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Taking Notice

by Don Webb

Table of Contents
Table of Contents
1. Matt’s Report
2. Mary’s Report
3. Jed’s Report

3. Jed’s report


“Our last report for the evening is Jed’s. I’ll say up front that I worked with him on it, because it’s in my specialty. Jed?”

Jed stands up from the cushion on which he’s been seated. “Glad it’s my turn; my legs were getting cramped. Been doing a lot of walking lately.” He grins at the professor.

“I went back to first-century Palestine — or Israel, whichever. I took my lead from the professor’s investigation of Jesus’ anointment at the home of Simon, in Bethany. It was the demonstration that began the semester.

“As you may recall, the professor diplomatically put a stop to a little squabble about it between Pete and myself.” Jed looks at Peter, who stares back at him stonily with his arms folded across his chest.

But Peter replies, “I’ve heard it said that anyone who specializes in first-century history has an axe to grind. No offense intended, professor, but how do you feel about it?”

The professor answers with a wry smile: “Maybe so. The fact is that anyone who lived in the first century had an axe to grind. The Near East especially was a seething cauldron — which it’s always been. Even claiming to be a Jew was just a conversation-starter. The Sadducees and Pharisees were trying to herd cats. And we all know the Romans were never in a mood to put up with local quarrels on their borders. Jed?”

Jed picks up the thread: “Right. Of course I went to investigate a problem of fact in the gospels. I’m going to start with a little guessing game for you. I want to know what you think would be a good topic. I’ll tell you why I did or didn’t choose it.”

Mary is the first to speak. “Let’s take it from the top. The Nativity?”

Jed shrugs. “Not a chance. One thing you have to hand to the gospel authors: for their time they were literary geniuses. The Nativity is an old-time Hollywood boffo technicolor extravaganza.”

“Boffo?” Philip queries. “I haven’t heard that word.”

“Big box office,” Jed explains. “It’s easy to dramatize and colorful to stage. And it’s guaranteed to grab an audience right at the start.”

Philip presses on: “Okay, it’s a powerful literary ‘hook’, but why go to the trouble?”

“The social context. Who are the secondary characters? Angels, the three kings, and who else? Shepherds. They’re either foreigners or the equivalent of garage mechanics and agricultural workers — the working man. The message is radical equality. It dramatizes in concrete terms what we’d say with a few dull abstractions.”

Peter takes more interest than before. “I think I see where you’re heading. I can think of another scenario you might have chosen: the rich man who has as much chance of getting into the Kingdom of God as a camel does in passing through a needle’s eye. What do you think of that?”

Jed senses a provocation but after a second’s hesitation lets it pass. “You’re right; I think it was an actual event with a real person. But the gospels are clear about one thing: place. Terms like ‘Simon of Bethany’ amount to name, street address and postal code for all practical purposes. But they’re hazy when it comes to time. How could anyone find this incident by anything but brute-force searching? The time and effort required would be prohibitive.

“The story of the rich man has no setting in time or place. It’s obviously archetypal. It applies to anyone of means who wonders ‘Is crass materialism what life is all about? Is that it? What’s the point?’

“And you know the meaning of the ‘needle’s eye’. It was a passageway solely for pedestrians. It was normally located next to the main city gate, which was intended for caravans. Today we might say it’s as easy for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of God as for a truck to go up an escalator. Possessions have their place, but only people can get into the Kingdom of God. Today we might say ‘You can’t take it with you’, but it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing.”

Bart throws out another option. “What about the Sermon on the Mount?”

Jed sighs. “Again, when and where? And what would be the point? I think it’s what old-time politicians called a ‘stump speech’, where a political candidate would stand on a tree stump and make his pitch. And he’d do it frequently in many localities. A tree stump becomes a mountain because the country is semi-arid and the speech is so important.”

John speaks up: “How about one of the miracles, such as the raising of Lazarus?”

“A question more of time than place,” Jed answers. “But it’s still hard to find. And I would not be interested anyway.”

That causes a stir in the class. “Why not?”

