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Authors: Lewis Ben Smith

The testimonium

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Lewis Ben Smith





eLectio Publishing

Little Elm, TX


The Testimonium

By Lewis Ben SMith

Copyright 2014 by Lewis Ben Smith

Cover Design by eLectio Publishing, LLC

ISBN-13: 978-1-63213-045-7

Published by eLectio Publishing, LLC

Little Elm, Texas

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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“And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate.”

— Justin Martyr,writing to Emperor Antoninus Pius, circa 150 AD

PROLOGUE – Jerusalem, 33 AD

The Roman prefect eased his weary frame onto a stone bench, the folds of his toga bunching up around him. His exhausted body finally relaxed, but his mind remained full of turmoil. What was any civilized man to make of the behavior of barbarians? And was there any tribe, nation, or tongue in all of thegens humanamore maddeningly barbaric than the Jews? Forever carping about how their unnamable, unknowable, invisible God was going to take offense at this or that. “Chosen people,” indeed! What god in his right mind would choose them? But for all their insufferable self-righteousness, they could be as vicious as a hyena if anyone threatened to upset theirmos maorum—or, as they referred to it, the “traditions of their elders.” The governor was still not sure which god he had offended to merit such a disgraceful posting, although he knew why the vindictive Emperor Tiberius had sent him there. Judea, the armpit of the Empire!

His body ached for a good massage and a long nap, but he knew that he should record the events of the entire week while they were still fresh in his mind, lest he forget important details. He did not know what to make of the matter himself, at this point, and if any further unpleasantness came of this whole sordid affair—Jupiter! They might report him to Caesar—again! He had to record it all now, then. Sleep would have to wait. So, rubbing his eyes, Lucius Pontius Pilate called for his scribe.


(AP) A moderate earthquake, measuring about 6.3 on the Richter scale, struck the coast of Italy last night, according to the Italian Geological Bureau. The epicenter of the quake was approximately a mile off the coast of the scenic Isle of Capri, once a resort of Roman emperors, and now a popular tourist destination. No tsunami warnings were issued, and only minor damage has been reported thus far. No injuries have been reported.


Giuseppe Rossini looked sadly at the floor of his study before reaching for the broom and dustpan. The lovely Etruscan vase that had decorated his bookshelf for years had been knocked off by the tremor and lay in a hundred pieces at his feet. Several of his books had also tumbled to the floor, but the broken crockery was a safety concern, so he slipped on a pair of sandals to protect his feet. The vase was only a replica—a conscientious archeologist, Rossini did not collect real artifacts other than a few common items that he used as part of his teaching presentations on Capri’s Roman era. But it was a high-quality replica that had cost him a good many lira, back when Italy still used the lira, and it would be hard to replace. On the other hand, though, his roof was still attached, and the spiderweb cracks in his wall plaster were more aesthetically than structurally damaging. Some of his neighbors were not as lucky—one house had a collapsed balcony, and the local market had suffered some serious damage. At least, since the quake had struck at 3 AM, no one was inside the building to be hurt. All in all, it could have been much worse.

It took him the better part of an hour to go through his house and pick up all the debitage of the quake. Overall, he had fared quite well—the vase was the most expensive loss, although several picture frames had fallen from the wall, and there was broken glass where they landed. Earthquakes were not uncommon in parts of Italy, although this was the first one to strike Capri since he had moved there a number of years before. By midmorning he was done cleaning up his house and finished getting dressed. He pulled on some sturdy hiking boots and donned his hat, as the early spring day was already warm and he had a good hike ahead of him. He did not think the massive stones of the Villa Jovis would have taken much damage, but as the on-site curator of the ancient ruin, he knew that he would have to go see for himself. At least it was a beautiful Sunday morning for a stroll—and he had not planned on attending Easter Mass anyway.

