Matthias’s voice jars me awake. I lift my head from the scroll spread out in front of me. The oil lamp on the desk still burns.
“They have arrested that Jesus fellow. He’s in the courtyard.”
“What hour is it?” I ask, silently cursing as I see some figures on the scroll obscured by a spreading ink blot. The quill had slipped from my hand when I nodded off.
“Two hours or so till dawn. Shall I send them to Caiaphas?”
“No.” I stand and reach for my fine priestly robe, hastily throwing it around my shoulders. My son-in-law has mishandled this from the beginning. Let me see if I can find something we can use against this rabbi who has become such a source of dissension. At least Caiaphas and I agree on one thing. We need to rid ourselves of him. Quickly. It’s why we must deal with him this Passover while he is in Jerusalem. We can’t let him slip away again.
I follow my youngest son down the stairs and into the well-appointed reception room, where someone has lit the torches in the wall sconces. A group of temple guards and Roman soldiers huddle near the entrance. I can hear more voices outside in the courtyard.
“Well?” I say impatiently, as I sit down on my chair. “Bring him.”
The closest temple guard nods reverently and issues an instruction to those near the door. I’m pleased by his deference. It reminds me that for the people I, Annas, am still the true high priest, whether Valerius Gratus ‘deposed’ me or not. As if a Roman procurator can select who holds the holiest of positions in Israel. As if a gentile swine knows enough of the Torah to choose a man worthy of the title.
There’s movement at the entrance as the prisoner is brought in. I watch as they push him forward, thinking of all the accounts I’ve heard of him. Healings and miracle feedings and now even an absurd story of him raising a man from the dead. As he draws near, he meets my gaze—steady and unflinchingly—and I feel a moment of deep unease. It’s gone almost as soon as it arises. I remind myself that this man is harmful. He could be the downfall of my family, even of my nation, if he isn’t stopped.
“Do you know why you are here?” I ask when he stands before me.
He says nothing, but something in his expression tells me that he knows all too well.
“Do you know that I was high priest for ten years? Only I had the right to go through the veil into the Holy of Holies every year to offer a sacrifice to God. That temple is my charge, son. How dare you go into it as if you own it, and overthrow everything?
He stands silently, not a shadow of shame on his face.
“It’s not only the temple you seek to destroy, is it? You seek to undermine the very tenets of our law. Do you not? You break the Sabbath and teach your disciples to do the same.”
Anger burns in my gut as he continues to watch me, as calmly as if he is the one judging me. I will break him yet. They say he cares for his followers. Well, let’s see.
“These disciples of yours? Mostly fishermen, I hear.”
I don’t try to hide the scorn in my voice. A rabbi with fishermen for followers. What can he possibly expect from such simple men?
“Word is you are secretly teaching them to disobey our laws, even to rebel against Rome. Perhaps I should bring these fellows in for some questioning too. What exactly have you been teaching them?”
Finally, there is a flicker of emotion on his face.
“I have spoken openly to the world,” he says, his voice soft and calm. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret.”
There is no deception in his eyes. The strange thought comes to me. For an instant I see why the crowds are drawn to this man. If he holds such sway over them, he is even more dangerous than we think. Rome could clamp down on our temple trade—on our nation—if more and more people are swept up by him.
I try a different line of questioning. “Is it true that you once said men must eat your flesh?”
“Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”
The temple guard who had shown me such deference earlier steps forward and slaps the Galilean through the face, hissing, “Is this the way you answer the high priest?”
A shocked silence follows the stinging blow. I almost reprimand the fellow for his interference—that’s not the way we are supposed to treat prisoners. But I let it go, knowing we’re breaking other rules too. There’s just too much at stake to follow the minutiae of the law.
“If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong.” I notice the rabbi’s cheek reddening as he speaks, and his left eye watering from the blow. “But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”
He appears to know the law. We can only condemn him on the testimony of two or more witnesses, and even then we can’t sentence him to death—only the Romans can do that.
But only his death will restore our peace. What had Caiaphas said? It is better that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.
Thinking of my son-in-law, I become aware of just how tired I am. It’s been a long night waiting for news of the Galilean, and it’s obvious that I won’t be able to break him. Let the younger men deal with him.
“Take him to Caiaphas,” I say to the temple guard as I rise from my chair, meeting the rabbi’s gaze one last time. Such unwavering strength. I quickly look away. “Make sure those bonds are tight.”
“Matthias?” I call my son over as the guards lead the prisoner from the house. “Tell Caiaphas to find witnesses. Quickly. And to get him to Pilate as soon as possible, or the execution won’t be done before the start of the Sabbath.”
I’m unsettled as I climb the stairs to my quarters. When I finally lie down on my sleeping pallet, sleep eludes me, despite my aching weariness. The rabbi’s question roils restlessly through my mind. If I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?
Something about my encounter with the man has left me feeling uneasy. Something I saw in his eyes. Zeal, perhaps? Or his calm strength that didn’t flinch in the face of authority?
No, it was more than that. It was the sense that he knew. He knew I had decided he should die and he knew the motives of my heart. In fact, when he looked at me, I sensed he even knew the darkest parts of me, those hidden behind the fine robes and high title.
If I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?
A man who sees and knows and is unafraid to speak the truth. What choice do we have but to silence him?
(Based on John 18:12-14)
This is one of the stories in Soul Search: Questions Jesus Asked. Buy it on my website or Amazon or your favourite online platform.