by Steven F. Walker
[A Christian legend probably dating back to the third century has it that Pontius Pilate, driven to suicidal desperation by the memories of his role in the crucifixion of Christ, drowned himself in the Rhone River somewhere near the modern city of Avignon, then the Roman city of Avenio in the province of Gallia Narbonensis. The point of the legend is clear: Pontius Pilate, like Judas Iscariot, having betrayed Christ, paid for this crime with his own life. Judas hanged himself, and the Roman prefect perished at his own hand, but not through a noble Roman death of falling on his sword, but rather by an inglorious death by water. But, given the fact that the Gospel narratives show Pilate as very reluctant to condemn Jesus to death by crucifixion, is this legend at all plausible? Here is another version of the story that seems to me to be a good deal more plausible, at least from a Vedantic point of view. It takes the form of a fictitious letter from the Roman prefect to Mark, the putative author of the second Gospel narrative. In my fantasy, they had been friends and correspondents for a long time.]
Pontius Pilate to his beloved young friend Mark: Salutations!
Or rather, as our gladiators say: he who is about to die salutes you! For I am indeed about to die; the Fates—and Rome—have so decided, and so there is nothing better I can do than to leave life with an ironic smile. However, there is something I must get off my chest before I undertake that journey from which nobody (almost nobody, as I can almost hear you whispering) ever returns. This confession is not, however, a long, boring and self-indulgent catalog of my many and notorious sins. They hardly distinguish me from my fellow equestrians, since they have been the result of an all-too-common moral weakness that afflicts even those men of my class who are philosophically inclined, and probably represent vain attempts to escape the tedium of everyday existence—a tedium that grows ever greater as one ages and has now made me quite willing to relinquish life, even if the Emperor had not made it quite clear to me that the time had come for a graceful exit.
Shall I then fall on my sword tomorrow at dawn? But I have always hated the spilling of blood—certainly of my own! So I will find some other means, for the door of Death will always be open to the one who knocks—what did your Master say? “Knock, and the door will be opened”? Was that it? I seem to remember you told me once that he did say something like that. What did he mean by that? But whatever he meant by that then is unimportant; what is important is how I take it now, and I find that it is good advice for me personally. I must remember to sacrifice a cock to him before I depart, as Socrates is said to have ordered done to the god of healing Aesclepius. But let us not become embroiled in the unfolding of this last scene of my petty and meaningless life. Above all, let me not try to lend my approaching death scene a dramatic interest that it hardly deserves. Pontius pretending he is like Socrates on the last full day of his life? How ridiculous! Although I must say that in my youth—and especially during my studies in Athens—I was a fervent admirer of his; who other than he had such a keen sense of the nonsense that most people accept as truth? Yes, people commonly think they know the truth when they are merely infatuated with lies and vulgar superstitions. . . But I am beginning to ramble, and there are important issues at hand, with which I need to deal expeditiously while there is still life and time.
How strange it is that my last letter to you should be one that you will never be able to read. I have no doubt written you many things over the years about your master, but there are others that I am under a solemn oath—to my gods, not to his—never to reveal to anyone living in the world today or in any foreseeable future world. No doubt, I will feel free after my death to converse with the shades of my fellow departed at length—there will be no lack of time!—on any subject I please. Like Socrates (here I go again! old men do ramble on . . . ) I look forward to enchanting conversations with the great sages of the past: Socrates, Plato, Cato the Elder, Epicurus, and so many others. Perhaps even you yourself will visit my ghost in the underworld—just for a moment!—in order to hear from me what no one else could have told you: revelations that will surely astonish you. What a pleasure our next meeting would be! But what if you are not able to join me—what if you are confined somewhere else, in that place you claimed your master had “prepared for you” and others like you—in a madhouse full of Jews and fanatics and crucifixionophiles [note: the word is of Pilate’s invention], deliriously happy for all eternity. . . What a disappointment that would be for me!
And, I must add, what a loss it would be for you! For it might be your only chance (since, alas! you will never be able to read this letter) to hear from me directly what really happened after I had taken your master aside and begged him—yes, I, a Roman prefect, begged this strangely charismatic Hebrew prophet—to listen to reason and to give up foolish thoughts of crucifixion and his even more foolish fantasies of rising from the dead. I admit that I was about to go down on my knees in supplication. But, thanks to the gods, he stopped me, and you shall shortly hear how and why.
Yes, you shall hear how and why, although no man living in our glorious Roman Empire has ever gotten a peep out of me about this strange scene, for he swore me to secrecy, and his secret is safe with me. But—yes, but—what if he himself were to tell you himself, in person, in that place he has prepared for you, exactly what I said, what he said, and what I did—for him, not for myself—after his death. A strange story, indeed—you will surely agree. And one that, in all your carefully researched account of his life on earth, you never discovered, because, much as I would have liked to, I could never reveal it to you.
Now as I contemplate the powerful flow of the River Rhône, whose god I pray will give me a safe and painless passage to the other world, I regret almost nothing—nothing important, at least—of what I did or failed to do in my long and distinguished career as a loyal servant of Rome. But one small thing I do regret: that I lied to you—had to lie to you—both to your face and later in those long letters I wrote to you and to which you replied even at greater length. I know you were then, and probably are now, still disappointed that I never took the final step of joining your sect, which I know you feel has become the sole repository of truth in this sad world. But how could I? For, in the final analysis, what is truth? What man can grasp naked truth in his embrace, without her slipping between his fingers and disappearing . . . into the depths of the river? Well, I am rambling once again; like Socrates in his last hour, I feel obliged to wax poetic.
But to the point: writing this letter, although you will never read it, is still a kind of consolation for me. At last I can be honest with you—completely honest—at least in my own mind. Septimus is my dear friend—he once saved my life, but that is another story—and I know I can trust him to preserve my secret. A leaden cylinder, with no ornamentation—one mustn’t tempt thieves!—will be the sarcophagus of my last words to you, and Septimus will bury it deep in the earth. He lives a day’s journey from here in a modest villa north of the city of Ucetia. It was built by his father on top of a small shady hill—the trees are large and lovely—overlooking vineyards, sheep pastures and orchards. At its base flows a spring—dedicated to the nymphs, I initially presumed; water is always precious, especially during the long hot summer, and one does well to keep on the good side of the nymphs! Septimus refers to it simply as his “Fons Addictus” or “Dedicated” [note: consecrated, sacred] spring. But it is not in fact dedicated to the nymphs, as I first surmised. “To whom, then, is it dedicated?” I asked him. “To the unknown god,” Septimus replied with a sly look, as though he were putting one over on me. Well, there are so many gods, and one can never know all their names—perhaps he was just being careful to dedicate the spring to whatever god or godling might have been offended if not properly recognized and honored—possibly a local deity, who knows? In all events, when a man has saved your life (I won’t elaborate, but he routed almost singlehandedly—you know how bad I am at swordplay!—a small band of brigands who had assaulted us on the road to Ucetia, and would have surely left us for dead), he is entitled to your indulgence of his personal manias and superstitions. So I simply replied that “inasmuch as I know you to be a sincerely pious man” (no “what is truth?” for him!), “I am sure this god deserves your worship, and I will gladly sacrifice to him myself on the first propitious occasion.” But to this he simply shook his head, and we left the matter there.
Anyhow, Septimus will bury the cylinder containing my scroll somewhere on his estate—deep underground—perhaps in the middle of his vineyards? We Latins say that in wine lies truth—in vino veritas—and my scroll, which tells nothing but the truth, deserves to lie deep beneath the vines—maybe to be resurrected many years from now, when we are all gone and forgotten? Did you not say something to me about wine and resurrection? My poor memory is not what it used to be. I do wish you had explained things to me more clearly—about that new religion of yours, I mean. I often felt you were suspicious of me, as though, if provoked, I would have ordered a crucifixion for you and your friends as well! Well, that makes me feel less guilty about keeping from you a few things concerning your teacher that have never come to light, and never will, as long as we live and our children after us, for many generations! As I said, maybe he will tell you about them himself. So let my little scroll sleep long and well in its leaden bed underneath the vines! I know I can trust Septimus to sing it to sleep (here I make poetry again!), with the gurgling noise of his sacred spring down the hill and the wind in the pines on the slope providing a pastoral accompaniment worthy of Virgil. It may even be an eternal sleep, although I do hope that someone finds it some day before what you called “the end of the world.”
