It was April in Judea, and the nights were still cool in the foothills around Jerusalem. Three Roman legionaries, each a veteran of ten years or more, sat by a small fire under the shade of a grove of olive trees. It was dark and quiet, and they talked quietly among themselves to fend off sleepiness. At dawn another trio of soldiers would come to relieve them, and none of them wanted to face the flogging that sleeping on watch would cost. Pontius Pilate was a good prefect, who had whipped the Judean Legion into shape when he arrived several years earlier - but he was also a strict disciplinarian, and since being wounded in a battle with Zealots earlier in the year, he had developed a wicked temper.
A short distance away, a larger group of men were camped in front of a sealed cave. Members of the elite Temple Guard that worked for the High Priest, they had been given the primary duty of guarding the tomb of the eccentric preacher who had been crucified that Friday. Caiaphas had detested Jesus of Nazareth and seemed convinced that someone was going to try and steal his body if the tomb was left unguarded. He had approached Pilate and asked for a guard, but the Prefect was still in a foul temper over being manipulated into crucifying the strange Galilean. He had told the High Priest to see to the matter himself. But then Pontius Pilate had second thoughts, and told his primipilus centurion, Gaius Cassius Longinus, to dispatch a few legionaries to keep an eye on the tomb and its Jewish guards in case anything untoward happened. Decius, Tiberius, and Carmello were given the thankless task of staring at a tomb all night.
So now the three soldiers sat and stared at the fire, occasionally standing and walking to the edge of the light to stare at the Jews, who were numerous enough to rotate shifts, so that five or six could remain awake while the others slept. The two groups did not acknowledge each other in any way; the Romans regarded the Jews as uncouth, fanatical barbarians, and the Jews regarded the Romans as a brutal occupying force in the employ of a foreign government that they hated.
“I’ve been here five years,” said Carmello Antonius, “and this was the strangest Passover I’ve ever seen. I know that this Jesus wasn’t a bloodthirsty Zealot like Bar Abbas, but he scared me. I’ve never seen anyone that could draw bigger crowds. If he had ever given the word, he could have had all the Jews in the province out for our blood.”
“I think that is why he had such a huge following,” Decius said. “I went with Longinus when Pilate ordered us to go hear this Jesus last year and make sure he was not a threat. Anyone can scream ‘Kill the foreigners!’ around here and get a few people to listen. Jesus challenged the Jews to love each other and love their enemies. It was a much different message from the usual rabble-rousing tirades they are used to.”
“But what about the miracles?” Lucius Tiberius asked. “I keep hearing these stories about lame men walking and blind men receiving their sight. Was there anything to that?”
“I know that Stichius, Longinus’ manservant, was at the point of death and this Jesus supposedly just said a few words from miles away and the man was back on his feet again the next morning,” Decius replied. “All the other stuff I don’t know about, but I know Longinus was convinced Jesus had performed a miracle.”
“I knew that old beggar that used to sit by the pool of Siloam,” volunteered Carmello. “He’d been paralyzed for years, legs like little sticks, completely useless! But I saw him after that Jesus fellow healed him, and his calves were as big and strong as mine!”
“That’s impossible!” snapped Tiberius. “I can’t believe you would fall for that!”
“I didn’t fall for anything; I saw it with my own eyes. I knew the old man; his legs were withered and useless one day, and as strong as mine the next!” Carmello insisted.
“If you insist,” Tiberius said, his tone still disbelieving. “But here is what I don’t understand – how could the Jews turn on the Galilean so quickly? When he rode into the city a week ago, they were ready to crown him as their king. I was near the city gate, and I have never seen a crowd so worked up! Then, by Friday, the same crowd was howling for his blood!”
Decius snorted in derision. “Who knows why Jews do anything?” he asked. “We’ve had this province for nearly a hundred years, and they are no closer to being civilized than they were when Pompey Magnus decided the Republic needed this gods-forsaken place.”
Carmello nodded. “They are a fickle lot, true enough. I don’t know what Longinus sees in them, to be honest,” he said.
“Longinus is a good soldier, but he ain’t been right ever since he married that Jewish girl,” said Decius. “And Cornelius is just as bad!”
