Magic Man

The damp room inside the Jerusalem Temple was lit only by a small window high up on the stone wall and by an oil lamp on the desk at which sat a small man in full priestly raiment.

“I am Meleager,” he began, “priest interrogator of the Third Course…”

“Congratulations! And I am Simon Magus, certified thaumaturge,”

Not very smart, I’ll admit, but I had been sitting for four hours on a pile of straw with nothing other to eat than a bowl of spelt porridge, while on the altar upstairs is being prepared the largest serving of broiled mutton and roast beef in the known inhabited world.

“…who has been assigned to ask you a few questions in connection with the trial of one Jesus of Nazareth,” the priest continued, now with a small sliver of irritation lodged in his throat.
“Is he the fellow that you arrested in Gethsemane last night?”

“I assume that Simon the Magic Man is not your actual name. Your name, please.”

About that Magus. It does have a certain ring to it. For most folks Magus suggests that you are a professionally certified practitioner of The Art. It also smells of the Orient which adds another layer of exotic panache on the bearer. In Palestine Magus is a status enhancer of uncertain but suggestive meaning.

“And I assume that Meleager is not your actual name,” I said. “Something fusty and banal, I’m guessing. Eber? Peleg? But never mind…”

No point in rubbing His Reverence Kohen the wrong way. And I did not fancy sitting on straw for the rest of my days
.
“…I am Simon, son of Silas the goldsmith,” I began in a tone now so unctuous as to put olive oil to the blush. “I was born and raised in Pumbeditha in the Land Between the Rivers. I am a genuine Son of the Galut. I studied The Art there with Rabbi Eliezer ben Haditha, whose works you doubtless know.”

I know I go on about ”The Art.” It’s really for public consumption: nowadays it’s almost impossible to make a living as a thaumaturge without some suggestion of the occult. A mere mention of “The Art,” is catnip to an audience, particularly here in Galilee where the audiences tend to be peasant farmers and fishermen who crave a little excitement at twilight time.

Let me say as clearly as I can: I am only a pretend occultist. The truth is I know only a trifle more about Hermes Trismegistos than my Galilean audiences. Actually, the rabbis at Pumbeditha who dabbled in the occult judged me unfit for The Art. I was never initiated into the mysteries of Ezekiel’s chariot, never recruited by the rabbis attempting to storm Paradise. Rather, I studied with the traditionalists. That’s what I am, a traditionalist, a main stream wonder-worker.

“You had been better advised to have studied Torah, Master Ben Silas.” The priest said in his pale, dry voice. ”Then you wouldn’t be sitting here today on a pile of straw in a Temple detention cell. And where do you presently reside?”
“Well, I don’t really reside since I travel a lot in my work. But I suppose you can call Qorazin my home.”
“Qorazin. How perfect. Now, as to Jesus of Nazareth, according to this broadsheet you’ve posted up around the city, he studied thaumaturgy with you…’

It is easy enough now to say that I should have known better and kept my distance from this ill-fated Nazarene, but there were no signs warning that this might turn out badly. Jesus of Nazareth certainly didn’t seem dangerous two years ago, when stories began to circulate about this carpenter in Nazareth who was performing wonders. We all know one another in Galilee and news travels fast among the wonder-workers. The name Jesus began to be heard in the villages and later, when he became more celebrated, I thought I might catch a ride on his tunic tails.

It takes all types, they say, and that is certainly true when it comes to thaumaturges We all have different techniques and performed different acts for different reasons. Like most, I work cures and perform exorcisms, the easy stuff, as some scoff, and, again like most, I do it for money –we really need some standard pricing for what we do— but others claim to part waters, make rain and guarantee male births. It’s a living and it does some good. Not a bad situation.

Then along comes Jesus, or Jeshua, or whatever he calls himself. There was no great flash across the skies. It all began very quietly. Stories about a newcomer in Nazareth who had begun performing, locally and without fanfare, some of the traditional acts of thaumaturgy, but with an odd new slant that no one had as yet managed to figure out. And there was my mistake: I wanted a look-see. And fate obliged.

I came to be at Cana quite by accident. I was working in the wine country in Upper Galilee where I fell in with a fellow Qoriziner named Jonah who was making large purchases of the local wine. One thing led to another and he told me about this spectacular wedding celebration that was going to be held at Cana, Never one to miss a party, I asked if there was any way he could get me on the guest list. “No problem,” he said. “Put on a clean tunic and tell the steward, his name is Marcus, that Jonah the wine factor sent you.”

