Chapter Two: Roman Province of Judea - Early First Century CE
An ill wind crept through the hushed streets of Bethany, which lay dark and deserted beneath a cold, moonless sky, while a jury of crows with fierce black eyes surveilled a house from atop the highest building in town. The scribe held his emotions in check as he watched the retiring figure of his teacher pass through the doorway one last time without so much as a glance back. Despite having learned he had been sentenced to die in the cruelest of manners by his rivals, his teacher had departed their meeting in high spirits. Unremarkable that. Because his teacher knew what his enemies knew not. And so did the scribe. But what the scribe didn’t know, nor could he possibly, because he would be long dead before the event would ever come to pass, was the secret shared by his teacher this evening would come to light one day far in the future and expose the carefully crafted lies surrounding his teacher’s actual fate.
Out of respect for his teacher, the scribe waited for the door to his room to close before letting out a cavernous yawn. His drowsiness momentarily subdued, he laid aside his quill and writing palette with a sense of release. Seated cross-legged on the tiled floor in a dim pool of light cast by an oil lamp, he stretched his arms and aching fingers before him, listening to them crack. Bleary-eyed, he gazed with wonder upon the scroll lying before him. Done transcribing the message of his teacher, a message of peace preserved for prosperity on calfskin, he acknowledged the futility of his accomplishment. Three onerous years of preaching this message by his teacher throughout Judea had brought neither him nor his community any peace.
In its stead, the message had ushered in a period of social and political unrest in danger of descending into violence. Not an unusual state of affairs. Whenever the authority of an entrenched power felt threatened, reprisal was in the offing for the source of this threat. It would be no different for his teacher.
But the scribe was not worried. The enemies of his teacher could scheme and conspire all they wanted in hopes of putting an end to the supposed source of this unrest. But their schemes, like their hopes, would be in vain. For the Lord was the best of the planners.
He gingerly turned his head left and right to relieve the painful kinks in his neck and noticed the faint glow behind the curtained window on the opposite wall had faded to black. Night had fallen. When? He couldn’t begin to guess. After many hours of transcribing, he was oblivious of time. But it must have been long ago because his limbs were heavy with fatigue and the house lay in deep silence. If not for the rhythm of his breathing, he heard no other sound in an atmosphere layered with tension.
He remembered his companions had gone to their beds earlier than usual, the teacher’s sermon on the mount having taken its physical toll on them. So would have he, but his conscience, obsessed with fulfilling his solemn duty, would not surrender to the irresistible need for sleep. And now his exhausted body ached for rest.
There will be time for slumber, he reassured himself. Not now. But soon. Very soon.
He puckered his cheeks, blew out the guttering flame in the oil lamp and crabbed over to his wool bedding. Alone is his room with only the oppressive darkness for company, he stretched out on his back, cupped his hands behind his head and stared holes in a ceiling he couldn’t see, only imagine, his mind at work. My teacher’s enemies have convened in secret and rendered their tainted verdict. Before long I, too, shall convene in secret. But it is history who shall render its impartial judgement! Hardly had he formed this intention when his inner voice whispered to him this moment was at hand.
That quickly, he rolled on to his side and pushed himself off his bedding, brimming with anticipation. The time for waiting was over. Nervous exhilaration rose in his breast and his skin tingled. Everything rested on the success of a secret meeting he had planned for tonight. Destiny was at hand. Though his cause was fraught with risk it was also freighted with reward, and the triumph of his cause would depend in significant part on his character and wits. But he also believed success was dependent on the will of his Lord.
Disoriented by the utter dark, he stood still and felt for the bedding with his bare foot and concentrated. Mindful now of his position, he picked his way to the opposite wall without kicking over the ink pot he had been using earlier and congratulated himself. He slid his hand along the smooth and cool surface of the plastered wall until it brushed against the curtain which screened the solitary window in his room. A cold draft snatched at him as he drew back a corner of the heavy fabric, a warning to him to dress warm tonight. He ignored the chilly air and surveyed the canvas of high velvet sky. The patch of the heavens he scoped from his location was thick with stars, moonless. Relief washed over him.
A good omen. My movements will be harder to detect beneath a cover of darkness, he told the night.
Gratified, he let the curtain fall, snuffing out the feeble starglow. He turned away from the window and eased his way back to his bedding to retrieve an object vital to tonight’s meeting. He concealed the bulky object beneath his garments. Careful not to disturb his companions asleep in adjacent rooms, he clothed his sandals and cloud-stepped out of the two-story home.
A shock of frigid air greeted him outside and bid his lingering drowsiness farewell. He bunched his shoulders and drew his thick woolen robes close to himself. A crow cawed a cautioning note. He glanced up. Worry lines deepened on his face.
Evil is astir this night.
Alert now but still wary, he paused in the recessed doorway that fronted the unlit street prepared for danger. I seek protection with God from the accursed devil, he prayed, a prayer he never failed to invoke whenever he departed a dwelling. For only brigands roamed the streets at this hour, desiring to ply their evil deeds under the veil of night.
Unsettled by the malevolent charge in the atmosphere, he leaned forward and cast furtive glances up and down the murky street from the safety of the doorway. Long liberated from the noisy daytime parade of beast and man and from the pall of churned-up dust that hangs heavy in the air like a depthless fog, the street appeared to be empty, his eyes attentive to the slightest of movement in the shadows.
At length satisfied with his inspection, he straightened up and inhaled deeply. The air tasted fresh, perfumed with night-time odors and scents. Then he exhaled slowly. He repeated this breathing exercise several times. Little by little, he felt his anxiety depart in plumes of frosted air.
Revitalized and his guard up, he scanned the street one last time. Still empty. He took one more sober pause and a sense of conviction stole over him. You can do it. But his nerves were telling him something else. He ignored them. There was more to life than succumbing to one’s fears. Confident no one lurked in the darkness, with his staff in hand, he steeled himself and rushed into the deserted streets of the town with only the glint of stars to light his way. He was committed now.
How different his neighborhood appeared at night. Details had vanished and colors had transmuted to shades of black as he slipped by darkened homes and shuttered shops, their owners sleeping the sleep of the overworked, unaware of the plot unfolding in their midst. He scooted along the dirt lanes like a whisper of air, forming the briefest of acquaintances with the darkest of shadows as he forged toward the clandestine meeting site with unexaggerated caution, his eyes constantly sweeping his environment for danger and his ears alert for the sound of pursuers. And despite his best efforts to be noiseless, his footfalls, muffled by sackcloth tied around each leather-shod foot, made soft thumps against the ground in the narrow passageways.
So dark and so still, he observed. Like a graveya—the anguished braying of a tormented donkey shredded the tranquility of the night, setting off a chorus of bays from watchdogs in stone-walled yards surrounding him. Startled by the sudden commotion, he froze and terror stabbed at his entrails. He tensed and glanced around. An urge to quit this place, to abandon his duty, seized him. If not for his faith and his self-discipline, he might have succumbed to fear. But there was no turning back. Too much was at stake. Instead of retreating, he darted next to a stone building and squatted, unsure if he had been seen or heard.
With nothing to do but wait, he rubbed his cold hands together, damp with anxiety, and a bead of sweat trickled down his back despite the cold.
Cursed dogs might draw a Roman foot patrol to this area. That is all I need.
Waiting was no easier for him than for anyone else, but patience, a virtue he possessed in large measure, was his ally this night. On edge, he listened while his apprehension mounted.
Households awakened. Angry shouts for quiet rang out in the dark and, but for the odd mutter, the four-legged friends of man, their guard duty loyally performed, called it a night and turned in. With quiet restored, he snuck a peek around the corner of the home. His vision by now adapted to the darkness, the vicinity seemed safe, as best he could tell, and he heard nothing. Emboldened by the silence, but still on edge, he grabbed his staff, jumped to his feet and dashed off.
Cautious, though it was the depth of night, he kept his identity shielded with the cowl of his woolen robe as he snaked his way through the winding streets. He could not be found in this neighborhood in possession of what he carried beneath his layers of clothing. His teacher’s enemies would kill him for it. Invisible and propulsive, the fear of capture drove him to fulfil his duty while there was still time.
Rounding a street corner as he raced through the town, the tramp of marching feet carried on the quiet night air drew closer to him. His heart banged against his chest wall, blood chilled in his veins.
Roman foot patrol, his ears reported. “Cursed dogs!” he hissed.
Where to hide? No place for concealment. In the gathering peril, an inspired ruse lit up his mind. Quick-thinking is the ally of the frightened. He began tapping his staff on the ground in a steady cadence and repeating in a measured voice, “Alms. Alms for the blind and the poor. Alms.”
The footsteps grew closer until they were almost upon him.
“Halt!” someone in authority ordered.
The scribe ceased begging and came to a standstill as did the foot patrol.
“Who goes there?” the one in charge challenged.
“Samir the blind beggar, centurion.” He gave the speaker a lofty title to inflame his pride.
“It is past curfew.”
“I have no reckoning of day or night, good sir.”
The lead soldier approached him and whipped off his hood. He stood still, peering without attention at his unlit surroundings. The soldier then raised his hand and made to strike him, but he did not recoil, continuing to study his environment with an unfocused gaze. He seemed to have passed some kind of test for the leader said, “Go about your business, you fool. A thief’s dagger will skewer your flesh before this night is through.”
A sharp order was spoken, and the stamp of many feet faded away into the gloaming behind him. He let out a long slow breath.
Calm restored to him, he replaced his hood and set off again. Guided only by his memory, it came as a surprise when he found himself across the street from the secret meeting place, an unremarkable one-story, stone-built home similar in construction to its neighbors, and he savored the sight of it. He stopped to catch his wind and offer up an unspoken prayer of gratitude. Done, he listened while he studied both ways before approaching his objective. The narrow street was devoid of life. He could not be seen here for its owner was a senior member of the Sanhedrin as well as a secret follower of his teacher’s way. There was no telling what the High Priest would do to the owner if his double life was discovered. The scribe advanced on the stout iron-strapped door in the thrall of anxiety and tapped out a series of knocks, a signal to the proprietor of his safe arrival.
Hurry, he willed, the tension a palpable sensation in the dark.
Nerve-wrenching moments later the door opened without a sound and beyond it stretched a black emptiness. He plunged through the entrance with the silent words “in the name of God” on his lips and was swallowed up by the dark void. The door closed silently behind him.
Solid as it was he knew the wooden planked door offered scant protection from enemies determined as those who had his teacher in their sights. Nonetheless, he breathed a heavy sigh and the burden of worry that weighed on him sprang from him like a boulder from a catapult. His success up to this point was worthy of celebration but he was not in a triumphant mood. For he was preoccupied with a far-reaching decision he had to make. A decision that would safeguard the truth about his teacher’s ultimate fate.
He swept back the cowl of his robe in a fluid hand movement and stood in silence for several heartbeats to gather himself. The warmth of the room thawed the ice in his veins and the air, laced with the elusive traces of—cinnamon? nutmeg?—delighted his nose. Temporarily blind but alert, he heard the rustle of garments and the slap of sandaled feet on the tiled floor pass by him in the dark and come to a halt several cubits away. Clicks and clacks of metal on flint made him start. Sparks flashed to his right. A wick made of sheep’s wool dipped in a clay pot filled with olive oil sputtered then flamed in its niche. Shadows, brought to life once more, swayed on the uneven stone walls. The soft, flickering light cheered him, the darkness driven to the corners of the snug room.
An expression of relief on his face, the host, clothed in a long-sleeved, ankle-length garment padded across the softly lit room towards him with arms outstretched, clasped his cold hands—his eyes widened briefly—and extended to him the traditional greeting: “Peace unto you, brother. Praise to God the Almighty who guided you safely to me.”
Squeezing his host’s warm hands, “Unto you peace, as well, brother,” the scribe replied in kind, his lips parting in a shy smile. “Thanks to the Almighty for His protection,” he added.
“There is a dreadful chill in the air this night,” the host said, making polite conversation.
“In more ways than one,” the esteemed visitor replied, and the host seemed to wonder at his remark.
A sella was offered him. Thanking his host, the scribe raked his fingers through his shoulder-length, dark, curly hair and, with care, lowered his sturdy frame to the seat, unsure of its ability to support his weight. Seated, and his eyes by now adapted to the weak light, he inspected the spartan room, taking in the sparse furnishings and bare stone walls. A man of immense wealth and yet he lives modestly. He nodded his approval. Good. For this humble abode might one day be taken from him, if he accepts my plea for help. Loss is the essence of sacrifice. But the reward for sacrifice is greater than the loss, if not in this life, then surely in the next.
They sat opposite one another, their faces half-hidden in shadow. Finished wandering, his eyes came to rest on his host, who sat expectantly on his sella, palming his knees. Curly salt-and-pepper hair crowned his head and from beneath silvery, caterpillar-like brows, a pair of keen black eyes peered back at him, likely wondering why this hasty meeting had been called.
He held the other’s gaze in the faint light. “I feared my secret message might not have reached you earlier today.”
“And I was worried you would not make it here. But God did not forsake us,” the host replied.
Without warning, the scribe shot forward and spoke with urgency, “Brother, the die is cast. The life of our dear teacher is at stake!” He couldn’t help but notice the visible effect of his words on his companion.
The host went rigid on his sella, firm resolution on his face. “God willing, I shall do everything in my power to save him from his fate, O scribe of the M’sheekha,” no false courage in his tone.
The scribe sat back in silence and smiled his pleasure at the host’s brave and spontaneous response. It will require more than your resolve, Most Beloved, to save our teacher’s life. Much more than you could imagine. And you will soon discover just how much.