Marcus Aurelius Antonius
Centurion, Italian Regiment
Lucius Kraikent Jerusalem
Commandant, Macedonian Regiment
I salute the most worthy and formidable Commandant. May the gods grant you health and to see the death of all your enemies. Believe me, Commandant, you were lucky to be transferred out of this cauldron. The rumors and unrest grow greater every day, and so does the violence of Rome’s efforts to quell this new sect which has grown up around the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Commandant, have you ever before known the execution of a leader to cause a rebellion to spread as if it were fire in standing grain? I have never known it so before, and I do not understand it. I apologize for bringing up such an unpleasant subject.
I am writing to request a transfer to your current regiment. I feel trouble in the very air, and it is trouble I want no part of. You remember my service, Commandant, and that I have never run from a battle. I will serve you well in Thrace, as I did on the Appian Way. I fear no man nor beast, and I carry the scars to prove it. But this trouble just now in Jerusalem is something beyond my understanding. I see these followers of Jesus, these “Christians”, all the time, and they have done nothing worthy of prison, let alone crucifixion. They seem to be dreamers, with their talk of a god becoming a man and dying for our sins, and then being resurrected on top of that. If I had not been in the squad sent to guard the grave of Jesus, I would laugh at them. I think. So many strange things happened in Jerusalem at that time, I don’t think I can ever be sure of anything again. Ever since that day, I have been afraid. I feel so cold sometimes now, even in the hot summer sun.
Commandant, I know you never believed that story we told about the disappearance of the Nazarene’s body. You know me too well to ever believe that I would sleep on duty. I could see the scorn and shame in your eyes when we told the tale of his followers stealing the body while we slept. You know I at least have always put my duty to Rome and to my comrades above sleep or anything else. The regiment has always been home and family to me. I could never sleep on duty. We were bribed to say what we said.
I did it also because no one would ever have believed the real story, and because I was terrified of the real story. I thought with the money we were given I could bribe my way into another regiment, far from this cursed city. But no one will have me, Commandant. Help me. Please. You are my last hope. I must get out of Jerusalem, before what I fear comes upon me. Remember that you trusted your back to me in many battles, and found me to be worthy of your trust. I never flinched. I never took one step back, not in all the many times I faced sword, spear, or club. It was you who first called me “The Big Rock.” No one has called me that for a long time now. I fear to report for duty now, but it is not fear of duty that weakens me till I shake like a terrified woman. It is the fear of what I saw that day at the grave of the Nazarene. I still don’t fear man or beast, but here in Jerusalem I fear to turn a corner lest I meet again what I met at that grave. I fear death now too, because I know there is something beyond the grave, and it is grim and terrible, if what I saw is an example.
Commandant, maybe if I tell you the truth you will believe me and receive me, if not as a centurion any more then at least as quartermaster. Maybe you at least will believe me. I have to tell someone. I am so afraid.
As you know, Commandant, when the Jewish priests learned that a follower of Jesus had requested his body, supposedly for burial, they remembered, a little late in my opinion, that he had said he would rise from the dead. They foresaw his followers hiding his body and claiming that he had been resurrected. The following insurrection would then be far more difficult to put down, backed by a belief in a supernatural leader. Why the followers would claim this is beyond a simple soldier like myself, but anyway Pilate sent my squad, which was assigned to temple duty at that time, to prevent this. And I wish now I had been born a slave or a woman rather than face that day.
We found the tomb sealed and no disturbance or followers of the rebel anywhere in sight. Our squad leader assigned positions and shifts and we settled down to wait. Matters were not improved by the wild talk we’d heard from the execution squad. They claimed that the earthquake and the daytime darkness that occurred on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion were connected with Jesus’ death somehow. Centurion Publius of the execution squad even began claiming that the Nazarene was the son of God. Publius is another who has never been the same since. He may be discharged because he is drunk all the time now. Anyway, what with the strange and unprecedented rumors about the dead man, we were as watchful of our backs as we were of the possible avenues of attack.
Commandant, you must believe me. I swear by Zeus and all the gods that what I am about to write is the truth. Near the morning of the third day, we had all begun to relax. No one had even come close to the tomb until that morning, when we saw several women approaching, I suppose to do reverence to their fallen leader. They certainly weren’t a threat. As soon as I saw them I began looking about for the threat, since from long experience of war I distrust peaceful looking civilians in a war zone.
