t replace rest and a good night’s sleep.” “How much water have you been drinking?” She reached across the table to check his pulse.
“As much as possible.” He shrugged. “It’s hard to keep track.”
“You must drink lots of water,” she said with great emphasis, “and in your condition you should be in bed, not on the road!”
Once again, as so often in the past, I felt great pride for this woman. Behold, I wanted to shout to my friends, this is my mother! I could see respect in their eyes, but also amusement at her motherly scolding of Aulus and immediate demand that he lie down in the room and take a nap. Sitting there, in her white homespun dress and blue veil, her still youthful face radiated compassion for all of my weary friends.
“Before you men leave, you’re welcome to rest as long as needed. I know in my heart you have helped keep Jude safe. Jude’s friends are our friends.”
“Mistress Mary,” Fronto spoke respectfully, “you and your family are gracious. You have a pure heart, but we saw how your neighbors looked at your house. Our presence will only cause problems—”
“Nonsense!” Mama raised a delicate hand. “We’re already considered peculiar by this town. We live by God’s laws, not man’s. My son Jesus taught us that.”
As she directed Simon to prepare a pallet for Aulus, the old Roman began objecting in a thin voice. With Jesus and Simon’s assistance, he was settled in a corner of the room. That moment, Jesus slipped out quietly to check on our horses and mules. Fronto, Rufus, and Ibrim sat quietly their hands folded after finishing their meal. When Jesus returned, he reported to us in a muted voice that two of the boys were drawing water for the horses and mules from the community well. A third boy continued to bring handfuls of grass to the hungry beasts. Jesus and the townsfolk had watched us ride into town and seen me on my mule, but I hadn’t yet told my family that the four pack animals also belonged to me. After hearing about the progress of the boys tending to the horses and mules, we breathed sighs of relief. As I write these words, I’m reminded of Jesus’ love for God’s creatures. My earliest recollections of my oldest brother include his devotion for injured birds and animals. That moment, as he re-entered the house, I recalled that day he released the sparrow into the heavens. Though they accepted, at face value, my miracle at the imperial station, my friends found that story hard to believe.
“Thank you Jesus,” Fronto spoke for the group.
“Those beasts are worn out,” observed my brother. “They need several days of rest.”
“They will be rested at the Galilean fort,” explained Rufus. “If we decide to muster out, they’re our property. I might keep my horse.”
“A horse is better than a camel,” mused Ibrim. “It’s faithful—like a woman, only it doesn’t talk back.”
“So are mules.” I gave him an indulgent smile. “I once dreamed of a big white horse. I would gallop swiftly, with my flowing cape and shiny helmet, waving my sword or lance. Now, I wouldn’t trade my mule for a herd of Rome’s finest steeds.”
I was tempted to tell my family about my own “herd” but held my tongue. As I thought about Ibrim’s quip, I couldn’t help chuckling to myself. Fronto and Rufus also laughed under their breaths. The little Arab always had a rejoinder. My mother, in her innocence and judging by the look on her face, had probably taken him literally. This seemed humorous too. With the word “camel” uttered from Ibrim’s lips, I was reminded of my adventure in the desert and all of the other harrowing episodes leading up to my captivity by a Bedouin band. Scooting down the bench, I reached across and patted Papa’s shaking hand. He had been listening to me intently, frowning with disapproval at Ibrim’s tasteless quip.
“I have much to say,” I whispered to him. “You’ll scarcely believe it, Papa. I’m lucky to be alive!”
“I’m looking forward to it,” he murmured, a wheeze following out of his mouth.
“Oh, he’s a brave lad,” Rufus declared.
“A natural!” exclaimed Fronto.
I smiled into my mug, wishing that it was wine. “.... I didn’t start out brave,” I confessed.
“Who does?” Ibrim laughed softly. “By nature, men aren’t heroes. No one’s born brave.”
“Excellent point,” I said thoughtfully. “My first brave act was done while I thought I was asleep…. After leaving the fort, I was frightened—terrified in fact. Already I doubted my mission. I was a mass of jitters. Was I making a big mistake? Decimus, our optio, told me as much. During our journey through Galilee, I felt out of place—a Jew among Gentiles, and yet gradually I made friends with these men. Including myself, there were thirteen of us at first: three Romans (Decimus, Aulus, and Vesto), three retired veterans (Caesarius, Langullus, and Geta), Fronto, a Thracian, Rufus, a Gaul, Ibrim, an Arab, Abzug, a Syrian courier, Ajax, a Greek, and Apollo, a wily Egyptian. I wish you could have met them all—even Apollo. He was a very strange man. He survived the journey, too, but returned to Egypt. Our first important stop, the imperial station near Ecdippa, was eventful. It was during our stay at this camp that a remarkable thing happened...”
Pausing a moment to gather my thoughtless, I caught Jesus’ gaze. I wasn’t sure what his look meant. Was it a look of expectation? Perhaps in his infinite mind, I thought light-headedly, he already knew!
“This might be hard to believe,” I exclaimed, looking around the room, “but it’s true. I didn’t dream it up. My friends will bear witness to it. It was a miracle, and it happened this time to me!”
Fronto, Rufus, and Ibrim nodded, Aulus mumbled, “Aye!” Simon, the twins, and my parents, sat in rapt attention, hanging on to my every word.
“At the way station,” I continued, picturing it in my mind, “we exchanged mounts, made camp, and ate a frugal meal. Next to us, in the adjacent camp, there was a band of rowdy auxilia. Worried by my lack of experience and perhaps a little tipsy, Decimus decided to teach me a few sword strokes, such as thrusts, parries, and also the use of the shield, which I paid careful attention to. That night, after falling asleep, I had one of my dreams. I won’t give the details about it now. It’s really a different matter. I’ve already told these men about it; it seemed silly to them. It’s the fact that I thought I was dreaming that’s most important. When I returned to camp, I encountered several of our neighbors. Their swords were drawn. For a reason I will never know, they were going to attack. Perhaps they thought we had valuables or wanted to steal our mounts. Thinking I was asleep, however, I played the hero and, to make a story short, killed six men—”
“No, Jude, say it isn’t so!” Mama wrung her hands.
“Dear Lord,” Simon cried, “that’s incredible!”
