The dim light of the breaking dawn only faintly lit the upper room, where many figures with grim and worried faces whispered in hushed tones. How different this place had seemed just a few nights earlier, when we had gathered here for the Passover meal with a sense of excitement beyond even the normal thrill of that festive occasion. “What makes this night different from other nights?” we had asked, as the Passover ritual requires. We gave the required answers as per the custom. But we had thought that night was uniquely different. We had thought that perhaps it was not just a night different from others because it was Passover, but a Passover different from all others that had preceded it. We thought perhaps now that there was so much popular support for Joshua and his movement, and such clear opposition to him by the authorities, he was sure to do something momentous, and that he would do it soon. Perhaps it would be now, we thought. What moment could be more appropriate than Passover for the Messiah to reveal himself?
We had no idea what the real answer was to be for that particular Passover night, the looming answer that would intrude within a matter of hours and begin the process of upending our lives. The answer to that question – what made that night different – now imposed itself upon us vividly and painfully with the benefit of hindsight. It was the same thing that made this morning different from other mornings. That night had been our last night with Joshua, before they came to arrest him. Celebrating that Passover meal with him as though we were his family, as though he were our father, we had not just looked back on the Exodus from Egypt of long ago, but forward to the new Exodus still to occur. We had felt certain it was at hand, and just as certain that he was the one to lead us into it and through it. His family is known to be descended from king David, and even though he never said outright that he is the Lord’s anointed, neither did he deny it. We were certain – as certain as we had ever been of anything – that in being humble, in not grasping honor and power for himself, he was simply doing what God required. Wasn’t that what Moses, David, and so many others hand done? Surely by not acting to claim glory for himself, but humbly waiting for God to act and signal the proper time, it indicated that he was the one, different from the many other figures who wanted to be king, who jostled for preeminence whenever the opportunity arose, who appeared frequently and disappeared quickly.
Now, this morning, we cowered in fear, except for a few brave members who had run an important but extremely risky errand. This morning we wondered whether we could ever hope to undo the dishonor that the Romans had perpetrated against him. And of course, we wondered whether any moment they might arrive to do the same to us. Ever since Joshua’s mentor John had been killed, we’d noticed the difference in him. He had started speaking more about the birth pangs of the kingdom of God, the troubles that must precede the end of the age, about death and suffering. Since the Romans killed him, some in our group had persuaded themselves that his vague words had been prophecies, that he had foreseen what would happen to him, that he had known all along that his path to the kingship led not merely through rejection but through arrest, execution, and burial in a tomb alongside countless other executed criminals. Some have begun to say that God will reward him beyond death, by placing him on a throne not on Earth, but in heaven. They say that if we wait, we will see. I don’t share their outlook. I have never been convinced that God expects us to simply wait for a miracle to take care of our problems. On the contrary, God expects us to act and carry out the divine will. That is why we have sent a handful of men and a couple of women to the tomb, to see if we can undo the dishonor that was perpetrated against our master. The place is known as “The Skull” because it used to be a limestone quarry and the white rock protrudes from the Earth like bone from a fatal injury. After they had killed him, they did to him what they did to all but a few of the criminals executed on that site. They placed him in the nearby tomb designated for the burial of criminals. They buried him without honor, without anointing. Without anything that he deserved. If we can undo this, remedy it in some way, we must try to do so, even if it costs us our lives. However disappointed most of us were, we knew he did not deserve such a shameful fate. We owed it to him to at least see him buried with honor.
Just as I am wondering how my friends are getting on with their task, there is a sound at the door. I place my hand instinctively on the dagger in my belt. They could have been caught, and if so, soldiers might have come to round us up here. Is it enough to be followers of a man that has been executed, who fomented no rebellion and attacked no one? If they had wanted to apprehend us, it would have been easier to do so at the same time they arrested him. If they came for us now, would we even get a trial? What would the accusation be? Grave robbing, because some of our group had gone to the tomb to do what had been left undone? Is it really grave-robbing if we do not loot valuables, but only take a body, seeking to honor the dead rather than dishonor them through theft? I know my friends. They would take nothing of value from the tomb even if there had been something worth taking. Executed criminals died naked and alone, and there was nothing in this sort of criminals’ grave that was worth stealing. But if they executed Joshua, they clearly weren’t interested in fairness. And undoubtedly they could charge us with grave-robbing easily enough under the circumstances. Tampering with a grave for any reason was a serious crime in every known society, one of the few values that all human beings seem to genuinely share in common.
