Acts 28: 1-16
From: Centurion Gaius Julius Antipor, Augustan Regiment in Caesarea, Palestine, writing from Appian Forum, Italy, on the Twenty-First day of Februarium, 810th Year from Rome’s Founding
To: Officer in charge of Receiving and Detaining Prisoners, Praetorian Guard, Viminal Gate, City of Jurisdiction: Rome.
Regarding: Transfer of Official Imperial Documents and of Prisoners, including one confirmed Roman Citizen of Jewish ethnicity, Nazarene sect, awaiting audience before Caesar.
Please acknowledge Receipt of these documents and prisoners, sent by Governor Festus in Caesarea Philippi on the third day of October in the previous year, on the Standard Imperial Acknowledgment of Receipt form, with signature and seal of the Praetorian Guard, and remit to me, Governor Festus’ acting representative, Centurion Gaius Julius Antipor, said Acknowledgment of Receipt at Three Taverns, by the Appian Forum within one week, as I must return to my regiment in Palestine by the end of the month of Martius, or be considered Absent Without Leave. Please excuse the condition of the scrolls, as they became water-logged and tattered by storm and shipwreck in the course of our voyage here. I swear by Caesar’s name, and by all the gods of Rome, that all documents and prisoners entrusted to me upon our departure from Caesarea are accounted for and have been handed over to you for transfer to their intended recipients, whose names are still legible, despite all that has befallen them.
In addition to the documents and prisoners sent from Governor Festus of Caesarea Philippi, please note the personal letter from myself and immediately remit it to the intended recipient among the Praetorian Guard, whose name you will find under my personal seal.
Hail Caesar, Centurion Gaius Julius Antipor,
From that personal letter:
Dearest friend and comrade in service,
May this letter find you in health, happiness and honor. It was with joy that I found out yesterday, upon my arrival in Italy, that you were still stationed here, after your transfer from Caesarea ten years ago. My greetings to your lovely wife, Juliana. My wife, Lucilla, sent me off to sea last September with her fondest greetings to both of you and to your children, should I find you still here.
I was hoping, dear friend, to come see you personally where you are stationed, at the Imperial Police headquarters at the Viminal Gate to the Eternal City of Rome. But the commanding officer of the Imperial Guards Regiment here forbids me to leave the port until he receives an official acknowledgment from Caesar’s Praetorian Guard of receipt of all the prisoners and documents which came here under my command. I think he is suspicious of my claim that we were forced by shipwreck to winter on the island of Malta. He seems to suspect either that I am a Persian spy, or that I intentionally dawdled and delayed for the purpose of pleasure on some island along the way. A letter of recommendation as to my character from you might set me free to come see you. And if you came with that letter, how much happier I should be, dear friend!
But believe me when I say that our trip here was anything but a pleasure cruise. After fourteen days of being driven only-Neptune-knows-where by howling winds and surging waves, I had frankly given up all hope of life. This sense of resignation to death was nothing like what we experience in a hot spot on a field of battle. There we know that, should Mars, the god of war, call up our number, it is to eternal honors for dying bravely, in the discharge of our duty. But had I drowned in the raging seas, I would have cursed myself as I sank beneath the waves, and the ship’s captain too, for so foolishly being where no one had a right to be that late in the shipping season. But the captain was in a hurry for Caesar’s bonus (as our cargo included wheat for the city), and I for a winter in Rome, which would have been much more comfortable and appealing than wintering on some rustic island, like Crete. As it was, we wintered on the island of Malta, after being tossed up onto the beach by the same waves that destroyed the boat and claimed all the cargo.
But here I am, in Italy now, wiser, but no worse, for the wear. The same is true for everyone else under my command, from the captain to the crew to the passengers, to all the soldiers and even the prisoners. I find it just as unbelievable as might you, that not a soul was lost in the storms and the shipwreck. Only, dear friend, I confess, I know not to which god I might credit our miraculously safe arrival. Normally, after such a harrowing experience, I would proceed to the nearest temple of the god on whom I had called, and who came to my rescue, and there I should offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving. As we landed in the port of Puteoli yesterday, I saw there an altar to Neptune, the god of the sea. But I could not bring myself to offer him a ram or a goat, for reasons I shall now explain. I think you will understand and appreciate them.
It all has to do with one of the prisoners under my charge, a Roman citizen, by the way. He is my major reason for writing you this letter, after my desire to see you again, of course. You will have just met this prisoner, when he is transferred at your police post to the command of the Praetorian Guard in Rome, for the customary lenient house arrest of a Roman citizen, at his own expense, of course. Or should I say, at the partial expense of friends whom he has all around the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea? They willingly contribute whatever they can to his care. Everywhere he goes, he has a marked effect on people: either they come to love him warmly, or they hate him with murderous hostility. I confess to being one who is unwillingly falling under his spell. You may too, unless you see something about him that I overlooked in our five months together in the most trying and revealing of circumstances. Either way, I would be grateful for all your opinions and observations about this citizen- prisoner.
