I learned the stories of my earliest childhood from my mother and, later, from Nahum the Surveyor. My mother would not speak of those events at first, but when she thought me old enough, she answered my questions, and over time I pieced together the whole of it.
Her family came from the Galilee. By all accounts they flourished in that most prosperous portion of the Palestine of Rome. Her father worked a plot of land on a hillside south of Sepphoris. He had a devoted wife, four sons, a beautiful daughter, servants, flocks, and, remarkably, his own well. On the Sabbath, the honor of reading from the Law or Prophets often fell to him. The community held him in high esteem—a Righteous Man, they said—the greatest compliment our culture offers. His name was Judas, the same as mine.
One day he looked upon his sons and daughter, his flocks and fields, and declared it was time to free the nation. He made no close inspection of holy writ, did not attempt to divine the will of God in omens and signs, indulged in no long speeches filled with holy rhetoric. He simply decided God had called him out as the successor to Zadok to free the land and restore His Kingdom. As things turned out, it might have been better if he had consulted the Lord. There are risks attached to presuming to know the mind of God.
My grandmother paled when she heard but knew better than to argue. She dispatched her two younger sons south to relatives in Nain. She wanted to send her daughter, Miriam, also, but grandfather would not hear of it.
“How will it look,” he complained, “if I ask them to join me, but have sent my jewel away for fear of losing her? No, Miriam must stay with her older brothers.” And so she stayed.
In a week or two he persuaded fifty men to follow him. They, in turn, gathered another hundred. Then, one sultry summer day, this band of foolish but brave men attacked the armory at Sepphoris. The contingent of Roman soldiers assigned to guard the building lacked both the numbers and determination to hold out for long against these Galilean zealots. The armory fell into the hands of the rebels within an hour.
Armed and flushed with success, they turned to face the relief column sent to retake the armory. They expected that once the news of their triumph spread, hundreds more would join them and that the fire they lighted would sweep across the land, driving the hated Romans into the Great Sea.
They were wrong.
The next day two hundred legionnaires arrived from Caesarea, lead by their Centurions and a tribune from the Syrian barracks—a man with a reputation for handling these annoying disturbances. The sight of those seasoned soldiers, beating time on their shields, marching inexorably toward them, struck terror in their souls. The fainthearted fled like Saul before the Philistines.
By nightfall of the third day, my grandfather, his sons, and all of the men and boys who joined him, as well as many who had not, were either captured or killed, and my grandfather’s irrational defiance was replaced by calculated Roman terror.
Sepphoris exploded with the cries of its terrified citizens and fire put to the torch at the Tribune’s order. Flames could be seen for miles, lighting the night sky a brilliant red-orange. Silhouetted against that, black and ominous, rows of crosses lined the road to Nazareth. Men and older boys, naked, bleeding, and nailed to the hard wood, hung near death. The younger men raised their voices in agony. Older men, those still alive, remained grim and silent, refusing to give their persecutors the satisfaction of hearing them cry out.
In the darkness, beyond the crosses, screams and moans drifted across the land with the black smoke from burning houses—women and girls, paying the price for their husbands’ and fathers’ foolishness. Farther up the road, inside the bright well of firelight, soldiers, their tunics already soaked red with the blood of countless men, methodically slaughtered children while their mothers and grandmothers—those not being otherwise abused—watched. The author of this carnage, a man whose ambition for high office and innate sense of Roman superiority enabled him to accept, even enjoy these things, looked on impassive, his armor unspotted and gleaming.
People from the countryside as far south as Nazareth were rousted from their homes and herded to this place to bear witness to Roman power and the folly of standing against it. An example needed to be made of these rebels of the Galilee, this Judas, this self-proclaimed Messiah and his ragged band of dissidents and fanatics. They came, trembling, looking for friends and relatives, and a few even fearful of discovery—those who fled the armory earlier, before the end, before the horror began. They came to witness. Many swore silently that some day, somehow, they would avenge this indecency. God would raise up a Messiah, a new David, who would lead an army against this blasphemous abomination from across the sea and cast it out forever.
Women keened, men lowered their heads, jaws clenched, fighting their guilt and despair. Children, forced to see this terrible thing, clung to their mothers’ robes and hid their faces. All except one boy, who stood quietly beside his mother, holding her hand and gazing clear-eyed at the crucified men in front of him. His gaze seemed far away, as though he were seeing his future. Soldiers, eyes bright with the madness of the moment, dragged a young girl past them, her clothing in tatters, legs streaked with blood. Her eyes pleaded for help. None came.
Judas’ daughter, his beautiful Miriam, who should have been safely away in Nain, was hauled before the Tribune, who had her stripped and raped in front of her father and then released her to a gang of soldiers who took their pleasure with her. Before the cohort finally marched away from the smoking ruins, one young man came back for her. He placed her with the camp followers to become his woman. In so doing, he probably saved her life. When the terrified residents returned to the ashes of their city, they finished punishing any rebels the Romans may have overlooked.
This chaos was my birthright.
Our street stretched from the open market around the corner to the gate in the city’s southern wall. I spent my childhood watching caravans assemble there. The animals would swing into line and then the caravan masters would shout “Sah, Sah, Sah.” Camels and asses, piled high with bundles and bales, trundled off, harness bells jingling, drivers yelping, traveling to places far away.
Those were the good days, the days before the madness. Not my madness—the empire’s. I am not mad. I am a murderer and a thief. That is what they have made of me, my former friends and, of course, the mighty Roman Empire. Neither am I possessed or the willing tool of the Evil One. That is what they wish people to believe, what they require. “Give us someone not of our number, not from the Galilee to be the instrument of evil,” they say. It was to be expected this betrayal of the Betrayer. It is in the Book. But I didn’t know it at the time. He knew, of course.