I move towards the door, but one of the women present waves to me to stay out of sight for now. Quite right – better to see who is at the door first, even if there is nowhere for any of us to run if a group sent by the authorities has come to round us up. She unbolted the door and opened it a crack. After peering out for just a fraction of a second, she pulls it open all the way to allow the members of our group who had gone to the tomb to enter. Seeing them enter as they did, I stepped forward immediately. “Why have you all returned so soon?” I asked them. “What has happened? Were you unable to do what you set out to, or did something interfere?” Their mission had been to get into the tomb, locate the body of Jesus, and bring it to a field south of the city in the Hinnom Valley, which was owned by one of our group. Then they were to send word to us through only one of them, while the others kept watch over the body there. More of us would then have gone to join them at the site. It would take a larger group of us to carry out a burial here in the vicinity of Jerusalem. The bedrock is notoriously close to the surface, and the topsoil thin. That is why the place called “the Skull” is used as a location for executions. The abandoned quarry provided a number of caves in which bodies could be placed unceremoniously, day after day and week after week, as the Romans continued to inflict their heinous method of execution on our people. Nevertheless, there are places not far from the city where the rocky soil is capable of being dug into. In this particular field we hoped to use, it wouldn’t necessarily take a very large group to dig a burial trench under normal circumstances. But this situation was scarcely normal. We needed to work fast, lest we be seen. A large group, of course, risks attracting attention of a different sort. But it would be a small group rather than a large one that would stand out as odd when digging in a field.
The irony of Jesus’ body being laid in the Hinnom Valley was not lost on us, after Jesus had drawn on the imagery from the Book of Jeremiah that used it as a symbol of the day of judgment. He had spoken of “Gehenna” – the Hinnom Valley – as a symbol of the judgment that was coming for those who did not repent and prepare for the arrival of the Kingdom of God. But if that valley were a symbol of judgment, moving his body there and burying him with honor would turn it into a symbol of hope. He had taught us that purity was more contagious than defilement. Even if his body were to descend down to Hades itself, he would transform it. We did not believe that any location under heaven could be an inappropriate resting place for our master, provided he was treated with the honor he deserved. That was what the authorities had deprived him of. We had thought through all these details, and everyone knew what they had to do. But now something had apparently gone wrong with our plan.
“We went to the tomb, and were able to enter,” a man named Simeon explained. “The stone was not even placed across the entranceway. The Romans must have buried still others after Joshua, and failed to close the tomb when they were done. We searched thoroughly, but his body was not there. We had been concerned that we might not be able to distinguish his body from those of the other two criminals executed that same day. But there were no fresh bodies. None whatsoever, anywhere in the tomb. We looked everywhere. It is an extensive cave, but they had no reason to place bodies anywhere deeper than where we were able to search. His body simply was not there.”
Everyone in the room became extremely agitated in response to this report.
“Did anyone see you,” Judah asked them.
“We saw no one,” another man named John who had also gone to the tomb replied. “We do not believe that anyone saw us, either.”
“Who could have done this?” I asked.
“What do you think happened?” Judah asked both me and the other men.
“We do not know,” John said. “We spoke of nothing else but this as we returned. The members of the Sanhedrin made sure that Joshua was buried according to the law. They would have done the same with the other men executed alongside him, employing Gentiles if work had to be done on the Sabbath to ensure that the law was followed. They did not give him the honorable burial that he deserved. But they would not have desecrated his body in violation of the law. I am certain beyond doubt that they will have buried him.”
“The Romans, then?” I asked.
“They are the likely culprits,” Simeon said. “Perhaps they thought to humiliate us and mock our hopes for a king who will bring their dominion over us to an end. Perhaps they simply didn’t care enough to close the tomb properly, and dogs got in.” The women among us were horrified at this suggestion, and begged Simeon to speculate no more about such things. Surely God would not have allowed this greater dishonor to befall Joshua, they insisted, after he had served God so faithfully. Their protestations rang hollow, however, after all the dishonor that God had indeed permitted to be heaped upon Joshua. If God had let him be crucified, would God now defend his corpse from scavengers? Nevertheless, we were all grateful that talk of dogs and what they might have done to corpses in the tomb ceased at that point.
“We went to save his body from dishonor,” John said. “We wanted to give him the burial that he deserved. We were too late. In one way or another, it would seem that his body has been subjected to still further mistreatment, at whatever hands.”
It was only then that I noticed that not everyone who had gone to the tomb had returned. A small number of women had accompanied the group of mostly men. The presence of women would have made their activity less suspicious if they were spotted. Although there were prohibitions against public mourning for those who died as criminals, they were rarely enforced, and the women could have said they felt the need to lament, and had brought some men with them simply for safety and protection. If the men had gone alone, they would have been accused of trying to steal the body. Now, it seemed, we were likely to face that accusation anyway, even though we had tried to do so and yet had been unsuccessful. “Where are the women?” I asked.
“Magdalene was taken ill,” John replied. “When we saw the tomb was open, she was shaken, and when we emerged with our report that Joshua’s body was certainly not there, she had a seizure and collapsed. She muttered strange and incoherent things as she faded in and out of consciousness. We were worried about her, but we could not risk staying there very long. Once she could walk with assistance, the other women took her to the other Mary’s home to help her recover. If they had returned here with us they would have slowed us down. We could not risk it.”
“We knew that our undertaking was a seriously risky one,” Judas said. “We expected that they would likely accuse us of stealing the body. It is terrible that we will be accused even so, yet without even having managed to accomplish the act.”
“At least we will be able to deny it honestly,” a man named Jacob quipped. “But what shall we do now? What does this mean for us?”
“We only have two options,” I said. “We remain here together, or we go to our homes.” Joshua’s cowardly inner circle of followers had fled Jerusalem almost as soon as it had become clear that he was being handed over to the Romans. All except Judah. He had remained here with us. He had always been more courageous than the other eleven. He was also local, and so it made less sense for him to head to Galilee than it did for those others. But he could easily have gone with them if he had wanted to. If he had been as afraid as they were that they would follow Joshua to the cross.
“What would Joshua do, if he were here?” Judah asked us. It seemed more of a challenge than a question, as though he expected us to already know the answer. “What would he tell us to do? What would he want us to do?” I answer before anyone else has a chance to. “He would want us to act,” I say. Judah nods, but then presses further, “But how would he want us to act? Assuming, of course, that we are still his followers. Are you?” His gaze swept the room. Some of the younger members of the group seemed surprised by the question. One of them named Joseph piped up, after an awkward silence. “How can we follow him any longer? The Romans have taken him from us.”
Judah seemed not so much angry as disappointed by this reply. “Can’t we follow him even so?” he asked. “Have they indeed taken him? Or has God taken him from us, to test us even as he has tested Joshua? Did Joshua himself not tell us that the way to the kingdom he predicted was through suffering? Do you think he did not know what he was warning us about? Do you think, with all his clarity of vision, calling us to take his yoke upon ourselves, that he did not reveal to us that he would carry the beam of wood upon his back, and that we as his disciples must be ready to do likewise?” Judah’s reinterpretation of Joshua’s words made sense, and I could sense the mood in the room shifting. Where was he going with this? I listened intently, impressed, as Judah continued.
“Did Joshua not also tell us what lay ahead of us, what awaited those who were faithful through the suffering he warned would come upon us? The kingdom of God! Resurrection! The life of the age to come, in which his chosen ones will sit on thrones, and recline with him alongside our illustrious ancestors at the banquet. I tell you, this has begun! We did not find Joshua’s body because the resurrection has begun. God has raised him from the dead!”
