Not long after Timothy and Silas left for the north, Gaius heard that the Apostle had gone back to the shop, cutting and stitching to earn his keep. And soon after that, he started dropping occasional comments. “There are better ways to spend your time than making tents, Paul.” “Wouldn’t you rather be in the agora—talking about Jesus?” And, Paul’s favorite, “You’re smelling more like Demeas every day!”

But it took a couple of months for Gaius to grow exasperated enough to invite Paul to dinner.


II

“It’s really not necessary,” he said, tearing off a crust of bread and dipping it into a plate of seasoned olive oil. “I’d be happy to support you. Take care of your food and expenses.” He gestured at Paul’s worn tunic. “You could buy some decent clothes. You need a proper toga, Paul. Something more fitting for your status as our teacher and guide. You don’t see the philosophers in the agora dressed up like deck hands. Except the Cynics, of course. But who takes them seriously?”

Paul chewed a bite of fish slowly. But it didn’t taste nearly as good, suddenly, now that he knew what Gaius wanted to talk about. He spoke carefully. “I appreciate your offer, Gaius. Really, I do. But I couldn’t take your coin.”

“Why on earth not? There are dozens of teachers and seers and writers wandering around this city who’d jump at the chance.”

Paul wiped his hands on a piece of bread and sat back to look at his host. “True enough. But I’m not one of them. My needs are few. And, besides, I enjoy the work. It makes me feel … honest. I want people to know it’s their hearts I’m after, not their money.”

“But you won’t have to ask them for their money. You’ll have mine!” Gaius beamed at him. “It’s not a burden for me, Paul. I can afford it.”

“I know that. And, again, I appreciate your offer. But I prefer to look after myself, Gaius. I’d rather work and pay my own way.”

Gaius sighed and grumbled inwardly at the man’s stubbornness. He pushed the food away and wiped his hands. “What you prefer isn’t the point, Paul. Your working is just not seemly. Men of learning, men who live in the world of ideas and words, don’t debase themselves with manual labor. It’s …” his face showed his distaste, “It’s beneath you, Paul. It undermines your credibility. It suggests that your message doesn’t have the weight to win the support of a patron.”

Paul grew very still. This was dangerous ground. “I’m not looking for a patron, Gaius,” he said softly. “I’m looking for people who will believe my message.”

“But you should be, Paul.” Gaius leaned forward to argue the point. “You need someone who has the status, the gravitas, to lend respectability to our little group. You need someone who has connections in this city, someone who can offer protection and access. We can’t build a collegium with the riff-raff you collect in the agora, Paul. We need people of substance, people of means. You won’t meet those people in the marketplace. You meet them at dinner parties and in the courthouse and during the morning salutatio. That’s what a patron’s for! To introduce you to the better people of Corinth!” He raised his hands in a gesture that said, It’s obvious.

“I met you without the benefit of a patron.” Paul smiled, trying to keep the conversation light. “You brought your friend Tullius to the assembly, and he seemed to like what he saw.”

But Gaius shook his head emphatically. “You met me because of my connection to the synagogue. But that well’s dried up. And Tullius liked some of what he saw at our worship. But he left with many of the same concerns I have.”

“Which are?”

“We have too many bottom-feeders, Paul! We’ve left the door wide open to the rabble and the misfits. Slaves and common soldiers and whores.” His nostrils wrinkled. “I can barely stand to be in the same room with that tanner! How can we attract the kind of people we want if they have to rub shoulders with the likes of that? Nobody joins down, Paul.”

Paul became even more still. He barely breathed. Even his eyes did not move. “There is no down in our assemblies, Gaius. There is no better or worse, higher or lower. We are a family. And each of us—even the tanner—is a valued member.”

Gaius made an exasperated sound. “And that’s another thing. All this talk about equality and the value of every member. It’s unnatural. It’s unCorinthian. Our city, indeed the whole Empire, is founded on the idea that cream rises to the top, that people of education and wealth and position have a right, a responsibility, to provide leadership for the masses. I, for one, do not consider a whore my equal! I resent having to sit in our assemblies and listen to the ramblings of a slave or a tailor—as if they have something to teach me … as if a man of my blood and standing needs lecturing from people like that! It’s demeaning, Paul.”

Paul could feel his own blood rising in his neck, the hot flush of anger boiling up inside. He forced it down. He deliberately kept his face calm and his hands still. He’d long suspected this of Gaius. But now he was learning how far it went. So he steeled himself for the task of listening, no matter how much the effort cost him.

“Paul,” Gaius pleaded, his hands gesturing for the reasonable path, the sensible way. “I put up with all this because I know you. I like you. And I can see the possibilities in what you’re doing. We have a distinctive message. There is deep and ancient wisdom in it. Our sacred rituals—baptism and the Supper—are enough like the rites of Isis and Demeter to feel familiar to Corinthians. But they have so much more meaning, so much more power. And the spiritual gifts …” he sat back and shook his head in wonder. “From what I’ve seen of the Spirit’s work—the healings and prophecies and tongues—I can’t tell you how exciting that is to me. It’s like being touched by God.”

He sat forward again, Gaius Titius Justus at his most persuasive. “We can build something special here, Paul. If we appeal to the right people. If we win over the best of Corinth. If we can step forward and provide the kind of leadership this group really needs.”

The silence hung between them for a moment, until Paul took the risk of testing his voice. “And what about Stauria and Aquila and Portensus? What about Demeas and his family?”

Gaius waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, they can stay, of course—if the tanner will use a little perfume. As long as we don’t bring in too many others of their kind. As long as they keep their place. Otherwise,” and his voice took on a note of warning, “it will be impossible to get my friends and the people of my class to join us. They won’t put up with it. No matter how much we have to offer.”

“I see,” Paul whispered, nodding to himself. To Paul, the nod was an unconscious gesture of understanding. He’d seen the real Gaius Titius Justus. To his host, though, the nod was a sign of agreement. “Is there anything else you would advise me, Gaius?” Might as well get it all, Paul thought sadly.

“Well, since you asked, there is one more thing.” Gaius sat back a final time, satisfied that Paul was yielding to the logic of his argument. “I think we need to discuss our message—what we emphasize and what we don’t.” He stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I’ve considered this a great deal, Paul. If I know the Corinthians—and I certainly do—there are parts of our message they’ll find very appealing indeed.”

He listed them on his fingers. “The one God, rooted in the ancient Hebrew faith. God taking on human form—that’s not an uncommon theme in the religions of Greece and Rome, you know. The whole idea of resurrection and new life and power—I really like that part. The rituals. The pursuit of spirituality and the spiritual gifts.” He paused to see if there were anything else he wanted to add. “Those are the things we ought to talk about, Paul. That’s what we should emphasize in our assemblies. The people I know will flock to that message.”

“And the other?” Paul asked. “The part we shouldn’t talk about?”

Gaius waved his hand again—a few small things, not really worthy of much discussion. “Well, obviously, we’ve got to rethink this equality issue, as I said before. But you can see the sense in that. And I think we would be wise to downplay how Jesus died.” He rushed on, knowing Paul’s sensitivity on this point. “I realize the cross is an important part of your message, Paul. I’m not suggesting we leave it out. But surely that’s not the first thing people should hear when you talk to them about the Son of God! Can’t we leave the cross till later? After people have seen the more appealing parts of our faith?”

His nose wrinkled again. “I mean, crucifixion is such a nasty business, don’t you agree? ‘The slave’s death.’” He shuddered. “Not really in very good taste, is it? Not the most attractive part of our story. Besides,” and he grew serious, “I think we open ourselves to trouble on that point. Do we really want to blame a Roman procurator and Roman soldiers for the death of God? In Colonia Laus Julia Corinthiensis? I don’t think that’s wise.”

He smiled at Paul, thinking, There! That wasn’t as difficult as I feared.

“So you think our assembly needs a patron, that I need a patron, if we are to succeed in Corinth?”

“Most certainly!” On this point, Gaius was emphatic.

“And do you have anyone to suggest for that role?”

“Well,” he smiled modestly. “Nobody else has offered to provide your support, have they? I’ve already donated the use of my house for our gatherings. Not an unsubstantial favor, I assure you. But most of all, Paul …” he sat forward once again.

Paul found himself wishing sincerely the man would just be still.

“Most of all, the fact that we’ve had this little talk should demonstrate my deep interest in the success of your work. Yes, I’d like to become your patron in this effort. But, more, I want to be your partner, Paul. Together—with your passion and my resources—we can do something powerful here in Corinth.”

“And what would be required of me as your client?” Paul was having difficulty breathing. He felt as though lice were crawling over his body.

“Very little,” Gaius hastened to assure him. “Just keep doing what you’re doing. Take my support so you have more time to do it. Come to my house during the salutatio so I can introduce you to my other clients. Accept an occasional invitation to dinner so I can show you off to my friends,” he smiled, “and so you’ll have a captive audience to talk about Jesus Messiah.”

“Anything else?”

“Not really. Be a little more careful about the people you recruit. Buy some better clothes. Visit a barber. Consult with me before you make any large decisions—we’re partners, after all.”

Paul swung his legs off the dining couch and tugged on his boots. He felt lightheaded from the anger. I’ve been such a fool.

“Thank you for dinner, Gaius. And thank you for sharing your views.” He sat staring at his hands, trying to find his voice. “I should go now. But before I do, I need to share some views of my own.”

He looked up to face his host. “I will not accept your money. I will not change my message. I will not close the door to needy people. I will not make distinctions in our assemblies. If your friends don’t like it, I don’t want them. If you don’t like it, I don’t want you. You are not my patron, Gaius, and you never will be. I don’t consult with you or anyone else about matters of faith. I answer to a higher authority. Do you understand me, Gaius Titius Justus?”

He said this quietly, and the words bit more because of it.

Gaius sat with a stunned look on his face. How could I have misjudged the man so badly? he asked himself. Why didn’t I see he would be completely unreasonable? But then his face hardened. “Yes. I understand you quite well, Paul.”

“I’ll gather my things tonight and move back to the shop. I think it would be best to draw a clear line where you and I are concerned.”

He paused, debating with himself how to proceed. “As to your ‘not unsubstantial favor’ … I’m grateful for the use of the house for our assemblies and for training the brothers. But there will be no strings attached. Is that clear? If I ever hear so much as a whisper of the things you’ve said tonight, I’ll find another meeting place and you will no longer be welcome in our fellowship.”

Gaius was thinking as fast as the food and wine would allow, doing his sums, weighing his options. Finally, he looked up and said with effort, “That will not be necessary, Paul. I’m sorry to have offended you.”

Paul stood and walked to the doorway. “Offense doesn’t begin to cover it, Gaius. I warn you. You think like a Corinthian, not like a follower of Jesus. Take up your cross, Gaius,” he almost shouted it, his eyes fevered. “If you don’t, there is no place for you among us.” Paul turned and walked out.

Gaius sat for a long while afterwards. The servants cleared away the bowls of food and swept the floor. They tried to take the wine bowl, but Gaius waved them off. He sat and drank and thought. And the more he drank, the more his face reflected the internal dialogue—anger … resolve … then calculation.

By the time Gaius stumbled to bed, he was smiling.


III

It was already late. Had Paul been in a better mood, he might have considered the hour and postponed his visit until the next day. Never make an important decision after the sun falls, boy. The world will look different in the morning. But this would not wait. If he did not settle this now, he’d be up all night stewing.

He walked first to Stephanas’s house and asked the startled Greek to find his cloak and follow him.

“What is it, P-P-Paul? Is someone sick?” He asked the question as he hurried after Paul, two burly attendants escorting them in the darkness. Their exhaled breaths frosted in the night air and Stephanas gathered his cloak tightly about himself.

Paul laughed mirthlessly. “In a way, I suppose.” He glanced at the escorts. “We’ll talk when we get to Crispus’s house.”

There was no room for discussion in his tone. Stephanas matched his pace, worried. He’d never seen Paul like this.

They arrived at Crispus’s house where Paul banged impatiently on the door. A servant opened.

“I would see your master,” Paul demanded.

The servant, of course, knew Paul from his many visits. But that wasn’t the issue. “I beg your pardon, sir, but the hour is late. Come back tomorrow and my master will be glad to receive you.” He started to close the door.

Paul put his foot on the threshold and spoke softly, working hard to gain a purchase on his anger. “Tell your master I need to talk to him. Now.”

A voice spoke from inside. “Let him in, Tertius. It’s all right.”

The door opened and Paul stepped through. Crispus greeted him draped in a blanket, his fringe of white hair disheveled, eyes blinking against the torch light. He’d obviously been in bed.

“Good evening, Paul,” Crispus began jovially, despite the hour. But then he saw Paul’s face. “What’s the matter? What’s happened?” He looked from Paul to Stephanas and back to Paul again.

“We need to talk,” was all Paul would say.

“Let’s go into my study. Tertius, some tapers please. Quickly.” He turned to lead the way.

Tertius scurried to collect a flame from the kitchen and then felt his way in the darkened room until he’d lit a half-dozen candles and the lamp standing on Crispus’s desk. “That will be all tonight, Tertius. Go on to bed. We won’t be needing anything else.” Crispus could tell by the look in Paul’s eye he was in no mood for refreshments.

Crispus took his chair behind the desk, motioning Paul and Stephanas to chairs of their own. “What’s this all about, Paul? The last time I received visitors at this hour was when Sosthenes and Berekiah came to give me the bad news.”

Paul sat quietly for a moment, trying to collect himself. Where to begin?

“You are both men of means and influence in this city. Is that correct?”

They looked at each other, confused. Stephanas answered for them. “God has blessed us both, P-P-Paul. You know that. What is it?” He cleared his throat. “Do you need money?”

Paul flared at him. “Most certainly not!” He immediately regretted the outburst. He reached a hand to Stephanas’s arm. “Please, forgive me. I’m not myself.” He took a deep breath and started over.

“I have to know. Does it bother you that I work with my hands for a living? That I dress like this?” He gestured to his ancient tunic.

The two men looked at each other again. This time Crispus answered. “Of course not, Paul. You don’t have to, of course. We’d be happy to help with your expenses.” He looked to Stephanas for confirmation. “But if you want to work…” he shrugged.

“And does it bother you that I’m bringing in people from the agora? People like Portensus and Stauria?”

They were baffled. “Didn’t Jesus befriend … didn’t he spend time with such p-p-people?” Stephanas asked finally. “Didn’t he come especially for the p-p-poor and the blind and the sick?”

Paul watched him carefully. “And the cross? You don’t mind me always talking about the cross?”

Crispus put his elbows on the desk and folded his hands in front of his mouth. “Paul. Why don’t you tell us what’s happened. We’re your friends. We want to help.”

Paul rubbed his eyes and wiped a hand across his face. “I ate dinner tonight with Gaius Titius Justus. It did not go well.” He told them about the patronage offer and Gaius’s concerns and the confrontation that ended their conversation. He recounted as many sad details as he could recall, feeling more glum with each remembered word.

For their part, Stephanas and Crispus listened to the story with a mixture of alarm (How could Gaius say such things?) and amusement (Oh, to have been a fly on the wall!). They cut glances at each other as Paul talked, each seeing a similar reaction in the other. Crispus was glad his hands were in front of his mouth. It was truly sad—though it did not surprise him—that Gaius had missed the gospel so badly. But the thought of Paul’s reaction to Gaius’s proposition made his lips twitch and curl.

“He actually said you shouldn’t talk so much about the cross?” Stephanas shook his head in wonder when Paul had finished.

“Yes. Yes, he did. And all I could think about when I left his house is that I had to find the two of you. You’re the only other people in our group who have money and a measure of influence in this city. And I need to tell you straight up, I have no favors to offer you. I meant what I said to Gaius. We are all equal parts of this family. There will be no distinctions in this assembly.”

Ah, thought Crispus. So that’s what’s bothering him. He and Stephanas looked at each other again.

“Paul,” the ex-synagogue leader said at last. “I gave up a prominent position when I walked out of the synagogue to follow Jesus. If distinction mattered to me, I’d still be there.”

“And as for me,” Stephanas added quietly, “all the honor I need is to have a p-p-place with those who call Jesus ‘Lord.’ Whoever they are. Whatever they’ve been.”

Paul rubbed his eyes again, relieved beyond words. It’s what he’d hoped to hear from them. “I knew it,” he said finally. “But thank you for saying it. I needed to be sure.” He paused once more. “What we’re building here goes against every principle of this broken world. You’ve got to know that going in.”

“We do know it, Paul,” Crispus assured him. “And we’re with you.”

They stood together and walked from the study towards the front door. “Well …” Paul said at the threshold, suddenly embarrassed, awkward. “Forgive me for a moment of doubt. But there are precious few men like you, men of your wealth and standing, who are willing to put it all aside. Gaius reminded me of that tonight and I got nervous.”

“It’s all right, Paul,” Crispus squeezed his arm. “We’re with you,” he said again.

Stephanas sent one of his men to see Paul home through the dark streets. He and Crispus stood together on the threshold watching him walk away.

Hester joined them. “He’s a strange man, isn’t he?” She’d been listening again.

Stephanas lifted an eyebrow at her. “P-p-paul or Gaius?” The three of them laughed.

Crispus put an arm around his wife and said soberly, “Gaius was right about one thing, though.”

Stephanas and Hester looked at him.

“The tanner does stink,” he deadpanned.

Stephanas chuckled about that all the way home.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]