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.
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 conspiringâ”
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.
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?”
She lowered her hands and clenched them to fists. Only yesterday he had ordered his followers to buy swords.
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 â¦ 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
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. IâI 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 â¦ if you are still free to do so â¦ 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.
We have friends in Samaria. You and Shimon both studied with Yohanan. Perhaps he wouldâ”
“Maryam”âhe reached over to stroke her hairâ“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.
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, afterâ”
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.”
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.”