THE CENTURION’S GOSPEL – Ch14 – part 3

THE OPPOSITION – JerusalemCG-book-cover-w

At the gate, Cornelius was about to show his insignia to the gate guards when his name was called, “Hail, Cornelius!”

Cornelius turns to see a big man coming out of a single door built into the big gate. “Bragga! You old war horse”, he returned the greeting. They grasped their fore arms and gave each other a bear hug. “I would think that the Twenty fifth had retired your old hulking self by now?” He jokingly said.

“Tribune Marcianus would not have it so,” Bragga said laughingly. “The Twenty-fifth has been bolstered by mostly veterans from Gaul. Their many victories have made them complacent and unruly. He told me to put the fear of the gods in them.”

“Now, what brings you here?”

“I am on special assignment for Pilate. I have come to report to him since I found myself in the city.”

“Ah, yes! How is the spy work?” He laughed again. “Come! Let us go in.”

They followed Bragga through the gate portico into a small courtyard. There were three ramps before them, two narrow ones going down into the underground stables. They both flanked a wider ramp that went up to a bigger courtyard. The upper courtyard was busy with soldiers doing drill work.

Pointing at the far end of courtyard, he said, “Over there, you will find the baths. I am sure you would want to make yourself more presentable before you meet with the General.” He said this amusingly as he looked Cornelius up and down shaking his head. “For a Centurion Primus, you sure are a slovenly soldier.” He again laughed.

Cornelius realized that he was still dressed like a local and that he had not shaved for months.

“Fret not! I am sure we can scrounge around for something for you to wear.”

An hour later, scrubbed clean of the dirt of the road, Cornelius waited outside Pontus Pilate’s private office located on the fourth level of one of the towers. Bragga had found him a faded red soldier’s tunic and a studded leather belt to wear. He decided not to shave since the beard helps him blend in with the locals. The door opened and Cornelius was ordered to come in. Cornelius crisply marched in and stood at attention before Pilate’s desk which was thickly strewn with parchments. Pilate was busy reading dispatches from an outlying post. When he lifted his eyes to look at Cornelius, he stood up with an amused look on his face.

“Well… well, Centurion. I see that you have truly gone native on us.” Pilate chuckled as Tribune Marcianus looked on disapprovingly because he was unshaven.

“Sir, please forgive my appearance. Coming to Jerusalem was a last minute decision and we decided to travel light.”

“You need not apologize, Centurion. So, what brought you to Jerusalem? I had been informed that this Nazarene was suppose to be still in Galilee and was not expected to be here for the festivities. I heard that Caiaphas and members of their ruling class wanted to get their hands on him. But then, word came to me this morning that he snuck in under their noses and was openly preaching down there at the temple.”

Cornelius told them of Jesus’ earlier decision of not coming to Jerusalem. He also reported of his conversation with his brothers and his reason.

Tribune Marcianus had that suspicious look and said, “What did he mean, ‘it is not yet my time’? Sir, this man from Nazareth may still have plans to lead the populace to revolt against us! He is after all very popular.”

“That is true,” Pilate said contemplatively. “However, we have to ask why he refused the support of the Zealots? And then, considering the Centurion’s report, he is making enemies of the ruling class. No, it does not make sense. To claim the crown and lead a revolt with out the support of the ruling and religious class is political suicide.”

“Sir! He must be getting financial support for his activities.” Marcianus interjected, “Twice he fed thousands of people. I cannot believe it was a miracle of sorts or some kind of magic. The Centurion even reported that he did not actually see the food appear from thin air. It must be some trick and all that food to feed thousands mean ‘money’!”

“Well, Centurion,” Pilate asked, “what say you to this?”

“Sir, I admit that I did not see it happen because his disciples surrounded him both times. However, the food that was distributed was warm to the touch. When I broke the loaf, it was still steaming; the feel and taste suggest that it came straight from an oven. There was no oven, much more an even larger oven that can bake thousands of loaves. It would also be impossible for it to be underground because both times we were on solid rock. If, what the Tribune suggests is a trick, then the ability and organization to pull it through twice in different locations would be formidable indeed. But, sir, I have been with him for months. At no time have I observed him communicate nor received any financial support from any organization. He lives like a vagabond. He is always on the move. Any wealth he received, he freely gave away. When he preaches, not once have he ever cited the populace to raise up arms against us.”

