“When Yeshua merely stood in silence, Pilatus’s hands and jaw both went slack. But the silence on the steps was broken by the crowd below us, which now began demanding that my master release a prisoner for the feast as he did every year.
“Pilatus did not raise his hands again, but he did smile in a small way. He asked, ‘Do you wish me to release for you the King of the Jews?’
“More than one chief priest cried out immediately, ‘Release Barnabas!,’ and the shout was taken up by the crowd.
“It was then that Pilatus raised his hands once more, and it was then that he asked of the mob, ‘Then what shall I do with this man whom you call the King of the Jews?’
“‘Crucify him!’ was the unanimous response.
“Pilatus lowered his arms once more. ‘Why, what evil has he done?’
“The answer of the mob was unchanged: ‘Crucify him!’
“Slowly, Pilatus turned to a tribune and ordered him to ‘Release Barnabas.’ The crowd cheered when they overheard this, and cheered even more when Pilatus, pointing downward at a Yeshua looking upward at the heavens, ordered a second tribune to have the man flogged.
“I, my good friend, wrote none of this down.”
“This man named Yeshua was scourged at the foot of those very steps, before my very eyes, then was led into the interior of the palace by Roman soldiers. This entire time I remained at the side of Pilatus, who watched the flogging with dispassionate interest before following the trail of blood up the steps.
“In the courtyard through which I had passed to first meet my master, the silent Nazarene was made to stand as the city’s entire Roman garrison of a cohort was gathered in and around the palace. They dressed him in a mocking purple robe, and pulled a crown of thorns down upon his head the moment it had been twisted into creation. The century which had been assembled along the periphery of the courtyard then began to mock him, shouting ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ to the pounding of their javelin butts on the flagstones.
“The chanting continued through the beating of Yeshua’s head with a staff, through the spitting upon him by those soldiers close enough to do so, and partly through the solemn kneeling of the century’s centurion before the ‘King of the Jews.’ This action on the part of their leader prompted a gale of laughter from the martial assembly, and then the purple was replaced with the man’s own humble garments.
“Through this scene as well I remained at Pilatus’s side, near the entrance to the courtyard and the palace, and thus I was well positioned to view Yeshua of Galilee closely as he was led out to be crucified. Imagine my surprise when I viewed the wounds upon this Yeshua’s forehead as he passed by me bent-over: they were already healing beneath the still-fresh blood! It was at that moment that I cried out to Yeshua, in English: ‘You’re a time traveler! You’re a fraud! You’re no Son of God!’
“And this Yeshua, he stopped a mere few feet from me, and turned, still bent over from his beating. He said, smiling at me but not looking at me, ‘There are some standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom.’
“The centurion won another round of laughter with the shout, ‘Shut up, your Majesty!,’ and nudged Yeshua forward with the flat of his drawn sword.
“I, my friend, stood stock-still beside my master, who chose to remain out of sight within the palace walls rather than be associated further with a martyring. But I am not certain that I would have been able to move if motion had been ordered of me, as I was stunned in place.
“Was there another sign?” Carter whispered.
Cartaphilus attempted to smile, but this time could not. “No further sign was needed, at least from my perspective. That he was no mortal is without a doubt, for this Yeshua of Galilee spoke to me not in Latin, nor even in Aramaic, which I had mastered during the preceding months. His utterance was in perfect English.”
“And what happened next?” Carter whispered, his hands entwined before his knees and his smoking habit temporarily forgotten.
Only now did Cartaphilus smile again. “Why, then they crucified him, of course.”
Carter reached for the pack over his heart. “And what happened to you?”
“I stayed by my master’s side, literally in the short run and figuratively in the long. I was by Pilatus’s side in the palace when evening came, when a member of the Sanhedrin arrived to request Yeshua’s body. You might imagine my burning desire to follow the man and his Roman escort out to Golgotha after Pilatus had granted the man’s wish; only a fear of suffering the same fate of crucifixion kept me at my master’s side.
“But you cannot imagine, my friend, the subtle commotion which followed two days later when rumors of Yeshua’s resurrection began to fly. It was not the two Marys and Salome who spread the word that the crucified had stirred in his tomb, for women were not then heeded and Pilatus and I heard not a word of those women. The sources were two men who had been paid by a disciple to roll a stone away from the entrance to the cave where Yeshua had been laid to rest. One man claimed that the body was no longer there, and one claimed to have heard the rustle of linen in the darkness. But the essence of the message reached my master’s ears, and he seemed eager to return to Caesarea once Passover had ended.
“It was after Passover had ended, as spring reached full bloom, that the followers of Yeshua exploded in number. My master was dismayed by the rumors of speech in foreign tongues and healing of cripples by Yeshua’s followers, doubly dismayed since he was certain that what words reached him in Caesarea were only the outer bands of the storm centered upon Jerusalem.
“After I had read a dispatch from the primus pilus in Jerusalem regarding the stoning of a follower of Yeshua named Stephen and the subsequent persecution of his fellow ‘disciples,’ my master admitted to me, as he gazed upon the Mediterranean from the tranquil pool of his seaside palace, that he gained hope from the incident. Indeed, most of the followers of Yeshua were forced underground (if not out of Judea altogether), but the stoning of that saint only triggered the metastasis of this new movement. Pilatus forbid a man named from Philip from preaching the word of Yeshua within Caesarea’s walls, but the Prefect seemed to have realized that events were now beyond his control (if they ever were within his control), and he did nothing overt.
“The despair I sensed within my master might explain his reaction to the nascent rise of the next religious movement within the confines of his jurisdiction, this one led by a pretender in Samaria. The man promised to show the Samaritans the sacred vessels Moses had supposedly hidden on Mount Gerizim, a horde of humanity promptly gathered at the foot of the mountain, and my master’s cavalry promptly slaughtered many of them.
“I had the misfortune of witnessing the attack from atop a horse beside my master’s own mount, and I sensed instantly, as I watched a geyser of blood burst from the neck stump of an unarmed and decapitated man, that Pilatus had made a mistake grave for himself.
“Indeed, the Samaritans reported the Prefect to Vitellius, the Legate of Syria in Antioch. I was the one who had the displeasure of reading aloud the dispatch from my master’s superior, who informed Pilatus that a man named Marcellus would be replacing him ‘temporarily,’ and who ordered Pilatus in the same dispatch to embark for Rome immediately to answer charges stemming from the Mount Gerizim incident.
“And so that is how my master, his wife, and I alone together, since I was his only private servant, departed Caesarea on a ship bound first for the port of Alexandria ad Issum in Asia Minor. Pilatus complained loudly to a fellow passenger and his wife that he had arrived in Judea aboard his own vessel, taking the direct route from Rome through the ‘real’ Alexandria of Egypt, but the ex-Prefect quieted when he saw the fear in his fellow citizen’s eyes; it was left unsaid that this was how the Emperor treated those fallen from grace.
“The one unaccompanied passenger on the ship (and the last to board at Caesarea) said not a word to us others when he trudged onto the departing vessel, and he remained in his own cramped quarters whenever my master or his wife stood outside theirs to enjoy the fresh sea air. This passenger seemed not to find me as threatening as my master, and this is how he and I came to stand side by side on a cold-yet-calm night beneath the stars which always seemed to burn more brightly in antiquity.
“The rocking of the boat, even on the relatively placid waters of Mare Nostrum, had induced a bout of insomnia on the overnight voyage to our first port, and I emerged from my cabin to stare at those ever-fixed pinpoints of light in the sky in the hope of easing my nausea. The stranger smiled and nodded at me as I pulled up near him along the starboard edge of the vessel, as if he had been expecting my arrival. ‘The stars burn brightly this evening,’ he observed as he raised his eyes heavenward once more.
“I was somewhat startled by the similarity of his words to my thoughts, and only mumbled back in Latin, ‘Indeed.’
“‘We should arrive in Alexandria just as the sun is rising over its hills,’ he observed. ‘Have you even been to Alexandria ad Issum?’
“‘No,’ I replied.
“I’m originally from Tarsus,’ he explained, his hands resting firmly on the battlement which separated us from the rolling moonlit sea. ‘It’s to home I return. I gather your home is not Caesarea.’
“‘I’m from the West,’ I replied, preferring as always to hew to the truth as much as possible (the closer one lies to the truth, the better one lies).
“‘Your Latin is meticulous, but your accent is unfamiliar.’
“‘What takes you to Tarsus, or took you from it?’ I asked, eager to change the subject.
“‘Work in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,’ the stranger replied with a smile.
“I suddenly became dizzy beneath those stars, and gripped the wood before my hands.
“‘Are you okay?’ the stranger asked me, and I replied that I was ‘fine.’ I then added that I had to return to my cabin, lest my master Pontius Pilatus awaken and see me conversing without his approval.
