The clock on the wall in the modest but comfortable meeting room at the University of Martinsburg read 2:15. Outside the window, it seemed to LaSalle, a September Kent afternoon fluttered within reach, the campus alive and bustling with students just arriving for the new term, yet retaining unmistakably that seemingly unflappable sedateness common to college campuses everywhere—its lanky tree branches, in the spirit of the season, transcending from green into autumnal golds. Benches, pigeons, students walking about—all of it upsurged into an almost musical September synthesis. From here, one would hardly suspect or imagine the strife engulfing much of the world. Violence, atrocities, terrorist armies in Syria and Iraq, a new cold war threatening to escalate at times into a hot one—all of it seemed far away, he thought.
Dominic David LaSalle, scholar, professor of religious studies, and Catholic priest looked at the others seated around the table, his eyes coming to rest at last upon the physicist from the University of Northampton, who had just begun discussing her findings. She was an attractive woman, that was certain, yet a reserved air she maintained, both inside the academic setting, and, from what little LaSalle had seen of her, outside it as well. He had first come across her name in an email shared with the group back in early spring: Oneska. Dr. Sylvia Oneska. Her knowledge of her subject was impressive. No question about it. And over the months she had contributed considerable expertise in their effort at making a determination on the newly-discovered papyrus antiquity. Yet he had not met her face-to-face until his arrival in London two days ago.
“We normally don’t do radiocarbon analyses on recovered manuscripts due to the need for destroying a small portion or piece of the papyrus, but we were asked to make such a determination in this case, apparently due to the controversy involved,” she was saying.
LaSalle glanced around the table at the others; all eyes were upon her, including Arthur’s. His friend sat with his hands resting, crossed together, upon a stack of papers, scientific and paleographic specimen dating reports, as he chaired the meeting underway, upon his face a look of measured intensity. And well there might be. For a lot was at stake. Whenever archaeology and religion meet there is always the potential for controversy, and this case had been no exception. But throw history, war, international geopolitics and end times eschatology into the mix as well and you had a truly explosive cocktail, one which could detonate in any number of unpredictable ways.
“We did an accelerated mass spectrometry determination using known-age tree ring radiocarbon measurements, with the ages being calibrated accordingly. What we came up with was a median, or most probable, date of 97 ce.” Oneska paused and then added: “In other words, the artifact recovered from the Syrian desert, at least from a scientific dating standpoint, is genuine.”
The words caused an almost collective intake of breath around the table. LaSalle thought back to his own study of the papyrus manuscript and his work on its translation into English. Was it really, as it claims, written by a young Roman dissident imprisoned on the island of Patmos for his political views? And was this during the reign of the emperor Domitian? The physicist’s dating of the papyrus material would seem to provide evidence that it was. At the very least, he thought, it rules out the possibility of the document’s being a modern forgery. But what else could be gleaned beyond that? Did the manuscript relate, as it also purports, the life story of one of the Roman’s fellow prisoners on Patmos? And was this John the Disciple of Jesus? Did the young dissident write the story down in the final days and hours of the ninety-three-year-old man’s life? And lastly was this disciple, John, the same John who also wrote the Book of Revelation? This was the explosive part of the story. And this is what had yet to be released to the media, although vague rumors had begun to leak out, rumors speculating that at the very least there was more to the discovery than had been admitted publicly. Arthur, to put it mildly, was being hammered with requests to fully disclose the contents of the manuscript and to make photographic facsimiles available for scholarly study. It all gave rise to the heightened sense of gravity in the room as the physicist continued discussing her findings.
“Our conclusion on the dating is reinforced by an analysis of the ink used in the manuscript. The method employed for this was a macro-Raman spectroscopy—basically you focus a laser beam of light in such a manner as to cause an excitation of the molecules on a small area of the sample, usually around one micron in diameter. The scattered light is read by the spectrometer in terms of its wavelength. We don’t see it with the naked eye, but dyes and pigments tend to have vibrational motions that correspond strongly to light waves, and thus we are able to get a reading through a measurement of scattered light intensity—it’s a calculation of the differences between the scattered light and the collected light. What we found is that the ink used in the manuscript came from carbon black pigments such as lamp black. This is consistent with the type of ink in use during the first and second centuries, but the composition of ancient inks could vary depending upon how they were made.
“Lamp black usually was derived from fine soot gathered from incompletely burned carbonaceous materials. The soot would then be bound together in some type of gum or resin, and the ink, including the gum binder, would usually come in the form of a solid cake to which water would be added. But given the potentially different types of substances involved, not all inks have the same composition. And it’s possible for us to look at a document and ascertain whether the same ink batch was used throughout the entire text, or whether different batches were used. What we were able to determine was a uniform similarity in the composition of the ink. Whether all the scrolls were written by the same person is a question beyond the scope or purview of our analysis—but what I can tell you, with ninety nine percent certainty, is that the same identical ink was used throughout the entire body of writing.”
It was just as LaSalle had thought. The sameness of the hand; the sameness of the papyrus; the sameness of the ink; it was all fairly well apparent when you looked at the manuscript. Her findings had merely confirmed what he had suspected. LaSalle glanced at the physicist to see if she were through with her presentation; it appeared she was. Sylvia Oneska had tied the manuscript definitively to the time of the turning of the first century. That was now conclusive. Even so, for LaSalle, this did not discount the possibility of the document’s being a fake or forgery, or a “pseudo John” text, as the case may be. No. It didn’t discount it totally. But it did allow the drawing of certain suppositions. The carbon dating combined with references to Patmos Island would make the thesis of a link to the Book of Revelation more supportable, that and of course the protagonist’s name—John. There was a small problem. Many scholars today, probably most, discount the possibility that “John” the disciple of Jesus and the “John” of the Apocalypse would have or could have been same man. “Well, if he wasthe John of the Apocalypse, he sure as hell was old,” said a scholar from a California university at a seminar LaSalle had attended two years ago. The woman had authored a book on Revelation in which she had stridently dismissed it as nothing more than a diatribe against the “Roman Imperial Cult,” pooh-poohing the idea of its being a prediction of the future, while lambasting, with some justification, US evangelicals and their interpretations of it as proof of Russian evils. Sure as hell was old. Yes. And now it turns out that he, the John of the Apocalypse, was old. Quite old. Did it matter? LaSalle’s thoughts went back to that three-day event in Boston. The conference had drawn scholars and professors of religious studies from universities both inside and outside the United States. LaSalle had appealed to Arthur to join him, yet his British friend had begged off. In retrospect, LaSalle wished he had done the same. His impression of the scholars at the event and the papers they had submitted was that most seemed more interested in grinding a political ax than in getting at the truth. Yet he had wanted to go. Mainly because the event had been held in the United States, a country toward which he still, despite his life in France, felt an attachment.