“No, it’s terrible!” she wailed.
“Begging your pardon, ma’am” Rufus came to my defense. “If Jude hadn’t done it, we’d all be dead. Those men would’ve got the jump on us.”
“But he has blood on his hands!” She looked at me in horror.
“Mary, Mary,” Papa spoke up, “our ancestor David shed blood. Joshua wiped out whole towns, including women and children. Jude fought for his life. To make him blameless is the fact he thought he was asleep.”
“Mama’s just in shock,” explained Jesus. “She remembers Jude as a child. He’s a man now. Let’s let him finish his tale.”
“You really did that?” Simon’s eyes were popped wide. “My brother, the warrior!”
“You beastly fellow,” scolded Martha half-seriously, “you would admire him for that.”
Abigail tittered inside her hands, which made me feel better. Only Mama had been taken back at first. Now, as she moved next to Papa, and was comforted by his palsied hand, she sighed with resignation as I resumed my account.
“...After the incident at the first imperial camp, I became known to the men as the Reaper. Decimus and Aulus had already given me a Roman name to make me fit in better when we arrived in Antioch at our new post. So, from then on, I was Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper. I hated the title. I never said so. After all, my role had made me more popular with my new friends. The only two members of our group who resented my pretensions—and that’s what they were—were Ajax and Apollo, who almost caused a mutiny once. Apollo had his own sinister reasons but Ajax resented Decimus’ leadership. Earlier, at one point near a small town, the Romans and veterans faced off with the auxilia (Ajax, Apollo, and for that brief hour my friends Fronto, Rufus, and Ibrim). The truth was, I was a coward and ran like a lamb along with Caesarius, Langullus, and Geta up the hill. Of course, this was before I had my dream and became Thaddeus Judaicus, the Reaper.” “You see,” my voice cracked, “...it all started with that dream.” From that day forward, I had to prove myself. Occasionally I was tested by some of the men. Geta was convinced I was sleepwalking when I killed those men. Apollo and Ajax thought it was a fluke, and Ibrim thought I was possessed by a jinn. Both Fronto and Rufus claimed—I think in jest—that I was a demigod like Hercules. My old friend Caesarius and the Roman guards, though respecting my abilities, understood what I wanted from the legions. I never wanted to be warrior; my weapon would be the quill. It was my friend Ibrim, who put a name on it: a soldier scribe.
“There’s no such thing of course,” I smiled at the Arab.
“… Aurelian thought so,” Ibrim mumbled.
In delayed reaction, Fronto raised a hand in protest. “I didn’t jest, little warrior. I think you’re a natural. Caesar had the falling sickness too.”
“What did you say?” Papa came alive.
“The falling sickness,” Rufus blurted. “It struck him that night after killing those men.
“Yes,” piped Ibrim, “it also happened to Thaddeus at the slave auction and when Fabius’ men brought him to the fort.”
“Dear Lord!” gasped Mama. “You fell? I knew that would happen. Were you injured?”
Papa grasped his forehead. “I told the boy, but he wouldn’t listen. He shouldn’t even be on a horse.”
“There-there, Papa,” Abigail said, patting his back, “don’t excite yourself. Jude’s all right. God has brought him back to us.”
I drew in a breath then exhaled. “The fact is I never rode a horse. They gave me a fancy name, but I rode a mule. He’s my faithful friend.”
“You’re so…different,” Mama struggled for words.
“No.” Jesus gave me an enigmatic smile. “They changed his name, not him. Thaddeus Judaicus was his Roman name.”
“Yes,” I replied without equivocation, “Decimus and Aulus gave it too me. I went along with them. They were my protectors; I owed them my life. But I’m Jude once more. I never gave up my old name.”
“Well,” Jesus suggested light-heartedly, “it’s common for some Jews to have two names. Thaddeus has a good ring to it. You can be called by both! ”
Aulus called weakly from his pallet, “Go on Thaddeus, tell them the rest. The best—or worst—is ahead. Thaddeus gives much credit to his god, but he’s lucky to be alive!”
Jesus stood up and looked down at our parents, who were conflicted by my report. When he looked at me, he nodded, as if to say, “It’s all right. Tell it all!” But I decided to abbreviate the story. They didn’t need to hear all the sordid details about our journey north.
“…. We made a mistake,” I resumed wistfully. “We took the wrong turn—the Devil’s detour. Aulus had ridden ahead and discovered the road blocked by a rock slide. We could’ve turned back to Galilee. In fact, we should’ve taken a ship in the first place. But we took the desert route instead, a relatively untested highway. At first, as we took the detour through the canyon, we told ourselves we’d be better off not traveling that narrow, rocky, and hazardous road by the sea. As soon as we reached the desert, however, we regretted this decision. We were beset by darkly clad camel riders brandishing long pikes. I was supposed to watch the horses and mules during the melee, but I felt as if I was behaving as a coward, so I did something foolish. Screaming and gyrating as though I was bereft of my senses, I chased one of the nomads down the sand dune. He felt dead in his tracks from a neck wound, but I stuck him with my sword in order to be credited with a ‘kill.’ The respect I had gained among the men when I slew those men had begun to wane. When I displayed my bloody sword to them, it once again proved my bravery in combat. Unfortunately, we lost two good men that day—Vesto and Enrod. We buried them in an oasis at our next stop. The remainder of our journey through the Syrian Desert was fraught with danger. I’ve never been so hot and uncomfortable in my life, but I felt closer to the men. I had gained even Apollo and Ajax’s begrudging respect. Not long after this episode, we were attacked by a second band of men in black, this band on horses, brandishing spears as wells as large curved swords. Once again, I was ordered by Decimus to guard the animals. During this battle, the horsemen were more intent on stealing our horses and mules. While the others fought hand-to-hand with the nomads, a trio of Bedouins swooped in to take the beasts. I was able this time to kill two more men. With his bow, Aulus brought down a third. During the fighting on the dune, both Geta and Langullus, two of the retiring veterans, were cut down, bringing our number down to nine. At this point, I was fully accepted as a warrior in the group. Though cowardly by nature, my concern for the horses and mules had steeled my nerve. Again, it was either kill or be killed. I didn’t enjoy killing all those men, but the fact was I knew how to use my sword.
