Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Case of the Empty Tomb - Part 3

  I was pleased this case was going to be a simple one.  I was in no mood for a long, drawn out, and complicated investigation.  The sooner I could return to my quarters the better.
     I took my leave of Marcus Malachi and left the Upper City.  The sun beat down as if roasting Jerusalem, and the sickly smells of the city grew heavy and made my head swim.  Walking north, I passed under the viaduct through a different street than I had come, and made my way to the city gate in the western wall.  Passing through the gate, I saw Calvary across the road.  The locals referred to it as Golgotha, the place of the skull, and it was here public executions took place.  Poles– or stipes– stuck out of the ground waiting for their victims to come bearing the crosspiece– or patibulum– that would be fixed to the stipe.  The condemned would then be tied or nailed hands and feet to the cross.  Crucifixion was a strong deterrent to prevent civil disobedience, and no one ever seemed to question its results.  As I stared at these grim, silent sentinels, they seemed to say: memento mori– remember that you will die.  I turned away from them and walked north. The road sloped down and it met another road that led me below Calvary.   There I faced a rock wall that led straight up to the posts I had just seen.  Looking up at the rough rock facing, I could see how the place got its name, for there in the coarse rock were features that resembled a human skull.  Two deep hollows made up a pair of empty eye sockets.  Between the hollows, a pointed stone stuck out like a nose, and below that, the rock remarkably resembled a downcast mouth and jutting chin.  It seemed appropriate.  It was a place of death.  Close by were small caves where the dead were buried.  Before I had a chance to look for the empty tomb that once held the body of Jesus the Galilean,  I became aware of two men approaching.  I stood still and slowly eased into a cleft to remain undetected.
    The two men were older, about fifty years of age, and both were Hebrew.  From their manner of dress I could tell they were members of the Sanhedrin, one a Sadducee and the other a Pharisee, the two sects that vied for religious control in Jerusalem.  I thought it strange that they were here together.  Their actions seemed mysterious and conspiratorial.  Both appeared agitated and distressed, so much so that they did not even observe me as they passed close by.
    “He is gone, I tell you!” said the well-dressed Sadducee.
    “How can that be?” asked the other.
    “Come see for yourself!” the Sadducee told his companion.  “The stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty!”
    “Is it possible?”
    “If it happened, it is possible.”
    I followed them as they walked north along the rock wall.  I had no fear of being seen. They appeared so intent on their mission that they would not have noticed me had I walked beside them.  A short walk led us to a garden.  The two men stopped before the opening of a tomb cut into solid rock.  They stood there for a brief time before ducking inside.  I approached the opening silently and stood listening.  From inside their voices reached my ears, muffled and low.  Taking a deep breath, I followed them into the tomb.  It was a small cave and low, so low in fact I had to remain stooped over.  The cave had a strange smell, but I was certain it was not death I smelled.  I had smelled death before, and this was not the scent I remembered.  The two men, startled by my sudden appearance, jumped and cried out as if I were a spirit.
    “What are the two of you doing here?” I asked authoritatively.
    Both were struck momentarily dumb as they clutched at their hearts and looked guilty.
    Again I demanded to know the reason for their presence.
    “This is my tomb,” the Sadducee finally managed to utter.
    “And who are you?” I asked.

    “My name - “ he began.                                                               
    “Wait,” I said as an uneasiness crept over me.  “Let us go outside.  I do not care to question you in this place.”
   The three of us walked out into the hot light of day.
“Now,” I said, “who are you?”
    “My name is Joseph, I am from Arimathea, and this is my tomb.”
    The man was dressed in rich clothes of white, trimmed at the collar and cuff with detailed embroidery.
    “And you?” I said turning to the Pharisee.
    “My name is Nicodemus,” he replied with some resentment.  The man’s dress was simpler than that of his companion, and was trimmed with fringes and tassels.  “Who are you?”
    “I ask the questions here!” I stated boldly.  “I am Tribune Claudius Maximus, and I am looking for the body of Jesus of Nazareth.”  The two exchanged uneasy glances.  “This is his tomb, is it not?”
    “No,” Joseph of Arimathea proclaimed.  “This is my tomb.”
    “Do not lie to me!” I shouted, and took a threatening step towards him.
