His heart racing, he turned from the broad alley into a narrower one, glancing behind every few paces to assure he was not being followed as he raced ahead. He pulled his robe tighter around him, though the air was still and the night not chilly. Thankful that there weren’t many about to take note of him due to the curfew in this sector, it would be catastrophic if he was caught. Not far now, he assured himself, his breath coming quickly. He need only get inside the house, and he would be safe.
As he approached the house, he observed the outer perimeter was peaceful, the lamps turned down for the night. It would not have been so if there were soldiers about, seeking him. Still, he ducked around the side of the house to the veranda and with dexterity vaulted over the waist high stone wall, landing silently.
Once inside, he breathed in the quiet stillness as he moved stealthily up the back stairs to his room. Quickly shedding his robe and tunic, he splashed his face at the wash basin and pulled on his night shirt. Only when he sat on his bed, now out of danger, could he take a deep breath.
He sat for some time, convinced there would come the boisterous noise of soldiers in the courtyard, waking his mother and his uncle from sleep, demanding his arrest. When it didn’t come, he decided to turn in, even knowing he would hardly sleep.
The door to his room burst open, letting him know he must have dozed off and he bolted upright, rubbing his eyes to bring them into focus.
“Were you there!” The booming voice of his brother filled the space between them.
“What?” He played ignorant as he gratefully observed that his brother seemed to be alone. “Was I where, Julius?”
“Don’t be coy, Antonio.”
“Perhaps if you would enlighten me, I would not appear so.”
“Your friend, Barabbas was arrested just a few moments ago.”
“Oh? What has that to do with me?” He wished his stomach would stop clenching.
“This is serious, brother.” Julius’ voice levelled. “Not only was he caught inciting an insurrection, but he also killed a man.”
“What? Are you certain?” Antonio, fully focused now, stared at his brother in disbelief.
“I know you favor his cause and that you’ve been seen in the taverns with him. Tell me you know naught of this and that you weren’t part of it.”
Even knowing that lying to a high-ranking Roman soldier such as his brother, was a grave offense, nearly as grievous as inciting revolt, and treason against the emperor, it came easily to him. “I was not part of any insurrection, much less party to murder.”
“You’ve been home all evening, then?”
There is no lie so convincing as the one that contains an element of truth. “No. I was out in the taverns this evening. I saw Barabbas but was not with him during any violence.”
Julius nodded, shifting his helmet from one hand to the other. “Good. There were witnesses that saw you with him.”
He could hardly hide his relief at having dodged the sword on that one. Keeping his voice calm, he asked. “Is it certain? The murder, I mean. Barabbas desires the freedom of our people as much as any, but I hardly think him capable of taking a man’s life without cause.”
His brother eyed him closely. “He killed an unarmed man who got in the way of the rioters.”
Antonio frowned. He wanted freedom for his brethren from the Roman yoke and was willing to fight to obtain it, if necessary, but he had thought Barabbas’ plan foolhardy and when the violence began had left the fray.
“You’d best be careful, brother.” His brother advised, turning toward the door. “A rabble of weak-minded zealots is no match for the Roman army.”
“We must be free, Julius.”
“Don’t count me as one of you.” He declared. “I choose to embrace the strength of our Roman heritage, not the fragile thread of a conquered class of feeble merchants.”
“Yet you were willing enough to allow our uncle to purchase your commission with profits from such trade.”
“It was only his duty as guardian, since our father’s death prevented his doing so.”
Antonio knew better than to antagonize him. It would serve no good purpose.
“Be mindful, Antonio. These are troublesome times. It would be best not to get involved with these rabble rousers. It can come to naught but danger for you and heartache for our mother.”
News of the insurrection, murder and subsequent arrest had spread throughout the city and even reached the ears of his mother, probably through one of the servants. Her care and concern for the younger of her two sons urging him to remain at home today while unrest in the city subsided.
Antonio had tried to heed her advice, but it wasn’t in his nature to stay indoors, particularly when there were goings on in the public square.
It hadn’t always been so. Neither he nor Julius had been born here. His mother, a beautiful, intelligent young woman had attracted the attention of a prominent Roman merchant who had succeeded in winning her favor. They married and she traveled with him back to Rome, where both her children had been born.
A man with no particular faith, he had turned a blind eye to his wife’s beliefs and allowed her to share what she knew of the Hebrew religion with her sons. Julius, a robust and athletic boy paid little attention to what he deemed fairy stories, much like the multitude surrounding the gods favored by the Roman population. His interest was quickly taken by military endeavors, much to the delight of his father who encouraged him. Conversely, Antonio, a sober, sensitive, and studious child, and the favorite of his mother, seemed content with learning and considered a career as a lawyer.
When their father had contracted some malady and died prematurely, his wife, not a favorite of the Roman court, had appealed to her wealthy brother and returned with her children to Jerusalem. The Romans had already occupied the city and Julius’ uncle Mathias, eager to ingratiate himself with the authorities there, quickly purchased a commission for his nephew. The favor only increased as Julius’ talent for military life saw him rise quickly through the ranks.
