6. RUMORS OF THE TEACHER
The noise of a dog fight woke me before dawn, and I was up and out the door immediately. I threw a rock at the dogs and they scattered as they saw me bend to pick up more stones. The sky was getting lighter moment by moment, and I walked towards the body. It was still untouched – the dogs must have only just started fighting over the blood that had run out of the body and congealed in a low point of the road. They say a body holds as much blood as a medium-sized amphora. This one had been called Rufus.
The noise of dogs fighting wouldn’t bother anyone’s sleep in Capernaum. No one else appeared, so I went over the rise to the beach, but there were no fishermen there either. I relieved myself by a bush, washed my hands and face in the lake, and headed back to town. And now I met Andrew and Rock, and a younger pair of brothers that I knew, James and John, on their way to the boats. The older two were married men, but James was in his late teens, and John was five years younger.
“One of the soldiers from the fort was killed last night,” I said.
They looked at me expressionlessly, which suggested that they already knew about it.
“Have you heard anything about it?”
They said No.
“I guess sometimes a soldier comes in to town and has too much to drink? Doesn’t know what he’s doing, pesters some girl, or insults some people… Hear anything like that last night?”
“Because if he’s the one who caused all the trouble in the first place, I don’t want to see innocent people getting punished for it.”
It looked like they were starting to see what I meant, but they still said nothing.
“Maybe you don’t know where he was, or what he was doing, or who he talked to… But do you think that maybe he caused some trouble, maybe started a fight, and people had to protect themselves, and that’s how he got killed?”
I wasn’t getting a lot of help from them.
“I mean, is it possible? Because we’re going to have to tell the fort. And I don’t want you or anyone else getting punished if he was the one who caused all the problems.”
Finally the older teen, James, said, “I think you’re probably right. I think that Roman probably had too much wine and started a fight. Don’t you?” he asked the others. “But I didn’t hear anything last night, and I don’t think we can find out exactly what happened.” They nodded.
“Then help me out, here. I need to write a quick report, and I’d like you to find someone who can run with it to the fort – run, mind you, so they can see we’re concerned about all this – to let them know what’s happened, and collect the body.”
They agreed, and headed back to town; none of them wanted to be seen by the fort, but they’d find someone. I went into my office and wrote a couple of sentences to Buteo stressing that this was the result of a single incident, not a riot. I folded the letter, wrote Buteo’s name on the outside and sealed it up with Pilate’s seal. A boy of about twelve came to the door.
“Give this to the guard at the fort’s gate. If he says you should go with him, then do it – they won’t hurt you, but they may want you to lead them back to where the body is. Here is an as – have you ever had a coin before? Well, this is for you, with my thanks, and I want you to run to the fort as fast as you can. If you arrive completely out of breath, so much the better. Off you go.”
He ran off, and I walked back to Rufus’ body. It would be most of an hour before the Romans arrived.
There were now a dozen people standing around the body. My fishermen friends were not among them, and I didn’t expect them further today. The small crowd was discussing what had happened, giving as facts the ideas that I had suggested, occasionally referring the proof of the facts back as “James says” or “Rock says”. No one was touching Rufus – they would become unclean if they did, and have to cleanse themselves before they could eat or pray. But hadn’t his sword been on him, earlier? I was sure it had been; but someone who didn’t mind touching a dead body had taken it off him.
An old woman was leaning over the body, and she asked me if she should take it and prepare it for burial. I said No, leave it for the soldiers. She was eyeing all the metal and cloth; she obviously had dreams of keeping it all as payment, and just wrapping a winding sheet round the corpse. She started to argue that the Law required that a dead person should be washed and buried in the prescribed manner, but a man kicked dirt at it:
“It’s a pig! Why would you wash a pig for burial?” and they all laughed.
“Maybe the Teacher will heal him.”
“This one’s too far gone even for the Teacher.”
“The Teacher doesn’t do pigs!” More general laughter.
“Who’s the Teacher?” I asked; and they quieted as they remembered my ambivalent outsider status.
“Jesus of Nazareth,” one answered. “You don’t know him?”
“Tell me,” I said.
They all spoke at once: “He’s a healer.” – “He’s a good man.” – “He travels around curing people.” – “He’s a prophet.”
The old woman said “He cured me: I had a devil in me, making me so sick I couldn’t do any work, and he threw it right out!”