“During the remainder of our journey, which was considerable, we lamented the loss of our friends. At another oasis Geta and Langullus were hastily buried. Not long after our second battle, as we rested in the shade of yet another patch of green, we were surrounded by Nabataens, angry over the murder of two of their men. They were, we understood, like the previous Bedouins, already upset with Romans for their incursion into their land. Fortunately, Ibrim proved to their leader that the arrows killing his men weren’t Roman. Thanks to his quick thinking, we weren’t slaughtered. Fearful that we might be attacked again, it was decided that we would travel at night. We knew that the Bedouins were superstitious about attacking at night, but we also wanted to get to the next town before we ran out of supplies. Though it was much cooler traveling at night, it was much easier falling asleep. We were exhausted and forced to fasten ourselves to our saddles. Caesarius, the first of our band to befriend me, had been worn out and sick. Decimus and Aulus tried to shepherd us safely to our next stop, but they were worn out too. We had grown careless before, straggling in a long line on the endless road until the optio would bring order to our procession, but in the darkness, the natural time of sleep, it was enough just to keep awake. No one heard the thump in the sand or noticed the empty saddle. I don’t remember who first sounded the alarm. Somewhere back in the darkness poor Caesarius had fallen off his mule. The old warrior had probably died in the saddle before tumbling off. At the last stop before arriving in the Syrian hills, the fifth member of our band to die in the desert was buried. After watering our horses and eating handfuls of moldy bread and figs, it took all our strength to bury Caesarius in the root bound soil. I will never forget the kindness of this old man. He was a constant inspiration to me, the first member of our band to advise me to go home.”
Pausing to look around at my listeners, I noted the drowsy look on my friends’ faces. Aulus was already asleep, snoring peacefully in the corner of the room. Contrasting the men’s’ deadpan looks were the expressions on my family’s faces. My parents had been shocked and dismayed, but, like Simon and the twin girls, now showed great interest in my story. They must have sensed what was coming next. I had left out my vision in the desert that warned me that we must press ahead. Briefly, when I reached that part of the narrative I wanted most to forget, I left out much of the details. For a moment my voice caught in my throat.
“Is this when it happens?” Mama asked tearfully.
“Yes…soon.” I swallowed hard. “…Once again, after eating what food we had left, we watered our poor beasts and let them forage in the meadow. As the other men rested in the shade of the forest, I stood watch over the animals in the nearby field. We were within a day’s ride to the next town. No one expected trouble on the edge of the desert. In spite of our hunger and weariness, we were encouraged we had made it this far,” “but then,” I said, my voice breaking, “they came. They swooped down like jackals upon us. They were simple bandits this time, intent on stealing our horses and mules. It happened quickly, yet I managed to bring down a horseman after grabbing his lance. While they circled the men on foot jabbing at them with their spears, Ajax, the Greek, was killed and Apollo was wounded. Already, several of the bandits were leading away the horses and mules. I was so upset about this, I lost my head. I saw Aulus helping Decimus up to a cave up on the hill. Rufus and Fronto, though fighting bravely up until then, took the cue. Ibrim and Abzug, after shooting the remainder of their arrows at the attackers, followed the others up the hill. Only me—foolish me—stood my ground. Though it was hopeless, I stood screaming at them in rage, until they roped and threw a net over me. The only bright spot in this black nightmare was that they tied me to my own mule. Unfortunately, I was fastened to the beast face down. The last things I remember before this point, was Abzug being impaled with a lance. The Syrian courier, whom had been one of my greatest critics, for reasons I will never know, lost his life trying to save me from capture.” “Jesus is right,” I added, looking at my brother, “God works in mysterious ways.”
“Here, little brother,” Jesus said, handing me a mug, “that’s quite a tale. You must write all this down. God brought you out of this. He has a purpose for you, Jude. Do you see that now?”
I took a long swig, wishing it were wine. “I guess so,” I said with a sigh. “…I didn’t see it then. I wasn’t sure I’d even survive that afternoon. It was a horrible ride. You can’t imagine being facedown on a sweaty mule, bound like a fish in a net. I didn’t know what they were going to do with me. Would they sacrifice me to one of their pagan gods, like the Druid and Syrian priests? Perhaps they would make me a camp slave as nomads often did to survivors of their raids… Or, I thought, recalling something I heard earlier around the campfire, would I taken to a slave auction and sold to the highest bidder.” “You know what that means?” I looked at Ibrim.
Ibrim smiled sheepishly. He had been part of the conversation in which Apollo told me about the custom of turning young men into eunuchs. I was glad that no one asked me to explain my question. Quickly, I changed the subject by sharing with them words I heard in the desert:
“‘Jude, Jude, God hasn’t forsaken you,’ a voice chided me. “Don’t forsake Him!’ I knew, in spite of my ordeal, that I wouldn’t die. But just how much would God test me? Look what he allowed Satan to do with Job. I wanted to blame Satan for my treatment. I had never met such cruel and callous men, and yet, when we arrived at the Bedouin camp, Hamid, the bandit leader, protected me against the hostile women of the village. I was, he reminded his men, valuable cargo. Though I was chained to a post and left there for several hours, I knew I was safe. Hamid would make sure I was protected. The next day, after sleeping fitfully in a sitting position, my wrists were torn, lips cracked, and throat was parched. I was fed meat and cheese. A pale of water was splashed over me before I was brought into the tent of Saida, the village crone. After two of Hamid’s men stripped me down to my loincloth, the crone dressed me in the garb of a dead merchant killed in a previous raid and placed a gold laced turban on my head. It was, at that point, that my worst fears materialized: I was being transported along with the bandits stolen loot to the auction of Ecbatana beyond the Roman frontier.”
“Oh-h-h,” wailed Abigail, “how dreadful!”
“Jude, a slave,” muttered Mama, wringing her hands. “Po-o-or child.”
“You should never have gone on that trip.” Papa wrung his finger. “You’re place was with your family, helping me in the shop.”
“Let him finish.” Jesus smiled understandingly. “There’s much he has to tell.”
Jesus placed his arms on Mama and Papa’s shoulders. Taking another long swig of punch, I thought longingly of wine. After reaching out a moment to embrace my parents one by one, I resumed my account where I had left off.
“… I was allowed to ride my own mule on the trip, which gave me great comfort, but Awud, my personal guard, tied a rope around my neck and every once in a while playfully gave it a yank. We made four more stops, two of them overnighters, before reaching Ecbatana. The first one was a spur of the moment affair. Hamid ordered his warriors to attack a distant caravan laden with goods. While they galloped into the desert to attack the caravan, I was left behind with the portly Akhmid and young Fawad, who plied me with wine as we waited for them to return. In their own capricious way these men had befriended me. They found me entertaining, as the Romans and auxilia once did. As strange as it sounds, I understood Hamid and his men. Except for Awud, who might have been displaying a personality trait, it was nothing personal with the bandits. This was business, just like the camels and merchandise stolen from the dead merchant and his attendants. When, in desperation, I tried to tell them I was really a Jew, they wouldn’t (and didn’t want to) believe me. How could a Jew be a soldier of Rome? They reasoned. They thought I was just trying to keep myself off the block, which was, true, but a foolish thing to tell my captors. Fortunately, they didn’t believe me. If I was a Jew, Hamid told me, I would be worthless as a slave. I would also be dead. Awud made a cutting motion across his throat to make his point. My only hope, if the conditions had been right, was to escape. Unfortunately, there was no hope for that. For much of the trip, I had a rope around my neck or tied to my wrists, and even when Hamid took pity on me and let me ride unrestrained I knew there was no place to go. If I ran off and managed not to be filled with arrows or spiked with lances, I had no water or food. The northern desert was totally desolate, and I would die of hunger and thirst on the hot sand.
“At a rocky outcrop that would give us shelter from the sun, we encamped for the night. I remember it especially for it was here that they slaughtered and ate one of my mules—”
Papa’s eyes popped wide. “Your mules? You brought mules.”
“Whoops,” I said, grinning at Jesus, “I forgot to tell you about that. They were once ridden by Caesarea, Geta, Langullus, and I. Two of the original six mules were pack animals. I sort’ve inherited them when we were captured by those men.”
“What are we going to do with five mules?” Mama looked at me in dismay.
“They’re Jude’s property,” Jesus came to my defense. “Let’s let him finish his story. Let’s not interrupt him anymore”
“Are you all right dear?” Mama whispered to Papa. “Is this trying for you?”
“No, no,” he said, wringing a palsied hand, “let him continue. “Hah, don’t worry about me. You should see ol’ Samuel—he’s ninety years old!”
“Amazing,” I paused to reflect. “He told us he wouldn’t die until Jesus went on his mission. We still don’t know what that means—”
“Psst, Jude!” Jesus motioned impatiently. “Stay on the subject. Let’s not bring that up.”
“Do you men want anything more to eat?” Mama whispered to Fronto, Rufus, and Ibrim.
“No mistress,” Fronto answered for the others, “we’re just fine. Perhaps a little more of that punch.”
As I gathered my thoughts, Abigail filled our mugs. While Jesus slipped out to check on the horses and mules, Mama took the opportunity to check on Aulus, who slept soundly in spite of the noise. I wondered what James and Joseph would think of all this. I was glad they were in Sepphoris to buy supplies. Already, I had brought up many controversial things. My parents and sisters still seemed to be in shock. Yet Simon, who had been so silent during my summary, raised his mug in salute. At Jesus signal, as he took his seat, I resumed my story.
“…When we reached the Roman garrison near the border, I dreaded what lie ahead. It seems amusing upon hindsight that the Romans refused to open the fort to Hamid. The sentry behind the door told them that the fort was filled with plague. More likely they were tired of dealing with the bandits. At the last stop before reaching Ecbatana, I was shaved, bathed, and dressed in fine clothes stolen from the recently murdered merchant. An even finer turban was placed on my head, and I was sprayed with a costly perfume. All this was done right before entering the city so that I wouldn’t be a sweaty mess when I was presented for the bidding, but by the time I was dragged up to the block I was a mental wreck. Hamid reminded me of his promise that I would keep my mules, which seemed ludicrous considering that I was a slave. Slaves had no rights—everyone knew that. This fact and the possibility I might be turned into a eunuch caused me to faint before we reached the steps. Mercilessly, my captures revived me, handing me over to a big black guard, who placed me on the block. Immediately, the auctioneer began the bidding. Not long after the auction for me began, someone in the audience cried out “Show us the goods!”
“You know what that meant,” I said, looking at my friends. They shook their heads with sympathy. I was tempted to eliminate this detail from my account. My parents didn’t need to hear this. It seemed too delicate an issue for the girls’ ears. Seeing Jesus nod, however, I let myself mentally relive that terrible hour.
“The big black guard held my arms as the auctioneer peeled off my clothes. I fought with all my remaining strength, but this time even the loincloth came off. Unlike the poor women, I saw stripped naked on the block that hour, I had only one place to hide and even that was denied met as the auctioneer pulled away my hand. I had heard that Jews were not valuable as slaves because of their obstinate nature. In spite of this notion and general dislike of Jews by many people, the crowd hooted and cheered this revelation. There were many offers called out from the audience below, until, at one point, only a seedy-looking fellow, who looked like a Bedouin, a rich old merchant, and young man dressed like a prince were making bids. It didn’t look good for me when the Bedouin dropped out of contention, leaving only the merchant and prince. Remembering what my campmates had said about eunuchs in princely courts, I was afraid that he would outbid the old man,” “but—praise the Lord,” I raised my hands and stared into space, “the merchant offered a great sum of money that even the prince wouldn’t meet.”
Mama and the twins wept softly. Simon giggled foolishly, and Papa shook his head in disbelief. Once again Jesus, clear-eyed and expressionless, motioned for me to continue. My friends, who were weary from travel and had heard this story before, fought the onslaught of sleep.