On his way out the door, he grabbed his walking stick. His limp was almost indiscernible these days, but the hike up the steep Via Tiberio always made his leg ache. Once an active field archeologist, he had taken a bad fall fifteen years ago while conducting an excavation near Herculaneum. He suffered a severe compound fracture of the left femur, and that leg was now a full half inch shorter than the other. It had taken him several weeks in traction and a year of physical therapy to recover his mobility, and the pain never left completely. The Bureau of Antiquities had assigned him as an on-site curator and docent once he was able to return to work. He spent several years giving tours and lecturing students at Pompeii and Herculaneum before being posted to Capri. Capri was a less popular site than the two volcano-ravaged ancient cities, but Giuseppe had come to love the island over time. The folk were friendly, and the tourists were more likely to be serious students of history and not just the gawkers who had seen an article on Pompeii somewhere. He missed the thrill of discovery and the hard physical labor of excavation, but at sixty-two, he realized that those days were past him.

The Via Tiberio was built over an ancient Roman road, but it was still fairly steep. The view from the top was always worth the hike, though. Covering over an acre of land on the second highest point of the entire island, the former villa of the Emperor Tiberius must have been one of the most beautiful buildings in the Empire during its heyday. It was here that the reclusive Emperor had retired from Rome in 26 AD, leaving his corrupt henchman Sejanus to govern the Empire for him. According to Suetonius, a second-century historian, Tiberius had given free rein to his most twisted baser instincts at this luxurious retreat, engaging in wanton pedophilia with children from surrounding villages, and lavishly rewarding those who pleased him, while ordering those who did not flung from the island’s steepest cliffs to the rocks below. Personally, Giuseppe thought that Suetonius was a gossipy old busybody who had no way of knowing what went on at Tiberius’ villa a hundred years earlier, and thus decided to make up whatever salacious details would sell the most books. After all, journalism couldn’t have changed that much in two thousand years!

It took about forty-five minutes to hike up the narrow lane from Capri village to the ruins of Villa Jovis. As Giuseppe walked the steep trail, he was distressed to see signs that the quake had indeed slightly damaged the slopes of Mount Tiberio. Here and there were rockslides, and at one point a fissure cut across the road—only a few inches wide, but deep and black, showing that even the face of the mountain was not immune to the forces of nature. He began to worry that the magnificent ruin might have been damaged by the quake.

As he topped the rise, his initial reaction was a sigh of relief. The sprawling ruins seemed to be undamaged. But as he mounted the steps to the Emperor’s receiving hall, he saw that was not entirely correct. One of the remaining Corinthian columns had been toppled, and here and there new cracks and fissures showed where the ancient marble and limestone had split under the force of the violent tremor. Overall, though, the damage did not look too severe. He moved through the complex, checking all the remaining walls and staircases for further damage and finding none. He was almost done when he saw it.

Coming down the last staircase, he saw a scatter of masonry sprawled across the limestone floor of the level below, right alongside the stairs. Rounding the corner, he saw that a portion of the wall that held up the staircase had collapsed, leaving a gap about four feet tall and two feet wide. More than just a gap, in fact—there was a void beyond the wall revealed by the collapse, a blackness that even the noonday sun could not illuminate. Some sort of sealed chamber had been revealed by the collapsing wall!

As Giuseppe drew closer, he smelled a distinct aroma coming from the ancient chamber. It was the smell of dry, musty parchment, of dust and rat droppings and decay, the smell of ancient wood dried beyond the point of rot, the smell of air that had been sealed up on itself for centuries. It was the smell of history. He eased a small flashlight out of his jacket pocket and shone it inside the chamber, then let out a low gasp. He reached into his shirt pocket for his cell phone and hit speed dial.

“Bureau of Antiquities, how may I direct your call?” said the voice on the other end.

“Dr. Isabella Sforza,” he replied. “It’s urgent.”