What manner of man this prisoner is has greatly perplexed me, ever since I first came to know him as a prisoner in the keep of my civil commanders, the Governor Felix, and then Governor Festus, his successor. To give you an example of the measure of this man, consider my astonishment when, on the island of Malta, I personally witnessed a poisonous snake striking him from a pile of firewood and hanging from his hand like a chain. I immediately thought that Nemesis, our goddess of Justice, had succeeded in punishing him for some unknown crime, after Neptune, god of the sea, had tried but failed. The others who witnessed this viper attack were thinking the same thing. We gave him a minute or less to seize up and fall dead.
But he calmly shook the snake off into the fire, as though such things happened to him every day. And from what I now know of his story, that is almost the case. If cats have nine lives, as we say, then this man has outlived a dozen cats. Someone surely is watching out for him.
Seeing him survive the snakebite with no ill effects, all the witnesses then thought that a god had visited them from Mount Olympus, a thought that was reinforced by the healings that took place through his prayers during our Maltese sojourn. I too briefly wondered whether this might be Hermes, the divine messenger in the flesh. Many are the men and women who would jump at the chance to be revered as a god in human flesh, and who would play it up for all its worth, as does our new Caesar, I hear. But the man in question was scandalized by the very idea, and repeatedly insisted that we only give credit to his God, who had assured him that nothing would prevent him from coming to Rome. not even a viper.
Which makes sense, for he is a Jew, and a rabbi as well. You know from your long experience with Jews and your copious knowledge of them how they would reject the very notion of any one of us actually being one of our gods in the flesh. And yet it is not because he would berate me for making sacrifice to Neptune that I have not yet thanked the god of the sea for my safe arrival in Italy. He never did berate us for our Roman beliefs. As a devout Jew he makes his seven daily prayers to his God. Most Jews and rabbis I have met in Palestine were rather stand-offish toward us “pagans,” as they call us. But this rabbi is always as friendly and considerate of anyone and everyone, as if we were members of the same temple.
He speaks at least three languages quite fluently: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek. And he made use of my companionship to improve his already considerable Latin. That’s not particularly unusual for a rabbi, as you undoubtedly know. Not only does he have an amazing library of Jewish law and lore in his head, he’s quite knowledgeable about our Greek and Roman philosophers, poets and playwrights too. He truly is all things to all people. Dear comrade, he is a human sponge, always asking questions, listening, learning and discussing, always genuinely interested in everyone and everything, whether Jewish or not.
But he is a sponge with a rock for a center. Everything he soaks up he puts to the service of his one driving and unchanging mission. His unwavering goal is to appear before Caesar and gain public recognition for his God and his message in Rome. Recognition, I say, but not necessarily respect. For he is absolutely unfazed by rejection or ridicule; if anything, he seems to expect them. And always he takes them in stride. The important thing for him is simply to get the message out in the best way possible. But his joy, his enthusiasm, and his persistence do not depend upon our acceptance, or not, of himself and his message.
Only now, as we set foot on Italian soil, do I realize that he profited from even myself, even from our army, even from his imprisonment, even from the boat and the storm and the shipwreck, to pursue his unwavering goal of holding forth his God and his message before all people, including Caesar himself. Or should I say, his God used all those things? When I pointed out to him that the very ship which brought him to Italy bore the name and figurehead of our twin gods, Castor and Pollux, and that, therefore, the ship was effectively their floating temple, he laughed along with me at the irony of it all. Then he asked me why I should be surprised that his God would make use of such things for his own purposes. In spite of all we endured, he never doubted for once that his God would get him—and us–safely to Rome. The proof of his faith includes the very letter you now hold in your hands.
His arrival has already caused quite a stir within the Jewish community of Rome, especially among their sect of Nazarenes. That’s the sect to which he belongs, by the way. Because of a letter he had sent the Nazarenes in Rome a few years ago, it seems they were expecting him to eventually arrive in their midst. I even overheard him saying to one of his local friends that, should Caesar release him, he hopes to use Rome as a base from which to take his message all the way west, to Spain! Dearest comrade, I begin to suspect that there is no place in the world that is safe from this man, his friends, and his message. If there were, he would still find a way to get there, even if he sold himself as a galley slave and rowed there to pay his passage!
I only hope, for his sake, that his passion holds up to the months of waiting—maybe years, for that matter—that will likely pass before Caesar’s court gets around to hearing his case. He is not the first Roman citizen on appeal to Caesar whom I have transported. Many of them are still awaiting their day in court, years later.
But it is no secret to you and I that Caesar’s court rolls like a wagon with the axles rusting tight. Money is the only thing that seems to lubricate them. But there was no squeezing water out of this stone in the two years that Governor Felix kept him in a dungeon. True to form, Felix tried to bribe something out this rabbi for an earlier release. But the rabbi’s rock-like center of integrity held firm against the very appearance of corruption.
