It’s a summer day in Caesarea, the great Roman port city in Northern Israel. Weaving in and around your fingers is a Denarius—a coin you specifically remember earning years ago—and, in recent years, the only coin you’ve owned more than a day. It’s a rarity, so you’ve kept it. It’s also the only tangible memory from your previous life.
On the front is a picture of Augustus Caesar. On the back are the words DIVVS IVLIVS (“Divine Julius”) and a picture of Julius ascending among the gods as a comet. Augustus, who called himself “the Son of God”, died long ago, and you’re not completely sure which new son of Jupiter currently sits on the throne in Italy. You’ve never been to Rome, so coins have long been your only glimpse into its happenings.
If this were a normal summer, you would be at the completion of the barley harvest and enjoying a time of relative rest as the Jewish holiday of Shavuot approached. The year is 74 AD, and the rest you enjoyed after the harvest in all the summers you’ve known since childhood has been replaced with despair.
In fact, despair is all you’ve know for years.
Your name is Yitzhak ben Abba, and work on a farm just North of Jerusalem was life since your teen years. You had been lucky not just to have work, but to work on this farm. The landowner was one of the best to work for as far as you knew. Your friends in your village seem to have always had a worse time with their employment. No doubt, times have been tough for as long as you could remember, but at least you could always count on the luxury of a fair day’s work for one Denarius.
But, since the year 67, lack of work has been only one of your problems. On this afternoon, as you stare numbly at your coin, you hear it announced that Rome has just completed its war with Israel—the culmination of eight years of devastation. Frankly, everything you ever knew and thought you could count on has been destroyed in that time. At one time, you had a wife, a son, a mother, and had even a few sheep.
But no more.
Your first memory of the war happened seven years ago when a worn-out teenage boy from Jotapata in Galilee arrived in your village. He had obviously been on the run for several days. You will never forget the exhaustion in his voice and the fear in his eyes. This boy had seen the look of Hell.
Apparently, the Roman general Vespasian had laid siege to the elevated town, and this boy had gotten out in time. Of course, his story brought dread to the whole countryside. Were the Romans concerned only with Jotapata, or all of Judea? Might the Romans ever come here? Can Jotapata defend itself? If Jotapata succeeds, might the Roman army give up and turn back to Syria?
Months later, you let out a great sigh of relief when you heard that the general Joseph ben Matiyahu, now named “Flavius Josephus”, had successfully held off a massive bombardment up the steep rise to the town. This was good news. Surely the Romans would give up. The village threw a party.
Months later, the Roman army crushed Jotapata.
And several legions of Roman soldiers were marching due south.
In your direction.
Vespasian’s strategy was to route out rebels throughout the countryside and then stage a final showdown at Jerusalem. This left you with two bad choices: Either remain in the village and almost surely be crucified as a rebel (you’ve witnessed multiple crucifixions in your lifetime) or take your chances within the walls of Jerusalem, just like the residents of Jotapata had already attempted and failed.
So, you and your family fled south to Jerusalem.
That was years ago, and here in Caesarea you are still haunted by the choice. At least death would have ended you and your family’s suffering on a cross within an afternoon.
But the Roman siege—then led by Vespasian’s successor, Titus—of Jerusalem lasted forever.
And life trapped within those walls was as saturated in misery as humanity had ever known. Homelessness, banditry, malnutrition, starvation, treachery, fear, sleeplessness, cold, rain, disease, and ceaseless death. Factions of Jews fought each other within the walls over who would be in charge of this or that. Over who would get to eat this or that.
Sometimes the “this or that” were people.
Your nation was under attack from the mightiest military power in the history of the world, but the Romans could do little that the Israelites weren’t already doing to themselves.
Finally, five legions of Roman soldiers breached the wall.
You escaped with your life but little else. Your mother had already died from malnutrition. There was nowhere to bury her. Your son died during the fighting in a fire. Your wife was stabbed multiple times.
Her killer, too, is dead.
You saw people sliced open, children thrown hundreds of feet down onto rocks and burst open, women raped. You’ve smelled thousands of rotting carcasses. In fact, hundreds of thousands died within those walls.
You haven’t slept well in years.
And that brings you here to this day in Caesarea. You sit in the shade of the mighty Roman aqueduct—a technological marvel of this day—along with several homeless and your one companion-coin. The shade protects you during the hot of the midday before you go out to beg at the ports in the later evening.
Every once in a while someone will drop a coin into your bag.
More often than not someone will call you “Sikarion!” (“terrorist”).
Within a short distance of your spot is an arena. It’s close enough that you can hear the sound of its gladiatorial games. Today, as if Yahweh personally dumped a handful of salt in your already gaping wounds, the Romans are re-enacting the war you regret to have survived. Just a few hundred yards from where you sit, Jews with whom you had shared scraps of food in Jerusalem are being hacked beyond recognition.
To the sound of cheering.
And drunken shouts of “Pax Romana!” The joy of the crowd. The laughing. The happy fathers with their happy sons.
With every eruption, your stomach feels like you had just swallowed a stone. You feel the pain of the man or woman being slaughtered because you were slaughtered too. With every cheer, you relive another day of the war.
And now the crowd goes quiet, except for one voice. An announcement. Something called a “Euengelian” You ask one of the men huddled up near you what that means. “Good news”, you are told. This “Gospel” announcement is that the mighty Roman Empire, with the help of the gods, has finished off its final campaign in the war against the barbarian Judaites in Masada, the mountain city in Southern Israel. The world is at peace again.
“Pax Romana!” cheers the crowd in unison. “Euengelian!” cheers the crowd next. You can imagine the gospel being announced at hundreds of arenas throughout the empire. Thousands and thousands of families cheering to the news that the world was now safe from people like you.
You just want to die.
In this arena would be fine.
It’s the late afternoon now and you have transitioned from the aqueduct to the coast again, where you sit in a kind of trance. Would this be my last day? Would Yahweh have mercy on me in the life to come? And then your trance is broken. A fairly well-to-do woman and two male personal assistants has approached you and your companions on the port. She offers bread and a message from a “Rabbi Yeshua.”
You’ve heard that he was a controversial rabbi who died four decades ago on a Roman cross outside of Jerusalem, but its hard to know what is or isn’t true about him. To this date, nobody as far as you know, has ever written down his story.
The Yeshua Movement, or “the Way” as you’ve heard it called, remains a distinct minority in Judea. And it’s not clear exactly what Rabbi Yeshua even taught that made him so controversial. Today, however, you get to hear what all the fuss is about. She has a parchment scroll to read. The language of the freshly finished ink is Greek, but the woman has said she would translate it for us into Aramaic.
You haven’t eaten normal food in months, and yet, as she opens up her scroll, your imagination is fully invested in what’s inside. You’ve even forgotten about your bread.
She begins. You can feel in your bones the warmth of the words in the scroll before she even reads them, and the first line brings feeling to your body that you haven’t known since your childhood.
She pauses and looks up, her face revealing determination, even . . . defiance.
NOTE: An earlier version of this post stated that Jesus had died “centuries” earlier instead of “decades.” Writing is hard.