Antonio, his legal learning, and sensibilities quickened by the plight of his countrymen, had a penchant for aligning himself with all manner of instigators and revolutionists. However, he was unable to bring himself to any real violence. Barabbas wasn’t the first to label him a coward.
He quickly bored of the idle chatter in the markets, what little there was of it. Anyone who was talking at all had been badly misinformed about what had transpired, at least up until his departure, but he couldn’t set them straight without revealing his own involvement which he could not do without repercussions.
About to turn into a tavern, he was stopped by a voice only vaguely familiar.
He turned to see the source and recognized an old compatriot and breathed a sigh that it wasn’t one from last night’s gathering. “Simon! How are you, my friend?”
“Well, very well.” His smile beamed as he approached, as full of zeal and vigor as ever.
“I haven’t seen you around lately.” Antonio observed. “Lost your appetite for change?”
“Not exactly.” He replied. “We’ve found the Messiah, the deliverer of Israel.”
Brows arched; he couldn’t hide his curiosity. “Oh? I wonder that I haven’t heard of this savior before. What’s his name?”
“Jesus of Nazareth.” Simon declared confidently.
His expression turned indifferent. “Oh. You’re still a follower of that rabbi? I’ve heard him teaching in the synagogues. He hardly seems like one who will free our people from their servitude.”
“And yet, He speaks of a kingdom as in the days of David.”
“Has He a plan for establishing such a kingdom then?”
Simon nodded. “Yes, and his crowds grow daily.”
Antonio pondered. He had heard this Jesus teach but had always thought him too passive. There didn’t seem to be the fire of a revolutionary in his teaching or his manner. He also knew that the priests did not believe in him. What could he possibly do? “Is he amassing an army then?”
“He has not declared this openly but how else would He reestablish the kingdom of our father, David?”
“Hmm.” Antonio replied pondering.
“Simon!” Came a shout from down the way. “We must get back.”
“You should come and hear Him speak, Antonio.” His friend urged as he turned to go.
He considered it but did not have the opportunity. By evening, the entire city was buzzing about his arrest by the Romans.
In the morning, early enough that his uncle hadn’t departed for the marketplace yet and they were still at breakfast, there came a commotion and Julius entered hastily.
“What brings you here at this time of day, nephew?” Mathias asked, popping a slice of fruit into his mouth.
“I came to warn you to stay inside and out of the streets today.” He replied.
“Sit, son, have some breakfast.” His mother offered.
“I’ve no time.” He took a deep breath. “There’s to be a crucifixion today and unrest expected to erupt.”
Antonio frowned. “Barabbas? With no trial?”
“No. Not Barabbas. The leaders requested his release.”
They had been close as boys and though time had brought a separation in their ideologies, Antonio could still read his brother’s countenance when he was overtired or bothered by something. He could see that look now and wondered at it. “Who, then?”
“The man called Jesus the Nazarene.”
“The rabbi?” His mother stopped her raised cup mid-air. “What could he possibly have done to merit a punishment so severe? All I’ve heard of him is that wonders follow him wherever he goes.”
“He’s a blasphemer and a deceiver.” Mathias declared firmly.
“What makes you say so, Uncle?” Julius probed.
“None of the Pharisees or the priests follow him.”
“It was the leaders that stirred the crowds against him.” His nephew observed. “It is said that Pilate could find no fault and wished to release him, but they asked for Barrabbas instead and demanded the teacher’s death.” Julius’ face was grim. “His execution is this afternoon.”
“Sit, son, and take some refreshment. You seem distressed.” His mother urged.
With a shake of his head, Julius declined. “I must go. But you should stay indoors until it’s over.”
Antonio watched his brother’s departure and his mind pondered. Something had his brother on edge. He couldn’t help wondering what that might be, as he knew Julius not one to be easily troubled.
“Well,” Mathias announced decisively as he rose from his place. “I’ve business to conduct.”
“You can’t be serious.” His sister said.
“Of course, I must go. I suspect that the foolhardy rabble that flocked to him will see their folly and stay away. I suspect with their leader disgraced, things in the city will return to normal. I expect the Roman army will see to it.”
With Barrabbas having narrowly escaped punishment, he would likely depart Jerusalem or at least stay out of sight. Antonio wondered. Did that mean that all hope was lost for Israel?
Antonio had stood the household well beyond his usual endurance. He had heeded his brother’s admonition to remain indoors and the next day had been the Sabbath, when no good Jews ventured into the marketplace. Nearly desperate for information, since his brother had not returned with any, he decided to venture out to one of the taverns where he knew he could find some.
Inside, he searched the room for Barabbas but didn’t see him, much as he had suspected. In a corner, someone he knew sat drinking alone. Casually, he sauntered over.
The man looked up at him indifferently.
Antonio sat across from and motioned to the server. “What news, friend?”
“Have you been under a rock somewhere that you know not of all that’s happened this day?” He growled.
“Only the little my brother shared. Can you enlighten me further?”
“There was an insurrection two nights ago. The leader, Barabbas, killed someone, according to witnesses. He was arrested. Everyone expected he would be crucified, along with two others who were awaiting execution.”