“Dr. Oneska, did you have anything else to add?”
“No, I’m finished.”
Very well, thank you.”
Arthur paused, then resumed, “Enders, would you like to report your findings?”
“Yes…um…certainly, Dr. MacBride.”
With reluctance Enders Thenatakios tore his eyes from the physicist who had just given her report. She was one of the most strikingly beautiful women he had ever seen. Physical beauty—in her cheekbones, her lips, her chin—but beauty also in terms of the way she held herself and moved through a room. It was a stylish poise and confidence few women could match, and it had been evident in the presentation of her report. Obviously she was an expert in her field, and the report had been superb. But he had noticed, from the time they had met, something else about her as well, a cautious aloofness that he had yet to plumb. It was as if she were fighting a daily battle keeping the world at a safe distance. Thenatakios had first met her six months ago when she had officially joined the team, but then they had parted ways, and he had not seen her again until just two weeks before today’s meeting. It was a chance encounter; they had run into each other outside a café on Foley Street in London’s West End. She was every bit as beautiful as he remembered, and she had seemed friendly at first. At a table they had chatted as she laughed at his lines—lines he had used on a hundred women in a hundred other settings—but then just as he had felt the ice breaking, something had happened; a door or curtain had slammed shut. Almost literally in his face. Her aloofness reinserted itself, and a few minutes later she had excused herself and left him. Why? He had tried to figure it out. Was she guarding something, a secret of some sort perhaps?
“Please, call me Arthur. And you also,” here the chairman of the meeting looked at Oneska—”Sylvia, call me Arthur as well. Please. All of you. We’re going on a long and difficult journey, so no reason for us not to dispense with formalities and work with each other on a first name basis.
“Thank you,” the physicist smiled—”Arthur.”
“For David and me it’s a horse of a different color. We go back a few years together, probably more than either of us would care to remember—I’m charmed to say I knew him back in the day, so to speak, before he entered the priesthood”—Arthur grinned, and LaSalle acknowledged the recognition with a good-natured smile of his own—”but we’re going to be leaving the hallowed halls of academia, and I think the cordial amiability of a uh—well who knows? A golf course maybe—will begin to assert itself at some point amongst us given the nature of the project we’re working on.” Here he paused, his smile taking in the entire group: “So…please, Enders—whenever you’re ready.”
Thenatakios couldn’t suppress a smile of his own. “Thanks, Arthur—and I think I’m beginning to see why you have the reputation in the field of archaeology you do—”
“It’s not me,” MacBride interjected. “It’s my graduate students. They do all the work. I take all the credit, and that may sound like I’m speaking facetiously, but to a large extent it’s true. Go ahead, Enders—
Again, Thenatakios smiled. “Your exploits at Ebla and Tel Mardikh are well known, Arthur, and it’s my privilege and honor to be working with you. But at any rate, down to business…” he paused to organize his thoughts. “I’ll try and make this succinct, and some of this you’re already familiar with, Arthur, but I’ll lay it out for the benefit of the rest…”
Enders Thenatakios was a professor of Classical Studies and Socio-linguistics at Luton College. It was another teaching position. A new one. He had burned his bridges at the University of Exeter. Over the years he had had amorous entanglements with plenty of women, but he had always tried to draw the line at having affairs with his students. Even so, it was a line he had crossed on a few occasions. He was thirty-eight years old—still young in a manner of speaking, though fast approaching middle age. He had been in love, that is to say truly in love, exactly once in his life. She was an avionics technician working for a company in London. He had been a lecturer at the time at Kings College. In some respects it had been love at first sight. They had dated for a while. He had proposed. She had turned him down. Looking back on it now, he had to admit she was probably wise beyond her years. Lucida sidera. That had been eleven years ago. His life since then, if he had to describe it, would probably resemble a fluctuating wave-particle more than anything else. Going from woman to woman. Moving from flat to flat. Looking for something that was never there. And then this year. Leaving Exeter would probably have landed him in the gutter, but he had been saved by his professional reputation. He was an acknowledged expert in his field, having published four books, including one that had made the bestseller list. It was the main reason, probably the only reason, Luton had extended an offer to him. When it came to classical history, and the use of linguistic and anthropological methods in the study of ancient manuscripts, there was no one who could hold a lamp-blackened candle to him. And it was why Arthur had wanted him on the team in spite of his numerous peccadillos. Arthur—to whom he was ever grateful, for it had not been the first time he had saved him.
“The delta of Egypt,” he began, “was the main center of papyrus cultivation and the primary source of papyrus rolls used in the ancient world. The stem of the plant was cut lengthwise into strips. The strips were laid vertically upon a board, side by side, until the desired width was reached, at which point shorter strips were laid at right angles. The sheets would then be hammered and dried in the sun, thus forming a surface for writing. Finally, they would be connected together with paste to form a roll. Parchment and vellum, made from animal skins, did not come into widespread use until the third century, but they caught on big because they enabled scribes to write upon both sides of the sheet, whereas prior to that, with papyrus, writers had been limited to utilizing one side of the page only. The fact that our manuscript, lengthy as it is, was written on papyrus would thus suggest an earlier dating. But that’s just for starters.
“The presentation by Dr. Oneska—Sylvia, I should say—was most informative, I would even go so far as to describe it as eloquent, and as far as I’m concerned her median date of 97 ce is right on the money. What I can add to her findings is my own analysis of the handwriting. Paleography has been described as an inexact science, yet in reality there is much we can determine about ancient texts by studying the handwriting employed, both in terms of the formation of the letters as well as in the sort of abbreviations used by the scribe. It should be remembered that alphabets, regardless of the language, are in a constant state of evolution. In earlier Greek texts, dating to the fourth century bc, letters tended to be angular, but over time a more rounded appearance came into fashion. The evolutionary process also included the cropping up of such things as contractions and abbreviations, as well as ligatures, or the running together of two or more letters so that they are essentially written as one character. In any event, the main language used in written communications was Greek. This remained true in the Roman period and even up to the Byzantine era. It was quite simply the lingua franca of the day.
“Early scribes employed two types of Greek handwriting. There was the book hand, used for transcribing important documents, valued works of literature for instance, and then there was the cursive hand, employed for more informal purposes. Documents produced for sale in the book trade were written in the book hand, and here abbreviations were kept to a minimum. The cursive hand, by contrast, was adopted for more mundane usages—bills of sale, correspondences, or simply the jotting down of one’s own private thoughts. Not only would abbreviations be employed liberally, but we find not infrequently abbreviations by suspension—this is to say with certain words reduced to the first letter followed by a dash—and even a measure of tachygraphy, or shorthand.
“As for our manuscript from the Syrian desert, while occasionally we come across a Latin, or even an Aramaic or Hebrew word here and there, it is composed mostly in Greek, obviously by someone well educated. For the most part he writes in the book hand, though there are periodic lapses into the cursive hand, as if the scribe had suddenly become hurried.
“In the very earliest manuscripts we have, going back to the fourth century bc, majuscule letters, known as capitals, were the norm, these being written in a distinctly angular style. Later on, starting about the third century bc, we begin to see uncials—here the letters are still fairly large, but they begin to take on a more curved shape. Uncial was the style normally employed in the book hand in the first and second centuries of our era. Our Syrian text is written in gracefully-formed uncials, and some of the abbreviations employed by our scribe are consistent with those in other texts from the era and most likely would have been recognized and understood by a majority of readers. In the areas of the manuscript where he lapses into the cursive hand, still he limits himself to the most commonly-recognized abbreviations. Even so, things of this nature make for challenges for modern-day translators of ancient texts, and Father LaSalle and Dr. Kleesman—or David and Martin, I should say—have my hearty congratulations on the fine job they have done.
“In contrast to our own writer, some scribes of the day pushed the limits with abbreviations, particularly when producing documents in the cursive hand. The reason was quite simple. Shortening and relieving the toil of writing was a universal concern. This became all the more so as we progressed from the first into the second and third centuries, a time when literary demands increased and scribes were hard pressed to meet that demand. Consequently in the late second/early third centuries we notice a deterioration in the quality of handwriting. The graceful, meticulous accuracy of the first century gives way to an unlatched and more hurried formation of letters, and the number of abbreviations goes up as well. Some of the abbreviations would have been universally recognized, with others more obscure, and some scribes even went so far as to adopt what probably was their own trademark shorthand style.
“But to get back to our more immediate problem of trying to determine a date for our Syrian text, we have a papyrus of Aristotle’s work on the Constitution of Athens dating to about ad 90 in which the scribe used a number of characteristic abbreviations. There also exists a deed of sale for some vineyards in the Egyptian city of Fayum which gives an actual date—the seventh year of the Emperor Domitian, which would have been ad 88. The uncial lettering in both documents is marked by a grace and formality of style. By contrast, in the middle of the second century we start noticing the decline in the handsomeness of transcribed documents. There’s a smaller style of hand with a tendency to make the letters more sloping. For instance we can point to a deed of sale for a donkey sold in Heraclea in ad 142 that clearly takes on this style. So to sum up—I would conclude, based upon the paleographical evidence, that our document was produced around the turn of the century, plus or minus thirty years in either direction.”
“Fascinating. Fine job, Enders,” Arthur smiled appreciatively. “And I would have thought some of the abbreviations were probably first century. Thank you, Enders. Martin, would you care to step in? As one of the two translators of the text, what are your thoughts on what has been said so far?”
“Thank you, Arthur, I’ve listened to the presentations of our colleagues with a great deal of fascination to say the least. My own conclusion is that what we have here is a genuine Johannine document.”
Dr. Martin Kleesman paused, his glance flickering past the heads of the others to the window and its gaily-patterned curtains. Several of his new students were aware of his involvement with the Syrian discovery and had been intrigued by it. Surprisingly, they had remembered his name from when it had surfaced briefly in the media last year after the ancient writing’s discovery—and they also remembered that he had been fired from his previous teaching position at Hollis College, for of course the stories at the time had mentioned the unfortunate episode. His conclusion that the manuscript was a genuine Johannine document was not new. He had had a gut feeling about the document ever since first setting eyes upon the photographic facsimiles. But in certain academic circles, it seems, anything validating the New Testament narrative is considered politically incorrect, and he thought of a book written by one of his former academic colleagues: Skateboarding on Water. Catchy title. The author posed the thesis that the miracle stories in the gospels were all fabricated nonsense and that Jesus was nothing more than a Jewish nationalist intent on leading an insurrection against Rome—and a miserable failure of one at that. With a front cover depicting the crucifixion, and a skateboard leaning against the base of the cross, the book had shot up to bestsellerdom, the author making the rounds on the talk show circuit and also managing to get himself elevated in the process to head the Department of Religious Studies at Hollis College. Fate works in mysterious ways. Then had come the discovery in Syria and the invitation from Arthur to look at the facsimiles. The actual papyrus rolls themselves were still in Syria. The government had refused to allow them to be transported out of the country. But Kleesman’s examination of the facsimiles had been quite illuminating, and the more he looked, the more his jaw dropped, for discoveries like this did not come along often.