But back to my question: why did I not tell you of these marvelous things while we still had the opportunity to speak face to face? First of all, as I said, I was under oath; secondly, I found that Hebrew prophet of yours to be an extraordinarily charming figure; I really believe that he may have cast a spell on me. How otherwise could I have done things that were not only unworthy of a Roman governor, but things that went far beyond the type of crazy stunts I pulled off during my wine-soaked student years in Athens? Yes, it must have been a spell.
I know that my quip “What is truth?” has made the rounds in your circles—you told me this: you reproached me with this—and that some of your cohorts found the words to be cruelly cynical. But you yourself said—and I did thank you for this—that my hasty remark was understandable and forgivable, given the very difficult situation into which I had been put by that mob of priests and their supporters howling for the blood of a man whose guilt I clearly could not ascertain. I could not fathom either the nature of the charges (this gentle prophet a “king of Israel”? the idea was ludicrous) or the depth of the frenzy that possessed them. I remember that later you tried to interest me in the ins and outs of some arcane Hebrew practice of laying the sins of the people on a goat, but your reasoning lost me completely: this was a man, not a four-footed beast! I think I told you that one man’s sacred myth was another man’s idea of the ravings of the insane. I did not mean that you were insane, of course; I was just bothered that, with all the affection that I had for you, with all the respect I had for your sharp intellect, I could not manage to follow your line of reasoning. Sacrificing a goat made perfect sense to me, but why interrupt the sacrifice by driving it out into the wilderness? I felt that either one should offer up the animal with due and proper ritual as a sacrifice to the gods, or leave it to its own devices. That, as I remember, is about as far as we got on that topic. Of course, we seldom agreed on anything; I wonder why you even bothered debating with me. Still, I do miss our rare but precious conversations. To have you at my side on this day in particular would be such a consolation for me.
But I digress. Here is what happened. I finally took your master aside, after the screaming of the mob to free Barabbas had almost pushed me over the edge—the screaming of a crowd of maenads could not have been worse. I had been on the point of telling them all to decamp, or feel the point of the spears of my increasingly restless guards. But with admirable self-control, if I do say so myself (my earlier study of Stoicism certainly helped) I simply declared the session closed, and said they had forced me to condemn an innocent man but that that was their problem, not mine; I washed my hands of the matter. And then, almost on a whim (or did some god inspire me?), I had this Jesus brought into my inner chambers. He continued to address me quite graciously via an interpreter in the Aramaic tongue, of which I had not managed to attain any mastery, although it is really the most useful language, apart from Greek, in this part of the world. I said that he addressed me graciously, which was rather surprising for a man I had just condemned to death by crucifixion. He smiled, and waited for my response. At that moment I knew that I could not order his crucifixion, regardless of what I had led the howling mob outside to believe. It was not just that I continued to find him innocent, but because, well, he was more than gracious and charming: he was lovable—that is the best way I can put it. At that moment I felt in my heart that I could no more have condemned him to death than I could have ordered the crucifixion of my own son.
So I told him straight out that the charges against him were ridiculous—“King of the Jews” and such nonsense—and that I intended to dismiss the case against him. I would have thought he would have been quite pleased to hear this, but such proved not to be the case. After looking at me quietly and sadly, he finally asked me whether I realized that, in ordering his crucifixion a few moments earlier, I had done him a great favor, for which he would be eternally grateful. And that, in countermanding my original decision, I would be doing him a great disservice! (I trusted the interpreter, a loyal and intelligent slave of mine for many years, to have gotten what he said right, although just to be sure I threatened him with torture that evening and made him swear by the gods that he had not mistranslated so much as a word.)
Well, I thought at first that he was joking—it must have been the case of some strange Hebrew sense of humor. But my jaw dropped when I realized that he was dead serious—or perhaps crazy. I decided to humor him a bit. “Of course we Romans,” I told him sententiously, greatly respect a noble death by suicide, and that, if he wished to choose that course of action, I would certainly approve; I would even give him my own sword in order to furnish him with the means for a proper death.” (Imagine! I was prepared to hand him my own sword in order to show him that I was in earnest!) “However,” I quickly added, with the proper rhetorical emphasis, “crucifixion is another matter altogether, as it is an ignoble way to die, that, in addition to being shameful, it is extraordinarily painful. Surely you can see how your reputation would be ruined, your family disgraced, etc. etc. Furthermore”—but before I could continue, he suddenly took me by the hand, and one of my guards almost ran him through before I had the time to motion him away! He then looked deep into my eyes, and said in a quiet voice with the utmost poignancy and pathos (and in Greek! I could hardly believe it) “please order my crucifixion.” At that moment I felt overcome by a curious kind of lethargy, and, almost on the verge of acquiescing to his strange request, managed to mutter sullenly “And why should I?” Then the spell was broken. I felt myself again, and he, in a normal voice (and now in Aramaic) explained why.
Now if I had you, dear Mark, before me today, I am sure you would be tossing your curls in dismay and consternation, and, not wishing to call me a liar to my face, insisting that your master’s words had been mistranslated, or somehow or other I had misinterpreted their meaning, given the rather distracted and disoriented frame of mind I was in due to the stress of the trial, the heat, the recurrence of my old stomach problems—or whatever. But I assure you—I would assure you, if only you were here before me—that I made my translator go over his words twice, in order to be sure that your master’s Aramaic got put into Greek as accurately as humanly possible, and then to write them down for my future perusal— was taking no chances! How many misunderstandings have come from faulty translations! And a faulty memory! And so this is—this is—exactly what he said:
There are so many followers of mine, now and in the future, who do not feel themselves worthy of salvation. They cannot love themselves, and so they cannot believe that God could love them either. Of course, those who are close to me have felt how God’s love flows through me onto them, like the waters of eternal life. About these dear ones I have no anxiety. But there are so many others who will require some proof that God really loves them, and that in his eyes they are worthy of salvation. And only if someone they believe is the Son of God dies for them will they ever have enough faith in themselves—enough love for themselves—to turn their steps in the right direction. Only if they are convinced that God loves them so much, that he sent his beloved son to die for them, will they come to love God and obey his commandments.
The prophet waited a minute or two for me to absorb all this—I must have looked completely thunderstruck to him! I thought, “what nonsense he is talking!” although I was also beginning to catch a glimmer of truth in the dark folly of his utterances. “So you see,” he continued with a quiet laugh, as though he had read my thoughts, “I am not crazy. I only wish my mission on earth to be successful. And for that to happen—for the salvation of the many, and not just of the few”—he paused here for a moment, and then said with heavy emphasis, looking me straight in the eye: “my crucifixion is necessary.”
I put my cloak over my eyes and wept. I saw that he was right, and I knew immediately what I had to do—what I had to do on my own authority. If Jesus were to be crucified, I would have to take full responsibility for his death. It was that realization that made me weep.
After a moment I removed my cloak from my eyes, and faced him, smiling through my tears. “I will do it. Ave atque vale.” I do not know if he understood my Latin, but no matter. He looked greatly relieved; I have never seen a man so happy to be crucified.
One more thing I need to mention, lest I forget an essential point. “You do realize,” he said, “that I would be grateful if you were to say nothing about this to anyone?” He then added cryptically, “Let the act speak for itself.” By this time I was so emotionally exhausted that I would have agreed to anything; I could not even open my mouth. Again he took me by the hand: “Promise me that you will do this for me—that you will honor my request.” I regained a bit of strength, and said in a shaky voice, “I swear by Jupiter and all the Olympian gods to keep this promise.” I am not sure how he took my Roman oath, but he seemed pleased with my response. “Thank you,“ he said quietly, and then asked my permission to be led away to prison and to crucifixion with such a joyful air of gratitude that I was tempted to invite him to stay with me for dinner—what delicious wine we would have drunk together—the very best! what splendid fish, fresh from the sea! But, of course, a Roman prefect cannot allow himself to consort with Hebrew criminals, and so I simply nodded my head and bid him farewell.
