Jesus had now been staying four or five weeks with John and his mother, when an incident occurred which caused him grave misgivings.
He was returning from the Temple in the late afternoon. As he entered a long, narrow street, at the lower end of it he saw a group of men standing at the door of a tavern. One of them was a strangely familiar figure; this man spoke rapidly to the rest, nodding in Jesus’ direction, then turned quickly and disappeared down a side street. Jesus hurried after him, passed the other men, who stared after him, and reached the turning down which the other had vanished. There was no sign of him. It was useless to try to trace him through the maze of byways. But Jesus’ eyesight was good and he knew he was not mistaken. The man he had seen was Judas of Kerioth.
What was Judas doing in Jerusalem? He was supposed to be with Matthias, preaching in the city of Samaria. After a moment’s hesitation, Jesus retraced his steps to where the other men were still standing. There were six of them; they were clearly not inhabitants of the city; their dress and bearing proclaimed them men of the hills. They wore cloths tied round their heads and sashes from which protruded the hilts of ugly-looking knives.
One of them was a man of striking appearance, a burly swaggering fellow, with a scraggy red beard. Jesus picked him out as the leader of the party and addressed him.
“There was a man talking to you just now; I think he was a friend of mine.”
“This was the fellow I was talking to as you passed,” returned the red giant, indicating a stocky ruffian at his side, “Jambres of Bethshan.”
“Before that, I mean,” said Jesus with a touch of impatience; “he dived down that street as I rounded the top corner.”
The man looked him insolently up and down before replying.
“Oh yes,” he said at last, “I believe a stranger did stop and pass the time of day. What did he want, Daniel?” he inquired, addressing another member of the party.
“Wanted to know where he could get his sandals mended,” said the other, exchanging a facetious wink with Jambres.
It was clear that he was going to get no information out of these fellows. But their whole bearing confirmed his impression that the man who had been talking with them was up to no good. And Jesus was certain that that man was Judas.
Late that night, after Jesus had retired to bed, he lay wondering: what was Judas doing in Jerusalem and what was his business with this party of desperadoes?
There came a knock at the door. John put his head into the room.
“Are you awake, Master?” he said. “There’s a gentleman downstairs asking for you. Fortunately I was working late and heard him knocking.”
“Did he say who he was?” asked Jesus.
“He wouldn’t give his name.”
“Very well. I’ll be down in a moment.” The door closed. Jesus threw on some clothes and went downstairs. Had Judas come to the house? If not, who could it be?
His doubts were solved as soon as he entered the room in which the visitor was waiting. He had not sat down, but was pacing up and down the little room. He stopped as Jesus came in. It was Matthias.
“Something’s wrong, Matthias,” Jesus began; “sit down and let’s hear all about it.”
“It’s Judas, Master,” Matthias blurted out. “I’m worried about him. I can’t make out what he’s up to.”
“He’s in Jerusalem,” said Jesus calmly.
“In Jerusalem?” Matthias’ tone expressed incredulity; “I think you must be mistaken, Master.”
“I saw him in Jerusalem this afternoon,” Jesus assured him, “talking to some very rough-looking customers from the hills.”
“That fits in,” said Matthias slowly; “but why in Jerusalem?”
“Perhaps we shall be able to guess that,” said Jesus, “when you’ve told me your story.”
“It was nine days ago,” Matthias began, “that Judas told me he was leaving Samaria for a week, to teach in a neighbouring village. I thought nothing of this at the time. Three days later I walked out to the village to find him; we had had an invitation to address a meeting and I thought we both ought to be there. There was no sign of Judas; enquiries showed that he had passed through the village without stopping and had pushed on south along the hill road. Well, to cut a long story short, I managed to track him as far as Geba, a little town three miles off the main road, and from there to a tiny hamlet in the hills north of the Jericho road. Here he had met a fellow who was all too well known in the place, and had gone off in his company. This man was one of the gang of robbers headed by the ruffian who calls himself Barabbas.”
Jesus whistled. Barabbas was a notorious brigand whose band infested the hills north of the Jericho road. Many a merchant and wealthy traveller had been held up by these highwaymen, who did not stop short of assault and, on occasions, even of murder, if their victims made any resistance. Everyone knew that these attacks were generally the work of Barabbas’ gang: they had never been brought to book because no direct evidence could ever be found against them. This was largely due to the skill of their leader; but a contributory cause was the fear of neighbouring villagers to give any information about their movements. Barabbas enjoyed considerable notoriety and some measure of popularity in the underworld of Jerusalem, partly because of the reckless daring of his exploits, and partly from the lavish way in which he splashed about his ill-gotten gains on his occasional visits to the capital.
