BROTHERS IN CHRIST, SMILE!
Chapter XIV, where we learn how to expose Christians in their own words
A young dark haired man, a little older than twenty, walked in the last rays of the evening sun along the narrow Roman street away from Palatine Hill. He was shorter than average and his puny constitution made some of the people on the street grin at him. His rare beard and moustache contrasted with the shaved faces of Romans, while his Semitic features distinguished him from Greeks, who also often had a predilection for keeping their face hair. He was dressed in a loin-cloth and a rectangular piece of fabric he threw over his shoulders like a simple cloak, covering a few pieces of papyrus that he kept pressed to his chest as a most treasured possession. His soleae sandals were basically a pair of soles kept on the foot with a couple of laces. The “cloak” did not belong to him, it was given for going out to the city by the chief supervisor of the household who patronized the young man. Technically, neither did the loin-cloth, sandals, or even himself. The young man was a slave. The only thing that really belonged to him was written on the pieces of papyrus that the teacher gave him.
Benjamin, the servant in Tigellinus’ house, was not exactly cleaning the toilets. He supervised toilet cleaning by other slaves – which was much cleaner and a more appropriate occupation for an orthodox Jew. Technically, as the slaves had little choice in the job line, there would not be much dishonor for him even if he was to actually clean the toilets, but being in almost constant contact with unclean substances would be considered a serious drawback for leading the righteous life. Anyway, his aspirations were to become free again some day and, maybe, enter some decent profession like one of a scribe. And as the first step, he hoped to move to a more decent job as a slave.
He had all the chances for that. Literate slaves were rare, and the ability to both read, write, and count put him above a lot of them. In fact, that’s how he got his current position. The chief supervisor of the house – Tigellinus did not bother himself with such earthly details – did not want to waste a literate slave on a primitive job and instead made him a supervisor with the potential for a better job, if Benjamin was able to prove himself.
Benjamin certainly tried. The example of patriarch Joseph, who was a slave once and rose to become the second to the King of Egypt himself, gave him the inspiration to struggle with everyday routine. Who knows, he thought, maybe he can get a better assignment, then even better, and eventually rise to the top of the household hierarchy. And after he becomes a freed man, he would still be around the master, his trusted man. Praetorians had a lot of influence in Rome, so the master could raise in status even more some time in the future and become the king or, how they call it here, the emperor. After all, freed men of the current emperor are all around with important jobs to do and a decent income to enjoy. Why cannot this happen to me, thought Benjamin, dreaming about the future.
And he did not just dream. He was looking around, trying to figure out how the life around him worked, and what to do to rise among others. The house of a rich Roman was very similar to a large bureaucratic organization, with its feuds, alliances, politics, battles, victories, and losses around small items like favors of supervisors, better assignments, influence, or even simply a piece of food. The most ambitious ones were competing for the favors of the chief supervisor – a freed man set to supervise the household. Fighting for the favors of the master himself – Tigellinus – was unthinkable. Only “high priests” among the slaves were allowed into the holiest of holies – the master’s bedroom or a triclinium – when he cared to dine at home. Which he usually did not.
This lack of a big picture and vision in other slaves encouraged Benjamin to think that he may succeed in getting the top prize – the favor of the master himself. He knew that excelling in his current assignment would not bring him closer to this goal by itself. However, neglecting it would definitely block any hope, so he paid good attention to his job and was praised on many occasions by the chief supervisor himself. Excellence in his job made his name mentioned around, and he knew how important it was to be on everybody’s mind just in case that rare opportunity strikes.
It had worked out well so far. Once the master had need of expert advice about the Jewish traditions and existing sects. There were not many Jewish slaves in Rome, but there were a few in Tigellinus’ household. Benjamin knew whom to thank for being chosen among them to talk to the master. In fact, he did thank the chief supervisor. He saved a few coins from the occasional bonuses given to him, and bought a lucky charm in one of the pagan temples crowding Rome. Giving money would be a very stupid idea, as first, he did not possess enough money to interest the chief supervisor, and second, all the money he had, he was given by the chief supervisor himself. But a lucky charm of the supervisor’s family deity, with a portion of thanks and praises for his benevolence, wisdom, and knowledge of the household, apparently touched this usually harsh and cruel man and ensured that Benjamin would be remembered the next time the master needed a talk with one of his slaves.
From the one, and so far the only, conversation with the master, Benjamin understood that he did not have a soft spot for Christians, the object of despise of the Roman Jewish community. In fact, Tigellinus openly disliked them. So now Benjamin’s primary hopes were with the book. Yes, “the book”, that’s how Benjamin thought of it. Being an orthodox Jew, he aspired to make his name remembered by writing a book that would depict the Christians as heretics for what he thought they really were, showing their vile deeds and thoughts. The central point of the book was supposed to be about a Christian conspiracy to burn and destroy Jerusalem in their envy of righteous people.
The signed pieces of papyrus contained the first pages of the book that he was going to give to his teacher of Law. Doctor ben-Ata Khin was a respected scholar who successfully combined his study of Law with a flourishing dental practice that gave him a good income and the time for his studies. His income was so good that he could afford a house – the luxury most of the people born and raised in Rome could not afford for their entire life.
The teacher took him to his study room, a small premise crowded with a desk, a chair, a bench, and hardly any space to move around them. The small window on top of the outer wall was giving some light but overall the room looked somewhat dark after the sunny street. Doctor ben-Ata sat in the chair and pointed to the bench that was set there specially for disciples.
“First, tell me how your work and position in the house of the prefect is going,” ben-Ata said in their native tongue.
