Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Personal and World Faith Shaken ; A Novel That Asks, 'What If Jesus Didn't Survive the Crucifixion?'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Personal and World Faith Shaken ; A Novel That Asks, 'What If Jesus Didn't Survive the Crucifixion?'

Article excerpt

Noted for his combination of passionate storytelling and scientific themes, Simon Mawer tackles a challenging set of problems in his new novel "The Gospel of Judas." In "Mendel's Dwarf" (1998), he built a fictional world around genetics; this time, it's the science of paleography, the study of ancient manuscripts, inscriptions, and writings.

At the center of this novel is Leo Newman, a Catholic priest and a specialist in the newly discovered scrolls that have been revolutionizing the interpretation of the Bible.

When yet another scroll is discovered, Leo agrees to translate it. Meanwhile, in his private life, he has fallen in love with the wife of a diplomat.

As it turns out, either one of these events would have been enough to shake Leo's faith, not to mention alert his superiors to his personal crisis. And Leo's personal crisis had the potential to shake an already shaken Christendom, or so it seems to Leo.

As background to this larger dilemma, through a series of historical flashbacks, we are introduced to a German Nazi officer and his family living in Italy during World War II.

Here, as in the main plot, the issues are loyalty, discipline, and the self-justifying realm of the senses. By the end of the novel, this subplot has become crucial to our understanding of Leo Newman.

Though we do learn interesting information about biblical paleography and its impacts on the fragmenting world of Christianity, the novel's themes are fully embodied in story, and the story in particular characters.

At times, the reader feels physically wrenched by the events in the novel. The spareness of the prose and the unresolvable tension of the situations can catch your breath.

"Leo didn't sleep that night," Mawer writes. "He needed no nightmares. Inured to solitude, he had never felt so lonely in his life. He lay in bed - an anonymous hotel bed with a mattress as hard as in a monk's cell - and he battled with the text that he had deciphered."

Mawer is a self-conscious stylist. His timing is impeccable; his paragraphs luminous in what they don't say as well as in what they do. …

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