“Essentially what we have here are the memoirs of a man who actually knew Jesus of Nazareth,” he had told a reporter covering the story last year. “The question then becomes who was he? If you’re asking for my best guess—and that’s all I can really give you—I would say he is exactly who he presents himself as in the manuscript: John, the son of Zebedee, the disciple of Christ.”
Yes, those were the words he had spoken, in what had been nothing but an off-the-cuff interview—but they had gotten picked up and carried widely in the rest of the media. The words were innocuous, the opinion of one scholar only—meaning it was not a determination of anything. But that didn’t seem to matter. After the story hit the BBC, the author of Skateboarding on Water had called him into his office and informed him that his employment at Hollis College was terminated. Just like that. Dr. Martin Kleesman had gone back to his own office, sat and thought about it a while, then cleared out his desk and left the campus for good.
For a time he had been forced to take a job in a bakery. It had paid barely enough to keep him afloat until another teaching position had come along, but one finally had. Maryport University. Overall it was a more pleasant place to work than Hollis. A different atmosphere prevailed. That didn’t mean there wasn’t a certain amount of political correctness that needed to be adhered to, but one was able to exercise a measure of freedom of thought, at least. Not something to take lightly these days. Then had come the afternoon when three of his new students approached him after class, inquiring if he were the same Martin Kleesman. Yes, he confessed. “But don’t hold that against me.” Two of them were classical studies majors, the third majoring in philosophy and religion, but all had been keenly interested in the Syrian discovery and his opinion of it. He had told them pretty much what he had told the reporter. “I think it’s a genuine text.”
Some people dream in color; Kleesman dreamed in chaos. Every night his dreams were filled with raging scenes of chaos and pandemonium. Streets flooded. Buildings in collapse. People crowded into basements in the most shocking, deplorable conditions. In every dream he found himself right in the thick of it. Oftentimes he woke up kicking and screaming. Those were his nights. By day he taught his classes. Uneventful for the most part. Campus life was marked by a tractable consonance that carried over from one day to the next, one term to the next. And such was his life. Nights chaos. Days…well, rather pastoral by comparison. Life was a never-ending process of sameness and entropy. Entropy and sameness. Then had come the call from Arthur. “We’re planning a trip to Syria to have a hands-on look at this thing and to visit the spot in the desert where it was found. Would you care to accompany us?” Without hesitation he had said yes and arranged a sabbatical. And now here he was on the eve of the journey.
“Before I go any further, Arthur, let me just pause and say thank you again. It is my privilege and honor to be a part of this research, and I will do all I can to make this a successful effort. Allow me to preface my remarks by pointing out…when I say that what we have is a genuine Johannine document, I do not mean necessarily that either it, or the Gospel of John for that matter, were written by John himself. The Gospel, for instance, clearly was composed by more than one person. Scholars today hypothesize it was produced in stages, over a period of years, by a collective or group of people. Today we refer to these people as the ‘Johannine Community.’ Before I get specifically to our Syrian text, though, let me offer a few precursory remarks about the Gospel, for it has a much to tell us about who these people were, their lives, and their general, overall view of things.
“The Gospel was intended to serve as a warning—that evil is very real. ‘Don’t be naïve,’ it is telling us. ‘There is a Prince of this World, a figure who is actively hostile to Jesus and who seeks maliciously to undermine and destroy his teachings.’ The world is a dark place. But at the same time there is a light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not been able to overcome it. Some turn toward that light, while others not only shun it but are its bitterest enemies. What the Gospel offers, then, is very much a dualistic vision of the world.
“In its earliest days, the community consisted of Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. But the relationship to Judaism as a whole was a contentious one. This probably began quite early, but it most likely would have intensified after the community opened its doors to Gentiles—probably sometime around mid-first century. The Gospel’s fourth chapter would suggest that the group began admitting Samaritans into its ranks hereabouts, and probably other non-Jews as well, and of course we can see clearly that expulsions from the synagogues took place before the Gospel, in its final form, was written. And, in addition to expulsions, if John 12:10 and 16:2 are any indication, members of the group may have been put to death as well, possibly by synagogue authorities. As time went on and the Johannine Community’s perceptions of who Jesus was evolved—from Son of God to God himself—the break with Judaism would have become permanent and final. We know that after 70 ad, the center of Judaism shifted from Jerusalem to Jamnia, where the Eighteen Benedictions were reformulated to include a curse against the minim, or heretics. Some have theorized this may have been related to the synagogue expulsions of the Johannine Christians. At any rate, members of the community were told they could no longer worship with other Jews. It was, to be sure, a corrosive relationship, and interestingly, at sometime around 85 ad, the Eighteen Benedictions were revised yet again, this time to include what appears to be a direct reference to Christians: ‘Let notzrim and the minim perish immediately.’ This is the wording in the twelfth benediction, the word notzrim being a reference to Nazarenes. In any case, when we have Jesus speaking of ‘the Jews’ and making casual reference to what is written in ‘their law,’ he is in reality reflecting the attitudes of the Johannine Community in the latter part of the century. Yet important to keep in mind is that those who carried out expulsions and persecutions of the community’s members in the mid to latter part of the century were looked upon as nothing more than the heirs of the very Pharisees who had impugned and persecuted Jesus—so when the Gospel uses the term ‘the Jews’ it is referring to both.
“Thus it was a struggle of prolonged intensity, spanning a good part of a century, and today when we use the term ‘Johannine Community,’ that is the group of people we are talking about. Now to move on to the Syrian manuscript and what it also tells us of the Johannine group, for it fleshes out the picture considerably. For one thing we now know who its founders were—John the disciple and Mary Magdalene, although rather than the disciple, it was the Magdalene who emerged as the group’s spiritual leader and guiding light. Both were very young during the time Jesus was alive, John just in his early twenties. Mary even younger—nineteen. John was head-over-heels in love with her; she, on the other hand, was madly in love with Jesus. Lest you think it wholly a case of unrequited love, however, think again, for the picture changed considerably after the death of Jesus. Mary, the young woman from Magdala, realizing the disciple’s faithful and undying love for her—married him. We also know something of her lineage now as well. While her mother was Jewish, her father was Greek.
“At any rate, after their marriage, the two became bearers of the teachings of Christ, and they quickly attracted a crowd of followers, although as I say, she was the unequivocal leader of the group. And she seems to have been a phenomenal woman at that. A gifted elocutionist, with also a touch of clairvoyance if the text is to be believed. There has long been speculation among scholars about where the Johannine Community was based—and as a result of the Syrian find, we now know the answer to that as well. Initially after their marriage the couple lived for about six years in Ephesus. Then with their two children they departed by ship for Alexandria. It was in the Egyptian city that the size of their following began to grow. And it was here also they lived through one of the first pogroms in history, an outbreak of anti-Jewish violence that engulfed the city in 38 ad. The text in fact gives us a ringside seat to the events, mainly thanks to the scrupulous detail the young Roman gives to it all.
“The question of course arises as to why, if Mary was the leader of the group, was the identity of the ‘Beloved Disciple’ obscured from the Gospel of John in its final redaction? The answer seems to be that members of the community felt a measure of shame being part of a group that had been founded and led by a woman. You have to remember Jesus had relatively egalitarian views on women. Whoever looks upon a woman in lust, he says in the Sermon on the Mount, has already committed adultery with her in his heart. In essence it places the burden of sin upon the beholder, rather than upon she who is beheld—essentially shattering the ‘woman as temptress’ stereotype. And of course the gospels mention women followers, some of whom supported the group financially.”
“But by the end of the century, views on women had changed quite a bit. ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man—she must be quiet,’ says the pseudo-Pauline author of I Timothy. And this was the prevailing view as the Christian church lurched haphazardly into the second century. The Johannine Community would have felt the pressure of the times. John himself probably could not have abided the obliteration of the identity of the Beloved Disciple, but we have to remember he was imprisoned on Patmos at the time, and there was little if anything he could have done about it.”
The door to the conference room cracked ajar and a woman’s outline briefly appeared in the opening—it was the secretary of the Archaeology Department, but seeing that the meeting was still in progress, she hastily withdrew. Little notice was given her. The room was quiet enough to hear a pin drop. Kleesman resumed, “And then of course while imprisoned on Patmos, John, it seems clear now, wrote the Book of Revelation. An examination of the Apocalypse shows the same dualistic vision of the world we see in the Gospel…”
Winding up his presentation, the translator paused, “That’s about all I have, Arthur. Our translation of the text is not yet complete. Enders’ comments about the abbreviations are quite salient, and David and I have frequently found ourselves consulting with each other as our work has progressed. The crucial thing at this point is to have a look at the actual papyrus in Damascus, to hold it in our hands, look at it under a magnifying glass and so forth—as well as to visit the site in the Syrian desert where it was recovered. There are still gaps in what we know of the story, and anything which might lie yet buried in the ground could be crucial to filling those in.”
“Thank you, Martin—”
“If I may interject a question—” the lovely Oneska interjected.
“Please do, Sylvia, by all means,” Aurther replied with a smile.
“Well, it’s just that I thought an archaeological dig had already been conducted at the site—and that that’s how the papyrus rolls came to be found in the first place. Are you saying the dig wasn’t thorough enough?”
“Sylvia apparently has been locked up in her lab with her test tubes and hasn’t yet acquired the inside story,” Enders Thenatakios favored the physicist with a convivial smile while staring expressively into her eyes.
“Good question, Sylvia,” Arthur answered, “and let me try and respond this way: the media, when it first picked up this story, began to refer to the discovery as the ‘Dura Europos discovery’ or the ‘Dura Europos scrolls,’ I think for lack of a better name for it. And it’s true, that at the time the discovery came to light, I, along with a group of students, were doing a dig at Dura Europos in eastern Syria. But that isn’t where the artifact was discovered. In fact, we, that is to say our archaeological team, didn’t discover it at all.
“The rolls, or one of them at any rate, was presented to us by the owner of a curio shop in Damascus, who had made the trip out to Dura Europos especially to show it to us. The person who actually found them is a Bedouin herdsman in Khaba’ir al-Hamidah and who I’m told we are going to meet when we land in Damascus. At any rate, the proverbial saying that there’s ‘good news and bad news’ unfortunately applies here. The bad news is that Dura Europos today is completely under control of the terrorists. Most likely artifacts have been looted in large quantities, for tragically that has been one of the byproducts of the current conflict in Syria—the rise of a huge black market in stolen antiquities. Okay, that’s the bad news. The good news is that Khaba’ir al-Hamidah, the area where our manuscript was found—in a clay jar protruding partially out of the ground no less—still retains a measure of governmental control. And as far as I’m aware, no archaeological dig has taken place there. We will be the first. And if you’re wondering whether or not it’s dangerous, the answer clearly is yes. But the Syrian government, like the rest of us, has been intrigued by the contents of these scrolls. We have been assured of a military escort to and from the site, which is not far from the Iraqi border. There will also be a squad of soldiers remaining with us while we work there, and a group of archaeology students from Damascus University will be joining us to assist with the dig. I’ve actually met some of them. They’re a bright group of kids.
“By the way, Sylvia, Damascus University has a lab that will be completely at your disposal, and from what I understand they’ve got one of those Raman spectroscope thing-ies you were talking about. Allow me to add also, and I address this to everyone—that the cost of the dig is being underwritten by the Christoffel Foundation, with UNESCO’s World Heritage Fund chipping in as well, so I think all our bases are covered, or let’s hope so. At any rate, Sylvia—does that answer your question?”
“It does—and Arthur?”
“You can count me in—all the way.”
“Good to know that, Sylvia. Well then…Martin…did you have anything else you wanted to add?”
“Just that I hope the Syrian soldiers are sharpshooters. But no, I think I’ve covered pretty much everything, Arthur.”
“In that case we will move on to David…David, you’ve been our other translator on this project. Anything you would care to add to Martin’s presentation?”
Where to begin? LaSalle organized his thoughts. There was so much one could say. Kleesman had done a proficient job of placing it all into perspective. Maybe best would be to simply pick up the historical narrative where he had left off.
“I think the important thing to keep in mind, Arthur, is the community itself,” LaSalle chose his words carefully. “The years spent in Alexandria were a catalyst, you might say, and we see Johannine churches beginning to crop up elsewhere as well. Mary Magdalene’s stature as the ‘Beloved Disciple’ grew considerably in this time. She became ‘the woman who knew the All’ and who had ‘revealed the greatness of the Revealer.’ The community basically held her in reverence, and during her lifetime she was the glue, if you will, that held it all together. After her death, however, considerable change overtook the community. The group began to fracture, and the fracturing eventually grew into some major schisms. Not only in the Syrian manuscript do we see this, but also in the epistles of John. The first of those three epistles, written most likely by John himself—I would say probably sometime around 84 or 85 ad—talks about those who abandoned the group. ‘They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us,’ he says. ‘For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us, but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.’
“The other thing to keep in mind, as Martin aptly noted, is that Jesus’ overturning of traditional views on women was reversed starting within a few decades after his death. This had an effect inside the community, particularly in the years of trying to cope after the death of the Beloved Disciple. There were those within the group who revered her memory and who naturally sought to preserve her teachings; others found it more expedient to conform to the times; and there was probably also a faction that sought to make its peace with Judaism. For you have to remember—one of the powers Jews held over Christians was to denounce them to the Romans. Judaism, of course, was a tolerated religion. Jews were excused from paying homage to the pagan deities, and as long as Christians were considered ‘Jews’ there was no legal reason for the Romans to oppress them. But once the synagogues expelled the Johannine Christians, it was a whole different story. Refusal to participate in emperor worship created legal difficulties for the community, and the Romans, suspicious of Christians anyway, came down hard. In this sense it would be accurate to say that the Jewish synagogue authorities held the power, almost literally, of life and death over community members.
“But then of course came the Jewish revolt in 66 ad, the sacking and burning of Jerusalem in ad 70, and the round up and execution of the Jewish rebels. John, as the Syrian manuscript tells us, went to Jerusalem to search for his son, who had joined the Jewish rebellion. He doesn’t find him, but he gets caught up in the Roman dragnet anyway. This probably would have been the end of him but for the intervention of one of the Roman commanders, a man named Maximinus, who immediately recognized and remembered him, for he had fallen in love with John’s sister years and years earlier when they had all been very young—a poignant story related in the first scroll.
“So what we have here, in essence, is a man’s autobiography, a man who traveled throughout much of the empire and was witness to some of the first century’s most momentous events. One of the more interesting players in the story is Nero. We see him ordering the execution of Christians while fretting over his wife, Poppaea. History pretty much tells us the rest. Nero was deposed in 68 ad, ushering in the year of the four emperors and the eventual rise to power of Vespasian. The latter, in turn, is succeeded by his two sons, Titus in 79, and Domitian in 81. For a while, after the fall of Nero, it looked like the persecution of Christians was on the wane. But the Christians were hated for their ‘abominable practices,’ as the historian Tacitus put it, a hatred that seems to have been based upon a misinterpretation of the Eucharist. And of course stories designed to perpetuate these false impressions were probably deliberately spread. At any rate, a new wave of persecution came about under Domitian, although this occurred mostly in the latter part of his reign. But it wasn’t only Christians. Domitian had no great love for the arts, either.”
Arthur grinned, “He was a critic, it seems.”
“Well, a dim view of actors he particularly took, and he also forbade comic mimes from appearing on the public stage, but apparently it was satire, often aimed at the government, which angered him most. Writings he perceived as offensive were banned, the authors punished by exile or in some cases death. Thus it was our young Roman, apparently a rather talented writer and satirist, came to be exiled and imprisoned on Patmos—the same island where John is also exiled. Chalk it up to fate maybe. At any rate, it is while they are imprisoned here that the two meet.
“The Patmos experiences are related in the last scroll. What the disciple seems to have had is a series of visions, only the first of which is told of in the Book of Revelation. He apparently didn’t get around to recording the others, or if he did, there was no way of smuggling the manuscript off the island. I won’t go into these in great detail other than to say that in the final vision a rather peculiar image comes to him. He speaks of seeing people, quite a number of them, talking to each other, moving about, conducting what appear to be their normal, day-to-day affairs—but then something happens. Very suddenly they vanish. Gone. Disappeared. All of them. It is as if their bodies evaporated like water. But they do leave behind one trace of themselves—in the form of their shadows left lying on the ground. The disciple is unable to make sense of the matter, either at the time of the vision or afterward, and in a state of perplexity he muses to the young Roman, ‘I could not understand it. How is it that people can go away, but yet their shadows remain behind? It is a thing of no sense.’
“Martin and I talked about this at some length. The Greek word skia, or ‘shadow,’ is used very explicitly in the manuscript. The people were gone. But their shadows remained.”
“So what are we dealing with here, David? The product of an overactive imagination?”
“Good question, Arthur. I use the term ‘vision’ here loosely. You could substitute the word ‘dream,’ ‘fantasy,’ ‘specter,’—or yes—‘imagination,’—should you choose. It’s not clear. But what is expressed clearly is his own inability to make sense of it. He doesn’t understand what the shadows mean. But whatever it is, it is disturbing to him, and he likens it to words spoken to him previously by the ‘seven thunders.’ I’ll add one more thing: call it coincidence if you like, and I’d be perfectly happy to place that label on it, but what he seems to be describing is something very similar to the phenomenon observed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombs were dropped. The fireballs created thermal rays spreading outward from the hypocenter of the blasts. This thermal radiation brought temperatures in the thousands of degrees—hot enough to scorch and discolor sidewalks and paving stones. The exception to this was in cases where the sidewalk stones were shielded by solid objects, a fence rail for instance. Or…a human being. The result was in essence a ‘shadow.’ The effect was observed up to a thousand meters from the hypocenter of the blasts, and even in cases where human flesh and bones were completely incinerated, the shadow would remain.”
