The Naked Man: pt. 7

Dinner had been a simple affair of fish and raw vegetables. At first the children were somewhat reticent to talk, but when they learned that their great-uncle Mark lived in Rome they began peppering him with all kinds of questions about the city that lay at the heart of the Empire – talk that would not be permitted in their own home. They were spending the night with their great-grandmother, and as a servant wrestled the four of them up the stairs to the upper room, Mark and his mother retired to an inner room, and made themselves comfortable on a couple of low couches. “Now,” Miryam said, “tell me about the letter you received from Simeon.”

Mark pulled the letter out from his tunic, and ran his fingers over the parchment as he talked. “Ever since the Revolt began, Simeon has been faithful to write to me with news of the ecclesia here in Jerusalem. I know that opposition to those who belong to the Way is nothing like the persecution that we endured in the earliest days here in Jerusalem, but the Revolt has brought a different kind of pressure upon you all.”

“Yes it has,” agreed Miryam. “Whenever we gather to break bread together, to pray and to receive instruction, talk often turns to the Revolt. Many among the Way have family members belonging to the various factions in Jerusalem, and they are constantly being pressured to align themselves with one or the other. There is talk throughout the city that the great and terrible day of the Lord is at hand. I have heard it even among our friends. ‘The Lord of hosts is mustering the army for battle. The Lord and his instruments of indignation, to destroy the whole land. Wail, for the day of the Lord is near!’

“‘I will punish the world for its evil,’ Mark said, now recalling the words of Isaiah himself, ‘and the wicked for their sin; I will put an end to the arrogance of the proud, and abase the haughtiness of the ruthless.’ Your friends believe the prophet speaks of Rome?” “Yes,
answered Miryam, “they do. The talk began following the battle of Beth Horon two years ago. And why not? A Roman legion had never suffered such casualties before – and at the hands of Galilean peasants!” Mark nodded. “That defeat was the talk of Rome for months. When Cestius Gallus assembled the Twelfth Syrian legion to stamp out the unrest in Judaea, his march down the coast and on to Jerusalem seemed destined to end the Revolt before it really began. The one stumble along the way was the loss of 500 troops in the battle with rebels led by Simon bar Giora.”

That one,” interjected Miryam. “He is the hope of Israel, according to your brother Benyamin. To others, he is more. Much more.” “So I hear,” said Mark. “He bloodied the Legion’s nose that day, that’s for sure. But when the Legion finally arrived at Jerusalem, I’m sure you all expected the worst.” “We did,” she responded. “But then, the miracle. We still don’t know why they pulled up stakes and left. And when the rebels ambushed them at Beth Horon, 6,000 legionaries fell – and they lost the Eagle of the Twelfth. The standard was paraded into Jerusalem, even as Gallus abandoned his troops and fled to Syria.”

“And now Simon bar Giora is the savior of Jerusalem,” reflected Mark. “Yes,” said Miryam, “he is. He is quite the story. Beginning as the leader of a small band of bandits, when he arrived with a sizeable army to overturn the rule of the zealots, he was practically followed as king by the train of thousands who entered the city with him. Much like David long ago, the people are saying.”

Mark’s eyes grew distant. “‘And then if anyone says to you, “Behold, here is the Christ”; or, “Behold, he is there”; do not believe him; for false Christs and false prophets will arise, and will show signs and wonders, in order if possible, to lead the elect astray. But take heed; behold, I have told you everything in advance.’” His eyes refocused on his mother. “After Jesus spoke the word about the fall of the temple, he departed for the Mount of Olives. Peter and Andrew, James and John questioned him as they looked across the Kidron, gazing upon those shimmering walls. They asked him how they would know when the time was close. Peter often recounted to me the long discourse Jesus engaged in – full of such warnings. And surely those warnings were not only for the Twelve, then: they are for members of the Way, here and now.”

Miryam’s eyes clouded for a moment. “Yohannan, the pressure is almost constant: all true and faithful Jews must rally to the defense of Jerusalem. Simon bar Giora will lead the people in one final battle against ‘Babylon’ – Rome – and the Kingdom promised to David will arise.” Mark shook his head wearily. “And what do you say in response?” His mother offered him a wan smile. “Simeon often reads from the tract you wrote for the community of the Way in Rome, to remind us here in Jerusalem of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed; of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Mark nodded thoughtfully. “I had talked for long hours about the need for such a tract with both Peter and, later, with Paul. After the Great Fire in Rome, the task became urgent. Oh mother, I know you have endured terrible things here during the worst of the civil war, but you cannot imagine the horror of those days. Members of The Way seized, their bodies covered in pitch, hoisted up on crosses and set ablaze to light the roadways at night. Others thrown to packs of wild dogs in the arena. The citizens of Rome held Nero responsible for the fire, and he needed a scapegoat: we were an easy target. Could we hold fast to the Way of Jesus under such persecution? Many did not.”

His mother leaned forward. “We do not suffer as you did in Rome, but you see that the need for such a gospel is as urgent here in Jerusalem now as it was in Rome five years ago. I fear for our community – that many will abandon the Way to join the armed revolt.” She gripped his arm. “Will you stay? Instruct us – we have great need to be reminded again of what Jesus taught…how he lived…how he died. Can you stay?”

“Yes,” he said. “I can stay. And perhaps here, in the shadow of the temple, I will revisit the way I composed the tract…”

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