SHORT STORY. 4700 WORDS. MARCH, 2008.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN FURTIVE DALLIANCE (US) – JUNE 15, 2018. AVAILABLE IN PRINT ONLY.
I always wanted to write the great Judean novel – a story so compelling it takes on living form and has the power to save lives. I never imagined my own life would be the first one saved.
As a boy, I sat for hours on a rough-hewn wooden stool in a corner of my small room, reed pen in hand, armed with papyrus scrolls from Rabbi Thaddaeus, our closest neighbor, who looked after my widowed mother out of pity. He had good connections and easily acquired such luxuries.
That my father died painfully of leprosy was all I knew. Mother never spoke of his departed soul, leaving me to speculate. So, I invented complex histories. Caught up in my own conflicting stories, I decided to write a unified, definitive text but people knew I’d made it up. “So, your father is the illegitimate son of Augustus,” they said, doubtfully. “And your grandmother was Aphrodite?”
Inspired by stories of Moses, Abraham, David and Daniel, I drafted epic legends of powerful heroes. This set me apart from most kids – so did having a mother who was certifiably mad. Constantly, she mumbled nonsensible things like: “Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote of thy brother’s eye.”
It was complete gibberish. I didn’t have a brother – or a mote in my eye. If Rabbi Thaddaeus made such a proclamation in the synagogue, using that booming, righteous voice of his, it would sound wise, something to be studied and digested but coming from my mother, buying vegetables in the market, her words barely above a whisper, rocking ever so slightly as she spoke, it was hard not to think her woefully accursed.
Yet, to me, she was pure love. We were a family of two: all the love she had, she gave to me. Each morning she’d cross my room, stand at the window, the lone one facing east in our small home, and watch the sun creep above jumbled rooftops. “Good news,” she would turn and say, bands of golden light streaming in, absorbing her.
Awakening, I’d see her in the corner, wrapped in a pale blue robe, her chestnut hair flowing with brightness. “The sun has risen,” she faithfully confirmed. “Arise my son, for you are the light of my world.” This was my daily wake up call, forever followed by a breakfast of figs, goat’s milk and honeycomb.
I took a profession to support my mother. A man from our synagogue, named Josephus, offered me a carpenter’s apprenticeship but I never liked his stinking breath and crooked foot. Instead, I fished and was good at it, even though it required more luck than skill. Most importantly, it left my evenings free – giving me time to meet my writers’ group.
They were a pompous lot, all twelve of them, who never let me forget I was the youngest, unfit to tie their sandals. Yet I liked their creative company. Determined to change the world through words, they wrote with passion and conviction. Mostly they told oral tales, not having the access to papyrus I did, but were writers all the same.
Peter founded the group yet was the weakest storyteller – though no one had the heart to tell him. Focus and discipline were his strengths. He devised exercises to hone our skills. James was another strong character; he overcame family tragedy to become a thorough critiquing partner. Judas invited me to join. He seemed the most honest, a bit of a zealot, but my only friend in the group.
All my work – the twelve never hesitated to point out – sounded like it came from the same blustery pedagogue. No doubt this was Thaddaeus’ influence.
Peter once said: “Look, we’re sick of history lessons from a ranting Hebrew scholar! Why not tell stories in a lighter tone – less preachy. Edgier. Maybe try parables. Or switch things completely and have a Roman protagonist, a hermit, perhaps even a woman. Remember your story about the fellow discovering he’s a direct descendant of King David? Tell it four times, in four unique voices. That’s your challenge.”
Peter’s next exercise involved writing new scripture. “Consider what gusto would be required,” he instructed. “The protagonist must be strong and forceful, well defined but relatable; every action must be laden with meaning.” Writing was the holiest profession and Peter’s voice sounded absolutely beatific.
In my view, most fared poorly in our pseudo-scriptural endeavour. Several presented diatribes lamenting a mighty nation turning its back on God. Others wrote psalms of joy about God’s chosen people. (And Peter said my early work sounded preachy!) All were weak in plot, I felt, but everyone made positive comments. “Such charming dialogue,” they cooed. “Your words sing with life,” they fawned.