* * *

Dr. Joshua Parker folded his long legs under him and settled into the pew after the last song ended. He picked up his well-worn New American Standard Bible and smiled as his father, Benjamin Parker, walked up to the pulpit. “Brother Ben,” as Baptists in one tri-state area referred to his father, was a towering man in his early seventies with a deep booming voice and an accent that had never left the Ozark ridges where he had been born at the end of the Great Depression. It was Easter Sunday, and Josh smiled at the thought that Dad’s new church was about to hear his signature sermon for the very first time. This message lay at the core of everything his father had believed and taught over a ministry that stretched nearly fifty years. Josh had heard the sermon many times growing up, and every year his father polished it a bit, updating the pop culture references to fit his current congregation before he let them have it on Easter Sunday.

“This morning I want to talk to you about one of my favorite passages of Scripture,” he began. “But it isn’t because it is my favorite that I want to tell you about it. It’s because I consider it to be the MOST important passage in all the New Testament—arguably the most important passage in all of Scripture.” As Brother Ben’s golden tones resonated throughout the crowded auditorium, the audience shifted its attention slightly. Some leaned forward; others redirected their gaze from the people around them to the tall figure in the pulpit. Obviously the new pastor, whom they had already come to respect and admire, had something important to say.

Casting his piercing gaze around the room, Parker smiled, then lowered his eyes to the large-print Bible before him. Although his father could quote this passage from memory, Josh knew he preferred to read verbatim: “From the Book of First Corinthians, Chapter Fifteen, beginning in Verse One: ‘Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.’”

Looking up, he posed a question: “Why is this so important? Simple. It is, first of all, the earliest written account we have of those who actually saw the Risen Christ. Most scholars think the crucifixion was in 33 AD. Paul wrote these lines in 54 AD—twenty-one years later, and about ten years before Matthew, Mark, and Luke began composing their gospels. Obviously, he placed great weight on these words, because he described them ‘as of first importance.’ This simple account of the Resurrection was foundational to everything Paul taught the churches throughout his ministry. Now let me draw your attention to an odd phrase here: ‘I delivered to you . . . what I also received.’ What does Paul mean? Well, when rabbis used that phrase, it was to indicate that the teaching they were about to impart was something they themselves had been taught earlier. The list of witnesses that followed is arranged in simple Greek verse form so it could be easily memorized. This wasn’t just a random bit of trivia that someone taught to Paul: it appears to be one of the very first catechisms composed by the early Church. So when would Paul have learned these lines about how many people witnessed the Resurrection? What opportunity did he have to meet the disciples who were there in Jerusalem that first Easter morning? The answer can be found in Paul’s first letter, which we call The Book of Galatians, written about 48 AD. In his account of his conversion, Paul explains: ‘Three years later’—that is, after his conversion on the Damascus road—‘I went up to Jerusalem to become acquainted with Cephas, and stayed with him fifteen days.’ Now of course, Cephas is the Greek form of Simon Peter. What makes this so critical? The timing, my friends. Paul was converted only a few years—maybe two or three at most—after the Crucifixion. And three years after that, he is in Jerusalem, visiting Simon Peter. That would place this visit about five or six years after Jesus was crucified. Nearly all the eyewitnesses were still alive at this point! And not just the friendly eyewitnesses either. The men who crucified Jesus were still present, and most of them still in power. The members of the angry mob that arrested him were still around, as would have been some of the soldiers who guarded the tomb.”

Parker paused, gathering steam. From his pew, Josh watched with interest. His dad had them now. Every eye in the place was on the pulpit. This was not just another tame old Easter sermon; this was thought-provoking stuff! The elder Parker continued: “Now, we have grown up in the church, most of us. We have had the Easter story recited to us every year since we were toddlers. And most of us have never questioned it. So the incredible import of what Paul is telling us here is easy to miss! Let me put it to you this way: suppose that, around the summer of 1969 or 1970, I showed up in Dealey Plaza down in Dallas and climbed up on a soapbox and began to talk about what had happened there just six years earlier. Suppose I said: ‘Yes, my friends, it was right here that President Kennedy’s motorcade passed through town. And three shots rang out, one of which pierced his brain and took his life. And he was buried in a lavish tomb in Arlington National Cemetery that Monday, as all the world looked on. Then, three days later, he rose from the dead, and he appeared—first to Bobby, then to the Cabinet. After that he appeared to LBJ, alone, then to the cabinet again, and then to over five hundred witnesses at the same time—most of whom are still alive today! Last of all, I saw him myself, right on I-30 between here and Texarkana!’ How do you think THAT would go over?” he thundered.