“…You see,” my voice rose for effect, “the rich merchant was a Pharisee. His name was Elisha bar Simon. Not only did he purchase me, he immediately manumitted me. Living up to his promise, Hamid gave me my five mules. I bid goodbye to my captors and followed my benefactor into freedom. From the beginning, however, the Pharisee had plans for me. He believed, with some justification, I had been tainted by life among the Gentiles. Elisha, Jacob, his scribe, and his steward Nedinijah scarcely believed my claim of killing all those men, yet I proved to them that I had special gifts. The Pharisee and his friends were greatly impressed, but still looked upon me as if I were damaged goods. He and his friends believed the only thing that could save me was purification in the temple. Despite my knowledge of the Torah and grasp of our history, Elisha attempted to educate me in the proper way, with great emphasis on the law. I felt that he overly stressed parts of the Torah. It didn’t matter that I had proven my knowledge of the scriptures to him. I had neglected the details of the law. In his mind I obviously didn’t practice them. When he found out that I was illuminating, on my own, his guards about our nation’s history, he was quite upset. They had never shown the least bit of interest in religion until I came along. The reason was simple, I tried delicately to explain; he had never made it interesting for his men.
“To show their appreciation for my stories and offset the boredom of travel, Absalom and Laban taught me a few gladiatorial moves they had learned from Gentiles. They had been skeptical of my boasts of killing all those men, but were awed by my quick memory and wit. Elisha had been furious that his men taught me those moves. Though he forbid me to join them in any more practice sessions, I had memorized them enough to practice quietly on my own. I tried to live up to his standards, but he was unreasonable. Occasionally, when I forgot myself and reverted to my Gentile ways, he would scold me or, at the very least, raise an eyebrow or shake his head. Despite my many lapses, however, I hadn’t done anything irreconcilable in the Pharisee’s eyes. That occurred when we arrived at the house of Zared, a rich merchant in Tarsus. Almost immediately, this man offended my sense of justice by the way he treated Absalom and the other guards. Although, they were Jews, themselves, he refused to allow these rustic men into his house. I said nothing about this, even when Zared’s son Saul criticized my own clothes and asked me if I planned on being a Pharisee like himself. Careful not to be bated into disclosing just how much of a heretic I was, I tried to change the subject, but Saul was fascinated with my adventures. In his cups, Elisha let slip my ordeal as a slave, which brought sympathy, as well as morbid fascination to Saul and his mother. The fact that I had been stripped naked on the block, though shocking to Anna, reminded her of her parents’ experience as slaves. When Elisha insisted on changing the subject, Saul and his mother were disappointed. I was certain I had won their pity more than their disdain. Perhaps recklessly, seeking their respect, I moved back in time, relating my ability with the sword. After all, I reasoned, Jews were used to blood and gore. Joshua had killed untold Canaanites. I killed but a handful of Gentiles. At first this appeared to impress Saul, but after our sumptuous dinner, as we strolled in Zared’s gardens, his attitude changed. He noted, as we discussed my feats, that I was unrepentant for shedding blood. The fact was I might not enjoy killing in general but I wasn’t sorry for killing all those men. So once again, as Elijah, Jacob, and Nedinijah, and his parents walked ahead of us, I changed the subject. This time I made the mistake of mentioning my gifts. I mentioned it casually to Saul, as if it was but a trifling affair. I told him I had nearly perfect recall, had memorized our scriptures, and could read and write in Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. When he grew jealous, I downplayed it by saying that I had much to learn. It was the understanding of scriptures that mattered the most. This seemed to appease him for a while, until Zared and Anna caught wind of our conversation. Saul’s mother looked at me with awe, exclaiming that I would be a great rabbi or doctor of the law. Zared found it difficult to believe me and gave me a few tests. They were so elementary I almost laughed, and yet Zared, too, seemed impressed. When we returned to the house, however, I sensed resentment from Zared and mounting envy from Saul.
“That evening, during a more subdued dinner, only Saul’s mother smiled approvingly at me. Elisha and his sycophants looked upon with jaundiced eyes. Polite conversation about my family and its carpentry business was light. I asked Saul if he had a favorite horse and he merely shook his head. Only a few words between the Pharisee and the merchant about the turmoil in Tarsus broke the icy silence.
“Before we retired for the night, Saul’s resentment erupted in a most absurd claim. ‘According to Rabbi Ichabod of Tarsus,’ he scolded, knowledge that comes from an impure heart is a thing of the devil. Truth is greater than mere knowledge!’
“I replied to him words Jesus once said to me, ‘Truth will set you free, and you, Saul, are not free. Knowledge can be used for good or evil. Even truth can be twisted words. My gifts were given to me by the Lord! You’re not acting righteously now. You’re a prisoner of your narrow-minded belief!
“And Saul shouted ‘How dare you speak to me like that! You’re nothing but a freedman, Elisha found on in a Persian city—you unclean servant of Gentiles! Who’re you to preach to Saul bar Zared of the house of Benjamin, you Samaritan pig!’
“I almost throttled this youth, but instead I began laughing, which was much worse. Saul flung more insults at me, including Philistine, apostate, and evildoer. His words became garbled, his face reddened, and eyes bulged as if he was possessed. Belatedly at that point, Elisha came to my rescue, scolding Saul and telling him to leave me alone, but the damage had been done that night…It seemed as though Zared’s client, Elisha, had brought a heretic into his house.
“That night, while Zared’s family and his guests slept in feathered pallets, I was escorted to the servants compound. I was, in Latin terms, persona non grata. I was not offended by this gesture. I was relieved to be among friends, away from the fat merchant, prying wife, and spoiled son. While I sat in their midst telling about my experience, however, we could hear yelling and screaming through the compound’s walls. It was distant at first, but the noise grew louder and louder, until it sounded as if it came from the nearby street. From the unemployed rabble of Tarsus, Zared had hired men to guard his estate. These fellows kept to themselves in the compound, huddling fearfully in one corner when the uprising began. Sure enough, though as the Jewish guards and myself held fast, they shrank from confrontation when rioters stormed the gate, and the servants were nowhere to be seen. Without the Romans, we would be greatly outnumbered. As the angry Greeks rammed the gate, it was just a matter of time before the boards cracked and they were on the grounds. We had to think fast. Absalom had been inspired with my story about Joshua’s tactics against the Canaanites. So each of us carried a torch in one hand and sword in the other as had Joshua’s men and, in place of the warriors trumpets, began to howl like demons. This tactic served to pump up Absalom and the others, but had little effect upon our foes. When the first planks gave way, hands poked through and were immediately chopped off. This action, not the noise, stopped the first charge cold, but several rioters had managed to scale the wall on ladders, unimpressed with the ruse. While two of us guarded the breach, the remainder of the guards attacked the invaders, killing each one of them before they reached the ground. The carnage was swift and, at least for the time being, effective.”