“Granny, you’ve got more devils than I don’t know what!”
“He cured me,” she insisted. “He’s a prophet like John the Baptist. He says John baptized him in the Jordan and the power came into him, and he’s been healing and preaching ever since.”
“What does he preach?” I asked.
Again, a cacophony: “A return to God.” – “Return to the Law.” – “Prayer.” – “Ask this man.” – “Yes, ask him.”
The young man in question accepted his role seriously. “He teaches this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”
“Amen,” several people added quietly.
“That’s hardly original,” I said.
“No, and it shouldn’t be; he teaches Israel’s eternal relationship with God. He teaches the need to return to the original covenant we have with God. In re-purifying Israel, we not only please God, but we hasten the fulfillment of His plans.” He spoke in a more educated way than most people in Capernaum.
“But who knows the mind of the Lord?” I commented.
“There are the direct commandments of the Lord; and there are the words of the Prophets. And now all the prophecies are being fulfilled, and the time of God’s redemption of Israel is upon us.”
“The end of the world, then,” I said.
“The end of the world as it is now.” His voice strengthened. “The coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, when Israel is restored as a shining light to all nations, and God’s punishment comes on evildoers.”
“Like this.” I gestured at Rufus’ corpse. Several people agreed.
“A sign of the times, perhaps,” the serious man said, and others echoed “A sign! It is a sign!”
“So he preaches like John,” I suggested. “Baptism, purity, and the coming of God’s Anointed One to chase out the Romans?” It sounded like this Jesus was a Zealot.
“Like John, but more so. Purity, prayer, and following the Law, yes; but he heals the sick with a touch, with a prayer – I have seen him do it. However, baptism, no, he doesn’t baptize; and he is silent on the Messiah. But clearly, the Westerners will be gone from Israel when God’s Kingdom is restored, as will all unbelievers.”
“And who are you?” I asked.
“My name is Judas; but people mostly call me ‘Thomas’ – ‘the Twin’ – because Judas is such a common name.”
“Well, then, what do they call your twin?”
“He is long deceased.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I was debating saying that that must mean that he wasn’t a twin any longer – but at that point, several people glanced past me down the road and began to return to town. I looked round and saw the legionaries coming at a quick march, with the boy having to jog to keep up with them. When I turned back, I found that the old woman and I were alone with Rufus’ body.
“They left in a hurry,” I commented.
She gestured at the sun which had risen over the hills on the other side of the lake: “Perhaps they hadn’t yet said their morning prayers,” she explained vaguely and disingenuously.
The squad of six legionaries marched up rapidly, Buteo and Bibaculus in front, jaws clenched, eyes searching the scene so furiously that I felt physically threatened. Buteo halted the squad, made a gesture, and the body, the old woman and I were surrounded by angry armored men towering over us, hands on the hilts of their short swords. The boy held back, well out of reach, but apparently not wanting to leave.
Buteo knelt by the body, turned it over on its back. The head flopped unnaturally, the neck sliced almost from ear to ear. Buteo passed thumb and forefinger over the eyes to close them. The first fly of the early morning circled to investigate. “Stone cold,” Buteo said, “and stinks of wine.” He murmured a little prayer, perhaps to Mithras, who knows? He patted the corpse’s chest as though consoling it, and stood up. “What happened?” These were his first words to me. From his tone of voice I could have been a stranger or the killer.
“People were saying he was drunk, Buteo – Squad Leader –” I said, trying to remind him I was a friend, trying to respect the ingrained formality of the soldier on duty. “He was mistreating a girl, insulting the family. A fight started, and he was killed – but no one knows who did it. I talked with several of the locals. It must have happened in the middle of the night.”
“They all left in a hurry when they saw us coming.”
“Morning prayers. But surely Bibaculus knows what happened?”
Buteo glanced at Bibaculus who had bloodshot, unfocused eyes, and decided to speak for him: “He came in long after dark. He said that he and Rufus had to wait for the local holy day to end at sunset before anyone would even talk to them. Then they had some wine, and got split up following different girls for some dinner and to try their luck, and eventually he just walked back. He thought Rufus either didn’t want to be disturbed, or was already back at the fort.” His jaw clenched, twitched. “I need to get the locals to tell me who did it.” The legionaries straightened up. I didn’t like the mood.