    “No, no, Tribune,” said Nicodemus coming forward to defend his companion.  “Joseph is telling the truth.  This is his tomb.”
    “Then what were the two of you talking about moments ago when you said, ‘he is gone, the tomb is empty.’”
    The pair looked at me amazed as if I had performed some type of strange alchemy.  Then their faces drew down with a look of defeat.
    “Very well, Tribune, we will tell you,” began Joseph.  “Jesus of Nazareth was buried here, but I spoke the truth when I said it was my tomb.  I purchased this cave some time ago, and when Jesus was crucified I arranged for his body to be placed in here.”  He gestured to the cave.
    “Why would you do that?”
    “I knew the man,” Joseph said with pride.  “I loved him.  He deserved better.”
    “Better than what?”
    “He deserved better than to have been beaten, tortured, ridiculed and hung on a cross to die an agonizing death.  This was to be my final resting place, but when Jesus was put to death I asked to be given his body to bury here.”
    As the man spoke I could read the conviction in his entire demeanour.  His eyes locked onto mine intently, and he stood squarely facing me, his hands barely moving.  It had been my experience with Hebrews that when they spoke they gestured constantly.  All this led me to believe the man was intent on stressing his sincerity and the issue was very personal.
    “What is your story?” I asked the Pharisee named Nicodemus.
    “Both Joseph and I knew Jesus,” he began.  “We had the privilege to hear him speak.  We believed what he taught.  You must understand, Tribune, because of our positions in the community we could not openly follow him, but did so in secret.”
    “You are members of the Sanhedrin,” I stated, and both of them nodded.  “Your tribunal helped condemn the man.  How do you explain that?”
    “The Sanhedrin is made up of a seventy-one-man committee,” Joseph told me.  “Neither Nicodemus nor I agreed or consented to any action against Jesus.”
    “But you did not do anything to stop them,” I said not at all certain it was true.
    “You do not understand!” Joseph stated emphatically, but I suspected he was trying to convince himself.  “There was nothing we could do to save him!”
    The man appeared extremely anxious and his companion placed a reassuring hand on Joseph’s shoulder.
    “We are not proud of our actions, Tribune,” Nicodemus uttered in a calm voice.  It was the first time I had every seen Pharisee and Sadducee agree on anything.  “We were outnumbered.  Joseph spoke the truth– there was nothing we could do.”
    “So you sold your guilt for a hole in a rock,” I remarked unsympathetically.
    They looked at me shamefacedly and I knew their remorse to be genuine.   
    “Whom did you approach for permission to take the body?” I asked in a friendlier tone.
    “Why, the Governor, of course,” stated Joseph.
    “Pilate,” I said under my breath.  “Then what did you do?”
    It was Nicodemus who spoke: “Once we had his body I brought a mixture of aloes, myrrh and other aromatic plants and we wrapped them with his body in linen, as is our custom.”
    I nodded in understanding.  That was what I had smelled in the tomb.
    “We laid the body there,” Joseph said stooping and pointing to a small ledge of rock inside the cave.  “Then we rolled this stone in front of the entrance.”  He laid his hand on a large, round stone.
    I studied the rock.  It sat by the opening of the cave, and stood not quite as tall as a man. The rock was flat on two sides and its edge cut perfectly round.  Like the inside of the tomb, the stone was whitewashed.  A groove had been dug at the mouth of the cave so the rock could be rolled in place to block the opening.  I stood beside the stone and attempted to move it.  It did not budge.  I put my shoulder to it and tried with all my might until finally it moved.
    “You two could not have rolled this stone over the opening,” I said breathing heavy from my exertions.
    “Not the two of us alone,” Joseph admitted.  “Others were here.”
    “What others?”
    “His followers; men mostly, but there were even some women.”
    “Women.  Was Mary Magdalene among them?”
    “Yes, she was.”
    “Then what happened?”
    “I returned here later that evening,” Joseph said.
    “You did?  Why?”
    “I do not know exactly,” he said.  “I suppose I wished to be near him.”
    “Was anyone else here when you came?”
    “Yes, there was.  When I approached, I saw Roman guards in front of the tomb.”
    “What were they doing here?”
    “They were doing nothing, simply standing around.  I did not wish to be seen by them, so I left.  I did not return until early yesterday morning.  The guards were gone.  No one was here.  I was shocked to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.”
    “What did you do then?”