“You’re saying that he foresaw—preposterous!”
“I think Enders is starting to worry about your own overactive imagination, David,” Arthur percolated.
“I can’t in all honesty say I blame him,” answered LaSalle solemnly.
“And how do you suppose this will play out on the BBC?”Thenatakios blurted. “Let’s say we go public and propound the theory that a man in the first century predicted something that occurred in the twentieth? We’ll become the laughingstock of the scientific community.” While occasional indiscretions with his female students had not so far wrecked his career, at least not entirely, this would be the nail in the coffin. Thenatakios was sure of that.
“I’m not suggesting we propound the theory you’re referring to, Enders,” LaSalle answered. “Whether it is or isn’t a provable or sustainable theory is to some degree beside the point. The task Martin and I undertook was to provide a translation of the text. This is what we have done. Now you can take issue with us, and challenge the accuracy of our translation. That’s your prerogative. But I can tell you that what the text talks about, very precisely and very clearly, are shadows of people lying across the ground. Determining what that may mean is not our calling. When the text is made public, as I’m assuming it will be at some point, people who read it will construe it in whatever manner suits them.”
“You’re a priest, David,” the linguist answered. “And what that means, I assume, is that your belief system holds to the notion that there is a God, and that he does now, or has at some time in the past, communicated with human beings. But I just don’t see the world from that perspective. Religion perhaps is useful insofar as it provides a sort of moral code for those who feel they need something of the sort to go by, and I’ll grant you, the teachings of Christ are about as good as any I’ve read. But if someone comes up to me on a September day in the twenty-first century and says there’s a God with a long white beard who lives in the sky and manages the earth by tinkering with things here and there as they go awry—then I have to look out and see if there’s a full moon, because it’s just bats in the belfry.”
“Well I am not a priest, Enders,” Kleesman broke in, “and I’m not out to prove or disprove anything! But I’ll tell you that for me, this text raises some intriguing questions. How many ancient texts do we have today that evince some knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics on the part of the writer? None that I’m aware of. Did first century fishermen, as a matter of course, familiarize themselves with the electromagnetic spectrum or envisage the effects of gamma radiation? Again, not that I’m aware of. What are the mathematical probabilities of a man from that time seeing—or imagining if you prefer—the sort of shadows described in the text and then linking them in his mind to ‘seven thunders’? I don’t know, and maybe they’re higher than I’m guessing, but then you add to that the fact that the writer himself puzzles over the meaning of the vision. In his own words: ‘It is a thing of no sense.’ Or to put it in modern terminology, it’s as if he’s saying, ‘Well, you know…I’ve heard what the seven thunders said before, and they’ve always struck me as reasonable, but this time I think they must be crazy.’ That in essence is what he’s saying. And it’s a striking departure from what we normally see in the apocalyptic genre of literature. In apocalyptic texts, the writers have a clear idea of what their visions mean. A demonic beast, a world ruler, or an archenemy of some sort—this is normally what we see, accompanied with a promise that the evil thing, horrendous as it is, will be overcome provided the faithful remain strong and true. But we don’t see that here. None of these elements are present in this text.”
“Molds are made to be broken, Martin,” said Thenatakios. “Scientific discoveries have shattered plenty of them. The ancient world was a bubbling soup of religious beliefs and superstitions. People threw pieces of salt cakes on fires in Vesta’s honor, they worshipped Attis, the Phrygian god of vegetation, there were mystery cults of one variety or another, the Egyptian goddess Isis was worshipped as the queen of heaven and earth, while the Persian god Mithras—according to legend, born out of a rock—was said to have been especially popular with soldiers, and these are just the ones we know about! Many others have been lost or forgotten. Prior to 1945, for instance, nobody dreamed the Gnostics were as widespread or diversified in their beliefs. But then came the Nag Hammadi discovery. Now all of a sudden we’ve got gnostic sects who believed in everything from Jesus, to demiurges, to Hermeticism. The ancient world was a jetty—literally awash in a sea of religions, people with views ranging from the idiosyncratic to the aberrant to the bizarre. There was even a group called the Borborites who collected human sperm and menstrual blood and worshiped it. Okay. So now we have a man, in a previously unknown text, who says, ‘I had a vision of some shadows on the ground, but I’m damned if I can figure out what it means’—and you tell me that’s mathematically or statistically significant of something. Sorry, but I don’t buy it, Martin.”
“I totally understand where you’re coming from, Enders,” LaSalle broke in gently. “And religious faith is just that—faith. Moreover, there were a lot of things embraced by the ancient world, slavery for instance, that we wouldn’t find acceptable today. At the risk of sounding like a priest, which as you rightly point out I am, I’ll simply say that Christ’s message first spread amongst beggars, slaves, and the like, and maybe this is what ignited so much hostility toward it to begin with. Who were these people? Who was Jesus? How did his message end up spreading to the extent that it did? We don’t know exactly. The picture we have is incomplete. What we are left with today is a lot of pieces to try and put together. And one rather remarkable piece that has fallen now into our hands is this text from Syria.”
Thenatakios fell silent, his eyes deep and liquid as they stared, bell-like, upon LaSalle.
“This is a riddle we’re not going to solve, at least not today,” Arthur advised gently. “Certainly the concept of God challenges our sense of logic and reason, but I think it was also Socrates who said, ‘our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness.’ So at any rate, our flight to Beirut”—
“You left out the second part of the quote, Arthur,” Kleesman interjected.
“Yes. ‘Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness…provided the madness is given us by way of divine gift.’”
“Oh yes, I quite forgot.”
“Actually,” LaSalle quipped, “he didn’t forget anything, he was just waiting to see if any of us would catch it”—prompting laughter about the table.
