A thrilling adventure set in first century Israel. Simon Ish Kerioth is ordered to gather evidence to try a man with superhuman powers. When the true value emerges, a desperate struggle ensues. Simon hopes to secure the scrolls for all time, but at what cost?
It had been a perfect summer’s day. The sun was gently descending behind the Judean hills, casting three long shadows across Jerusalem from the three magnificent towers that ascended out of the citadel next to King Herod’s Palace, with the Phasael Tower dominating the other two.
The evening sunset flooded across the dolomite limestone city, painting the western walls of Herod’s magnificent Temple in a wonderful golden orange light.
Simon Ish Kerioth1, a scribe in his mid-forties, had spent the day at work making copy scrolls of the Psalms for his old friend Rabbi Nathan from Nazareth.
Now at the end of the day, he stood back from the scroll he had been working on and wandered over to the window. His back ached from standing, as was customary when reading or writing scripture. With his ink-stained hands resting on the sill, he gazed north out of the open window of the Old Refectory, taking in the tranquil scene. The Old Refectory was part of a disused community building and had been converted to a studio for scribes working on manuscripts. It was located close to the High Priest’s house and was brought into use during the reconstruction of the Temple workshops. When the reconstruction work was complete and most of the Scribes had returned, the High Priest at the time had permitted Simon to remain there on his own. He was quite a solitary individual and the privacy it afforded for his work appealed to him. From his vantage point he had a clear view of Herod’s palace on his left and the great, refurbished, gleaming Herodian Temple
on the right.
Standing at the window looking out across Jerusalem, the same evening light gently painted his white robes and tinged his grey beard a glorious rose pink.
He breathed in the early evening air. A fragrance of spices from the old marketplace below mixed with the scent of fresh blooms.
It was a truly glorious evening, and as he stood there taking in the spectacle and listening to the sound of the evening bustle in Jerusalem, he felt very much at peace.
He closed the wooden shutters, rolled up his work and tidied up his workplace, closing with a traditional prayer to finish off the day before making his way downstairs and out onto the street. Enjoying a continuing sense of well-being, he made his way slowly through the small square opposite his home.
Suddenly, without any warning, a young man barged into him, brushing his arm with such force that it was all he could do to stay upright. The young man glanced back only briefly to check if he was still standing. Simon recognised him as a runner for the High Priest Caiaphas.
‘Why don’t you mind where you’re going?’ He shouted out after the boy, but the lad took no notice.
Simon climbed the semi-circular steps to the entrance of his lodgings and was greeted cheerily by Anna the housekeeper. He felt thoroughly put out by the incident in the square. It had utterly ruined his evening. He gruffly mumbled a greeting to her as he climbed the stairs to his apartment on the third floor. Anna knew his mood swings were only temporary and that when he was upset about something he was best left alone.
Feeling his way down the dark corridor leading to his rooms, he lifted the door latch and entered.
There on the floor, slipped under the door, a folded parchment note was awaiting him in the half light. He picked it up and turned it over. There was a seal on the back, but it was too dark to read it. Picking up his oil lamp, he retraced his steps to the pilot light on the window sill at the top of the stairs and lit the little oil lamp. He then saw that the seal was that of the High Priest, Caiaphas.
As he returned down the eerily dark passageway, to his horror, he was shocked at the sight of a menacing looking figure lurking in the darkness just beyond his door. It made him jump and he stepped backwards catching his breath. He must have walked right past him in the darkness.
‘What do you want?’ he enquired nervously. The man approached as Simon backed away. The faint light from the lamp illuminated his face and he could see that it was the lad who had nearly knocked him over earlier. ‘You half frightened me to death, young man! What do you mean by lurking in the dark back there?’
‘I’m sorry, sir. I have orders to escort you to the High Priest. I thought it best for you to read the message first, sir.’
Simon re-entered his apartment. ‘I see, so why all the urgency?’
‘I don’t know, sir. I’m just here to escort you immediately to His Holiness.’
Simon looked at the young man. He was well built, and his frame filled the doorway. His dark eyes fixed the older man with a brazen stare.
Simon opened the note. It was indeed a summons from the High Priest.
‘Very well, but let me first wash. It’s been a hot day and I have ink on my hands. Wait there while I prepare myself.’ Simon made to close the door, but the young man moved forward into the doorway. He stood there blocking the way. Simon backed away nervously.
