But the muse cannot sleep forever, and the final volume of my "Rome" trilogy had been hanging in the back of my mind for some time. So after school dismissed, on a sleepless night last week, I began work on my next novel. The tentative title is THE EMPEROR AND THE APOSTLE, and it will juxtapose the life of St. John with that of the cruel and twisted Roman Emperor Domitian. I haven't gotten very far yet, but I did write the prologue and I'm pretty proud of it. Here it is; enjoy and, as always, let me know what you think!
THE EMPEROR AND THE APOSTLE
A NOVEL OF ANCIENT ROME
The Master was alive again. The thought kept ringing through the fisherman’s head as he rowed the boat across the dark waters of moonlit Lake Gennesaret in Galilee. The High Priests, the Sanhedrin, and the Romans had all conspired together to kill Rabbi Yeshua, whom the Romans called Jesus - the Messiah of Israel - and kill him they had. He was arrested, beaten, flogged, and then crucified outside the city gates, on a hill locals called The Skull.
There was no doubt in the mind of Yehonan bar Zebed – John the son of Zebedee, as his Greek friends called him – that Yeshua had been dead. John had stood at the foot of the cross, his face torn by grief, holding Yeshua’s mother, Miriam, as she wept bitter tears at the sight of her firstborn son nailed to a tree, and thus placed under the curse of Yahweh. John had held her with one arm and his own wife, Miriam’s daughter and namesake, with the other as they watched their beloved Master die a criminal’s death.
It had not taken long, not by the standards of crucifixion. It was not unheard of for men to linger for days on the cross, but Yeshua had yielded up His mighty spirit after only six hours of suffering. He had asked John to take care of His mother as he hung there dying, a natural choice since Yeshua’s brothers were estranged from him. They considered his preaching and teaching an embarrassment to the family. John loved his mother-in-law dearly and would be glad to take her into his home and treat her as his own mother. Not long after making those arrangements, Yeshua had lifted his head up one more time and cried out with a loud voice “It is finished!” before slumping again. His final words were a whisper that John could barely make out: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
He knew that Yeshua was dead, but the Romans would not release the body until they made sure of it. A burly legionary drove his pilum through Yeshua’s ribs and into his heart, and a gush of blood and water mingled together had flowed from the wound. John shielded Miriam’s eyes from the fearful blow, but he kept his own gaze fixed on Yeshua’s face as the soldier skewered Him. Marred by dust and sweat and blood, Yeshua never flinched or groaned as the iron spearhead penetrated his heart. He was dead, there was no doubt about that.
John had helped cut the body down from the cross, wrapped it in linen grave cloths, and hastily deposited it in a nearby tomb donated by one of the Master’s wealthy followers. They had rolled the massive stone across the door of the tomb to keep animals from despoiling the body, and both the Romans and the Sanhedrin had posted guards on the tomb, remembering the Master’s words that he would be coming back from the dead after three days.
And now He was alive again. The women had seen him first, coming to the tomb early in the morning on the third day after the crucifixion of their beloved rabbi. Miriamne of Magdala had been first, followed by another group that included Yeshua’s mother and two of His sisters. All of them reported variations on the same theme – that the tomb was empty, the stone rolled away, and young men dressed all in white were proclaiming that their Lord had risen from the dead.
John’s heart had flamed with a desperate hope when he heard Miriamne of Magdala say that the Master’s tomb was empty. He and his friend Petros – Simon to his family, Peter to the Romans, and Cephas to the Greeks – had raced each other in a frantic dash to the garden where the rock tomb was located, within a stone’s throw of the Hill of the Skull where the Master had died. They had arrived moments apart, John’s younger legs carrying him a bit faster than Peter could run. He had stooped and looked in, and seen the grave cloths he had wrapped around Yeshua’s body so carefully lying there, a hollow shell, with the face cloth neatly folded and set to one side. John knew at that moment that somehow, beyond all hope, their Master had returned.
Peter was not so sure; he entered the tomb and poked at the grave clothes, then left, his countenance still marred with sorrow and pain. No one else knew what John knew: that Peter had denied, three times, even knowing who Jesus was. He had done it for a noble reason – he and John had gained admittance to the High Priest’s palace, where Jesus was being tried. Peter had been accosted and accused of being Jesus’ accomplice; he was afraid that if he acknowledged Jesus that he might be cast out. Therefore he had denied his Master, exactly as Yeshua had foretold, before the cock crowed to herald the coming dawn. When that fateful sound did come, Peter had folded up like a wet leather sack and fled the courtyard, weeping bitter tears.
But then, after they left the empty tomb, Simon saw the Master alive again, and later on that evening, John and the others saw Him too. Yeshua was alive! He was changed, somehow, but He was still among them, only better than before – majestic, regal, and complete, His face glowing with the knowledge that He had accomplished what the Father sent Him forth to do.
After a few other brief appearances to His disciples, the Master told them that he would meet them in Galilee, and so Peter and the others had returned to their homes in Capernaum to await him. After a week without any visitation from Yeshua, they had decided to go fishing one night. The notoriously fickle schools of perch were nowhere to be found; again and again they cast their nets out with no result. Now the sky was growing grey with the dawn, and the weary Galileans decided to row back to shore. With no catch, their morning meal would be meager.
It was John who saw the stranger first – a man standing on the shoreline, muffled up in a cloak against the chill of the springtime air. It was too dark to make out his face, but when he spoke, his voice was friendly and curious.
“Hello, children, have you caught any fish?” he asked.
“All night we worked, and not so much as a minnow!” Peter bellowed in reply.
“Try casting your nets on the right side of the boat,” the stranger told him. “I saw something move the water there just now.”
Peter and Andrew lifted one end of the net, while John and his brother James grabbed the other, and they heaved as hard as they could, throwing the fifteen-foot mesh across as wide a surface of the water as it would cover. The weights on the corners quickly pulled the net down, and the ropes in their hands began to jerk and twitch as the fish they had captured strained against them. All four of them pulled as hard as they could, and the net barely moved. Peter called out, “Everyone give a hand!”
The net was full to the top – there were so many fish the boat was listing to one side. On the shore, the stranger pulled his mantle back and laughed, a keen laugh of pure joy that they recognized immediately.
“It is the Master!” Peter cried. He quickly pulled on his tunic – he had stripped down to his loincloth as they toiled through the night – and then dove into the water, swimming for shore as fast as he could. John laughed out loud as he and the others hoisted the bulging net into their boat, and then they laid to the oars, making for shore in Peter’s wake.
As soon as they had dragged the net up on the beach, they rushed to Yeshua’s side. He had already kindled a fire, and fresh fish – where He had gotten them, who could say? – were grilling over it on a flat stone, sprinkled with herbs for flavor. John embraced His Master eagerly, and then stepped back so the others could greet Him. Afterward, they sat down and dined together. Few words were exchanged – the disciples were so awed by the presence of their resurrected Lord that they were afraid to speak to Him. How had He conquered death? What had He seen? What lay next for all of them? The questions, never spoken, hung heavy in the air.
After they ate, James and John returned to the net and began counting up the number of fish they had caught, while the rest began stringing up lines and lighting fires in order to begin smoking their catch. The lake had yielded up a tremendous bounty, and the money from the sale of the fish would pay for food and lodging wherever Jesus chose to send them next.
“One hundred and fifty three!” John said. “We haven’t caught that many since -”
“Since the day the Master first called us,” James finished the sentence for him. They both fell silent as they remembered that day, so long ago, when Jesus had led them to the biggest catch of their lives – and then called them to “fish for men.”
“Where are Peter and the Master going, I wonder?” James said suddenly. John looked up and saw the two of them walking up the beach, leaving the rest of the disciples behind. Impulsively he stood and began to follow.
Jesus and Peter advanced up the beach, their feet occasionally lapped by the gentle waves. The night chill had worn away, and the morning sun was slowly clearing the hills – it was going to be a beautiful day. John followed the two men, not announcing His presence, but not concealing himself either. The Master looked back over His shoulder and gave John a smile, then turned back to Peter and spoke.
“Simon bar Jonah, do you love Me?” he asked.
“Of course, Lord, you know that I love you,” Peter said.
“Then feed my lambs,” Yeshua replied.
They walked along in silence for a while, and then Jesus posed the same question again.
“Simon, son of Jonas, do you love Me?” he asked.
“Lord, you know that I love you,” Peter replied again.
“Then tend my flock,” Jesus repeated.
For a long time, they walked on in silence, and then Jesus looked at Peter again.
“Simon, do you truly love me at all?” he asked.
Peter’s face was streaked with tears. Three times he had denied the Master, and now the Master was asking him a third time to affirm the love his actions had belied.
“Lord, you know all things,” he said. “You know the bottom of my heart. You know that I love you.”
“Then tend to my lambs,” Jesus said. “And listen to Me! When you were young you went where you wished and did what you wanted. When you are old, another will take you and bind you and lead you to a place where you do not want to go. Are you ready for this?”
Peter squared his shoulders. “I will follow you to the grave and beyond, my Lord!” he said. Then he glanced back and saw John trailing behind them. “So what about him, Yeshua?” he asked. “What does his future hold?”
Jesus looked back at John and smiled once more.
“If I want him to tarry here until I come again, what is that to you, Peter?” he asked. “You follow me!”
Peter turned and looked at John. “It will be a long wait, my friend,” he said.
John tried to speak to him, but Peter’s face was changing, aging, his hair turning white and the lines in his face deepening. Blood ran down his features as his face contorted with agony –
And then John sat up. Nearly fifty years had passed since that day on the Sea of Galilee, and he was now an old man. Peter had been dead for more than a decade, crucified upside down outside the walls of Rome, and now John had a flock of his own to tend. He slowly sat upright, ignoring the aches in his seventy year old knees, and pulled his sandals on. It was time for the shepherd to feed his lambs.