So much more to tell, and so little time! So little time, because during my recent stay in Rome I got on the wrong side of the Emperor Caligula. He was telling me, in strictest confidence, that ‘he was being transformed into a god.’ I was caught off guard—I must have looked bewildered and incredulous—and replied tactlessly that such a transformation must be as painful as a crucifixion. It was clearly not the response he was waiting for; he probably expected me to throw myself on the marble floor and worship him on the spot. But the thought running around in my head at that moment was that, if Caligula were a god, then I was a winged Victory! At the thought of myself flying through the air with wings, I could hardly refrain from laughing, but it was no laughing matter. The Emperor looked away. If our lives sometimes hang by a thread, then it is clear to me that the Fates had chosen this moment to snip. Caligula then fell into one of his frequent fits of abstraction, and stared at me blindly; I hoped he had forgotten the whole incident. But he had not. A few weeks later, as I was on feasting with my friend Septimus (yes, I had left Rome the next morning for Gaul, hoping to escape the Emperor’s wrath, should his memory of what passed between us revive and fester), an imperial messenger arrived to summon me back to Rome. I knew what that meant! Caligula was crazy and wanted my blood—possibly as a human sacrifice to his new found divinity? What a farce! Or so it would be, if not for the tragedy of my life cut short for an expression on my face and a few careless words . . . I told the messenger that I would leave for Rome the next day, but it is not for Rome that I will be leaving, but for the River Styx. Here on the banks of the Rhône I can almost hear the infernal ferryman calling for me to join him on his bark. Charon, I come!
But first, my dear Mark, I must finish this letter. It will be my last good deed on earth: to tell you the whole truth about the death and resurrection of the prophet Jesus, the one you loved so greatly. Well, so do I—I really did love him after my fashion, as you will see. I have kept my promise to him. I have given him loyal service. Surely he will be grateful, will he not?
Yes, I am partly responsible for your master’s crucifixion, since I could have prevented it. But now you know—will know eventually, I fondly imagine—why I did not prevent it. I hope you will understand that nothing I have done was ever more difficult for me to do. It would have appeared so much more courageous of me to have been shown defying the howling mob of priests—my reputation for Roman virtue would have been enhanced, and those off the cuff words “what is truth?” (why at crucial moments do I not think before I speak?) would not have stuck to me like dog shit to my sandals, fixing on me forever the stigma of being an effete intellectual incapable of firm action. Well, my dear Mark, you want the truth? You will get the truth! You want firm action? You will see a noble Roman in action, I give you my word.
So here is the best part—or the worst part, I am not sure. After your master was led away from my presence, smiling at the thought of his imminent crucifixion (and also, I imagine, at the way he had charmed me into doing what he wanted), my wife appeared at the door and started in on me: “why couldn’t you have done something for that nice young Hebrew man? Surely he has done no wrong. He has such a sweet face” etc. etc. etc. She even claimed to have dreamt of him the night before! (Yes, I remember your Hebrew story of Potiphar’s wife; but this is a different story.) Since you, my dear Mark, have never married, you can have no idea of what a commotion a woman can make when she feels she has been thwarted—she was worse than the mob of howling priests, if that were possible. It gives me a headache now just to think of it. So she went on and on and on and my ears turned red, and I was on the point of shouting to her “But he wanted to be crucified! He begged me to order his crucifixion!” But, of course, I couldn’t say that. So I stalked out of the room and slept that night in my bed alone.