“How long until dawn, you think?” Tiberius asked to no one in particular. “I want to get back to the barracks and get some sleep.”
“Another hour at least,” Carmello said. “So, what did you make of all the goings-on Friday when they nailed this Galilean up with those two Zealot bandits?”
“An earthquake and an eclipse the same day,” said Decius. ‘Ill omens, according to all the ancients.”
“That was no eclipse,” Carmello said. “The sun wasn’t obscured a bit at a time – the whole thing grew dark all at once. I’m telling you, I think it was related to this Jesus’ death. The gods were not happy to see him killed! I was out there on the crucifixion detail with Longinus, and I don’t mind telling you I was scared. I thought the earth was going to tear itself in two right there at the foot of the cross!”
“One of the Jewish merchants I know – fellow by the name of Asher, a decent sort as Jews go – told me that the big veil in the Temple that hides their Holy of Holies from prying eyes, was torn in two from top to bottom at the same instant!” Decius interjected.
“An earthquake could do that naturally,” Tiberius said. “But some of the other stories – why, I heard people saying they had seen men who died years ago up and walking around Jerusalem!”
“That’s what you get for listening to these superstitious barbarians,” Decius said. “It was an earthquake, nothing more.”
“Yet it started at the moment that Jesus character died,” Carmello said. “He threw his head back and hollered ‘It is finished!’ at the top of his lungs, then slumped down dead. Then suddenly the ground was shaking so hard I couldn’t stand up, and lightning was striking everywhere, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky – the sun was black, but I could see every star, just like we can right now. Old Longinus was even more scared than I was – he’d been keeping tabs on this Jesus for a while, and I think he more than half believed some of the stuff Jesus said about himself. He started sobbing that we had killed the Son of God!”
“Well, he is killed, that’s the main thing,” Tiberius said. “Whatever or whoever he was, he’s food for the worms now. You fellows did make sure he was dead, didn’t you?”
“I drove my spear clean through his heart before we let his friends take the body for burial,” Carmello said. “He didn’t even twitch, and the blood that came out was all mingled with water. No doubt he was dead. I don’t even know why we are out here. Is old Caiaphas really afraid he might come back?”
“He thinks this man’s disciples will steal the body, and then say that he’s come back – which would be just as bad, from the priesthood’s point of view,” said Tiberius.
“Since when are you privy to the Jewish High Priest’s council chamber?” asked Decius.
“I was in the Prefect’s office when Caiaphas’ messenger asked for a guard,” Decius said. “Those were his exact words.”
“Is that a shooting star?” asked Carmello suddenly. A bright ball of light was streaking down from the heavens, growing larger and brighter as it drew near. The Jewish soldiers near the tomb saw it too, and were pointing and jabbering in their native tongue. The ball of light didn’t flicker out, like most shooting stars – it grew bigger and brighter, lighting the entire garden in an eerie whiteness.
“It’s going to hit us!” shrieked Decius, covering his eyes.
Over their heads, the ball slowed down, and then suddenly split in two. Instead of a blinding white globe, two oblong shapes slowly lowered to the earth at the tomb’s entrance. When they touched the ground, they began to assume manlike forms. As the two sets of guards watched in wonder, one of the white figures reached out and touched the massive stone that covered the entrance to the Galilean’s tomb. A pulse of light so bright that it obscured all else shot outwards from the tomb, and all the guards – Jews and Romans alike – collapsed to the ground like dead men.
The garden was silent. The stone now lay flat, ten feet from the entrance to the tomb, and the figures, now resolved into tall men wearing robes of blinding white, positioned themselves at either side of the door, like an honor guard. As the sky began to lighten in the east, a third figure emerged blinking into the garden.
Decius, Carmello, and Tiberius lay still on the grass, unmoving, breathing softly. A pair of bare feet, deeply scarred above the instep, stepped over them as the owner of those feet stepped forth into a new day – and a new age.
I wrote this short story last fall as part of a contest I was entering. It features the same setting and some of the same characters as my upcoming novel, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE. If you enjoyed THE LEGIONARIES, check out my current novel,THE TESTIMONIUM, and pick up THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE when it is released on May 19!