    “I did not know what to do, so I went home and thought what I should do next.  This morning I rushed off to find Nicodemus.  I told him what I saw.  He did not believe me, so I brought him here to see for himself.”
     I looked at Nicodemus who verified this with a nodding of his head.
    “You said there were others here at the time of the burial.”  They nodded.  “One or more of them may have returned after the burial, but before the guards arrived, and removed the body.”
    “For what purpose?” Nicodemus asked.
    I decided not to answer.  I thought a moment and said, more to myself than to them:  “The stone may have been rolled away from the inside.”
    Both men regarded me with strange looks, and one of them said with some confusion: “We do not understand your meaning.”
    “Someone inside the tomb could have rolled away the stone.”
    “But the man was dead.”
    “Was he?”  It was a question that had just occurred to me, but I did not wish to pursue it at this time.  “What if someone stayed behind inside the tomb when you sealed it?”
    “For what purpose?”
    “Never mind the purpose,” I said.  “Was it possible that someone stayed inside and later rolled away the stone from inside the cave?”
    “No,” Joseph said simply.
    “Why not?” I asked irritably.  I was forming a viable theory, something that might occur to one in a thousand men, and I did not like having it quashed by an old Hebrew.  “Might not someone have rolled away the stone from inside?”
    “The rock is held in place by these wedges,” Joseph spoke, and he stooped down and picked up two stones.  “Once the rock is before the opening, these wedges are braced against it to keep the stone in place.”
    “So I see,” I muttered, but had no intention of giving up on my theory.  “Let us try a small test, shall we.  I will go inside the tomb.  The three of us will roll the rock in place.  You two will secure it with the wedges and I shall attempt to remove the wedges and roll back the stone.”
    The two men regarded me as if I had suddenly gone mad.  I assured them I had not, but it still took a bit of convincing to get them to comply.
    From the outside the three of us moved the rock just enough so I might still slip inside the tomb.  After I had done so, it was a little more difficult to roll the rock into place so it would completely cover the opening.  I could no longer get a firm grip upon the rock, and my two assistants were not exactly up to the task physically.  Persistence and encouragement on my part finally won out as the rock moved little by little until it was in place.  I was amazed at how well it covered the entrance.  Very little light came through the cracks, and I found I had to shout to be heard by Joseph and Nicodemus.
 “Now place the wedges against the stone as you did originally,” I instructed them.  After a moment they called to me that they had done so.  The absence of light forced me to feel around the rock to find the edge near the ground.  Finding it, I attempted to slip my hand between the stone and the cave to reach the wedges.  Since the rock fit so tightly against the cave and was bigger than the opening, I found I could not get even a finger to the outside.  Thus I discovered my theory was flawed.  A difficult thing for a Roman to admit.
    “I cannot do it,” I called out to my companions.  There was no reply.  “Remove the wedges and let us roll back the rock.”  Still no reply.  In an instant I realized what a dangerous position I had placed myself in.  I barely knew these men, and here I had aided them in sealing me up inside a tomb.  Suddenly the air felt as if it had gone very thin.  The walls, which I could see better now that my eyes had adjusted to the dark, seemed to be closing in on me.  I could smell the sweet, sickening stenches of burial plants.  They began to choke me.  My breath came quick and shallow.  A thin layer of cold sweat broke out over my entire body.
    “Let us move aside the rock!” I cried out, trying not to sound frantic.  Clutching hold of the stone I sought a firm purchase and attempted to roll it back.  Fear and panic lent me strength and I strained against the rock.  I braced my legs and back and summed up every ounce of strength to move the rock manibus pedibusque.  My breathing became loud and laboured between the heavy grunts that coincided with my exertions.  Finally I sensed the stone move. With that, I renewed my efforts, and a slow steady motioned followed.  Sunlight broke into the tomb.  Fresh air filled my lungs.  I was barely aware of Joseph and Nicodemus pushing on the rock.  When the opening was big enough, I forced my way out, scraping the skin of my arms and legs against the stone and the cave mouth.  I practically fell to the ground, but the two older men were there to support me.
    “Are you hurt, Tribune?” Nicodemus asked earnestly.
    Out of breath I shook my head.  “What happened?” I finally managed to say.
