Yitzhak’s mind wandered as he dug his way through the rocky square assigned to his team. Archaeology had fascinated him since he was a child, and the chance – however slight – that the next stroke of the pick might uncover a hidden treasure that would change the face of history still excited him. But in the baking sun of the Judean desert, even the most idealistic archaeologist could have trouble focusing on the tedious, repetitious work of digging.
It was important to be engaged, though, because a careless flick of the shovel or pick might destroy an artifact of extraordinary significance, so Yitzhak paused for a drink of water from his canteen, then with renewed concentration, went back to work.
In an instant he felt – and heard – his pick strike something solid. Pausing to catch his breath, Yitzhak quickly but carefully brushed away the dirt and sand to reveal a box inscribed in Latin, Legio X Frentensis, The Tenth Legion was a proud legion, deployed primarily in first century Jerusalem. Just beneath the inscription he saw the unmistakable emblem of the Tenth Legion, the bull.
Yitzhak needed help to retrieve the box, and called for his patners, Eli and Haddasah, to help him dig it the rest of the way out. There was no lock, just a leather thong wrapped around the box and tied off in a characteristic knot used by the legionaires.
They immediately loaded the box in their jeep and headed back to the main camp to investigate its contents. Loosening the leather tie, and gently lifted the lid, brushing away the centuries of dust. Inside, they saw what looked to be nothing more than the uniform of a Roman soldier – a wool tunic, a scarf that protected the neck from chafing against the armor, a helmet, a sword belt, and a caliga, the soldier’s boots.
But in addition to these mundane items, there were three unusual artifacts in the box. There was the tip of the spear used by Roman soldiers, called the pilum. This was standard equipment, but it was odd to see the pyramid-shaped iron head by itsef. Laying beside it was a clump of fibrous material which Yitzhak recognized as a crude form of sponge. Neatly folded up beneath all of the items was another tunic, much different than the standard issue for a solider. Although time and insects had taken their toll on it, Yitzhak could see that it was woven with great care, made from one piece of material, typical of the sort of inner garment warn by ancient Jews and modern Arab Bedouin.
Yitzhak was so intrigued by the odd assortment of items that he nearly overlooked the scroll that had rolled to the near side of the box. It was parchment made of animal skin, called velum, and he could just make out writing in Latin.
I, Marcus Cipius Pompeianus, served the Legio X Fretensis, of the Province of Syria, in Jerusalem. In the 17th year of Tiberius Caesar, I was on duty in the city of Jerusalem during the holy week of the Jews, who came into the city to celebrate their ancient tradition called Passover. One of their own, a rabbi was Nazareth, had run afoul of the people and especially their leaders, and was sentenced to die. My unit had duty that day on The Place of the Skull, and prepared the man for crucifixion, along with two other brigands.
It seemed like just another execution for us, and we passed the time waiting for death to occur like we usually did – we gambled for the clothing of the victims. The lots fell my way, and I won the homespun tunic of the rabbi. But then strange things began to happen. Right in the middle of the day the sun disappeared. For three hours it was as dark as the night. I have killed many men, but there was something about the rabbi that was different. Maybe it was the way he prayed for the vicious mob mocking him, or called out for a young man to care for his mother. I am not a man easily moved, but when the rabbi complained of thirst, I dipped my sponge into a jar of wine and extended it to him on a branch from a piece of brush.
The Jewish officials wanted the men to be dead before sundown, so we took our mallets to smash their shins and finish the job. But the Nazarene was already dead. Normally the poor wretches take many hours to die, but the rabbi appeared to have been brutally scourged before we ever went to work on him, and just did not last long. Still, I wanted to make sure he was dead, so I took my spear and stabbed him in the side. The blood and water that gushed out gave grisly confirmation that he was dead.
Then more unusual portents happened. The earth began to rumble and shake. My commander, a centurion not given to emotion, shouted out that this man must have been the son of god!
I was glad when a Jewish ruler came and asked permission for the body to bury it. I wanted to be done with that day. But that day is not done with me. Nightmares rob me of sleep. Guilt taunts me during the day. So I have decided to abandon my duty, burying everything connected with horrible day. If Fortune leads someone to find this, you now know that Marcus Cipius Pompeianus deserted his Legion not because he was a coward, but because he was a prisoner of his own conscience.
Yitzhak could not believe what he was reading, and seeing. But he knew what the next exhibit at his museum would be.