With the exception of Amram and Baruch, who insisted on accompanying us to the border, none of the Samaritan converts followed us to Galilee. There were two reasons for this: one practical and one strategic. It was not practical for a horde of converts tagging along like camp followers. Unless Jesus used his powers, feeding such a crowd, not to mention protecting them from angry Galileans, would be impossible. More importantly, I believe, was that fact that it was strategically unsound. Rather than collecting converts here and there, it was much better to leave them where they were to spread the word among their fellow citizens or wherever they might be. Jesus was quite adamant about this. Even Job, whose son he resurrected, was forbidden to follow. Though they protested when we reached the border, Amram and Baruch, the staunchest Samaritan converts, were also turned back.
Before entering Galilee, the two men bid goodbye to us, promising, as did their fellow-Samaritan converts earlier, to spread the word. On our way into the province, Jesus insisted that we start preaching with his supervision. In the future, we would be sent out in twos to spread the word, but we had much to learn before preaching on our own. After we crossed into Galilee, the villages between the Samarian border and our main destination were numerous, so, to save time, we only ministered to those settlements closest to the main highway to Capernaum. Jesus appeared to be in a hurry now, as if he had little time. The reason he gave us for skipping over many towns and villages was based upon practicality again. It was simply not practical nor even humanly possible for he and his followers to cover all of Galilee and Judea and he believed that those who heard the word and especially those accepting baptism would spread the word themselves to other communities. If they were traveling merchants, this meant that the message would spread throughout the empire.
Peter had become the most enthusiastic baptizer, but he was a terrible speaker. On the other hand, my brother James was the best speaker, but, due to his lingering fear of contamination, was the least enthusiastic participant in the baptism rite. Though I had no experience in front of crowds, I was able, because of my near-perfect memory, to recite the basic message of repentance and salvation. As long as Jesus was satisfied with my efforts, I kept it simple, performing the baptism expeditiously. Only Barnabas and Mark, among the converts, made the attempt at preaching and mastered the skill of baptism. Bartholomew required a great deal of training, as did the remaining followers, whose expertise would grow at each stop on the way. Jesus preferred full emersion in a body of water, but that was almost impossible until we reached Capernaum, where the greatest harvest would begin. Extra skins of water were carried in our packs and Bartholomew’s cart to accommodate us during each gathering. This method of baptism was easier and faster, though less spiritual in Jesus’ mind.
Before we traveled much further, Arrius and Marcellus bowed out of the procession with the excuse that they missed their families. It was disappointing to Jesus, but they promised him they would share the good news with townsfolk when they reached home. To John and my dismay, Deborah, who was becoming a great distraction, was advised by Jesus to return to her home town in order to spread the word too. Jesus had been also worried about Anna, the old woman, since we left the river. Like Bartholomew, who should also have been advised to leave, she was too old and infirmed to continue. On their way through Judea, Arrius and Marcellus promised to escort Anna and Deborah to their homes. A greater disappointment to Jesus then was the decision of Barnabas to return to his home in Jericho and Marcus to his home in Jerusalem when the others traveled back to Judea. Suddenly, at a rest stop between towns, our number was, including Jesus, reduced to nine.
This would, I report in retrospect, change when we reached Capernaum, when our numbers would increase to eleven. Until we reached this point, we made countless, unscheduled stops. In fact, other than the goal to reach Capernaum, Jesus had no apparent schedule. Until the disciples began writing down the events of his life and message, nothing was recorded. Thanks to the memory the Lord blessed me with, I’ve been able to write my chronicles, but back then no one, not even John, who would one day write a gospel, three epistles, and a book of revelations, took notes during our travels. There was no map to guide us, itinerary, or agenda of things to do. Everything we did came at the spur of the moment out of Jesus’ head.
The good news he wanted everyone to hear competed with the stories spread by travelers of the miracle worker who changed water into wine, restored sight to a blind girl, and raised an infant from the dead. Jesus would have preferred that people be swayed by the message, not the messenger. As if he they saw him as a magician or sorcerer, rustic minds were overawed at his displays of supernatural power, many of whom saw it coming from him, rather than coming from God. Despite this problem, he explained to us, this shallow level of comprehension still drew them to the message. Against the great enthusiasm generated by his appearances in various towns and villages, however, there was a different reception by religious leaders and magistrates, who saw the good news as a challenge to established order and religion. Jesus warned us about this threat several times. His cleaning of the temple and the tongue-lashing he gave to the priests had created a dark undercurrent of protest in Judea and Galilee. As I would learn later, Caiaphas, the high priest, after hearing about the incident in the temple, merely sent out spies to find out more about Jesus, but after his alleged miracles and successes, he grew alarmed and created a special committee to investigate Jesus’ activities. We knew nothing of this committee of priests and Pharisees, but were aware of the spies on several occasions. During one stop, Jesus pointed out men in the audience, busily taking notes with scroll and feather. Peter wanted to eject them from the crowd, but Jesus said it would only make matters worse. That Jesus had serious enemies among Caiaphas subordinates and the Pharisees would have alarmed us greatly now that we knew we were being watched. It was one more glimpse he saw of the future that he protected his disciples against. Only James and I, as King Belshazzar, saw the writing on the wall. The powers that be and our brother appeared to be on a collision course. Fortunately, we couldn’t have imagined how calamitous it would be.
As we traveled north into Galilee, the villages in which Jesus spread the good news netted small harvests. The upside was that, unlike the larger towns, there were fewer hecklers in such small communities. Most of the audiences were curious townsfolk, drawn by Jesus’ reputation. At the center of each town, Jesus was able, as at Sychar and Sebaste, to preach to passersby and, with our assistance, baptize some of them at the community well. On a much more smaller scale, the pattern we had seen in Judea and Samaria continued: common people were eager to meet and hear the new prophet but most of the town elders, especially the Pharisees and rabbis, greeted him with suspicion and distrust. The large numbers of converts we attained at the River Jordan and in Samaria had bolstered our confidence, but now as we trekked north, that confidence would be challenged: first in Nain and then, of all placed, in Nazareth.