Marcianus interrupts, “In one of your dispatches, you reported that he taught of an up and coming kingdom!”

“Yes sir! But I believe that the kingdom he spoke of was of a kingdom with no existing borders; where Jews and Romans can co-exist. The teacher spoke of loving ones enemies than hating them.”

“What non-sense is this?” Marcianus said angrily. “He is like all these Jewish dogs. Fanatics!”

“He is an idealist!” Pilate said. “He is not necessarily a fanatic. Whatever forces are working here, I believe he will be the center of it. Regardless, we must stay vigil. Centurion, you are in a unique position. Continue to keep me abreast. Dismissed!”

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THE CENTURION’S GOSPEL – Ch9 – part 8

SALOME’S DANCE – Machaerus, PereaCG-book-cover-w

Cornelius knew all too well what was really at stake. Herod Antipas have friends in Tiberius Caesar’s court. Pilate, though still supported by the emperor, received communication from him of his displeasure regarding the aqueduct project in Jerusalem. Apparently, Pilate plans to bring water into the city using Roman engineering as a way to better the relationship between Rome and the Jews had an opposite effect. Pilate had used the Temple tax revenue to finance it. The Jewish leadership was in an uproar. Herod saw his opportunity to try to regain the governorship of Judea. With his help, the Jewish leadership sent communique through those in court that were no friends of Pilate. This incident opened up Pandora’s box for Pontus Pilate. The Jews have gained a political advantage over him which is causing him to tread lightly.

“I have decided to grant you a leave of absence. I am in agreement of your assessments in regards to this other preacher and miracle worker, Jesus of Nazareth. His large followings cannot be ignored. Though, as you have reported, he has no political ambitions, yet his activities do provide tremendous political advantage for those who would exploit it. Centurion, I do not want to be caught unaware. You, at least, are already known to him. You will follow him closely. If there is any indication that this preacher will be used to bolster a revolt, you will report back to me. Tribune Arturos will fill in the other details. Now, before your misplaced sense of fairness gets the better of you, Centurion, I think it best that you leave here now. Dismissed!”

Cornelius snapped to attention, saluted and made a sharp about face. As he and the tribune were about to walk out, two household guards entered. One was carrying a tray with a covered bundle and trailing behind him were droplets of blood. Cornelius need not stare for he knew what it was. His professionalism maintained a passive appearance as they marched out of the ballroom. But in his mind, he voiced to the heavens, ‘I am sorry, my friend.’

“Cornelius, the governor will be going down to the coastal city of Caesarea to oversee the final phase of the construction of our military port. Flavius and the whole cohort will be garrisoned there sometime this month. In two months from now, the governor will be in Jerusalem for this big Jewish celebration… Passover, I think… Security is going to be very tight for us, there. I hear that the whole country will be congregating there for at least two weeks.” Arturos motioned to stop just under the big palace doors. “You will be on your own. You better keep some men with you.”

“Cestus and six others is all I will need. I will also still use the Capernaum house as my base of operation.”

“Then, it is settled,” Arturos smiled. “I was worried back there for a moment, Centurion. I would hate to lose such an able loyal soldier as yourself and… a good mentor and friend.”

Both men laughed and grasped each other’s right forearms. Then Cornelius descended the short flight of stairs and was about to mount his steed when a woman’s voice called out to him. He turned to see Pheobe run past an amused Arturos. He met her at the bottom of the stone steps.

“The Lady Procula sent me to give you this!” She hands over a small but heavy bag of coins. Pheobe leans close to whisper, “She says to use this in any way you feel fit to help the Nazarene. For myself, I hope to see you again soon.” She places her hand on his arm. “Please take care!” Then she turns and walks back up the steps and stood by an already beaming Arturos.

When Cornelius mounted his horse, Flavius hands the reins over to him with a mirthful smile. As Cornelius rode out into the night, followed by Cestus and six others, Cornelius could not help but smile in the darkness.