In the light of this new knowledge Jesus began hastily to reconstruct the events of the afternoon. That Judas had signalled his approach to the brigands he had no doubt; probably he had discovered where he was staying and had chosen his spot carefully, so that he could make himself scarce as soon as Jesus came into view. But with what possible object had he done this? What interest could a gang of robbers have in his identity? Judas knew well enough that he was not worth robbing; and even if his object was assassination, which Jesus did not for a moment believe, it was inconceivable that a man with the cunning of Barabbas should risk his life or his freedom by murdering someone without the least hope of profit.
There was one other possible solution of the riddle, but from this Jesus shrank with greater horror than from the idea of assassination. Was it possible that Judas had enlisted the brigands as allies? That he was so obsessed with the idea of an armed revolt that he was prepared to establish the Kingdom of Righteousness with the help of the most abandoned elements of the population? Judas was one of those idealists who believe that the end justifies the means. But could he be so incredibly foolish as to suppose that Jesus would accept such assistance?
He tried to dismiss the matter from his mind. He turned to Matthias.
“How did you know where I was living?” he asked.
“I made enquiries at Bethany and was directed to Lazarus’ house,” Matthias explained. “He sent me on here.”
“You have done well, Matthias,” said Jesus; “I am most grateful for your information. I have no doubt John can fix you up with a bed for tonight. Tomorrow you had better return to Samaria.”
“It is possible that Judas will get back before me,” Matthias said doubtfully: “what shall I say if he asks where I’ve been?”
“Tell him the truth, Matthias,” said Jesus at once; “no good can ever come of lying. But I think it quite likely you will be back first.”
In actual fact Judas had no intention of returning to Samaria until he had clinched the business which he had come south to accomplish. But he was not staying in the city; he had already run a big risk of being seen by Jesus; and though he felt fairly confident that he had tipped the wink to Barabbas without being observed, he was not going to tempt fortune again. He had therefore booked a room at an inn in a village to the west of the city.
Judas was well satisfied with his week’s work; on his arrival at the hamlet to which Matthias had traced him, he had had the good luck to run across one of the gang whose leader he had come to see. This man had agreed to act as his guide to Barabbas’ mountain lair. Mounted on mules they set forth; when they had covered the first mile, his companion called a halt and insisted on blindfolding Judas.
“It’s the Chief’s orders,” he explained by way of apology; “no stranger is allowed to learn the route to the camp.”
Judas reckoned that they must have ridden another four or five miles before he heard a hail.
“Hullo, Daniel! Who have you got there?”
“It’s a man wants to see the Chief,” was the shouted answer.
When his eyes were uncovered, he found himself in a grassy hollow surrounded by shapeless hills; a couple of dozen men were lolling about at their ease. A cluster of hide tents was pitched in an irregular huddle; horses, mules and donkeys were tethered anywhere, cropping the short turf.
A huge, red-bearded man was lying on the ground in front of the most pretentious tent.
“Who wants to see me?” he asked in an aggressive tone.
Judas walked across and seated himself by the man’s side.
“Well, who are you?” the chief asked; “and what do you want?”
“My name is Judas of Kerioth. I have come to make a proposal to you.”
“Well, spit it out, man.”
Fortunately for Judas the brigand captain was in a good humour. He had that morning brought off a particularly barefaced raid on a caravan of rich merchants travelling towards Jerusalem. The loot lay scattered about on the ground, awaiting distribution.
“I take it you are Barabbas?” Judas asked.
“That’s what I call myself,” answered the sprawling giant; “as you see, it means ‘Son of his father;’ well, anybody’s his father’s son; so it’s the same as calling myself Mr. Anybody. My real name no one knows but me—not even my men. The name Barabbas is becoming quite well known,” he added with a self-assured grin.
“That’s why I’m here,” replied Judas. “Have you heard of Jesus of Nazareth?”
“The miracle-worker?” said Barabbas. “Yes, I’ve heard a good deal of nonsense about him. I’ll believe that a man can raise the dead when I’ve seen it done.”
