It’s interesting that leading biblical scholars have recently taken to writing novels, apparently with an eye to communicating their ideas to a wider audience that’s more likely to read a novel than an academic monograph. Marcus Borg did it with his Putting Away Childish Things (Harper One, 2010), a book I reviewed for the Christian Century. In that book Borg shares his own progressive/liberal view of religion and biblical studies. Unknown to me at the time, Ben Witherington, a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, together with his wife Ann, a biology professor at Asbury College, has done much the same thing – only they have written a trilogy of books with an archaeological adventure theme. Considering that Ben Witherington has been a strong critic of the Jesus Seminar, of which Borg is a founding member, it shouldn’t surprise readers that his novel takes a rather different approach to biblical history than does Borg. Whereas Borg’s novel offers a progressive/liberal perspective, the Witheringtons’s book is clearly evangelical in its orientation. The two together provide an interesting contrast in perspectives.
I was asked to review the third Art West Adventure by the authors’ publicist, which I agreed to do even though I’d not having read the previous two installments. Doing so may be a bit like watching Revenge of the Jedi without watching the previous two installments of the Star Wars series, but since I’d read Borg’s volume, I thought it worth looking at something written by one of Borg’s leading critics.
Taking up this task, I encountered a book with three primary threads that the authors attempt to weave together – sometimes successfully and at other times less so. Early on in the book the authors deal with the threads in alternating chapters, which is rather typical of a novel, but it can also be distracting. In this case, there was one thread that seems to continue a story line from the previous volume, but which doesn’t connect well with the other two threads. This line of thought concerns a Charlotte Bobcat basketball player who is a Palestinian Christian, who had been a Muslim involved with Hamas, and who after conversion changes his name from Ishmael to Yakov, and ends up facing revenge for his rejection of Islam and Hamas. Oh, and Jake the Cat Arafat is boarding with Art West’s mother in North Carolina. I’m not too sure how this thread advanced the story line, but each reader will have to decide if it’s germane or not.
Leaving aside this particular story line, the primary focus of the novel concerns two important archaeological finds that are alluded to in the book’s title. . The first thread concerns an archaeological dig in Turkey that involved the figure of Art West, an American Methodist evangelical biblical scholar/archaeologist (a sort of Christian Indiana Jones – and yes reference to Indiana Jones is made in the book). The dig is located at Hierapolis, a center of Greco-Roman religion and early Christian prophetic enthusiasm. It focuses on Papias, a rather obscure 2nd Century CE bishop, whose references to the traditional authorship of the Gospels are found in the work of Eusebius. One of the features of this story seems to be Witherington’s desire to lift up the possibility that the gospels aren’t anonymous documents, but carry the identities of their actual authors – though he attributes the identity of the Beloved Disciple to Lazarus and not John the Apostle. Papias is, according to this story, a chiliast – a strong believer in the coming millennium, whose theology is directly influenced by the author of the Book of Revelation.
Any good novel needs a bit of romantic tension, and the Witheringtons provide it in the form of an attractive secular Turkish archaeologist named Dr. Marissa Okur. The confirmed bachelor who is now in his 50s develops feelings for his younger colleague who is leader of the dig, which raises the jealousy of another Turkish colleague, who will engage in some mischievous actions designed to either rid himself of his American rival or take credit for a major discovery. Of course, the question will be – are these to be unrequited feelings or not? And, of course, as an evangelical Christian, Art is concerned about being “unequally yoked.” You will have to read the book to find out how this tension will be resolved.
This discovery is the house of Bishop Papias, a domicile that provides important clues to the bishop’s theology and confirmation of theories of authorship and transmission of scripture, for in this house is found manuscripts of a long lost series of volumes that interpret the gospels and speak of their transmission – the volumes that Eusebius quotes from two centuries later. Here is a major find that would revolutionize our understandings of the Christian faith (if this were fact and not fiction).
The second thread that is mentioned in the title concerns a Menorah that is owned by a Muslim antiquities dealer. Having been purchased several decades earlier, the owner, Kahlil Said, has decided to give the menorah to Jewish friends, the bride to be being an archaeologist in her own right, as a wedding present. But first he must prove that he has properly obtained this menorah to the Israeli Antiquities Agency, and in the course of proving this, he discovers the presence of two pieces of paper, both of which appear to be ancient, and are hidden within the hollow core of the menorah. Both pieces of paper will prove intriguing and even dangerous. What is discovered is that this is no ordinary menorah. Not only was it ancient, it appears to have come from Herod’s Temple, making it the oldest menorah known and the only artifact known to exist from that Temple. Needless to say that when the wedding occurs, the menorah isn’t the present – but the intrigue that goes with discovering the nature of its existence proves to be an adventure in itself.
Since this is a review of a novel, I’ll leave the rest of the details of the story line to one’s imagination. As I noted in my review of the Borg book, I’m not much of a reader of novels, and so I’m not the best judge of literary style, but I know what I like. I did find this novel to have a degree of movement and adventure that wasn’t present in the more sedentary Borg novel. It is a pretty good tale that moves along fairly quickly. The inclusion of quotations in the Greek may be off-putting to some, but fortunately the authors provide translation – though perhaps the presence of the actual Greek in the text really isn’t needed to carry the story along. And, depending on your starting point you may find the little evangelicalism – like concern for being “unequally yoked” endearing or perhaps a little silly. I found some of these statements a bit odd considering that they supposedly come from the lips of a distinguished biblical scholar, but perhaps that’s due to my having been absent from the evangelical mainstream for some time.
Even as Borg attempted to lay out his view of a metaphorical interpretation of the biblical text, the Witherington book seems to be offering an imaginative rendering of a very traditional view of the transmission of scripture. Perhaps this is an area of conversation that needs further development, for it is a much more conservative view than I learned at Fuller and taught at the Bible college that employed me. What, I wonder is the rationale for such an interpretation of authorship, other than the assumption that if written by eyewitnesses or those who heard the story of Jesus from eyewitnesses gives these texts greater authority in a skeptical age. Due to the nature of this genre these questions are left hanging, but perhaps that’s the purpose – opening up a conversation about the importance of authorship to authority.
Although this isn’t Hemingway or even Dan Brown, it’s an interesting story that raises interesting historical questions in a “novel” way. And if you need another view than mine, consider that of Richard Baukham, who says of the book – on the back cover -- that each of these “archaeological thrillers is more enthralling than the last.” Baukham may be a bit biased, as the book is dedicated to him and he is mentioned as an authority, I think it’s worth considering his esteemed judgment (especially since I’ve not read the previous two installments). As I noted in my review of the Borg volume, Jesus scholars understand better than most the value of story in communicating ideas. The Witherington’s, like Borg, should be commended for picking up this genre. Writing novels isn’t, I expect, as easy as some might think. And they do a commendable job, making this a book worth reading.