THE BLOG
06/03/2013 06:57 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2013

Witness: To Be With Jesus' Companions After the Crucifixion

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I'd love to have known, to have witnessed, any number of people, places, events throughout history.

I'd love to have been with King David when, it's said, he had transient possession of God's (and Indy's) Ark.

I'd feel privileged to have had a safe Gettysburg perch those first three days of July 1863 and then to have been at General Lee's side when, after Pickett's miserably failed "charge," he had to tear up his never-delivered note to Lincoln suing the president for peace on terms favorable, of course, to the slaveholders.

I'd be honored to have been at the foot of Sinai among the 600,000 who, we're taught, witnessed the Decalogue descending like a delicate newborn in Moses' arms.

It would be a treasure to have watched the Allies land in June 1944 on the northern French coast -- and to have witnessed the eyes of Nazi lookouts pop as our massive invasion armada emerged from a thick, predawn mist.

I'd like to have been in that 1974 arena in Kinshasa to see Muhammad Ali fight George Foreman, the Supreme Court having overturned in 1971 Ali's ludicrous draft-evasion conviction. I'd like to have been a 23-year-old watching him, cheering him, as he regained his championship title, a title that ought never have been stripped.

I'd trade a great deal to have been, at age 12, at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on a late August afternoon to hear Martin Luther King proclaim, "In the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last!'"

There are hundreds, if not thousands, such moments for which I hunger. <

But most of all, I'd want to be among the closest companions of that ancient, protean, mesmerizing rabbi, Jesus, in the three years of his public, itinerant teaching prior to his murder at Jerusalem and in the two decades after those companions fled upon news of his arrest and execution.

Of the four canonized narrative gospels -- Mark, Matthew, Luke and John -- and the two dozen additional gospels known to scholars and the Church -- the Sayings Gospels, the Infancy Gospels, the gospels of Peter, Mary and Thomas, Paul's often magnificently composed letters, and the rest -- there exists a stunning two-decade chasm, a total blackout, between the crucifixion, in 33 C.E., and the first writings about Jesus.

We have no written account of how his closest companions got on and what they did in the 20 years after his death.

The earliest gospel, Mark's, was written c. 70 C.E. Even the letters of Paul, Timothy, and James to the fledgling Jesus-believing communities at, say, Corinth, Thessalonica, Ephesus or Rome date at their earliest to c. 50, 20 or so years after Jesus was so violently cut off from them.

I'd like to know why nothing in writing exists from those earliest years and why some of the oral accounts made it into the gospels and some didn't.

Were his close companions emotionally struck mute by the untimely loss of their friend and leader?

Or was no one in that first community sufficiently literate? Most of his Galilean followers were almost certainly unlettered, but all, and even at Jerusalem? That's tough to believe.

Or were they controlled enough in the midst of devastating personal loss to understand that, wherever they fled, anything said about Jesus had to be transmitted orally only, for both self and group protection?

This, to me, makes the most sense. This was the Passover Festival, when masses traditionally poured into the city and Roman procurators routinely ordered peasant irritants killed. After all, in the half-century after Jesus' birth, records suggest Roman agents at Jerusalem crucified more than 50,000 in Judea -- southern Israel -- alone. That's an average of just under 20 crucifixions per week.

So, as devoted to their friend as his disciples were, could they have possibly imagined that Romans saw Jesus as they themselves had seen him? For them to have believed Roman authority saw Jesus as a holy man would not have been an expression of devotion. It would have been one of lunacy -- a refutation of everything every Jewish peasant of that place and time knew about the tools of routinely brutal Greek and then Roman colonial oppression.

By the late 50s, we have abundant written evidence that Paul and his companions are organizing home-based churches in communities throughout the Mediterranean and in Rome itself and then writing to the parishioners. And 20-some years on from Paul's work, we have Mark writing the first canonical gospel.

I don't want to speculate as to what went on. I want to be there, to light up and penetrate those earliest dark years and to see, to really know, how and why the first Jerusalem community survived its near decimation, its scattering after the murder of its leader, and how it once again coalesced and grew.

I want to have known the charisma of the rabbi who was Jesus. I want to have been among the first to hear his words on justice and the Kingdom of God spoken over and over and over again, throughout Galilee and the south -- the striking, illuminating parables, stories and sayings forming a distinctly Jewish paradigm of justice, the basis for all extant gospels.

And then I want my own ears to hear that silence and my eyes to see beneath it, because the story of the companions of Jesus may well be the most unlikely yet overwhelming success story of all unrecorded time.