July 24, 1997

Josh Becker


       Father Patrick McPhillips could barely contain his excitement as he watched the workmen haul the heavy, Roman amphorae into the Vatican Museum's laboratory then gently arrange the clay jars in the humidity - and temperature-controlled glass cases awaiting them. Fifty-seven wax-sealed jars, approximately two thousand years old, all containing ancient Roman documents. Father McPhillips, a handsome, shaggy-haired, modern-looking priest wearing work pants, sneakers, and a wool sweater over his priest's collar, circled the workmen like an old hen, making sure all of the amphorae were treated as cautiously as an extraodinary discovery like this deserved to be treated.
        Father McPhillips was the curator of the Vatican Archives, as well as the head of the Vatican's ancient language division. He was a world-renowned expert in four ancient languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Father McPhillips had been waiting his entire life for the chance to translate an important ancient document (as opposed to retranslating important ancient documents already translated by others), and he had a deep inner feeling that this was his chance. He had a giddy faith that this would be his one big break.
        The Vatican's cardinal secretary, Father Giovanni, a very erect, gray-haired cleric, entered the laboratory, stepped up to Father McPhillips, and put out his hand.


        "Amazing, isn't it?" said Father Giovanni.
        Father McPhillips shook his head and grinned. "The most amazing sight of my life. I can't wait to get started."
        "How long do you think it will take?"
        "That's difficult to say, Father. If the vellums and papyruses are easily discernable, and they're all in Roman Latin, it shouldn't take too long. A few months perhaps."
        Father Giovanni stepped over and inspected the amphora. "And you believe that the archaeologists are approximately correct in their estimation of two thousand years old?"
        Father McPhillips nodded. "Certainly the amphora look to be from about that period. Definitely early Roman Empire."
        "Then it is possible that there could be some reference to out Lord and Savior within the documents?"
        Father McPhillips shrugged. "It's possible, Father."
        "But that's not what excites you, is it?"
        "Well, one ought not hope for such revelations. These are probably official Roman records of some sort. Jesus' life had very little to do with the Romans. Not to mention, these documents could easily pre-date Jesus' birth. I'm just excited to have brand-new ancient documents to translate."
        Father Giovanni smiled, putting his hand on Father McPhillips shoulder. "Ah, yes. Brand-new ancient documents. Something of an oxymoron, yes?"
        Father McPhillips smiled back. "Well, Father, they're brand-new to me."
        "But finding documentary evidence of our Savior's life is not what compels you, is it?"
        "Well," Father McPhillips shook his head, "I'm a scholar and a realist, Father. There is no documentary evidence of our Savior's life."
        Father Giovanni's posture went erect and his eyes widened. "What about the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? What about Acts?"
        "Father, neither the Gospels, nor Acts can be considered 'documentary evidence.' The earliest extant versions of any of those accounts date from A.D. 350 or later. Although we assume that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote down their accounts, we have no evidence of it. They could easily have been word-of-mouth retellings for 350 years until someone finally bothered to write them down. That would be like someone telling someone a story in 1600, which was then retold and retold until someone wrote it down in 1950. One would have to suspect that details were added and subtracted along the way."
        "Do you not have faith, Father McPhillips, that the Gospels are an accurate retelling of the life of Jesus Christ?" Seriousness spread all over Father Giovanni's lined face.
        "Let us just say, Father Giovanni," said Father McPhillips carefully, "that I have faith that Jesus Christ was the son of God and died for our sins."
        "But," continued the elderly cleric, "you have reason to doubt the veracity of some of the details of the Gospels?"
        "Well . . ." said Father McPhillips thoughtfully, "I have reason to doubt anything that was written down 350 years after the event. I have no doubt that the spirit is true, but I must assume that some details are incorrect."
        "Like what, for instance?"
        "Well . . ." Father McPhillips could see that he was on very touchy ground, a place he had been many times previously. "For instance, the word used for leprosy in the ancient texts really means 'skin ailment.' Medical science was not advanced enough at that time to differentiate between leprosy, dandruff, and acne. Although I am not for one second trying to insinuate that Christ did not cure everyone of 'leprosy' that the Gospels tell us, but it might well have not been a miracle in every, or any, case. You see what I mean?"
        "Yes," nodded Father Giovanni. "You still have doubt deep in your heart. If you doubt that Christ cured people of leprosy, then, I suspect, you have doubts too about other miracles. Do you believe that He fed the masses with five loaves and two fishes?"
        "And had six bushel baskets left over? Possibly."
        Father Giovanni sighed sadly. "Doubt is doubt, my son. Either you take the words of the Bible literally or you don't."
        "This has always been a problem of mine, Father. I'm not certain that the words of the Bible, Old or New Testaments, were ever meant to be taken literally. Just like Jesus' words, they are parables, metaphors for bigger points."
        Father Giovanni stood firm in his conviction. "No, they are not. The Bible is literally the word of God. Someday you'll come to understand this, I'm sure. Perhaps translating these ancient documents will help."
        "And please let me know right away if there are any references whatsoever to our Lord and Savior in these documents, will you?"
        "Of course," said Father McPhillips.
        Father Giovanni turned and walked out of the lab.
        Father McPhillips and his wide-eyed assistant carefully and gently pried open the wax seal of one of the Roman amphora. As the seal broke, air hissed into the clay jar. McPhillips and the assistant looked at each other and smiled -- air-tight, a very good sign. Aiming a flashlight into the jar, Father McPhillips spied ten perfectly intact, rolled-up scrolls made of animal skins, or vellum as they were called. With a rubber-gloved hand, McPhillips removed one of the scrolls and delicately carried it over to the work table. He and the assistant very carefully unrolled the scroll revealing the Latin calligraphy, as clear as the day it was written.
         Suppressing his giddy joy, Father McPhillips slid his notebooks, pens, pencils, various Latin dictionaries and thesauruses nearer to him, put on his bifocal glasses, and began to read. The assistants all gathered around watching the priest in eager anticipation.
        "What sort of document is that?" asked one of the assistants.
        "Tax rolls," replied the priest. "Lists of names, how much they owed, and how much they paid."
        This information clearly disinterested the assistants, who all slowly wandered back to their various jobs. Father McPhillips's interest, however, was not dampened in the slightest. He read on with great enthusiasm.
        When he reached the very end of the first scroll, the priest gasped. The assistants all gathered back around, asking, "What is it?"
        "The last line here says, 'May it please the Roman governor of Judea, his august personage, Pontius Pilate.' These documents, at least some of them, anyway, are the official records of the governorship of Pontius Pilate. Therefore, there may very well be some sort of reference to Jesus Christ somewhere within them." The assistants all gasped at the possibility. Father McPhillips turned to one of the assistants. "Please inform Father Giovanni of this immediately, will you?"
        The assistant dashed out of the laboratory.
        Father McPhillips looked up at the wide-eyed assistants surrounding him. "Back to work." Everyone slowly wandered away as the priest returned to his task.
        Moments later, the elderly cardinal secretary rushed into the laboratory. "You actually have word of our Lord and Savior in these documents?"
        Father McPhillips shot a dirty look at the assistant. "No, I'm afraid not, Father. But there could be."
        "But he said . . ." Father Giovanni indicated the abashed assistant, who quickly slunk away.
        "What we seem to have here are the official records of the Judean governorship of Pontius Pilate. Very little is known of Pilate's life, Father. That could well be because these records all sunk to the bottom of the Mediterranean on their way back to Rome."
        Father Giovanni seemed discouraged. "But there could be some reference to life of Christ here?"
        Father McPhillips nodded. "Yes, it's possible."
        "But not probable?"
        "Well . . . The life of a single Jew in regard to a possible eight-year posting for Pilate could well not be included in his official records."
