Jerry Francis stood nervously in the middle of the large and agitated crowd. The Roman governor appeared at the top of a large stone platform and spoke. “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” he shouted.
The crowd replied, “Give us Barabbas!”
Looking uncomfortable, the governor said, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?”
“Crucify him!” the multitude thundered. Jerry cringed. Then he noticed that Benjamin, his companion these past five days, was screaming at the top of his lungs, “Crucify!!”
“Benny!” Jerry said, grabbing Benjamin’s arm, “Please don’t say that! Just a few days ago you were willing to follow Jesus anywhere!”
“Yeah, but that was when I thought he was going to lead us in a violent revolt against the Romans,” Benjamin sneered. “Instead he turned out to be just another deranged religious dreamer.”
Then Jerry heard the governor say, “Who shall I release to you?”
The crowd, including Benjamin yelled, “Give us Barabbas!”
Benjamin turned to Jerry and said, “Barabbas is a fighter! He can be our leader. Who needs Jesus?”
When the governor asked the crowd, “What should I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” the entire mob, including Benjamin, screamed, “Crucify him!!”
Jerry hung his head in sadness. Despite the fact he never paid much attention during his youthful catechism classes, he knew what was going to happen. It was futile at this point; Jesus was going to be crucified.
The sound of the crowd increased to a steady roar. Over the din Jerry heard the rhythmic crack of a whip. A few minutes later the crowd shifted as a squad of soldiers emerged from the gate, escorting a frail prisoner who struggled under the weight of a large wooden beam. “C’mon, Benny, let’s follow,” Jerry said.
“Why?” Benjamin asked in confusion. “There are too many soldiers. Let’s go find Barabbas instead.”
“They have their victim,” Jerry said. “The soldiers aren’t going to bother us. C’mon, please. I want to see what happens.”
There is no doubt that Jerry Francis desperately longed to be home, back in his comfortable middle-class house in Hamden, Connecticut, in the 21st century, with his wife Brenda and children Michael and Jennifer. For five consecutive days Jerry woke up in the morning expecting to smell fresh Dunkin Donuts brand coffee brewing in his kitchen. But for five consecutive days the first things Jerry’s nostrils detected in the morning were the smells of hay, urine, and body odor. Then in an instant all the sights and sounds and fears flooded back into his brain. Oh no, Palestine. Ancient Jerusalem. He was still stuck in his unexplainable nightmare. How did it happen? Why did it happen? Jerry asked himself those questions a couple times each hour, far less frequently compared to earlier in the week. If he was destined to be stuck “here,” in the middle of an historic time and place, he was determined not to miss it. He wanted to see each event—events he had suspected for most of his adult life were nothing more than folk legends—with his own eyes.
Jerry and Benjamin followed the slow death march, careful to blend in with curious bystanders and not arouse the soldier’s suspicion. At one point, Jesus came within 15 feet of them. With the wood pressing down on his shoulder, Jesus turned his bloody head and looked straight at Jerry. A cold chill ran down Jerry’s spine as that gentle gaze once again seemed to penetrate his soul. Jesus paused for a moment, then said, “Jeremiah, believe in me.”
The breath was sucked completely out of Jerry’s lungs. He stood there in shock as Jesus began to walk again. Benjamin turned to Jerry and said quietly, “Was he talking to you?”
“I, uh, I don’t know,” Jerry stammered. “I, I think so. Maybe.”
They continued to observe from a distance. The procession went out one of the city gates and followed a winding path down a steady incline and then upward to a small rocky hill. Jesus and two other men were stripped of their robes and nailed to their crosses. When Jesus’ cross was raised up into the air, Benjamin said flatly, “He’s as good a dead now. No one ever survives a Roman crucifixion.” Jerry could not remember feeling as sad as he did at that moment.
As each torturous hour passed, Jerry was amazed that events were occurring just as his childhood catechism classes had described, and just as his wife Brenda had tried to explain on many occasions. Jerry cringed at the thought of how rudely and sarcastically he always responded whenever his wife tried to talk about her faith. All the while Benjamin fidgeted incessantly, baffled as to why Jerry wanted to stay and watch.
Finally, when Jesus’ body was being taken down from the cross, dark clouds moved in and the wind picked up. Benjamin said, “OK, it’s over. Can we go now?”
“Please, Benny,” Jerry replied, “I want to see exactly where they bury him.”