At this, the room was thrown into turmoil as people began speaking all at once. Some turned to their neighbors to discuss what Judah had said, while several asked him questions directly all at once, so that none of them was heard clearly. I looked at Judah and he seemed unsurprised by this reaction, and unfazed by it. Had he thought all this through already? If so, why had he said nothing until now? What was he playing at?
Finally, John stood up and spoke loudly enough that many stopped speaking, while the few that did not at least hushed their voices in response. “I saw the tomb, and the stone had been rolled away. Unless the Romans did it, no one else would have. Not on the Sabbath day. You may be right. I was so shaken, so intent on carrying out our plan, it never occurred to me that this might be the work of God.”
“Does God work on the Sabbath?” a young man named Hananiah asked, clearly meaning to challenge the idea that God had moved the stone, much less performed this resurrection of his elect one, on the day that all are commanded to rest. He has not been part of our group for long, and so his question was not rhetorical. I provided an answer that I am sure others had also thought of. “Indeed, our master himself taught us that God works on the Sabbath. He himself healed many people of their illnesses on the Sabbath day. A few of the Pharisees objected strongly when they saw this, but Joshua excused himself by saying that the Sabbath exists for human wellbeing, and so to observe the Sabbath in a way that is to the detriment of human beings is itself a violation of the spirit with which the commandment had been given. So I ask you, as those who saw people who had faith in Joshua experience healing even on the Sabbath day, would God not restore Joshua himself to life on that day?”
Judah gave me a look that conveyed that he was pleased that I was on board with what he had been trying to do and say. We both now surveyed the room, and while many more seemed to be on board with where this was leading them, others clearly took Hananiah’s concern about the commandments seriously. Judah spoke next. “Matthias is surely right. God heals on the Sabbath. But we need not assume that God rescued Joshua from death on the Sabbath. None of us went to the tomb until the Sabbath was over. Should we not assume that it was today, on the first day of a new week, that God undid his death and welcomed him into the life of the age to come? Should it not be on the first day of the week that the new creation began? Is this not the perfect day for such a new beginning?” Judah looked at me again. He had confirmed my perspective, and yet offered a more satisfying answer. If as a result he came across better to those present than I did, I could not begrudge him this.
“How can we be sure?” asked another man, also named Judah. Now more of the crowd was starting to chime in and align themselves with where this conversation was headed. A man named Zakkai, who had yet to say anything this morning, replied by asking, “When, since we have followed the rabbi, have we been sure of anything other than him?” There were more knowing looks and nods of affirmation from around the room.
Judah of the Twelve continued. “We can be sure that Joshua spoke from God. Could any of us doubt that? If we could be wrong about what we felt in our hearts as he spoke to us, then truly nothing at all is certain. But if we can be sure of this, and can be sure of the scriptures, then we know what we need to. We can be sure that we must remain loyal to Joshua and to God. We can be sure that we will suffer many things for doing so. And we can be sure that resurrection awaits us too.”
I could scarcely believe how the mood in the room had changed. Some were weeping. Some were laughing. Soon, we were all singing. After all this had refreshed our spirits, Judah said that he would be going home, but would return regularly to talk further about their experiences, to share food and recall what Joshua had said and done, to study the scriptures, and to plan what they should do next. Everyone who was from someplace far from Jerusalem was encouraged to stay here in this place where we had gathered with Joshua, and to continue the fellowship. Everyone who was still too shaken and afraid to return home was also welcome to remain there for as long as they needed to.
I still had questions for Judah, and so I followed him out as he left, hoping to speak with him on his way to his home. As he exited onto the street, however, he didn’t turn towards his house as I expected him to. I decided to follow behind him rather than catch up with him. His speech had impressed me, but also made me suspicious. He didn’t seem to have been caught off guard by these events the way the rest of us were. Of course, he was part of Jesus’ inner circle, and so he ought to have more insight than the rest of us. But even the other members of the Twelve had fled. What made Judah different? Did he simply grasp Joshua’s teachings and comprehend the scriptures better than the rest? Or was something else going on? I had questions that cried out for answers, and I thought that perhaps following him to see where he went might lead me to those answers, if only through the provision of an opportunity for a private conversation with him.