“Dear ghost of Abraham!” Papa groaned.
“Still holding my bloody sword when Zared’s household appeared at the entrance of the estate, I stood amongst the others. Though I was sickened by what happened, I once again felt delivered from death. Like the auxilia in the desert, Absalom, Laban, and the other guards continued to hack at the corpses in blood-lust frenzy. Unfortunately for my image, this is what Zared, Anna, Elisha and his staff saw. I was, like the others, splattered with blood and still clutched my sword, which seemed justified considering the threat, and yet Zared, who lumped me in with the others, was looking at me when he rebuked us for this act. Ignoring his own guards, who appeared only when the threat had passed, he scolded us for our display of blood lust. Absalom’s protest that his men ran like frightened lambs fell on deaf ears, as Zared ranted. It was as if it didn’t matter that we saved his household from being slaughtered; we had offended their sensibilities with this unclean act. The actions of Elisha’s guards, with whom I was associated, were indefensible even to the Pharisee, who thought he had understood his men. For me it was the age-old problem of guilt by association. I wondered then how many of those men captured in Galilee during the last insurrection were simply caught up in the moment, innocent bystanders, whose only crime was stupidity, like mine. There I was in Tarsus with my bloody sword when I could have just stayed home.
“Fires had sprouted up from several mansions in the Jewish quarter. Shortly after the first attempt, a new batch of rioters stood outside Zared’s walls. Perhaps they were unaware of what happened to some of the last agitators. This time a torch was thrown in, then a second and third. Zared’s guards, feeling important, tossed them back over the wall. Several of them marched around holding spears aloft as if they had been protecting Zared’s house all along. The angry Greeks had become fire-raisers, a more serious crime in the eyes of Rome. All those men caught by the legionnaires, with or without torches, however, would be crucified for public display.
“Upon hearing a distant trumpet, the back and forth toss of torches ceased. Martial shouts were followed by screams of terror as rioters were finally caught. Peeking through the shattered door, I saw the sheen of armor and flare of torches. Those not slain on the spot were being rounded up for execution. I shuddered at the thought. Elisha’s guards and servants retreated to the compound, as Zared led his family and guests back into the house. I thought I saw the silhouette of Saul standing in the doorway. Word was passed to us, after we settled into the servants’ quarters and sat staring at each other awhile, that Elisha and his company would be leaving at dawn.
“At first light, Absalom made sure we had all made water and eaten a sparse breakfast before climbing onto our mounts. A surly, foul-mouthed optio announced to all of us, the rich merchant and Pharisee included, that we Jews were more trouble than we were worth. Nothing was the same after that night. Of course Zared had finished his business with Elisha. Elisha, as a consequence of the sullying of his reputation, informed his guards he was finished too and would retire in his home city of Antioch. The Jewish guards could go their own way if they wished. As for me, he was sorry he had ever bought my freedom. Absalom tried reassuring me that he didn’t meant it, and the old man was just distraught, but I knew it was much more. Elisha had finally come to realization that I was beyond repair. He said as much within earshot as we rode out of town—”
“Typical rich Jew,” Fronto blurted in my defense. “It didn’t matter what the lad had been through or that he was fighting to save his neck!”
“Aye!” Rufus and Ibrim seconded.
Papa nodded with approval. “Who needs Pharisees and rabbis,” he grunted.
Simon came up and gave me a brotherly hug as I gathered my thoughts.
“… On the way to Antioch, which ironically had been my destination in the first place, we had two escorts: the original Roman escorts that guarded us until we left the province and, after riding unguarded for always after they made their exit, a foursome of legionnaires loaned to us by Fabius, Legate of the Fifth Legion. During our journey, I made another mistake; this time in the eyes of Elisha’s guards …I befriended Fabius’ men.
“Marcellus, Octavius, Sergius, and Nabalus were fine soldiers. Of the four legionnaires, though, only Marcellus became my friend. The others, like some of the auxilia and Jewish guards I rode with, thought I was an oddity. When I confided my tales of military prowess to this new batch of men, I received the same looks of disbelief. For Marcellus, I was never sure. It was, after all, a fantastic tale. What the young legionnaire did believe was my ability to memorize at a glance what I read and recite in different tongues. He was greatly impressed. Unfortunately, my association with this Gentile cost me my status with Elisha’s guards. I tried to rekindle my friendship with Absalom and Laban but they now agreed with their employer: I was damaged goods. Elisha also refused to talk to me. The only exception to the shunning I received came from Eden, the coachmen, who passed messages from the Pharisee to me.
“When we arrived finally at the Antioch fort, I bid goodbye to my onetime benefactor. Absalom as the others looked on in stony silence. In the end, Elisha wished me well. There was not much I could say that I had not already said. Just as we turned to enter the fort, it struck me again: the falling sickness.
“That makes only three times during my journey that I had an attack.” I sighed, watching Papa and Mama shake their heads. “That’s not bad considering all I’ve been through. Marcellus advised me to call it quits then, but I knew I had to confront Aurelian. It had been, after all, my purpose from the beginning.” “From here,” I added, pointing to Fronto, Rufus, Ibrim, and Aulus lying on his pallet, “the story returns full circle to my old friends. This remnant of my original band found me inside the fort. Aulus like Marcellus felt I should return home. Half of me wanted that too, but the other half—the fool-hearty adventurer, wanted to give it one more try. Despite the doubts about my reception from Aurelian when I began my odyssey, the prefect agreed to chat with me about my amazing gifts. After testing my memory, as Elisha and Marcellus had done, he made me an offer I could scarcely believe. I told him that I must go home and help my family, but he made a counter-offer that, when I had my fill of civilian life, I could return to him wherever he might be in the empire and serve him as a soldier scribe. From this point, after bidding Marcellus and his associates goodbye, I left with my friends Aulus, Fronto, Rufus, and Ibrim—my destination Nazareth, their destination ultimately the Galilean fort. The coastal highway, which we avoided before, was a long, circuitous journey. During this time we caught up where we left off with our friendship. Aulus became ill, and our journey took on a new urgency, but here we are. To end this tale for my weary, saddle-sore friends, I must say that I have no intention of ever returning to the army. It was an honor offered to me by Aurelian, but I made my decision. This is my home…This is where I belong”
At that point, Simon, Abigail, Martha, and Mama rose up, arms outstretched. Though too infirm to bolt up like the others, Papa was led by the arm by Jesus to where I stood. Together, as my friends looked on with amusement, they gave me a group hug.