    “We are no longer strong young men, Tribune,” Joseph said through his heavy breathing. “We had exerted ourselves putting the stone in place.  We found it difficult work to move it back again.”
    I regarded them closely looking for some sign of deception.  I privately rebuked myself for thinking so evil of these two men.
    With my hand I wiped the sweat from my forehead and face.  I said: “For a moment I thought  . . .  ”
    “You thought what, Tribune?”
    “Nothing.  It is not important.  Tell no one what transpired here,” I instructed them.
    “Tell no one of what?” they asked.
    “Tell no one of anything.  Tell no one of the empty tomb or our talk here.  Now go your way.  Hail Caesar!”
    I added the last part to sound more official.    

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Case of the Empty Tomb - Part 2

The first step in my investigation was to visit Meshullam Malachi, a Hebrew elder, scholar and philosopher, and perhaps the only friend I had in all Jerusalem.  I was not certain why Malachi and I had struck up such a quick friendship– me being a young Roman Tribune of twenty-eight, and he a Hebrew elder of sixty-seven.  Perhaps it was that we both shared Roman citizenship, neither of us being native of Judea, both outcasts from the lands of our birth.  Maybe it was because both he and I knew that things were never as simple as they seemed.  We were both men of the world and did not cling to any of the superstitions and steadfast beliefs other did.  Not that Malachi did not believe in his religion, it was simply that he did not have to go about proving it to others every day like a Pharisee.
    I descended the long, wide stairs of the Antonia Fortress and entered the market area in the city’s lowest ravine referred to as the Valley of the Cheesemakers.  The market appeared remarkably  crowded and busy today, due mainly to the fact that this was the Hebrews’ largest public festival– Passover, they called it.  At this time of year Jerusalem saw an incredible influx of Hebrews from all over the world, as pilgrims swarmed into the city to celebrate an ancient tradition.  During the seven-day festival, the Jewish population had swelled to four times its number, and I, for one, was pleased that these pilgrims would soon be leaving the city and returning to their homeland.  The last thing Jerusalem needed was more Jews. 
    I passed the seemingly endless stalls where merchants hawked their wares and haggled with customers as if their very lives depended on making a bargain.  The market was noisy with activity, and the smells of fruits and vegetables mingled with the aromas of spices and perfumes– not always a pleasant mixture.  I pushed my way through the hurly-burly detecting foreign accents and spotting pilgrims from their different style of dress.  They stood out on the streets of Jerusalem as much as I did.
    I purchased some sun-dried grapes for breakfast and stuffed them into my mouth as I walked south through the city.  To my left, adjoining the fortress, stood the mighty walls of the Temple Mount, and beyond the walls in the middle of a spacious court surrounded by stone balustrades with pinnacles, stood the mysterious Temple.  The Temple was the centre of life for the Hebrews and the sole reason the pilgrims had come to Jerusalem.  There were more Jews in the rest of the world than there were in the entire country I would wager, and all of them, both foreign and domestic, payed tithes to the Temple.  I walked beside the long wall of large square-cut stones that led to a viaduct.  Passing under the viaduct that cut across the city from east to west and connected the Temple Mount to the Citadel, I entered the Upper City.  Here lived Jerusalem’s elite, the rich, the influential, the elders and priests.  Here also was the modest home of Meshullam Malachi.  It was not generally acceptable for Jews to be seen associating with non-Jews, so Malachi and I set up a system so we could meet and talk sub rosa.  In his home I greeted him by his Greco-Roman name of Marcus because I knew he did not like it.
    “Greetings, young Maximus,” he replied showing no offence.  He was a handsome man, for an old Hebrew, with a long, straight nose that was more Greek than Roman, and a large, flexible mouth.  His long grey hair matched his beard, but his most notable features were his green eyes that looked as they must have when he was a young man– vital and sharp.  The deep lines on his face betrayed his age and reflected great wisdom.  I found him dressed in robes common to his people, though understated for one of his station.  It was a plain white ankle-length, seamless tunic tied at the waist by a long girdle.  Malachi seldom smiled openly, but there was still honour and mirth hidden there on his face.  The man was Thracian by birth, educated in Jerusalem as a boy, and in the rest of the world as a man.  He spoke a dozen languages and knew practically everything.  In my position he was indispensable to me.
    “You are well?” he asked sincerely.
    “I am as well as I can be,” I answered.  “And how are things?”
