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.”
“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.