Actually, I hardly slept a wink until dawn. During those long hours of insomnia there alternated images of my wife scolding and the priests howling and the prophet smiling, and, by the time the sun was streaming in the window, I was a wreck. But curiously, at that very moment I fell into a dream—the strangest dream I have ever had, I can assure you. In it I stood before the entrance to a tomb—an ornate tomb, as for some person of wealth and power. It was early morning. The birds were singing; the chill of the night was passing off with the first rays of the sun. I felt calm and serene—which was odd, given the dark sinister opening of the tomb gaping wide in front of me. I felt completely relaxed, completely cheerful—completely alive. One of my guards stood to my right (was it Quintus? no matter). I pointed at the tomb’s cavernous interior, and asked him if it was there that they had placed “him.” He replied quizzically (no, it was not Quintus’ voice—it was deeper, more resonant) that they had simply done what I had ordered them to do: “we resurrected him,” he added, laconically. However, this astonishing statement did not, in my dream, astonish me much at all. “Well done,” I replied, as I shielded my eyes from the Judaean springtime sunrise. “Yes, well done, indeed,” I added warmly.
I woke up with sweat pouring down my face, but lay for a while still entangled in the soft spider web of the dream. Then I got up quickly from my bed. I was a noble Roman with a mission on his mind. I knew—I knew in the very depths of my soul—what had to be done next.
Dearest Mark, I do not claim to understand myself or my action at all. What is truth, after all? Can we ever know the full truth about ourselves, or about others? We are in so many ways the playthings of the gods. Especially when we feel most free, we can be sure that the gods are simply pulling our strings with wild abandon.
My wife came in with sweet wine and some bread—rather apologetically, I am glad to say, and rightfully so, since she had really outdone herself this time in making me feel that, once again, I ‘had done the wrong thing.’ “Don’t worry about the prophet,” she said, adding cryptically, “I am sure his god will take care of him.” We silently sat and watched the sun rise higher, and I felt relieved that she was no longer blaming me for his crucifixion. “Yes, no doubt he will,” I finally replied.
“Liar! Hypocrite! Dissembler! Magician!” I shouted silently at myself. But I was all the same delighted with myself and my plan—and so will you be, my dear Mark, if you ever hear of it. I hope I can convince you that what I did was not a lie, or even a piece of magic. For what is truth? What is falsehood? I had thought long and hard about the question, but the answer only came to me that morning. Truth . . . is what people take it to be. It is that simple. One man’s truth is another man’s lie. It’s how you take it—what you take it for—that makes the difference. There we are. I didn’t study philosophy in Athens for nothing!
My dearest Mark, listen to me carefully; pay good attention, for time is short. Please do not argue with me until you have heard me out. That smiling prophet thought he had guaranteed the success of his mission by getting himself crucified—by charming me into ordering his crucifixion. But, innocent and guileless as he was, he did not see that there was a small problem. It took a cynical Roman to see it! He assumed—he promised to his close disciples—that his dead body would come to life again. You told me once his exact words: “after the third day I shall be resurrected”—right? Now I am sure he sincerely believed this; that he had an honest face is the least I can say about him. He was sure that his god would not abandon him in his hour of need. But, unfortunately, we Romans know better—we know what fools our gods take us to be, and how they are quite capable of playing with us like a cat with a mouse, until with a quick bite . . . Even the most pious of us cannot be sure that his favorite deity may not one day pull a snit.
So your master expected that his corpse would come back to life and fly off to Mount Olympus. But no sane man can believe such nonsense. Yes, maybe the Hebrews can, but excuse me for saying this: although you Hebrews have many good qualities, being rational and reasonable is not one of them. You are emotional—you think that because you want something to happen that your god will make it happen. Well, we Romans don’t. There are some things that do not happen, and cannot happen. We have argued this point a number of times, and you have never convinced me of the opposite. “Look at your great hero Heracles,” I remember your saying triumphantly. “Didn’t he ascend to Mount Olympus after the death of his body? What about your Heracles, you pagan philosopher!” “Yes, what about Heracles?” I remember replying more than once, since you never seemed to get my point. “It was his spirit, and not his body, that winged its way to the aetherial realm, and joined the gods in their endless feasting.” Of course, you then pointed out rather testily that “the corpse of Heracles had been burned, so there was nothing remaining but ashes, whereas the body of my master was wrapped carefully and placed in a tomb, but when the tomb was opened it had disappeared, so how did you explain that, you old fool!?” When I politely drew your attention to the fact that the high priests and their acolytes had warned me about a plot on the part of the disciples to steal his corpse and then to announce that “Christ has risen,” as you put it, you reminded me gleefully that I myself had ordered the tomb sealed and guarded, just in case the disciples starting getting ideas—no grave robbery was possible! And that, in all events, the stone was too heavy, the guards’ spears were too sharp, and the disciples were too full of despair and depression to move a muscle.