Judah made his way through the city quickly, avoiding any glance towards the many sellers of goods that lined the streets so that they would not accost him as a potential customer. Soon these became fewer and fewer, replaced by women and children going about their daily routines among their homes in the lower city, as we drew closer to the city wall. Judah continued as though on a mission, seeming to quicken his pace, still avoiding sideways glances that might require him to stop and exchange pleasantries with someone that knew him. Soon Judah exited through the Fountain Gate, and as I exited not long after him, I was able to catch sight of him again, making his way along the Hinnom Valley. He made directly for a relatively level field at the base of the stepped hillside that formed the far side of the valley, in the direction of the place we had hoped to move Joshua’s body and rebury it. There was more grass here than was typical of the surrounding landscape, and yet the limestone rock regularly emerged into view, in some places leaving large caves visible of the sort that dotted the hillsides all around the city. Near the base of the hill were a couple of larger ones that were bound, sooner or later, to be used as tombs, if they hadn’t been already. Indeed, as I surveyed the area, I saw a couple of men coming along the road from the other direction, carrying a corpse wrapped for burial. At first, I thought they were headed for the caves I had been looking at, in order to bury the body there. Instead, however, they veered further up the hillside towards precisely where Judah had gone. The area was dotted with trees, and so I was able to stay out of sight as I watched to see what would transpire.
I could hardly believe what I saw. As I watched, the men carrying the body met with Judah, placed it on the ground, and spoke with him. After a few minutes had passed, Judah nodded and pointed, at which point the men proceeded to begin digging. The ground being rocky, it was strenuous work that took them quite some time. I was thoroughly puzzled. Why did the men not simply place the body in one of the caves? Were those the property of someone else, some wealthy family of stature that was keeping it for their own use later, while the poor around them had to labor and dig practically through stone? Or did they do this not because someone else owned the caves, but because they had something to hide? Suddenly it dawned on me. This must be the very field where they had planned to bury Joshua after they recovered his body. I knew it was in this area, but hadn’t inquired to find out its precise location. It all began to make sense. Judah had conspired with these others to get the body and bring it here, while letting the others find the tomb empty. Then he swooped in to offer an explanation that would cause him to rise to the position of leader. He hadn’t been mourning the loss of the master along with us and trying to make sense of it. He had arranged this! No wonder he seemed so well prepared to speak about these matters, to offer an explanation in the way that he did.
As my heart began to race, another thought occurred to me: what if Judah had not simply been followed to Gethsemane on Friday. Perhaps he had willingly led them to our meeting place. Perhaps not only what was happening today, but what happened over the past several days, had been a result of his scheming. Anger welled up inside me in a manner I had not felt in years. I restrained myself, however, and waited for the scene that was unfolding before my eyes to play out to its end. As I watched and waited, however, I continued to speculate about Judah’s motives. Did he do all this because he had been paid by the authorities? Had it been a plot to take over Joshua’s movement and become the leader himself? Once the men who had brought the corpse were done with their work and departed, I approached Judah, who was now the sole living thing on the field. He had begun to head up the hillside towards a barren area near the crest of the ridge. It was there that I caught up with him.
“Judah, you bastard!” I shouted. Judah turned around quickly, appearing surprised and completely caught off guard by the fact that someone who knew him was right there on the hillside with him. Before he could finish saying my name, I had punched him hard across the jaw. Judah staggered, caught completely off guard. “Who were those men?” I demanded. “What was that all about?”
“I sold this field that belonged to my family to the city, so they can have a place to bury strangers who die here, with no family tomb or plot of land nearby to be buried in, and no way to be taken to their own property for burial before sundown,” Judah replied. Then he added, “Why on earth did you hit me?!”
I didn’t answer, as I didn’t believe his story. I hit him again and he fell backwards. After that, I was quickly on top of him, my hands at his throat. He did not even try to punch me back, but did attempt to pry my fingers from around his neck. “You killed him!” I accused. “You betrayed him, and now you’ve betrayed us as well. How could you let us think Joshua had risen from the dead, and yet know the body was being delivered here to you in secret? What sort of evil monster are you?”
