Chapter 43: The Mission

They washed up on Paul’s shore like so much driftwood. Slaves and merchants. Soldiers and housewives. Gaunt beggars and muscled stevedores. They arrived without meaning to, driven by unknown currents, drawn by something they could not explain. Each had a different shape and a different story. Some were still sharp-edged and bright when they floated to rest at Paul’s feet, hardly aware they’d gone missing until he found them. But more had a weathered, blunted look, as though they’d been adrift for a long while in unkind seas.

But Paul did not care much about their condition. He was an indiscriminate collector. He picked them up where he found them, seeing beauty in them all.


Cratulus was a heavily muscled, second enlistment optio with the Fifteenth Legion, dressed in the leather cuirass and hob-nailed sandals that were the standard uniform of soldiers of the Empire. His face was as brown and lined as the leather on his chest. A livid scar cut across his forehead. Another ran along his right arm, disappearing into the sleeve of his tunic. Cratulus had seen heavy action in the past. The scars told the story. So did the eyes, for anyone who looked deeply enough.

He took up station near the crowd that gathered to hear a strange little man tell his strange story. It was not the first time Cratulus watched this crowd with wary eyes and a nose for trouble. He had no interest in the speaker or his story—at first. He simply wanted to test the mood of the gathering, to ensure it was not a mob in the making. Public order was his responsibility, and Cratulus—the good soldier—took his responsibilities seriously. So he stood to the side, watching the faces, gauging the man who spoke from Babbius’s Monument, sniffing for any scent of threat.

He stood at his post for days before it dawned on him that his eyes were no longer sweeping the crowd, that the alertness he first brought to the agora had leaked away. At some point, quiet and unnoticed, there had been a mutiny in him. His ears had overthrown his eyes. They grew hungry for the stranger’s story. There was something about it that would not permit him to stand apart, detached. It drew him in, in spite of himself.

No one was more surprised than Cratulus himself when, at the end of another long session in the agora, he shoved his way through the crowd to challenge the speaker with a question.

“Was this Jesus a rebel? Did he set himself up as a king?” He didn’t mean to be gruff, but he’d handled so many raw recruits through the years that his voice fell naturally into the hard tones of the parade ground and the camp. Several people around him flinched and drew back.

But not the little man who turned to him with a smile. “And you are?”

“Cratulus Aurelius. Optio of the Fifteenth,” the soldier barked. And then, hearing himself, added in a softer tone, “A man with a question about this Jesus you keep talking about.”

The idea that a Jewish peasant had died at the hands of Roman soldiers did not bother him much. They were just doing their job. That the procurator of Judea might wash his hands of a case, sacrifice one life for a greater good, did not bother Cratulus at all. He’d been a soldier too long. He knew how things worked.

What bothered him was the unrest behind the little man’s tale. A peasant with a following. Trouble in one of the most troublesome provinces in the Empire. Something serious enough—threatening enough—to come to the proconsul’s attention and force a cross.

Who is this Jesus? An enemy of Rome? A champion of revolt?

Cratulus had no patience for wild-eyed radicals, throwing themselves at Roman soldiers for lost causes. He’d skewered too many of them on his lance. He knew very well the faults of the Empire—the corrupt officials, the greedy tax farmers, the armies used (and used up) to feed the ambitions of ruthless generals. He’d seen it all. But rebellion was not the answer. Rome, for all her defects, was order and peace. At the end of rebellion lay only chaos.

Nor was he a moral man. He could not afford the luxury. He was a soldier. His principles were the values drummed into him as a recruit; the simple, survivalist rules that governed the camp and the battlefield. Obedience. Loyalty. Strength. Courage.

It was why he asked the question about Jesus. If Jesus stood against Rome, then Cratulus stood against Jesus. If not … well … he might be interested in hearing more.

It was Paul’s answer that caught him, that led him—eventually—to Gaius’s house in his off-duty hours.

Paul smiled up at Cratulus, not the least intimidated by his bulk or his weapons or his graveled voice. “Was Jesus a rebel?” he repeated and then laughed. “Oh, yes.” He laughed harder. “Most certainly. But not the sword-waving kind, Legionary.” He tapped a finger against his temple. “The battles Jesus came to fight take place here,” he tapped again and then moved his hand to his heart. “And here. The revolt is inside us, Legionary. Someone has to be overthrown.”

“Who?” Cratulus demanded.

Paul’s eyes twinkled. “Ourselves, of course.”


Demeas was a tanner, a profession that provided him an honest, if not exactly honorable, living. Tanners ranked with butchers and surgeons in Corinth’s social order—all of them too familiar with bodily fluids for real respectability. Demeas’s hands were stained and cracked from working with the strong solutions of lye and urine he used to strip hair from hides and preserve the leather. Even though he was meticulous about personal hygiene—a reaction, no doubt, to bawdy jokes made at his expense—he always smelled faintly of the vats.