The audience was trying to process this. Some of the younger ones laughed out loud, while many older ones scowled at the pastor, wondering what he was getting at. Josh, who had heard this illustration many times before, was nonetheless moved by it all over again. His father’s voice crackled across the assembly: “They’d start measuring me for a rubber room, wouldn’t they? Because they understood a fundamental truth in Dallas in 1970, just the same as they understood it in Jerusalem in 40 AD—dead people STAY dead!”

Now they got it. Many in the audience began to nod; others looked stunned as they processed what they were being told. The church was absolutely silent. Josh saw that his father’s words had made a visible impact on them. As his father read the next passage from Corinthians Josh began to reflect on the many churches that had heard this message before. Josh had been born in 1980, while his father was pastoring in Denton, Texas. His earliest memories were of scorching hot summers and mild winters, of church fellowships and youth rallies, and of the fascination with the past that his father had shared with him. They had scoured creek beds for fossilized shark’s teeth and arrowheads, and read and discussed biographies of presidents and kings long dead. They had gone to see every traveling exhibit of ancient artifacts from foreign cultures that came through the museums in nearby Dallas.

When he was ten, his father had been called to a church in Spiro, Oklahoma, and Josh had listened with wonder to old-timers talk about the amazing Indian mounds that had stood there before treasure hunters looted them during the Depression. One time, an elderly archeologist who had been there in those days had come to town and described how the central burial mound at Spiro contained a vaulted chamber with a ten-foot ceiling, stacked high with rare and perishable artifacts never seen in any American site: feather capes still perfectly preserved, shell gorgets, wooden burial masks plated in copper, and thousands of turquoise beads. It was at that lecture that young Josh had made up his mind to become an archeologist—to discover and excavate ancient treasures, to see them properly written up and curated, preserved so that future generations could gaze at them.

As he grew older, Josh became disgusted with the state of American archeology—politics had forced the science to pander shamelessly to Native American demands, so that beautiful and scientifically valuable relics were required by law to be put back into the ground, never to be seen again by anyone. He then decided that, while his love of archeology was unchanged, his focus was not going to be the flint chips and pottery shards the Native Americans had left behind. His faith was drawing him toward the Middle East, to the place where Christianity had been born, where traces of its origins could still be found today, proving that the Biblical record was more than just myth and legend. Josh believed that Christianity was rooted in real, irrefutable history. So he got his degree and then his doctorate in Biblical archeology, and participated in excavations at Qumran, Capernaum, and most recently Ephesus, where he had helped discover the remains of a fourth-century church built on the reputed burial place of the Apostle John. Now he was home on a brief sabbatical before returning to Ephesus to finish cataloguing and publishing his finds there.

His father was reading the final passage of the day as he returned his attention to the sermon: “‘For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.’”

Brother Ben looked slowly around the room. “I put it to you today, my friends, that Paul got it absolutely right. The world has been doing its best to put Jesus back in that tomb for two thousand years because they understand what many Christians forget: that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, our faith is based on a lie. Our belief is not in a risen Savior, but a desiccated corpse. If Jesus did not rise from the dead on the third day, we might as well tear down the church and build a bowling alley, for all the good we are doing anyone!” He paused for the last time. “But that isn’t the case, is it? We serve a living, risen Lord! And because He was powerful enough to conquer the grave two thousand years ago, He is powerful enough to handle whatever you are struggling with today! He holds out His hand to you this morning, offering to take your burden, to forgive your sin, to cleanse your life, and to make you a new creature! All you have to do—is TAKE IT!”

The organ swelled, and the choir began singing the old hymn: “I serve a risen Savior; He’s in the world today. I know that He is living, whatever men may say!” The congregation rose and sang along, and Josh joined them, his clear baritone ringing from the rafters.