The wedding was being hosted by Samuel ben Zera, far and away the richest man in Cana: he was the chief wholesale distributor of salted fish in northern Galilee. The fish were caught, salted and dried in the shoreline villages around the lake, then sent to Cana where Ben Zera’s agents sold the catch across more than forty towns and villages.

Ben Zera was celebrating the wedding of his only daughter, Zippora. She was a lively girl of 20, a blonde in a world of dark haired women. And, even more unusual, Zippy, as she was called, was a student of Torah. She was, everyone agreed, a prime marital catch, and there was wonder in Cana when the news began to spread that she was to be married to a fisherman from Capernaum.

Zippora came by her Torah-piety honestly, Ben Zara was a carefully observant Jew who studied Torah with the rabbis every Sabbath, at least until he chanced to encounter Jesus preaching in the open air near Capernaum and became a follower on the spot. Thereafter, I later discovered, a generous share of Ben Zera’s riches went to the support of the Good News movement, And how could the betrothal of his daughter to Simon, the chief of Jesus’ disciples, not seem like the best of ideas? And Jesus himself would be there.

Cana was a rather attractive place for Galilee. The houses were substantial and well kept, and the streets were clear, without the usual human and animal muck. It was not difficult to find Ben Zera’s house. It was the largest in town, a two storey building of glowing Jerusalem stone with stables and pens attached. The ground floor was a large open space where normally business was done, but this day it was a wedding hall. A large u-shaped table was set for thirty guests. There were flowers everywhere and, alas, the unmistakable odor of salted fish.

Marcus was a large man in the manner of the guild of stewards who feed themselves even better than the employer they profess to serve. Jesus, I recall, had something to say about larcenous stewards, though I’m not sure he got it right. Interesting little stories, those parables, but more puzzling than enlightening, I think. People would often come up to me afterwards and say, “You were listening. What was that about?”

Anyway, Marcus obliged me –a small piece of silver passed between us—and found me a place at the end of one of the wings of the banquet table. His last words were not “Thank you” –I’m not sure he was familiar with the expression—but rather “Don’t make trouble.”

I didn’t have the best seat in the hall but what I did have was a good view of the comings and goings at the central table. Ben Zera was of course seated at the center with Zippora, flowers in her hair, seated at his right and Simon, her betrothed, somewhat uncomfortably on his left. The bride’s truculent looking mother –little wonder. Ben Zera had recently returned her dowry and sent her packing— was next to her daughter, and a very composed, very still Jesus was seated at Simon’s left.

“Who is that woman next to Jesus?” I asked my tablemate whose soiled grey tunic and sodden beard fairly cried out “I also bought my way in.”

“That’s his mother, Miryam.”

“And his father?”

He smiled a nasty little smile and shrugged.

“Mamzer?

He shrugged again.

I watched Jesus closely. He had slipped in quietly, ate and drank little and spoke little with either Peter or his mother. But at one point his mother summoned the steward and whispered something in his ear while squeezing something else into his outstretched hand. The bride’s mother –I later learned her name was Abishag— caught the exchange and then caught Marcus and obviously extracted the pertinent information from the now much enriched steward. No more than ten minutes passed until his mother leaned over and whispered something to Jesus. He whispered something back, sat silent for another four or five minutes and then disappeared out a side door.

After a few minutes Jesus reappeared, followed shortly by Marcus and attendants carrying two large wine amphoras.
“Master, beloved bride and honored guests, I have procured for your dining pleasure the finest wine in Eretz Israel. Please, drink!,” said he, filling the cup of Ben Zera. “Enjoy!” Cups were filled and quaffed round the room –Jesus declined— amidst cries of delight. It was, I can testify, the lightest, driest most delicate white wine I have ever tasted. It flowed over the tongue like water and then streamed down the throat like a cascade of delicate citrus.

“Eretz Israel my ass’s ass,” said my tablemate. “It’s got to be Lebanese and got to be expensive.”

I rose and hurried into the Kitchen.

“Marcus, what just happened here? You didn’t just go out and fetch in that wine off some passing wagon.”

“Oddest thing,” he said. “That strange fellow Jesus comes in and says straight out, ‘Fill the large amphoras with water.’ I was told by his mother to do whatever he said, so I did it. He stands there a minute looking at the amphoras. His lips are moving like he’s saying something but I hear nothing. Then he leaves without a word. I can already smell the wine. By Hecate! He’s turned the water into wine!”

“You sure there wasn’t wine left in the amphoras?”