        Father Giovanni looked very disturbed. "A single Jew? We're speaking of the life of Jesus Christ, son of God, Savior to over 1.2 billion Christians! There absolutely must be some reference to Him. It's far and away the most important event during the reign of Pontius Pilate!"
        "Not necessarily to Pontius Pilate, though."
        "Pilate condemned Christ to death," proclaimed Father Giovanni. "There must be a record of that!"
        Father McPhillips removed his bifocals and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "The Roman governor was a very august personage, Father. It would be very surprising if he personally oversaw Christ's sentencing."
        Anger flooded the cardinal secretary's cheek's, causing them to grow ruddy. "But it says so in the Gospels, Father! Matthew 27:13: 'Then said Pilate unto him, Hearest thou not how many things they witness against thee?' And Matthew 27:22: 'Pilate saith unto them. What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ,' and Luke 23:3: 'And Pilate asked him--'"
        "--But, " said Father McPhillips cutting him off, "It was probably one of Pilate's underlings that conducted trials of the common folk, not the governor himself."
        Father Giovanni looked apoplectic. "Common folk! We're referring to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ!"
        "But all Jews were common folk to the Romans, Father. There is really no good reason to argue about this. Let me continue translating. If there is any reference at all to Jesus Christ I will let you know immediately. But I wouldn't depend on it, or even hope for it, for that matter."
        Father Giovanni turned on his heel and walked, mumbling, "Faith, Father. You must have faith."
        Returning his bifocals back to his nose, Father McPhillips sighed and returned to his work. "Yes, faith . . ."
        As the sun set over Rome and Vatican City, the museum's assistants put on their coats and hats and proceeded to leave. Father McPhillips paid them no heed, far too busy with his work to be bothered or even notice.
        Nine of the ten scrolls in the first amphora were all tax rolls. Father McPhillips scrutinized them all carefully, reading every single name. As yet, no reference at all to Jesus Christ. Nor would there be, he firmly believed. A Roman governor did not preside over the trials of common, ethnic people. It simply wasn't done. If Herod, King of Judea, as an example, came to trial, well, yes, then Pilate would preside, but not over a common Jew. Being a scholar certainly did have a tendency to get in the way of pure, unquestioning faith.
        Father McPhillips carefully rerolled the scroll he had just finished reading and carried it back to the amphora. He placed the scroll on the climate controlled shelf beside the jar. He then removed the tenth and last scroll from the amphora and carried it to his work table. The priest gently unrolled the scroll before him and began to read. This scroll was immediately different than the others, it was some sort of account, as opposed to being just a list of names. Father McPhillips read on:
        "Let it be known that I, Quintus Sertonius, assistant to the governor of Judea, the noble Pontius Pilate, here in the city of Jerusalem, in the 19th year of the reign our glorious Emperor Tiberius Claudius Nero, do transcribe the words of the man known as Judas of Kerioth . . ."
        Father McPhillips looked up in awestruck wonder. "Judas of Kerioth is Judas Iscariot! One of the twelve disciples. Oh my God!" He quickly returned to reading:
        " . . . Paid informant. Judas of Kerioth was hired by myself for the sum of thirty dinarii to keep watch on, as well as give an account of, the words and deeds of the religious zealot known as Jesus of Nazareth . . ."
        Father McPhillips jumped to his feet and took several steps before realizing it was too late at night to inform anyone else of his momentous finding. He hastily sat back down and kept reading:
        " . . . Judas of Kerioth has spent three years in the employment of the Roman governor, hired by myself specifically to study the activities of Jesus of Nazareth, also known as Jesus the Messiah, also known as King of the Jews, and his followers, all known religious zealots and political agitators. Subsequently, Jesus of Nazareth has been arrested and will soon be executed. Final payment for services will be rendered to Judas of Kerioth upon his full and complete testimony regarding the life and activities of said religious zealot and provocateur, Jesus of Nazareth . . ."