* * *

Isabella Sforza could not believe it. She knew and respected Giuseppe Rossini, but what he was describing seemed impossible. “You realize that the ruins of Villa Jovis have been excavated dozens of times?” she asked.

“Of course,” replied Dr. Rossini’s voice from Capri. “Starting in the 1300s! I assisted on one of the most recent digs here, back in the 1980s. But I am telling you, from my brief glimpse, this chamber has never been breached since it was sealed—and I am sure that it is Roman in age, possibly from the time of Tiberius himself. You need to get over here!”

Isabella thought for a moment. “I have a class tomorrow evening, but my graduate assistant can cover that if need be. There’s an Antiquities Board meeting tomorrow afternoon, but they can certainly carry on without me. I’m the most junior board member anyway. It looks like this was well timed for me to come help—my schedule is pretty light all this week. All right, first things first. Close the ruins to tourism till further notice—put a barricade across the road if you have to. Go speak to the monks at the old church and warn them to stay away from the site, and cover the entrance of the chamber. I’ll see if I can pull a few strings and catch a chopper to Capri this afternoon. I’ll give you a call as soon as I can make arrangements.”

Rossini laughed. “Still full of fire, my dear! I always liked that about you. I look forward to seeing you in a couple of hours, then. And don’t worry—I won’t leave the chamber entrance unguarded.”

“Good,” she replied. “I will be there as soon as I can. And Giuseppe!”


“Don’t enter the chamber till I get there!”

He chuckled again. “Don’t worry, Isabella. I am aflame with curiosity, but using a cane for these last fifteen years has also made me cautious.Ciao!”

Dr. Sforza went to the cabinet in the corner of her office and quickly gathered her field gear—khakis, a backpack with bottled water, digital camera, energy bars, chalk, measuring tape, twine, and a variety of brushes and small picks for cleaning away matrix, dirt, and dust from ancient artifacts. She was a slender woman of thirty-one years who looked a good deal younger. She was born Isabella Verdi, to a family that had lived and farmed on the same land for generations. Precocious as a child, she had been fascinated with Italy’s history—the family farm in Tuscany featured the ruins of a Roman military camp and an ancient Greek temple, where she frequently found bronze arrowheads and the occasional badly corroded ancient coin. Earning excellent marks in school, she had already decided by age ten that archeology would be her life’s work. The arrival of puberty and the subsequent discovery of boys had never dampened her passion for history, and she had decided early on that men were more trouble than they were worth. She finished secondary school early, entered college at the age of sixteen, and by age twenty she had her degree in archeology and was in graduate school, with neither a boyfriend nor fiancé in the picture to complicate her plans.

That is, until she met Marc Antony Sforza. Their shared passion for Roman history and archeology flamed into passion for each other. They married after a short courtship, finishing graduate school as husband and wife. She went on to finish her doctorate by age twenty-six, while Marc had worked for two summers on excavations at the ancient port of Ostia. The marriage was mutually fulfilling and happy until Marc died in a plane crash five years before. Devastated, Isabella had buried herself in her career ever since, ignoring the many admiring glances she received from colleagues and strangers as she divided her time between archeological sites and the museums and laboratories where she studied and analyzed her finds. Logically, she knew that her husband was dead, and at some point, she should try to find another man to share her life with, but no one she met could ever measure up to the delightful man she had loved and lost. The fact that most men, seeing her for the first time, were more interested in what was in her blouse than what was on her mind did not help. While Isabella objectively knew that she was a well-built and attractive woman, she had no use for someone who put the physical ahead of the intellectual. She understood that physical beauty is fleeting and shallow, while the achievements of the mind would last forever. Her goal was to make such a name for herself that scholars around the world would remember her for the discoveries she made and the papers she published, not because she looked good in a set of khakis. She had been flattered to be offered a position on the Board of Antiquities at the age of thirty; however, she also knew that the promotion was due more to the government’s desire to appear friendly to women than to her merits as a scientist, and that bothered her a great deal. She wanted to earn her position!

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