The Soldier's Quest

(Copyright 2000)

The old soldier never found out the name of the village. Perhaps it didn't even have a name. It was barely more than twenty or so sun-bleached dwellings nestling in the foothills at the edge of the wilderness. The road - little more than a dusty track - petered out a few hundred paces before the outermost buildings. He was at the end of his journey.

It had taken him two day's hard travel from Herodium, leaving the mountains and traveling down onto the empty plains, to reach the village. As he walked, he could not help but compare the sparse countryside with the rich fields surrounding his villa outside Rome. It would be harvest time now; his two sons would be busy supervising the workers from dawn to dusk to ensure the crops were harvested and the fields prepared for the next season. He heart filled with pride as he thought of his sons. They had both grown into fine young men. Next season, the eldest would be joining one of Caesar's elite legions as a ranking officer; one of the benefits of having a retired general for a father.

The sun was setting as the old soldier entered the village. There was no sign of life apart from a cloak hanging from a clothes line stretched between two of the houses. The heavy cloth flapped sluggishly in the slight breeze. He walked up to a building he took to be a tavern of some sort, judging from the crudely drawn wine gourd on the sign over the door and knocked loudly on the scarred wooden door. After a short wait, it was opened by a wizened old man, who squinted at him shortsightedly, taking in the travel-stained clothes.

"I am looking for lodgings for the night," said the old soldier.

The tavern keeper grunted. "We don't get many Romans come this way." He looked more closely at the visitor's clothes and noticed the worn military webbing and pack. "Especially lost centurions."

"I'm not lost," said the old soldier, evenly.

"Why are you here, then, if you are not lost?" countered the tavern keeper. "There is nothing past our village except the Wilderness of Judah. You have no way to go except back the way you came." He opened the door wider. "No matter, if you have gold or silver, I have room for you. Come."

The old soldier walked through the door into the tavern. The main room was furnished with roughhewn timber tables and benches and he sat down at one of these, placing his small traveling pack on the floor. The tavern keeper disappeared through one of the doors leading off the room and reappeared with a tray bearing some food and wine. He placed a loaf of dark bread, a chunk of strong-smelling cheese and a bowl of dates before the Roman, then poured a generous amount of wine into two goblets, one for his guest and one for himself.

While the old soldier ate, the tavern keeper amicably interrogated him. "Have you traveled far, then?"

"From Herodium," replied the old soldier, speaking with a mouth full of bread and cheese. "Before that, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, through Samaria from the port of Caesarea. I traveled there via Lycia, Crete and Sicily. It has been over a year since I left my homeland."

"That's quite a journey," noted the tavern keeper.

The old soldier shrugged. "I have marched much farther in my years of service for the Emperor. Besides, I needed the exercise; I was getting fat and weak since I retired from the legions."

"So, what brings you to our humble village? Granted, these are strange times in Judea, but a lone Roman on our roads is still not a common sight."

The Roman took a long draught of wine and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "I am looking for a man by the name of Josiah."

"We have only one man of that name in our village," said the tavern keeper. "He is the potter."

"What do you know of him?"

"I have no quarrel with him. He is a good man... and a good potter. He came to us about three seasons ago and lives quietly by himself. He seldom seeks company, but is friendly enough. What do you need from him? You do not look like a man who would travel half the world for pottery."

"I knew his father, many years ago," replied the old soldier, spitting a date seed into his hand.

"He must have been a close friend for you to travel so far to talk with his son."

The old soldier made no reply. He drained the last of his wine and the tavern keeper refilled his goblet. "Where will I find this potter?" the Roman finally said.

"His house is at the end of the village," replied the tavern keeper. "When he came here, he sought to build as far away from others as possible."

"I will visit him in the morning," said the old soldier rising. "I would rest now, if you can show me my bed. It has been a long day."