        Father McPhillips bolted to his feet again, turning in a complete circle, his hands against his face. He was having trouble breathing. Unsteadily, he weaved his way to the coffee urn and poured himself a cup of overbrewed coffee. His hand was shaking so badly he finally had to put the cup down, cover his eyes, and take several deep breaths.
        "This is the only first-hand account of the life of Jesus Christ that exists on this planet and I'm the very first person to read it. I think I'm having a heart attack." He put his hand to his heart and felt the heavy thumping. Suddenly, Father McPhillips dashed back to the table and continued to read:
        " . . . I, Quintus Sertonius, asked Judas of Kerioth: 'When did you first meet the man known as Jesus of Nazareth?' Judas of Kerioth did say: 'I first met Jesus of Nazareth in the [Jewish] year of 3791 [in the 17th year of the reign of our glorious Emperor Tiberius], as he did come wandering through my village of Kerioth, south of Galilee. This man Jesus did preach of changes that ought be made to our Jewish faith. That the temples now contained false idols, money-changers, and merchants selling unclean animals for sacrifice. That the Pharisees and Sadducees had corrupted the Jewish faith and that it no longer belonged to the common man. His words seemed provocative. Many people listened and several people followed this man when he and his few followers left Kerioth.
        "I, Quintus Sertonius, then asked: 'When did you next see this man Jesus?' Judas of Kerioth did say: 'When I was next in Jerusalem, having been arrested on false charges, I came into your employment. I was let out of prison with the express purpose of joining Jesus's followers and learning as much as I could about him. This I did for three years. Since Jesus of Nazareth has now been arrested, with my complete cooperation, my contract is now complete, and I request full payment. Thirty dinarii.'
        "I, Quintus Sertonius, then asked: 'Is Jesus of Nazareth a provocateur, and does he speak of rebellion against Rome?' Judas of Kerioth did say: 'No, he never spoke of rebellion against Rome. Only rebellion against the strict religious tenets of Pharisees and Sadducees. He did in fact once say, "Give unto Caesar that which is Caesar's." '
        "I then asked: 'Speak of your three years with Jesus of Nazareth.' Judas did say: 'We traveled about the country, north to south, then back again. Jesus spoke to the people of changes in the Jewish religion, as well as love, for oneself as well as one's neighbor. Larger and larger crowds appeared as he spoke. Jesus had spent many years before this traveling, learning ways of healing from the Persians, the Egyptians, and others. He would use these healing methods on many of the ill people who approached him. He would press on their backs and twist their necks, frequently causing relief from their ailments. He spoke of the inadvertent burial of people thought to be dead but often still alive. He said that the Egyptians would put bells in the hands of the dead in case they should come back to life before burial, which frequently occurred.
        We stopped at many burial tombs in our travels, studying the recently deceased to make sure that they were in fact dead. On several occasions Jesus, using the methods of the Egyptians, was able to revitalize those thought to be dead. He would breathe into their mouths as well as pound with his fists on their chests. He said that this was now common practice among the Egyptians before burial, making certain one was truly dead. Jesus knew that the people of these villages would not understand the modern methods he was using, thinking him defiling the dead. Therefore, none of us spoke of this. When he was able to revitalize a person, as in the case of a man named Lazarus, the people of the dead person's village would rejoice as though they had just laid eyes on the one God, Jehovah. It was truly a sight to behold. Jesus' fame increased tenfold each time he was able to perform this cure. Most of Jesus' attempts to raise the dead, however, did not work. We did not speak of these.'
        "I then asked: 'Jesus is said to have performed many other feats of magic. What of these?' Judas did say: 'Jesus' most famous feat of magic was no feat of magic at all. He was speaking to a large crowd at the side of the Sea of Galilee from a small boat. When the wind began to blow and the small boat he sat in was being tossed about, Jesus stepped out of the boat and walked to shore along a sandbar just below the level of the water. Had the sky not been so dark, everyone would have seen this sandbar, but they did not. They all thought him to be walking upon the surface of the water and immediately began shouting that "God had performed a Miracle." Jesus was very pleased by this. As soon as the crowd had departed, Jesus and we, his followers, all set to work digging away the sandbar so that none would ever find it. Jesus also was able to cure skin ailments [leprosy?] in many people. Not skin ailments of the very serious variety but the ones that might soon go away on their own. He showed people how to make mud poultices to draw out impurities as well as the use of certain plants and herbs used to heal redness and to stop swelling. Many of these herbs and plants we carried with us from village to village as they do not grow in the hot desert soil of Judea.