Matthew, the tax collector, had his charismatic hero round up all the coinage in Judea. “Since it has Tiberius Caesar’s face on it,” his prophet raged, “ship it back to Caesar on a barge!”
Only Thomas was critical: “I doubt that would be effective. Wouldn’t it make Tiberius wealthier while impoverishing his supplicants?”
The rest said things like: “You transported me. It felt like I was there when currency was being collected.”
Judas, in my opinion, was the first to present a worthy legend. In an epistle, he spoke of a rebel leader, hell-bent on exposing high priests who misinterpreted the will of God. His daring protagonist stole into the temple with a band of followers and liberated the arc of the covenant to remind Jews it was for all God’s chosen people, not just a select group of ecclesiastics.
“Moving and inspirational,” we declared. “Such potent metaphors.”
When presenting my vision of Peter’s theme, we gathered in an olive grove. Slanted rays of light from the setting sun illuminated the faces of my audience. By way of introduction, I said: “I intended to write the ultimate work of scripture.”
“Ultimate?” Thomas questioned.
“As in final,” I replied with conviction. “We are storytellers and stories have a beginning, middle and end. Yet Hebrew scripture lacks an ending. Many texts prophecy the advent of a ruler over Israel – a king, a messiah, one anointed by God. It follows that scripture must end with his arrival.”
“I like it,” Judas said encouragingly.
“Thanks. I borrowed your idea of a rebel leader, took all the prophecies I could think of, then wove them into a unified story.”
Immanuel was the name of my humble protagonist. Born in Bethlehem, unto a virgin, he healed the sick and gave sight to the blind. Toward the end of his days, he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, was rejected by Jews, betrayed, beaten for the transgressions of others and finally crucified among criminals, before being resurrected into eternal life with God in heaven.
The final scenes were tricky. Crucifixion was hardly mentioned in our sacred texts. They were maddeningly specific about something as inconsequential as thirty pieces of silver – the reward for betraying the messiah – but confoundingly vague on his death and resurrection. As a result, I relied on personal experience.
Before revealing my muse, I must confess a detail I never shared with my writing group. Already unpopular, this would have irrevocably cast me as an abomination in the eyes of God and my fellow Hebrews! But I now have Roman protection – and Romans have no issue with this particular proclivity – so I readily admit I have always preferred men for physical affection.
While in Jerusalem, celebrating Passover with my mother and others from our village, I fell violently, earth-shatteringly in love with a condemned man. Not once did we touch. I never learned his name or crime, his history or faith. All I did was behold his gaze, one wretched afternoon.
Whipped before I laid eyes on him, he appeared exhausted. Reeking, drenched in sweat and blood, his back shredded as though ravenous dogs feasted upon it, he stumbled into Golgotha, arms stretched beneath a heavy length of wood. A crowd followed. Some wept, some taunted. Roman soldiers raised him against a tree, hammered the crosspiece into place, then nailed his hands to the cross before removing the ropes binding him to the wood.
Dying and forsaken, he was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. I wanted him to save himself and smite his tormentors. I wanted him down from the cross and in my arms, whereupon I’d wash his wounds, shower him with kisses and nurse him back to health and vigour.
The sun disappeared. Billowing clouds rolled in on a fierce wind. Rain fell and dispersed the crowd. Transfixed, I moved to the feet of the condemned man. Our eyes met. He gazed at my face, perhaps wondering if he recognized me, but soon averted his eyes. In his mortal turmoil, I worried my longing presence caused further shame, so I backed away.
My mother met me then. I was wet and forlorn and she put her arms around me as we stared at the crucified man. I kept no secrets from my mother, she no doubt understood my heart ached for this man, but had no idea how to comfort me in such a ridiculous state.
The condemned criminal looked down again. I longed for him to see the passion burning in my heart but his expression grew puzzled. Maybe he wondered why a woman embraced me. Gazing, he must have noticed the difference in our ages. He almost smiled. “Oh, she’s your mother. You’re her son.”