The sun had set fully, so the tavern keeper lit a small animal-fat lamp from its twin on the table. The lamp smoked thickly, giving off an acrid smell. He led the old soldier down a short hallway to the room that served as a communal sleeping chamber for guests. There were a number of stretchers arranged around the wall and the old soldier lowered his weary body into one, soon dozing off off into a fitful sleep.

In the morning, the Roman awoke as the first cock crowed. He broke his fast with a simple but adequate meal provided by his host, then left the tavern to find the man he sought. Following the tavern keeper's directions, he walked east through the village, ignoring the curious gazes of the locals, until he came to a small building that served as both dwelling and shop for the potter.

A man sat at a workbench in the shade of an awning attached to the side of the shop. He looked up and nodded pleasantly as the old soldier approached, wiping sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and leaving a smear of clay across his forehead. The potter was about twenty-five, with a lean, handsome face crowned by a mane of black curly hair. His eyes were deep blue, compassionate and full of kindness.

"Good day, fellow," said the old soldier. "I'm looking for Josiah of Nazareth."

"Then you have journeyed for naught," replied the potter, dipping his hands into a bucket of water at his side. He started working on a clay blank sitting on the bench. "My name is Josiah, but I am not of Nazareth."

"Your pardon," said the Roman. "I thought you might have taken Nazareth as your birthplace."

"Why would I do that?" asked Josiah the potter, with a gentle smile. The clay was beginning to take the rough form of a bowl. His fingers were skillful and the clay seemed to come alive at his touch. "And I thought Romans were used to granting pardons, rather than asking for one." Despite the words, the old soldier heard no anger or malice in the potter's voice, but rather resignation.

"I heard that Mary Magdalene had a child," persisted the old soldier. "That child was named Josiah, and he was said to be the son of Jesus of Nazareth."

"Well, now," replied Josiah. "It was also said that Mary Magdalene had many men; any one of them could have fathered a child by her. What makes you think that Jesus of Nazareth was the one?" His hands continued working the clay.

"I wasn't sure," said the Roman. "Until now. You have his eyes."

"Do I?" replied the potter. He picked up a sharpened splinter of wood and deftly inscribed a decorative pattern around the rim of the completed clay bowl. "Did you know this Jesus of Nazareth, then?"

"I was there when they crucified him," said the old soldier simply.

"They?" queried Josiah.

"We," acknowledged the soldier softly. "I was there when we crucified him."

"It is cooler under the awning," said Josiah, indicating another stool beside the bench. "Or would you rather stand in the sun?"

The Roman walked into the shade and sat down on the offered stool. Josiah put aside the finished bowl and reached under the bench to get another clay blank. He immediately began working the soft moist clay.

"You are the son of Mary Magdalene, then?" asked the old soldier.

Josiah nodded.

"Tell me, does she still live?"

"You know what my mother was, soldier. Women in her profession do not live long lives; men like you see to that. She cared for me but five seasons before God called her away. She was a loving mother, by all accounts, but her heart was broken." Josiah wiped at his brow again. "Many of the disciples of Jesus dropped away after he died, but a few of his true friends remained. One of them - the man Joseph of Arimathaea, who gave up his own sepulchre in which to lay the body of Jesus - took me into his own house after my mother died and raised me as his son."

"I think I remember Joseph of Arimathaea. He was a brave man in such troubled times."

"He suffered much persecution for his actions," replied Josiah. "But he bore such trials with considerable fortitude. He was never an outspoken disciple of Jesus, but his deeds always spoke more than his words. It is his family name I choose to bear as a sign of my gratitude to him."

"Did he speak much of your father?"

"Joseph of Arimathaea was a humble man. He did not claim to be a friend of Jesus, even though I think he understood more of my father's teachings than the so-called inner circle of disciples. Joseph was a wealthy elderly merchant, who had traveled widely and was wise in the ways of the world. He saw the life of Jesus from a different perspective than that of the other disciples. He had seen men like Jesus before; men attempting to shake the people from their apathy; men decrying false gods and trying to show the path to a new truth. He had also seen what kings and priests had done to these other men."

"Did Joseph of Arimathaea believe Jesus to be the son of God?"