“I have not had a chance to talk to the master again,” Benjamin said. “However, I enjoy the favorable disposition of the chief supervisor. He praised me twice today, and he gave me this piece of cloth to cover my body when going to the city.”
“Glad to hear that, my boy,” the teacher said. “Remember, you should do your duties diligently and always look for a chance to show yourself as a trustworthy and hardworking man.”
“I will, teacher,” Benjamin said.
“Now, read it to me, my boy,” ben-Ata said. “My eyes are not as sharp these days as they used to be.”
“Should I read in our language or the Greek translation?” Benjamin asked. He wrote everything in Aramaic, but also translated it to Greek as the teacher instructed him.
“Ours, of course,” ben-Ata smiled paternally at the young man.
“Let me start from the instructions of the Christian archbishop to the ones who will go set fire to Jerusalem,” Benjamin said and started to read. “Brothers in Christ! Smile when entering the city and the houses that you are going to burn. Remember, you are doing the bidding of our Lord, Jesus, the God of Christians, and when you are seized and executed, you will join our Lord and get the reward for your deeds. Don’t hesitate when you see children or women on the streets and in the houses, as truly this is an evil city and evil people, and there is no measure of the hate that our Lord keeps for these people and this city. When the sun sets, throw your torches to the windows, and don’t let others put out the fire. When you see a vessel with oil, break it so that the fire can go wild, cleansing the abominations of this city and these people. Rejoice as fire will start consuming the city as you are doing a blessed job and your souls will join our Lord in Heavens, not like those perishing in fire, who repelled him…”
He read for some time until the teacher raised his hand with a sign to stop.
“I see that you tried, but –” the teacher shook his head, sighed, then continued. “But, Benjamin, you missed all I told you last time. Your text sounds like they are really right, and we are really wrong. How can you do it this way?”
“But, teacher,” Benjamin said, “won’t they represent it exactly this way, so that they look good and we look bad?”
“They? Could be,” the teacher said. “But that’s not the point. Do you want to act like these unclean traitors do, or do you want to act as a righteous man? Then why do it like they would do? You see how much more powerful your message may be if these traitors, the Christians, expose themselves in their own words?”
“But teacher,” Benjamin asked, “why would they expose themselves?”
“I see you have more faith in those heretics than in your teacher,” ben-Ata said and sighed again.
“No, teacher, I trust you,” Benjamin said. “It’s just I am lost and cannot grasp your wisdom so quickly. Can you show me what you mean?”
“Of course,” ben-Ata smiled at him. “See, you wrote ‘evil city’, ‘blessed job’, that’s not right. You need to say something like, ‘when entering Jerusalem, that blessed city of righteous, whom we envy, feel your vile joy as you are going to set them on fire.’ You see, this way their own words betray them. By the way, did you notice that you never called Jerusalem by name? You see, you are writing this not only to Jews, but also to Greeks and Romans. How would they know what city you are talking about?”
“I see, teacher,” Benjamin said. “Yes, I will rewrite it as you advise.”
“Good, good,” ben-Ata nodded, saying that. “Now take more papyrus and show me something better next time. You are a good student, Benjamin. Make me proud of you.”
It was already dark when Benjamin left his teacher’s house. The streets were empty, and he mentally thanked the chief-supervisor again for the piece of fabric that kept him from the evening cool air. He hurried up along the street, turned around the corner, and stumbled upon three vigils. Vigils were Roman firemen and the night watch organized by districts and looking for order in the city, helping the city cohorts and praetorians. The eldest vigil frowned. Benjamin, hiding the manuscript under the improvised cloak, raised suspicions in him.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Benjamin, your honor, a slave. I have to get to the house of my master soon or my supervisor will be very angry at me.”
“And what are you doing around so late?”
“I was outside on an errand,” Benjamin said. He decided that it would be safer to lie a bit as these people would clearly not be too sympathetic toward a slave late from his time off in the city.
“And what do you have here?” the vigil asked.
“Just a few pieces of papyrus, your honor,” Benjamin said. “Please, let me go, your honor. I really must get home in time or the supervisor will punish me.”
“Follow us,” the vigil ordered and turned to his fellows. “Let’s get him to the quarters, boys, and see what the boss says. You remember how a month ago we got a slave who was hurrying up just like this one? He happened to be at large for three months.”
Benjamin obeyed and they walked down the street. Fortunately, the quarters were close enough because vigils were stationed in individual districts, not in the Praetorian camp in the northern part of the city. They walked uneventfully in the empty streets for less than half an hour until they arrived. Vigils quarters in this district were located in a two-story house with a wide front yard. The one in charge nodded in the direction of an old cart and said, “Sit here.”
Benjamin sat in the cart and waited for the situation to clear out.
“Lupis!” the vigil shouted, looking at the lit window on the second floor.
“What?” the voice from behind the window answered.
“We’ve got a slave who was hurrying to his master’s house in the dark,” the vigil said.
“And why the hell did you bring him here?” the voice answered. “Deal him a blow and let him run home.”
The vigil, without hesitation, cuffed Benjamin on the nape and said, “Get out!”
Benjamin, without lingering for a second invitation, picked up the papyrus, and ran away. After the second corner, he stopped to catch his breath and looked at the manuscript. The original version of the archbishop’s instructions both in Hebrew and Greek was gone. Oh, well, he thought, the clean sheets are with him, and the teacher said to get rid of the original version anyway. So he pressed the papyrus to his chest and hurried on home.
“Brothers in Christ! Smile when entering the city and the houses that you are going to burn…” were the first words in Greek and Hebrew on two pieces of papyrus left in the yard of the vigils, in a cart confiscated from some Greek trader three months ago and used as a support for hay. “BNJMN” was inscribed in Aramaic letters on the back of each piece.
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