“I heard. So, what happened?”
“Rumor says that one of the followers of the man Jesus delivered him to the hands of the priests who accused him of blasphemy.”
“Rumors?” Antonio probed, sitting forward as the server put a mug on the table in front of him and he paid her. When she’d walked away, he urged. “What rumors?”
The man shrugged. “You know how the idle tongues wag. It’s said Judas Iscariot led the soldiers to a grove where he was gathered with his close followers. They arrested him there.”
“A mock trial ensued.”
“What do you mean, mock trial?”
“No witnesses came forth to accuse him. He made no defense.”
“No defense? On trial for his life?”
He shrugged again. “Pilate could find no guilt in him. It’s said he sought to free him. Then, to satisfy the priests, had him flogged.”
Antonio knew the severity of such a punishment. It was nearly enough to take a man’s life by itself.
“Still, they were not satisfied. Pilate offered to release him, according to the custom but they demanded Barabbas instead and called for the crucifixion of the teacher.”
“Do you have any idea why they were so set on seeing him executed? And in such a brutal manner?”
“No.” He answered, draining his drink. “I heard the man speak. His words were no inducement to riot against Rome. There was no treason in his teaching.”
Antonio took a draught of his own. It made no sense. “So, what then?”
The man rose. “I have no idea and I suppose it matters little. The man is dead.”
It occurred to him that he’d sought information but all he had now were more questions. What could this Jesus have done to rouse the wrath of the elders of Israel to such lengths? It made no sense. When he’d finished his drink and there were no others of his acquaintance among the patrons, he decided it would be best to just return home much to his disappointment.
Knowing his mother and uncle did not approve of his venturing into the taverns, he thought it best once again to avoid the front entrance and slip in unnoticed. As he started around the side of the house, he was caught from behind, a hand clasped over his mouth. Struggle proved useless; his assailant was much stronger.
“Antonio,” came a hiss beside his ear. “Do not cry out and I’ll release you.”
With a vigorous nod, he agreed. He spun around when freed, ready to defend himself and frowned. “Julius! What…?”
“Shh.” His brother replied, raising a finger to his lips.
Noticing his brother was out of uniform and casually dressed, he asked. “Why accost me in the dark? Why didn’t you come into the house? And why are you out of uniform?”
“We’ve been given a few days respite.”
Unusual to say the least, as was the troublesome expression on his face. “What? That’s…”
“I do not wish our uncle to know of this.” He took a deep breath. “I need you to do something for me.”
Stranger by the moment. “Julius, what is going on? Are you in trouble?”
“No. But I seek information and don’t have the contacts I need to obtain it.” He took another breath. “But you do.”
Alarmed now, Antonio stared. “What are you talking about? Does this concern Barabbas?”
“No. A conspiracy of a different kind.”
“I don’t think I can help you.” Antonio replied, turning away.
Julius grabbed his arm firmly. “There will be no danger for you with the authorities. This is a personal matter.”
Stunned, his brother stood gaping. He knew his brother to be of the utmost loyalty to the Roman government and his own military service. “Julius, what is going on?”
Breathing a heavy sigh, the stalwart soldier appeared weary. “I was on the detail that arrested Jesus of Nazareth.”
“There are strange forces…” He shook his head. “I was not at the trial but was sent with another detachmento guard the tomb.”
“Guard the tomb? That’s ludicrous.”
“I thought so too. But the elders insisted, and Pilate complied.” Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Something… I cannot explain it… but we were paid the next day to testify that his disciples had come and stolen the body.”
“What! How could that have happened with a contingent of soldiers guarding the tomb? How could they move the stone? And why would they?”
Shaking his head, he replied. “The priests say he claimed he would rise from the dead after three days.”
“Of course. But the tomb is empty, and no one is quite sure how, except that we’ve been paid to say his body was stolen.”
“What is it you want me to do?”
“You have contacts… among those who might know. If they’ve stolen the body. If they are hiding him somewhere, I want to know.”
Antonio frowned. “What do you think? If they had stolen the body, why would they hide it somewhere?”
“Because there are reports circulating that he is alive.”
“How could that be?”
“I don’t know. His intimate followers are hiding and others who knew him say he is risen.”
“Risen? From the dead?”
“Yes.” Julius looked pale. “I want you to find out.”
Now his expression turned cynical. “Are you really asking me that? I know the nature of some of your associations. Certainly, if there is information to be had, you can obtain it.”
“Why do you want to know? What matter is it to you?”
“I can’t tell you that now.” He shook his head absently. “But find out what you can. I’ll make it worth your while.”
Antonio watched as his brother pulled a pouch from his cloak and rattled the coins inside. What was there to lose in inquiring about a dead man? And apparently, there was much to gain. “All right. I’ll see what information there is to be had.”
“Good. I’ll be in touch.”
He watched as his brother turned and strode into the street, pulling his cloak over his head. Strange forces indeed.
Since his decision to join with anyone who had a plan to throw off Roman rule, and once he’d earned the trust of those committed to that cause, Antonio had developed contacts that provided him any information he needed. That information had been impossible to find since the teacher’s execution.
