Summer, ad 50

Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks … testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.                                                                

(Acts 18:4-5, niv)

Paul stood at the back of the crowded synagogue, eyes closed, lost in one of Aquila’s mammoth robes and a sea of memory. He scratched absently at his straggle of beard.

The service was spoken without flair or embellishment. The scrolls were handled reverently. The readings and responses were heartfelt. Simple. Clean. Paul liked that. A well-ordered synagogue. Nothing to intrude on the quiet communion, the ancient conversation between the Promised People and their beckoning God.

The pattern of the liturgy, the sounds and rhythms of it, carried him to other times. He thought of the synagogue of his childhood and felt the hand of his father on his shoulder. He remembered the congregation of his student years, the Jerusalem synagogue that seemed so huge to his diaspora eyes. He thought of synagogues in Antioch and Lystra, less pleasant memories.

Paul shook his head sharply. None of that!

He often wished he could build a wall within himself, dividing off the sweet memories from the sour. There was so much about synagogue he wanted to remember, to feel warm about. Even now, he longed to enjoy the comforts of this place and these people without other thoughts, other fears, rising up to steal his joy. But he’d never managed the trick. The memories mixed together, like fresh water and salt, so that whenever he came to synagogue to drink, it always left the taste of brine in his mouth.

Aquila leaned over to point and whisper, “That’s Crispus, the synagogue ruler.”

Paul watched the old man closely. Luxuriant white beard. Finely woven robes. He carried himself with dignity, as though he’d worn the mantle of high responsibilities for many years and had grown comfortable with it. Not an easy man to approach, Paul thought.

Until he saw Crispus smile.

A small boy stepped forward to light a candle. He was hesitant, conscious of the eyes upon him, eager to perform his duty well. Crispus noted his faltering steps and then grinned at the boy in silent encouragement. And Paul saw at once that the smile had an uncommon power. It lit up the man’s entire face—eyes and lips and brow. It was the smile of a child, undiluted by disappointment or doubts. There was no reserve behind it, nothing hidden or held back. It spoke of genuine affection, of a man who cared more for the feelings of the boy than for his own grave dignity.

Paul warmed to Crispus immediately.


II

Crispus watched the boy light his candle, blow out the taper he carried, and then return in solemn relief to his place by his father. The boy looked over to him at once, keen for his approval. Crispus inclined his head a fraction and suppressed the urge to wink.

He motioned for the third reading to begin and stood with the congregation as the holy words were spoken. Looking up, searching the balcony where the women sat, he caught Hester’s eye and smiled again. The look on her face, the utter serenity that flowed not just from the worship but from being with these people, filled Crispus with great joy.

Their life held little adventure these days. It was stitched together with familiar routines and shared responsibilities. But it was a good life for all that. A life with purpose.

He turned his gaze to the people who filled the synagogue. He watched their upturned faces as they listened to the reading. These were his people. He’d known and served them all his life. He loved them like his children.

It was the only thing that truly frightened him.

Long before, he and Hester had lost their three sons. One still-born. The others carried off by fever as infants. He knew it was why the two of them loved these people so immoderately. A reflected affection. A parental care that, deprived of its natural focus, spilled instead onto the sons and daughters of the Hebrew community.

But Crispus also knew how dangerous fatherly love can be, how vulnerable it made him. The death of his sons had left him gasping and undone. He’d never known a sorrow so profound. It hurt so badly and for so long, he almost wished he’d never had children at all.

It was Hester who convinced him otherwise. Strong, wise, resilient Hester. When it became clear they could have no more children, it was she who shook him from his lethargy and pointed him towards his countrymen in Corinth.

“These are our children now,” she told him.

“I don’t want more children. I never want to hurt like this again,” he answered, resisting.

She, of course, knew better. “It’s love or die, Crispus. Pain is the price you pay for choosing life.”

He glanced again in her direction, thanking God for giving her to him. He looked across the congregation and thanked God for them all.

Still, the thought of losing her, of losing them, drained the smile from his face and filled him with dread.

Spare me that pain, he prayed to the God of his fathers.


III

Gaius Titius Justus sat towards the back of the synagogue, head down and silent, letting the strange words and odd melodies roll over him. Everything about the rituals, even the accented translations that accompanied the readings, seemed alien and exotic. The robed figures surrounding him, the rhythmic swaying and guttural responses, the smells of bodies and incense, had a peculiar attraction to him.

It was an attraction he found hard to explain, or for those who knew him to understand. Hard-nosed, pragmatic, unsentimental Gaius was not the sort one would expect to take an interest in religion. Any religion.

True, he felt nothing for the gods of his childhood. Though he went through the motions at the temples, as any civic-minded man must, the stories of Olympus left him cold. And he’d heard too many rumors about the behavior of living emperors to put any credence in their divine status when dead.

Still, there was something about faith that was a flame to his moth.

In honest moments, he admitted that curiosity fueled his religious explorations as much as devotion, that it was often the exotic rather than the divine that piqued his interests. But that was not the whole of it. Part of his curiosity was for experiences he could only touch in the presence of worshipers. It did not happen often—that sense of tapping into the Beyond, that ecstasy of possession. But when it did, Gaius felt a thrill that could not be matched by any woman or business triumph.

And the thrill, he reckoned, was almost as religious as faith.

The synagogue was not his first foray into foreign religions. He’d dabbled with the rites of Isis and Mithras. But he soon tired of them, discovering that their mysteries were a thin veneer of ritual not quite concealing the empty superstitions beneath.

Had he wanted superstitions, the gods of Olympus would have sufficed.

But the synagogue was different. These people believed. Their Scriptures were filled with tales of power and the miraculous. Their forefathers claimed visions and voices and chariots of fire ascending into the heavens. Their God possessed people and worked his will through them.

Gaius was fascinated. He loved the stories of Moses and Elisha. He’d give half his fortune to strike a rock and have water spring forth, to heal a leper or make an ax head float.

If he could not claim faith in the God of the Hebrews, his enthusiasm for their stories about that God and his enjoyment of their fervent faith provided an effective substitute. He envied their sincerity, their unaffected confidence. He hoped one day to witness some display of power, a miracle perhaps, to justify their faith and prompt his own.

So he came each Sabbath to the synagogue to watch the Hebrews warm themselves at the altar of their God; never quite feeling the heat himself, but hoping to.


IV

Crispus took up station at the door, greeting his congregants as they exited from the synagogue and blessing each of their children with a smile and some teasing word.

“Good Sabbath to you, Gaius.” He shook the Gentile’s hand. “And thank you for your latest contribution to our orphans’ fund.”

Gaius smiled, glad to have his generosity noted. “A small gift for a worthy cause,” he shrugged. Though he knew the gift was not that small.

Crispus gave him a searching look. “You’re very faithful in your attendance at synagogue.”

“I find your services … ahh …” he thought for a moment before finding the right word, “… intriguing, I guess. They soothe me. And I do love to hear the readings. Such stories!”

“We’ll make a proselyte of you yet, Gaius.”

He laughed. “Just as soon as you drop that circumcision requirement.”

Crispus watched the younger man walk away, the clicking of his cane on the cobblestoned street echoing against the buildings.

“Brother Crispus, I’d like you to meet Brother Saul, a rabbi from Tarsus.”

Crispus turned to acknowledge Aquila and then reached out a hand to Paul. He doesn’t look like much of a rabbi, Crispus thought, taking in Paul’s patchy beard and ill-fitting robes. And Tarsus! Goodness. What kind of rabbi hails from Tarsus?

But what he said was, “Greetings, Brother Saul. Good Sabbath to you.”

“Good Sabbath to you, Brother. And please forgive my appearance.” Paul had felt the synagogue ruler’s eyes on his clothing. “I’ve journeyed a long way and traveled light. I had to borrow this,” he gestured to his robe, “from the only brother I knew well enough to ask.” He glanced up at Aquila. “Unfortunately, I am a David to his Goliath.”

Crispus smiled that wonderful smile again. “So, you’ve come from Tarsus?”

“Actually, no. I’ve come from Jerusalem.”

Crispus’s eyes showed the first flicker of true interest. “Jerusalem? It’s not often we get a visitor from the Holy City. And a rabbi at that! What news do you bring?”

“Oh, a great deal of news. Some of it even good news.” He glanced quickly at Aquila. “These are interesting times in Jerusalem.”

“Yes.” Crispus stroked his beard thoughtfully. “We’ve heard rumors. Trouble with the Romans. Unrest among the people.” His eyes brightened again, remembering some fragment from an old letter. “You wouldn’t know anything about the Baptizer, would you? He’s created quite a stir, I hear. Revival in the wilderness.”

Paul smiled sadly. “He’s dead, I’m afraid. Murdered by Herod.”

Crispus frowned and looked away for a moment. “I’m sorry to hear that, Brother Saul. Prophets are in short supply these days. And much needed.” His eyes sought Paul’s face once more. “But you do know his story?”

Paul nodded. “That and more. What he said. Why he said it. Who he came to introduce.”

“Introduce?” Crispus paused and then lowered his voice. “Yes, I see. We’ve heard rumors of a new rabbi who’s stirring up the people. Of miracles and signs and mobs in the wilderness.”

“Oh, yes indeed. As I said, these are interesting times back home.”

Crispus shot a look at Aquila. “Do you know this man, Brother? Will you vouch for him.”

Aquila looked at Paul for a moment and then took the step he knew would change everything.

“Absolutely, Brother Crispus. With all my heart.”

Crispus nodded. “Then perhaps you should speak to us about all this, Brother Saul. Bring us the news from Jerusalem. Next Sabbath at synagogue?”

“I’d be honored,” Paul said and turned towards home with Aquila.

On the way, though, his steps grew heavy with memory. And the tang of brine bit his tongue.

[Next Chapter]