        "I then asked: 'Was this Jesus of Nazareth a magician?' Judas did say: 'He did appear so to the common people of Judea, but all that he did could easily be explained by various methods he had learned in the east and elsewhere. He explained these methods to us, his followers, but not to the people of Judea. Jesus did nothing magical in the three years that I was with him, although the people of Judea most certainly thought otherwise.
        "I then asked: 'Do you swear upon your one God that what you have said is the full truth?' Judas did say: 'Yes, I do.' I then said: 'Please make your mark here at the bottom of your testimony.' Judas of Kerioth did make his mark [Here is written the name in ancient Hebrew, Judas Iscariot]. The governor's purser then gave over to Judas of Kerioth thirty silver dinarii. 'I, Quintus Sertonius, do hearby swear that this transcription is a true and accurate account of the words of Judas of Kerioth.' " [This is followed by a Roman seal of office].
        Father McPhillips sat at his work table staring down at the scroll before him, a very disturbed expression on his face. What would the Christian world make of this when they read it? Not even just the Christians, Jesus was also a prophet to the Muslims. What were the ramifications of a document like this? Would it increase anyone's faith? Help anyone to be a better Christian? Make the world a better place?
        Suddenly, over a billion people would find their convictions kicked out from underneath them, no longer able to put their faith in anything. As Father McPhillips considered the implications of this, images appeared before his eyes like nightly news reports: shouting crowds massing in Vatican City; riots breaking out all over the Christian world; Mexico City and Sao Paulo, enormous Latin American cities with over 20 million Christians each, are set aflame and burned to the ground, thousands are killed, millions are homeless; Europe is torched; Notre Dame explodes; the Pope is hung from a lightpost in St. Peter's Square. Christianity, the dominant religion on the planet, just like Zoroastrianism before it, comes to an ignominious end. The Age of Christ is over.
        Father McPhillips shook his aching head. And just exactly what would occur once his church superiors read this document? Every conspiracy theory he had ever heard now resounded through his over-active imagination. What if the church simply decided to suppress it? Wouldn't they then need to suppress him, too?
        As he carefully rolled up the scroll, the first rays of sunlight beamed over the domed roof of St. Peter's Church. With a trembling hand Father McPhillips wiped the beads of perspiration from his brow. Outside the window, he could see people beginning to walk back and forth across St. Peter's Square.
        Father McPhillips clamped his jaw firmly closed, picked up the scroll, and left the museum laboratory.
        Orange firelight washed across Father McPhillips' strained, haggard face as he swung open the cast iron door of an immense furnace. He gave the scroll in his hand -- the greatest discovery of his life and the most important Christian document ever found -- one last look, sighed deeply, then tossed it into the furnace. The dry, 2000-year-old animal skin burst into flame and was immediately enveloped. Within seconds it was gone, as though it had never existed at all.
        Father McPhillips walked slowly across St. Peter's Square, past all of the ornate buildings and statues that make up the Vatican, on his way to St. Peter's Church to attend mass with all of the other devout Christians. As he entered the basilica, the largest church in the Christian world, he could not help but think, "How many other priests here at the Vatican have done exactly what I just did. How many other documents that did not correspond to accepted church doctrines have been burned over the course of two thousand years?"
        Father McPhillips kneeled before the altar, crossed himself, and received the body and the blood of Christ. 

--Josh Becker

Copyright (c) 1997



Painting of  "Christ Carrying the Cross" (top)
By El Greco
The Prado, Madrid