He bears his years well, Paul thought as he followed Crispus into a plant-filled atrium. Water burbled in a central fountain, filling the space with a calming murmur. Crispus turned and beckoned to a stone bench. The two men sat and studied each other in the flickering light of the torches set at intervals around the walls.

Crispus carried as many years as Paul, though he lacked many of the miles and most of the scars. Like Paul, he was balding. Unlike Paul, he sat straight-backed on the bench. He projected a sense of serenity that spoke of storms weathered and disappointments overcome. The gray of his beard, the lines around nose and eyes, hinted at his true age, but the eyes themselves—so alive and laughing—belied the face and testified to a heart that had somehow managed to stay young.

Crispus started. “Well, Saul, you certainly gave us plenty to talk about over Sabbath meal today.”

Paul gave a modest shrug. “I’d heard Sabbaths are so dull at Corinth, any morsel of controversy is welcomed.”

His host chuckled. “If so, your performance today should make you a very popular man. Somehow, though, I doubt it will work that way.”

Crispus paused, then cradled his forehead with one hand, as if the morning had left him with a throbbing headache. “Really, Saul! Putting the Messiah on a cross! What were you thinking?”

“I was just speaking simple facts, Crispus. I was reporting. I wasn’t shaping or coloring or dramatizing. Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus was crucified. I can’t tell his story without the cross. How do you talk about Daniel without the lions’ den? Or Hosea without Gomer?”

Crispus spoke in a voice pitched so low Paul could barely hear above the trickles of the fountain. “But the idea of a crucified Messiah … it’s so … distasteful, so … repulsive. I’m afraid you won’t win many friends with that. People want hope these days. They want happy endings, not crosses.” He paused and rubbed his nose.

“I’m concerned, Brother Saul, that our people have been disappointed so often they have ears only for the words they want to hear, the words that feed their fantasies. We don’t tolerate hard words any more.”

“It is a common disease in these difficult times.”

“Our people burn for a Deliverer. They have Messiah fever.”

“I’ve been touched by that fever myself,” Paul confessed with a smile.

“But you’ve recovered, apparently, judging by your words in the synagogue.” Crispus fixed him with a keen look. “It concerns me that this fever blinds us to the whole of Scripture. We only see the prophecies that promise to quench this particular thirst. We have no patience for passages that speak of a Savior who comes to restore our souls, not lead our armies.”

“No we don’t.” Paul kept as still as the stone on which he sat. “No patience for that at all.”

Crispus grunted. “And so we read Daniel and look for the Son of Man who will establish an everlasting kingdom. We read Joel and dream of the Day of the Lord. We’re eager for the parts of Zechariah that tell of nations broken and Jerusalem raised to a position of prominence and power. We read and our mouths water and we cannot wait for the Messiah to come and give us what we deserve.”

Crispus paused and rubbed his nose again, and his eyes. Somehow, in that gesture, he managed to communicate a deep worry.

Paul picked up the thread. “But what about the words of Zechariah that speak to the pride of Judah and the need for humbling? What about the Shepherd who is struck down even though he is the Lord’s chosen companion? What about the ‘one who is pierced,’ who will provoke mourning in Judah and purify the sins of the land?”

Crispus looked at Paul with weary eyes. “Yes,” he sighed. “What about those Scriptures? And Isaiah’s Suffering Servant? And the one who will know hatred and rejection? And the one who will be pierced and crushed and punished so that Israel can be healed?”

Paul nodded. “Where are the synagogue sermons on those passages!”

“Oh, I’ve heard a few,” Crispus admitted. “I’ve preached a few myself. But they always end with a question mark and a shrug. And then we hurry back to the safety of a conquering Messiah who will restore the glory days of Solomon. Can’t spoil the Sabbath mood with sad stories and hard questions. Can’t send our wives home with the notion that God might be less interested in our national ambitions than with the condition of our hearts.” His words weren’t bitter. They were resigned.

The two of them talked of the prophets for a long time, reviewing the perplexing pronouncements that were rarely heard in the synagogue precisely because they were so difficult, so at odds with the people’s dreams. They needed no scrolls for their conversation, each man intimately familiar with the Scriptures. One of them would quote a passage from the Twelve—something written by Amos, the shepherd of Tekoa, or Joel, the son of Pethuel—and the two of them would argue the words back and forth: Paul showing how the words made sense in light of Jesus; Crispus pushing back, then listening, then nodding his understanding.