“What in the world for?!” Benjamin said.
“Just a hunch,” Jerry said quietly. “I’ll let you know for sure in a few days.”
Careful to keep their distance, Jerry and Benjamin followed a small band of people to a nearby cemetery. The group consisted of an elderly, well-dressed man who led the way; two young men, apparently servants, who carried Jesus’ body; and about a half-dozen weeping women.
The body was wrapped in strips of cloth and then placed inside a sizable hole dug into the side of a hill. Jerry looked around intently, noting various landmarks. Then the two servants struggled to roll a huge stone down a slight incline. The stone settled into place, completely blocking the opening. When a squad of Roman soldiers appeared, sent to seal and guard the gravesite, Benjamin grabbed Jerry’s arm. “That’s it,” he said. “We are leaving…now!”
Daylight was fading fast. The two men walked away briskly, hoping to get back inside the city walls and reach the squalid boarding house before dark. Benjamin suggested a short cut. They would have to climb up some steep hills and rocks, but they could get to the gate much more quickly than following the meandering path. Jerry agreed and they set out.
Short, gnarly trees poked out of the steep hill. Jerry and Benjamin grabbed the trunks and branches of these trees to assist their climb, especially when their sandals slipped on the loose dirt and gravel. When they were within 50 yards of the city gate, they climbed up to a small plateau and then walked around a massive boulder. Just as they reach the back side of the boulder, Jerry and Benjamin flinched and stopped short. They had almost walked directly into an unexpected object swaying gently in front of them. It was almost sundown and everything was in shadows. The two men stepped back and looked up to try and figure out what was in their path.
Jerry blurted out, “It’s a man! Hanging from that tree!” The lifeless form was connected by a short rope, with one end around a low branch and the other end around his neck. The man’s feet dangled about four feet off the ground.
Benjamin peered closely at the corpse and said, “It’s the Iscariot! It’s Simon’s friend Judas.”
Jerry felt as if he was about to vomit. Except for wakes and funerals, he had never seen an actual dead body before. Now in the past few hours he had seen four, two of whom he felt like he had known personally.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Benjamin said forcefully. The two men began to jog the final distance to the city gate. Jerry’s mind raced with a million thoughts. Yeah, that’s right, he thought, Judas committed suicide after betraying Jesus. Now I remember. The sadness he felt after watching Jesus die was now compounded by the sadness of finding Judas dead. Jerry also felt guilty. He had wanted to stop Judas from betraying Jesus, but because he didn’t know the details of that historic week he had been too late. They both would be alive if I had gotten to Judas in time, he thought. The next 2,000 years of history could’ve been so much different if I had stopped all this from happening.
Once inside the city gate they hurried to the run-down boarding house. The city was pitch black and eerily silent. None of the other zealots were in the room. Benjamin wondered where everyone was. He became agitated at Jerry for making them spend the whole afternoon watching Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. “Maybe they all left the city,” Benjamin said. “Maybe the Romans have decided to arrest all the Zealots. Maybe they want to crucify all of us, too! Maybe we missed our chance to get out of here safely with Simon and the others. Jeremiah, you have put us in grave danger!”
“No, wait a minute,” Jerry said defensively. “I don’t think the Romans want to arrest anyone else.”
“How do you know?” Benjamin demanded.
Jerry paused. How do I know? he asked himself silently. He strained to remember any details. “Well,” he finally said, “It wasn’t really the Romans, it was the high priest and the other religious leaders. They only wanted to get Jesus. And now I think, um, I think they’re satisfied.”
“I hope you’re right,” Benjamin grumbled as he lay down on his straw bed. He blew out the oil lamp and the room went dark. “But I know one thing,” Benjamin added. “We have to get out of this city as soon as possible. We have to meet up with Simon and Barabbas and the others and plan our next move. And we have to do it away from Jerusalem. This place is too dangerous.”
Jerry lay on his straw bed staring straight up at the ceiling. He felt exhausted, but the events of the day continued to race through his mind. He kept seeing Jesus’ penetrating eyes and hearing his voice say, “Jeremiah, believe in me.” Jerry didn’t feel like he would ever fall asleep. But he knew he needed to rest up for the next day, which would be a very challenging day. And Jerry’s biggest challenge would be how to convince Benjamin to stay in Jerusalem for yet another night and then return to the same cemetery on Sunday morning.