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THE CENTURION’S GOSPEL – Ch9 – part 7

SALOME’S DANCE – Machaerus, PereaCG-book-cover-w

Reluctantly, Pilate addressed Herod about this matter. “My lord Antipas, may I have a word with you?”

“Certainly, my dear governor,” Herod said as he lead Pilate to a quieter alcove for a private talk.

Cornelius and Tribune Arturos took their position not far from the governor.

“My dear Antipas, I was hoping to broach this subject of the Baptist with you. Would it not be prudent for you to hand him over to us? There are some among my… ahem… officials that are quite interested in interrogating this John the Baptist further.”

“Alas. It is out of my hands,” responded Herod. “I have given my vow that she may have anything in my power to give. It is regrettable but culture and tradition dictates that I must fulfill my vow.”

When Pilate returned to his divan, shaking his head negatively, Procula coldly stood and left the party followed by Pheobe and a number of ladies. Pheobe looked back to Cornelius with a wave.

Cornelius seethe with the thought that a righteous man… a prophet of God… and a friend would lose his life needlessly. With no plan formed in his mind, he started moving purposely toward the exit with his hand tightly grasping his sheathed sword.

“Centurion!” Cornelius halted and turned to find that it was the governor who called him. “Come! Attend to me.”

“Sir!” Cornelius snapped to attention. Then he followed the governor and the tribune out to the same balcony where he talked with Pheobe.

“I think it best that you stay standing at attention, Centurion.”

“Sir!”

Pilate circled him with amusement.

“I wonder, Centurion, how you would have fared against Herod’s hired guards if you did manage to stop the execution in time?” Pilate then sat at a bench looking at him up and down. “Yes. I think you would do well, for a time by yourself. I would even venture to speculate that the men you commanded outside would not think twice to mutiny and come to your aid. But then, what would that have left me? Mmmm…? A renegade cohort… outlawed… hiring yourselves out as mercenaries… No, Centurion. I cannot spare you. At ease, Centurion.”

Cornelius relaxed his posture but kept looking forward.

“Besides, how would I explain this to your father?” Cornelius questioningly gazed down at Pilate. “Oh, yes. I know your father. He wrote me sometime back that you were with the Italian contingent. He as well as your commander had appraised me on your strong sense of fair play. This has served you well, so far. But I have to rein you in, this time. As much as you would like to save the life of that desert preacher,” Pilate raised his hand for silence as Cornelius was about to object. “I am sure he is innocent, but I have to consider the bigger picture. This region is too volatile. Herod and I, at least, must have the appearance of a unified front.”

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THE CENTURION’S GOSPEL – Ch9 – part 6

SALOME’S DANCE – Machaerus, PereaCG-book-cover-w

They both went back to the festivities and noticed that the party was focused to a lone dancer performing mostly in front of Herod Antipas and his party. Cornelius guided Pheobe back to where the Lady Procula lounged with the rest of Pilate’s entourage.

The dancer was weaving on the dance floor in fluid seductive movement keeping in rhythm with the thumping pounding of several drummers. With her hand still on his arm, she asks, “Who is she?” noticing that the dancer was no ordinary performer.

Cornelius saw that the dancer resembled Herodius, Herod’s wife. “She must be Salome, Herodius’ daughter from her first marriage,” he whispered back.

By the increase of pitch and tempo of the instrumentalists and the dancer’s undulating movements, the performance was reaching its climax. Then the dancer positioned herself in front of the obviously leering and drunk Herod gyrating ecstatically until the music stopped abruptly with her collapsing into a bowed position. There was a moment of silence when Herod applauded her excitedly.

Obviously drunk with pleasure, he stood and declared, “Ask me of anything you like and I will give it to you. Upon my head and before my court, I will give you whatever you ask, up to half my kingdom!” Then he collapsed in joyous laughter with the court joining in with the mirth.

Salome goes to her mother, Herodias, and they whisper excitedly to each other. Then Salome gracefully returns before Herod who looks upon her attentively.

“I want the head of The Baptist, right now, here on a silver tray.”

Herod quickly lost his mirthful look. What seemed like a long time, Herod sighed and then gestured to the head of his household guards. Herod whispered his instructions to him then the guard left. Meanwhile, Procula was herself furiously whispering to the Governor to take action. Cornelius prayed under his breath that she would succeed.
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THE CENTURION’S GOSPEL – Ch9 – part 5

SALOME’S DANCE – Machaerus, PereaCG-book-cover-w

After the lavish food was served, the guest clustered themselves to their own private fellowship either in whispered conversations or laughing out loud merriments; at the same time, being entertained by two pairs of half naked black skin Nubians wildly dancing to rhythmic drum beats. Cornelius retreated to the open balcony where he continued to formulate his arguments to convince the governor.

“Ah! There you be, Centurion.”

Cornelius turned to find the Lady Procula approaching with that pretty young woman in tow.

“My Lady, how may I be of service to you?”

“Oh, no Centurion, it is I who is to be of service to you.” Turning to the young woman at her side, she exclaimed in mirth, “this lovely child had boldly requested to be reacquainted with yourself in regards to a marriage proposal promised her by you.”

Both women laughed mirthfully at the confused expression of Cornelius’ face.

“Be at peace, Centurion, for I am in jest… though I fear that there may be some truth in this marriage proposal. I will let this child explain. Mmmm?” She walks away chuckling.

Still confused and somewhat perplexed, Cornelius and young woman stood there watching each other. Uncomfortably, Cornelius broke the silence.

“I am afraid I am in a disadvantage, my lady. You seem to know me but I…”

“Ah, Cornelius, since you seem to have forgotten me, then I should not rely on you remembering your promise to marry me either, now that we are older!”

Amused by Cornelius’ confusion, she goes on teasingly, “Maybe, this will help… in a garden, under an old willow tree at my father’s estate in Athens.”

Recognition lit up Cornelius’ eyes, as he grasped her hand, “Pheobe!? Is it really you? You must forgive an old friend for not recognizing you immediately when my last memory of you was that of a mischievous little girl who helped me steal sweets from the kitchen.”

“So you remember me after all,” laughed Pheobe.

“How is your father?” asked Cornelius.

“He is well. And your father?”

“He, too, is in good health, thank the… the Lord. He still keeps up with news in the Senate, despite having retired from being magistrate. How do you come to be here in Palestine?”

“My father is a distant cousin of the Lady Procula, and he thought it would be a good idea for me to learn the basics of managing a household from her. So I accompanied her and her husband here as a companion,” replied Pheobe. “Congratulations on your various victories abroad. I… that is, my father has followed your career as best he could,” she said shyly. “Is Jacob still with you? I remember he had the most wonderful stories about his god,” asked Pheobe.

“Yes, he is still with me, especially now that he has a chance to come back to his homeland after all these years,” answered Cornelius.

Their conversation went on about family and the past. Then they were interrupted by a sudden loud cheering in the main room.

“The entertainment seems to have livened up,” murmured Cornelius. “Shall we go in to watch?”
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THE CENTURION’S GOSPEL – Ch9 – part 4

SALOME’S DANCE – Machaerus, PereaCG-book-cover-w

Cornelius rushed back up two levels and when he reached the gate yard, he took his place by Tribune Arturos. He saw that Herod Antipas and his court waiting somewhat impatiently at the top of the stairs before the large palace doors. Then the trumpets on the gate towers blared out again just as the governor rode in on a majestic white steed in full regalia. Cornelius noted that instead of wearing the traditional helmet with its golden feathered plumes, Pontus Pilate wore golden laurels like that of the Greeks. He suspects that this was meant to remind Herod of who were the conquerors. And by the look of Herod’s face, he got the message. But he quickly put a smile on his face and went down the steps as Pontus Pilate was dismounting.

“Hail, Pontus Pilate! You honor my house.”

“Hail, Tetrarch! It is I who is honored by your invitation to this celebration of your birth. Ah, here is my wife.” Pilate walked over to one of the covered carriages that followed the entourage in. A servant opened the door revealing a tall woman elegantly waiting for Pilate to help her down. “My wife, Procula,” he introduced as he helped her down.