“Well, at least none of us will make the mistake of fiddling while Rome burns,” the archaeologist grinned again. “At any rate, as I was saying, our flight to Beirut leaves at eleven tomorrow morning. We will need to be at Heathrow by eight. Airport security is inflexibly tight these days and believe me, it will take the entire three hours to navigate from one grungy, squalid end of it to the other. The good news is that the cuisine on Middle East Airlines is a bit above average, the hostesses are friendly, and the flight to Beirut will take only two and a half hours.”
“Arthur,” said David, “our translation is nearing completion. The question of course arises as to what now? Do we release the document to the public? Or do we continue to delay and postpone? The criticism from scholarly journals has begun to reach a fever pitch. I don’t see how you can continue to put them off much longer.”
“I was coming to that, David. Since it’s one of the most, if not the most, difficult questions before us, I was kind of saving it for last, but alright, let’s jump into it here…
“The entire world knows,” Arthur went on, “that a major archaeological discovery has been made in Syria. This has been widely reported in the media. The entire world knows also that it’s a document concerning the life of Christ, possibly written by the disciple John, because this too has been reported. What this has given rise to are calls that we release a translation to the public, or at least make photo facsimiles available for scholarly study. The fact that we haven’t has triggered some harsh criticism. I have been called every name in the book from a fascist, to a censor, to an opportunist, and I’ve even been accused of holding out for an exclusive million dollar deal with an American TV network.”
“So why don’t we just go ahead and silence the critics?” asked Oneska. “Just make the document public?”
“Well that’s what David’s advocating, Sylvia. The problem I have, and that I’m concerned with, is the potential impact release of a document like this could have on the religious war now raging in the Middle East. Jesus, of course, is revered not only by Christians, but also by Muslims, and the release of a text like this, written by a man known to have been one of his closest confidantes, might have some powerful repercussions. It could impact the situation in ways that are not only unpredictable, but possibly unimaginable. But David—maybe with your theological background, you could explain this better than I can.”
“I’ll try, Arthur.” LaSalle gathered his thoughts, “and you’re certainly right. There are theological implications that could have an impact on the Middle East wars. Much like Christians, Muslims, too, believe in the coming of an antichrist, or a dajjal, as they refer to it. But it might not be the Middle East alone where the shockwaves from all this start to be felt. With John of course being one of the twelve disciples, the reverberations could hit the Christianized West as well. And the fact that John is also quite probably the same man who wrote the Book of Revelation—therein lies the potential flashpoint. Think about what that could mean. The Book of Revelation, with its imagery of the beast, the number 666, and the like, has been the subject of countless books and movies. And probably no other piece of writing, including the works of Plato and Shakespeare, has held such sway over the human imagination, or the Western imagination at any rate. This has been the case for nearly two millennia, and it has shown no sign of slacking off in modern times, with people of all religious stripes and varieties struggling to name the beast or decode the number. Although mainstream Christianity has a tendency nowadays to deemphasize the Apocalypse, the book still carries enormous weight with those of a more fundamentalist persuasion, and the text has been regarded as history, end-times prophecy, or both, by different categories of expounders from so-called ‘preterists’ to ‘futurists’ and so on. No consensus, of course, has ever been reached on what the text means. Still people argue on.
“But what if—what if the author himself, John of Patmos, were suddenly to materialize out of the fog of time and obligingly offer up his own thoughts on the subject of the text he had created? It’s not just an academic question anymore, because this, somewhat frighteningly, is precisely what our Syrian text gives us. This is where Arthur’s concern lies, and he has good reason for feeling troubled, because this thing could explode in any number of unpredictable ways. My feeling, though—and I’ve discussed this with Arthur—is that on some level we may be making the situation worse by withholding the text. In light of all this criticism of Arthur, and eventually it’s going to hit the rest of us as well, we are approaching a situation in which quite possibly the idea is conjured up in peoples’ minds that the text says more than it actually does. I mean—it doesn’t say there is going to be a nuclear war. Nor does it name this or that person or country as the beast or the antichrist. So maybe it’s better to just let it go. Release it to the public and take our chances. That’s my thought, at any rate.”
“I think you’ve been burning the midnight oil, David, because you seem to have come to some remarkably astute conclusions,” said Arthur.
LaSalle glanced at the clock on the wall; they had now been in the room more than two hours. A fidgety restlessness was detectable about the table—something Arthur obviously noticed as well.
“Here is what I would propose,” he said briskly. “We postpone a decision on this matter until after we arrive in Syria and begin digging at the site. There may or may not be something else in the ground, but if there is, it potentially could tell us more, possibly a lot more, than we know now. My feeling is it’s better to be sure there aren’t any more surprises in store before we go spilling the beans. Now, the Syrians know we’re coming. But other than that, no announcement has been made about our trip or the impending dig, and I suggest we keep it that way. That a new media uproar at this point will complicate our mission, not to mention jeopardize our security, is simply a spot of logic we all need to keep uppermost in our minds. One other thing probably worth cogitating upon if you haven’t already—some of you may have—is that for those powers with a keen interest in the outcome of the Syrian conflict, the contents of these scrolls obviously pose an element of concern. The Syrians are fully aware of the eschatological component, the explosive nature all this entails, and I feel sure that that’s one reason, probably the major reason, they are so interested in cooperating with us. To what extent certain intelligence agencies may have gotten wind of some of this as well I can’t say. It is possible the Russians and the Americans, and maybe MI6 or the Israelis as well, have sniffed something out. Encrypted emails and other precautions we’ve taken are worthwhile, and by all means let’s keep it up, but such procedures can only go so far. And if you ask my opinion as to whether the lid is still firmly in place, I can’t honestly say for sure it is. What’s entirely possible is that an intelligence agency may have come across some of this information and could take a notion to use it to manipulate events in some manner. So with that happy thought, I’ll adjourn this meeting. Don’t forget we need to be at Heathrow by eight. See you all bright and early in the morning.”