Fortunately, our ordeal in Nain ended quickly. As soon we entered this town, we were beset by a deputation of town elders, including prominent Pharisees, who had heard of the heretic preacher from advocates recounting Jesus message and miracles. Ironically, a trend was developing in which well-meaning supporter’s glowing reports predisposed graybeards and religious leaders against Jesus, who saw his wonders as sorcery and sermons as blasphemy against God. Because of their success at turning the town against us, not one convert was made in Nain. It was, until we arrived in Nazareth, our worst reception, but it was at least short-lived. As Jesus attempted to preach, the elders and Pharisees incited the townsfolk so badly, we were literally shouted out of town.
Though it left a bad taste in our mouths, we felt relieved we hadn’t been stoned or pelted with rotten fruit. After our experience in Nain, Jesus decided to put off preaching anymore until we visited Nazareth, our next stop. There was, inexplicably, a sudden urgency in his stride. We barely stopped to rest. Perhaps, I suggested half-seriously to James and Bartholomew, he was receiving more orders from God. Until we visited Nazareth, Jesus’ success in Galilee was quite modest and, with the important exception of Nain, without incident. For the most part, Nazareth would be, for most of the disciples, just one more town in an endless cycle of preaching and baptism. Jesus, James, and I, though, were filled with great expectation. This was our home town. We had family, friends, and neighbors that would surely be receptive to Jesus’ message…. Boy, was I wrong!
Almost immediately, though it came subtly this time, I detected hostility. I’m certain Jesus and James saw it too. Ethan and Jubal, the very same elders who had greeted Amos and I sarcastically when we returned from the River Jordan, were walking down the main street of Nazareth as we entered town. Eight footsore travelers straggled in and a mule and cart in which Bartholomew—long since departed from his old home, looked around fearfully at the men.
“Oh this it not good,” he groaned. “Of places to stop! We’re back in Nazareth. Why did he bring me here? I should’ve stayed in Capernaum. I was safe there. I know those two men, Jude. What if they recognize me? I was once a wanted man!”
It would have been a revelation to some of the disciples had they overheard, but Ethan’s and Jubal’s voices blared over his ramblings.
“So,” Jubal crowed, “the miracle worker’s back!”
“Yes, Jesus,” Ethan’s voice boomed, “we heard about your exploits in the temple—during the Passover too. It’s wonder they didn’t arrest you for such sacrilege. A merchant in town even claims you “used sorcery to perform miracles. Is that true.”
“You have said it,” Jesus replied calmly. “News travels fast.”
“All of Galilee has heard about you!” Ethan hobbled over, stabbing the ground with his cane.”
Walking up to the cart, he eyed Bartholomew quizzically but said nothing.
“I know what,” Jubal suggested, “let’s gather the townsmen in the synagogue. Rabbi Eli will be glad to call a meeting, so we can hear your message.”
“Humph,” Ethan’s voice crackled, “do I know you?”
“Leave him alone.” I stepped between them. “Bartholomew’s not well.”
“Bartholomew?” Jubal frowned. “I knew a Bartholomew once…”
Stomping over, with doubled fists, Peter roared angrily, “You heard him. Leave Bartholomew alone!”
The two men retreated quickly, mumbling amongst themselves, then continued on their way. Coming down the same road were friendlier faces, the elder Habakkuk and my family’s friend Ezra, who rejoiced at Jesus’ return.
“You’re back!” Habakkuk shouted, holding up his staff. “Praise the Most High.”
“We’ve heard great thing about you, Jesus.” Ezra ran up to clasp his hand.
Jesus turned and introduced the fishermen, Bartholomew, James, and I as his disciples, after the two men announced their names.
“Don’t let those men bother you.” Habakkuk embraced Jesus warmly. “They don’t speak for the town.”
“We sure hope so!” declared Peter.
“What is their problem, anyhow?” protested Philip. “That was really rude!”
“Awe, they’re always cantankerous.” I reassured them. “Ethan’s never liked us very much. Jubal sounds like he might be drunk.”
“Are they really going to assemble a town meeting?” muttered Bartholomew. “I’ll stay put…. No sir, I’m not up to that.”
“You can rest at my mother’s house.” I gave his shoulder a pat. “…. You’re safe there,” I murmured discreetly.
“It’s going to be very crowded.” Jesus sighed. “She might not be too pleased.” “As for a meeting.” He smiled wearily at the elders. “Whatever the Rabbi Eli decides. We must first greet my family. Please join us if you wish.”
Nodding their heads amiably, both Habakkuk and Ezra joined our procession to Joseph bar Jacob’s house. Though my father had been dead for a while, it would, by custom, always be Joseph, our father’s, house. I wished he could know Jesus now; he would be so proud. Looking around, I saw other townsfolk appearing hear and there, but no one rushed over to greet Jesus as Habakkuk and Ezra had. It occurred to me, in spite of Jesus’ success so far, that there might be others in Nazareth sharing Ethan’s and Jubal’s views.
When the door opened, the remaining members of our family greeted us, except Joseph, who had, we would learn, returned to Sepphoris. There was a mixed reaction at first. Mama grabbed Jesus and squeezed him happily, embracing James and I almost as an afterthought. Simon, our brother, shook our hands and gave us brief hugs, giving us equal affection. My twin sisters Abigail and Martha embraced their long lost brothers tenderly, especially Jesus, the man of the hour. All four of them looked passed Jesus at the strangers with frowns, as if they had forgotten the incident at Cana and Jesus’ calling to spread the word. Of course, I couldn’t blame them. Any respectable Jew would cringe at having such a grimy, smelly, unwashed bunch in their home.
After Jesus presented the fishermen to our family (Bartholomew needing no introduction), Mama quickly introduced Simon, Abigail, and Martha, then launched into summary of what had happened while Jesus, James, and I were gone. Rabbi Joachim, the previous rabbi had died, Ezra’s daughters, Joanna and Meira, were both married, Noah, who lived across the street from Joachim and his wife, was sick and not expected to live, my friend, Isaac, one of James’ friends, now lived in Jerusalem with his new wife, and the Romans were patrolling Galilean towns again, looking for a new bandit gang. After a flood of additional information, including Joseph’s position as scribe in Sepphoris and the pending wedding of Abigail to Jeroboam, James and my friend, our heads were spinning. Apologizing for her flighty-headedness, Mama raced around straightening up the kitchen and preparing us a meal. Jesus asked Abigail and Martha to fetch a few pales of water so that he and his men could spruce themselves up. A dip in a river or stream would have been better, but at least we could wash our faces and rinse the dust off our hands and feet to be more presentable.
During these preparations, Habakkuk and Ezra departed. They had said nothing about Jesus’ new stature. One day, along with Mama, Simon, Abigail, and Martha, they would, with their wives and children, join the Way, but they would prove to be the exceptions in Nazareth.
For an hour or so, as Jesus and his men splashed water on themselves and then snacked on bread and cheese while Mama prepared a proper meal for tonight, I took my turn sprucing myself up, grabbed a hunk of bread, and led Bartholomew’s mule into the backyard to munch the grass with the other mules. Our family’s mules had served me will in my travels. Though I hadn’t named Bartholomew’s beast, I had pet names for each of our mules. Mama had wanted to rent them out while I was gone, but, after their ordeals with me, I insisted on retiring each of them as beasts of burden. They were pets now. I recalled my decision that when Bartholomew had finished using his mule, I would buy it from him and retire him too. As I walked among our family mules, stroking them and calling them each by their pet names—Elijah, Moses, David, and Solomon, Jesus appeared suddenly with a bowel of grapes.
“Tsk-tsk, Jude,” he scolded playfully, “you named your mules after Israel’s prophets and kings?”
“Yep.” I grinned. “I plan on calling Bartholomew’s mule, Jacob, after grandfather, when he’s mine.”
“You rascal.” He tousled my hair. “This is all one big adventure for you, isn’t it?”
“Most of the time,” I answered truthfully, “not always. That episode at the temple gave me a jolt and I don’t like you endangering your life like you did in Jerusalem and Samaria. But it’s been exciting. I got that baptism stuff down pat.”
“Down pat, you say.” He laughed, chewing on a grape. “You really find this exciting?”
“Yes, I do.” I nodded, the image of Deborah flashing into my mind.
“You’re not worried about the dangers or pitfalls?” He searched my face.
“No, uh-uh.” I shook my head. “What is there to worry about?”
“Very well.” He eyed me slyly, stroking one of the mules. “You had your moments of hesitation. At first, you had your doubts. All of you did. Now you pitch in eagerly and seldom complain. I think you’ve fit in nicely with our group.”
“Well,” I admitted, chewing on a grape, “many things have changed: the fishermen have finally accepted me; Bartholomew, who was once our family’s enemy, is my friend; and James, who used to get on my nerves with his self-righteous attitude, is now a disciple like me. I would never had guessed it.” “And I’ve changed too,” I searched for the words. “…I have a purpose now. I’m not sure what it is…. I just know it’s there… in the future.”
“The future?” Jesus stared into space a moment. “… You have no idea, Jude. You do realize that this isn’t a game? You’ve traveled much more than the fishermen, even James. After some of the things you’ve gone through this may seem like child’s play.” “But it isn’t,” he added, searching my face. “As a Greek runner might say, this is the first lap. The race is young, Jude. This isn’t a game!”
“I know that.” I sighed. “This is serious business. We’ve seen you do impossible things —so many, in fact, that we’re almost taking them for granted. We expect you to use your God-given powers when needed. But it’s much more than miracles or theatrical feats. Your goal is to revise our religion, which has fallen into error. They—the powers that be—don’t understand that. They see you as a heretic and blasphemer. If anything frightens me, Jesus, it’s not all these stops we make; it’s what lies ahead. It’s like you’re stirring up a hornets’ nest—”
“Jude,” he interrupted impatiently, “have faith. Who is leading me? Am I not the vessel of God?”
“Well,… yes.” I heaved a sigh. “I suppose so…”
Vessel of God was yet another name that dodged the issue of who he was. As if I needed to be reminded, Jesus now lectured me on the purpose of his mission: bring people the good news (men and women could be saved by God’s grace alone); encourage them to repent their past deeds; and accept baptism as a symbol of their rebirth into a new life. It seemed, as I listened to him, that the afterlife promised to the saved was the lure or bait to entice sinners. Without it, what was the point? We might as well be Sadducees or nonbelievers. The ill defined or non-existent after life in Samaritan and Gentile religions also seemed pointless. What was the sense in praying for earthly rewards if you permanently died or became, as the Romans believed, mere shades flittering mindlessly about? Of course, Jesus never said anything about this. He tried keeping it simple for common folk. Other than his explanation of heaven—a place were we would greet our loved ones and live in eternal bliss, he would, only on rare occasions, refer to that opposite province, he called hell, a region where sinners, who hear the good news, and don’t repent, will join all other evil men and women in everlasting torment forever more.
Normally calm when listening to Jesus, I found myself trembling and staring blankly into space, as he added details to this description:
“What kind of place is hell?” he asked rhetorically, as he often did when making a point.
“Moses beard!” I groaned.
“Surely, I say unto you,” he answered himself, “hell is like the Valley of Gehenna, in which sits Golgotha, Jerusalem’s huge public rubbish dump where dead bodies and trash are burned continually.”
“Dreadful!” I tempted to plug up my ears. “Perish the thought!”
“It is the rubbish heap of the damned.” His voice raised progressively, “a smoldering fire—brimstone—burning continually, but also an abyss: a place where the damned burn in the outer darkness—an eternal, fiery prison with no escape.”
Though he had mentioned this place before, it has always been briefly stated, spoken almost in passing. Not only did he place imagery in my head, there was an urgency in his tone this time. It was almost as if he had been there—an eye witness to the underworld, the abode of the damned. As I tried dispelling this vision, I awakened to the sound of his voice.
“Jude, Jude!” he said, shaking me gently. “I’m sorry I frightened you. My Father speaks through me. On behalf of sinners, it frightens me too.”
“All right,” my voice quivered, “your father told you, but where in scriptures is all that written? I heard those words before; hell and Gehenna are Greek concepts, aren’t they. I thought the wages of sin was death, not that terrible place!”
“It’s not mentioned in the Torah,” Jesus admitted, “but it exists just the same. Where do you think evil men and women go when they die unrepentant?”
“…. Hell,” I answered reluctantly.