It went on this way for hours.

When they’d finally struggled their way to common ground, Paul cleared his throat. “To be fair, Crispus, what makes those passages so difficult is what they say about us, about our character. They say the one thing we don’t want to hear. They say that we need a broken Messiah because we ourselves are broken people.” Paul breathed a long sigh, as if reluctant to put his finger on so raw a wound. “Like many of my fellow Pharisees, I believed …”

Crispus looked surprised.

“Oh yes, my friend, a Pharisee in good standing.” Paul smiled sadly. “I was once a man of prominence in Jerusalem, a true scholar, eaten up with zeal for Zion.” Paul stared up into the night sky. Crispus waited, recognizing in the pause a hint of some larger story he did not yet know.

“The Pharisees believe God is ready to send his Messiah at any time. But he’s waiting for Israel to be fully faithful. If we could prove our dedication, if for one day we could obey God’s Law, God would send his Messiah at once.”

Crispus sat forward on the bench. “But isn’t that what the prophets promised? If we return to God, he will come rescue us and rebuild his holy city?”

“Only there’s a problem,” Paul gave a thin smile. “It turns out we’re not capable of such devotion. We can’t muster that sort of righteousness. Oh, we can fool ourselves differently. We can turn a blind eye to our sins and proclaim ourselves worthy of God’s blessing. But it’s illusion, a pretense. The truth is, we’re too broken. Even at our best, we fall short of God’s standard.”

Crispus sat back sobered. He knew his own heart too well. “Yes,” he whispered. “I see. ‘All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.’”

Paul leaned forward, intense and gesturing. “If we could be righteous enough, if we could purify Israel and honor God with all our hearts, the only Messiah we’d need would be the powerful kind—a Messiah to lead legions of the faithful against all blasphemers and idolaters. But as it turns out, there is blasphemy in all of us. We all worship some idol. None of us is innocent. None of us is righteous.”

“Yes,” Crispus whispered again.

“So the Messiah we need turns out to be a Messiah who can forgive us and heal us, a Messiah who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves—make us right with God. That’s what we find hardest about those passages, Crispus.” Paul spoke as if he knew it from personal experience. “A suffering Messiah, a rejected and wounded Messiah, a Messiah who heals us with his pain and restores us with his own obedience—that kind of Messiah confronts us with the truth about ourselves. We’re no different from our fathers. In fact, we’re no different from the Gentiles. We’re just as broken, just as sinful and stubborn. We will not get it right because we cannot get it right. We need a Messiah to get it right for us.”

They sat side by side in the dark, glad for the cool of the evening. Summer had arrived to flay the city with her unblinking sun. The night air was a relief.

Crispus cleared his throat. “But, of course, that’s not a message we will hear easily, is it Brother Saul?”

“No, it’s not.”

“Because it confronts our pride—pride in ourselves and our moral superiority. Pride in our people and our status as the Chosen Ones. We’ve never taken kindly to those who attack our pride. It is one of the few things we have left.”

“I fear that’s true.”

“That’s why they killed him, isn’t it?” The two men locked eyes in the flickering light of the torches.

Paul nodded. “Of all his many talents, Jesus could always touch people in their pride. It was his greatest gift. And perhaps his greatest burden. Yes. That’s why they killed him.”

They thought on that for a few moments, until Crispus stood up and extended his hand to Paul. Paul rose and took the hand, sensing that perhaps he had found his first convert in Corinth. “You will address the synagogue next Sabbath. You will open the prophets and speak these hard things to our people. You will tell us more about this Jesus of Nazareth.” With each sentence, Crispus pumped Paul’s hand.

“They won’t like it, Crispus. At least, many of them won’t.”

“Oh, I know that,” he said with a laugh. “But what we like and what we need is rarely the same thing. I love these people too much to go easy on them.” He ushered Paul through the house to the front door.

As Paul moved off down the street, Crispus called after him. “I was just thinking that Sabbaths in Corinth are far too dull. A morsel of controversy may be just what we require.”


II

At another house, where a group of seven men gathered, Paul was the subject of a second conversation. It was not as polite, nor were the prophets a major point in the dialogue. The concerns were more pragmatic, the argument centered on what should be done with this stranger and his strange teaching.

This discussion had also run long. Only now, approaching midnight, was the talk winding down.

“All I know is that he’s trouble and must be dealt with,” Berekiah barked, his physical presence filling the room and giving added menace to his words. “Half the assembly went away this morning intrigued by what he said, eager to hear more!”

“Yes, well,” Sosthenes spoke quietly. He’d been silent throughout the debate, letting the younger men talk, listening to their comments, gauging their mood. Now that he decided to speak, however, all it required was two soft words to bring the others to instant attention. He was not the sort of man who needed to raise his voice. His long service to the synagogue, his years of leadership in the Jewish community, and the generosity of his donations gave ample weight to his soft pronouncements.

“I certainly agree, Berekiah, that Saul could be dangerous if given the opportunity. But I hardly think he won much of a following with his crucified Messiah this morning. Oh, a few God-fearers may give him a hearing. They have so little rooting,” he sniffed. “So our course seems clear. We don’t let it happen again. We forbid Saul a platform for spouting his nonsense. If he has no access to the synagogue, it will be difficult for him to cause much trouble.” Sosthenes stroked his beard and considered the matter.

“Why don’t we answer his lies?” one of the group suggested. “Show his heresies for what they are with the clear teaching of Scripture?”

Sosthenes shook his head slowly. “To incite a public debate, to argue his points, only gives the man legitimacy. Far better to shut him out than shout him down, I’d say.”

“And just how do you intend to do that?” Others might bow and scrape to the old man, but not Berekiah. He felt the old frustration wash over him. He knew the only thing standing between him and his rightful place was the fool Crispus and this cautious old man, too fond of subtleties.

“It’s Crispus who leads the synagogue, not you. He decides who does the readings and who preaches the text. He’s already given this Saul one chance to poison the well. What’s to keep him from doing so again? And again?”

Sosthenes fixed his dark eyes on Berekiah, permitting himself the smallest of smiles. Your time will come soon enough, Berekiah. Though God help us all when it does. But you still have a few things to learn from your betters.

“Crispus, as always, will do what Crispus thinks best. It’s been many years since he consulted me on issues of importance, or—for that matter—since I consulted him.” He sighed, as though regretting the rift. “But I would suggest three possibilities on this matter of Saul.” He held out his right hand, palm facing up. “Crispus may be as concerned as we are with what was said in synagogue today. He may decide on his own to refuse Saul a second chance.”

He held out his left hand, palm up. “Failing that, perhaps a frank airing of our own concerns—a recommendation from all of us—might persuade him that this Saul cannot be permitted to speak his blasphemies before the synagogue again. Yes, I think that might do it.” Sosthenes lowered his hands to his lap and lapsed into silence, trusting that Berekiah could count. At least to three.

“And the third possibility, Sosthenes? If the first two don’t play out?” Berekiah thrust out his chin, thirsty for something more aggressive, more definitive.

Sosthenes clasped his hands together, as if unwilling to commit himself. “Oh, I doubt that Crispus will let it come to that, Berekiah. He’ll either see the danger himself or allow us to point it out for him. If not, we’ll push the matter to another level. No need to dwell on such ugly possibilities at this point, wouldn’t you agree?” And Sosthenes bestowed an innocent smile on them all.

Berekiah swallowed hard and then nodded his assent. “Certainly, Sosthenes. We should trust Crispus to do the right thing. And if he doesn’t …” Berekiah tried to imitate Sosthenes’s smile but managed only a grimace. “If he doesn’t, then it will be up to us to protect our people and the teachings of our synagogue—by whatever means.”

The meeting broke up soon after and Berekiah walked home through the dark, accompanied by two of his closest associates.

“What is Sosthenes thinking?” one of them asked as they threaded their way through the narrow streets. “How can he hear what was said today and react so calmly?”

Berekiah stopped in the middle of the street and turned to face his companions. He moved close, both to ensure privacy and to tower over the men whose allegiance he would need in the days ahead. “Sosthenes knows exactly what he’s doing. Don’t underestimate him. Saul is not his concern. Crispus is. Either Crispus will deal with Saul and the game continues, or Sosthenes will deal with Crispus—once and for all. He’s set it up quite cleverly, when you think about it. ‘Trust Crispus’ he says. Ha! Since when? Sosthenes knows something. He smells opportunity.”

“And what about you, Berekiah? What do you smell?”

Berekiah smiled broadly into the night. Almost in a whisper, he replied, “Let Sosthenes deal with Crispus. And then, when the time is right, we will deal with Sosthenes.”