“Do you want me to ask the old woman what happened?”
He breathed heavily, then nodded.
I asked a series of questions about what had been happening in the evening, and relayed the answers: “She says a preacher came into town for the Sabbath, and a lot of other people from round about showed up to hear him, and they all got hungry but nobody could prepare food until after sunset, so then it got busy and confused and no one knew what was going on. She doesn’t know anything about this man.” She was still talking to me, so I relayed that to Buteo as well: “And she wants to know if you will let her prepare the body for burial, as the Law says it must be done, and you have no women at the fort to do it for you.”
“Tell her that the Romans bury their own dead, and wouldn’t trust a Jewish mongrel not to pillage the corpse.”
I translated that to her as “He’s thanking you for the kind offer, but regrets that Roman Law requires them to do it themselves.”
She asked me to suggest that she alone had stood by the corpse to safeguard it from desecration, dogs, theft and so on, but I merely replied to her that, first, I had been the one who chased the dogs off, and that if she cared to return the sword her words might carry more weight.
She decided to bypass me, and held out her hand directly to Buteo for money, but I intervened with him to say she had done nothing and, if he wanted to pay anyone a coin, it should be the boy who had run to him with the news. The boy was still standing by obediently, and another as to him would be reasonable.
Buteo had no money on him. So I pulled out my almost-empty purse and gave the boy another tiny coin. It was worth it, to imply to the Romans that I and they could work with at least some of the locals. Then I stared at the old woman, and she left reluctantly.
Buteo said, “And you suspect that it was Rufus’ own fault.”
“Bibaculus got back without any trouble. It doesn’t look like a riot or an uprising. No one has threatened you, or me for that matter.”
“I wonder why he was killed out here.”
“Perhaps they were fighting here; or perhaps whoever killed him dumped his body here, to get it away from wherever it happened.”
“No,” looking at the stream and pool of dried blood, “he was killed here, no question. And you didn’t hear anything last night?”
“Not a thing,” I admitted truthfully.
A cold savagery surfaced in his voice as his turn to his squad: “Maybe it’s time to go into town and teach these peasants some facts about the legionaries of the Roman Empire.”
They were making angry animal noises, grunts and snorts, as they answered: “Beat the truth out of them.” “Make sure that I kill one of them for Rufus.” “Not just one – ten for a legionary.”
Meanwhile I asked the boy, “Where’s the Teacher staying?”
“He usually stays with Andrew and Rock. But I think he already left.”
“Why do you think that?”
“He always leaves really early in the morning, if too many people come. I mean, he’ll be there all day, like yesterday, to teach and heal people, but if there’s too many people he doesn’t stay. And I saw a lot of other people leaving this morning, and they wouldn’t go if he hadn’t gone.”
I told Buteo, “The boy says the preacher, and a lot of other people who showed up, have already left. My guess is that whoever killed Rufus will be gone already; he may not even have been from this town in the first place. In that case, it wouldn’t be seen as justified in any way to kill a local person – you have to at least kill someone from the right family, or you’ll just be setting up a requirement for your victim’s family to kill another legionary.”
“Let them try!”
“But then you won’t be able to come into town any more, and neither farmers nor girls will visit the fort.” I was trying to be both light-hearted and serious at the same time. “Whoever relieves you in a couple of months’ time won’t thank you for it; nor will Caninus. Nor First File. Trust me: I know it hurts; I know it’s an insult to you, to the Legion, and to Rome; but my guess is that Rufus got drunk and caused the fight, and also that whoever killed him won’t be in Capernaum any longer. Your career depends on your keeping a cool head. It’s best to let this go.”
The word ‘career’ might have had the biggest effect on all of them. Buteo stared at me for several seconds. Then he gave a signal, and a legionary who had been carrying a stretcher now laid it down beside Rufus. They lifted the body onto the stretcher; two legionaries picked it up, and they stood waiting. Buteo pulled his sword from its scabbard, and said angrily:
“Then put one hand on your genitals, and one hand on Rufus’ chest, and swear to me by all the gods that if you discover who killed Rufus, you will tell me.”
It was a strange and icy feeling to make such a Roman oath, but I did so and I looked Buteo in the eye and said “By Jupiter and all the gods, and as all of you are my witnesses, I so swear.”
Buteo nodded. His mood had changed. “I was responsible for Rufus. He was a good man. We’ll miss him.”
