Much to my relief the Asklepia did not sink.
Though the fire in her cargo hold spread quickly, forcing us to press against walls in order to escape flames, the pilot acted with daring boldness. While waves bashed against her stern, the pilot guided the Asklepia onto a shoal, running her aground in a most violent manner. With her keel stuck fast, great swells began to beat against her bow. For a few frightful moments I thought she might break apart and scatter us into the sea, but a gradual shift in the Asklepia’s position on the shoal’s slope proved fortuitous. In but a few moments the inundation of water rushing into the great ship doused the fire in the cargo hold. Only then, while water sloshed over the port railing, was the crew able to gain the advantage. Soon the fire on deck became but a damp, smoldering heap of charred timbers.
All this I witnessed from the cargo hold, for it was easy to see straight up, so large was the gapping hole from where fire had caved in the deck.
The fact that none of the men and women in the ship’s hold chose to escape served a testimony to the respect they had for Onesimus. Though one or more suggested slipping away to gain their freedom, Onesimus assured them such reckless actions would only lead to a slow, prolonged death preceded first by flogging.
“By the time your tortuous death arrives,” Onesimus said to the man who muttered the suggestion, “it will be a blessed relief. The crew will want to make an example of any who seeks to run.”
“So we are to remain captives until we can be sold? You think that is preferred to the chance of escape?”
“If my bearings are sound, and I believe them to be so,” Onesimus answered, “this shore on which we have fetched upon is but a league long at best and half that in width. I recall spying this island at a distance before we prepared to sail. To escape now would be to find yourself soon captured and forced to choose: escape out to sea or surrender to a horrid death. No, the wise course is to remain with this vessel until such time as a larger body of land comes into view. Only then should we attempt to swim to safety.”
“And when might that be?” asked a man who spoke Aramaic.
While the crew above us surveyed the damage on deck with the lit lanterns, I realized that the man who speaking in Aramaic to Onesimus was an individual named Titus. I suppose Titus thought by speaking in his native tongue others might not know of his proposed plan. Or perhaps he merely meant to draw to himself those from the area of Assyria and build a faction that would support his plan, for was he who proudly boasted of his importance at the city gate. It was he who had declared his intent to use violence against the ship’s owner. And it was he who now suggested that, though it still dark out and we without weapons or lanterns, escape.
“Once repairs are complete and this vessel again underway,” Titus continued, “what is to prevent the crew from sailing to open water with haste.”
In the lanterns’ illumination I saw that Titus was a white haired man with a white beard and eyes dark as coal. His skin had the color of bark from cypress trees, suggesting that he came from the region east of the mountains of Galilee, for his countenance reminded me of the men I had met while traveling with the apostle Paul.
“My hope is only that we survive long enough to escape to a friendly shore,” said Onesimus. “Should some wish to act otherwise, that is for them to choose.”
“I choose to act with boldness and trust the gods to reward me for my courage.”
From the way those around Titus nodded at his words, I gauged that our group had become divided into two factions — one supporting bold action now, another inclined to follow the advice of Onesimus and hope for a more favorable outcome some days in the future.
Sensing that I might gain a much-needed alley, I asked Titus, “Are you familiar with a man called Saul from Tarsus?”
“My village is Maaloula, a two day walk from Damascus. It would take nearly a week to walk from my village to Tarsus.”
“He traveled to your region some days back. Perhaps you heard him speak?”
Onesimus said, “We should offer to help the crew.”
“For what purpose?” Titus countered. “To speed the sale of our souls?”
“This man Saul,” a young man said, “I have heard of him. My uncle lives in Damascus. He spoke of how a man called ‘Saul from Tarsus’ carried with him letters from the high priest of Jerusalem. He passed through their village with the intent of presenting such letters in the synagogues. My uncle warned that should any be found who belonged to the Way, whether man or woman, this Saul wast to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem to be put in prison.”
“He has changed,” I replied, “for on the day he was to arrive in Damascus he saw a great light.”
“I venture we too will see a great light in but a few hours,” Titus interrupted. “And when we do, we shall be forced to repair this vessel and be on our way. I say we act now, one and all, and flee while we still can.”
“With your permission,” said Onesimus, speaking to the group, “I shall propose to the owner of this ship that any among us who have wives or children may be allowed to depart in the morning with crew in order to find timber on this island. Their families will remain aboard. If the man does not return, his family will suffer harm.”
“Your words are those of a madman,” said Titus, his voice rising. “Help this crew? Never!”
“His plan is sound,” I said, coming to the defense of Onesimus. “We should love our enemy. Pray for those who treat us with contempt. Do good to those who hate us. Bless them. Do this and it will be as if we are heaping burning coals upon their heads. Do good to our those who persecute us and we might yet be set free without harm.”
“Set free indeed,” Titus replied. “Very well, let us offer the two of you as ransom for our lives. Should we offer to do as you suggest and go with the crew to fell trees for timber . . . and fail to return . . . then let our blood be on your head.”
“Though your suggestion carries merit,” said a voice I had yet to hear, “I offer this alternative incentive.”
And older woman stepped forward. The lanterns’ light fell across her face. With a shawl draped over her shoulders and face veiled I saw only her eyes and in them I perceived a hint of bitterness and evil.
“For the opportunity to explore the island and fell trees, we shall present to the owner evidence that this lad has contrived to take the life of the owner’s aid, his relative. For this information we will ask that one of us be left on this island when we sail. What say all to this?”
I supposed all thought they might win the opportunity to remain ashore, for with one voice the crowd shouted, “Surrender the Hebrew! Surrender the Hebrew!”
Stunned by how quickly the crowd turned on me, I watched Onesimus to see if he might come to my defense. Instead, he eased away to join the woman. Clasping her hand, he stood by her side, nodding in agreement with the chant of the crowd until at last his lips parted and he too began to chant, “Surrender the Hebrew! Surrender the Hebrew!”
All at once the warning from the Teacher took on new meaning. “If you forgive a man when he betrays you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive him, your Father will not forgive your sins.” With the crowd’s chant growing louder, I found it difficult to breathe.
A moment later the crowd gave me up to the sentries.