Excerpts from “Bel Nemeton”

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The old minivan bounced along the road. As she drove, Dr. Ella Peretz explained the area’s history to Vivian and Jake. Vivian wished she’d spend more time watching the road ahead and less time looking at them.

“Arimathea is a puzzle,” Dr. Peretz was saying, “Other than Christian scripture, and sources referencing scripture, no record of such a place exists. My colleagues disagree, often vehemently, whether this is because the place is entirely fictive or it is the victim of a bad transliteration.”

Dr. Peretz always pronounced “colleague” as “CO-league,” a linguistic tick Vivian found incredible endearing. A decade ago, Peretz taught Near Eastern Languages at Vivian’s university. After marrying, she and her husband returned to Israel where she taught at Tel Aviv University. It was a serendipitous connection. With almost no notice, sweet Dr. Peretz dropped everything to assist Vivian with her visit.

Back in Berlin, research confirmed that there was a cave linked with Joseph of Arimathea located in northern Israel. She hadn’t found written accounts of the link prior to the Eighteenth Century. That wasn’t great but had been enough for Vivian to call her former colleague.

“In the earliest Greek copies of the Book of Luke,” Dr. Peretz continued, “‘Arimathea was written with an ‘h’ sound at the beginning. Copies from same period written in Syriac call it ‘Ramtha.’ So, scholars have claimed locations as different as Ha-Ramathaim, Ramah, and Ramallah for Arimathea.”

As the minivan threaded its way into a narrow canyon, their host switched from linguistics to local history. In the First Century, the canyon hosted a small colony of Essenes. The Jewish monastics had occupied caves high above the canyon floor. As Vivian already knew, one of these caves was connected with Joseph of Arimathea. Dr. Peretz thought that link was more ancient than the Eighteenth Century.

“You know, there is an apocryphal tradition,” she added, “that after the crucifixion, Joseph renounced his wealth and became an Essene.”

“There’s also an apocryphal tradition that he traveled to Britain,” Vivian added.

“I know,” Dr. Peretz responded, “But that seems less likely, doesn’t it?” Vivian and Jake exchanged looks as their host continued, “I suppose both things could be true.”

“Have you been to the cave?” Jake asked.

“I have not, but one of my colleagues has. He found it very interesting. There is writing in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek all over the walls. We’ve talked about going out and doing a proper survey.”

Dr. Peretz parked the vehicle. A short but taxing climb up the ravine took them to the caves at the top of the cliff. A narrow but well-worn path led to the cave they sought.

Its inside was diminutive. A niche in the far wall might once have held an ossuary, icon, or the Cup of Christ. Now it was empty. The inscriptions mentioned by Herbert Price, and confirmed by Dr. Peretz, were nowhere to be seen. Instead, pockmarks covered the walls and the floor was littered with shards of stone.

“Someone’s been with here with a sledgehammer,” Jake said.

Dr. Peretz was in a state of shock. “Who could have done this?”

Vivian and Jake knew.

c. 2018 Jon Black