Jed explains: “Little or no distinction was made between religion and politics in Antiquity. Jesus trained his disciples as ‘advance men’ and gave them marching orders to put his program in action. Heal the sick, check; cleanse lepers, check; cast out devils, check; raise the dead, che... Say what? Raising the dead is an item on a checklist? It’s routine?”

Bart muses: “Now that you mention it, there are several occurrences...”

Jed: “Those men were telling people it was no sin if they were ill or if a relative had died. Take away superstition, scapegoating, and blaming victims: what remains? The essential. Rules are made for people, not the people for the rules.”

“How about the garden of Gesthemane?”

“Written by an eyewitness who’s absent even in his own account. I’m sure something of the sort happened at some time, somewhere. But I wouldn’t bother to look for it.”

The class is becoming more and more perplexed. “Why not?” And: “Yeah, why not?” a couple of students ask at almost the same time.

Jed is ready. “I’ll put it bluntly: it’s a dramatization. The setting implies that the disciples were complacent. But the most important thing is Jesus’ state of mind. The story heads off any charge that the Crucifixion was desired, that it was a form of suicide.

“Okay, I’ll cut this short. I wanted to see the Resurrection.”

“Any surprises?” Peter again.

“No. Or yes. Anything at all would be a surprise. The professor and I could not find a tomb. I’m inclined to agree with the conjecture that there was none. But we did locate the disciples’ safe house. And here’s what I found.”

A hologram opens. The students find themselves observing a room with one window. It is daylight. A man is standing beside the window, evidently as a lookout. The men sitting in the room are obviously dejected. One of them says in effect, “You say he lives? I don’t believe it. He’s gone. It’s all over now.”

“That’s Thomas,” says someone in the class.

A woman is visibly angry. “You were there. You saw the nails in his wrists and the spear in his side. That could have been you up there. You knew what he was doing all along, and you helped do it. That ‘INRI’ headpiece was the Romans’ idea of a joke. And you’re going to swallow it and say it’s all over? The Romans have won? That’s what I can’t believe.”

The man slowly looks up at her. “You’re right,” he says. “We’ve not finished.” He stands up. “We’ve just begun.”

The hologram ends.

“Speaking for my namesake,” says Thomas, “those people are saying what they think, but it’s not the written record.”

“It’s the same thing in different words,” replies the professor’s wife. “The gospel authors had to interpret the events in language their audiences would understand, and at the same time they had to emphasize the importance of those events.

“Today we might say that mysticism and the supernatural are a form of rhetorical emphasis or a kind of abstraction marker. But ‘abstract’ originally meant ‘to pull out’ or ‘to pull away’. Those people didn’t stand away; they thought in concrete terms, not in abstractions. They’d say ‘This is very real to us, and this is how I show what it means’.”

The professor nods in agreement. “The Gospel of Peter is almost grotesque in its use of the supernatural. And it really doesn’t matter whether the ‘G-Pete’ fragments were an early draft or a later one that was abandoned; the early writers knew they needed what we call ‘special effects’. But they must have also realized that action carried the meaning. They’d weaken the story if they resorted to overemphasis and over-embellishment.”

Matthew sees a connection: “The Sarsen stones are big for that very reason. But they’re all regular in size and shape. They’re not big just to be big, they have both function and style.”

Bart quips, “Now I really want a Stone Age suit of clothes!”

As the laughter subsides, the professor’s wife asks her husband, “How many students have you lost over the years?”

The professor knows she knows how many and who they were. She is reminding him it is time to end. He turns to the class: “Twelve. An average of one every year or two. Somewhere, somehow they got noticed and changed history. Now they live in alternate timelines. I miss them all.

“You have been lucky. You’ve found out for yourselves that time travel is as dangerous as any military or espionage mission. And now you’re going to be the ‘special-ops’ forces of historical research. Remember: ‘Don’t get noticed’.”

Jed adds, “And if you do get noticed, make it count.”

Peter goes over to Jed, claps him on the shoulder and shakes his hand.

The stories have all been told. Having drunk a final toast, the students go out: some, to the past they share; some eventually to futures of their own.

* *

Don’t Get Noticed” appears in issue 76.

Copyright © 2010 by Don Webb

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