Judah’s eyes were wide with terror, and my choke hold ensured that he could not say much. But he did manage to get out a few words, as well as to gasp for a few breaths. “I – did not – do…” Judah didn’t manage to finish that sentence, but plowed ahead trying to craft another one, shorter this time. “Not….Joshua. Not…” I did not believe him, even assuming I had understood what he had been trying to say. I had seen what he had done with my own eyes. There was no use denying it.
Suddenly, Judah managed to squirm his way out from my grip on his throat, and then out from under me. But he was weakened and slow, and I easily managed to catch up with him and grab him again. He pulled away once more and began to run – and soon stumbled on a rock that jutted out of the ground and went sprawling down the hillside. By the time I caught up with him, or rather, reached the spot where he had landed, I could see that he must be dead, or close to death. He looked like he had likely struck several limestone outcroppings as he fell down the incline. His bowel must have been full because something appeared to have burst in his body. His insides had begun to spill out of a large gash in his abdomen, while from the way his head was twisted I guessed that his neck must have broken as he collided with the patch of rock upon which his downward journey had ended. Suddenly, as if awakening from a dream after imagining oneself falling, I recognized the enormity of what I had done. I had killed a man! While I had not meant for him to fall in this way, clearly I had caused his death just as surely as if I had stabbed him through the heart.
As I contemplated what I should do now, I drew closer to Judah’s mangled body. I immediately noticed the marks my hands had left on Judah’s neck, and knew that whoever found his body would see this too. It would be clear to any relatives of his that he had been murdered. Would they learn that I had left soon after him? Had anyone seen me follow him? There was no way to hide what had been done – or was there? I spotted a rope among some tools at a far corner of the field and ran to get it, and then returned to tie it around Judah’s neck. I could make it look like a suicide. I tied the rope around his neck, feeling increasingly queasy, and began to drag him towards a nearby tree. As I was carrying out this plan, however, I spotted some other figures coming up the road in my general direction. If they spotted me now, anything I might have hoped to achieve by making this look self-inflicted would be undone. I left Judah with the rope around his neck not far from the tree and headed away, neither walking at such a fast pace as to draw attention to myself, nor trying to go straight up and over the hill in a way that likewise might seem odd to some onlooker. Once I was away from the area and didn’t see anyone else right nearby, I changed my course and headed home. When I got there, I was shaking, and began to sob. My hope and elation merely hours earlier had turned to anger and despair. And guilt, for I had done what I could not possibly have imagined even an hour earlier. I had committed murder.
I did not sleep that night, but neither did I leave my home until well into the morning of the following day. I would have to tell the community something about what had happened. When I arrived at the upper room, it was Rebekah who opened the door to me. She seemed very nervous, not only when her trembling voice asked who it was before cautiously opening the door to allow me to enter, but also when I saw the expression on her face, which seemed even more worried than I might have expected under the circumstances. As I stepped inside and looked around at the faces of the others, the glimmer of hope that Judah had managed to foster the last time we were there had vanished completely. The mood was somber, perhaps even worse than before. This would not be easy. I called everyone in the room to give me their attention, and then spoke. “I have some terrible news about Judah. He betrayed us. He betrayed Jesus. He wasn’t simply followed to the Mount of Olives. He led the crowd that took him from us there, deliberately. He confessed this to me before we parted ways yesterday.”
“When did you last see him?” the younger of the two men named Jacob who were present asked me. I answered with an hour that was much earlier than the truth. I was about to tell them what I had seen Judah do with the body of Joshua, when the conversation took an unexpected turn. “Judah is dead,” Jacob told me, a grim expression on his face. I was fortunate that my look of astonishment that they knew this already was presumed to simply be astonishment at the news.
“What happened?” I asked cautiously.