Normally, I find such driven, single-minded people to be wearisome, like the strivers and over-achievers and teachers’ pets who tried to get ahead of their fellows in the officers’ training academy that we attended together. Once in the field, you’ll agree, they usually turned out to be the most incompetent and the least courageous and energetic officers. Our worthless wandering philosophers and teachers are the same way, as you know. The less they actually work and the more they charge for their teaching, the more people eat their teaching up. But I often saw this rabbi lending a hand with cooking and cleaning, in addition to gathering firewood on Malta. Once, when he had thrown off his tunic to help hoist some sails, I saw the scars of more than one lashing on his back. What has this man not endured in the service of his God? I wondered. He is quite knowledgeable about ships, sails and the sea, too. I am told that whenever he was teaching in a new city, he would often be at the docks mending and making sails and tents to support himself financially!
You can understand why I quite naturally came to suspect that he must have been a soldier like you and me. Maybe even an officer, so calm, commanding, practical and level-headed was he during our tragic misadventures at sea. I even began to wonder who really was in charge of our voyage: the captain, myself, or this funny little rabbi. But when I asked him once if he was a military veteran, he laughed and said, “No; I am only a peaceful soldier of the Lord Jesus of Nazareth.”
Dear friend, you can imagine my surprise when he said that. For I had heard you speak as well of a certain Jesus of Nazareth just before you requested transfer to a police detail. So I asked this rabbi, “Do you mean the Jesus who was crucified in Jerusalem, under orders from Governor Pilate?”
“None other,” he assured me.
“You mean, the rebellious rabbi and Jewish guerrilla leader who led an uprising, and whose dead body was stolen by his followers?” For that is what I have been told of him. Then he attempted to set me straight, as I’m sure he saw it, and told me many fabulous stories about this Jesus and his healings, his teachings, and his resurrection from the dead, after having died for our sins. Once again, observe his uncanny ability to seize every opportunity to tell his story. That story reminded me again of something you had once said, when we served together in Caesarea, about a Son of God who died for our sins.
I confess again, my beloved brother-in-arms, that I am almost persuaded of this curious rabbi’s resurrected Son of God. We Romans have our sons of the gods, too. Such as Caesar. But if this new Emperor Nero is a Son of the Gods, I may soon be in the market for a new God. Nero’s divine nature does not seem to protect him against the intoxications of power that afflict mere mortals. Every Son of God we have known in Rome demanded of us the sacrifice of our lives. What then am I to make of a Son of God who offers his own life as a sacrifice for ours?
While his words confuse me, the actions and attitudes of this rabbi speak volumes to me. I am at a loss to explain his courage and his compassion, his character and his uncanny ability to turn even the worst situations to the benefit of his mission, unless there truly is something to his message. And to his God. It is that character and conduct which almost persuade me, more than his words. But as a high ranking officer in the service of Rome, I find myself unable to commit to the testimony of a mere Jewish rabbi, not even such a commanding and compelling one.
As a high-ranking police officer in Rome, you will have a hand in the administration of this prisoner’s house arrest. I have just vouched for his character and qualities. I doubt that he would be of any security risk. I am quite sure he will not try to escape, as I several times allowed him leave to visit friends in port, and he always returned to the boat, as he had promised. Being so close to his goal of appearing before Caesar, why would he flee now? An acquittal, or a favorable verdict, are of secondary importance to him. He’s at total peace with living or dying, as long as he gets that audience for his God and his gospel. Just make sure that the soldiers taking their turns watching him, and being chained to him for four hours a day, can handle all the visits, the teachings, the discussions, the prayers, the hymns and all the other activity going on around him. His friends are all quite harmless. Firm and fearless, yes, but unarmed and peaceful. And don’t be surprised if some of his guardian soldiers should convert to his cause.
The other reason I so desperately want to see you, is because you are an expert in Jews and Judaism. I seem to remember that you know the whole story about these Nazarenes and their crucified king, Jesus. I would trust whatever insight you might give me as to what is true, or not, about this rabbi’s story and his message for Rome. Perhaps you even know of him. His Jewish friends—and enemies– know him as Rabbi Saul of Tarsus. Among non-Jews, he goes by the name of Paul.
Come to me as soon as you can, my dearest friend and fellow Centurion, Cornelius, and help me unravel all the tangled questions filling my noble Roman head to the point of bursting. Only one week remains before I must return to Caesarea, by which time I must either offer prayers and a sacrifice to Neptune, god of the sea, or sail forth calling upon the protection of the God who brought Paul—and all of us — despite all the dangers and indignities we endured, safely to Rome.
Yours in the service of Caesar, the Senate, and the people, and perhaps even of an unknown God,
Centurion Gaius Julius Antipor
P.S.: Do not let anyone else see this letter.