There was a threat all right, but it came from above. From above! Never in my life had I considered the open sky a source of danger, but something like a man came down from the sky. He looked as bright as a lightning bolt. I mean his face looked that bright, as if a lightning bolt were captured in the form of a man. I have never seen clothes so white as his. They almost shone like his face. When his feet touched the ground, there was an earthquake. I saw him roll away that heavy stone that sealed the cave which was the grave of Jesus as easily as a child would move an empty bowl. Commandant, I wanted to run. This was not anything of earth. This must have been a god, or a messenger of the gods, and I had no desire to fight him. But my body would not obey. It felt so cold, and it shook as with the worst chill I ever had, and it would not obey my mind. I could not move.
This god or messenger of the gods began to speak with the women, but he spoke their Hebrew language, I think. For whatever reason, I could not understand him. Maybe it was just that by this time my only thought was to run as I had never run before, and I could not move. My mind was filled with a fear stronger than I had ever known. My stomach writhed under my skin like a living thing. I wanted to vomit from fear.
After he spoke briefly with the women – and they answered him – he disappeared. (How could these women stand on their feet, look him in the face, and talk with this shining man-like creature? I could not have done it.) When he disappeared my body soon became subject to my mind again, and then I ran. We all did. We were so weak from fear that we staggered and stumbled, but we could finally move again, and move we did. Later we talked it over, and all of us seem to have been physically affected the same way at the time.
We went straight to the priests. I don’t really know why we didn’t go to you, Commandant. Perhaps we were afraid that you might order us back to fight this thing, and none of us was willing to start that fight. I can only beg forgiveness.
The priests did the strangest thing. Instead of disbelieving us and being angry, they ordered us to tell the lie you heard – that Jesus’ followers found us all asleep and stole his body, as if we were not Roman soldiers but the lowest of slaves that would let such an important duty rest so light on our consciences. We refused. We told them we would not subject ourselves to Rome’s death penalty for soldiers who go to sleep on sentry duty. They promised to “protect us” if the Governor should hear about this matter. We stared at each other in shock. Commandant, why would they think they could keep a thing like this quiet? Did it not occur to them that they had executed (illegally, from what I have heard since) someone who apparently rose from the dead? Keeping it quiet, I thought, should be the least of their worries. What happens when this Jesus comes back, with that shining man-creature and who knows what else with him? If you can’t kill your enemy, you are going to die yourself. But these priests are not soldiers, and so don’t think like soldiers. They don’t think at all, in my opinion.
That is not all. Remember the rumors of the dead Jews who came out of their graves that same day and appeared to their families? I can’t laugh that off, after what I saw at Jesus’ tomb. What happens if one day soon all the dead Jews rise at once and pick up swords? What if they are all like that shining man-creature I saw? What if our enemies can’t be killed? It’s not just the Jewish priests who should be worried. I don’t want to be the enemy of the Jews anymore.
That’s not all either. About three or four weeks after all this happened, just when I was beginning to think maybe it would all go away and the world would be sane again, the Jews had one of those feasts they’re always having. I don’t think they should be allowed. These feasts are always centered around some military victory or some special favor from their god, and they stir up the people’s patriotism. I don’t understand why Rome lets it continue. If the Jews are to be truly controlled, their religion will have to be destroyed without trace.
Anyway, at this feast the followers of Jesus began telling of the resurrection and of course there was no body to disprove them. They supposedly are working miracles now, like Jesus did when he was alive, and I think it’s all going to result in a long and bloody war. These Jews may not be many, but they are fanatical beyond belief. They may have to be simply annihilated. And since I saw what I saw at that tomb, I flatly refuse to be part of that. My blood turns cold and my hair stands on end at the thought of being in Jerusalem in battle, with Jewish blood on my blade, when this resurrected Jesus of Nazareth comes down from above with an army of those shining creatures and begins to dismember every Roman soldier in the country. He may even consider it justice to crucify us all.
I tell you solemnly, Commandant, I can stand it no more. If you will not help me to get out of this country, I am going to desert. Or maybe I will become a Jew and then desert. Or join these followers of Jesus. I have heard them say that this Jesus is willing to forgive all sins, even the sins committed against himself. I would find that impossible to believe, except for this: drunken Publius, who used to be a credit to his regiment, claims that Jesus, as he was dying on the cross, looked down at the squad gambling for his clothes and said, “Father, forgive them. They don’t understand what they are doing.” By “Father”, Jesus meant the god of the Jews – he claimed this god was his father. And after what I saw at his grave, I am not willing to dispute him. I wonder very much, Commandant, what we would have seen if we had stayed at the grave.
Is it possible, Commandant, for someone to forgive those who take away his life?
Marcus Aurelius Antonius