Tanners, however, made up for a lack of respectability by the necessity of the goods they produced. Hides were always in demand—for shoes, clothing, armor, harness, furniture, window-coverings … and tents. Every tent-maker required a reliable source of good hides. Demeas met Aquila soon after he and Prisca arrived from Rome.

It was when he carted a fresh load of hides to their shop that Demeas met Paul.

“So good to know you.” Paul shook his stained hand eagerly, without the slightest qualm. “Your hides are excellent. Some of the best I’ve ever worked with. What’s your secret?”

Demeas melted at the compliment. He was inordinately proud of his work. “It’s all in the timing. Paul, is it? Yes. The timing. How long you leave the hides in the vat. And there is a secret ingredient.” His eyebrows wagged conspiratorially. “Something my father discovered from a Persian years ago. The Persians are renowned for the quality of their hides, you know.”

“Yes indeed. But I’ve worked with Persian tanners before, back in Tarsus, and your hides are much better.”

Demeas seemed to grow taller. “It’s a rare thing to meet a man of such discernment, Paul, especially in this shop.” He shot Aquila a dark look. “Aquila always complains about my prices. I keep telling him that quality products bring premium rates.” He sniffed dramatically. “But apparently, he can’t feel the difference between good leather and lumber.”

Aquila just laughed. “It’s not the feel of your leather, Demeas. It’s the stench. I have to wash your hides three times before I can stand to be in the same room with them. For the prices you charge, I’d think you could do the washing yourself.”

Demeas might have taken offense at the comment from most people. He was sensitive on that particular point. But he liked the gangly tailor in spite of his complaints. And Aquila was a good customer. He always settled his bills on time. So Demeas just rolled his eyes at Paul as if to say, See? No appreciation.

“Besides,” the tailor continued, baiting Demeas. “It’s not really me who complains about your prices. It’s Prisca. Perhaps you would care to discuss your bill with her?” The look of terror that came over Demeas at the mention of Prisca made Paul laugh. He guessed that she could drive a hard bargain.

“Business should be conducted between men,” Demeas stated firmly. “Let’s just leave your good wife out of this.” He paused and studied Aquila carefully. Something didn’t look right. “Have you lost weight, Aquila? Are you ill?”

Aquila fingered his shaved cheeks and shot an embarrassed glance at Paul. He’d gone to visit a barber early that morning—the first time in his life. He’d paid the sestercius fee, though the visit had cost him far more than coin. All day, he’d felt painfully self conscious, surprising himself every time he raised a hand to his face. Prisca would hardly look at him. Paul had looked and nodded in acknowledgement, but made no comment.

Now, at the tanner’s questions, Paul stifled a smile and looked away.

Before he left the shop, Demeas extended an awkward invitation to dinner. The invitation itself was rare. He’d learned that the sort of people who could honor his home never accepted. The people who accepted were not the sort he really wanted at his table. Somehow, though, he sensed Paul was different, that the invitation would be welcomed, and that his home would be greatly honored by this guest.

It was just an invitation to dinner. He had no idea how the invitation would change his life.


Portensus threaded his way through the milling throngs to the baths, eager to set aside grime and worry with a long soak. He needed the break, a small slice of quiet at the end of a noisy, fragmented day.

For twenty years, he’d served as house-manager for a wealthy patrician. For twenty years, he’d ended most days with a brisk walk to the baths. A soak and a scrub and a scrape. It was his personal ritual, a routine he guarded with as much zeal as the household books.

His master—exiled from Rome years before due to certain political indiscretions—whiled away the years in Corinth, mourning home and his lost ambitions. He’d bribed his way into an aedileship. But he had the misfortune to be caught at it during one of those infrequent periods when the Senate discovered it had a conscience about such matters. Rather than suffer the disgrace of an actual conviction, he went into exile, taking his trusted servant with him.

Portensus did not mind the move so much. He’d moved before, and much further than could be measured in mere miles. Once upon a time, he’d been a scholar and politician himself, before the armies of his homeland broke themselves on the remorseless ranks of Roman legions, consigning him to the slave block and a different life than he’d ever imagined. It had been a bitter blow to his pride—to stand naked at auction, showing his teeth and his skill with numbers. Some of his peers had hung themselves rather than face such indignity. But Portensus, thinking the matter over on the long march west and in the dark hold of the ship that delivered him to Ostia, decided he valued his life over his pride. It was a decision he revisited on occasion during the early years of his indenturement. But he never had occasion to change his mind.

At least he’d not been wasted in the mines or on the galleys. His new master appreciated his skills and learning, rapidly giving him more responsibilities and greater trust. They were not exactly friends—the patrician had too much old blood in him to offer genuine affection to a slave—but, over the years, they arrived at an easy accommodation that at least mimicked friendship and gave Portensus a sense of being useful.

It was on one of his nightly forays to the baths, stepping into the steaming caldarium to begin a long and much anticipated soak, that Portensus met Paul. A small man with a massive head sat with his eyes closed and head lolled back, obviously enjoying the quiet and the heat. Portensus would not have bothered him, would not have intruded, had he not been so overwhelmed with curiosity. For the man was clothed, a cotton shift wrapped tightly around his small body. The steward had never seen such a thing in the baths. He wondered if the stranger might be hiding some hideous deformity under his tunic. For a queasy moment, he wondered if he were sharing a pool with someone who suffered a disease of the skin.

He managed to avoid prying while the heat worked its way into his back. He managed to bite back his questions while scraping himself thoroughly with the strigil. He might have contained himself even longer had the stranger not stirred and risen from the pool.

“Forgive me,” Portensus finally blurted. “I’ve not seen you here before. Are you new to our city?”

Paul paused and then sat on the edge of the pool to dangle his feet in the hot water. His face was flushed and the pate of his head glowed. He nodded. “I’ve been here since late Spring. But, yes, still new. Corinth is still a stranger to me.” He smiled.

What an odd way to put it, Portensus thought. “Where are you from? You’re certainly not Greek or Roman.”

Now it was Paul’s turn to be curious. “Why do you say that?”

“Well … I don’t mean to be rude. But you don’t have the skin and features of someone from these regions. And apparently,” he pointed to Paul’s covering, embarrassed, “you feel uncomfortable with our customs at the baths.”

Paul’s smile broadened. “It’s true. I’m a little self-conscious.” He straightened his shift and squeezed some water from the hem. “But, alas, I do love the baths and I can’t stay away. The waters soothe my back, you see.”

“Yes. Mine too.” He paused. “If you don’t mind me asking again, where are you from?”

“Oh, from the east.” Paul dismissed the details with a wave of his hand. “Born in Tarsus. Spent a lot of time in other places. Don’t really have any place I call home now.”

“And what brings you to Corinth?”

“Funny you should ask. I was just thinking about these baths, how much my mission here is like them. I’m Paul, by the way,” and he reached over the water to offer Portensus his hand.

“Portensus, of the household of Lentulus.” They shook. “Mission? That sounds ominous. You’re not a spy are you, sent from the east to test the quality of our hot water?”

Paul laughed. “No. Nothing so mysterious.” He eased himself back into the pool, ignoring his pruned fingers and overheated body for the chance to push the conversation a bit. “Tell me, Portensus. Why do you come to the baths?”

“Well, to get clean, of course. To soak away some of the grime of the city. And it’s warm in here. Men of our age need a little warmth.” He shrugged. The baths were something he took for granted. He found the question difficult to answer. “This is a safe place, I guess. I enjoy the chance to be quiet and let down my guard.”

“Ah. I see. And why should those things be important to you? Being clean and warm and safe, I mean?”

Portensus looked confused. “Aren’t they important to everybody? At least to civilized people. Nobody likes being dirty and cold. Everyone needs a place to relax.”

“Yes. I think so too.” Paul studied his companion for a moment. “That’s why I’ve come to Corinth, Portensus.” And he laughed at how apt the comparison was. “I’ve come to offer the Corinthians a chance to wipe off the grime of this city, to give them a place that is warm and safe.”

Portensus looked confused again. “Are you planning to build another bath house, Paul? Corinth has an oversupply of those I fear.”

Paul laughed again. “No, no. I’m planning to build something much better. And if you would do me the honor of leaving this room before we both cook, I’ll buy you a cup of wine and tell you what I hope to build in Corinth.”


Paul’s collection was varied, but not random. God had his reasons. Soldier or merchant, tanner or slave, synagogue leader or tailor’s wife—God had his purposes. The people who washed up at Paul’s feet came because God led them there, because he arranged the currents and winds of their lives to drive them there. They did not arrive by accident. There was a larger plan behind it all.

Paul knew that. And whenever he happened across these people, caught and carried to him on eddies beyond their understanding or control, he studied them with fascination. Why are you here? he asked them in his own mind. Why has God brought you to me?

Sometimes he thought he could see the answer to those questions. Often, however, he had to content himself with waiting—God’s purposes were not always easy to understand.

One thing he did know. God was in the process of building a temple in Corinth, a temple constructed out of the people Paul collected in the synagogue and agora and bathhouses of the city. Each individual would be set in place with care and purpose. It didn’t matter how cracked or weathered they might be. Somehow, the whole would be stronger than the pieces.

Paul’s job was to find them. So he picked them up, one by one, and threw them on a pile with all the other bits and pieces he’d stumbled across in the city, trusting God to make something beautiful of the odd assortment.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.