I grew up in Hippos, one of the original ten cities of the Greek decapolis taken over by the Roman empire. Jewish people here enjoy contact with a rich mixture of cultures. Rome considers the region its eastern frontier.
My thoughtful father sought to protect me both politically and financially by marrying me to a Greek merchant rather than another Jew or Roman, as soon as I turned twelve and came of age. Father abhorred the Romans and how they forcefully subjugated our people in many areas of Palestine. Hippos, he thought, was an open city with its many freedoms, and he chose this place for our home.
He’d known Adelphia for several years and watched him develop into an established businessman importing goods from all of the empire. When he approached my father to discuss marriage, he was eager to wed me to such a fine man that he felt could protect me and provide for all my needs.
I had to trust my father’s judgment for no young woman could choose her own husband. This practice made me both anxious and curious. Although my mother had taught me how to manage a faithful Jewish household, she had no idea what it would be like to handle a Greek home where I would be the only one of our faith. My anxiety increased to the point that I could eat very little on the days leading up to my wedding.
Adelphia was a handsome man and a very considerate, gentle husband. While our marriage was the result of negotiations, we were attracted to each other. Adelphia demonstrated his love for me in many small ways and I returned his affection. I also felt tremendous gratitude toward my father for chosing Adelphia for me.
A few weeks after our wedding, my husband asked me to join him in the room in our house that he used for his business.
After I was seated, he said,"Shoshanna0, I’d like you to change your name to the Greek form, Susanna."
My name is Hebrew for lily or rose and I always liked it. I was stunned that he would make such a request. I could make no response.
Adelphia saw my reaction and got up from the table where he had been working with several scrolls and parchment sheets. He sat next to me and tenderly pulled me close to him. "Perhaps I should have started this differently. I’m so used to giving orders and having them acted upon, that I didn’t stop to think about how one treats a spouse."
I remained speechless, staring at the rug beneath my feet. Although it was only a change in pronunciation, I felt as if I was losing part of myself.
Gently, he lifted my chin and turned my face toward his. He spoke softly, "Let me explain. Most of the people you will meet are not Hebrew. Most will be Greek and a few Romans. It would be better for us both if you change your name to Susanna so that people will not immediately associate you with the Hebrews. I have no problem, but for some of my business associates, it could become a major issue."
I was determined not to cry. "I understand what you’re saying, but changing my name. . ."
He pulled me to my feet and held me close as he spoke. "Your father and I discussed this prior to our marriage. He readily agreed with me and I assumed that he had mentioned it to you."
I shook my head as my thoughts swirled around. His reasons made sense and I wanted to be supportive of him. After all, I really wouldn’t be changing my name. Others would just say it differently. I looked up at him. "The change is in the pronunciation and not the meaning. While I prefer the Hebrew form, I can use Susanna." The name felt strange on my lips as I said it. Like so many things about marriage to a Gentile business man, it would take getting used to.
The ten years between us and our cultural differences were a challenge for me at times. The hardest adjustment was learning to serve and eat pork dishes after the years of training in my mother’s Jewish kitchen where pigs were not even mentioned. Despite these things, Adelphia and I grew to care for each other and had an amiable marriage. My greatest disappointment was that we had no children. But my husband was so busy with his work that he never seemed concerned that we were childless.
We had been married ten years when Adelphia took a ship to Athens to inquire about some new wines for import. He’d been gone two weeks when the manager came from his warehouse and asked to see me. This was most unusual because I had nothing to do with his work.
Aesop waited for me in the main room. He was dressed in the robes of a businessman, but the quality of the fabric and the lack of design on the hems indicated that he was of lesser status than Adelphia. Aesop was a gentle and very courteous man. He always greeted me whenever he came to the house and was the only one in my husband’s employment that I knew. When I entered he bowed and I took a seat. His eyes were darker than usual and there were lines in his face that I had not noticed before. He seemed deeply distressed.
"Madam Susanna, I’m sorry to trouble you with this urgent and very sad news."
I felt a chill go through me in the way he spoke.
"One of our ships, that your husband took on his way home, was sunk during a severe storm. They’ve found some debris, but no survivors."
My ears buzzed and the whole room spun around. When I opened my eyes, I was lying on my bed with my favorite maidservant seated next to me. Surprised to find myself in bed, I swung my feet to the floor. Before I could stand up, the manager’s words came back to me. I sat on my couch, immobile, until my maid helped me lie down again. I gazed out of the window and thought about my plans to change the garden. They made no difference now. It was to be a surprise for Adelphia. How could he be gone? How can I truly believe that he won’t walk in the gate? Nothing left. Not a trace.
I fell asleep and woke in the middle of the night. There was an oil lamp burning at my bedside and I saw my favorite maid sleeping on cushions nearby. The tableau startled me and the scene with the warehouse manager replayed in my head. Adelphia is gone. I’m not sure how many fitful sleeping and waking cycles I went through before I finally got up and haltingly resumed household activities. I couldn’t accept that Adelphia was gone. There were times when I suddenly remembered that he wasn’t coming home and the numbness began again. I would sit motionless, as if in a trance, until one of the servants came into the room and spoke to me. There was no one to stay with me; I was on my own. I had some friends, but my family had returned to Judea.
Four weeks later, the manager returned and asked if I would see him. Aesop wanted to know how to proceed with the business. Adelphia had no brothers to take over. The little I knew about the business from Adelphia’s remarks fascinated me. I had wished to know more about it, but he kept everything but the interesting stories from me. This could be my chance to find out about it. I asked Aesop to teach me. He was reluctant at first, but found me to be an apt pupil. I discovered that I enjoyed the work and became so immersed in it that I lost contact with many friends. Perhaps learning Adelphia’s business assuaged some of the pain I felt with his loss.
One evening, Mary, a Jewish friend of mine, joined me for dinner. Petite and fine-boned with a preference for colorful fabrics, she reminded me of a bird flitting from one flower to the next. Tonight was different; her clothes were more subdued in the usual style of a Jewish woman. Rather than touching on many topics, she could only talk about the new rabbi.
"Susanna, you have to hear him. He gives a new interpretation to the Torah that is not so harsh. He emphasizes forgiveness and love of your neighbor. He has all kinds of followers: Jews, Gentiles, rich, poor...It doesn’t matter who you are." Her voice revealed her delight.
"What a welcome change from the synagogues that keep us women out and never allow us to be taught."
"He usually teaches in the countryside or in his followers’ homes. His name is Yeshua. I’ll come get you when I know he’s teaching somewhere close to us."
Three weeks later Yeshua came through Raphana, and Mary took me to hear him. We found him in a small house on the edge of town. She pulled me into the room where he was seated. I was surprised at the number of people in the room and filling the doorways. As crowded as it was, everyone seemed happy to be in his presence.
Yeshua’s garment was deep blue with a homespun robe in a lighter shade. He looked at me with a kind, understanding gaze. I had never seen this man before and yet it was as if I’d known him long ago, like an old friend rediscovered.
He spoke softly, but everyone could hear his voice without straining. He told a story about a rich fool who saved all of his treasure in a warehouse and died without putting it to good use. I felt something stir inside me. Adelphia’s fine business acumen had made me a very rich widow. Now, I had a vast treasure that served no purpose.
As we returned home, I asked Mary to find out where he would be speaking again. She said that her contacts would let her know when he was in the vicinity again.
Thinking about Yeshua and the talk I’d heard brought me a new peace. I stopped imagining ways that Adelphia might have survived the disaster at sea. Now, I wanted to learn more about Yeshua and his teachings. He soothed an emptiness I’d felt since my marriage, when I abandoned my family’s religious rituals.
After hearing Yeshua for the second time, I knew that I wanted to travel with his followers. Mary was interested in joining the group too, but needed to find out how we could do this. In the meantime, I asked Aesop how he had kept in touch whenever my husband traveled. We devised a similar system for me to keep up with business whenever I left Hippos.
Our first journeys were very short, but soon we were staying with Yeshua and his followers for days at a time. Mary and I were accepted as regular members of Yeshua’s entourage.
About seventy people generally followed Yeshua. Some could stay for several days before having to return to their homes and families. Others never left Yeshua and became an inner circle of disciples. Mary and I joined the women who cared for all of the followers and I often paid for food and other necessities as we traveled.
Thinking about the situation now, it seems strange. I can only say that in the very core of my being, it felt right. I knew in my bones that the way Yeshua lived and taught about loving one another and forgiving others as much as seventy times seven was the way we were created to be.
When we neared Jerusalem, I knew that it would be easy to find my family, but they had made no effort to stay in contact with me after my marriage. Now Yeshua’s people were my family. Yeshua’s teachings intensified and the time he spent with us seemed more precious. He taught the same concept in many ways, both parables and miracles. Not a moment passed that he didn’t try to share some deep meaning with us.
At Passover, he took the towel and basin from my hands to wash everyone’s feet. He showed such care and tenderness to everyone as they removed their sandals and entered the room. When he washed my feet, his soothing touch spread throughout my body relieving every ache after the long day’s work with the other women to prepare the meal. He looked up at me and smiled.
"Shoshanna." There was a twinkle in his eye as he said my name.
It startled me to hear him use the Hebrew form after all these years.
When he continued, it was on a more serious note. "You have shared much with us, but more will be required of you."
"I am ready, Rabbi. Just tell me how I can serve." I’ll never forget those moments when I felt complete acceptance.
He looked into my soul as if he knew every fiber of my being and I was filled with joy. Yeshua said, "Susanna, when the time comes, you will know what is needed."
The hours following Passover when Yeshua was arrested were chaotic. We fought our way through the mobs to stay as close to him as we could. Often guards at the palaces or soldiers near the temple precinct kept us from gaining access to the courts.
With Yeshua’s arrest, new opportunities arose for me serve him. I coordinated the women’s movements so that his mother was never alone and all of her needs were met. In the past, a sturdy, young woman in our group named Sarah and I had often worked together. Now we brought bread and wine to those who stayed with Yeshua as they traveled back and forth from the temple council chambers, to Herod’s palace and finally to Pilate’s court. Few wanted food, but they all got thirsty. At Golgotha, his mother and her closest companions, including my friend Mary, knelt at the foot of the cross. The rest of us women stood nearby so that we could respond to any need that might develop.
The men following Yeshua had scattered, but the women stayed together. When Mary Magdalene came with the news that Yeshua had risen, her face glowed and she spoke with absolute conviction. Deep inside, there was no doubt in my mind that Yeshua lived. Our joy was muted though, because the temple priests and Roman soldiers searched for those of us who followed Yeshua.
* * *
After the crowds left Jerusalem, I made my way back to Raphana. My enormous home felt strange after living and working so close together with Yeshua’s followers, especially the women. Weeks later, Mary came to see me.
"What now? I feel kind of lost," Mary said.
I felt the same aimlessness."I’m sure Herod and the Roman prefecture are trying to smother any possible uprising as a consequence of Yeshua’s crucifixion. Not many can know of his resurrection since that’s being spread by word of mouth, not a public event like his death."
She shook her head. "You might be surprised. In Jerusalem, the news is spreading like wild fire. Since Passover, Yeshua has been seen in other places outside the city. The disciples are receiving requests to travel and share the news and Yeshua’s teachings."
As she spoke, I heard Yeshua’s comment to me when he had washed my feet. "I wonder if we could turn this place into a haven for Yeshua’s disciples. They could stay here and rest as they need to before traveling on."
Mary looked around the room and at the gardens outside. "It’s a good idea. We have to spread the word carefully. I left Jerusalem a week after you did and I still heard about soldiers who were looking for Yeshua followers. I think that search will go on for a long time."
* * *
When Aesop came to discuss the business, I explored the idea of turning the house into a place for pilgrims to stay.
"Madam Susanna, I’m not sure that is a wise thing for a widow to do." Then, his serious expression became a warm smile. "I spoke too quickly. His followers can use your help. Knowing that there’s a safe place for them to stay as they travel through the region would offer them tremendous support."
"Aesop, you seemed so negative and then said the exact opposite. You have confused me." I had trusted him, but now, I felt uneasy.
Aesop looked sheepish. "I became a follower of Yeshua soon after you began staying with them. At first, I wanted to make sure it was not a danger to the business and that you were not being used. Then, I started to listen to Yeshua’s teachings and found that I wanted to be part of his work. I’ve stayed in contact with his followers. I think that there are ways for both of us to help."
"Aesop, I’m so glad that you are one of us. It will make things so much easier. I want to open this house to his disciples and followers."
"It’s a fine idea. The income from the business is strong enough for this expense. My only concern is to be careful that we don’t invite unsavory people as we spread the word that this is a safe place to stay."
"We can keep the house going as long as the business remains strong. Do many people know that I’ve taken over?"
"They see things going on as usual and have not asked many questions. I usually tell them that we’re in transition and new management is being planned," he said.
"I’ve heard of a few Roman and Greek women who have their own businesses, but they have come from scandalous backgrounds. That wouldn’t do for us."
Aesop’s face broke into a grin. "There’s a Jewish woman in the region of Lydia who sells purple fabrics. She handles the business herself and is well respected. We receive shipments from her. You can say you’re following her example."
* * *
My transition to becoming a business woman in the Hippos community went better than expected, but it took time to gain respect with some of the businesses. I had invited several men with their wives for dinners during Roman holidays. Aesop came to host the men and I maintained my usual role with the women, unless some issue related to Adelphia’s business came up. I still didn’t think of it as mine.
Aesop cautioned me to keep business matters separate from my support of Yeshua’s followers. That had been easy to do when I left Hippos to follow Yeshua. Since his resurrection, life had become more challenging. I had to keep the business running smoothly and reach out to Yeshua’s followers as they moved away from Jerusalem to spread the news about him. In addition to opening my home, I hoped to offer the disciples passage on ships that we used routinely. As I was mulling over various possibilities, Magnus, the gateman came to me.
"A man has asked to see you."
"Why didn’t you bring him with you?" I asked, puzzled at his reluctance.
"He’s not a regular client and wears very simple clothes. He did say that he was a friend of the teacher."
Hearing those words, I knew it had to be one of Yeshua’s followers. "Bring him to me." The situation highlighted one of the problems I had yet to solve. How could I identify Yeshua’s followers, especially those who joined after his resurrection?
I asked my maid, Cora, to put water and towels in the first guest room, then went to see who my visitor might be. Months earlier, Mary and I had rearranged unused rooms that opened onto the gardens to make a comfortable place for the disciples to stay. This offered an advantage of easy access to the back gate, if needed.
"Greetings, Shoshanna," Thomas, one of Yeshua’s chosen twelve, said as he walked up the path.
"Welcome to my home." We walked along the almond trees to the garden and I showed Thomas to his room. "I’m anxious for news, but that can wait until you’ve rested."
That afternoon, Thomas joined me in the garden. "What is happening with the followers?"
"Yeshua’s brother James remains in Jerusalem and Peter considers joining him there. Most of the others travel to the places where Yeshua taught to tell them about the resurrection. I want to go where Yeshua never went. First to places in Syria and after that, who knows."
We talked all afternoon and when it was time for the evening meal I asked Aesop to join us. We moved to a corner of the large room Adelphia and I had used for formal dinners.
Thomas stayed with me for a month as he met with followers in the area around Hippos. Either Aesop or accompanied him as we were able. It gave us a chance to let others know that my house was available for people who followed Yeshua’s teachings.
Together with Aesop, I told Thomas about our concern to be able to identify Yeshua’s new followers.
"At this point, Shoshanna, you know those who are traveling. As we grow, you should ask people for a letter or token from one of the first group of followers. I believe that this will become necessary if the Romans continue to pursue us. Some are debating this issue in Jerusalem and they’ll probably come up with a common sign we all can recognize easily. We can send them a letter while I’m with you and see if they’ve found a solution."
Aesop tugged at his beard. "There’s one more thing that we talked about and maybe it should be included in your letter." Aesop glanced at me to see if I knew what he might be referring to.
"We’d like to offer passage on the ships we use for our business. It can be arranged, but the follower would need to be very discreet. We do not want to function in secret and yet that seems necessary to avoid persecution. I can continue to offer hospitality and other support as long as the business is successful. This means that I have to keep my support of the followers circumspect."
Thomas nodded. "You have a lot to offer and it will be appreciated. We have to explain the situation to James and he can discuss it with the others. They will determine how to deal with both issues. As for me, I’ll head east. There’s a story that Yeshua spent some time in India. I want to see if I can find any of his followers there."
The house felt empty when Thomas left. I found it hard to wait for word from the men in Jerusalem. If I didn’t hear from them, would I recognize the next follower?
Aesop arrived for our weekly meeting about business issues and once those matters were resolved we began talking about Thomas’s visit.
"I’m worried about receiving new followers that we don’t know. How can I know who is committed to Yeshua’s teaching and who is just looking for a place to stay?" An edge of anxiety crept into my voice.
A thoughtful expression replaced Aesop’s easy smile. In the silence, I could hear birdsong through the open doors to the garden.
He turned to me with a gentle smile and said, "Yeshua received everyone and recognized each person as a child of God. Perhaps that is the lesson to guide us now."
"How often I saw him open his arms to receive lepers, the poor, the lame. I’m glad you reminded me because it is the way forward as we offer a place to stay and, when the need arises, passage on the ships."
As the years passed, the news that my home was open to Yeshua’s followers, passed by word of mouth. Many traced the outline of a fish with their walking stick in the sand at the entrance to my home to reveal their involvement with Yeshua’s teachings. Some were with me for only one night while others remained for weeks. Occasionally, Aesop and I were able to arrange safe passage on my ship to some. A few faced critical financial problems that we were able to resolve. While I never travel or speak to groups about Yeshua’s teachings, I know that my hospitality and support enable those who are blessed with these abilities to continue his work. I believe that this is how I serve Yeshua.
Shortly after losing Adelphia, my friends had suggested that I marry again and a brief flame of desire for children flickered, but my involvement with the followers and Adelphia’s business kept me too busy to consider it. Now Yeshua’s followers have become my family and the younger ones are like my children. The time is coming when I need to find a like-minded woman to help me manage this house and keep it available to the followers, when I an unable to keep it going.