For the past several days, the report of Judas’ Iscariot’s death had circulated, along with rumors that he may have been killed to cover up the plot for insurrection being formulated by his followers. No one seemed to know where they were or what form that plot would take.
In one of the taverns he knew as a gathering place for those involved in any number of nefarious undertakings, including insurrection, Antonio sat at a table alone. Out of options now, he drained his mug and rose to make his exit.
A man walked in, wobbling as if already having partaken of a good share of drink.
Antonio recognized him but couldn’t place from where. It might be worth inquiring, he thought. Getting the man’s attention, he offered. “Buy you a drink, friend?”
Squinting at him, the man seemed to search for recognition but finding none, just shrugged resignedly,
Lifting his hand in signal to the barkeep, he returned to his seat, followed by the newcomer.
“Do I know you?” He slurred, head bobbing slightly.
“You look as if you could use a friend.” He dodged, not knowing how to answer.
“Mm.” Anxiously, he grabbed the mug as the server set it before him.
“Is something on your mind, friend?” Antonio probed.
The man looked at him derisively. “Are you new to Jerusalem, sir? Is it possible you have not heard of what’s happened?”
“Perhaps you’d like to enlighten me. Were you a follower of the man Jesus of Nazareth?”
He nodded, his face paling. “I wasn’t one of the twelve, mind you.”
Jackpot, Antonio thrilled. “The twelve?”
“His hand-picked, closest associates.”
“I was with John, during his ministry.”
“John — the Baptizer?”
“Yes. He never claimed to be anyone of significance, only to call men to repentance and to prepare the way for the hope of Israel.”
Grabbing his mug tightly, Antonio sat forward. “And?”
“When Jesus came to be baptized by John, he proclaimed him to be the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.”
Puzzled, he frowned. What did that even mean?
“At that time, many of John’s followers left him and began to follow the Nazarene.” His eyes never lifted from his mug, and he took a drink. “I was one of them.”
“So, what happened?”
“I saw many signs and heard wondrous words. Things that stir man’s heart.” Shaking his head, his face took on a strange expression. “Then came the day…”
“No.” He spat the word. “The hard teaching, such as no man could embrace.”
“Of course not. The teaching that his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood.”
“What?!” Antonio’s stomach clenched. What kind of strange doctrine was that? Particularly among Jews?
“Many left that day, I among them. But his close companions stayed.”
“Is that why the leaders had him arrested?”
“I don’t know, but I think not.”
“As far as I know, he never tried anything like that.”
“Have his followers taken the body? For some such barbarism? Or as it’s been circulated that they did, to put forth the idea that he rose as it’s claimed he said he would.”
“I don’t know.” The man admitted. “No one has seen any sign of them since his execution.”
“What do you think?”
“I don’t know what to think.” He shook his head. “Why do you want to know?”
The half-truth came easily. “I want to know the truth. If this man was the hope of Israel, as the Baptizer claimed…”
“You should speak to Cephas, or one of the Sons of Thunder.”
“His inner circle. Simon Bar-Jonah, James or John.”
“They seem to have vanished.”
“There is one other.”
“And that is…?”
“A woman. One called Mary Magdalene.”
“A woman? What could a woman…?”
His countenance turned sober. “It is said Jesus cast 7 demons out of her. He raised her brother from death.”
“You know this to be true?”
“The raising of Lazarus, yes.”
“Where can I find this woman — or her brother?”
“They reside in Bethany.”
With a firm nod, Antonio rose. Placing some coins on the table, he said. “Have another on me, my friend. You’ve been a great help.”
The man stared and watched, dumbstruck as his companion strode off into the street.
It was only two miles from Jerusalem to Bethany. Antonio had set out on foot mid-morning before the day’s heat became too oppressive. He had decided not to ride, so as not to invite beggars or thieves to accost him on his way.
He knew nothing of this woman he realized; whether she was married, had children or what his unexpected arrival might mean. It became clear that she was a woman of means as he approached a well-kept domicile on the outside of the city.
Much to his liking, he saw a woman outside as he drew near. He called, in his most solicitous tone. “Greetings.”
She turned, her smile patient. “My brother is not at home. He’s conducting some business in the city and isn’t expected until evening.”
“Unfortunate, indeed.” He replied. “But I’ve not come to see your brother.”
“Oh? Then what is it you seek?”
“I was told I might find one here called Mary Magdalene. Is that you?”
Her eyes narrowed. “No. That is my sister who is also away. Why do you seek her?”
“It is said she has knowledge of the teacher.”
“The teacher. You mean Jesus?”
“Yes. Is he here?”
She straightened, her expression wary. “What did you say your name was, sir?”
“Roman.” An invisible wall seemed to go up.
“Half. My father was Roman, my mother a Jew. My uncle, Mathias, is a merchant in Jerusalem. He is of good reputation there.”
She nodded, relaxing some. “Yes, I think my brother has had business with him. Why would you seek the teacher here?”