“I’d swear to it. I watched them being rinsed myself.”

“How did he do that?”

“You’re the magic man,” he laughed. “You tell me!.”

Magic, ha! What people like me do are called thaumata, “wonders” –excuse the Greek but these days even the rudest of peasants seems to have a little Greek— and they are truly wonderful to all who witness them. They are wonderful as well to us, not so much that they happen as the way they happen. All the performance staging of the exorcisms and cures, the mud on the eyes, the finger in the ears, the Aramaic formulae, is for effect. The simple reality is that we ask and the Almighty does. The dirty little secret of traditional thaumaturgy, at least in its Jewish version –what the goyyim are up to I judge is mostly charlatanism– is prayer. The thaumaturge prays, and if it is sincere –that is the critical element— the Almighty chooses to answer it and performs the merciful act of casting out a demon or effecting a cure. And I know as a fact that it’s the same with the rain maker and the fertility producer. The wonder-worker, who knows from experience and tradition the most effective prayers, prays and hopes for the best.

A simple though wonderful story. But by no means the whole story. Why would the Almighty interest Himself is such an obvious great hall trick as turning water into wine?

Some few weeks after Cana, when Jesus was passing by Beth Saida where I was working, I heard that he was heading up onto the Golan Heights in the direction of the Decapolis cities. I decided to join him, or rather, to join them since he was now travelling with an entourage. Chief among them were the men of his inner circle who I learned to call “the Twelve.” Jesus generally spoke with them privately in the evening; or sometimes they were sent out in pairs to carry his message, the contents of which I was still uncertain, to neighboring villages. Then there were others who joined the group for a day, a week or a month. There were women too very devoted; they tended to stay on longer. Each companion paid his or her own way, made their own arrangements. Jesus himself seemed to float free of need or necessity, however, “like the sparrows in the sky,” he once said, though in truth this particular sparrow was borne aloft on the wings of Ben Zera’s salted fish profits. My flutterings emerged, however, from my own purse.

Though we never spoke on this journey, I now had the opportunity to observe Jesus more closely than before. He had a rather long face, a smallish beard and his jet black eyes seem fixed on some point in the middle distance. He appeared to be about 30, slightly built and rather taller than other men of that age. He spoke softly, and when he preached in the open air, so that all might hear, one or other of the Twelve repeated his remarks sentence by sentence, while he, I suppose, composed the next in his head. His was not what you would call a flowing discourse.

One day we found ourselves near a town called Gergesa on the heights above the eastern shore of the sea where there was a notorious case of demonic possession. Jesus had already performed exorcisms: his very first, in the synagogue at Capernaum, had aroused considerable interest and wonder since he didn’t pray that the evil one be removed, the tradition approach, as I have said, but addressed the demon directly and bade him depart, which he did, but not before addressing Jesus in return: “ I Know who you are, Jesus of Nazareth, the Almighty’s holy one.”

You can imagine the reaction to that. No one had witnessed anything quite like that before, and on the basis of what I had heard, I was curious to see what might occur at Gergesa. According to reports, the Gergesene case was a severe one. The afflicted soul lived shunned among the tombs outside of town and, now endowed with demonic strength, he resisted all efforts to restrain him. He was possessed, it appeared, not by one but by a “legion” of demons. Immediately upon his approach, they identified Jesus, this time as “son of the Most High.” I had heard demons speak during exorcisms before, spewing forth all manner of vile imprecations, but never to my knowledge have they personally identified the exorcist and never, assuredly, in such exalted terms.

The later accounts have the demons bargaining with Jesus over their fate. I was there and there was no such thing. Without a word from Jesus, the demons departed their victim. At Capernaum they had simply disappeared, poof!. Here they were cast, quite appropriately, into a herd of swine kept by the local goyyim. And in a dramatic denouement, to which I can bear witness, the porkers ran down the Cliffside and cast themselves into the Sea of Galilee.

Holy Moses!

There was a certain amount of nonsense in the stories circulating about Jesus. The walking on water, the calming of the storm, the miraculous haul of fish, all of them the kind of tall tales that the Galilee fishermen love to tell, No one walks on water. Even Moses crossed the Red Sea dry-shod rather than on the waves. Many of Jesus’ “wonders” –I’m not sure I know them all—were standard ones, the likes of which are worked by every thaumaturge in Israel. And some few are not really a wonder at all, like the raising of the daughter of the synagogue official, a young girl who was not dead but merely in a coma, as Jesus himself recognized. And assuredly not the “cure” of Simon’s mother-in-law who was lying on her trundle bed feeling sorry for herself. “Get up,” said Jesus, and she did.