How to explain the intense hatred we had for our Roman oppressors? Certainly, history will not record it. Conquerors write history, not the conquered, not their victims. History is about great men, not the terrible things they do. Battles cease but not the flow of suffering humanity. Oppressors need to put down their conquered people even after the war is finished and the blood has been washed away by a thousand rains. No one writes about the lives they grind beneath their heel—crushed with no more concern than for a lizard caught under a chariot’s wheel. It’s important to know the way it was then and how I, Jesus’ most trusted disciple, became the man people revile.
# # #
“Judas,” Mother bawled, “come in here right now.” Awkward with Dinah on her hip, her eyes glanced up and down the street, searching for me. I had no desire to go back into a dark house. I spent too much of my life in darkness and shadows, but I am not unique in that. Roman society leaves most of its noncitizens clinging to its fringes like dust, an annoyance to be brushed away. My childhood in Caesarea and the three years in the Galilee with the Teacher were the only exceptions to a life of chronic darkness. It seemed like the sun always shone in Caesarea. I did not know its name then. It was just the place where we lived. I remember our house and the beach, especially the beach. When we went there, we entered another world—windswept, clean, warm, and bright. I remember the blinding sun and how it hurt my eyes, so hot, so bright. The sea seemed to be on fire, glittering and flashing and alive.
Sometimes soldiers marched by, those men I would come to hate with such passion that even three years with the Master could not erase. The sun burnished their armor into molten copper. They tramped past our door nearly every day, rapping their shields with their spears, headed south to Jerusalem or Joppa or somewhere. And when the sun shone, I had to squeeze my eyelids together just to look at them.
I sat in the cold green water of the Great Sea and felt its depths in the wash and tug of the surf. The sea sucked at my legs, inviting me in to become a permanent resident of its murky depths, and blinded me as it mirrored the sun. The only way I could look at it was to hold my hands to my face and peer through sandy fingers. Sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t have been better served by accepting that invitation. A cool, clean end would be preferable to the living death forced on me now. Ships from far away, from those places the men talked about, laden with the treasures of the empire, sailed toward me, around the jetty, and into the harbor. I went to the harbor only twice, once to visit the Greek surgeon who made me a Jew, and once to flee the police and certain death. But that would come later.
# # #
My mother entertained men. That is how she put it. She had visitors who came, and went, and left money—most of the time. My mother was not a woman of the streets, not then. She entertained men. For her it was an important distinction. Some would say that was a distinction without a difference.
“Judas,” she said, the furrow between her eyebrows meant she was serious, “I entertain important men. It is how we live, Sweet. You will understand someday. Do not make Mummy’s work harder. When my visitors are here, stay out of sight and for heaven’s sake, don’t let the Greeks see you.” She lived in fear of the Greeks, by which she meant the eunuchs and the boy lovers, our neighbors in the south end of the city.
She served her visitors golden dates, dark figs, plump ripe pomegranates, olives, and honey cakes with wine. When they arrived and she was distracted, I would grab one of the cakes and stuff it into my mouth before she could turn and catch me. To this day, I believe those purloined honey cakes were the sweetest things I ever ate. I can still feel their stickiness on my fingers; savor their sweetness in my mouth. Only once did a honey cake betray me. I sat in our back court eating one left over from the previous nights entertaining. I laid it down next to me for a moment to lick my fingers and a wasp, a honey thief, settled on it. I foolishly reached to brush it away and it stung my finger. I howled so much I woke Mother. She explained the way of wasps to me. “They are evil,” she said. Evil or not, I did not stop coveting honey cakes.
# # #
Men would sometimes tell stories about The Mighty Heroes of Old, which is how they would speak of them, The Mighty Heroes of Old. They would amuse me while Mother prepared herself for the evening. I wondered about the stories. They filled the ears and mind of a child to overflowing. I had creatures lurking and skulking about in every corner of my head. Sometimes sleep would not come, so busy were these occupants, these tenants I had invited in but could not evict. Were they true? I needed to know.
“Yes, even I know because it is in the books of Moses that were read to me when I was little like you,” Mother said, when I asked her after one of my particularly restless nights.
“You saw giants?”
“No. No, the giants were in the book. They are called Nifillim. There were other creatures, too, that came to earth and beautiful ladies entertained them. And David, our great king, killed Goliath, a giant, and saved the nation.”
That was how she remembered the story. In her home, before she was taken away, education in the holy books was deemed a poor expenditure of time for girls and women, an education denied me as well. In Caesarea, the doors where people worshipped Mother’s god remained firmly shut to us.
In the morning, her visitors would be gone and then we had money to spend. We walked to the market around the corner. It always excited me to see it, filled with hurrying people bargaining, buying, and selling. I remember the scents best. Meat cooking on spits, roasting lamb and goat, filled the air with smoke and the aroma of coriander. Spices exuded the mix of cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, curry, pepper, and ginger. There were things to eat, things to buy, copperware, fish, everything anyone could possibly want or need, or so I thought. If the entertaining went particularly well, we visited the cloth maker and the sandal maker and bought things to wear and the flashing, jangling ornaments Mother fancied. When there was no entertaining for a while, Mother took them back to market and sold them. That way we always had money to buy food.
I learned very early the power money wields over men. And that a man’s life—any man’s life—is worth more than a paltry thirty pieces of silver.