I debated where to put this post, either on my fiction blog or my Christianity/religion blog since it kind of goes on either. When I read the Bible, I’m struck by the interesting details it decides to put in, or leave out. For instance, Exodus tells us the names of three Israelite midwives, but not the name of the Pharaoh. There are a lot of stories hinted at behind the text. This is a piece of speculative fiction that guesses at what might have taken place behind the scenes of one of the most famous events of the Bible.
I Walked with Jesus
I was shaken awake to the worst day of my life. The room was still dark and for a moment, I wasn’t sure where I was. Then I remembered I was in Matthias’s house, and it was he that was shaking me.
“Cleopas, get up. They’ve arrested the Master.”
A stab of fear went through me. This is what I had been dreading for some time. Everyone knew the chief priests and Levites had it out for him.
“When was it?” I asked.
“Sometime last night,” Matthias said. “He was with the Twelve in a garden in the mountains when they took him.”
“How?” I was on my feet now, groping for my cloak in the semi-dark.
Matthias pushed the door open farther and the dawn light filtered in. When he spoke, his voice was low and troubled. “They say that the Iscariot betrayed him to the Romans and the priests.”
No, that wasn’t possible. I knew Judas Iscariot. He never would have done that. In our travels with the Master, I was one of the ones that went ahead to make arrangement for food and lodgings. Judas carried the money and he would give me some to pay for things. We talked often, and he hated the Romans. He was devoted to the Master.
There were six of us staying at Matthias’s house for Passover, and we pushed our way through the crowded streets to the temple where we thought we would might find out news. That was the wrong move, and we ended up in a crowd of tens of thousands. Finally, we saw another of the Master’s followers who said he was at the governor’s palace. That was a bad sign. We made our way there, arriving an hour later to hear the terrible news: our Master, Jesus of Nazareth, had been sentenced to death by crucifixion.
My despair was only rivaled by my fury at the Twelve. How could they let this happen? I had loaned my sword—the sword my father had given me—to Peter specifically for this purpose, to keep the Master safe. Peter was one who kept saying he would die for the Master, but from what I heard, Peter was alive somewhere and the Master was about to die.
Crucifixions were are held in the same place, a hill overlooking the city called the Skull. My grandfather said that before the Romans came, the Skull had been a vineyard. Now the trees there held an entirely different sort of fruit. I avoided that area, but others said that sometimes the bodies on the crosses stayed up there until the birds had had their feast and the bones fell to be gnawed by wild dogs. All I could think as we pushed through the Passover crowds was that this would not have happened if I had been there, been one of the Twelve. I would have died protecting him.
As soon as we made it through the Gennath Gate, I could see the three crosses starkly against the morning sky. There was no way to tell which one was him. Even close up it was hard to tell. All three men were naked and had been beaten, but the one in the middle was the worst off. He seemed to be bathed in blood. Then I noticed the placard on the cross above him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. It seemed like mockery.
Matthias had collapsed beside me, weeping and tearing his clothes. I spotted a few of the Twelve as well as other followers. Peter was nowhere to be seen, I noticed bitterly. I wished I could show how I felt, like Matthias, but no tears came. Instead, with my soul wailing, I turned and stumbled back into the city.
I spent the rest of the day wandering like a ghost through the holiday crowds. About mid afternoon, the sky darkened and a wind picked up. I felt the earth shake and people around me cried out. It was as if the earth itself was mourning.
I stayed alone and isolated with my thoughts. What was I supposed to do now? I had been destined to take over my father’s pottery business but when Jesus came through our town and everyone went out to listen to him, I realized that this was the first time I had felt hope for Israel. Sure, lots of other wandering preachers came through, but most of them spoke only about military victories over the Romans and vengeance on the Jewish collaborators and tax collectors. Jesus was the first one whose words rang true for me.
So I left, carrying my father’s wrath and curses on my back. I was never one of the Twelve, that special inner circle that surrounded him at all times, but I was one of the outer circle, the seventy-two. Jesus sent us out once to spread the good news. I was paired up with a man from Caesarea named Antonio. He was Roman and didn’t know Aramaic very well, so I had to do most of the talking. I was scared stiff, but I did it, for Jesus. We prayed for people and they got better. Demons left people. It was amazing.
As I came back from that spiritual high, I found that my father had died. The family had disowned me, and my cousin had taken over the pottery business. Jesus was all I had after that.
I returned to Matthias’s house that evening to hear that the Master was dead and they had found Judas. He had hanged himself, which meant he must have betrayed Jesus. I was sick with grief.
We stayed around for another day. Some of the others in the house got in contact with the Twelve, or Eleven now. For myself, I didn’t want anything more to do with them. In my mind, they had all betrayed the Master just as much as Judas. Why did he pick the unworthy ones for his inner circle? The thought spun in my head like a whirlpool. Matthias and Justus and I and all the others here would have stuck by him. We would have protected him.
“I guess that’s it,” I said, as we sat around a cold dinner, munching on stale flatbread. “I should go home. Maybe my cousin needs an assistant to prepare the clay.”
My hometown was a village on the coast, not far from Joppa. Justus was going home too and since he lived about seven miles from Jerusalem along the road I would take, in a small town called Emmaus, we decided to go together.
We said we would get an early start, but neither of us was eager to get home, so it was late afternoon before we started off. I decided to spend the night at Justus’s house and then make the rest of the journey the next day.
All roads leading out of Jerusalem were filled with pilgrims returning to their own towns, but the atmosphere seemed more somber than normal for holiday travelers. Justus and I were talking about the last week, pondering yet again if there was anything we could have done, when I noticed a man walking near us, listening. He was all alone and was not carrying any supplies or bags like a normal pilgrim.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
Surely, he had heard our conversation. “You must be the only pilgrim who hasn’t heard what just happened in the city,” I said.
“What happened?” he asked. This man must have gone to his relatives’ house and just stayed inside for the whole Passover.
“Jesus of Nazareth was executed,” Justus said. “He’s been traveling all over the country for the last few years. You must have heard of him.” We started telling more and as we did, everything just poured out, the hope we had had that was now crushed into oblivion like an ill-formed vessel on the potter’s wheel. It felt good to tell someone else what had bounced back and forth between us for days.
The man listened patiently, but I sensed he didn’t understand the tragedy of what had happened. “Don’t you see?” I said at last. “We thought he was the Messiah. He said he was. And then he died.”
The man smiled. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “Of course the Messiah had to suffer and die before he could ascend into glory. Don’t you believe what the prophets said about him?”
“Of course we do,” Justus said, although it was obvious he didn’t know where the man was going with this. I didn’t either.
“Let me explain it,” the man said. “Do you remember reading about when our ancestors were in the desert? God sent a plague on them, and Moses made a bronze serpent to save them.”
He went on and on, from Moses to David to Isaiah and the other prophets, pointing out all the places where the Scriptures had talked about the Messiah. There was something so familiar in the way he spoke and he was a clearly a scholar of the law. I tried to think if I had seen him in the temple or one of the local synagogues. He would have gotten along well with the Master.
Before we knew it, the sun was low on the horizon and the outer fields of Emmaus were visible. We reached the street that led to Justus’s house.
“Come have dinner with us,” Justus said.
“I have a long way to go,” the man said. “Many places to go and many people to see, I’m afraid.”
“It’s almost dark,” I said. “You have to come eat with us and stay the night.” I was also secretly hoping that I could walk with him the next day. For whatever reason, this man made me feel for the first time since I saw the Master nailed to the cross that there might be some hope left in the world.
“Okay,” the man said and nodded. “I’ll come eat with you.”
Justus led the way to the house. His parents and sister’s family were there, and they all greeted him warmly with hugs and kisses all around. I thought with some trepidation what my own homecoming would look like the next day. The stranger and I stood to the side until Justus’s father came over and welcomed us in and seated us at the table. He put the stranger at the head of the table.
“Thank you for inviting me here,” the man said when we had all gathered to eat. He picked up a piece of bread and looked up briefly. “And thank you, Father.” He pulled it apart and began passing out pieces. It was what the Master did before every meal, every gesture and word the same and then I knew. Somehow, impossibly, this was the Master, alive. My eyes met Justus’s and I saw he knew too.
“It’s you!” I cried. The Master smiled and nodded. The next moment, he was gone.
There was an uproar around the table, the children yelling in surprise and shock.
“He’s alive!” I said to Justus, and I saw he had the same thought. “We have to tell the others.”
Ten minutes later, we were hurrying out of Emmaus, clutching a handful of bread and olives that Justus’s mother had insisted on us taking if we were going to skip dinner. The trip we made back took much less time than on the way to Emmaus, but we were exhausted when we returned. We followed the walls around to the Sheep Gate and were admitted through the night gate.
Luckily, Justus knew where the Eleven were staying. We banged on the door for a few minutes until James came out to open it.
“It’s Justus and Cleopas!” we shouted. “Let us in. We have good news.”
We waited until we were in the room with all Eleven. “We saw him, the Master,” I said. “He’s alive.”
A few laughed, a sound of pure joy. “We know!” they said. “Peter saw him too.”
Peter. I glanced over at him. Why did he deserve to see the Master again? I was about to confront him and demand my sword back when Jesus appeared in the middle of us. Everyone stopped talking. Even after walking with him for hours, I was shocked into silence. Some of the others looked terrified.
“Don’t worry, it’s me,” Jesus said. He held out his hand to Nathaniel, who was closest. “See, I’m real. I’m not a ghost.” Nathaniel took his hand and for the first time, I noticed the hole where the nail had been driven in.
The others crowded around him after that. I turned and saw that Peter was hanging back. He looked stricken and ashamed. Jesus was talking to the others and did not even look over. I suddenly felt bad for Peter, the one who had always been right at the Master’s side, always first in everything.
“I’m sorry,” I said to Peter. He turned to me. “For what?”
I hugged him. “For everything in the last few days.” He didn’t look like he understood, but he nodded.
I stayed in Jerusalem for a few weeks after that. Jesus would appear to us now and then, but he didn’t go out and preach openly anymore. A week after Passover, Peter and the other Galilean fishermen left to go back home. I thought that was it, but they showed up a few days later, talking about how Jesus had appeared to them and about a huge catch of fish they had gotten. Peter seemed more himself again, and I gathered he had made things right with the Master.
Then the day came when Jesus appeared to us and told us to be ready the next morning. He met us while it was still dark and we walked together out of the city. He took the road towards Bethany, and I wondered if he was going to start traveling and preaching again, as if nothing had happened.
I found myself walking next to him. It was the first time since that walk to Emmaus that I had had time to talk to him alone.
“Why didn’t you tell us it was you, when we were walking to Emmaus?” I asked him. “Why keep it from us?”
“I told you it was me with every word I spoke to you,” he said. “Your eyes were just too clouded with grief to see. You saw, in time.” He was right, of course.
We left the road just before we got to Bethany and climbed up a hill. There, with the morning sun breaking through the clouds in the east and dew sparkling on every grass blade and leaf, he said good-bye to us. I didn’t want to see him go, just as he had come back to us. He hugged each of us.
“Keep up the good work,” he said to me and I nodded, tears finally springing to my eyes. Then he was rising into the air and disappeared into the clouds.
We all walked back to Jerusalem together. We stayed together for a few months, but eventually we started to leave the city, each going his own way. I traveled around with Justus and wherever we went, we told people about the time we had walked with Jesus.