“I have seen it done,” Judas rejoined quite seriously; “whatever reports you have heard, they can’t equal the facts. I’m one of his chosen followers.”
“The devil you are,” remarked the brigand casually; “well, what do you want with me.”
“Jesus of Nazareth is to proclaim himself as the Messiah,” said Judas. “We shall then crown him King of the Jews. That means a clash with the Romans. We need fighting men.”
“Why should I risk my life and my men’s lives to make a crack-brained prophet king?” asked Barabbas bluntly.
“There is plenty of loot to be found in an insurrection, if one knows where to look for it,” suggested Judas. “The priests will not side with Jesus; most of them are very wealthy men, as you doubtless know.”
Barabbas whistled. “There’s the Temple treasury too,” he added thoughtfully.
“That might be impolitic,” said Judas quickly; “but the High Priest’s palace is full of treasures.”
“I’m doing pretty well as it is,” said the robber, waving his hand airily at the pile of rich silks, jewelled objects and carved ivory ornaments strewn about on the grass. “I’m not going to be mixed up in a show like yours unless it’s pretty sure to succeed. That depends on its leader. What sort of man is Jesus of Nazareth?”
“A strong character,” said Judas; “he is afraid of no one. And men will follow him anywhere.”
“Sounds the right stuff,” commented Barabbas. “But I’m not going to take that on trust. Before I make up my mind to come in with you, I’ve got to meet him myself.”
Judas had not bargained for this. He was taken aback.
“Don’t fancy my idea, eh?” scoffed the brigand. “Very well, the whole thing’s off. Either I see the prophet or I stand out. I’m not buying a pig in a poke.”
“It’s easy enough for you to see him,” said Judas quickly, “but I can’t very well arrange an introduction. You see,” he added with a burst of candour, “I’m going beyond my instructions in approaching you at all. The time for the rising is not yet ripe. But I’m finding out who we can count on when the right moment comes.”
“Where is Jesus now?” asked Barabbas.
“Right,” said the highwayman; “you sleep tonight in our camp; tomorrow you come with me and five picked men to Jerusalem. You point out this Jesus to me without being seen yourself. You can leave the rest to me.”
And the next morning Judas was again blindfolded until the seven riders reached the Jericho road. It was agreed that they should meet at Geba in four days’ time; in the meantime Barabbas would take stock of the rebel leader and then give Judas his answer.
For the two days following his sight of Judas, Jesus was conscious of the presence of the red-bearded man and his companions wherever he went. In the streets they kept him in sight; when he taught or answered questions in the Temple Courts, they stood near listening to his words and watching his actions. There was no attempt to interfere with him, but he realised that they were keeping him under observation. He was frankly puzzled about their intentions.
It was on the second of these days that the Jewish leaders began to change their tactics. Instead of approaching him politely with questions, they started a campaign of heckling him as he was teaching, raising objections to what he said, probably to induce him to say something injudicious. He did not lose his temper, as they were obviously hoping, but in round terms he told them a few unpalatable home truths. They left him at last, full of indignation.
On the next morning Jesus encountered the party of brigands again on his way to the Temple. They had evidently been drinking hard; two or three were noisy and unsteady on their feet. He had hardly passed them when the red-bearded man caught him up and fell alongside him.
“Good morning, Jesus of Nazareth,” he remarked, with a sideways glance out of his narrow eyes, “it’s time you and I were acquainted.”
“I take it you are Barabbas the highwayman,” replied Jesus. “What can I do for you?”
“I only wanted to congratulate you,” returned the robber, “on the way you scored off the priests yesterday. It did me good to hear the blighters tickled up.”
Barabbas was steady on his feet and his words were perfectly coherent, but Jesus noticed that his speech was thick, and his breath smelt strongly of spirits.
“I’ve been watching you for the past two days,” he went on, “and you’ll do. I mustn’t speak too plainly, but you’ll understand. When the time comes, you can count on me and my men; you’ve only got to give the word.”
Jesus stopped in the middle of the narrow street and faced the brigand. The others halted only a few paces in the rear.
“Barabbas,” said Jesus quietly but distinctly, “the Kingdom of God cannot be established by violence. That’s what my friend Judas cannot understand.”
“Then how the devil is it to be established?” asked the astonished Barabbas.
“By love and persuasion,” was the answer, “not by the sword.”
