Sunday, March 29, 2015

Biblical Noir

A number of years ago I had an idea for a detective story regarding Christ's resurrection. I decided to write the story in the style of Hammett and ChandlerI have posted blogs previously at Easter time about The Case of the Empty Tomb, and I thought this Easter I would post some excerpts from parts of the book never before posted.

This is an excerpt from the second chapter, after my protagonist, Tribune Claudius Maximus receives an order to investigate the rumor circulating around Jerusalem about a recently crucified Jew who is apparently missing from his tomb.

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.

Stephen Gaspar's books can be found on Amazon

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