I let you win that argument. But now it is my turn.
Yes, it is time for me to tell you what really happened—and your master will back me up, I hope, and will tell you how much he appreciates just how resourceful a noble Roman can be when put to the test. For it was I—just me myself alone!—who devised the winning stratagem, and I did it, not only to prove to myself that I was not an effete intellectual incapable of firm decision and effective action, but also for some other reason . . . it will come to me shortly. After my wife had left for her morning duties I leaped off the couch with a shout; I ordered my three most faithful and reliable soldiers to stand guard at the tomb—that part of the story you know is quite accurate. But I also ordered them to keep watch until the night was pitch black, and at that point to roll aside the stone sealing the tomb, to seize the body of the crucified prophet and to hand it over to some men who had owed me favors, and would do whatever I asked of them—even robbing a grave. My three soldiers would then roll the stone back, and my loyal brigands would put the corpse on a horse cart and disappear into the night, until they reached some deep and dark cave near the Dead Sea whose location even I did not wish to know—what if I were to repent of my action and undo the good I had done?! Of course, I paid the three soldiers silver and gold to keep the secret; if they did not, I swore that there would be three more crosses on Golgotha, with no resurrection for them afterwards! They appreciated the joke—and even more the gold and silver, which is always the quickest way to a man’s heart, I have found out from long experience.
“But so what?” I can hear you complaining. “Jesus would have risen from the dead anyway, and all you have done is to demonstrate what little faith you had in his words. Go to that Dead Sea cave of yours, and you will see how empty it is! He told us he would rise from the dead, and that is what happened in spite of your Roman machinations. End of story!”
Well, perhaps you are right. But I did what I did, and I am proud of it. Did I not serve him well, not only once but twice? As for that cave near the Dead Sea, I will never be able to find it. Time has gone by—it would be too complicated to open up the whole affair again. And anyhow, it is all immaterial to try to learn the truth of the matter. Truth is all about how you take it, I can only repeat.
But I can see a new gleam in your eye, young man! Yes—you want to know—you are dying to know—why I did it. Yes, why did the old fool do it, right? Well, here’s why. Take it as you like. It was . . . because I loved the man—yes, at first sight, if the truth were to be told. Of course, I only saw him once; we conversed for less than an hour. But I realized almost immediately that he loved me too, and that he wished to give me a notable if silent role in the drama he was in the process of creating. What could I do but say yes? And, when the time came to improvise the final scene—the one he had hadn’t quite thought through carefully—I wanted to be as clever and bold as I possibly could, because I wanted his play to be a success. You see, it was he who wrote the script, but he hadn’t quite finished it, and so I had to improvise a bit at the end. Do you understand me? Have I not done well? Will he not be grateful?
Now it is time for me to go. Dear Mark, I have enjoyed our imaginary conversation immensely, and I also feel that I have relieved myself of the burden of having failed until now in telling you the whole truth—whatever that is, of course! And, if your master appreciates what I have done—did I not truly help him in his mission?—maybe I will soon be strolling with you arm in arm through the Elysian Fields, and we can share a good laugh together. . . One can always hope!
But now I must go. The river beckons, and I must not keep the river god waiting.
Ave atque vale.
STEVEN F. WALKER has been associated with Vedanta centers in Boston and New York for nearly forty-five years. He teaches comparative literature at Rutgers University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org