Gently leading me away, my mother found words of comfort; a variation on something she had said my entire life: “Good news, the sun will rise tomorrow.”
I never saw the crucified man again, never learned another thing about him, but I hold him in my heart to this day. He watches over me, constantly.
For the first time, my work pleased the group. Almost. Instead of dismissing it, they deemed it salvageable and worth improving.
“There aren’t enough women in this story,” Matthew complained. “That’s a drawback in all your legends. You need to work on women.” (If this was a veiled reference to my sexual tendencies, I let it pass.)
James added: “This man has lived thirty years, he should be married – his friends, too. You’ve named them after us, and we’re all married.”
(Another jab, yet I remained silent.)
Heeding their suggestions, the Greek goddess of love became my role model. Contemplating Aphrodite’s cunning, seductive ways, I invented several female characters: a sinner Immanuel saved from stoning; a possessed woman whose demons he drove out; a repentant who washed his feet with tears and dried them with her hair; and a lover who anointed him with oils. A single sentence proclaimed Immanuel’s wife but I refused to write the conjugal scenes some desired.
When I returned with the new version, everyone asked the same question: “Why are all the women called Miriam?”
“It’s just a draft,” I faltered. “Eventually, I’ll go back and change names.” But they had a point. Miriam was my mother’s name; all I had done was divide her character into fragments, using Aphrodite’s influence to conjure new ways of seeing her.
Judas defended me: “I like it. Many men can’t rationalize,” he looked at me, “how one woman can be a mother, lover, friend and sister at the same time. What you’ve done is brilliant. But distinguishing them will make it easier on your readers.”
Judas turned to a Roman map, belonging to Matthew, which we frequently used when choosing settings: “Immanuel’s mother can stay as she is but let’s make one from – I don’t know – Bethany. And another from . . .” he shrugged, placed a finger blindly on a location: “Magdala. How does that work?”
I nodded my assent and so it was written.
Immanuel’s followers were never renamed; my colleagues wouldn’t hear of it and hounded me to further “develop” their namesake characters. They had been randomly assigned, with the exception of Judas. Consciously, I made him hand over the messiah – as my only friend, he’d be least offended.
Workshopping continued several months. Revising, or even starting again on clean papyrus, never troubled me. I reveled in the attention. To differentiate the growing number of manuscripts, I named each after the narrator.
One day we found ourselves discussing Immanuel’s trial and sentencing. With no legal background, my treatment was weak. Thomas expressed doubt: “Crucifixion is a Roman punishment. They wouldn’t impose it for a violation of Hebrew law.”
“You’re kidding.” My carefully constructed plot collapsed like the first temple.
“Explain it to him, James.”
“Why would James be the authority?” I wondered. Only Matthew held a government position.
Thomas clarified: “His older brother, Joshua, was crucified a while back.”
“What happened?” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity.
“Got mixed up with a prostitute,” James admitted with a sigh. “He was an idiot. Fell in love, went broke, freaked out in the temple and started overturning the money changers’ tables. He blamed money for his problems but it was his own stupidity.”
Caiaphas, the high priest, ordered Joshua beaten but had no more authority than that. “The Romans only intervened,” James explained, sweating heavily in our evening oasis, “when he snapped a second time. Maybe syphilis rotted his brain or demons gripped him. He began screaming for the destruction of Judea and overthrow of Rome. That got the governor’s attention; he was crucified the next day.”
Silence ensued, to respect the departed and resolve this latest plot hole.
Eventually, Judas jumped up and proclaimed: “That’s it. Everything can be tied together.” Stomping around the sandy grove, he continued: “Joshua overturns tables in the temple and gets arrested. When he proclaims himself the messiah, Caiaphas rules he is trying to reinstate the Kingdom of David. This draws the attention of our Roman governor. Pontius Pilate considers it treason, punishable by crucifixion.”
Several writers nodded their approval.
“B-b-but,” I stammered, feeling Immanuel’s character slip away from me, “where does King David fit into this?”
“He’s your own idea,” Judas replied. “Remember your story about his direct descendant? It is written the messiah shall come from the line of David; this fulfills another prophecy.”
“I see,” I conceded, then raised another objection: “But the messiah is Immanuel. You called him Joshua.”
Judas tilted his head, unaware of his error. “Joshua might be better.”
“Immanuel means Yahweh is with us. Joshua means Yahweh saves. Salvation is much stronger.”
Peter cut in: “Judas is right. Joshua makes our messiah more like the hero our ancestors envisioned.”
“Our messiah?” I accepted the lord as my personal fiction.
Peter coolly replied: “Yes, our messiah, King of the Jews. I like the tie-in to James’ brother, someone who actually lived.” Peter nodded at James, seeking permission to appropriate his brother’s meaningless death.
“But Joshua was a syphilitic sex addict,” Thomas proffered. Turning to James, he added: “No offence.”
James, clearly offended, looked heavenward for forbearance.
Before James could speak, Peter clarified: “No one will know Joshua’s real history, they’ll know what we tell them,” palms upward, Peter outstretched his arms.
“But it’s fiction!” I protested.
Without missing a breath, Peter tied the conversation to a theme he loved: “Our purpose has been to write with life-giving power. This tale has that power.”
Matthew spoke: “Are you proposing we all tell this story?”
“It’s my story,” I stubbornly insisted.
“Yes, that’s my proposal,” Peter said to Matthew. To me, he added: “It is ours. We all played a role in its creation. Imagine if each of us went through Judea and Israel proclaiming fulfillment of the scriptures. We could denounce the high priests and begin a new Jewish covenant – a promise of life everlasting with God in heaven and Joshua at his side.”
Everyone concurred. James, who knew a little Greek, suddenly exclaimed: “We’ll call ourselves apostles.”
Persuaded by vanity, I consented. Fancying myself the author of the ultimate sacred text, I combed through the scrolls, changing Immanuel to Joshua and inserting the word “apostles” to describe his followers, though in some places I left my original term: disciples. I also rewrote each trial scene and even scribed yet another version, which I labelled: The Book of Joshua.
Triumphantly, I brought the ‘final’ draft to the apostles for approval but Peter insisted the sermons be further fleshed out. “If Joshua is the messiah,” he reasoned, “we’ve got to give him more meaningful things to say.”
As a result, our next exercise was writing sermons. I took the opportunity to transcribe my mother’s gibberish. At last, she had the proper forum. A confident, authoritative messiah preached her words to the masses on hillsides throughout Judea and Galilee. With vigour, I added sermons to as many scrolls as my stamina allowed – thinking how ironic it was the apostles now insisted I get “preachy.”
Peter worked us into a frenzy. Our mission was to go forth and bring the story to Hebrews everywhere. He didn’t want my scrolls since few people we hoped to reach could read. Instead, he conducted rehearsals and gave lessons on speaking technique.
Before departing, Peter complained: “The title won’t do. We need something more dignified and descriptive. We’re not telling ‘The Book of Joshua.’ We’re spreading the . . . joy . . . the lesson . . . the . . .”
I smiled and decided, one last time, to help him out: “The good news about the risen son of God.”
“The Good News. Exactly,” he exclaimed in triumph.
Out of politeness, I was asked to participate in their ministry but couldn’t leave my mother. Plus, there were only twelve apostles, according to the new scripture, and my name wasn’t among them, so there was no place for me. Judas must have had a hard time too, since he died in every version of my story. I later learned he took the name Matthias.
Years went by, my mother departed this earth, and I found myself moving north, eventually settling in Capernaum where, like my fictive creation, I fished on the Sea of Galilee. Many times I heard my story recited back to me. Those who believed were younger, more zealous people who no longer wanted to be a province of Rome. Conservative Jews, Rabbis and high priests denounced it as blasphemy.