A voice, sweet and melodious came from behind him. “Sister, why have you made our guest stand out here in the heat? It’s clear he’s traveled some distance. We should offer him some refreshment at least.”
“I hadn’t determined his purpose for being here, Mary.”
Mary Magdalene wasn’t a young woman but clearly one who’d been a beauty when she was; even now, she remained handsome with a sweetness to her countenance that matched that of her voice. She started for the house. “Come in, friend. If you seek peace.”
“I seek truth.” He admitted.
“Truth?” She asked as she stopped and turned toward him.
“I wish to know of Jesus.”
“Come then. We’ll have some refreshment and talk.”
“Make our guest comfortable, Mary.” Her sister directed. “I’ll bring some food in a moment.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, Martha.” She replied with a gentle smile. “I can see to our guest.”
Martha put a hand on her arm and smiled. “It’s no trouble, sister. Truly.”
A look Antonio could not read passed between them.
“Very well.” Mary agreed and turned toward him again. “Come, friend.”
They were quickly washed and were greeted with food as they sat down.
“Tell me then, what truth is it you seek?” Mary inquired as they broke bread.
“I wish to know the truth of Jesus the Nazarene.”
“Why have you come here seeking answers?”
“There are rumors…”
She set her hands on the table and fixed her eyes steadfastly on him. “What sort of rumors?”
Fidgeting in his place, Antonio hesitated. “Well…”
Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly. “Then let me put them to rest. When I encountered Jesus, I had lost control of my faculties. There were times I had no idea where I had been or what I had been about. I would simply come to my right mind someplace, not knowing how I had come to be there. It brought much heartache and burden to my brother and to my sister. But when I met Jesus, he spoke to the spirits that had taken me over and cast them out.”
“Spirits?” Antonio had heard of such things but wasn’t entirely sure he believed them.
“Yes. From that day to this, I’ve been a follower of Jesus. Nothing more.”
He frowned, uncertain why she’d felt compelled to share that with him. “Very well. But as I said, there are rumors. Is he here, or has he been here?”
“Jesus was a good friend. Yes, he’s been here.”
Sitting forward, he urged. “When? Where did he go?”
“Why do you seek him? What is it you’re looking for?”
“It is said that he promised deliverance to Israel. This is something I’m very interested in.”
“Ah.” She nodded knowingly. “Do you wish to become a disciple then?”
“Yes, yes!” He assured. “Where can I find him and his followers? I wish to be a part of whatever it is they are planning.”
“I cannot tell you how to find him. But if you seek him, he will find you.”
“How? Where do I seek him?”
Mary shook her head. “That is for you to discover.”
As he made the journey home, he realized he hadn’t thought to ask her about how Jesus had faked his death and how his followers had managed to sneak a body past the Roman detail guarding the tomb. He must have managed it somehow, right? For Jesus to find him, he must be alive.
He also knew how to make it known that he was seeking an audience with him. With his contacts among the rebels and insurrectionists, and his reputation as one who could be trusted by them, he need only put the word out and someone would contact him.
Upon his arrival at their home, he washed up and was about to inform his mother of his return when he heard voices lowered to conspiratorial tones in the garden. Before his presence became visible, he ducked to the side and listened.
“She’s worried.” A woman said in hushed tones. “If word gets out…”
“I don’t understand.” His mother replied. “Wasn’t this Jesus executed by the Romans? How would one become a follower of a dead man? And why? It makes no sense.”
“Hannah says he went to see the man secretly, before he was arrested. As a teacher of Israel, he has been under the tutelage of respected rabbis. He says this Jesus is the Messiah.”
“But the Messiah is to restore the kingdom of David. How can he do that if he’s dead?”
“Apparently, Nicodemus claims to have seen him… since his execution.”
“What?! How can that be? Has Nicodemus lost his mind?” His mother sounded skeptical.
“I couldn’t say. I only know that Hannah fears they’ll be banned from the synagogue. It would ruin them.” The visitor clucked her tongue. “Everyone hoped things would settle down once he was dead. I’ve heard many still fear some repercussions from the Romans.”
“I hope they’re wrong.”
Antonio knew now where to go next. He knew this man Nicodemus had a reputation for wisdom, integrity, and knowledge of the Jewish law. If he had seen Jesus, he would surely know where to find him.
Without bothering his mother, he immediately turned and left the house. Familiar with the sector where Nicodemus lived, he hoped he might find the man at home.
The house sat back from the thoroughfare, surrounded by a wall and with lush foliage in front. It was well-kept and clearly the dwelling of an affluent man, as was fitting for a teacher of Israel. There didn’t appear to be anyone about so Antonio strode directly for the front door and knocked.
An elegant but simply dressed woman answered and looking him over, appeared to settle some question in her mind before she asked. “Yes?”
Unable to determine whether she was the woman of the house or a well-dressed servant, he tipped his head slightly. “I’ve come to speak with Nicodemus. Is he at home?”
“What do you wish of him?” She inquired.
“I have some questions about the law and would like to speak with a respected teacher.”
“Why not go to the Sanhedrin?” She wondered aloud.