I doubted Rufus would be missed for long, but the living feel easier in the presence of the dead if they honor them. Who knows where the dead are, if anywhere; and, if somewhere, who knows what they are capable of. ‘Nescio, et tu quoque.’
They formed up, and set off back to the fort.
I felt that I had saved a life, and probably a whole chain of lives that might well have included my own.
The boy, who clearly didn’t understand any Latin, said, “Why did he make you touch the body? Now you’re unclean too – you’ll have to wash before you touch anyone, or – ”
“I know, I know… I did it because I was making him agree not to kill anyone in revenge for the soldier, if we don’t know who the murderer was.”
“But the Law says ‘eye for eye, and tooth for tooth’.”
“ Yes, but not your eye, or tooth, right? You want me to call them back, and let them kill you?”
“No!” He laughed, but edged away.
“Well then, who? We don’t know who killed him. Off you go.”
I went to the lake and stripped off my robe. The air was summer-morning cool, the water was the same temperature. I walked in and immersed myself, praying, in a sense, “OK, whatever god is listening, make me clean enough for the Jews,” and wondering whether or not I was a Jew, and whether Yahweh was a minor local god in Jupiter’s heavenly pantheon, or whether maybe ‘Yahweh’ was just the Hebrew name for Jupiter, and all their angels and demons and suchlike were merely lesser gods. And in that case, isn’t believing in angels and demons just another way of believing in lots of gods?
I dried myself with my robe and put it back on, and went in to Capernaum to see about getting some breakfast. I went to Mama’s house, which was bustling with the activity of the first day of the week. She was sweeping dirt out into the street.
“Good morning to you,” I said politely, expecting some offer of refreshment in reply.
Instead she said curtly, “You weren’t at home for your dinner last night.”
“No, but I’ll be happy to have it now.”
“It got eaten – there were a lot of guests here.” She finished sweeping, studied me. “Where are your friends?”
I looked around. “Oh, you mean the Romans? One of them was murdered last night; did you hear?” No response. “They came for the body, and took it back to the fort.”
“They’ve all gone?”
“Are they coming back?”
“I don’t think so. I told them that no one that I had talked to knew what had happened, and that the killer would have left already. I told them that it would be both unjust and foolish to punish the wrong people.”
“And you think they will leave us alone, just like that?”
I considered. “I think I convinced them.”
“You’re working for the Westerners, but you’re protecting us.”
“Well, I’m actually working for the Tetrarch, not the Romans; but I’m friends with them. I prefer to be friends with everyone. In a situation like this, my concern is for the innocent.”
She studied me. Then: “Your hair is wet.”
“I touched the body. I needed to get cleansed in the lake.”
She looked at me a moment more, and nodded: “You’re a good man. Come on through to the courtyard. Rachel! Bring some breakfast for Matthew Levi!”
I kissed the mezuzah as I went through.
So it was that I gained a little more trust, despite who I was and what I did for a living.
But the story didn’t have quite so tidy an ending. I was in my office later that day when there was a mixture of shouting and wailing from different parts of the town, most of the noise from some distance away.
I never got a complete understanding of what Rufus had done, whether he had raped or seduced a girl, or whether it was a willing or paid event, or whether she was married or betrothed or not. But in any case it had happened in town, and she hadn’t been screaming Rape!, so she was dealt with according to Mosaic Law. She was taken out of town, and placed chest-deep in a pit with her hands tied behind her back, and the pit was filled in with dirt to trap her, and the townspeople threw bricks and rocks at her for a few minutes until she was dead. Hence the men shouting and the girl screaming and the friends and relatives wailing.
I didn’t see this one, but I’ve seen it before. It starts slow, and the first couple of stones usually miss. Then a couple will hit her on the arms or torso. And once the first brick has hit her head, no one feels the need to hold back any longer, and the crowd mind takes over. Everyone wants to be part of the action without feeling any guilt about being the one who actually killed her. And there’s no way for one person to stop a hundred who are in a killing mood.
All the men and several women take part. It’s fulfilling the Law. And it serves as a warning to all women to run and hide from Romans, not to flirt, not to serve them, not even to be seen by them.
If I hadn’t prevented Buteo from leading his men in, would this girl who I never met have lived? I have no idea. But maybe in some twisted way I contributed to her death.