“Mankind knows right from wrong,” Jesus explained. “This knowledge began with Adam. God gave people the choice of eternal life or damnation. The problem is, Jude, this choice has been ill-defined and cheapened by all the many laws observed by Sadducees and Pharisees. For the Sadducees, one is considered good by observing the laws, and benefits in this life. Most people are poor, however, scratching out meager lives. For the Pharisees, one is considered good by observing the laws in order to have eternal life. On the one hand, the Sadducee pauper has no reason to live a righteous life. Sin, especially great sin, has to be accounted for or what’s the point? On the other hand, those Jews believing in paradise, are burdened with hundreds of laws they neither understand and can keep. How can they have reassurance of eternal life following the Pharisee’s rules?”
I felt my muscles relax that moment. “Phew!… There’s no purpose—my thoughts exactly. If you tell me something is true, I believe it. If nothing else, Jesus, the specter of hell, fire, and damnation you described should convince listeners.”
Jesus thought a moment. “You’re right about one thing. Hell or Gehenna is a Greek notion. That part of the Roman’s underworld is called Tartarus, a place of torment just as bad. As you can see, even the Gentiles are familiar with hell. I hate to scare people, but it’s true: this will convince some listeners. The fear of God, which the prophets, priests, and Pharisees emphasize to make people behave has been effective for centuries. Now, however, we bring them a God of love. I would much rather convince them with the reward of paradise, than the fear of damnation.” “I will pray for guidance about this,” he added looking toward the house.
Forcing a smile, I shuddered at this new vision of hell even our ancestors didn’t know. “I’ll pray too,” I said obligingly. “I just wish you hadn’t filled my head with this. It’s bad enough to die and disappear into nothingness as the Sadducees believe, but fire and brimstone forever? That’s horrible!”
Jesus embraced me, whispering, “You don’t have to fear, little brother.”
“I don’t” I replied dubiously. “Really?… How can you be certain?”
“I just know.” He pointed to heaven. “You must have faith.”
That moment I believed him totally, without reservations. The peace I felt knowing this I would carry the rest of my life.
“Your road will be long and hard,” he added, looking into my eyes. “You’ll be tested by Caesar, himself…. but you’ll prevail!”
“What do you mean, Caesar?” I was taken back. “Please explain.”
“Do you trust me, Jude?” He stood back and frowned.
“Of course.” I nodded promptly. “Completely.”
“Then knowing you have eternal life, what does it matter?”
Once more reminded of Jesus’ promise, I quickly replied, “Not a bit.” (Jesus, after all, never lied.)
“There’s something else.” He gave me a worried look. “When you were out here with the mules, Mama told us more about the bandit gang in Galilee. Do you remember my namesake, Jesus Barabbas?”
“Yes.” I scowled. “A real scalawag!”
“Well, he’s more than that now.” Jesus raised an eyebrow. “Since his father Abbas’ death, he’s been ‘Barabbas, the bandit leader and highwayman.’”
“Well,” I tried being glib. “At least he’s not called Jesus. One Galilean with that name is quite enough!”
After seeing Peter signal to him from the back door, Jesus began walking back to the house.
“This isn’t funny, Jude.” He looked back with a frown. “Barabbas’ gang is robbing and murdering innocent travelers. A courier from Cornelius, the Galilean prefect, warned Rabbi Eli of this. In the coming days, there’ll be Romans patrolling Nazareth and neighboring towns. I appreciate Rome’s vigilance, but they’ll be watching Galileans for the slightest bit of trouble. Already there are spies reporting everything we do to the authorities. Barabbas has just made our task that much harder!”
“Jesus!” Peter yelled through cupped hands. “Rabbi Eli is here. The town counsel is having a meeting at the synagogue.”
Pausing a moment, Jesus closed his eyes, as though God was talking to him that moment. I had seen this before and wasn’t surprised, but Peter called out, “Jesus? Are you all right?”
“You’d think by now he knew you were praying,” I grumbled.
“Peter’s learning,” Jesus said from the corner of his mouth. “Like still water, his qualities runs deep.”
“If you say so,” I whispered begrudgingly. “He’s loyal and tries hard. I give him credit for that.”
When we entered the house, Rabbi Eli ran up to greet Jesus. Habakkuk and Ezra had returned with the rabbi. The room was filled with family members, friends, and disciples, who stood mumbling amongst themselves. In spite of the rabbi’s friendly demeanor, a feeling of urgency pervaded the crowded room.
“It’s good to see you,” he cried, embracing Jesus, “—all of you!” he added glancing at James and I. “Your mother invited me to dinner, so we’ll have plenty of time to catch up. Tomorrow morning the townsfolk will meet in the synagogue. Years ago, during the unrest in Galilee, we had a Roman presence in Nazareth. They’ll be patrolling towns in Galilee, including our own now that this Barabbas is afoot. This morning I sent word to your mother about the new threat. Valen, a centurion from the Galilean Cohort, arrived at my house with the news.”
“What happened to Longinus?” blurted Simon. “Wasn’t he our centurion before!”
Jesus looked over at Simon, holding his finger up to his lips.
“Habakkuk asked me the same question.” Eli smiled at Simon. “A while back, Longinus told me he was being reassigned to Jerusalem. You’d think that might be a promotion to be stationed in our holy city, yet he didn’t seem happy about it.”
A strange look appeared in Jesus’ eyes. This look, like the reaction he had when Peter told him about the town meeting, I now understand as an unspoken revelation he received from God. The specter of Golgotha must have flashed in his mind. Closing his eyes a brief moment, he prayed. Once again the fisherman asked him discreetly if he was all right. Jesus looked at Peter tolerantly as a father would his child. None of his disciples, except James and I, recognized his facial gestures for what they were. Even James was ignorant of what I suspected: the town meeting would be a defining moment in Jesus’ ministry and, secondly, Longinus was important in Jesus’ future. Though that’s all I knew, I felt a rush of fear. I was reminded of his reputation with the authorities and the fact that Caiaphas spies and agents were watching his every move… Now the Romans, always on the lookout for troublemakers, would be watching him too.
Awakening to reality, I heard Eli say something else troubling. The bandit gang would be on the town elders’ minds, but it appeared as though they were also worried about Jesus new message.
“In what way are they concerned?” Peter asked defensively. “Jesus says nothing against the Torah. What he brings is salvation and peace.”
“Of course.” Eli held up a hand. “They simply want reassurance.”
“Reassurance?” I stepped forward. “What kind of reassurance?”
“Just clarification, a few facts—” Eli tried to explain.
“Clarification?” I looked at him disbelief. “It’s perfectly clear: all Jesus is offering is what the Pharisees already believe. He just explains it better. What possible clarification do you need? It’s so simple, Eli: repent, be reborn in the Spirit, and have ever-lasting life. Even Samaritans have accepted his words.”
“What?” Eli gave me a dumbfounded look. “… He said what?”
“He said repent and be saved!” John stomped his foot. “Jesus speaks on behalf of God!”
”Yes!” exclaimed our brother James. “I was a doubter, myself. Now I know he’s the Promised One. Any fool can see that. He’s performed miracles in Cana and Samaria. That high priest is worried that people might have some hope!”
That moment I was proud of James. He had come a long way. Unfortunately, as my Greek friend might say, he had, by calling Jesus the ‘Promised One’ actually elevated his status. Rabbi Eli and Ezra shook their heads in dismay.
“Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph the Carpenter?” A furrow appeared in Ezra’s brow.
“Surely, you’re not claiming to be the Messiah,” the rabbi tottered on his feet. “Please Jesus tell me this isn’t so!”
“He said no such thing!” Simon cried.
“Yes he did,” Ezra pointed accusingly at James. “We all heard it. The ‘Promised One’ is another name for the Messiah. Jesus didn’t deny it. Why would he say such a thing?”
“What have I done?” James heaved a broken sigh.
“Don’t feel bad,” I consoled him, as Ezra and Eli muttered amongst themselves, “Jesus said as much himself.”
“Yes,” Jesus admitted sadly, “but it wasn’t my doing. I would rather my Father, not men, define me. It’s the message, not just the messenger, that’s matters. What’s in a name?”
Though James had spoken the truth, he had unwittingly made matters worse for Jesus in Nazareth. Our neighbor and the rabbi were momentarily speechless. Their shocked appearance—wide eyes, gaping mouths, and wringing hands—spoke loudly. For several moments, Andrew, Philip, John’s brother James, and even Bartholomew stood up for Jesus, describing the crowds, the baptism, and details of his miracles. Simon, though coming to Jesus’ defense, appeared bewildered by this all. Stunned into silence now, Mama and the twins were beside themselves with worry about Eli’s and Ezra’s reactions. Everyone else were outraged at the rabbi and Papa’s onetime friend…. Everyone except Habakkuk. This old man, I recalled then, had the greatest expectations for Jesus. A look of illumination filled his dark eyes.
“Yes, of course,” he murmured. “…. I’m not surprised. You’re the one we have been waiting for.”
Habakkuk had said this so faintly, only those closest to him—Jesus, James, and I—heard his words. The greater meaning of his declaration would come later for me. For now, it confirmed my own suspicion. He was, we had known from the beginning, a great teacher, preacher, or prophet and likely much more…. Even the title Promised One, Deliverer, or Messiah didn’t seem enough…. Who was Jesus? I wondered that moment. Once again, his hand had been forced.
Striking his palm with the side of his hand to signal silence, he shouted above their voices: “I come in peace, not war. I have no desire to divide our people, only to unite them in faith. Tomorrow at your meeting, Eli, I will answer any questions the elders have. Please, don’t be alarmed with my disciples’ fervor. They’re good men. What we bring is a reaffirmation of the doctrine of eternal life. My Father has given me new insight. I speak for the Lord.”
“Your father?” Ezra frowned severely. “You said that before…. Aren’t we all his children?”
“You have said it.” Jesus said wearily with double meaning. “He listens to us all.”
“So you merely speak for God.” Eli stroked his beard. “That’s not so bad.”
“Enough!” Mama waved irritably. “This room is too crowded. Dinner will be ready soon.” “Everyone—it’s a nice evening.” She made scooting motions with her hands. “We shall add Papa’s work bench to our kitchen table and eat outside.”
Mama’s decision seemed highly irregular at first and quite rude, but this distraction as well as Jesus’ words had managed to calm the group. As a team, the disciples, rabbi, and elders placed Papa’s long workbench next to the kitchen table in the backyard, adding the chairs and stools available, including unfinished pieces from the shop. Goodwill prevailed, as we waited to be fed. For the period of time it took for the twins and Mama to finish preparing the evening meal, we gathered around the table and bench. It was difficult avoiding the subject of Jesus identity, so we shared small talk—the death of Joachim, the old rabbi, the Roman sentries that would soon patrol our town, and Barabbas, the new menace in Galilee. Peter recalled, as a child, the rebellion in Galilee and Judea, in which hundreds of men were crucified. Andrew and Philip, who had personally seen a man crucified, bitterly denounced this cruel punishment. These topics were depressing, especially now that the Romans were back in force. Slipping away those moments, Jesus, James, and I separated from the others, wandering down to the olive trees at the perimeter of the yard.
I had fond memories of our orchard and the ancient ruins we discovered on our property. My friend Michael and I kept secret the trail leading to the ruins in order so play our childhood games. When my parents found out about our exploits, Papa explained that our hideout was the remnant of a pagan temple and forbid me to go there anymore. It was I recalled, where I found Reuben the bandit, our family’s enemy, whom Mama nursed back to health from wounds received escaping Roman justice. Looking back from the orchard at our house, I could see Bartholomew, who once owned that name, sitting apart from the others on a tree stump. Habakkuk and Ezra hadn’t recognized him, but I remembered all too clearly the trouble he brought on our house. James walked silently alongside of us, as I reminisced about those days.
“The past isn’t important unless we repeat our mistakes,” Jesus interrupted. “It’s only important if we don’t learn by them and fail to do better. In this way knowledge is rebirth and ignorance is death.”
“Mistakes you call it,” I grumbled. “I forgive Bartholomew—we all do, but what he did back then were hardly mistakes.” “Besides,” I reminded him. “You’re perfect. You don’t make mistakes. Reuben, not Bartholomew, had been an evil man.”
Jesus, who couldn’t lie, was silent, proving my point. He had lectured me briefly in common sense faction, without spiritual overtones, and yet the meaning was clear: Bartholomew, the disciple of Jesus, had been reborn. Reuben, the bandit leader and highwayman, a bad man, was dead. Bartholomew was, like all of us, a new man.
“Can people be forgiven for any sin?” asked James.
“Of course,” Jesus replied, “nothing is impossible with God.”
“What about really bad persons?” I frowned. “Can King Herod, who had children murdered, and Barabbas, whose gang murders innocent travelers, be forgiven too.”
“Yes,” Jesus said without hesitation. “If a man or woman prays hard enough for forgiveness, God will forgive them. Until the moment that person dies, there is a chance of grace.”
“You mean up until the very last moment?” James looked at him in disbelief.
“Until the last second!” Jesus clarified. “In the twinkling of an eye!”
“I wouldn’t tell people that,” James shook his head. “Folks will live a life of sin right up to their last breath.”
“That’s right,” I agreed. “Knowing your plan of salvation, they might make up for lost time.”
“Ah, but that’s the catch.” He raised a finger. “No one knows when they’ll die. Life is filled with pitfalls, and no one is immune from disease or danger. Knowing this threat, those seeking salvation won’t wait. Remember this: death comes quickly like a phantom. For the saved it doesn’t matter when, but for the damned it is final!”
James and I shuddered at the thought. Jesus’ promise of my salvation seemed almost to good to believe. I was hardly a perfect soul. I could tell by his expression that James also had concerns. For several more moments, the three of us meandered to the ancient ruins, which brought the subject of Michael and my exploits up again. It was a welcome relief from all this gloomy talk. From the ruins, we found a second trail that led to Jesus special place. After inspecting his secret cave and nearby grove of fruit trees that we visited repeatedly as children, we trekked down the trail leading to the boundary of our property, looking out on the Plain of Esdraelon and the road leading to Jerusalem. It was then that we saw the Roman sentries riding the perimeter of Nazareth.
“Look,” exclaimed James, “there already here!”
“Yes, I’m afraid so.” Jesus heaved a sigh.
“Jesus,” I said thoughtfully, “I know it creates a problem, but we need Roman protection. The last time they were here, they were our friends.”
Alluding to a name used by the prophet Daniel, Jesus replied cryptically, “From the Jews, the Son of Man will be delivered to the Romans. The Romans will be the instrument of God’s will.”
That moment as James and I digested his statement, Jesus lapsed into communion with God again, praying deeply to himself. Respectful of his state of mind, we waited until he was finished and we were on the way back to the house, before asking him questions.
“Hey, what was that about?” I jerked his sleeve.
“Yes, Jesus,” James demanded. “Daniel mentions that name, but I don’t remember that passage. He never said anything like that. What did you mean?”
“My Father talks and I listen,” he answered enigmatically.
“Oh that explains everything!” James threw up his hands.
“Listen, I think I understand.” I snapped my fingers excitedly. “God is saying that you’re in danger. If that’s the case, you must stop provoking the authorities, Jesus—maybe tone it down a notch.”
“I do God’s will.” He looked irritably at me. “When will you understand?”
I clasped my forehead is dismay. “I understand exactly, Jesus. God doesn’t want you stoned, beheaded, or crucified. Your mission has only just begun. You have your whole life ahead of you. Why stir things up?”
“Would you defy God?” He looked at both of us. “Whatever He asks of us we must do. Am I any greater than the prophets our people murdered?”
“Yes,” I replied unequivocally, “you are greater than them.”
“Greater!” James set his jaw.
“Then, if this is so,” he said, placing his arms around our shoulders, “have faith in Him who sent me. You also must sacrifice for the truth!”
That very moment, we heard Mama shout, “Come and eat!” Everyone else was already seated, as she and our sisters brought out roasted lamb, lentils, and bread. Lamps had been set on the table and bench in anticipation of the setting sun, the faces of the diners glowing with expectation. As we sat down with the others, though, our heads were filled with Jesus’ troubling words—a much greater expectation than food. The fishermen and our family members knew nothing of his strange prediction. I wanted to believe that God was merely warning him to be more careful, but I hadn’t heard Jesus’ silent prayer or the revelation entering his head. I could tell that James was concerned too. Belying the dark thoughts swirling in Jesus head, was his spirited Shema and concise, well thought out prayer of thanksgiving. Added to his special gifts was his ability to control his feelings, which allowed him to rise above his emotions as he did now at the table. Whether preaching, in discourse with critics, or healing the sick and lame, he always kept his head, moving on to the next order of business. Despite his inner strength, however, I wasn’t fooled. Jesus had seen something dark and terrible in his future.
Was it merely a warning, I asked myself, or a premonition of things to come? Jesus words, “From the Jews, the Son of Man will be delivered to the Romans…,” would haunt me in the days ahead. Taking advantage of the wine Mama provided, I drank several cups, hoping to wipe those words from my brain. Following my example, James drank more wine than usual, himself. While we drank and ate, we listened to the fishermen boast of Jesus exploits, envying them for their innocence. Bartholomew had squeezed in beside me still self-conscious of his past.
“Well,” he whispered enthusiastically, “I guess you were right. No one recognized me. I’m in the clear!”
“Bartholomew,” I replied discreetly, using Jesus’ words. “Get this in your thick skull. You were born again. Stop worrying so much. You’re a new man!”
Looking down the table at me as if he heard my words, Jesus smiled, nodding with acknowledgment. Breaking into the fishermen’s discussion now, he gave us an inspiring talk meant for his family and disciples, but there was no question that it was intended especially for James and me.
“My family and friends,” he addressed us warmly. “Some of you are troubled by the path ahead. Already, despite our success in Judea and Samaria, you’re worried about the reception we’ll receive in Galilee. It appears as though the high priest has nothing better to do than send his agents into crowds to spy on us. The sudden reappearance of Barabbas in Galilee only made matters worse. Now that Roman sentries are back in order to protect Nazareth from his gang, there’s an added concern. After Judah’s insurrection, Rome will tolerant no rebellion. Assemblies of noisy people make them nervous. They expect the worst when a self-styled prophet shouts epitaphs against Rome and will deal harshly with insurrectionist calling for the end of Roman rule. After all, in the Gentile mind, we Jews are a stiff-necked people. Our predecessors, Saul, David, and Judah Maccabees, were warrior kings. But we aren’t warriors; we’re missionaries, spreading the good news. Our mission is one of peace. A new religion, as the priests and Pharisees see it, doesn’t worry the Romans. They’re pagans, who worship many gods—all equal in the emperor’s eyes. Until God wills it, the high priest bows to Rome’s will. His wish is to incite the Pharisees, scribes, and priests against us, if not to prove we speak blasphemy, to make them believe I threaten the peace. But once again, I bring peace and you’re emissaries of peace. The shield of God goes before us. So don’t be concerned with the future. In a state of grace, we own the present. The future is in God’s hands!”