    “Things are as they are. What brings the Roman Tribune Maximus to my humble abode?”
    “I am in need of your services.”
    “My services are that of a teacher.  Have you come to learn?”
    I nodded.
    “I teach men the ways of the Hebrew faith,” he said.  “Have you come to learn the Hebrew faith?”
    “One does not learn part of the Hebrew faith, my young friend.  It is all or nothing.”
    I said, “I have a problem.”
    “As always.”
    “I need information.”
    “As always.”
    “I am in need of information that only you can provide,” I began the litany.  “If you can aid me in this, I will be humbly in your debt.”
    There was a hint of a smile on his lips as he heard the words he was waiting for.
    “Tribune Maximus, my limited knowledge is at your service.  How may I aid you and the Roman Empire?”
    Sometimes Malachi put on displays of servitude– the conquered serving the conqueror, but we both knew he took undue pleasure in seeing a Roman ask a Hebrew for aid.  Moreover, it made him feel useful, and gave him the opportunity to display his remarkable mind.
    “What can you tell me of a man called Jesus of Nazareth?” I asked plainly.
    Malachi’s face grew a little sterner, and said just as plainly: “He is dead.  You Romans crucified him.”
    “That much I know.  What else can you tell me about him?”
    The old man paused briefly.  From his demeanour, I– who knew him better than even he imagined– could see that his mind was recalling information, and was preparing to bring it forth like a fountain spouts out water.
    “Born in Bethlehem to a good family.  Father was a tradesman– now deceased.  Mother is a very holy woman.  Jesus lived in Nazareth most of his life.  There is nothing remarkable about his early years.  About three years ago he began a life as a teacher and developed a quick following.  His teachings were ridiculed in the Hebrew community.  Some say he blasphemed and taught heresy.  He more often could be found amongst known sinners than with respectable, God-fearing people.  Some uncorroborated accounts state that he performed miracles of healing. Still other say his teachings opposed the word of God.”
    “Did he?”
    “Did he what?”
    “Did Jesus go against the word of God?” I asked.
    “Basically he did– according to the letter of the law.”
    “You Hebrews and your law,” I remarked with a chuckle.
    “Our law,” Malachi said with conviction, “which was passed down to us from Moses, who, in turn, received them from God, is all we have!  It is who we are!  Rome has many laws. Where would the Roman Empire be without them?”
    I felt that I had struck a nerve, and made a mental note never to do it again.
    “Did the Hebrew elders see Jesus’s teachings as a serious infraction of your law?” I asked.
    “Yes,” he replied simply, but it was in the way he answered that told me there was something more.  “The elders considered some of the Galilean’s teaching as blasphemous,” he added.
    “And that is serious?”
    Marcus Malachi looked me in the eye, then turned away and said slightly abashed, “The penalty for blasphemy is death.”
    I looked back at him, surprised, and repeated, “Death?  That seems quite harsh.”
    He nodded. “I did not say it was easy being Hebrew.  We have come to understand dura lex sed lex– the law is hard but it is the law.”
    I nodded in understanding.
    “You stated that legally Jesus spoke against God’s law,” I said in a calm tone.  “Do you believe that to be true?”
    The old man studied me intently.  This conversation had arisen before.  He wanted me to understand that the law was the law.  But the law was interpreted by men, he had once told me in confidence, and whereas God was infallible, men were not.  Some law was open to interpretation.  Malachi had argued in the past with high priests and elders regarding their law. He learned to be discreet in his teachings and how he interpreted the law.  He had not been so discreet in Thrace, and it was this indiscretion that brought about his banishment.
    “I heard Jesus speak in the Temple once,” he told me with a combination of sadness and admiration.  “Later I had the opportunity to converse with him.”
    “A very charismatic young man.  He was only around thirty years of age.  I could not help but see something in him--something unique.  Not that all of his teachings were unique, but his views were different.  Non nova sed nove– not new things but in a new way.  He put things in such a simple manner that they were difficult to refute.  The more complicated you proposed a viewpoint or problem, the more simple he would make it.”
    “Your people boast of producing prophets, Malachi.  Was Jesus simply another prophet?”
    “Perhaps he was,” he uttered.  “But his teachings were not shared by the elders and high priests.  He had made enemies in the Sanhedrin.  And as you know, young Maximus, although Jerusalem is under the occupation of Rome, the Sanhedrin tribunal holds authority over Hebrew religious and legal disputes.”