What was all this about? Did the High Priest suspect he was allowing his old friend Rabbi Nathan to jump the queue for a fee? Everyone knew that sort of thing went on. Surely, he wouldn’t make an issue out of something so petty. It was hard enough for a scribe to make ends meet in Jerusalem. But then Caiaphas could be extremely unpredictable.
Deliberately stalling for time to think, he poured some water into a bowl and, using a small piece of pumice stone, he slowly rubbed off the ink stains.
He felt his stomach turn at the thought of a late-night audience with the High Priest; he was well known for his volatile temper.
The two men made their way down the corridor and out into the street without speaking a word. The light was fading fast as they crossed the little square towards the High Priest’s residence.
On reaching the Gate House the young man ordered the guard to open the door.
From there they followed the covered walkway through a series of carved stone archways to a small side entrance, where they were met by the night guard with a lamp. He dismissed the runner and took Simon up a stone spiral staircase and along a wide corridor, then through two large oak doors. Once inside he was shown into a small anteroom. The guard knocked on the door and waited.
‘Come!’ A voice commanded them to enter, and the guard retired to a position outside.
The room was spacious and well-lit by numerous oil lamps. A personal servant stood on one side of the room. On the far side a small man dressed in a white tunic with matching headdress was seated behind a large desk piled high with scrolls. Caiaphas, the High Priest, stood up and came around the front of the desk. He gestured to Simon to sit down on some loose cushions on the floor next to a couple of small decorative tables.
Simon bowed to the High Priest before taking a seat as requested. He waited to be addressed.
‘Would you care for a cup of wine, Simon?’ the High Priest asked, gesturing to the servant. Simon remained silent. This was not an invitation; it was an instruction. The two men knew that by drinking together they were entering a covenant of confidentiality. The servant filled two silver cups which he proceeded to serve.
‘That will be all for tonight.’ Caiaphas motioned to the servant to retire.
Caiaphas blessed the wine and both men drank.
‘I have brought you here to discuss a matter of great importance.’ The High Priest smiled faintly. ‘I’ll get straight to the point, Simon.’ He put his cup down. ‘You see; I want you to gather some information for me on a man who is posing a significant threat to our entire nation. You will recall your part in collecting some useful evidence on John the Baptist?’ He paused before continuing casually, ‘As it happens, that information was overtaken by events, but now there is a new and much more dangerous threat from a man they call Yeshua the Nazarene. He is a much greater threat than John. We know they are related, but I believe that together they may have a more sinister purpose.
‘There are reports that this Yeshua is already teaching about the establishment of a new Kingdom. This is the sort of talk that is not only dangerous for Israel but will reverberate all the way back to Rome! It’s a serious threat to everything we’ve worked for and must be stopped!’
Caiaphas thumped the palm of his hand with a clenched fist before composing himself and reaching for his cup of wine. Clearly the subject got under his skin. He took a sip while studying Simon over the rim. The dim light of the oil lamps was enough to betray his ugly mood. Simon swallowed nervously, the pit of his stomach recoiling. This sort of outburst was precisely what he had feared.
This was a project that Simon wanted to avoid at all costs. Like everyone else, he had heard about Yeshua, but he was in the middle of making a copy of the Psalms for Rabbi Nathan, from whom he had already taken a sizeable deposit. He also hated travelling. The thought of following this Yeshua character through the Galilean countryside and staying in all those hostels crawling with bed bugs filled him with disgust. He didn’t much care for Galilee or the Galileans if the truth were known. Above all, he wanted to avoid getting embroiled in a potentially trumped-up case which, if it went against Caiaphas, would end up being his fault.
‘Your Holiness,’ Simon interjected, ‘I have heard it reported that this man is surrounded by a fairly rough bunch of local Galileans who are supposed to be his disciples, but no doubt they are there to protect him. I’m no longer a young man, Your Holiness. I am sure this task is better suited to a more able-bodied person than I. And, what’s more, he may prove much more difficult to get close to than John the Baptist. I’m not at all sure I’d be the best person to do that. Indeed. I have heard he is quite hostile to anyone associated with the Scribes and Pharisees.’
The High Priest rose to his feet, cup in hand and walked slowly over to the open window. He closed the shutters before crossing the room, opening the door, and dismissing the duty guard.
Caiaphas casually sat down again, gently replacing his cup on the small side table. The change in his demeanour frightened Simon.
He leant forward menacingly; his ugly expression illuminated by the light of an oil lamp. Simon had a bad feeling about what might be coming next.
