Readers who would enjoy mystery thrillers while picking up biblical and cultural information from the Middle East will find an emerging series of novels by Ben and Ann Witherington to be just their cup of Turkish coffee.
Ben Witherington III is an accomplished New Testament professor and author who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary and St. Andrews University. Ann Witherington teaches biology and environmental sciences at Asbury. Married for 30 years, they have extended their collaboration into a planned series of seven novels based on the adventures of the fictional New Testament scholar-archaeologist Art West and a collection of colleagues and friends whose story lines extend through the series.
The book’s hero is a peace-loving Methodist who doesn’t fight like Indiana Jones, but has nearly as many close calls, narrowly escaping death in each of the three volumes so far, sometimes more than once. Along the way, West makes discoveries (or interprets others’ finds) that advance various notions relative to New Testament scholarship. For example, the first book (The Lazarus Effect) argues that the “beloved disciple” was not John, but Lazarus. The second (Roman Numerals) seeks evidence for the presence of the Roman emporer cult in Israel early in the first century. The third (Papias and the Mysterious Menorah) uses the early church father Papias to posit an argument (contra those who believe the gospels were far removed from actual witnesses) that all four gospels can be traced to authors who either knew Jesus personally or spent time with those who did.
Insiders will find occasional humor in recognizing thinly disguised persons, magazines, or scholarly arguments known to contemporary biblical scholarship. West reportedly does a TV show for the Discovery Channel, for instance, and is friendly with the irascible publisher of a popular magazine devoted to biblical archaeology — tips of the hat, perhaps to Simcha Jacobovici’s The Naked Archaeologist progam and Herschel Shanks’ Biblical Archaeology Review magazine.
The books include an entertaining and believable cast of characters from various walks of life — Muslims, Christians, and Jews; antiquities dealers, archaeologists, government officials — and interweave a theme of interfaith appreciation while pointing to the dangers of radical fundamentalism. The novels are unapologetically evangelical in approach — West is constantly seeking to demonstrate Christ’s love or find ways to share his faith, and is sometimes targeted for that reason. Yet, the Witheringtons also appeal for a non-judgmental acceptance of others whatever their faith.
While I found the story lines somewhat unrealistic at points (it’s amazing how all the clues fall into place at just the right time), and West’s resilience is a bit overdrawn (could he really be bitten by a deadly asp in the morning, make a quick trip to the hospital, and give a lecture that afternoon?), the novels make for a mostly fast-paced, enjoyable read. Chapters are generally short, allowing the authors to move back and forth between multiple strands of the story.
Readers who pick up the series in the middle may struggle to identify characters who were introduced in previous books, and others may find it annoying that the quick pace is occasionally retarded by chapters that involve a long excursus on a Greek document (including the Greek text and translation), or the intricacies and meaning of an Orthodox Jewish wedding ceremony in modern Israel. Others may enjoy the added background information.
The books are published by Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock, but poorly edited. I was struck by the occasional repetition of material, and by the number of typographical errors — usually homonymns that are clearly wrong but wouldn’t be caught by a spell-checker. The Papias volume, for example, included boners such as “peak” for “peek” (twice), “site” for “sight,” “populous” for “populace,” and “hands” for “hand’s,” among others.
The Witheringtons may not be quite as adroit in fiction as they are in their primary fields of study, but they are quite good enough to turn out novels that manage to be entertaining, educational, and encouraging all at once, and that is no small accomplishment.