This book surprised me. The blurb accompanying it led me to believe that I was about to read some form of spy thriller, but instead it turned out to be a Biblical thriller updated to the current day. This is no bad thing and I found the setting and the alternate universe the author created to be quite compelling.
The novel basically imagines an alternate world where the Roman Empire has lasted until the current time. It imagines what would have happened if Jesus and his disciples were active in the present day. All the characters are here: Judas, Pontius Pilate, etc. The book imagines how a Roman Empire, with all the benefits of modern technology, might have attempted to quash the emerging Jesus cult.
The protagonist, Gallio, is a Counter Terror operative tasked with doing just that. The early part of the book tells in flashback of how he corrupts Judas and eventually is involved in arranging Jesus’s crucifixion. But when Jesus’s body disappears and the apostles’ talk of the resurrection, things go bad for him. He is discredited, banished to far-flung outposts of the empire. Finally, years later, he’s called back and tasked with finding out what happened to Jesus.
The remainder of the novel follows Gallio around as he hunts down apostles and interrogates them, only to find many murdered in horrific ways before he gets to them. The book is best in how it examines the disconnect between Gallio and the apostles he meets, he takes them literally when they say that Jesus is here, Jesus is everywhere, Jesus knows who you are, when it seems apparent to the reader that they are merely preaching the Gospel. Similarly, the book examines the theory that some scholars have that the current form Christianity took has much more to do with Paul than Jesus, that Paul transformed what was perhaps a revolutionary creed into a much more passive and accommodating one. According to this school of thought, this meant that Christianity no longer posed a threat to the state and could indeed become the official faith.
Paul appears in the novel as an oily figure, sly and conspiratorial. But is he the state agent Gallio finally concludes him to be, or a triple agent actually fooling the authorities and doing Jesus’s bidding? This here brings me to the problem I had with the book. The author clearly doesn’t want to make a definitive statement either way on any of the major themes in the book. Who is killing the disciples? Is it all part of Jesus’s plan? Is it Paul? Is it Gallio’s employers? Similarly, is Jesus a revolutionary planning terror outrages? Did he really die on the cross? Was his body spirited away somehow or did he really rise from the dead?
I understand this reluctance, the author obviously thought it best to keep the mystery of the Bible, no to mention the fact that answering these questions might alienate a section of his potential audience: come down on the side of Jesus as the Son of God and you alienate atheists; say that Jesus was conman and you alienate Christians. But even so, I found it incredibly frustrating and as I got near the end and realised that no answers would be forthcoming I did find myself feeling a little cheated.
That said, this is an interesting take on the Bible story and one that I would recommend to anyone, regardless of the their faith or none.
I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars.