The adoption ceremony took place at the courthouse on the south edge of the agora. Stephanas’s entire household was present for the occasion, though Achaicus did not seem very pleased by the turn of events.

He’d barely spoken to Paul since learning the news, wishing he’d never talked to him about the boy. Only once, on a Lord’s Day as he walked past the Apostle, did Achaicus touch on the matter. Even then, he’d simply muttered, “That ain’t exactly what I had in mind, Paul,” before moving on.

But Paul knew Achaicus would get over it. He and Fortunatus would work things out.

Many of Stephanas’s Christian family were present at the proceedings as well. Because this was something to celebrate, and because Stephanas wanted those closest to him to share the event, he asked the whole church to come. They made a motley crew and raised the eyebrows of his other Corinthian associates. But that didn’t bother Stephanas. It only made him acutely conscious of how, in a matter of months, his fellow Christians had grown to mean more to him than Corinthians he’d know his whole life.

The ceremony itself was quite simple. A clerk placed the official documents before both Stephanas and Fortunatus.

The first declared the manumission of ‘Fortunatus, of the household of Stephanas, son of Stephanas, merchant of the city of Corinth.’

The second proclaimed the adoption of ‘the freedman Fortunatus by Stephanas, son of Stephanas, with full rights of inheritance bounded by the stipulations and codicils set out in the adopter’s legal will.’

And a third registered ‘Fortunatus son of Stephanas’ on the roll of Roman citizens—a privilege conveyed through being adopted by a citizen.

The clerk pointed out where each of them was to endorse the manumission document. Stephanas affixed his signature and handed the quill to Fortunatus who signed in a careful, looping hand.

Paul and Gaius stepped forward then and witnessed the document with their signatures.

The two men had not spoken of the disastrous dinner since that fateful evening, and each now found the moment awkward. But two Roman citizens were required to witness the documents. Paul and Gaius were the two Stephanas had asked. He secretly hoped it might start a thawing between them.

The process was repeated for the adoption papers and the citizenship registration, the clerk pointing a bony finger at the proper places and the others dutifully affixing their names. Studying the papers to satisfy himself that everything was correct, the clerk held out his hand for the fee. Stephanas counted the coins into his outstretched palm and waited for his receipt.

Clutching papers and receipt, Stephanas and the boy made their way down the hall to a magistrate’s chamber, who carefully checked the signatures and the receipt before signing his own name, finalizing the procedures.

And that was it.

The two of them stood briefly, facing each other, searching for words appropriate to the moment. Stephanas wanted to throw his arms around the boy and give him a father’s welcome. But Fortunatus was not ready for that yet. He stood stiff and formal, unsure of what to do with his hands, his face carefully neutral. The boy was stunned. Had been for days. He knew he should say something grateful. He knew he should tell Stephanas what this meant to him. But how could he? He didn’t know himself. The only thing he really wanted to say was “Why?”

Exactly ten days before, Stephanas had asked him into his study. “Close the door, please.” He motioned to a chair and they sat in silence for a long while. When Stephanas spoke at last, it was directly to the point.

“Several months ago, after you ran away, I promised that we would visit. I told you then that, if you wanted to be placed in another household, I would make the arrangements. I’d like to have your answer now and will do as you wish. But, before you speak, I want you to know how much I hope you’ll stay. This last year has been difficult for both of us. You lost your father. I lost a friend who was like a father to me. I think about Orantes every day, as I know you do.” He paused and then screwed up his courage.

“You’re the only family left to me, Fortunatus. And I am the closest thing to family you have left. I love you, son, and want only the best for you. And I hope that will count for something when you give me your answer.”

He lapsed into silence and then gestured to Fortunatus.

The boy, who knew his Homer, knew there was a time to cling to anger and a time to let it go. Anger can make a man brave and strong. But too much anger, too long an anger, can rob a man of reason and blind him to what is good. And the boy was haunted by what Paul had told him. The words kept recycling in his mind. “If your father were here, watching you, would he feel honored by your behavior? … How do you honor your father by dishonoring the man he loved?” Those words had cut deeply because there was truth in them, a truth that even the boy in his anger could recognize.

Fortunatus looked down. “I would like to stay, Sir, if that’s possible.”

Stephanas felt his stomach unclench, the tension that had dogged him for a year starting to ease. He felt overwhelming relief. “That’s good news, Fortunatus. It’s what I hoped you would say. Now, let’s discuss your duties in the future.”

“I’d like to be taken off latrine duty, if you don’t mind,” the boy asked. “But if that’s what you want me doing …” He shrugged to show a grudging willingness.

“Absolutely no more latrine duty for you, Fortunatus. No mucking out the stables or washing floors.” Stephanas sat back and watched the boy with a grin. “Those are slave duties and not appropriate to your status in this household.”

“My status?” the boy frowned. “What do you mean …”

“What are you doing ten days from now? We’re on the docket for the city magistrate. I have decided to give you your freedom. And, if you will do me the honor,” Stephanas cleared his throat,  “I mean to adopt you as my son and legal heir.”

For ten days, he’d walked about in a kind of daze. He’d endured the jealous stares and spiteful whispers of the other domestics. Achaicus had treated him with cold silence. He’d sat with Stephanas in his study, going over business holdings and investments, household budgets and client lists. But it was all a blur. For the question that filled his mind and shoved all other matters to the side was the question he could not bring himself to ask. “Why?”

He knew that Stephanas had loved his father. But the son did not deserve this. He knew that Stephanas had a fondness for him. But the last year must have strained that, should have strained that. There were others more worthy of adoption—extra sons of honorable families. Why would Stephanas choose him as an heir? A slave. The son of a slave. A latrine-cleaner with no advantages save a dead father and a love of books.

Freedom. Adoption. Citizenship. Why?

It was the question that pressed itself on him now, standing with Stephanas in a magistrate’s chamber, reaching for words that would be inadequate and could not answer the only question that mattered.

The two of them stood there in awkward silence, the older man knowing there would be a better time for words, the younger wondering whether there would ever be a time when words were enough. When the awkwardness became embarrassing, they turned together and walked out of the courthouse to greet their waiting friends.

It took a while before Paul could detach Fortunatus from the throng of people extending their congratulations. As he waited, he looked back and forth from the pleased new father to the dazed and overwhelmed youth. No wonder he’s overwhelmed, Paul thought. With a few signatures, the boy had passed from slave to freedman, orphan to son, poor servant to wealthy heir, legal nobody to citizen of the Empire. By the look in his eye, Paul suspected he found all those passages too much to navigate.

Seeing his chance at last, Paul drew the boy away, into a quieter portion of the stoa that fronted the courthouse. “Congratulations, Fortunatus,” he offered, though the words did little justice to the emotions both of them were feeling at the moment.

“Thank you,” the youth replied in a distracted way. He was working hard to keep his face controlled, pursing his lips to quell their trembling. But the emotions welling up inside him were unfamiliar and powerful. They had a will of their own.

Paul knew the battle raging in the boy. He’d felt those emotions himself. So he kept his silence, waiting for the question, knowing it would come.

“Why has he done this?” Fortunatus asked through gritted teeth. “I don’t deserve this. Not the way I’ve acted. I ought to be on the slave block, not at an adoption ceremony.”

Paul said nothing. It was a question he could not answer anyway, requiring—as it would—an explanation of the mysteries of grace.

“It’s too much,” Fortunatus protested, his voice shaking. “His name. His fortune. The citizenship. Why has he done this?” he asked again. “How can I ever be worthy of such gifts?”

“You can’t,” Paul answered softly. “But Stephanas hasn’t adopted you because you’re deserving, Fortunatus. He’s done it because he loves you, plain and simple.” He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Just be a good son, Fortunatus. That’s all he wants. You don’t have to earn anything.”

Fortunatus wiped at his eyes with the sleeve of his tunic, trying hard to regain some composure. Paul turned back to watch Stephanas beam as his friends shook his hand and offered congratulations. When he spoke, he was looking not at the boy but at the Christians surrounding Stephanas, celebrating the event with him.

“What do you think of your father’s new friends?”

Fortunatus followed Paul’s eyes. “They’re a strange bunch, aren’t they. Hebrews and soldiers and tanners.”

“Does it surprise you that Stephanas thinks of them as friends?”

The boy looked through the columns of the stoa at the happy group. “No. It surprises me that he thinks of them as family. The Master …” he caught himself and stumbled with new words, “my father … he loves them like they were his own blood.” He shook his head in wonder. “I’m not sure what’s happened to him.”

“That’s a good place to start, Fortunatus … in your duties as a good son.” He nodded again at the group. “Try to understand what’s happening there. Family isn’t about blood or status. It’s about loving each other. That’s why Stephanas can call you ‘son’—he loves you. If you really want to be a worthy son, love him back.”

The two stood side by side for a moment longer, until Fortunatus said they should probably get back to the others. But Paul put a hand on his arm so he could say one more thing.

“You have another Father, Fortunatus, eager to give you what you don’t deserve. You’ve run away from him as well. You’ve been just as rebellious and ungrateful. But he loves you anyway, more than you can imagine. There’s a place for you in his house as well. All he’s waiting for is you to come home and sign the papers.”

The two of them stood facing one another, Fortunatus staring at the ground, Paul looking at the top of the boy’s head.

“Someday, when you’re ready, I’d like to witness that adoption as well.”

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]