“The man seemed unperturbed by this revelation of his fellow passenger’s identity (I again had the strange feeling of an omniscience in my presence), and he merely replied, ‘Very well then. Till the morrow.’
“At the door to my cabin, I turned and asked the name of the man already looking back up at the constellations. The stranger looked down and back with a slow smile, and replied, ‘Paul. From Tarsus.’
“Without another word, I half-fell into my cabin, slammed shut the door, and puked into the bowl for motion sickness provided beneath my bed.”
“The next morning began for me with Pilatus violently banging on my door, shouting, ‘Cartaphilus, get up!’
“I, who had been assigned no morning duties (other than to accompany my master and mistress off the ship for a day’s rest on land once it docked at that ‘other’ Alexandria), hastily pushed off my bed and opened my door to a Pilatus already dressed in his toga.
“The crisis-opportunity proved to be political in nature. ‘The Emperor is dead,’ my master informed me matter-of-factly against the backdrop of the dock we had presumably just arrived at. ‘We sail for Heracleum on Candia in another ship to see how the situation develops,’ he added.
“I looked about the ship and dock for my fellow passenger Paul, but it was only a passing look. ‘You will continue on to Candia,’ I informed my master. ‘We part ways here.’
Pilatus responded by smacking me across the cheek. ‘Do you know what punishment I can have inflicted on you?’ he asked me. Pilatus’s wife, already properly dressed, stared at me with a slack jaw and horrified eyes.
“‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘but I also know you’d rather not come to the attention of the local authorities, especially considering our proximity to Antioch. Vitellius might find it desirable to have you detained ‘to see how the situation develops.’
“Pilatus struck my other cheek and grew red with fury, but said not a word more.
“‘I can write the writ of manumission myself,’ I offered.”
“And so that is how I came to obtain my freedom from Pontius Pilatus. My former master and his wife sailed on to an uncertain fate, and I was left broke and alone in a strange port, let alone a strange era. For lack of a better plan, I journeyed forth from Alexandria ad Issum to find this Paul of Tarsus.
“For four days I walked a Roman road to the city of Tarsus, rationing the free daily bread provided to all denizens of Alexandria on the day of my departure. I drank from mountain streams and slept beneath the stars wrapped in the cloak which was my most valuable possession, secure in the knowledge that any highway brigands would see my poverty instantly and let me be.
“I acquired more bread upon my arrival in Tarsus, then set about inquiring among the Jews of the city after a man named ‘Saul,’ just returned from Jerusalem. More than one shopkeeper scowled and waved me away, but the last one jabbed one finger down the narrow street his earthenware shop abutted upon and informed me in Greek that Saul’s shop was the last on the block’s right.
“And so I came upon Paul from Tarsus in his tent shop, in the middle of his creation of a leather abode for an unseen customer, most likely a caravan trader eager to depart on one last journey to Persia before the summer heat spread across the region. Paul looked up from a stitch made with a steel needle, and smiled at me in an eerie way, as if he had been expecting me. ‘Welcome to Tarsus, my friend,’ he said simply, in Greek.
“‘Thank you,’ I replied, in simple Greek as well. I then asked him if he would like assistance doing the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Paul replied, ‘Yes, and you can start by helping me with this sewing.’”
“I was baptized in a local river later that day and, just like that, I became a part of the nascent Christian community of Tarsus. ‘Nascent’ the community most certainly was, as the followers of Christ in Tarsus were only a handful in number, and not even yet ‘Christian’ in name.
“But the spirit was certainly there amongst us. I was one of only two Gentiles in the lot (the other being a widower who had found his new life through a Christian business partner), but the Jewish disciples ignored their tradition’s prohibitions against eating with Gentiles and gladly shared the daily common meal and Eucharist with us.
“And I did not suffer material wants either, as Paul took me on as an apprentice tentmaker, providing room and board in the apartment above his shop and paying me small sums for each tent I produced in whole or in part once I had learned the rudiments of the trade.
“But the longer one lives, my friend, the more one is aware of the impermanence of life. I was standing outside my mentor’s shop one sunny morning, kneading hands which were knotted from a night’s work filling an order from the local Roman garrison, when my eyes fell upon a beautiful young woman and her mother walking my way down the street.
“I kept kneading my hands, if only to maintain the appearance of business, but my eyes followed the dark-haired beauty as she and her mother stopped before a cloth merchant’s shop to browse amongst the bolts on display. I thought of the slave girls for sale at the market not a mile away, then thought of the measly collection of coins I had scraped together in the preceding months as a tentmaker’s apprentice.