Impressive maybe and certainly explicable. But this was no mere thaumaturge, I might be able to exorcise multiple demons –frankly, I don’t think I’d like to try– though just on the face of it, this case was radically different, but neither I nor anyone else who does this work would be able to cast them into a herd of pigs who then had the wit to commit suicide.

No Jesus was different. I pass over in silence –I have studied a bit of rhetoric, you see— the fact that he took no fee for his work. I’m sure that the recipients of his generosity were impressed and gratified, but for some of those of us who practice thaumaturgy for a living, who do not have Ben Zera’s fish millions to support our philanthropy, there was a growing sense first of disbelief, then of irritation, and finally of anger at the wonder-worker from Nazareth.

When I said that Jesus didn’t exact fees, I wasn’t being quite accurate. Jesus does the traditional things, of course, cures, exorcisms and the like, and he was capable of the occasional great hall trick like turning water into wine, but in almost every instance there is a price attached. For me, the deed done means pay me my fee. Jesus requires something else, however, faith or belief or, perhaps more accurately, trust. Where we might expect “You have been cured and so you must believe,” Jesus proposes “You have been cured because you believe.’ Indeed, he demands belief. A notorious fact about Jesus is that he was unable to perform any of his wonders in Nazareth because of the locals’ lack of belief. Are we surprised? The people we grow up with only rarely think we will amount to anything, and that’s probably doubly true for carpenters.

Belief or trust in what? We sit around of an evening, my fellow thaumaturges and I, and ask ourselves, is Jesus of Nazareth some kind of occultist? Not in the Hermetic sense, of course; he’s far too unsophisticated for that type of occultism, but he is closer perhaps to the rabbis at Pumbeditha who combined mysticism with a kind of prayer magic wherein the simple repetition of formulas achieves the desired effect.

Jesus seems remote in fact remote from all forms of magic and occultism. His only teacher was John the Washer, a simple End-Time preacher who might have been wonderful in his camel’s hair tunic – why does no one ever mention what those things smell like?— but who worked no wonders. There is no copy of Poimandres in that carpenter’s house in Nazareth, I’m sure, and no apotropaic amulets hang around Jesus’ neck. Jesus Magus is a chimera.

I was not present at all of Jesus’ wonders; he was constantly on the roads, mostly in Galilee but there were also annual trips to Jerusalem for the Holy Festivals –he seems to have kept a low profile there— and occasional forays into Samaria, the Decapolis and up toward Tyre. Not even the Twelve witnessed all of them since they were now and then dispatched to preach on their own, though not, interestingly, to work wonders,

What I have seen has struck me, as I have said, as fairly commonplace thaumaturgy. I can, with a tweak here and an “Ahem” there, perform maybe some of the same wonders as Jesus. But there are two in particular that I personally witnessed and that provide the most irrefutable evidence that what Jesus of Nazareth is engaged in is as remote from the current thaumaturgy as the most distant star.

The first of them took place in Magdala, a town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was a prosperous place with the sea before it and a fertile farmland stretching behind. I arrived late in the afternoon amidst a great stirring in the town. I was told that Jesus had performed a spectacular exorcism. He had driven out “seven demons” or, according to others, “a demon with the strength of seven,” from a local woman. What caused a least part of the ensuing stir was that she was one of the town’s three prostitutes –I said it was a prosperous place, didn’t I? There was no missing her. The worn but still attractive woman, the object of both scorn and desire, was now standing somewhat apart, silent and composed, her eyes cast modestly down while her dark, oil-rich locks, uncovered and loosed, cascaded down to her shoulders.

Jesus was surrounded by a still excited crowd. The exorcism must have been extremely trying since he looked drawn and weary. I shouldered my way toward him through the tightly packed throng. Close up I saw at his elbow a heavily veiled woman reach out and deliberately touch his cloak. He turned and said, “Who touched me?” His followers clustered around him seemed baffled. With that crowd of people pushing and shoving all round him, he wanted to know who touched him?
Somewhere in the crowd a rabbi cried out, “Unclean! Unclean!” Rabbis, it is said, can detect menstrual impurity at up to ten yards.

The woman was in fact wrapped in the thickest possible mantle of ritual impurity: she had suffered from a continuous flow of menstrual blood for twelve years, twelve years of being shunned by friends and neighbors, of passers-by wrapping their own clothes more tightly about themselves, of rabbis warning all within earshot of the danger of contamination by even the most fleeting of contacts: to drink from vessels or eat from plates she had used; indeed, to sit where she had sat was to share her morbid impurity.