The pleasantries continued as Herod lead them up to where the rest of his court awaited. But Cornelius paid no more attention to them for his gaze fell upon a young woman who alighted from the carriage just after the governor’s wife. Her hair was auburn which flowed down to her shoulders. Her face was elfin with deep brown eyes and rosy cheeks. She briefly gazed his way and ever so slightly awarded him with a knowing smile. He felt that he should know her but could not recall where or when. As the whole entourage entered the palace, Arturos had to nudge Cornelius to follow him in.

They entered through the palace doors following the entourage through the grand foyer into the great hall where the rest of Herod’s guests awaited them. Cornelius noted that except for some of Herod’s court, there were few Jews among the guests. Herod led Pilate and his wife to the head table. Cornelius and Arturos moved to one of the open porticoes that led to a balcony overlooking the city. After they were served drinks, Cornelius told him his plan to approach Pilate to request for the Baptist’s release.

“Now, that is interesting,” mused Arturos, “for the Lady Procula had also shown interest in his release. She, like yourself, is very much interested in the mysticism of the Jewish religion. As I heard, the governor general was not too pleased on her request to have him seek a favor of the Tetrarch. It may not be a wise thing to ask him of this at this time.”

“Tribune, I have to try.”

Arturos sighed dramatically, “How is it that I knew you were going to insist? I hope you can provide the governor with a legitimate and profitable reason to ask for this boon.”

“Well, I was going to convince him that the release of the Baptist would greatly benefit the governor’s standing to the populace. Also because I have developed a rapport with the Baptist, he would be a valuable intelligence asset to a tight group of Jewish fanatics who habituate the Dead Sea wilderness region. They are the ones that call themselves the Essenes. These religious fanatics has a clear mandate that when the right spiritual leader rises, they will be the tinder that light up the brand of all out revolution.”

“We will have to see.”

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THE CENTURION’S GOSPEL – Ch9 – part 2

SALOME’S DANCE – Machaerus, PereaCG-book-cover-w

It took them two days of hard riding to reach Herod’s fortress city in Perea. From Capernaum they followed the western shore of the great lake until they reached where the Jordan River again flowed south. They forded the river at the headlands just above the swampy delta of the Jordan. They then rode up to top of a ridge plateau and followed a caravan road for another fifteen miles before they made a short night camp over. Just as the morning sky started to pale, they broke camp. The caravan road went south skirting the rough ridges of the Perean highlands always looking down the winding Jordan River. The road was busy with slow Jewish traffic on their way to Jerusalem. The road finally descended unto a valley where if you wanted to continue on to Jerusalem, you ride west and ford the Jordan. But their destination is south.

The Tribune halted the unit just before they descended the ridge. From their vantage point, Cornelius can see where the Jordan spilled into what he surmised can only be the sunken salt lake. They say that this salten body of water is way lower than the Mediterranean and that the salt content is so high that a grown man in full armor will float and not sink. East of the elongated salten lake is another series of mountain ranges going all the way down to the Red Sea. Cornelius noted two high mountain peaks. The tallest must be Nebu where God allowed Moses to cast his eyes upon the Promised Land. The other peak must be Pisgah where, according to legend, the angels buried the body of Moses and as of today no one has still been able to find. Their route is to skirt the western sides of those peaks and follow a winding road with the salten lake on their right. They were suppose to ride another fifteen miles until they reach a small walled city below a fortress on a high ridge.

Some hours later, Arturos and Cornelius rode through the gates of Herod’s palace stronghold. The first thing he noticed was that Flavius was there with forty men of their unit standing at attention with their newly shined helmets and armor.

Cornelius handed the reins of his horse to Cestus who also took the Tribune’s. As they greetingly grasped their forearms, Flavius said, “You arrival is most fortuitous. For the governor and his entourage is only forty five minutes away.”

“Good! That gives me some time.” Cornelius turns to Arturos, “Tribune? With your permission, I have to attend to something.”

“Very well, but do not take too long.”

After gaining permission from Herod’s chamberlain, the brought Cornelius down to the dungeons. Upon entering the level where the Baptist is held, he saw that the same two disciples were there. But instead of being wary of him, they greeted him. The prison guard opened the cell door and Cornelius found John as before calmly waiting for him.

“Peace be with you, Cornelius. It is good to see you again.”
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