One fateful day, I met a man walking along the shore carrying a scroll. He admitted he was a pilgrim, searching for the holy place where Joshua called the apostles, Peter and Andrew, to join him. Upon my asking, he unrolled the papyrus and I beheld a new version of my narrative.
“Who wrote this?” I inquired, not recognizing the handwriting.
“I did. Two apostles came to my village preaching the gospel of Christ. So moved was I, I wrote it all down.”
“What is Christ?” I couldn’t refrain from asking.
“The man whose story you hold: the messiah, the anointed one. Joshua is Christ.”
I recognized each name – having used them all. “Where did this term originate?”
“It is Greek. It means anointed.”
After meeting this man, I resolved to destroy my papyruses. Since the story had life of its own, keeping the molds it sprang from only restrained it. Collecting my manuscripts in haste, I departed the city, intent on burning them in a bonfire.
But fate intervened as I strode along the highway. I encountered a man named Saul, bound for Damascus. Despite his slight stature, he possessed great authority as a Roman citizen.
Recognizing me as a Jew, Saul asked about the scrolls. Despite my resolve to burn them, I felt fatherly pride as I unraveled a single sheet and placed it in his delicate hands. He deciphered no more than a sentence of my sloppy, heavily edited text, before looking into my eyes and asking: “Are you a follower of Christ?”
I bristled at the name, wishing I’d thought of it. I was tempted to reply: No, I am a leader of Christ – he does what I say and these manuscripts are the life I created for him. But that was no longer true – any time two or more people discussed the lord, he grew in strength. Aloud, I muttered: “I suppose I am. These are my accounts of the messiah.”
That’s when I discovered Saul’s true mission. He carried letters from Rome authorizing him to arrest followers of Christ. Before I had time to think, I was tied and whipped with a lash. Confessing my intention to burn the scrolls did not help.
“Saul, why are you persecuting me?” I asked, feigning innocence. “I only wrote the story, I never asked anyone to believe.”
In calm, even tones, he explained: “All followers of Christ are a threat to Rome. You destabilize the community and fail to honour Roman gods.”
He was right. Steeped in sedition and rebellious in tone, my work sought to replace the Roman Empire with a heavenly realm. Fearing imprisonment and possible death, I had few options. Although I hadn’t written in ages, I summoned strength for my final creative act: converting my captor.
Placing a different emphasis on my earlier question, I asked: “Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
Saul merely shrugged, then patted the letters he carried, indicating he was simply doing his job.
“Have you no faith, Saul?”
“I honour the Roman gods.”
“But can they save your soul? Can they offer salvation?”
Saul didn’t answer, he lashed me again and steered me toward Capernaum.
Bound, my back torn and bleeding, I marched ahead of him. I said: “Let me tell you, Saul, what is in these scriptures.” My captor displayed no interest but I began with the nativity.
Several times, Saul asked me to cease speaking but hadn’t the strength to silence me. Searing pain reached from my back to my temples, sweat dripped from every pore, yet I soldiered on, imbuing the story with hope. Stressing love and compassion, I summoned every rabbinical tone I could muster.
Before coming to the crucifixion, Saul asked: “What does any of this matter? Scripture is for Jews.”
“That’s not true, Saul. That is not Christ’s message,” I implored. “Joshua brings salvation to everyone; he died for all our sins, Jews and Gentiles alike.”
“Even Isaiah,” I nearly screamed, “prophesied the words of the messiah would ‘stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him.’ The nations, Saul, all nations; that is the word of Joshua.”
It was the first time I made such a claim – I wished I’d thought of it sooner.
Pausing for breath, I resumed my tale. Throat full of sand, scalp burning, back festering and feet withering beneath me, I came to the crucifixion.
Entering the city at sunset, my story concluded: Christ had risen, our sins were forgiven, all souls were saved! Saul said nothing. Turning to him, vertical rays of sunlight struck my face, illuminating the power of the mighty Lord. Saul’s eyes filled with tears. Faith had come.
My captor shrank in submission: “This is the message,” he stirred, “the messiah brings to all humankind?”
“Yes. A message of love and life everlasting.”
