The band of followers hold their first meeting and exchange rumours about miracles performed with fish and wine. Factions are already beginning to form. Cyrus the Samaritan turns up with a load of discarded leather wine bottles he picked up cheap in Cana.
Thomas, Friday June 23, 29 CE
Writing this in the porch of Mary’s house in Magdala after a hard trek from Nazareth on what must have been the hottest day of the year so far. The sun will set soon, signalling the start of the Sabbath, so I’m just scribbling a few words while I can.
When I met up with Bart just before sunrise this morning I was pleased to see his friend Judas was with him. I was thankful enough that Bart was willing to make the journey, but to get both of them was really good, and the extra company on the road would be welcome. As we passed a large house on the edge of town I heard someone call my name.
“Hey, Tom, wait for me!” It was Matthew, the tax collector. Now this was a surprise. I wasn’t sure about having Jesus associate with such people, but we can probably put a positive spin on it somehow. I discarded any doubts when he came out of his gate shortly afterwards with a donkey laden with supplies.
“It would be a shame to see this go to waste,” he said modestly. “I’ve left enough for my servants to live on till I get back next week, or even the week after that.”
When we arrived, Jesus was already here, sitting outside chatting with Simon and Andrew and two other well-tanned individuals who had to be fishermen too. As we were unloading the donkey and introducing ourselves, two other men wandered into the yard. Jesus greeted one of them and called him Thaddeus. So this was the man who had cost me my job. I didn’t hold it against him, as he couldn’t have foreseen the consequences of asking for help after his land was stolen, but it shows how complicated life can be. His friend was called James, son of Alphaeus, and it wasn’t a social call. They both wanted to follow Jesus too. Including me, that made ten followers already and we hadn’t even tried. At this rate we’d soon have a score or more and we’d have to hold auditions to reduce it to the dozen that Jesus and I had agreed on. I needed to find a better word than follower though. What was that word the Romans use? Disciple, that’s it. We could be disciples.
Everyone sat around in a big circle but soon I noticed a split, the fishermen talking loudly about the relative merits of local and foreign cork for floats while the group I had arrived with discussed a point of interpretation of one of the commandments. Thaddeus and his friend James were made welcome but were a bit meek and mild and didn’t particularly fit with either group. Matthew chatted to James for a few minutes, using the fact that his own father’s name was Alphaeus, the same as James’s, to get a conversation started. They joked about being brothers and slapped each other on the back before Matthew rejoined our group to discuss covetousness.
None of us would have been any use as sentries because the arrival of a foreigner with another donkey took us all by surprise. Cyrus strode across to Jesus with a big grin on his face and the two men embraced.
“Well look at you!” said Cyrus. “Are these all your followers?”
“Disciples, we’re his disciples,” I said in a loud voice, keen to get the word established with the group.
“Disciples! Yes, I like it Tom. Sounds a lot more official and dedicated somehow.” Then he switched his attention back to Jesus.
“Tell me, what have you been up to? How’s it all going?”
“What are all those?” asked Jesus in reply, motioning to what must have been a hundred high-quality leather bottles strung across the back of Cyrus’s donkey.
“Oh, just something I picked up cheap in Cana on my way here. The man who sold them to me said they’d been thrown out after a wedding, and I got the impression he was keen to get rid of them before someone decided they wanted them back. My plan now is that instead of taking Mary’s grape harvest back to Samaria to turn into wine, I will produce the wine here and put the best of the vintage straight into these fine new skins. You can’t put new wine into old skins, you know; it wrecks them. I can use local labour, so I’m supporting the economy and cutting out unnecessary transport costs. In fact all I’m doing is providing capital and leadership – it’s revolutionary.”
“Shhh! Don’t use that word, even as a joke,” I said. The conversation volume dropped noticeably and I noticed a few distracted expressions. There was a rumour going round that John the Baptist had recently been arrested for stirring up unrest with his preaching. He might have a sharp tongue and appear a bit rough, but he was the last person you’d expect to get involved in violence.
Jesus was still studying the wine skins with interest but didn’t say anything, then Matthew said to him,
“Cana? That must be the wedding where you turned the water into wine.”
The volume instantly dropped to zero, but Cyrus chose that moment to let the donkey’s cargo tumble to the floor, the clatter jolting the chatter back to life. While Jesus helped Cyrus carry the skins to a store room, the rest of the group gathered round Matthew to hear his story and I could see a wide-eyed look of wonder in Simon’s eyes.
“The Master truly is a miracle worker!” he exclaimed, and then topped Matthew’s account with his own tall tale about the miraculous haul of fish that didn’t get away, followed by an even more embellished version of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist. Together in a single group for the first time, the disciples carried on talking excitedly for some time.
As if to outdo everyone else with the last and most surprising appearance, my father staggered into the yard shortly afterwards, looking more bedraggled than ever and worryingly incoherent. However it transpired he had walked all the way here without any water, and after he had drained a few cups of the stuff he started to behave more normally. I got him some bread and some dried fish, and after he had eaten he fell asleep where he was. Mary took pity on him and asked one of her servants to take him to a spare room near to hers, where she could keep an eye on him. She said he could stay a few days and then we could borrow a donkey to get him back to Nazareth. She really is a wonderful woman, though I mustn’t let her or Jesus see I’ve written that.
It’s quiet now. The sun is setting over the hills to the west and it’s beginning to feel less like a furnace. A few crickets are chirping and any remaining conversation is very subdued. Jesus has gone off with Mary, who I would have expected to be overwhelmed by all today’s arrivals but seems to be taking it very well. Even so, I don’t suppose she quite bargained for all this when she agreed to support his mission.