“Have you had enough adventure my son?” Papa asked, ruffling my hair. “Are you ready to settle down and work in the shop?”
Overwhelmed with emotion, I replied for his benefit, quoting Elisha’s words, “Yes, Papa, your irresponsible, footloose son is home!”
“Now isn’t that nice?” Fronto grinned at Rufus and Ibrim. “What a great family our Thaddeus has!”
“Jude…” Aulus called from his pallet,”…his name is Jude.”
After our display of emotion, Mama turned her attention to Aulus, her new patient. Papa was led back to his own sick bed by Martha and Abigail. The remainder of us walked out the back door into the yard. Having finished watering and feeding the horses and mules, the children employed by Jesus stroked them affectionately as they would prize pets. While the beasts browsed idly in the yard, they picked handfuls of the weeds and grass, laying it affectionately below their snouts. Among the horses and mules that were tethered to tree stumps and bushes, two old goats and one small lamb wandered unfettered—a wondrous sight!
“I’m proud of you Naphtali, Simeon, and Hezekiah.” Jesus patted the boys’ heads. “I couldn’t have done better myself.”
“Moses’ bones,” giggled Simon. “Wait till Papa sees this!”
“They’re not hurting anything.” Jesus laughed, singling out my mules. “These five fellows belong to Jude.”
“Yes, we remember the story,” Simon said, stroking a large black stallion. “Which one is yours, Jude? You always wanted a white horse.
Singling out my gray, sad-eyed mule, I hugged him then proceeded to caress the remaining four. “I’ve given up on that goal.” I sighed wistfully. “I wouldn’t trade any of these gentle beasts for a horse. Mules may not be fast, but they’re faithful. They’re smarter than horses too.”
Fronto and Rufus laughed at my comparison.
“So these are yours?” Simon looked around at my friends. “They look tired and worn out.”
“They are tired,” Fronto said, stroking his horse, “but they’ve got life. I don’t know about the others, but I’m keeping this beauty!”
“Me too!” Rufus nodded, patting his mare.
Rufus dun colored horse was of moderate size for military issue, as was Aulus dark gray mare. Fronto’s assigned mount was a large, brown steed with white markings on his forehead and feet. What had struck me as humorous was the fact that Ibrim, the smallest member of our band, owned the biggest of the horses: a great black, shiny stallion, who seemed no worse for the wear.
“I wouldn’t take a king’s ransom for this horse,” he said, giving him a pat. Looking back thoughtfully at us, he added light-heartedly, “I made a decision on the road. I’m returning to my people. I might become a sheikh after galloping up on this fine beast.”
“What?” Rufus’ eyebrows shot up. “You would be a shepherd again?”
“No.” Ibrim sighed. “I was joking…. I was never a Bedouin. My family once had a farm. Mama’s people raised both cattle and sheep. My father gave up wandering to settle down with her in order to have many children and a roof over his head. I shall find me a rich Syrian or Greek wench and do the same.”
“That’s better.” Fronto nodded with approval.
“What happened to your family?” Simon asked, gazing at his horse.
“That’s a long story.” The Arab chortled. “I was thinking about settling somewhere else—not in Galilee. My mother’s dead. I never got along well with my father and his new wife.”
“Well, I’m not going home,” snorted Fronto. “The army’s the only home I’ve known.”
Rufus made a face. “Mine too, but a fellow can change. I’ve had enough of this life. I’m going to work the docks in Joppa instead of risking my neck for those people.”
“What will you do after that?” Jesus smiled faintly. “Will you go home to Gaul or stay in Galilee and serve Rome?”
“Perhaps neither.” Rufus frowned. “…How did you know I was from Gaul?”
“Jesus knows everything.” Simon declared quite seriously. “You wouldn’t believe what our brother knows.”
Rufus gave Jesus a knowing look. “…Oh, I think I do. Jude told me a lot about you.”
Jesus smiled enigmatically. I’m certain, though I couldn’t have understood it then, there was a reason why the four men accompanied me to Nazareth. They were, because of my stories, predisposed toward my brother, Rufus most of all. Now, as we dallied pleasantly in our backyard, who would have believe that these rustic men would one day, like myself, become disciples in the service not of Rome but of the risen Christ.
Suddenly, breaking the tranquility, our ears pricked up to the sound of shouting in our front yard.
“There at it again,” Simon groaned.
“What does he mean?” I asked Jesus, as we sprinted into the front yard.
“Please,” he called back to my friends, “this is not your fault. The townsmen are aware of your presence. They have forgotten the hospitality of our ancestors, when Moses, a stranger in the land of the Midianites, was befriended by Jethro and his daughter Sephora. But you are more than strangers now; because you are Jude’s friends, you’re ours too.”
By the time Jesus had finished speaking, however, the four auxilia had entered behind us into garden area where the townsmen had gathered to protest the presence of Gentiles in our house. Simon was correct. Nothing had changed since I left home.
There were several familiar faces in the crowd, most notably Gideon, a quarrelsome elder, Ichabod, a local merchant, Malachi, the weaver, and my onetime, fair-weather friends Boaz, Jethro and Obadiah. I was relieved not to see Caleb, himself, and any of the other townsfolk my parents had won over since the Romans left our town. For that matter, James and Joseph’s friends were absent, there were no women in the group, and Aaron, the town rabbi, was not present in our front yard. Perhaps knowing that Jesus would deal with our critics, Mama had not shown up nor would Papa leave his sick bed for such a confrontation. It was, upon second glance, a small group. I sighed with relief, as Jesus confronted the men. Simon stood beneath the plum tree, studying this assembly. In the background lingered my friends, arms folded and jaws set, ready to take them to task.
