The advantage of Passover for a man of my former profession is found in the number of pilgrims crowding into the city. Jerusalem is the religious, cultural, economic and political center of the Jewish universe, which is why we work here. As a member of the Zealot party I would go on assignments during the day and often at night. A man in my craft has no time or taste for family life, leaving me free to respond to changes and demands.
The Zealots did not acknowledge my membership because I was part of the enforcement wing of the party. The Sicarii are the daggermen who make visible the policies of the Zealots in resisting Roman rule and target people who cooperate with the Roman occupiers. The Sicarii work quickly and silently, usually with a knife.
Assassins need allies and contacts, which is what I’m going to explain to you by publishing my letters to one of my former contacts, Judas. I was born into a family of shepherds in Galilee. Deciding that sheep herding was not for me, I left my family at an early age and headed for Jerusalem to find work. My younger brother Judas stayed with the family.
Wednesday, Nisan 12
I am in prison at the praetorium in Jerusalem and I need your help. I write this in Hebrew because the pagan guards cannot read Hebrew, and I doubt they can even read Latin. The Romans have charged me with the murder of a Nabatean merchant who was selling supplies to the Romans. For obvious reasons, I won’t go into details at this time. Let’s just say that they found a bloody knife. The question now is the method of my execution. If I had killed a Roman soldier, I would be crucified, but the guards tell me beheading is more likely.
These guards have no scruples and no respect for anything but money and power. They are anxious for a bribe, which is why I send this letter to you. They gave me reasons to believe my final days will be tolerable or miserable, depending on what I pay. Only prisoners who have family bringing food get anything to eat, and even then, the guards eat half of it before they deliver leftovers to the prisoner. I have no family in Jerusalem, as you know, and my family knows not where I live or what I do. When a prisoner begs for water, the guards laugh and say it is a waste to give water to people who are going to be executed. You never know when it is your turn to die, they just come in at random, pick out a few prisoners, and they never return.
Before my arrest, I heard you were in Bethany with the Teacher. We know he has been moving toward Jerusalem for the past several weeks and doing things no other man has ever done. We hear that he teaches things no other man has ever taught before. As I recall you telling me, he is the son of David. You need to convince him it is time for the son of David to act like David and lead Israel against her enemies. The Zealots will support him. The time has come for the liberation of Israel. I won’t rest until the blood of Romans is running in the streets of Jerusalem.
Get back to me quickly with money, and I can tell you more. You will get this letter by messenger, but without money, I will be denied access to communication with the outside. The messengers are the only people allowed through the prison door. However, they will let you in if you show them you bring bribe money. Silver is best, or gold if you have any. They will even take shekels.
I know you had to pay the messenger to receive this letter. If I ever get out of this place, I will repay you.
May the God of Israel be with you.
Thursday, Nisan 13
I regret the guards would not let you see me this morning, but thanks for the money. I won’t ask how you got it so quickly. I have no sympathy for guards who accept bribes but are frightened of being caught by their superiors. They live in a brutal world and call it the Pax Romana, which is slavery to our nation.
I’ve been moved to a cell with a window to the outside, which allows me to hear things going on in the streets, and I sometimes hear the guards talking to each other in Latin; I pretend I don’t understand their language.
The messenger reported that the Teacher came into Jerusalem today on a donkey and people celebrated like he was a returning king. Judas, you need to talk to him about using his power and authority to encourage the crowds and motivate our people. You don’t do it from the back of a borrowed donkey. The Zealots are waiting for the right moment to start a rebellion against the Roman oppressors. The Nazarene has widespread support, and he can lead our people. Peter, John, and the others are not going to challenge Jesus to be all that he is called to be. The Zealots and Sicarii are counting on you.
I see the opportunity for you to make things happen. Let me explain what you need to do and do quickly.
The Pharisees want the Teacher killed and are pleased that he is now in Jerusalem. But they fear his popularity, especially during the Passover. He is a threat to the High Priest and Sanhedrin, and he has given them every reason to hate him. Jesus has insulted their scribes and lawyers for the past couple of years, which has enhanced his popularity with the people.
The High Priest has no legal authority to kill Jesus, but Pilate is now in the city, as is Herod. Arresting Jesus will initiate the rebellion. I believe the Sanhedrin authorities already plan an arrest.
The Romans see Jesus as a religious curiosity and do not want to become involved in Jewish affairs. Herod is fascinated by Jesus but is afraid of him.
The Teacher is either going to break the backs of the Roman occupation, or he is going to die in Jerusalem. A man who can walk on water and raise the dead from the grave can lead our people to victory in Jerusalem and all of Judea. The High Priest and the whole of the Sanhedrin will have to choose between the Romans or their own people. They will join the rebellion, despite their injured pride and hatred of the man who leads Israel against her oppressors.
Judas, you can make this rebellion happen during the Passover. Jerusalem is filled with Jewish pilgrims from all over the Empire, and the numbers are growing. The Roman soldiers and Herod’s guards cannot control the crowd, once people realize they have a leader who is going to deliver them from oppression.
May the God of Israel be with you.
Friday, Nisan 15
Nothing happened as planned today. I hear you did your part in getting the Teacher arrested last night, but he acquiesced in his arrest. Even worse, he made Peter put away his dagger after he cut off the ear of a guard. Then healed the guard’s ear.
My ears still work, and I could hear some of what happened when they brought Jesus to the praetorium. It sounded to me like Jesus put up no defense at trial. Unbeknownst to me, the custom of the Romans is to release one prisoner during Passover. Pilate asked the crowds if they wanted him to release the king of the Jews, and they shouted they wanted me, Barabbas, released. I could hear from my prison cell, the mob yelling, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” as they asked for me to be released. The guards left Jesus standing in the courtyard and came for me in prison. I’ll admit I was confused and frightened when the guards came to my cell. They removed the chains and pushed me through the corridors to the door outside and left me there. I didn’t know which way to go and whether to run or follow the crowds. A few people at the back of the mob saw the guards leave me standing by the prison door and told me to join them. We walked through the crowd and watched as the soldiers flogged the Teacher. Pilate washed his hands as the flogging began, said something to a Centurion, and then walked back into the palace.
Priests and Pharisees were working the crowd, encouraging them to yell insults and demand crucifixion. It was still early morning, which would explain why those who shouted praise on Thursday were not even aware that the man they welcomed as king was now in chains. The soldiers finished flogging and put a robe and crown made of thorns on him. They mocked him by pretending to pay homage to him, spitting on him and finally leading him out of the palace courtyard.
I couldn’t see you or any of the other disciples in the crowd as we followed him through the streets to the Place of the Skull, where they crucify prisoners. I’m sure you know what happened as well as anybody in Jerusalem, but I have to say it was a strange sensation to realize it could have and should have, been me carrying that cross to the place of crucifixion.
As I pushed my way through the crowd, I was close enough at one point to see Jesus and realized I’d never seen or met him before. Everything I knew about him was from you and other people. The thing I noticed was how ordinary he looked. For a man who subdued forces of nature, healed diseases, and left scholars speechless, there was nothing about his physical appearance, size, or features that recommended him. As I moved closer, I saw in his face what made him different, and what caused you and thousands of others to follow him. I saw an aspect of total focus on what he was doing and the purposefulness of going up that hill. We have all seen the violence and disgust of crucifixion as victims plead with anybody who will listen and try to escape as they are forced along the streets by brutal soldiers who mock and torture. The Teacher did none of that, and when soldiers prodded him with spear and sword, he did not resist. At one point, he fell under the weight of the cross, and as he was getting up, he said to a group of women that they need not cry for him. I could see the sorrow in his face, not fear or anger, but sorrow.
Thinking that hiding was a wise strategy, and not wanting to be recognized by a soldier who might assume I had escaped, I broke away from the mob that followed Jesus. I went to a residential section of the city, where I expected to find party members who would take me in for the night. I was walking to a friend’s house at about noon when the sky went dark and stayed that way for several hours. I’m sure you experienced this yourself. People started to panic, and those in the streets ran home in the darkness and locked their doors. Shopkeepers closed their shops. Birds went to roost, and dogs barked in the distance. It was like the darkest of nights with no moonlight or stars. The only light was what escaped under doors and shuttered widows from lamps in homes.
The night is my preferred working environment. The dark and I have become friends, but this darkness was different. It was a darkness that caused fear.
I sat, waited, and thought. Then came an earthquake.
May the God of Israel be with you.
Saturday, Nisan 16
The messengers will not deliver on the Sabbath, so this letter may not reach you until tomorrow. I have searched Jerusalem for you without success, being careful not to expose myself. I hear the disciples of the Teacher have mostly gone into hiding, and there are soldiers posted at his tomb. Until today I thought guards were only for the living.
I’m a free man, which is a status that only recently has fully come upon me. I have no guards and no walls around me. My guards are now posted around the tomb of the man who took my place on the cross. I no longer need to hide.
I was recognized by one person, Nicodemus, who stopped me after the sun returned yesterday. He remembered me from when he was our synagogue priest in Capernaum. Now as a member of the Sanhedrin he has access to current information. I recall you told me of his meeting one night with Jesus about a year ago. He inquired about you and I told him that I don’t know much, but I assume you are doing well. I did not tell him that until yesterday I had been in prison.
Nicodemus confirmed that Jesus died on the cross about the same time as the earthquake. He reported that the curtain in the temple that separates the Holy of Holies was torn in half. That event is of interest by itself, but he said it was torn from top to bottom, and it was not torn by any man. He believes it is the work of God.
It turns out Nicodemus knew more about you than I at first believed. Judas, he told me about what you did after Jesus died. You threw the silver coins you were paid back into the temple. Come to me; we need to talk together. We need to talk with Nicodemus. He believes our plans made on Thursday failed because God had other plans that we don’t understand. He believes Jesus is the son of God and will return. I’m asking you to return so we can talk.
May the God of Israel be with you.
Sunday, Nisan 17
I pray this letter arrives to find you safe. I pray that you forgive me for the bad advice I gave, driven by anger and misunderstanding of what the Lord has been doing in Israel. The revolution that you and I wanted has happened, but not in the way we planned.
I want you to know I have seen the empty tomb. The Jesus who was put in chains, and flogged while I was released, is alive. My guilt and sin walked up the hill to the place of crucifixion. The guards who bound me in prison became the guards posted around the tomb of the one who died for me. The tomb could not keep him. Death had no victory over him.
Nicodemus found me today and confirmed what I am telling you. He says the priests paid the guards to say the disciples stole the body of Jesus while they were asleep. Nobody needs to convince you and me that Roman guards take bribes.
Judas, I fear for you. I pray the rumors that have come to my ears are not true. I pray that you will join the other disciples and continue to follow the one who we now know is so much more than a teacher.
May the son of God be with you.