Holding my gaze, Saul remained silent. I thought he might kiss me. Wiping his eyes and untying my hands, he said: “Take me to your home. We shall dine together this evening.” Then he asked for my scrolls. What could I do but hand them over?
During our meal, Saul declared he would spread news of the messiah. “I am a Roman citizen. With the right of free movement throughout the Empire, I can ensure every last subject learns of the risen Lord.”
In celebration, we went to a public bath where he lavished oil and herbs on my wounded back, then messaged my agonized feet.
That night, I fretted while Saul slept. The apostles weren’t preaching to gentiles, nor did they insist the saviour’s message was for everyone. They said no such thing because I had written no such thing.
Our folly was clear. We intended to change the world through words but preached to a small, conquered tribe, using a language unspoken anywhere except our remote corner of the empire. Unless I differentiated my work from Hebrew law, it would fail to convince anyone of a new covenant between God and humankind.
Light crept into the sky, slowly changing it from black to blue. I had little time. Soon the rooster would crow. Saul would wake and continue his journey to Damascus bearing my scrolls.
As I often did in times of crisis, I thought of my mother. My story included a fictional holy family where a random acquaintance substituted for my absent father. But the foundation was the love she and I shared, love that surrounded us like a separate entity, a disembodied spiritual link. From this, emerged a new triumvirate – a holy trinity – a model differing from our solitary God but far removed from the Roman pantheon.
In the few brief moments before sunrise, I scribbled a scene where an angel announced Miriam was “with the child of the Holy Ghost.” One subtle line, filled with power and mystery, resolved the difficult issue of virgin birth, obliquely referred to in scripture. Until now, no one “fleshed it out,” as we would have said in the writers’ group.
Farther down, I altered a line to read: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” By creating the trinity, I betrayed those who, by spreading my story as their own, betrayed me. Stealing the messiah from the apostles, I readied him for an empire.
I heard breathing behind me. Saul, awakened, found me with the scrolls unraveled and strewn about. “What are you doing?” he asked, more confused than suspicious.
“I wish I could clean these up for you. Looking them over one last time, I’m reminded what a mess they’re in. Things have been crossed out, added, revisions are everywhere.”
“Revisions?” Saul enquired, perplexed.
“Yes,” I admitted, having nothing to lose. Saul was bound to discover the fiction on his own. Reading my drafts would reveal the gospel’s evolution – and if the story was pure invention, there was no need to persecute Christ’s followers. “These are early drafts,” I confessed, “of the story I told yesterday.”
“Drafts?” Stunned, Saul sat at my small table. “By saying these were your accounts of the messiah, I believed you copied them, but you invented the whole story. None of it is true.”
“It’s true a man named Joshua existed and was crucified after driving money changers from the temple but you know, as well as anyone, how this story became flesh. You experienced it on the road to Damascus.”
Silent for a moment, a sudden spark gleamed in Saul’s eye. “It’s like seeing Pygmalion’s statue brought to life.”
I had no idea what he meant but I watched Saul swell in size. Many times, I’d witnessed similar miracles in my writers’ group. He became energized. Fiction meant freedom. Adaptation danced in his mind. His eyes shone with frenzied delight. Reborn as a writer, Saul’s conversion was complete.
Rising, he gathered my manuscripts and made for the door. He said: “No one will arrest you. You have my protection, which is the protection of the Roman Empire. Forever keep my secret safe and yours shall also be preserved.”
I nodded, confident Saul would do more for my story than all the apostles. His noble bearing made this clear as he strode past me, into the street, toward the rising sun.
Saul’s haloed form looked back and beheld my gaze one last time. “I see the messiah in you,” he said.
“Just as I once saw the messiah,” I replied, never knowing whether he understood.
“By what name shall I call these scriptures?” he shouted back, now some distance from me.
I repeated the name I’d furnished years earlier, the name that recalled my mother, who was pure love: “Good News,” I simply said.
Saul disappeared into the light.
And that is how the great Judean novel became gospel.