Josiah shrugged. "The only person who could answer that would have been Joseph of Arimathaea. I do know he believed in God - and that was as much as Jesus would have wanted, I think."

"And did Joseph of Arimathaea condemn those who had condemned Jesus," asked the old soldier. "Did he hate the murderers of the King of Jews?"

Josiah gave a deep sigh. "Why are you here, soldier? Are you seeking forgiveness for what you did to Jesus of Nazareth? You are not the first who was there that day to have tracked me down to ask that, although you are the first to find me here. Unfortunately, I cannot help you in this matter; I did not know my father so I cannot speak for him to absolve you of your guilt. Perhaps he deserved to die; perhaps he did not. You probably know better than I if you should be forgiven."

The old soldier looked at Josiah's hands as they worked the clay. He looked at his own, scarred and wrinkled with age. "I am growing old," he said. "I have lived longer than most of my friends and colleagues, but I will soon be in the shadow of death. I have traveled widely in the service of Caesars and have seen much and done much. I have led armies in victorious battles, earned the respect of my fellow citizens and the love of my family. However, all I wish to know now is to which god I should pray before I die. Is your god the true god? Does he deserve the faith that his followers show him?"

Josiah shook his head slowly. "God does not need your faith, soldier. Any more than my father needed your sympathy when Pilate nailed him to the cross. You already know the answer to your question, or you would not have come this far to ask it. However, I will tell you what I believe, as I have told those before you, but you must give me something in return."

The old soldier's hand went to the money pouch at his belt. "I have not a lot left, but I will pledge to send you whatever you wish when I return to my home."

Joseph smiled. "You Romans - always thinking of gold. But even after all this time, your money would still be covered in blood. No, soldier, your payment will be to tell me of my father's death. I have heard many versions, perhaps yours will ring true."

"It... it was so long ago," replied the soldier hesitantly. "I may not remember it well."

"You would not have traveled here to me," replied Josiah. "If the memory of that day had faded. You may have done much in your life, but I'll wager nothing has remained so clear in your mind as what happened on that day."

The Roman's shoulders slumped. He closed his eyes for a moment, then took a deep breath and began speaking. "They were strange times," he began. "Jesus of Nazareth was warned by Pilate and the temple Priests many times to stop his speeches and rallies. The last thing they wanted was to make him a martyr. The followers of Jesus were a mixed group; some habitual troublemakers, some weak-minded individuals who followed any charismatic person, as well as some who truly believed and quietly went about their lives - much like your Joseph of Arimathaea."

"I did not realise it then, but Jesus of Nazareth was typical of natural leaders who appear from time to time. In later years, among the many provinces and people under Roman rule, I was to see similar men gather followers around them; captured by a new idea or philosophy." The old soldier passed a hand over his eyes wearily. "Similar, but not the same as your father, perhaps."

"I was a young man, then," he continued. "I had been in the Legion only two seasons. So far away from Rome, everything seemed strange and confusing. I could not understand much of what was happening and fell back on my training - simply doing my duty as a soldier and obeying the orders of my commanders."

"You must realise," he said, looking into Josiah's eyes with a troubled expression, "that I was just a common soldier then. Even had I understood what was happening, there was nothing I could have done anyway."

"Go on," said Josiah, softly. "I am not here to judge."

"About midmorning on that day, my commander came to our barracks and told us three criminals were going to be crucified, including one known as the King of Jews. We were to assist the local authorities at the place of crucifixion to ensure that the crowds did not get out of hand. The Temple Priests were convinced that Jesus' disciples would try to rescue him from the cross. By the time my detachment arrived, the three were on the crosses. Your father was in the middle; it looked as if he had been badly beaten by his captors, he was bloodied and covered in bruises."

The Roman looked at Josiah "Have you ever witnessed a crucifixion?" he asked.

"I have seen bodies on crosses afterwards," replied Josiah. "But I have never wanted to witness the event, as I'm sure you can understand."

