Author's note: Previously published online in Femnista magazine.


Truth-Seeker

"I have seen him before," he whispered. "The moment I heard him speak I knew it. It was nearly twenty years ago—he was a child—but there is no mistaking the eyes of him. I have never forgotten it, though I thought I had."

"Forgotten what?" whispered his friend. The two men were giving a very good impression of being in grave and important conference and being completely unaware of the young man supposedly in disgrace speaking to a small group of people near them.

"That child, ten or twelve years old, speaking like an old man after years of study and wisdom. I was a very young man, just newly come to the ranks of the teachers and the scholars, partly brash and full of myself from having always been first among my peers and partly nervous and quiet from suddenly being thrust into the company of all these great and learned men. Even twenty years ago, when Gamaliel spoke, the brashest youth subsided into humble silence.

"One day, just after the Feast, there was a commotion, and I followed the other teachers to a corner where several of the eldest of us were gathered in a little knot. We all crowded in to hear, and then I saw who they were gathered around. Not some venerable old sage but a child, a little boy. Unremarkable-looking, dressed in the humble clothes of the child of some laborer from the country, fairly dirty, as little boys tend to be, but his eyes—How could I ever have forgotten his eyes? They were the eyes of something ancient and wise, not the eyes of something that has lived only twelve short years on this earth.

"He was speaking to Gamaliel as if they were peers—Gamaliel was speaking to him as if they were peers, consulting together over some question in the Law. Everyone else was silent—no one could believe their ears. The child asked questions as if he already knew the answers and wanted to provoke some new thought in his hearers. He asked, Why does the LORD forbid adultery, and why does He hate divorce? He asked, Why do we not wear clothing made of two kinds of material? He asked, Why did Jacob wrestle with a stranger in the darkness? Why why why? And he would not be satisfied with answers that explained away the surface of a thing but insisted on plumbing to the depths and bringing to light its very soul, so that we had to search inside ourselves for answers we had never known we knew or could come up with.

"We forgot about time in listening to him. Nothing had ever been like it. He was teaching us how to question and how to understand, we who had spent our whole lives questioning and understanding the Law. Three and a half days he talked to us—"

"Three and a half days?" Joseph interrupted. "You said he was from the country, a visitor to the Feast. What about his parents, his family? Were they there? Or why was a child alone in the Temple?"

"We hardly thought of that at all. It was like he was a special visitation from the LORD. You don't ask an angel where his parents are."

"Angels don't come in the form of children."

"I know, I know. You had to have been there, Joseph, to understand. You wouldn't have thought of his parents either. He slept on a mat in a corner at night, joined us in our meals and rituals, and then we did nothing but listen to him and ask him questions and answer his. We could have gone on forever, but nothing lasts. On the fourth day we heard a shriek from across the temple court, and a woman shoved her way through us as only a frantic mother can and fell on him, embracing him and kissing him and crying and demanding why he had disappeared. The man was only marginally less frantic and more polite, knowing that things may be forgiven of a mother that may not be forgiven of a father.

"And the child! He revealed to us for the first time then that he really was a child, because he asked his mother in the most innocent way in the world, 'Why were you looking for me?' I thought his mother was going to tear her hair out. Only a child would ask such a question when he had disappeared from his family for three or four days. But then he asked them, the way he'd been questioning us, 'Didn't you know I have to be doing my Father's work?' And his father's eyes nearly started out of his head, because by the look of him he was a laborer, strong, muscular, a carpenter, maybe, by no means a teacher or prophet, so whatever the boy thought he was doing, it certainly wasn't his father's work. His mother was equally confused, but she lapsed into silence for quite a long moment, staring at him like she was seeking out something inside him she had often been trying to seek out before. He had his eyes from her, though she never gave him that ancient look.

"Well, then he simply hopped down from his seat, thanked us courteously for our hospitality, and left with them, leaving us all a bit dazed and unable to speak of anything else for days, weeks. Gradually he faded from our daily thoughts, and I—I think I haven't thought of him in years. But at that moment I believed that there was something unearthly about that child, something never before seen in any prophet of the LORD. Not an angel, more than a prophet, but what? What, Joseph? You never heard the questions he asked."

"I saw what he did last week," Joseph said quietly. "I saw what he did yesterday. I saw his eyes when he, a perfect stranger from the country—Galilee of all places—walked into the Temple and…had a fit, as Caiaphas called it. He came in, looked at the money-changers—you know how they shortchange the ignorant country people—and his eyes blazed with fire. He was like—the priests say like a madman, but I never saw anything less like a madman in my life. A madman doesn't know what he is doing and is carried away by some uncontrollable force inside himself. He knew what he was doing when he overthrew their tables and drove them and the sacrificial animals out of the Temple. He was in complete control of himself and what he was doing, even in control of his fury. The priests tried to stop him, but he was like a force of nature. And he said—" Joseph grasped his friend's sleeve. "He said, 'Do not make my Father's house a house of trade.' 'My Father' again. What does he mean?"

"I have to find out. I have to."

"You can't just go ask him. He is in deep disgrace with the priests. He doesn't seem to care, but you can't risk your position, Nicodemus."

"I know. If only I could go see him in private some time when he is alone."

"I know where he's staying," Joseph said suddenly. "You could go to the house tonight."

"Why don't you come with me?"

"I don't dare. Anyway, I have to make an early start for Arimathea in the morning. I'll show you the house, and you must promise me you'll write me and tell me what he says."

"I will," Nicodemus promised, and they left the Temple courts and the young man from Galilee speaking there under the disapproving eyes of the priests of Israel.