Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1185
It is seven weeks after the crucifixion of Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth by Pontius Pilate. All the poor of Jerusalem, who found in Yeshua their Messiah, go into hiding, but the word is spreading. Little by little the story is told: of Yeshua who came back after his death and of the Messiah who appeared to his disciples. The matter is hotly argued on all sides. The pious Jews cannot believe in a Messiah who was killed; the Messianists devoutly affirm their faith.
Saul of Tarshish and Joseph bar Naba come upon a street preacher, a rustic Galilean, who tells with great conviction of Yeshua’s return after he was entombed. Cries of belief and of repugnance interrupt his talk. Saul himself speaks with great bitterness against this Messiah, for he has no patience with the gentle Yeshua who was crucified.
The agitation rapidly spreads. One of the most vigorous upholders of Yeshua is Reb Istephan. He has a gift for moving people’s souls, and more and more Jews become persuaded. Joseph bar Naba knew Yeshua in his lifetime, and when Joseph hears Reb Istephan, he is convinced. Joseph becomes a Messianist. This conversion disgusts Saul, and in sorrow and bitterness, he turns away from his friend Joseph.
Then a dramatic incident takes place. Simon, the first of Yeshua’s disciples, heals Nehemiah the cripple in the name of the Nazarene. Many are impressed by the cure, but others resent Simon’s use of the Messiah’s name. As a result, his enemies have their way, and Simon is imprisoned by the High Priest to await trial. Then another miracle happens. Simon and his follower Jochanan, who were securely locked in a dungeon, are the next morning again walking the streets. It is said that they passed directly through the stone walls—with the help of Yeshua.
The resentment against the wild Galileans grows among the rulers, while the humble folk follow Simon with trust. The High Priest again brings Simon to trial, but Simon speaks so well in defense of his doctrine that he is freed. Now the tumult increases. The ignorant folk, seeing Simon released, conclude that there is official sanction for the new cult; hence, more join the followers of Yeshua.
Saul is greatly incensed. He believes that the Messiah is yet to come and that the disciples are corrupting Jerusalem. He goes to the High Priest and secures an appointment as official spy. In his new job, Saul tracks down the humble Messianists and sentences them to the lash. Growing in power, Saul the Zealot finally takes Reb Istephan prisoner for preaching the new faith. With grim pleasure, Saul leads the way to the stoning pit and watches Istephan sink beneath the flung rocks. As he dies, the preacher murmurs a prayer forgiving his tormentors. Saul is vaguely troubled.
Then the Messianists are much heartened. Yeshua’s younger brother, Reb Jacob ben Joseph, comes to Jerusalem to head the humble cult, and Saul can do little against this pious and strict Jew. By chance, the High Priest hears of more Messianists in Damascus. Saul volunteers to investigate and hurries to his new field. En route, however, a vision appears to him in which Yeshua says, “Saul, Saul, why dost thou persecute me?” Saul then recognizes Yeshua as his Lord, and, as he is commanded, he goes on to Damascus, although he is still blinded by the heavenly apparition. A follower of the new religion baptizes him and restores his sight. The penitent Saul hurries away from the haunts of man. In all, he waits seven years for his mission.
Finally, as he prays in his mother’s house, the call comes. Joseph bar Naba asks Saul to go with him to Antioch to strengthen the congregation there. At last, Saul is on the way to bring the word of the Messiah to others. He leaves for Antioch with Joseph and the Greek Titus, Saul’s first convert.
Simon founds the church at Antioch among the Greeks. The perplexing question is, could a devout Jew even eat with the Gentiles, let alone accept them into the church? In Jerusalem, Jacob holds firmly to the law of the Torah: Salvation is only for the circumcised. Simon vacillates. In Jerusalem, he follows Jacob; among the Greeks he accepts Gentiles fully. Joseph is sent by the elders of Jerusalem to Antioch to apply the stricter rule to the growing Messianic church.
Saul at first meets with much suspicion. The Messianists remember too well Saul the Zealot who persecuted them. Little by little, the apostle wins them over. Yeshua appears to Saul several times, and he is much strengthened in the faith. At last, Saul finds his true mission in the conviction that he is divinely appointed to bring the word of Yeshua to the Gentiles. He works wonders at Antioch and builds a strong church there, but his acceptance of Gentiles costs him Joseph’s friendship. As a symbol of his new mission, Saul becomes Paul and begins his years of missionary work.
Paul goes to all the Gentiles—to Corinth, to Ephesus, to Cyprus. Everywhere, he founds a church, sometimes small but always zealous. Lukas, the Greek physician, goes with him much of the time. Lukas is an able minister and a scholar who is writing the life of Yeshua.
The devout Jews in Jerusalem are greatly troubled by this strange preacher who accepts the Gentiles. Finally, they bring him up for trial. Paul escapes only by standing on his rights as a Roman citizen. As such, he can demand a trial before Caesar himself. Paul goes to Rome as a captive, but he rejoices, for he knows the real test of Christianity will be in Rome. Simon is already there, preaching to the orthodox Jews.
The evil Nero makes Paul wait in prison for two years without a hearing and, even then, only the intervention of Seneca frees the apostle. For a short time, Simon and Paul work together, one among the Jews and the other among the Gentiles. They convert many, and the lowly fervently embrace the promise of salvation.
To give himself an outlet for his fancied talents as an architect, Nero burns Rome and plans to rebuild a beautiful city. The crime, however, is too much, even for the Romans. To divert suspicion from himself, Nero blames the Christians. He arrests thousands of them and, on the appointed day, opens the royal carnage. Jews and Christians, hour after hour, are gored by oxen, torn by tigers, and chewed by crocodiles. At the end of the third day, many Romans can no longer bear the sight, but still Nero observes the spectacle. It is so strange: The Christians die well, and with their last breaths, they forgive their persecutors.
Simon, a Jew, is crucified afterward; Paul, born a Roman citizen, is beheaded. Gabelus, the gladiator who accepted Christianity, goes with them to the execution. The deaths of Simon and Paul, however, are, in reality, the beginning. The martyrdom of the early Christians is the foundation stone of the Christian church.