Then quite casually he said, ‘I think your son might help you get close to him.’ He sat back watching Simon closely.
Simon’s heart was pounding in his chest.
‘What son, Your Holiness?’ he asked trying to control his voice.
‘Judas.’ The High Priest responded, adding pointedly. ‘Judas Ish Kerioth.’
Simon was dumfounded. How on earth could he possibly know about Judas? Even Judas didn’t know the true identity of his father.
The affair with Judas’ mother had been very brief – a huge mistake which had threatened to ruin Simon’s career at the time. If it became known that he had an illegitimate son his position as a scribe would be over! He would be ruined.
He tried to compose himself.
‘I am afraid I don’t know what you’re referring to, Your Holiness. I have a nephew called Judas, but he is not my son. I do not have a son. I am celibate and always have been…’
The High Priest cut in, reaching for his wine cup. ‘I can’t disclose my sources, but they are entirely reliable. Miriam was a married woman, married to your brother in fact, and unfortunately you didn’t know that it was your brother who was incapable of having any children. You thought it was Miriam who was barren, and you took your chances.
‘Look, I won’t go into the details, it’s late and I didn’t bring you here to incriminate you, but I know the whole sordid story and I know you’ve taken an interest in the boy since he was small and grew up with your family.
‘And I also know about what happened to your brother Alexander, when he found out about Judas a few years later. At the time Miriam was pregnant, and he was up here in Jerusalem. You thought that you had got away with it, but walls have ears, Simon, and he found out. It’s a pity Alexander’s body was found dead in a dark alley shortly after he found out, don’t you think? I wonder who killed him? I don’t suppose you know do you?’
Simon was speechless. He could feel the blood draining out of his face.
‘You’re a piece of excrement, Simon Ish Kerioth! But even excrement has its uses!’ Caiaphas glared at him.
‘Well, don’t you have anything to say for yourself?’ Caiaphas paused, ‘I suppose not. So – this is what you’re going to do,’ he said, getting up and returning to his desk and rummaging about in a drawer. ‘You’re going to drop everything including your project for Rabbi Nathan in Nazareth – yes, I know all about that too – and you’ll set off for the Galilee tomorrow. The man Yeshua and his band of followers were last seen operating out of Capernaum. He’s staying in a house belonging to the mother-in-law of one of them. He’s called Simon and he’s a fisherman. Ah, here we are.’ Caiaphas closed the drawer and straightened up depositing a small purse on the desktop. ‘Of the dozen he’s selected to be his inner circle, many are related, so expect to come up against some opposition. As you know, blood’s thicker than water. Judas will be your passport to get close to this traitor, and between the two of you I expect you to gather as much damning evidence as you can. Make sure you get it all down word for word. I don’t want any slipups when we bring him to trial. Blasphemy, law breaking, you know the sort of things we need. We suspect he may be attempting to establish himself as a Messiah figure and you know how that would go down with the Romans.’
Simon felt a sense of panic rising up inside. ‘I haven’t seen Judas in a while. What if he doesn’t recognise me?’
‘If he’s anything like you, Simon, he will be looking after the purse for the group and making a bit on the side!’ Caiaphas chuckled. ‘You gave him an education and looked after him whenever he was in need. I don’t suppose he will have forgotten his old uncle, do you?’
With that he picked up the purse and tossed it to Simon over the desk.
‘That’s an advance to look after your expenses. I want a report every six weeks by courier and it better be good. Now get out of my sight!’ he barked, getting up and crossing the room. He opened the door and peered into the darkness.
‘Guard!’ he yelled out.
Somewhere from down a dark corridor a man appeared.
‘Show this man out.’ Pointing to Simon’s cup, he added, ‘Oh and take that cup with you. I don’t want it on the premises. It’s tainted!’
‘Thank you, Your Holiness,’ replied the guard clutching the silver cup as he proceeded to escort Simon out into the night.
This is an extremely well crafted, beautifully told story, about which the Novum description doesn't quite do justice!
It is likely to become an important book. It develops curiosity as the page is turned, brings all the characters 'alive' and stirs the reader to find a host of different and unusual elements, when reading the gospels.
I have rated it 5, although the way it is bound makes it hard to hold in one hand - something I like to do when reading - others might not notice this at all! But it curls too easily.
I have hugely enjoyed reading it, and would highly recommend it to christian believers and those of other faiths and none.
I am disappointed to find it is not stocked in Waterstones, and hope this will soon be rectified.