“Jesus!” Gideon pointed accusingly. “What are they doing in your house? They’re Gentiles. Why is Jude dressed like those men? He rides into town with soldiers, wearing Gentile clothes on an army mule. For years we suffered the presence of the Romans because of your family.” “Now he brings them back!” He wrung his finger. “Why did he bring those men into our town?”
“What’s the matter with that old goat?” Front growled.
“It’s all right,” I called back discreetly. “He’s the town grouch. It’s just his way. Jesus will shoo them away.”
“These men are our guests,” Jesus voice boomed. “They brought Jude back to us. We’re grateful to them, as you should be for one of your own. Have you forgotten hospitality to strangers, who offer friendship? You fear Gentile pollution, but you forgot the custom of our fathers.” “Worry about your own households.” He scanned the other men’s faces. “This household lives by God’s, not men’s rules. Read the holy scrolls. Recall Jethro the Midianite’s hospitality to Moses. Jethro was a Gentile. Are you better than our fathers?”
“Words,” Gideon snarled, “always words! What about the law?”
“The law was made for men, not men for the law,” replied Jesus, shielding his eyes from the sun.
I had heard him say this before and I would hear it again as a disciple. At that point, this piece of heresy caught the five men off guard. Gideon and Ichabod grumbled amongst themselves a little longer, but Eleazar, his son Malachi, and Caleb’s sons said nothing. As onlookers, more curious than self-righteous, they soon departed. Eleazar looked back, as they retreated, a frown playing on his face, yet he nodded faintly in acknowledgement. Boaz gave me the military arm-on-chest salute we exchanged as children, imitating the Roman guards tramping through the hills. Though I wasn’t sure whether it was done in mockery, I returned the salute. I felt both Jesus and Simon’s arm on my shoulder then. Two of my brothers accepted me for who I had become. It remained to be to seen how this would be seen when James and Joseph returned. As we entered unabashedly through the front door, Fronto, Rufus, and Ibrim were, out of respect, silent, but broke into guffaws when we were inside the house.
“You put the hex on them!” Ibrim chortled. “Jude told us about your powers.”
“Yes,” Rufus exclaimed light-heartedly. “We saw it as we rode up. Your eyes flashed like lightning. Yet your words drove them away.”
“I was shielding my eyes against sunlight.” Jesus seemed to blush. “Blue eyes have that quality. So do my mother’s, and other Jews. I notice, dear Rufus, you have blue eyes too.”
“But that’s normal. All my people do.” He studied Jesus. “It’s not common among Jews.”
“Aye.” Fronto gave a nod. “You’re the first one we’ve seen with blue eyes.”
“You look Greek, as do your sisters,” Ibrim blurted. “Is your mother Greek? Mine was Greek. Apollo had a Greek mother too.”
“Don’t mind him,” Aulus called from the corner of the room. “He has absolutely no manners. Our presence in your house is causing trouble with your neighbors. Soon we must be on our way.”
“Nonsense.” Mama waved her hand. “You are a sick man, Aulus. You have a fever, and your color is bad. In a few weeks, when you recover, you can leave. You will surely die if you leave now!”
Sometimes, to save her patients, Mama was brutally honest. The truth was, however, Aulus was correct. The six men who visited our house were just the beginning. Word would spread that we had Gentiles in our house. No one had to remind me about how narrow-minded were many of Nazareth’s men and women. When Mordechai, Samuel’s chamberlain, came to visit us that afternoon ostensibly to welcome me back, he tried not to show his alarm after meeting our guests, yet he left hastily after his visit as if he was on unhallowed ground. It was true that Fronto, Rufus, Ibrim, and Aulus were pagans, but for a conservative Jew such as Mordechai it was much more. The auxilia and Roman patient “smelled, looked, and acted like Gentiles” he would later confess. That hour, as Fronto, Rufus, and Ibrim sat in our kitchen discussing their plans, Aulus was administered more of the root purchased in Sidon and an herbal drink from Mama’s garden. Jesus, Simon, the twins, and I sat at the same long table, also in quiet conversation. Fronto wasn’t sure whether he should muster in again. In spite of his fine words, Ibrim wasn’t sure either. Unless he turned to banditry like some of his fellow Arabs, he couldn’t afford to settle down. Rufus, however, appeared to have made up mind to quit the legion, work out his passage in the docks, and begin traveling the world. Ultimately, he surmised, he would probably wind up back in Gaul, but like Fronto and Ibrim he really didn’t have much of a plan.
I felt a pang of longing when I heard Rufus say he wanted to travel the world. I didn’t envy him, though. What could an uneducated, rustic Gaul do to earn his passage except manual labor at low wages? For that matter, I looked across the room at Mama’s ailing patient: what would happen to poor Aulus, a broken down Roman soldier who had been in the army all his life? Knowing that he was in good hands, the auxilia rose up from the table and thanked my mother for her hospitality. They would, Front explained, stop at the Galilean Cohort and let their mounts rest up a spell longer before making up their minds. Jesus, Simon, and I helped them prepare their horses for travel. Mama packed them snacks to eat and made sure their flasks were filled with water. To worsen our reputation with on looking townsfolk was the send-off we gave them in front of our house.
I felt as if I might never see these fine men again. I was choked up about our farewell. As I stood by the gate and watched them ride out of our backyard on their horses and onto the road, several men and women stood silently in front of our house. There were no protests or catcalls. The townsfolk seemed to be shock. Before the three men rode away, they saluted me in the Roman fashion. Fronto raised up his sword. Groaning in dismay, Jesus raised his hand in response, deeply conscious of the spectators gathering yet also aware of my sorrow those moments.
“You’ll see them again,” he said simply.
“How do you know?” I asked, as we watched them disappear.
“Have you forgotten?” piped Simon, slapping my back. “Jesus knows everything!”
“We can’t change how our friends and neighbors think,” Jesus explained to me as we walked back into the house. “You’re home now, Jude. Be patient with them. Remember what Joseph of Arimathea once told me during our travels.”
I remembered the quote in his letter from Rome. In his preaching as Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul would say this to his disciples too: “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” For me, as a Romanized Jew, however, Jesus advice would have a novel twist. He was telling me, now that I was home, that I must begin acting like a Jew…. I had no idea yet how very difficult that might be.