December 10, 2008

Ben Witherington, The Lazarus Effect

I loved this book. Biblical Scholar Ben Witherington and his wife Ann Witherington have put together a great, plausible work of fiction, and I enjoyed reading it. And further than that, I learned something.

Art West, a well-known biblical archaeologist, makes an astonishing discovery. In an unexcavated mound in Bethany, he finds the tomb of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. In it is reference to Lazarus's first "resurrection" from the dead and his eventual death, as he awaits the second resurrection. Also discovered is an ancient manuscript of the Gospel of John in Aramaic, shedding important light on the origin and nature of that Gospel (Witherington, a Johannine scholar, makes some interesting points about dating and authorship). But before West can make the discovery known, he is trapped inside the tomb, and before he can show the discovery to the world, the tomb is robbed and the inscription is stolen. Thus begins a chase to find this astonishing piece of history amid doubts about its authenticity and among an interesting inter-religious setting in Jerusalem. West is aided by his Jewish friend and scholar Grace Levine, and by his Muslim friends Kahlil El Asad and his daughter Hannah, antiquities dealers in the old city. As the story moves forward the pace picks up as Art is framed for having a fake inscription made and also for shooting his friend Kahlil. With so many rumors swirling in such a volatile world, suspicion rests on Art, and he finds himself on trial for the killing and for the forgery. And more stories intertwine, as fundamentalist Christians and ultra-Orthodox Jews both see West as someone who is compromising the essentials of the faith. The complexity of the plot really helps to illumine the complexity of the real-life situation in modern Israel.

The Witheringons' book is a real page turner, with a great plot and interesting characters. But what sets it apart is both the plausibility of its events (Ben Witherington is an expert in the James ossuary, a real-life artifact of similar significance also fraught with suspicion) and the quality of its history. It is obvious that the authors know the Biblical world and modern Israel well, and they help the reader to feel some of the important dynamics between the various groups. The relationship between evangelicals and more fundamentalist dispensationalist Christians and Zionists, and ultra-Orthodox Jews are also brought into the mix as well, along with Muslims. But in all things, the Witheringtons' bring respect to their portrayals, not caricatures. His discussion of the dating and provenance of John's Gospel (that Lazarus is the beloved disciple, the primary author of the Gospel) is an interesting argument, here made very well at a popular level. I've read some of his material elsewhere on this idea, and it is an interesting one to ponder, not least because it fits with the setting of most events in the Gospel and is given further creedance by some verbal connections with Lazarus as one whom Jesus "loved." Finally, the Witheringtons also bring a great glimmer of hope to the situation as the "Lazarus Effect"--new life from the dead--takes hold among many of the characters and brings hope in unexpected places. It certainly isn't serious scholarship, nor is it meant to be, but that doesn't mean it's flippant or shallow either. Instead, it provides a great story with just enough nuance to give it depth. I think this book is a great read and would make a great gift.

No comments: