NISAN THE 9TH, THE JEWISH YEAR 3771
Misty rain had been falling for two days and the dark mountaintop was cold and sweet with the fragrance of damp pine needles and wet earth.
Maryam drew her himation, a large square garment cut from white linen, over her head for warmth and stared down at the holy city of Yerushalaim. From up here, high on the Mount of Olives, the view was stunning. Starlight gilded the ancient stone walls and painted the wide streets. All was quiet and still. Even the tendrils of smoke that rose from the houses lay unmoving, like a dead black filigree spread upon the windless heavens.
Her gaze drifted to the Temple Mount. The trapezoidal platform of the Temple, supported by massive retaining walls that towered more than 50 cubits above the roadways, covered over 344,000 square cubits.2 It was twice as large as the monumental Forum Romanum, and more than three and a half times bigger than the combined temples of Jupiter and Astarte-Venus at Baalbek. The grandeur of the entire complex of buildings, baths, mosaic courts, magnificently columned porticoes, and exquisite arches was unmatched in the world. And the Temple itself, the place where God lived, was awe-inspiring. The surface was covered with so much gold that when sunlight kissed it, it virtually blinded. Tonight, in the starlight, it was a shining silver bastion of light and dreams.
Maryam turned to the man seated on the angular limestone boulder to her left. Slender, with muscular shoulders, he was of medium height, and had shoulder-length black curly hair. The white himation over his head framed his bearded face and contrasted sharply with his dark glistening eyes. "This is dangerous, Yeshu. They are violent men."
"We are all violent men," he softly responded.
She stood for a time, deciding what to say, then sank down upon the rock beside him. The Mount of Olives was composed of limestone with a chalklike top layer. Despite the inhospitable soil, extensive olive groves covered its slopes, and pine trees dotted the high points. After several anxious heartbeats, she whispered, "If word gets back to the praefectus, he will think you are conspiring"
"I must speak with Dysmas."
His tone silenced her. She looked away and ground her teeth beneath the tanned skin of her jaw. The knot of fear in her belly was pulling tighter, hindering her breathing.
"Maryam, please trust me. I know how this may appear to the Roman authorities, but it's necessary."
He leaned over and gently kissed her cheek, for it was by a kiss that the perfect, or those striving for perfection, conceived and gave birth. They received conception from the grace that lived in one another.3
She fought to keep her voice from shaking when she answered, "It's the Zealots I don't trust."
"They are from the Galil, as I am. They are friends of my friends, people I grew up with. That is enough justification for me to agree to speak with them."
"But, why now?" She lifted her hands in exasperation. "After Yohanan's murder they tried to take you by force and make you a king. You ordered us to avoid the crowds because you feared they would ambush and capture you. What if they do it tonight?"4
She lowered her hands and clenched them to fists. Only yesterday he had ordered his followers to buy swords.5 Though Yeshu taught that God, not humans, should exact vengeance, he was taking no chances with the Zealots, who hated the Romans and wanted to cleanse the land with their blood.
Or perhaps it is the Romans he fears ... or the Temple priests, or the screaming crowds begging for a single glance from him. These days, we are surrounded by enemies.
Involuntarily, her gaze drifted to the north. Outside the city walls, she could see the fenced area that had been set up for the pilgrims who flooded Yerushalaim during the holy days. Thousands of tents had already been pitched. In all, there were three pilgrim camps around Yerushalaim: the one to the north, another to the west of the city, and a third south of the Siloam pool, in the Kidron valley.
Yeshu gave her an apologetic glance. "Forgive me for sounding stern. It's just that I promised the Zealots I would meet them here at the ninth hour of night, Maryam, and I must keep my word. They are violent men, but they are also powerful men. With the two holy days coming, it is critical that we all understand each other."
"Yes. Of course. II understand."
In the valley below, a few oil lamps gleamed. She studied them longingly. After the killing exhaustion of the past few days, the press of the crowds, the shouts and cries, she yearned to be lying next to him, rolled in blankets, somewhere far out in the desert, safe and warm.
She mustered the courage to ask the question that had been plaguing her. "Yeshu, if ... if you are still free to do so ... will you enter Yerushalaim?"
He smiled and bowed his head to stare at the damp ground. "You are the first to ask me directly. The others are either too frightened, or assume they already know the answer. The truth is I haven't decided yet. I must speak with Yosef Haramati first."
Yosef Haramati, whose name literally meant "Yosef of the highlands," was a member of the sacred Council of Seventy-one, and a secret friend. More and more of the Temple leaders had been expressing anxiety about Yeshu and his teachings. Yosef, despite the danger to himself and his family, would tell them what was being said behind closed doors.
"Are you worried about what the Seventy-one are planning?"
"I am more worried about Rome, but the Council concerns me, yes."
"They are wicked old men, full of spite. I don't understand why they hate you so." She pulled her white himation tightly around her shoulders and shivered.
"Are you cold?" He removed his own himation and started to drape it around her.
"No." She held up a hand to stop him. "Keep it. I didn't shiver because of the night air."
Compassion filled his dark starlit eyes. He hesitated a few long moments before saying, "We are all afraid, Maryam. Fear is the grist of the mill."
As he slipped his himation over his shoulders again, he watched the light play in the olive trees that filled the Kidron valley. When the breeze shifted, the leaves shimmered, and the scent of freshly plowed fields came to them.
"The holy days may embolden them to take action against us," Maryam whispered. Desperately, she added, "We could leave and return after Pesach. 6 We have friends in Samaria. You and Shimon both studied with Yohanan. Perhaps he would"
"Maryam"he reached over to stroke her hair"do you remember, thirty-four years ago, when Praefectus Varus ordered two thousand men, underground fighters leading the rebellion against Rome, to be crucified in the mountains outside Yerushalaim?"
She hesitated. "I recall hearing about it. Why?"
The lowing of a cow drew her attention to the rolling hills north of Bet Ani where silver-bellied thunderclouds drifted across the sky.
"I was two years old," Yeshu said, "but I saw them die, as did every other person in Yerushalaim that month. Rome wanted to make certain that we understood the price of rebellion." He exhaled a breath that fogged in the cool air. "Then there was Yudah of the Galil. I was twelve when he was killed."
Yudah had formed a sect called the Fourth Philosophy, comparing themselves with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. They believed that Jews were required to submit to the will of God alone. When Quirinius, governor of Syria, ordered that a census be taken, Yudah proclaimed that only God had the right to number his people, and said that to submit to the census was to deny His Lordship.7
Sadly, Yeshu said, "I remember Yudah standing on the shore of the Jordan, shouting that God would deliver His people only when they rose up in armed rebellion against Rome. It took Yudah two days to die. It was terrible,not just for me, but for everyone in the Galil. He had been one of our greatest heroes."
A whisper of pine-sharp wind meandered across the mountaintop. He pulled his himation more tightly around his shoulders.
Maryam studied his troubled expression. "Why did you ask me about Yudah and the two thousand?"
"Because Zealots have paid terribly in the past for their unwavering faith in God. The least they deserve from me is to be heard."
"But, Master, please consider waiting. You can talk with them later, after"
He put a hand on her wrist to quiet her.
Footsteps, soft and carefully placed, sounded on the slope below them.
Ten heartbeats later she saw the black silhouettes of two men. One was tall and thin, the other short, but very muscular.
Yeshu rose to his feet, preparing himself for the confrontation.
When they came to within three paces, Yeshu called, "Dysmas, Gestas, welcome. Please sit with me." He gestured to the rocks that thrust up from the hillside to his right.
Dysmas stopped two paces away, but remained standing. His brown himation hung around his skinny frame in tattered, dirty folds. He had a lean face with dark pits for eyes, and long black hair hung over his shoulders. "Magician, you surprise me. I didn't expect you to be here."8
Yeshu dipped his head. "How may I serve you?"
Dysmas had the distinctive accent of a man born and raised in the Galil, as Yeshu did. He had often been accused of being a Zealot because of his accent. The Zealot movement had started in the Galil with Yudah and most of its members continued to come from there.
Gestas stopped beside Dysmas and spread his feet as though bracing himself for a long night. He had a pockmarked face with a squashed nose, probably broken in one too many brawls, and brown hair.
Dysmas looked at Maryam. "Why is she here?"
"Maryam is my companion and adviser."
Dysmas looked her up and down, clearly disturbed that a woman would dare to attend a political meeting, but he wisely turned to Yeshu. "That leper spread the news far and wide, didn't he?"
Yeshu smiled, but cocked his head. "Is that why you're here? To discuss my healings?"
"We're here because we've seen the thousands who gather to hear you preach every day. We know that before you arrived here, so many followed you that you couldn't even enter a town, but had to remain in the countryside for safety. Even then, the sick and those possessed by demons ran to you from every corner. It is said that some came from as far away as Sidon."
Yeshu answered simply, "As you have come. Are you also in need of healing?"
The Zealots' unblinking eyes reflected the starlight like silver shields, and Maryam could tell from their stony expressions that they were irritated by his question.
Dysmas said, "I don't need any of your magic potions or spells. We're here to learn your plans for Pesach." He took a step forward and leaned toward Yeshu to whisper, "Do you truly wish to destroy the Temple and sweep away the corruption? I've heard you say it. If you mean to try to fulfill the prophecies, let us help you."
The man's face resembled a weasel's, predatory, waiting for the slightest hint of weakness to leap.
"I would welcome your help, Dysmas, if I thought our goals were the same. I'm not sure they are."
"You preach loudly against the corruption and immorality that infects the priests like a deadly rot. We agree with you. It must be stopped."
Yeshu quietly frowned at the ground. "Dysmas, it is true that many members of the priesthood, as well as the ruling class, have adopted evil, licentious ways. They tax the poor until they cannot afford to buy bread and spend the spoils for silk sashes to bind their waists. Injustice is rampant. It sickens me, but violence is not the solution."
"We must cast off the yoke of Rome and get our nation back! The holy books say that the mashiah will conquer the enemies of Yisrael and restore our nation. Are you the promised redeemer or not?"
Maryam's eyes jerked to him. He had never said it. At least, not aloud.
Gestas, for the first time, spoke up: "Magician, we have five thousand men ready to attack. With you as our leader, the general populace will flock behind our soldiers with whatever weapons they can grab from their fieldsor labors. God is sure to see our hearts and rush to our aid. Not even the Romans can withstand"
"Who is your leader?"
Dysmas and Gestas exchanged a glance, then Dysmas replied, "He calls himself the 'Son of the Father,'9 in much the same way you call yourself the 'Son of Man.' You are both God's prophets who, if you work together, will conquer our enemies and lead Yisrael back to its glory."
Yeshu took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He must have been thinking, as Maryam was, that they had gotten down to their true reasons for the meeting much more quickly than he'd thought they would.
"Brothers, are you not afraid that such a move will provoke the Romans to destroy both our city and our nation?"
"Oh, they'll try; but if we join forces, our nation will, as one, stand up and fight. They cannot kill us all."
Maryam made a small, frightened sound and protectively folded her arms across her chest. Just above a whisper, she urged, "Do not listen to them, Master. The Romans can and will kill us all. They have proven it many times."
Dysmas glared at her. To Yeshu, he said, "What do women know of battle? Nothing. Less than nothing."
"And you, Dysmas, have you seen battle? What about you, Gestas?"
Both men straightened, as though offended.
Dysmas replied, "We served as part of the Temple police. While we've never been in war, we've seen our share of fighting. We've also seen the bribery, fraud, and vice that go on in the Temple in the name of religion. Why, High Priest Kaiaphas is the handmaiden of the praefectus! You know it as well as we do. The fool laps the milk of life from a Roman bowl. And it costs us all a pretty sum!"
The "sum" he referred to was the fee that high priests had to pay to remain in office. High priests were Roman nominees, responsible to Roman authority, and removable by the Romans if they did not pay what the praefectus demanded. The sum provided a lucrative source of private income for anyone who served as praefectus. This fact did not make high priests particularly popular with the average person, especially since they charged "temple fees" to help cover the costs.10
Yeshu squinted at the rocky hillside. Somewhere in the distance a dogbarked, and it stirred every other dog in hearing to yip and howl, serenading the night with a melodious chorus.
In his deep, teaching voice, he said, "Dysmas, I have heard with my own ears the trumpets blare and the noise of rebellion. I have seen with my own eyes the great turmoil that results. I beg you not to do this. Listen to me, and you will be clothed in light and a chariot will bear you aloft. Ignore my words, and this world will pass away before you are prepared."
"We didn't come here to be preached at, Magician! We came to learn your Pesach plans. Will you challenge the Seventy-one, or not?"
Maryam's belly muscles went tight. She looked straight at him, waiting for him to say "no," as he must. Yeshu had subtly been challenging the Council for many months, openly healing on Shabbat, taking food and drink with sinners. But to lead a revolt against them, and by extension Rome, as Yudah of the Galil had done? Horrifying images of gaunt, crucified men with their dead faces twisted in agony filled her thoughts. Maryam rose to her feet, and said, "They need a sacrificial lamb, Master. That's why they're here. They're too cowardly to do it themselves. Let's go."
Rage contorted Dysmas' face. "Best tell your whore to keep her mouth shut, Magician. She's very close to"
"To me," Yeshu interrupted. "She's very close to me. As I wish you were." He extended one hand to Dysmas and the other to Gestas. "Now, this instant, I challenge you to take my hands and follow me into the light that is to come."
Gestas vented an ugly laugh, and said, "You constantly speak about salvation. How is it possible you do not know that chasing the Romans from our land is the only way to truly save our people?"
Yeshu left his hands out while he mildly said, "I warn you, brothers, resistance can only lead to social and military disaster for our people. Do not take this path. Very soon, God Almighty will renew his covenant with Yisrael and we will all"
"I told you not to preach at us!" Dysmas shouted and it echoed over the rolling hills. The dogs started barking again.
Yeshu slowly pulled his hands back. Dysmas and Gestas had their jaws clenched.
Maryam moved closer to his side. If they attacked him, she would tear them apart with her bare hands.
Yeshu softly said, "You Zealots remind me of the rich merchant who discovered a beautiful pearl and sold everything he owned to buy it. He clutched that pearl to his chest, forsaking all other things, even food and drink, even his family. Too late did he discover that his treasure brought him only pain and death."
Both men shifted, fists balled in anger. Maryam wondered if they understood that their dream of conquering Rome was the pearl.
"So," Dysmas said, "you will not join forces with us?"
"I am already joined with you in the divine light, brothers. Let that be enough."
"I told you so," Gestas said. "He's a Roman stooge just like the high priest. That's why he told us to pay their taxes. Give unto Caesar! I spit upon Caesar!"
Dysmas fixed Yeshu with a hard eye. "I ask you one last time to tell us plainly if you are with us or against us."
The night breeze tousled the old grass on the hillside and created a soft hissing sound.
"I am against no man, Dysmas. We are all One in the Kingdom. I will pray for you."
"We're wasting our time," Gestas said, raising his hands in frustration. "Let's go and tell the Son of the Father that the Magician refuses to help us."
Dysmas lowered his hand to his belted dagger. "He will be very displeased. Perhaps you should think this over."
Yeshu shook his head. "No, I don't need to."
"Then you are a coward!" Dysmas viciously spat at Yeshu, and both Zealots turned and tramped away down the hill.
He watched them until they disappeared into the dark shadows of the olive trees.
"The fools," Maryam said in a shaking voice. "Why do they persecute you? This world is about to end! They should be tending to their own souls, not rousing the people to fight Rome."
"Don't hate them, Maryam. They are blind in their hearts. For themoment they are intoxicated, but they will leave this earth empty men. If you do not wish to suffer the same fate, you must become a passerby."11
"A passerby? Don't joke. After tonight, they'll be working against us, maybe even plotting to kill us. I'm angry. You should be, too."
"Perhaps." He smiled at her. "But only a calm pond reflects the light of the Kingdom."
Her enraged expression slackened. She closed her eyes. He had taught them that sinners only came to them for baptism when the light of the Kingdom shone in their eyes and on their faces.
She said, "Forgive me, Master. I seem to forget your teachings at the moments I need them most. I am ashamed of myself."
"Don't be. You are tired, as I am. Let's ..."
Down in the olive trees, voices rose. Only then did she realize that a Zealot camp hid there. Maryam's eyes jerked wide and riveted on the spot.
"Blessed God, that's why Dysmas chose this meeting place," she hissed. "How many men do you think he brought with him? All five thousand?"
Yeshu's brows drew together. "I don't know, but let's go." He put a hand on her shoulder. "It's not wise to dally here. Besides, I'm sure the others are awake and longing to hear what happened."
They started down the trail that led back to her family's home in Bet Ani, but she could not help glancing over her shoulder often to make certain they were not being followed.
They walked the entire way in silence. He seemed lost in his thoughts, but Maryam was listening for footsteps behind them. Around every bend, she expected to be ambushed by an angry horde.
When they finally reached her home, her nerves were strung so tight, she said, "You go in, Master. II need to remain out here in the cool air for a while."
He touched her hair gently, said, "Don't be long," and walked to the door. When it closed behind him and she heard the voices of the other disciples rise, bombarding him with questions, Maryam could stand it no longer.
She staggered to the side of the road and vomited until there was nothing left to heave, until her belly shredded and caught in her throat, and the only thing coming up was blood.
For a long time, she just listened to her own breathing.
It took a quarter hour, but when she could, she wiped her mouth on the corner of her himation, and straightened her clothing.
He needed her now more than he had ever needed her in his life. She sucked in a deep, fortifying breath, and strode for the house to stand at his shoulder.
Copyright © 2008 by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear