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Don’t Get Noticed

by Don Webb

“Tell me,” the professor began, “how this famous sentence is to be interpreted.”

Twelve graduate students immediately perked up their ears and poised pens over already-opened notebooks. A few even began writing. They were unconsciously parodying an old joke: when the professor comes into the classroom and says, “Hello,” undergraduates reply “Hello”; graduate students write it down.

Only, it was no longer a joke: now that time travel had made historical research a wide-open field, one incredibly more complex than in the “past,” historians had to be almost literally Renaissance men and women, and two advanced degrees were merely a start in the profession. This first-year seminar would be the first step in a long and dangerous career.

The professor quoted from memory: “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...’ It goes on, of course, but that’ll do for starters.”

The students glanced at each other, puzzled. Was this a trick question? Oh well, play along and humor the prof. “The way I see it,” began Pete, a burly, amiable fellow in blue jeans and matching jacket, “Jefferson was saying that everybody ought to be treated equally under the law.”

“That’s how we see it,” answered Thomas, “but how did people hear that in the mid-18th century? Did ‘men’ exclude women? Slaves?” Tom — a thin, somewhat older student — peered at Pete over his reading glasses and sharpened his pencil to a fine point.

“All the evidence says it does,” Mary interjected. “The idea of ‘man’ broadened in the following centuries, but only with a lot of struggle, don’t we know.”

“You might say Jefferson’s idea has been taken to its logical conclusion.” Andrew, an athletic sort, was given to philosophical reflection as well as action.

As no one else seemed to have anything to say, the professor added, “That’s a basic problem of history: meanings change as culture changes. Now, what about the term ‘Creator’: why didn’t Jefferson just say ‘God’?”

“Sounds like the same thing, only different,” said James, rubbing his short beard pensively with one finger. “Probably has to do with the idea of a ‘clockmaker’ deity that was becoming popular at the time. The rights are ‘unalienable’ not because they’re ordained but because they’re natural laws. What we might call a physicist’s way of looking at it.”

The answer was greeted with nods and no reply. The professor added, “Suppose Jefferson had written ‘God’. What trap did he avoid by not doing so?”

“That’s easy,” said John, leaning back in his chair, the toe of a hiking boot just peeking out over the table top. “‘God’ is a politically loaded term. Jefferson doesn’t get into quarrels over whose God he’s talking about.”

“There you go,” said the professor, beaming with satisfaction. “Now for a little review to start the semester. Why don’t we historians go back into the past, get an interview with Thomas Jefferson, and discuss all these things with him? Maybe improve history a little?”

Matt, a short, red-haired fellow, laughed, “That’s been done.”

“And the results?” asked the professor.

“We don’t know,” Matt continued. “And we never will, unless we can access the parallel time-lines we’ve created in the process. I sometimes wonder what they’re like. They may be pretty weird.”

The professor grinned, “Don’t we all wonder about that. And what does that mean for historians doing field work?”

“Don’t get noticed!” the class almost chorused. The admonition wasn’t inscribed on any walls, but it may as well have been: it had become the unofficial motto of historians traveling in time.

The professor smiled; the semester was off to a good start. He concluded the discussion: “Not only do important meanings change with time and culture, people living at the same time and in the same place don’t always agree on them.

“Now for today’s lesson. We’re going to project a recording of a scene from Antiquity. It was taken just a month ago. Our field operative got lucky: he was able to identify a meeting place of a dissident group in first-century Palestine. He managed to bug the room and return uptime with the recording. The lighting is terrible by our standards, and the sound is uneven. Why can’t we do any better than that?”

Matt was ready with a quip: “He might as well have buzzed the town with one of those old F-16 fighter planes. Or sent in a roving crew from a TV news program. Don’t get noticed!”

The professor nodded. “And if he or his equipment had attracted undue attention?” The point could never be stressed enough.

“He and his stuff would have disappeared into the new time stream he created. He’d never come home,” said Philip, with a glum look.

“And our own history?” The professor could be a little relentless at times.

“Aside from losing the historian, it would be unchanged, as though he’d never been there,” said Mark. “Probably the law of the conservation of history,” he added with a wry grin: “Win some, lose some.”

The professor nodded again. These students knew the basics, and their participation so far looked very promising. “Some subjects are worth field investigation. Can you give me an example of any that might not be?”

“Mostly artists,” mused Thomas. “I don’t see any point in doing field work on, say, Van Gogh, or Montaigne or Shakespeare. Can we find out what we want to know without getting noticed? And does what we want to know justify the risks of time travel? Have more conventional methods all been tried? Maybe I’m overcautious, but I need a ‘yes’ to all those questions. Otherwise I’d think it was a big waste of time, pardon the pun.”

“Very good, Thomas,” the professor answered. “That’s the sort of thing we’ll be dealing with all semester. And it’s not just red tape, either: time travel sounds like high adventure, but it’s not; it’s just plain risky. In the field, a historian is a spy. And what’s the mark of a successful spy?”

The class had to think about that one. The professor waited patiently. “Remember: ‘Don’t get...’”

“I get it,” said Matt. “There is no mark of a successful spy. You never know he’s been there.”

“Right on the money,” the professor chuckled. “So why do we go to the trouble?”

“Seems to me it has to do with clearing up ambiguities and misunderstandings,” said Mary. “And to do that, we usually have to observe people at the right place and at the right time. That’s very hard to do. And we mustn’t get noticed.”

“If we’re going to see dissidents,” said Philip, “that makes it all the harder. This has to be a group of marked men. They’ll be almost constantly on the move. They’re avoiding Roman legions and the informers of the local puppet kings. Just finding where they are at a given moment... I hate to think about it.”

The professor nodded. “Right you are. And even if they are where we think they are, we don’t always know exactly where or when that is. But our operative was able to find out.” The “operative” had been none other than himself, but he considered that incidental. He dimmed the lights in the room and started the projection.

The room was empty at first; it contained only some mats on the floor and a low table. Light streamed in through two windows. At last a dozen or so men came in. One of them went out to stand guard. They were clothed like any group of men of the time: loincloths, travel-worn robes, sandals. They plopped wearily down on the mats; they seemed to have already walked a distance that day.

They were nonetheless animated, conversing and joking in a language that the students understood but did not yet speak fluently: first-century Aramaic. After a few minutes, two women brought in some wine and food. One of the men thanked them. That man looked no different from the others in the group, and yet the rest obviously deferred to him for one intangible but obvious reason: he was charisma itself.

The students stared, realizing they were looking at a person rarely seen before: Yeshua.

“This expedition was part of a large project: to compare the Gospels to actual events,” the professor said. “This trip was one of our success stories. The town is indeed Bethany, and the house does belong to someone called Simon. But I don’t know whether he was a leper or not; I didn’t get to see him. And you don’t ask too many questions when you’re in the field: one question at the wrong time may be one too many. Obviously he was a supporter of the Jesus group.” The projection continued:

As the men ate from a common bowl, a woman came in carrying a jar. The men seemed to know her; at least they showed no surprise. She went up to Yeshua, opened the jar, and spread ointment on his hair. All the other men in the room stared in amazement. Some showed expressions of annoyance.

The professor suspended the projection at that point and turned to the class. “What was that ointment?” he asked.

“Spikenard, according to Mark’s Gospel,” said Thomas. “Top of the line. Who was she, anyway?”

“I’m not sure,” said the professor, “I didn’t follow her or ask questions. Field workers have to keep their priorities straight. Suppose we found out: what difference would it make? But she was evidently wealthy enough to afford that ointment. What’s she doing in that scene?”

“Anointing visitors with common oil was hospitality,” said Mary, “but a specialty like that was reserved for rabbis, priests and kings. Very important people. She’s giving him an honor of nobility.”

The professor gave a small smile. “Let’s hear more.” He continued the projection.

An argument started. Listening closely, the students soon realized it seemed to be motivated mainly by embarrassment. A rabbi Yeshua might be, but he was certainly no king or priest, and he never put on airs. What was the point of such an expensive gift? They ought to be getting the poor on their side and make the Romans and their puppets irrelevant. With the government and priesthood in the hands of foreigners, the country was seething with unrest and heading for violent revolution, and who knows what would happen to the Temple then? This was their last, best chance to save it and return it to the people. Several were speaking at the same time and the conversation was going off in several directions at once.

The professor halted the projection.

“I can see their point,” said Jed. “Honor is all very nice, but they needed the money more.”

“It was worth more than money,” protested Mary, “she was redefining a symbol.”

“How do you figure that?” retorted Jed. Before Mary could answer, the professor restarted the projection. Yeshua was speaking:

“Stop giving her a hard time. What’s your problem, anyway? The poor will still be with you after I’m gone, and you can provide for them whenever you want. Consider this an anointment for burial. She has done what she could, and of her own free will: that is what we’re all about. Never forget it.”

Jed persisted: “What do you mean, ‘redefining a symbol’?” he asked Mary.

Pete broke in: “Anointment as a high honor and for burial. Both at once. That’s what I’d call a happy ambiguity.”

“That’s exactly it,” Mary said. “In our terms, she was the Betsy Ross of their movement. She was creating a symbol of revolution. And what thanks does she get? Carping from bean-counters and rule-book polishers. Jesus was the only one who showed her respect.”

Jed scowled and took another tack: “All this talk of revolution and political and social change makes no sense. Everyone knows that the message was to get clean and wait for a deus ex machina to put everything right. In one way or another. As always, it never happened,” he sneered. “And he was right to blow off the poor: they’ll always be with us.”

By this time, Pete was visibly angry: “Spoken like a true plutocrat, Jed. That has to be one of the most cynical misquotes out of context in all of history. And the rest of it — that pie in the sky talk — is a crock. Too many scholars have said the same thing: they think they’re betting on mysticism when — if they’d just stop to think for a minute — they’d realize that all it boils down to is a ‘come to Jesus’ racket. Well, I think they’re fools. Waiting around for Kingdom Come, that’s what makes no sense. What’re you supposed to do while you’re waiting? Sit on your nice, clean butt? Nobody risks his neck to tell people something that trivial.”

The professor broke in. “Time is about up. Maybe we can continue this discussion next week. But one thing is sure, Jed: do not even appear to step out of line around the Romans. They’re law-abiding because they waste no time or patience on anyone who isn’t. And they don’t have prisons; you’ve seen what they do.”

Everyone in the class looked down and shuddered mentally. “Don’t get noticed,” someone murmured. Andrew’s quiet answer broke the silence: “That sounds pretty hollow, now.”

The professor nodded sadly, “How well I know. Some have been brave enough to pay the price of intervention. As we know from our own history, that price can be very high indeed. And yet... who knows when we may be so moved by compassion that we can no longer hold back?

“At the beginning we said that meanings change, and we have seen the significance of a custom change before our eyes. The Disciples themselves had to be taught what it meant. Are we any better than they? It took eighteen centuries for that lesson to begin to sink in.

“You will all do field work in the past some day. But when you go back, what will you actually see? And will you be sure you understand it? You practically have to become a citizen of that time as well as of our own. Now, what was that woman really doing? I think that’s something we can understand; she was answering in her own way Jesus’ question about himself: ‘Who do you say that I am?’”

Copyright © 2003 by Donald Webb

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