    “Yes,” I said thoughtfully, “but tell me, Marcus, to whom do you owe allegiance, the Sadducees or the Pharisees?”
    “You know I do not choose sides in the tribunal,” he stated.  “I find the rift between the two groups only weaken us as a nation.  The differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees are minor.  Unfortunately they continue to argue their petty points, instead of tending to the welfare of the people.”
    “Was that view also shared by Jesus?” I  queried.
    He nodded and said, “I believe so.”
    I shook my head in incomprehension.  “What is the point of it all?” I asked.  “Will you people ever change?”
    Malachi drew back as if struck.  “There is no way I can make you understand what it is to be Hebrew,” he said.  “Our beliefs date back to Abraham.  They are beliefs and traditions hallowed by time, honed through practice, past on by generations.  It is what links us to the past and binds us to the one true God.  You smile.  Have I said something to amuse you?”
    “It is strange to hear you speak this way.  I did not believe you were encumbered by superstition.”
    “Make no mistake, Tribune”--he called me tribune.  He wished to remind me that I was Roman and he was Hebrew, and that there were certain lines we could not cross.  “Despite the Roman citizenship I inherited from my father, I am first and foremost Hebrew.  My faith and my beliefs are two other things I also inherited from my father, who  inherited them from his father all the way back to Abraham.  I could no more deny them than I could the nose on my face.  It is who I am.”
    “Point taken,” I said.  “But did the Sanhedrin consider Jesus a threat?”
    “The elders and priests took it as an insult when Jesus challenged them on teachings they spent their entire lives studying.  Pride is a fragile thing to a man.  Arrogance grows from it.  It is not easy for a learned man to admit he has more to learn.  We are teachers– we do not wish to be taught.  To many of us on the Sanhedrin, it was clear Jesus was a traitor to his people and his beliefs.  Rome had to be convinced he was their enemy also.”
    “How much of that do you believe?” I asked.
    “I do not know,” he said sadly.  “I will tell you this; I have come to believe that if the teachings are of man, then they will go the way of all men.  But if the teachings are of God . . . "  His voice trailed off and I was left to draw my own conclusions.   
    “Jesus had garnered as many enemies as he did followers,” Marcus Malachi continued. "It seemed that both the Pharisees and the Herodians were hostile towards him.”
    “Why would the followers of the tetrarch Herod be against Jesus?” I asked.
    “I am not certain,” Marcus murmured then said, "But even Jesus’s own followers proved they were not to be trusted, it seemed.  One of his own delivered Jesus into the power of the elders and the Sanhedrin.  Subsequently he was brought before Caiaphas, then the Governor, Pilate, who sent Jesus to Herod, who sent him back to Pilate.  I was not certain if no one wanted to charge Jesus, or simply if everyone wanted a part in bringing the man down.  Finally Jesus was sentenced to death and was crucified.”
    Malachi ended abruptly and I tried to absorb it all.
     After a time he asked: “What is your interest in the Galilean, my young friend?”
    “The body of Jesus is missing from its tomb.”
    “And there have been accounts– rumours actually– that the man is not dead.”
    I expected some kind of response from Marcus, but he only nodded his head.
    “Have you heard anything regarding these claims?” I asked.
    “Yes,” he said.  “Word of this has reached me.”
    “What do you make of it all?”
    He took in a long breath and let it out.  “The woman who made this claim was one of his followers, and is not very reliable.  I would not call her an  upstanding member of the community.  She has a reputation.”
    I took his meaning and nodded. “Who is she?”
    “Her name is Mary Magdalene.”
    “Who would have taken the body, Marcus?  His followers?”
    “There is that possibility.”
    “But why?”
    “To substantiate the man’s claim that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him and he was the appointed by God.”
    “Did the man actually said that?” I asked a little dumbfounded.
    “The tribunal asked Jesus if he was the son of God, and he said, ‘It is right that you say I am.’  He spoke of God as if He were his father and their relationship was intimate.  If the followers of Jesus took the body from the tomb, it might have been to prove his deity.”
    “Now this is beginning to make some sense,” I remarked.  “They took the body to perpetuate the myth, and began rumours about his rising from the dead and actually seeing him alive.”