“No one seems to know,” Jacob responded. “The way he was found is puzzling. He looks like he attempted to hang himself, but also that he simply fell down the hillside and was killed that way. Perhaps both are right, and he tried more than one way to kill himself. If what you told us is true, it could explain why he might take his own life. He was not an evil man, as we all know too well. If he did this terrible thing you have accused him of, he would have felt remorse. Indeed, he showed remorse even for having been followed at all. But you say it was deliberate? How do you know this?” I said that Judah had confessed it to me, and had bought a field with the blood money that he had been given for betraying Joshua. I hoped that this would satisfy them and they would not ask me to elaborate further. The more story I needed to concoct, the more likely it was that I would create problems for its believability.
But I had already created a conundrum without knowing it, through the lie that I had already told, as I was soon to discover. “Perhaps this is why he performed such a noble deed just before he died?” suggested Simeon to Jacob. “Could it be that he felt remorse for doing something so wicked, and was trying to make amends by doing something good?” I asked what noble deed he was referring to. Simeon explained that Judah’s family had come into possession of a property in the Hinnom Valley. When they learned that the family of Annas, the father in law of the high priest, was eager to acquire it for burial purposes, Judah’s brothers were eager to sell it, seeing the possibility of a significant profit to share between them. Judah persuaded them to insist that the new owner designate the upper portion of the property for charitable use, to bury people from out of town who die in Jerusalem. It happens quite often, what with all the pilgrims who visit the city. It had been a serious problem to figure out what to do for those who die here with no family tomb anywhere nearby. Judah’s brothers were willing to agree, and it proved to be just in time. A woman from Pontus had died suddenly yesterday, just before they were supposed to finalize the purchase, and so the city’s emissaries actually brought her body to the field yesterday, as well as Judah’s portion of the payment for the land. That was the last time anyone saw him alive, as far as we know. The men who had performed the burial went back to the site this morning, because another visitor to the city had died overnight, and that’s when they found Judah’s body. They said that they have already started calling it the ‘Bloody Field’ among themselves because of what they found there today.”
I could hardly bring myself to accept the implications of what I had been told. I had already felt guilty when I thought I had murdered a man who deserved it. But I had killed an innocent man! A man who had helped me make sense of Joshua’s death. Who had thought of others even when engaging in a property sale. What kind of monster did that make me? I did not have time to dwell on this, because Simeon asked me a question. “Did you not say that Judah had bought the field? I was told that the ruling council bought the field from him…” Without knowing it, I had created a trap for myself with my own story. Why had I not stopped speaking sooner? A more elaborate lie leaves more ways for it to be discovered, even though avoiding detail can also be suspicious. I stammered as I began to speculate, to concoct, to try to cover my tracks. “Perhaps it was the money that Judah received for betraying Jesus that was used to buy the field? Perhaps he returned the money to the ruling council because of his remorse?” I knew that this made no sense, that the obvious contradiction would continue to eat away at my lie until the truth was exposed if Simeon and the others who were listening dwelt on the matter. But fortunately for me, young John moved the conversation in a different direction.
“How can we now accept the things that Judah told us yesterday about Joshua, and God taking his body from the grave to rescue it from shame?” John asked. “Perhaps that too was a lie…” I could hardly think, much less speak, yet I knew that I must say something. I had robbed an innocent man of his life. I must not also rob Joshua’s other followers of their faith and hope in the process. “Those things he told us were true,” I said, my mouth uncomfortably dry. “He did not say those things because his heart was in the right place, perhaps. But he knew the master better than any of us. He understood things rightly, even if he did not always do the right thing. We must not lose our trust in God because of this!” I could see on a few faces that some of the gloom was lifting. This was a terrible thing that had happened to someone they knew. But it did not have to mean the death of the renewed hope they had begun to feel when they had met yesterday. As I wept bitterly, some interpreted it as joy over what we believed God had done for Joshua and the fact that so many of our group would not abandon his teachings, or one another, despite what had happened. Others assumed that I was weeping over the death of Judah, because we had been close. No one knew the real reason, other than me. I had not intended to kill Judah, but I know that in that moment when I held his neck in my hands, I was so furious that I could have. And when he fell to his death, I had thought he had gotten what he deserves. Now I grasp how true Joshua’s words were to us, when he said that anger is like murder, the one the root of the other. I would have to live knowing that not only had I caused the death of a great man, but that I had done so thinking I was honoring my master and teacher and his legacy. And yet if I had adhered to his teaching and put it into practice, I would not have done what I did.