And she had touched Jesus.

Jesus turned and looked down at the woman now prostrated at his feet.

“I am clean, Lord. As soon as I touched your cloak, the discharge ceased, as I knew it would.”

Jesus reached down and raised her up.

“You are clean, daughter,” he said. “It is your trust that has cured you.”

“She is clean!” someone shouted and soon the cry was taken up by others , “She is clean!” A rabbi stepped suddenly out of the throng. He stood close to the woman and looked intently at here. Finally, he said only, “Go to Jerusalem and show yourself to the priests” and disappeared back into the crowd.

Then, for the very first time our eyes met. I was looking in Jesus’ for some wonder, some doubt, even some exhilaration. There was none. Rather, his steady gaze was fixed on me. It was he who was asking me, what did I think had just occurred here? By what power was this done?

I stood helpless, mute.

Later I approached Andrew, Simon’s brother and one of The Twelve with whom I had become acquainted during our journey onto the Golan Heights.

“What just happened back there?” I wanted to know. “How did he know someone had touched him in that particular way? How did he perform a cure without intending it or even being aware of it?”

“I don’t know,“ Andrew confessed. “Simon asked him about being touched in such a crowd and all her said was “I felt power going out of me.”

“What?”

“Power,” he repeated. “He felt the escape of power from, I don’t know, his body? His spirit?”

“What does that mean?”

“I’m not sure,” Andrew said. “What I do know is that he cures by his own power and authority. There are no calls upon the Almighty or Satan; he himself possesses the power to perform wonders, even to raise the dead. I know of no other like that.”

“Nor do I,” I said.

“But this is the first time I’ve seen that power work spontaneously and unbidden. It is beyond comprehension.”
Indeed it was.

Later his followers took to calling them “acts of power” rather than simply wonders. In a sense they were correct. What Jesus performed in certain crucial circumstances were not the acts of process of the thaumaturge but acts of power; not my humble “We beseech thee, Almighty…” but “I command…”

Jesus was and is a bafflement for me. There are times when I can convince myself that we’re in the same business, thaumaturgy. But the delusion doesn’t survive the evidence for long. Not only does he not charge for his services; he doesn’t even pretend that his chief intent is to benefit his clients or his subjects or whatever I’m to call them. Quite frankly they seem simply like occasions to make some larger and quite different point. I have slowly come to understand that the wonders performed by Jesus of Nazareth are almost irrelevant to what it is that Jesus is really about, which is the propagation of his message. He is a messenger not a thaumaturge.

I hesitate to describe that message. I have listened to his preaching, not always carefully, I’ll admit; I’m not much for theology.

Or resurrections.

As, I said, Jesus was thought to have raised people from the dead on two separate occasions. I have good reason to believe, however, that in both instances he had simply brought some poor soul out of a coma. It was not Jesus, I was convinced, but the crowd of onlookers, who in their excitement are always prone to exaggerate, who turned a minor cure into a resurrection and so put into circulation the sensational story, now embellished with additional details, of how Jesus had raised people from the dead.

Or so I thought until I was in Bethany that day.

It happened not that long ago, but I have already heard a number of different versions of what happened at the house of Lazarus in Bethany. My own account, based only on what I saw and heard, is much simpler but no less startling.

I chanced to fall in with the Jesus party in the Jordan valley, and when I heard that he was intending to go up to Jerusalem fort the Passover, I decided to join them. But before we set out a message came to Jesus from Mary, the sister of Jesus’ good friend Lazarus.

“Please come,” it said, “My brother, whom you love, is dying. Come and save him.”

We all assumed that we would set out immediately for their home. But no; Jesus tarried for two whole days at the Jordan. It was almost as if he was waiting for Lazarus to die. Everyone was baffled. Later I asked John Zebedee, the follower who was personally closest to Jesus, if he knew why Jesus delayed his going up. He said he had no idea, but others in the group claimed they heard Jesus say, “Don’t worry; it’s not fatal. And besides, this has come about to show God’s majesty,” while still others thought they heard him say “This illness is to honor God’s son.” Odd, both of them, if true, but Jesus was often unpredictable, or better, unfathomable.

When we finally reached Bethany up on the slope of Olivet, we discovered that Lazarus had in fact died and been entombed four days earlier. Mary was distraught –I don’t know how a Martha got mixed into the later story; Mary lived alone with her brother— and wept that if only Jesus had been there her brother would still be alive, which may or may not be true.
Jesus asked to be shown the tomb. It was a typical cave tomb with a large hewn stone rolled across the entrance. Jesus bade the stone be removed, and when it had been rolled aside, he said in an unaccustomed loud voice, almost a shout,

“Lazarus, come out!”

There was only silence from the darkness within.

All was quiet, then a murmuring began slowly to rise among the crowd gathered round the tomb. Some urged me to speak.
I turned to Jesus and said, “Rabbi, he is yet dead.”

“Go and see, Magus” Jesus answered.

I crossed the lintel and slowly entered the darkness. I stood for scarcely a moment then turned and, revulsed, bolted back into the sunlight.

“He stinks!” I cried.

There was a sudden laughter that died equally suddenly on a hundred lips.

I knew without turning around that Lazarus stood behind me.

I turned.

There he was, his face all grey and blighted, his shrouds hanging in tatters from his lifeless limbs; his dead eyes fixed on Jesus.

Without taking his own eyes from Lazarus, Jesus said to me. “Do you now believe, Simon?
One hundred souls had turned from doubt to belief in that instant, and yet, and yet…Why did I hesitate? No living thing smelled like that! Lazarus was dead and now, through the power of Jesus, he was alive, with all the marks of corruption inscribed upon him. I believed that Jesus could perform such deeds since I had witnessed them with my own eyes. But he required more than that.

I could not speak.

Later there was a small meal. Lazarus, now washed and clothed was still gray and drawn. He sat quietly and said little and ate little. Jesus too seem subdued. Had power once again gone out from him? It was only Mary who was truly alive. She clung now to her brother and now to Jesus, praising both the Almighty and Jesus whom she called His “son.” It was not the first time I had heard that expression,

I felt oddly ashamed in their presence. I did not join them.

Here was another piece of irrefutable evidence as to the identity and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, and I am no wiser than I was in the Jordan valley. Nor am I the only one who is uncertain what to make of this mysterious man.The Pharisees read Jesus as a populist whose preaching is undermining the ethical system of the Torah, while the Sadducees are scandalized by his easy ways with Scripture. The Temple priesthoods see him as a dangerous competitor who threatens their own crumbling authority, and the Romans, well, the Romans quake in their military boots whenever one of their subjects starts talking about the restoration of a “kingdom,” even the Kingdom of Heaven.

And then there is the view, the majority opinion, I’m guessing, and one I share, that Jesus is one of our contemporary prophets. Not of the visionary type, of course, but –are we surprised?— something close to his mentor and model, John the Washer. John preached ritual, however, but Jesus, who also washed his initiates, at least initially, emphasized moral reform. But the core message of the two men was the same: it was time to act since the Day of the Lord, the End Time, was at hand.

It is an old song being sung anew, and the only thing certain about it is that we shall awaken tomorrow, or whenever it is that the world ends, and our breakfast bread and cheese will be waiting on the table.

Those are the relatively sane, though somewhat improbable understandings of what Nazareth’s favorite carpenter might be up to. But they do no justice to the Jewish imagination. I have also heard him described as Elijah returned from the Beyond and even as the murdered John the Washer restored to life. And then there is Simon, or Cephas, “the Rock,” as Jesus had lately taken to calling him. The always reliable Andrew described to me the scene at Caesarea Philippi when Simon stood up in the midst of the company and said straight out to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Holy One.”

My head spins whenever I hear mention of “Messiah,” but one thing is clear to me in this instance: Jesus is the most unlikely candidate for Messiah, the Almighty’s powerful agent who will descend from heaven, not Galilee, on clouds of glory amidst the tremendous cosmic events marking the Day of the Lord and put things aright for Israel. I don’t know what Simon was thinking. We all want to be sons of the Holy One, and perhaps Jesus has achieved that state of righteousness. But Messiah of Israel?

“If I may, Your Reverence Meleager,” I tried, “where is this Jesus of Nazareth now?”

It is mid-afternoon on Friday.

“He is standing before the Procurator,” the priest said. “And we are done with you. You are free to go. And take my advice and stay clear of that man. He is dangerous.”

I wearily climbed upstairs and made my way through the sickening reek of the sacrifices onto King David Street. I headed toward Herod’s former palace at the Western Gate where the Procurator held his sessions when in the city and where he must even then –it was the ninth hour— be deciding the fate of Jesus of Nazareth, prophet and, was it possible, Messiah of Israel.

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