    “Yes,” said Marcus.  “That certainly seems a viable theory.”  But I heard doubt in his voice.
    “You do not believe they took his body, do you?”
    “Maximus, I neither believe nor disbelieve matters I have not explored thoroughly.”
    “All I have to do is track down these followers, get them to show me where they hid the body and expose it as a hoax.  Simple.”
    “Good luck, my friend,” he told me sincerely.  “I am curious as to what your investigation will uncover.”

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Empty Tomb Mystery

With the Easter Season fast approaching I am reminded of The Case of the Empty Tomb, which was published a number of years ago. Just recently I saw a very nice review for the book on Amazon where the reviewer gave it 5 out of 5 stars.

This was written in 2004. Hasn't gotten any press or publicity. It's a well written hard boiled detective novel about the theft of Christ's body from the tomb. AltHist? or just a good plot twist, it grabs you in the first chapter and doesn't let go. The main cop/detective is Claudius Maximus. The streets are the mean streets of Jerusalem but it's as noir-ish as Ellroy or Chandler.

It is always encouraging to get positive reviews and it helps writers like myself to keep plugging away. I thought it would be timely to post a chapter or two of The Case of the Empty Tomb.

Chapter I

I hated the desert.  I hated the heat, and the sand, and the dust.  I hated everything about it.  To me, the desert was nothing but a barren wasteland– lifeless, arid, and deadly.  The desert held no hope, no life, no chance for life.  It reminded me of man's soul, if one tended to believe in that sort of thing.  All of Judea was nothing but a vast burned over desert, conducive to nothing, and supporting no life except for snakes, scorpions and Hebrews.  
        I missed Rome.  I missed Rome so much I was beginning to dream about it in my sleep.  I missed the festivals and the Forum, the tributes and the temples.  I missed our family home in the city, and our home in the country, the one by the sea, where, as a boy I would sit and watch the waves for hours.  I loved the sea.  I loved the way it smelled, and how the spray felt on my face, and the sound of breakers crashing against the shore.  I loved its blue-green colour, its pulsating tides, the waves and whitecaps.
Judea was desert country populated by desert people.  Here the people raised sheep and goats, listened to desert prophets, and worshipped a mysterious god.
Jerusalem in the spring.  The almond trees had lost their blooms, and the barley harvest had just begun.  The rains were ending, and soon the dry season would begin.  Just four days ago Jerusalem experienced harsh weather– the sky clouded over rather quickly, it rained for a time, and I thought I heard thunder.  Now today was sunny and bright.  Strange weather.  Strange country.  Strange days.  I dearly missed Rome.  Thinking of Rome made my heart ache.  Here I was, banished to Judea, living on the edge of a desert in the middle of nowhere, with not a clue as to when I could return to– as the poet put it– my alma mater.  I suppose things could have been worse, but at the time I could not see how.
By the way, my name is Maximus, Claudius Maximus.  I'm a tribune.
It was a clear morning on dies Martis– Tuesday– after the ides of Aprilis when I received word to report to Praetor Lucius Servanus.  I was not looking forward to seeing him.  Servanus and I had  a love/hate relationship– he did not love me, and I hated him.  Servanus made me feel magni nominis umbra– as if I were living in the shadow of a great name.  The trouble was, I knew it was only too true.  The Praetor appeared to be his usual self today– a mean, angry man with a perpetual scowl whose manner made you imagine he was ready to cut off your ears.
"You look as if you’ve been dragged through Hades!" he greeted me– and I was wearing my best toga.  “When I call to see someone, I expect them to come immediately.  What kept you?”
“Traffic in the street was heavy,” I said.
“Wise-ass.  I do not like you, Maximus.”
“Your secret is safe with me.”
His beady brown eyes narrowed and his pudgy face puckered.  “That is the exact attitude that got you banished from Rome and sent here.”
“My attitude is not what got me here,” I told him with an edge like flint.
Lucius Servanus took one step back.  He reconsidered his position and withdrew from his verbal assault.  The Praetor walked slowly to his desk and shuffled some papers uneasily.  After he allowed sufficient time to pass, he began the conversation again, in a more subdued, professional manner.
“A situation has come to our attention.” he said.
Translation: the powers that be had a problem.
“We want you to look into it.”