When the remainder of the Twelve returned from Galilee a few weeks later, they came with surprising tales of their own. They came from Galilee with stories of dreams of Joshua, and Rocky being certain he saw him in old familiar places, such as on the shore of the lake. It wasn’t hard to combine their experiences, and the conclusions they had drawn from them, with what had happened to us and how we interpreted it. We all agreed that it must mean that Joshua’s death was not the end. The rest we discussed and debated, searching the scriptures, until we felt we could make sense of it all. What we came up with was that God had not merely made Joshua present to us here and now, not merely rescued his body from dishonorable burial in a criminal’s tomb by translating his body to heaven, but had raised him from the dead, as the start of the resurrection of all the dead that was promised when the Kingdom of God dawned. It made more sense than anything else. Joshua had said the Kingdom of God was close at hand. If God had vindicated Joshua beyond death, then he must approve of what he proclaimed. In the one act of raising Joshua to the life of the age to come, God confirmed his message and began its fulfillment.
With such a momentous message, we have been talking about what we should do to proclaim it. We cannot possibly keep it to ourselves. Not if we truly believe it. The appropriate course of action is surely to do what Joshua had us do in the land of Israel: go forth and announce it, with the things we now perceive added to the things he taught us. Everyone in our group can play a part in that. The Twelve, however, should continue to be Jesus’ chief emissaries, as he himself had designated them to be, even though he sent out still more of us on occasion. That there still be a group of twelve is important, if only for the sake of symbolism. But now with the death of Judah there were only eleven of them. We could not leave matters that way. Would God leave out one of the tribes of Israel from the fulfillment of the promises? The remaining eleven debated the matter, narrowed down the possible candidates to replace Judah in this group, and then cast lots to decide between two options.
They chose me.
This fact might seem ironic to you, and it certainly does to me. Painfully ironic, and quite literally so. But it has also filled me with renewed hope. It proves to me that God is both just and merciful. I believe God determined the outcome so that I would know I can never escape what I have done. I will do what God had appointed Judah to do, what Judah would have done, and done better than I ever could, had I not unfairly taken his life. Serving in this role as his replacement, I will never be allowed to forget what I did for as long as I live. But it is surely also a sign of God’s mercy towards me, for I know that God would not have placed me in this role if I were beyond redemption. I must force myself to believe this. It was a central element in Joshua’s teaching. I have seen what happened when I did not adhere to another of his teachings. I have more than one good reason to cling to this one.
The Twelve must now decide where we will go to carry out this mission with which we believe ourselves to be entrusted. I have volunteered to go to Pontus. That is where the woman buried in the Field of Blood was from. It seems appropriate. It also seems appropriate for me to get as far away from Jerusalem as I can. After Pontus, perhaps I will go further still, to Armenia and beyond. I should never return here. I don’t know whether Judah’s family will ever suspect what really happened. If they do, they will surely seek vengeance, and rightly so. If I remained here, or somewhere they could track me down, I would not only forfeit my own life, as would indeed be just. I would bring trouble on the entire community of Joshua’s followers. I know Judah would not have wanted that. And with how things have gone thus far, there will surely be trouble enough, without the aftereffects of my crime adding to it. I wish I could undo my actions against Judah, and the way I maligned his character with the way I spoke of him. I can at least take some small comfort from knowing that rumors have a limited lifespan. Once I leave, I am confident people will stop repeating what they heard from me about his supposedly deliberate betrayal of Jesus, and his good name will eventually be restored to overshadow the false rumor I started.
I am quite certain that I will never return to Jerusalem. I am also certain that the “Field of Blood” will haunt me wherever I go.
— Dr. James F. McGrath is a professor at Butler University. He has published a number of science fiction short stories, historical fiction, and also a wide array of nonfiction books, book chapters, and articles related to subjects such as the historical figure of Jesus and the intersection of religion and science fiction. He can be found on social media as @ReligionProf.