I shrank further back into the shadows as four shrouded men, huddled together and glancing cautiously around, entered the dimly lit council chamber.
“Are you certain no one saw us enter?” one asked. I didn’t recognize his gravelly, raspy voice.
“No one saw us enter, I told you,” another voice responded. I clapped my hand over my mouth to stifle my cry at recognizing Zechariah. Zechariah? What is he doing? I wondered. The group of men had paused just past the threshold and were speaking in low tones. I strained to hear them.
“Why are you doing this?” one of them whispered.
The man who had spoken first shrugged nonchalantly.
“Answer the question! Why are you doing this?” Zechariah demanded. “This will go no further until we know your motives.”
The stranger stepped forward a pace, getting in Zechariah’s face. “Motives are irrelevant,” he hissed menacingly. “You want the man; I can give you the man. You ask questions; you lose the man.”
Zechariah responded, his voice filled with quivering rage. “Be careful how you speak to the Sanhedrin, Galilean peasant. Someday you may find that deceit and betrayal will earn you something other than Roman silver.”
“I said, ‘You ask questions; you lose the man!’” the stranger snarled. “Agree to a deal, no questions asked, or I will leave at once and your only chance will be gone. Let’s get this over with now.”
Suddenly two armed guards with sharp spears lowered threateningly, appeared in the doorway.
“You will not leave until we are satisfied with your answers,” Zechariah growled. “Now. To the secret chamber. Follow me.”
Secret chamber? I was stunned. I had no idea there was a secret chamber in the council building. I gathered my scattered wits as quickly as I could and assessed the situation. Zechariah, the stranger, and the two other men were rapidly striding toward the back of the council chamber with the guards following. I followed cautiously with light footsteps, skirting along the edge of the room where the shadows were deepest. One of the men who had come with Zechariah and the stranger carefully took a smoldering torch from its socket in the wall. Zechariah felt along the smooth stone blocks, then leaned his shoulder heavily against a portion of the wall while pressing another stone at the same time. Slowly, black lines appeared in the dark wall.
A secret doorway.
At last, the door swung open with a dull clang. The men entered quickly while I tiptoed closer as fast as I dared.
“Shut the door!” Zechariah commanded from the other side of the door. His voice sounded hollow and echoey, as though he were speaking from another large council chamber.
“We’re still waiting for several more men,” another voice answered. “Johanan, Benaiah the Sadducee, and Caiaphas. Oh, and the assistant council secretary. He’s normally not here for council meetings, but for this one, we need someone we can trust to keep his mouth shut.”
Caiaphas? What was Caiaphas doing? Why did the secretary need to keep his mouth shut? This was indeed a night of mysteries. It was clear that some conspiracy was underway. I knew that I needed to investigate. But how could I get into the secret chamber? The men were expecting a specific number of people, and I couldn’t hope to sneak past the guards.
Brooding, I strode away rapidly but silently. I had encountered something that was beyond me. I quickly descended the steps to the council building and stepped out into the fragile moonlight. Jerusalem slept. Well, most of Jerusalem. I heard footsteps approaching rapidly and slipped into an abandoned merchant’s booth. Peering out the flapping canvas entrance, I saw the assistant council secretary jogging down the road toward the council chamber. His dark, heavy hood lay back on his shoulders, revealing a sallow, cunning countenance. I knew the man far too well for my liking. He was more than suspected of taking vast bribes from high officials to twist accounts of council meetings, criminal trials, and other such affairs. I quickly assessed the situation as he approached. He generally wore his hood into the council. He was almost identical to my size and build, but frail from poring over documents for decades, and I knew I could overcome him easily if I took him by surprise. Stepping closer to the booth’s entrance, I rolled up my sleeves and tucked the ends of my robe into my belt. I carefully timed my leap. Wait… wait… wait… now! I sprang.
I caught the secretary square in the shoulder, and he crashed heavily to the ground. He scrambled to his feet, but I caught his ankles and yanked hard. He fell with a sickening thud and lay stunned on the ground. I rapidly slipped my arm around his throat and applied as much pressure as I dared without snapping his neck. He clawed at my forearm, but a vigorous life on a farm in the Judean hills had imparted greater strength to my limbs than was evident at a glance. The secretary’s gasps grew feebler, then ceased, and his hands fell away from my arm as he sagged down limply. I released his throat and felt for a pulse. He lived.
Breathing a sigh of relief, I quickly removed his cloak and threw it over my shoulders. It reached all the way around my body, effectively concealing my council garments. I threw the hood over my head, dragged the unconscious secretary into the merchant’s booth, and dashed off toward the council building.