“My status and inquiry are not of sufficient notice to warrant such an audience. I know Nicodemus to be knowledgeable, wise, and kind. Is it possible to speak with him? Is he at home?”
“He is.” She admitted calmly. “Let me see if he will grant an audience to one he does not know. You are?”
“My name is Antonio; nephew to Matthias, the merchant.”
She nodded with recognition and opened the door to indicate he should enter. “Wait here.”
Antonio watched as she disappeared into another room.
She returned so quickly, he expected to be denied. Instead, she motioned with her head. “He will see you now. Right this way.”
Nicodemus sat behind a desk piled with scrolls, some open and some stacked atop one another. He must have been of some age, considering his reputation, but hardly out of his prime. Clearly involved in study, he stroked his neatly kept beard before disengaging his thoughts and looking up at his visitor.
Antonio stood before him, hands folded in front and dipped his head in respectful greeting.
“Sit, please.” Nicodemus indicated a chair to one side of where the younger man stood as the woman stepped out and closed the door. “What is it you seek, Antonio?”
“I wish to learn of the Messiah.”
“Have you not been taught from the ancient writings?”
He shook his head in reply. “No. My father was Roman. We lived in Italy until his death. My mother only taught us what little she knew. By the time we arrived in Jerusalem, we were not of an age to attend the Hebrew schools.”
Comfortable to continue, he asked. “Is it not prophesied that the Messiah will establish forever the throne of our father David? Will he not then throw off any oppressive opposition?”
“Do you come for your own instruction or at the behest of your brother?”
The question surprised him. “How do you know…?”
“Your uncle is a well-respected merchant in the city. Do you not think a teacher of Israel would know his nephew had joined the Roman army?”
Antonio shook his head.
“I’m informed of the speculation that I am a follower of Jesus of Nazareth and that the Romans fear an insurrection because of the injustice of his execution.”
Suddenly, Antonio realized something. He desired this knowledge now as much for himself as he did for his brother. If there was to be an insurrection, he wished to be part of it. What he shared with Julius would depend on what he learned. As he looked at the kind but shrewd man before him, he realized it would be in his best interest to be truthful. “My brother was part of the detail that arrested Jesus and of those sent to guard the tomb. He claims to have seen strange things.”
Sitting back in his chair, Nicodemus stroked his beard. “What things?”
“He would not say.” Antonio took a breath and met his gaze directly. “But my brother is not one for fables nor for fear. Yet I’ve never seen him so shaken.”
“What is it you wish to know then?”
“I heard that you’ve seen Jesus, since the crucifixion. Is that accurate?”
“Many have seen him.”
“He’s alive then? How is that possible? Did he somehow fake his own death, his followers get a body past the soldiers?”
“Not long before his death, I visited Jesus in secret. I had heard his teachings and knew he was from God. He said something that I didn’t understand.” Nicodemus stared into the past. “He said unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven.”
“What does that mean? How can a man be born a second time?”
The older man smiled. “I asked the same question.”
“And what was his response?”
“That a man must be born from above to enter the kingdom of God.”
“I don’t understand.” Antonio frowned.
“Neither did I at first. I do now.”
“The kingdom of God is not an earthly domain. It is a place where God himself has dominion.”
“And where is that, if not on earth?”
“It’s not something you can grasp with your intellect alone. It must be grasped with the heart.”
“But, if there is no threat to the Romans, why are his disciples hiding? How is it he’s been seen, that he’s the Messiah, if he doesn’t intend to establish the kingdom of Israel? And why the rumors that he’s been raised from the dead?”
“Because he has.” Nicodemus assured.
“I don’t understand.”
Shaking his head, he replied. “You must examine your heart, Antonio. Discover what it is you seek, and you will find your answers.”
It felt like every other time he had joined a clandestine, insurrectionist band. He hoped that like those times before, he had earned the trust of those in charge and would now be admitted into their plan as he made his way through the alleys to the outskirts of the city, cloaked, hooded and mindful of anyone who might be watching or following but there didn’t appear to be anyone.
The message he’d received was cryptic. Come to the grove of olives. Wait until dark. Come alone. Make sure you are not followed.
Barely enough light to see in front of him, Antonio stepped into the grove. He hoped this wasn’t a trap because of his involvement with Barabbas’ band, or more likely the inquiries, as subtle as he’d endeavored to be, concerning Jesus of Nazareth. The fervor surrounding his execution and the subsequent rumors still buzzed.
A figure stepped out of the shadows, also hooded, and cloaked. Even with ample covering, it was clear that he was a strong man, likely a laborer of some kind, and taller than his counterpart. “I’m told you’ve inquired about Jesus. What is it you desire of him?”
“I’ve heard he is alive. I want to see him.”
“He is alive. That is true but why do you seek him?”
“I want to be part of whatever he and his followers are planning.”
“Why is it you think they might be planning something?”
“Some of his followers claim he is the Messiah. Is Messiah not to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
“He will sit on David’s throne; yes.”
“So, he will overthrow the oppression of Rome.”
“Jesus never promised an earthly kingdom. He came to seek and to save that which was lost. Have you never read, in the scriptures, that God never wished for an earthly kingdom for his people? He gave them a king because they demanded one. It was not his desire for them.”
“I was not raised with much teaching of the Jewish law; I am only half Jewish.”
“Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly. He is the lamb of God come to take away the sin of the world.”
“What does that mean? Life more abundantly?”
“God loved the world so much, that he sent his only son, born of a woman. Whoever receives his son, receives him which is eternal life.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Jesus is the only son of the father whom we Jews call God. He is life and that life is the light of men. Though he came to his own, they did not recognize him. They loved the darkness and their traditions that make the word of no effect. He is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father but by him.”
“Then he did not come to throw off the Roman oppressors or to set up an earthly kingdom.”
“His kingdom is within those who believe. In the hearts of men.” The stranger paused. “So, I would ask you again: what is it you seek of Jesus?”
“I wish to know the truth and to escape the tyranny of Rome.”
“Then fear not. Only believe.”
“Have faith in God.”
“You shall know the truth and the true will make you free.” He turned and started back for the shadows.
“Wait. Who are you, friend?” Antonio asked.
“I am the disciple whom Jesus loved.” His tone seemed lighter; joyful.
“Can I see him? “
“Seek and you shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you. Ask and you shall receive.”
And just like that, he was gone; leaving Antonio to stare into the darkness, wondering what he would tell Julius now.
For several days since his meeting in the grove, Antonio had continued thinking on what he’d heard and trying to make sense of it.
Unless a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven. Jesus is the only begotten son of God, the father; God sent him because he loved the world so much. Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. If you believe in Him, you will have eternal life because he came to give us life and life more abundantly. He came to seek and to save that which was lost. The kingdom of God, where God has dominion, is in the hearts of men. Search your heart, Antonio, discover what you truly seek and receive the answer. If you seek him, he will find you.
There was nothing in any of it that would be likely to satisfy Julius’ inquiry, but then he realized, he wasn’t completely clear what that inquiry was.
All his brother had said was that there were rumors that a revolt was coming and that he’d seen strange things surrounding the arrest and subsequent execution. Would he be satisfied with assurances that no revolt was at hand? Would he accept it based on the words of some who weren’t even Jesus’ intimate followers? Especially when they claimed to have seen him since the crucifixion — something impossible to survive?
Maybe, he reasoned, they had gone into some distant land to live in peace and obscurity. Could that be why no one had seen the men who’d followed him so closely? That would certainly discredit any suggestion of an imminent uprising; but then, the Romans might reason that they had retreated to regroup.
With no clue as to what he would tell his brother, he’d been staying out of sight, hoping to delay the inevitable but knew it was silly. If Julius wanted to see him, he would just come to the house. Still, he looked over his shoulder and kept eyes scanning peripherally every time he ventured out, dreading its arrival.
After some days, he had grown weary of staying out of sight and ventured out to one of the taverns he frequented. When nothing was said about the Nazarene, he hoped that perhaps the fervor had subsided. He relaxed, reasoning that perhaps Julius had settled whatever had troubled him and moved on.
On his way home, he strolled casually, no longer watching for his brother or some emissary. He jumped when a hand clasped his shoulder from behind and wheeled about.
“Pardon me, sir.” The young man said. He wore the garb of a soldier’s servant.
Antonio frowned. “What do you want?”
“It’s your brother. He wishes to meet with you.”
The young man extended his hand which held a small scroll. “The message and instructions are here. I was only commissioned to find you and put it in your hand.”
Reaching for it, he held it a moment before looking at Julius’ messenger.
“I’ve fulfilled my duty, sir.” He dipped his head, turned abruptly, and disappeared into the night.
It surprised him when he opened the scroll and read the instructions. He frowned with consternation. What was this? How was it that Julius wished to meet in a tavern not typically filled with Roman soldiers? Why had he not chosen to meet outside the house as he so often did when he wished to speak with his brother in private?
Filled with foreboding, Antonio made his way along the thoroughfare to the off-the-beaten-path location his brother had indicated. He was further troubled by the seedy appearance of both the establishment and the clientele. Was this some sort of test or a trap? Had it been someone else who’d asked for the assignation and not his brother?
No Roman uniform drew his attention as he entered. Turning to retreat, he caught sight of a hulk of a man in a corner, looking the worse for ale. It took a moment to focus and recognize him as his brother. This was stranger still. What was his brother doing still out of uniform? Long before he’d joined the army, he had disciplined himself to avoid strong drink in excess. More disturbed with every step, he approached the table. Keeping his voice down, he greeted. “Julius.”
Sloppily, his brother lifted his head to peer at him and waved a hand for him to sit.
“What has happened?” Antonio asked. “Why are you still out of uniform and drinking heavily in a seedy tavern?”
“Tell me what you know.” Julius demanded.
“Not until you explain yourself. This isn’t like you.”
With a grudging nod, he replied. “The detail that guarded the tomb has been granted an extension to the ‘respite’.”
“An extension?” Antonio didn’t know much about the workings of the army, but he did know that respite was usually granted to those who’d served extended time at the frontlines of intense warfare. “Why?”
Looking into his eyes, a bit more sober now, he answered. “Some of the detail are… they don’t want to… They can’t…”
“What?” Disturbed, Antonio leaned forward anxiously.
Julian, clearly troubled, shook his head. Draining his mug, he motioned to the bartender to bring another round. When the drinks arrived, he looked at his brother in that ‘I’m older and stronger, you dare not defy me’ way he’d done since they were kids. “Tell me what you’ve learned.”
Attempting to form the beginning of what he’d heard, he had an idea. “First, tell me what you saw. It’s obvious it’s troubling you. Perhaps what I’ve learned will explain it and help you to settle it.”
Scowling, Julius attempted to stare him down.
For the first time he could remember, Antonio refused to yield.
To his astonishment, Julius caved, and quickly. His expression resigned and weary, he nodded, staring into his mug. “We all thought the whole thing stupid. How could one man, with a few untrained others, stand up against a detachment of Roman soldiers? His betrayer assured us they would be no trouble.’
His brother didn’t bother to respond. It didn’t seem to matter.
“But when we got to the garden, Judas greeted him with a kiss.” Julius shook his head. “Can you imagine? Betraying a friend with an affectionate greeting?”
Antonio could not. He shook his head in acknowledgement, but his brother wasn’t even looking at him.
“This Jesus, this teacher stepped forward and asked who we sought. We told him. He said, ‘I am he’ and power or something, knocked us all to the ground. This happened three times.” Now Julius looked his brother in the eye. He seemed quite sober. “Have you heard anything about his sorcery?”
“No, nothing of the sort.”
“As we moved to take him, one of his men drew a sword and cut off Malchus’ ear. Jesus reproved him. Then he reached out and touched Malchus. When he drew his hand back, the ear was there like nothing had happened.”
“I couldn’t make sense of it, and no one spoke of it. He didn’t resist us as we bound him and led him away, but all his followers fled.” He tipped his mug up, drained it, and motioned for another.
Antonio had barely touched his.
“I didn’t attend the trial or the execution.” He said, grabbing the drink almost before the girl could set it down. “Something didn’t seem right.”
“If he sought to over through Roman rule, why didn’t his followers fight? Why didn’t he use the power that knocked us down against the army? I’ve never questioned orders, but I heard Pilate sought to free him. Yet the Jewish leaders demanded his crucifixion. Why?”
A shake of his head was the only reply.
“Then those same leaders demanded the tomb be guarded. That he claimed he would rise from the dead and that his followers would steal the body and say he had.” He took another long drink. “We were all laughing and joking about guarding a dead man in a sealed tomb. And suddenly…”
“What?” On the edge of his chair now, he leaned in. “Suddenly what?”
Julius’ hands were shaking. “There was a rumbling, like the ground was shifting. Every one of us fell to the ground again, as if we were dead men. I couldn’t see whether any of the others were awake or alive. I only knew I couldn’t move. And then…” He hesitated. “On its own, the stone rolled back. Inside the tomb was a great light.”
“And… did you see him?” Antonio asked eagerly.
His brother frowned. “No. The light was so bright, I could see nothing. But I know there was no one outside the tomb; no human hand moved that stone, and no one took a body out.”
“We must have slept. It was daylight. The tomb was dark, the body gone.” He shook his head again, clearly troubled. “No one wanted to tell Pilate what had happened. We were all certain we’d be executed for failing in our duty. But instead, the priests offered us money to say his disciples had stolen the body.”
“But you know that isn’t true.”
“I don’t know anything.” Julius admitted. “I’ve heard talk that one of the charges against him was blasphemy. That he said he was God.”
“That’s what I saw and all I know. What have you learned?”
“He is no threat to Rome.”
Julius perked up. “You know this? How? Have you spoken to him?”
“No,” he admitted. “But I talked with those who knew him. That say he is the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
With a derisive huff, he retorted. “Are you saying the Romans killed God? Do you know how absurd that is?”
“He is the Lamb of God sent to take away the sin of the world. A sacrifice.”
His face became serious again. “Then what of the kingdom of David this Messiah is supposed to restore? The throne he’s to sit on?”
“David is called a man after God’s own heart. The kingdom Jesus restored is not a physical one. It’s a spiritual one; to turn the hearts of men back to God.” Now he took a drink from his own mug. “God loved men so much he came himself to redeem us. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except by him. He is the light of the world, the bringer of eternal life.”
“You sound as if you believe this fantasy.”
Suddenly, Antonio realized, he did. He rose from the table. “I do, brother. I hope that as I have, pondering it will show you the truth.”
Julius huffed and motioned for another drink.
All the way home, Antonio considered what he’d just discovered: his own belief. Now, more than ever, he wished to find Jesus’ followers and join them. Grateful there was no one about, he strode quickly up the stairs, closed the door to his room and opened the curtains that showed a clear, starry night sky. He chuckled to himself.
All this time he’d been chasing a shadow when the answer was in the light. Falling to his knees, he worshiped. In his heart, he had discovered what he was seeking and found his answer. He knew the truth and he was free.