As I listened to Jesus, I was somewhat comforted. I truly believed he meant what he said. I could even accept that our path was God’s will and, at least for a spell, we were under his protection. What I couldn’t get out of my mind was his reference to that shadowy character, ‘the Son of Man,’ and the implication that he would be handed over to the Romans by the Jews. Like James, who sat plunged in thought across the table from me, I tried, to no avail, blotting out his words with wine. Tumbling later that evening onto my pallet for a welcomed night’s sleep, I awakened the next morning in much worse shape.
The first voice I heard was Jesus. “Wake up, you rascal,” he scolded, giving me a shake. You shouldn’t have drunk all that wine!”
Looking up through a fuzzy haze, I blinked and rubbed my eyes. The pounding in my head was merciless as I tried to focus on the spinning room. I remembered having a nightmare: Roman sentries were chasing us up a hill brandishing swords. I could see Jesus Bar Abbas ahead, still a child in my nightmare, beckoning me playfully to accompany him to the ruins where I once found Reuben. Michael appeared suddenly, shouting obscenities at the legionnaires. From that point, my recollection was patchy. When I stood finally on my feet, the dream faded quickly to the back of my mind. Vaguely, I was aware of my concern for Jesus, my dread dulled by his words of comfort at the table. “I must trust him. I must have faith,” I mumbled over and over, as I followed the other disciples example and prepared myself for the day.
After splashing water onto my face, I saw James talking to Simon. I could tell he was in as bad a shape as me. None of the other disciples had been as foolish as us. We were greeted silently with frowns and grins, as we joined them for breakfast. The buzz of conversation during our meal was about the probable topics of the meeting this morning at the synagogue: (1) what was Jesus up to?’; (2) why was he and his followers traipsing around Palestine claiming to spread the ‘good news?; (3) just what was his message, anyhow?; (4) did it conflict with the Torah; (5) was it blasphemous or heretical; (6) and who was he to challenge the priesthood and temple, claiming he speaks for God?’ I was surprised that the disciples raised such rational questions. They weren’t quite the dullards James and I suspected. The reason I numbered these questions was to give emphasis to each of them. Worded various ways, they would all be covered in the heated atmosphere of the synagogue during the hour Jesus gave an accounting of himself, but would almost be forgotten in the confusion and pandemonium that followed.
Despite Jesus’ comforting words, the disciples were nervous about the pending meeting. After breakfast, after each of us made water in the shack Papa had built, we gathered up our strength and followed Jesus to the synagogue. Mama, Simon, Abigail, and Martha stood in our front yard waving anxiously at us as if we were embarking on a long, dangerous trip (which we, in fact, were). I looked back that moment, envying Simon, the simplest of my brothers. While James and I were heading into harm’s way, he stood there in the morning sun, dimly aware of the dangers we faced. As a mother, Mama’s fears were more general. She might have recalled Simeon’s warning then: “A sword shall pierce your heart!” Perhaps Abigail and Martha shared some of her worries, but it was probably similar to Simon’s brotherly concern. None of them, I was certain, could be as worried as poor Jesus, who, as Peter put it this morning, was walking into a ‘lion’s den.’
When we arrived, the synagogue was full of town elders, including Nazareth’s Pharisees. We could also see Habakkuk and Ezra’s faces in the room. After a brief prayer and introduction by Rabbi Eli, the congregation erupted into questions, including the ones the disciples thought might be brought up. I can’t speak for the other disciples, but my head swam with apprehension and I actually felt dizzy, as if I might pass out. The most important questions about the nature of Jesus mission (what exactly was his message?; was he planning on replacing the Torah with it?; and why was he spreading his message among the cursed Samaritans) were answered simply by him. After explaining the simple formula for salvation (repent ones sins, accept God’s grace, be baptized as a sign of renewal, and be reborn in the Spirit to have eternal life.), I hoped those pompous men might be impressed, but most of them were offended by what they thought were Jesus’ pretensions. Though Habakkuk could see nothing wrong with his religious formula and outreach to peoples, Ezra agreed with the majority that we were defiled in Samaria. Of equal importance was the question of Jesus’ attitude about the Torah. After strongly affirming that he was not replacing the Torah, which seemed to appease many of his opponents, he argued convincingly to some that the Samaritans, after all, worshiped the same God, and should be brought back into the fold. With the exception of the majority’s rejection of his message, which was still significant, Jesus managed well under the circumstances.
When a final question from Rabbi Eli, himself was raised, however, Jesus was placed in an impossible situation.
“…Who do you claim to be?” the rabbi asked hesitantly.
“Oh no,” groaned James. “I was worried about this.”
It felt like a betrayal to us. How could Jesus answer such a question? In spite of the recent disclosures made to us, he had avoided giving a direct answer to this until this moment. Now, in front of Nazareth’s rabbi and elders, his moment of truth was here. Mindful of the implications of Eli’s question, we whispered fearfully amongst ourselves. We were terrified of this bunch. Though I had lived in Nazareth all my life, most of them were strangers to me. As James and I, the fishermen were beside themselves with fear. I could imagine how frightened poor Bartholomew was. Jesus didn’t answer immediately. Walking up to the front of the room he stood behind the Torah, opened it to a passage, and from the prophet Isaiah and read aloud:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He anointed me to preach the message to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, to recover sight of the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord!”
Closing the book, he looked out at the stunned audience, exclaiming, “Today Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!” After regaining their wits, the elders, especially the graybeards, comprising the chief elders and Pharisees, shouted out angrily at Jesus. Many of them rent their garments (the official sign of religious protest and grief). One portly elder demanded that Jesus be taken out and stoned. Raising his trembling hands against this mob, the rabbi counseled prudence.
“Order! Order! This is a house of God!” he cried impotently.
“Stone him! Stone him!” a chorus of voices responded
Wringing his hands in despair Eli repeated his demand. Habakkuk and Ezra elbowed through the crowd toward us, making shooing motions, as if to say, “Go, get out, before they tear you to shreds!” While most of the audience was livid with rage, many of Jesus’ critics were merely puzzled by his claim. “Who is this other Jesus?” an elder muttered in dismay. “Is this not Joseph, the Carpenter’s son?” My heart was beating so loudly, I could scarcely hear what Jesus said next. Finally, as I felt James pulling me from the crowd, I heard Jesus cry out angrily, “Truly I say to you: no prophet is welcome in his home town.” After that point, words that Luke had gleaned from onlookers, would spell from Jesus lips, but his reply was drowned out in my ears by shrill screams of rage from the mob and James shouting into my ear, “Jude, wake up. We have to get out of here!”
After this point, matters moved quickly. For a few terrible moments, it appeared as though Jesus had finally gone too far. While James and I followed the fisherman out of town, I stopped a moment to assist Bartholomew. Looking back at the crowd surging out of the synagogue then, I could see the men grab Jesus and carry him toward our house. “To the cliff! To the cliff!” someone cried, and I knew exactly where they were going. In Jesus secret place on our property there was, in fact, a cliff overlooking the Plain of Esdraelon and Jerusalem road.
Leaving Bartholomew in his mule cart, I raced after the crowd. Close on my heels was James and the fishermen. Frantically, we tried breaking through this mob, but we were greatly outnumbered. More people, who hadn’t attended the meeting, among them women and younger men, joined in what looked like a lynching. Peter’s nose was bloodied by a man’s fist, and I was shoved to the ground. Mama, Simon, Abigail, and Martha stood by helplessly, after being pushed aside by friends and neighbors.
The mob might either stone Jesus, hang him, or, more likely, throw him off the cliff. As our family and the disciples followed Jesus’ antagonists, we wept and wrung our hands helplessly. Bravely, Peter attempted to wrestle Jesus from the mob. James had been slapped senseless by a portly woman and my ears rang after someone shrieked “Death to Jesus’ followers!” into my ear. Andrew, Philip, John, and his brother James had been elbowed and knocked aside as Peter was beaten again. Refusing to give up, I took a different trail through the orchard in order to circumvent the crowd. Brambles and thorns tore at my skin and clothes as I negotiated this seldom used path, until, breaking through a clearing near the ruins, in unhallowed ground, I forced my way through the bushes and tall grass until I entered the main trail. At that point, in their bloodlust, the crowd seemed unaware that I had joined their ranks. Entering the narrow path, passed Jesus’ cave, toward the clearing near the cliff, they carried him aloft. Caught in the flow of vigilantes momentarily, I managed to side step them, scrambling up an incline and pushing my way through the prickly undergrowth, reaching the far side of the clearing. I had no idea how I might stop them from throwing Jesus off the cliff. My first impulse was to throw rocks at them, which I did without compunction. Landing a stone on the head of one graybeard, then another off the shoulder of a younger man—both of whom had their hands on Jesus, I followed this effort up by scooping handfuls of gravel and pelting the crowd. Several of them broke ranks to attack me too. I couldn’t blame James, Simon, and the fishermen for not standing with me. Only I knew about the secret trail and the way of circumventing the mob.
“Dear God, save us!” I screamed, preparing myself for the worst.
“Let’s get him,” someone cried, “he’s that blasphemer’s brother!”
“Brace yourself,” a voice entered my head.
Just as the crowd raised Jesus up to throw him to his death and at the very moment they began pummeling me with fists, another miracle—this time straight from God struck the mob. A tremor, reminiscent of the occasional earthquake rumbling through Galilee shook the ground. Fearful that the cliff would crumble and take them with it, Jesus’ antagonists released him and the men hammering me with blows drew back in terror. I can scarcely explain what happened next. One moment, as diehard vigilantes regained their composure and laid hands on Jesus again, it seemed as if he would finally be tossed down from the precipice and the other men would finish me off. The next moment, after a second temblor, I saw Jesus, his face radiant with light, gliding like a phantom through his attackers, who, caught in knot of bodies, scrambled down the trail. Because the trail was too narrow to allow passage, men and women slapped and punched each other in order to save themselves. I had cowered below the six men pummeling me unable to see. Now raising my head up from the ground, after they had fled, I witnessed a transfiguration. I record this in retrospect, for this concept was alien to me then. Yet I felt a presence then: a deep, abiding warmth and peace. At the same time, a shadow fell over me. One day that shadow would stretch across the Roman Empire, but for now I recognized who it was.
His hand reached down for me to grab now. “Hold tightly, little brother,” he said, pulling me to my feet. “We’ll wait, until their gone.”
There were bruises and scrapes on me from the brambles and beating, but Jesus was unscathed. As if nothing serious had happened, he chatted with me about the wondrous panorama below the cliff.
“Behold, Jude.” He spread his arms. “One day the whole world will hear my message!”
“Jesus,” I said, tugging his sleeve, “I’m greatly impressed, and I’ll dream about this moment until I’m old and gray, but they almost killed us. Let’s get out of here. Those people still want your blood!”
Amused by his triumph over ignorance, as if what I just saw was but a trifling event, Jesus stood with me for several moments until it appeared as though the coast was clear. When we greeted our family and the disciples at the foot of the trail, there were no townsfolk in sight, but Jesus decided that moment not to put our family in any more danger. As Mama hastily prepared snacks for us on our journey, Jesus promised her all was well. The evidence on his body should have been enough to convince her he was invincible. There wasn’t so much as a scratch on him, and yet he had just been seriously manhandled and almost thrown to his death. As we loaded our extra food into Bartholomew’s cart, the old man apologized for not being much help. Later, on the road, I shared with James and him the experience I had by the cliff. It was difficult explaining just exactly what took place. It was even more difficult to explain this event to Peter and the others, and yet no one was really surprised at Jesus spectacular escape. He had changed water into wine, healed a blind girl, and raised an infant from the dead. What I experienced on the precipice felt to me like his greatest miracle, something I could scarcely understand, let along explain.