"Crucifixion is death by suffocation," the old soldier explained quietly. "Hanging by outstretched arms forces the air from your lungs; to breathe in you must take your full weight on your feet and try to push up enough to allow your chest to expand. You last as long as you remain conscious; our until your legs are broken. You must choose between the feeling of suffocation and the agony of your nailed feet."

The old soldier had caused the death of many men in his time. It had not always been on the battlefield, either. Late is his distinguished career, Caesar had made him Protectorate of a province under Roman rule. In this role, he had been required to sentence many criminals to death. He felt little sympathy for these men, some of who had been responsible for attacks on his own troops, but he always ordered a quick and clean death. He had never used crucifixion as a method of punishment.

"Was there a large crowd?" asked Josiah

"More than I expected," said the Roman. "But they were quiet - just watching as if they were expecting something. There didn't seem to be many followers of Jesus there - or at least none that made themselves known. Your mother was there, standing off to one side with another woman. When it became clear that the crowd wasn't going to cause any trouble, my commander told us to stand down, but remain alert for any trouble."

"The other two being crucified were screaming in pain and begging for mercy, but Jesus hung there for hours, barely making a sound. At about the sixth hour, the sky darkened as if a huge hand had been passed in front of the sun. The crowd gasped in fear, but nothing else happened. Jesus looked down at your mother and smiled. She tried to smile back, but broke down and cried. All resistance seemed to go out of him then, and he sagged against his restraints."

"The Roman officer in charge looked up at the sky filled with black clouds and gave an order to some centurions to end it once and for all. A couple of them went up to the criminals and broke their legs with the edge of their heavy shields. They died shortly after. The centurion who went up to Jesus had no shield, so he thrust his spear into Jesus' side. At this, a cheer went up from the crowd."

"The centurion marched back down to the rest of us. I could see the tip of his spear covered with blood and gore. He wiped it off on the grass." The old soldier looked at Josiah. "I'm sorry, but you asked me to tell you."

Josiah pinched off a small lump of clay from the blank and rolled it between his fingers. "Yes, I did ask you. Thank you; there have been many stories of my father's death, but it is only ones like yours that I believe. Now, for my part of the bargain; was my father's God the true god?" Josiah flicked the pellet of clay out into the sun.

"Roman, I don't think Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God, if that helps. My father was a normal man, like you or I, except he had a vision of a much better way of life for men like us. He believed more in us than we believe in ourselves, perhaps."

"Do you think he maintained that belief after they nailed him to the cross? Was his faith in his God that strong?" the old soldier asked.

"Maybe he just didn't want to admit to himself that his fellow men could put him to death for preaching what he saw as self-evident truths," said Josiah "But it matters little what my father believed in the end. A thousand years from now, do you think anyone will remember Jesus of Nazareth? I think not, but his ideas will still be alive. If the existence of God is an absolute truth, then that truth will always remain; men will either choose to see it, or they will choose to remain blind. Whichever choice his children make, God will rejoice in their ability to make it; it is that which separates us from his other creations."

The Roman looked at Josiah thoughtfully. "Perhaps it is just as well you chose to be a potter. I think men would follow you as easily as they followed your father; you have his voice as well as his eyes."

Josiah shook his head and smiled at the Roman. "I have never had any desire to follow in the footsteps of my father - no doubt that would have led to the same conclusion. My death on a cross would not have made his more meaningful."

"Do you worship the God of Jesus?"

"I do not know," replied Josiah. "I believe in my God; I like to think he is the same one my father preached about. He is certainly the same one Joseph of Arimathaea taught me about."

"Would you teach me about your God, then?"

Josiah gestured about him. "I am not a teacher. I am a potter."

"And are not all men blanks of clay?" replied the old soldier.

Josiah turned away from the Roman and was silent for a long time. The old soldier waited patiently, watching small dust eddies created by the breeze in the street outside. At last, Josiah turned back to the Roman and nodded slowly. He picked up another clay blank and started working it with his hands.

"In the beginning..." he began.