Translation: they wanted me to handle their problem.
“We trust you to deal with the situation to your utmost ability as a son of Rome.”
Translation: the problem was now totally my responsibility.  I was to prevent any scandal that would reflect poorly on Rome and her officials.  If anything went wrong, it would be my neck, and my neck alone left sticking out to be lopped off.
That was the way it always went.  Whenever high officials stepped in a mess, they called Claudius Maximus to clean it up.
“What is the situation?” I asked, feigning interest.
Lucius Servanus let out a long breath and motioned to the only two chairs in the room. He adjusted his toga in a dignified manner and sat.  We sat directly opposite of one another four paces apart.  Any closer and it would have appeared that we were friends.
“Were you present at the last crucifixion?” he asked me.
I  endeavoured to look thoughtful. “The last one was . . .  when?”
“Four– no, five days ago, dies verneris– Friday last.  Did you witness it?”
“I was otherwise occupied,” I remarked, and Servanus gave me a nasty sneer that revealed his displeasure.
“Three Hebrews were crucified that day,” the Praetor continued.  “Two were common thieves.  The third man was a Galilean.”
Servanus thrust his head forward as if prompting my recollection.  I shrugged to show that I did not.
“The man was a political dissident, an enemy of Rome, and was duly executed.”  The Praetor spoke as if trying to convince me, or himself.  He paused a long moment, but somehow I knew there was more.  “This Hebrew was no ordinary dissident.  He made some fantastic claims while he lived.  The man was obviously disturbed.”
“What did he say?”
“Nonsense mostly.  He said he was the son of God.  He actually proclaimed himself king of the Jews.”
I nodded, but did not respond.  Jerusalem was not that large that I had not heard rumours about these claims.  Of course, I had not put any stock in the stories I had heard regarding a Galilean I had never seen.
“It is also reported that he made an inane claim that he would rise from the dead.”  The  Praetor let this last statement dangle.  I decided to let it hang there while Servanus took two deep breaths to compose himself.
“We have received reports that the Galilean’s body is missing from its tomb.  Fama volat.  This rumour has led people– Hebrews mostly– to claim they have actually seen the man post mortem.  We want you to look into the matter.  The man had followers– disciples.  We do not wish to see the problem get out of hand.  Cessante causa cessat et effectus– the cause ceasing, the effect also ceases.  Recover the body so we can lay this matter to rest and expose it as some ridiculous hoax.  Bring forward the ones responsible to answer for their actions.”
“Is that all?” I asked.
“That is all,” Servanus said rising from his chair.
I remained sitting and asked: “Did this political dissident from Galilee have a name?”
Servanus shuffled through some papers on his desk, picked one out and studied it.  “The man’s name was . . . Jesus,” he said, squinting at the report.  “Jesus of Nazareth.”
I rose and turned to leave when Servanus added, “The Governor has taken a special interest in this case.  He wishes to see it brought to its inevitable conclusion.  He will not tolerate failure, and neither will I.”
I nodded my understanding, and took my leave.  The Praetor’s last words were too apparent.  If this did not go well, the chances of my ever returning to Rome were negligible.
Back in my quarters I removed my toga which I wore only on official meetings– the one with Servanus barely counted– and I went out in my tunic.  I felt it made my appearance less conspicuous.  I walked out of the Antonia Fortress that served as the barracks for the Roman troops in Jerusalem.  The structure, built by Herod the Great, was named after his then-patron, Mark Antony.  The name of the fortress no longer carried the respect it once did.  Soon after his defeat by Octavian’s forces, Antony took his own life like any dishonoured Roman should.  With its massive walls and four tall towers the fortress was a grand structure by Judean standards, and was situated in the northeast corner of Jerusalem.
Outside, the bright sun reflected off the white stone of the fortress.  To keep from under the hot sun I stood in the shadow of the archway.  From there, I looked south over the city.  Jerusalem was a vast collection of sun-dried buildings housing some sixty thousand inhabitants.  Out there, somewhere, I needed to find a least one person who knew where the body of the Galilean, Jesus was taken.  Not a very appealing prospect, but I was not in a position to be particular.  Considering how my life started out, things could not look more dismal.  Sometimes life is funny, and sometimes it is so ridiculous you have to laugh or you'll cry.  Right then, I did not know which I wanted to do more.