My shoulders sagged in relief as I entered the door and saw that the secret chamber was still open. The guards nodded and stepped aside as I approached them.
As I walked into the hidden room, the guards slammed the door shut behind me. I looked up. Zechariah’s critical eye was fixed on me. I swallowed, hoping the hood would hide my face well enough.
“You’re late,” Zechariah remarked at last.
“I’m sorry,” I answered in a raspy, hoarse voice. “I’m very ill, and I came as quickly as I could.”
“You’re ill?” Zechariah demanded incredulously. “Why have we not heard of this?”
“It came on suddenly,” I pleaded as I walked to the secretary’s table and took my seat. “Must have caught it from those vile Greek pagans who my wife housed for a couple days. Just like her, thinking of others to my detriment.” I hoped I had imitated the secretary’s caustic manner well enough.
Zechariah opened his mouth with a sneer, but Caiaphas spoke up from the corner. “Leave him alone, Zechariah,” he commanded. “We have business to attend to.”
Zechariah scowled in my direction and sat down curtly, muttering under his breath.
“Now,” Caiaphas announced, “we have an unexpected visitor. I am sure you have noticed him. Step forward.”
I had been busily transcribing the high priest’s words, but my pen slipped at hearing these words—possibly directed at me. I glanced up nervously, then coughed violently to hide my sigh of relief. The stranger who had come in with Zechariah earlier that evening was now standing in the center of the Sanhedrin present, but he still wore his cloak and hood.
“Reveal yourself,” Caiaphas commanded. The stranger reached up and slowly withdrew the hood from his face amidst surprised gasps and murmuring from the council members. I dared to glance up and almost sneezed in my astonishment. I had seen the man before—with Jesus! I closed my eyes and tried to connect the face with a name.
Then it hit me.
The Iscariot. Judas. One of the twelve.
A crooked grin spread across Zechariah’s face. “Well,” he said, “we want Jesus. You can give him to us. First though, we need answers.”
Judas’ face twitched with anger, and he glanced toward the guards. “What answers?” he demanded sulkily.
“Only this,” Zechariah responded. “Why are you willing to deliver your teacher Jesus to us?”
Suddenly I realized fully what was happening in this secret council chamber. It was a midnight conspiracy—for a man’s blood. I swallowed hard to keep down the stinging bile that suddenly rose into my throat.
Judas hesitated, stumbling over his words. “Well, I—”
“Tell us!” Zechariah leapt to his feet in anger. The guards lowered their spears.
“M-money,” Judas blurted out. “Money.”
Zechariah sat down heavily, slapping his knees as he roared with laughter. “MONEY!!! HA! HA! HA!” He guffawed. “I never thought in all my born days that I would find a rabbi’s disciple willing to betray him for a bag of silver!”
“You have now,” Judas answered sullenly.
Clenching the secretary’s quill pen until my knuckles grew white, I bit my lower lip and forced myself to continue writing steadily.
“Name your price,” Caiaphas commanded calmly.
A greedy look crept into Judas’ eyes. He smirked and glanced around at the council members. “Thirty pieces of silver,” he stated evenly and crisply.
“Done.” The word left Caiaphas’ mouth almost before Judas finished speaking. “You will deliver Jesus of Nazareth to us; then we will give you thirty pieces of silver.”
“I want the money now!” Judas exclaimed, his boldness growing. “Otherwise how can I trust that you will keep your word?”
“How can we trust that you will keep your word, villain?” Zechariah shot back. “We will pay you once we have the man.”
“At least give me a down payment,” Judas demanded.
“Not a penny!” Caiaphas spat. He leaned forward, his eyes glittering. “I tell you, Galilean, if you had asked for 200 pieces of silver, you would have received it. Now, you have agreed to the price of thirty pieces of silver, and not a penny more will you receive.”
Baleful hate glittered in Judas’ haggard eyes. He straightened to his full height, clenching his fists, then turned and stormed toward the door. Zechariah nodded to the guards, who swiftly opened it and then slammed it after him.
Zechariah and Caiaphas glanced at each other.
“Will he come back?” one of the other council members ventured to ask timidly.
Caiaphas nodded. “He bitterly regrets not asking for more money, and his first reaction will be to have nothing more to do with this, but after a while he will realize he might as well have the thirty pieces of silver. Yes, he will be back. But now to business. When shall we arrest Jesus?”
“Thursday night,” Zechariah stated.
“Thursday night? Why then?” Caiaphas queried.
Zechariah gazed coolly at the high priest. “Trust me.”