“No place in your kingdom for cut-throats and robbers,” sneered the brigand.
“There’s room in God’s kingdom for everyone,” Jesus answered; “but robbers who want to enter it must give up robbing—and cut-throats stop cutting throats.”
“Not much use to you, Chief,” guffawed one of his men.
“Keep your mouth shut!” snapped Barabbas. “I don’t want any lip from you.” He turned again to Jesus.
“I can’t make head or tail of you and your kingdom, mate,” he went on, “but I like you; you say what you think. And you stand up to me just as you stand up to those damned priests. So count me and my men as your friends. And from all I hear, you may need friends before long. The priests don’t seem to be too fond of you.” He laughed and turned back to his followers.
When Jesus reached the Temple Courts, he noticed a group of roughs lounging near the gate by which he entered; they were none of Barabbas’ men; that was obvious from their clothes. These were men of the city, probably of the criminal class; Jesus wondered what they were doing in the sacred precincts.
It was another day of deliberate heckling. Without once losing his dignity, Jesus gave as good as he got. While his opponents’ tempers became short and their interruptions more and more offensive, his answers, quiet but pointed, roused them to greater fury. Before he left the Courts, he noticed a young priest walk across and speak to the party of loungers. This caused him no surprise; men of this type were probably up to no good. They slunk away rather furtively.
At the end of the discussion, Jesus was joined by young John, who had just finished his morning’s work at the College. They left the Courts together.
As they entered a narrow street a stone whizzed past Jesus’ head and hit the wall of the house behind him with a sharp crack. It was followed by more; one hit him on the shoulder, another on the back. He recognised the attackers as the roughs who had just left the Temple. John seized his arm and hurried him down a side alley. It was easy to avoid such a clumsy assault; as they made their way through bystreets, a sudden hubbub arose behind then; the last thing Jesus wanted was to be involved in a vulgar brawl. This was probably the principal object of the attack, which had clearly been organised by the priestly party, to discredit him. They walked quickly without speaking and John’s sure guidance soon brought them to his home.
Half an hour later Mark came in; he was in a state of great excitement and obviously had a tale to tell. As he had left the College with other students, a hideous din had broken out at the foot of the Temple steps. A party of townsmen had been set upon by six men from the hills; one of these was a huge fellow with a red beard.
“We watched the whole thing,” Mark went on; “some of the hillsmen were drunk; they were armed with sticks and knives. One of them hit a man over the head; he just went down like a log and lay still. Whether he was killed or not I don’t know. Redbeard tried to call them off; but at that moment another of his followers got a stone on the forehead—a horrid gash, which bled all down his face. He just went mad with rage and went for the fellow who hit him. Then a regular free fight started; the hillsmen were outnumbered but they were much better fighters and were getting the better of it. Suddenly there was a shout. ‘The Romans!’ and a squad of soldiers came round the corner, with a centurion in command. The town men took to their heels. The Romans took very little notice of them, but made straight for the hillsmen, as if they knew it was they who had caused the disturbance. Three of them were very quickly laid by the heels; but Redbeard and the other two didn’t see the fun of that. They charged the soldiers with their sticks and as soon as they were at close quarters, out came their knives. In the end the whole lot were arrested, but not before they had laid out four of the Romans. People were saying two of them were dead: if so I’m afraid that means Skull Hill for some of the party. It’s bad luck; they put up a jolly good fight. I wonder who they are.”
“Barabbas and some of his men,” replied Jesus quietly. But he did not tell the boys of his conversation with the brigand in the morning.
He felt sick with distress. However mistakenly, the robbers had tried to help and befriend him. And their efforts on his behalf had landed them in disaster.
A faint hope had entered his mind earlier in the day, that he might form a real friendship with Barabbas, and induce him to abandon his life of violence and bloodshed. Now he was shut away in the dungeons of the Roman barracks, awaiting trial when it pleased the governor to come again to the capital. There was no possibility of communicating with the prisoner, little hope of his acquittal; Barabbas’ crimes were too notorious, though this was the first time he had been caught red-handed. His execution would be an act of justice; probably a benefit to the country; yet Jesus longed for his liberation.
“Barabbas is a child of the Father,” he thought, “however much harm he has done to his brother men. The Father in his infinite goodness will do what is best for him.”
Created from a nineteenth or early twentieth century text by Athelstane E-Texts