Monday, March 12, 2007

The Lazarus Effect-- Part One

The following is the beginning of a novel I have written (its complete in draft form) with the help of my wife about the discovery of the tomb of Lazarus. Enjoy...... BW3 Let me know when you are ready for the next installment


His heart filled his ears and was pounding at a rate worthy of a blood pressure measurement as his flashlight illuminated the ancient Herodian-period Aramaic staring back at him.

Twice dead...

And was that next word Aunder@?

Twice dead under...


As if the limestone facing knew an encore was expected, the inscription continued:

Twice born of Yeshua, in sure hope of resurrection.

His breath caught. In his mind, the verses of John ran at marathon pace, finally coming to rest on chapter 11.

...Jesus called out in a loud voice, ALazarus, come out!@

The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen,

and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them,

ATake off his grave clothes and let him go.@

Fumbling with the zip of his pack, he quickly pulled out his digital camera and began shooting pictures of the ossuary and the inscription. But as he moved to shoot the full wall, he heard the ominous scraping of stone against stone. And then, but for the weak beam of his overworked penlight, all went dark.

CHAPTER ONE: Art for Art=s Sake

Arthur James West had spent the summers of the last quarter century knee-deep in ancient sandsCfrom Israel to Turkey, Jordan to Greece. As a young doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins, drafting his dissertation on AThe Relevance of Artifacts for the Study of New Testament History,@ he had been inspired to attend that institution because of the work of W.F. Albright, one of the progenitors of American archaeology.

Unfortunately, Albright died in 1971, but his writings and work served as a living legacy pushing West to explore the interface between NT studies and archaeology. His thesis raised a few eyebrows by exhibiting an expansive grasp of early Jewish and Ancient Near Eastern as well as Greco-Roman history. Through the aid of a family friend, Professor John Bright of Princeton, Art was offered a place on a dig in the early 1980=s.

It was on that dig while sifting sand in the nether layers of a tel that he looked up and saw, much to his surprise, one of his archaeological heroes C Yagael Yadin, the father of modern Israeli archaeology. It was only a brief encounter, for Yadin was just visiting the site during a break in his final year of serving in political posts prior to retirement. Apparently West had been born just a little too late to work with the real legendary figures in the field.

Nevertheless, this auspicious career beginning led first to a post-graduate stint at St. Andrews in Scotland and ultimately to faculty positions at two prestigious schools of divinityCVanderbilt and Duke. He managed to sidestep the first roadblock of academia, Apublish or perish,@ by having his dissertation accepted by the Cambridge monograph series, and by authoring a humorous Adigging on a dime@ journal piece which came to the attention of the Discover Channel. And now, after more than twenty years in the field and in the classroom, West could add Atelevision host@ to his vita. “Biblical History”, much to the delight of his producers, had developed a loyal following that crossed demographic lines. With the grace of a seasoned scholar, Art moved effortlessly between the hallowed halls of the ivory tower and the paneled walls of family rooms across America. Older audiences appreciated his scholarship, while younger viewers saw what his students sawCa man who could tell really cool stories and make sorting potsherds sound fun.

With years came experience, rock-solid credentials and a sterling reputation. Art was ready to venture out on his own. In 2004, he secured permission from the IAA (Israeli Antiquities Authority) to begin digging in the small village of Bethany, situated just a few miles outside Jerusalem.

What the years had not brought was a wife or family. That first professional dig had sealed his bachelorhood, whether or not he knew it at the time. He once likened archaeology to a pick-up game of sandlot baseballCthe one 8-year-old boys dream aboutCthe one in which you just happen to be hangin= out with Carl Yastremski, and Ted Williams drops by wanting to Ahit a few.@ He=d been seduced that summer of =81Cby the heady must of newly unsealed tombs, by the intellectual magnetism of the mentors that would become friends, and by the thrill of the laborious but delicate search for artifacts. As with most jokes, there was some truth in the adage that an archaeologist=s life is constantly in ruins. Art, with little premeditation, chose the ruins, and thus filled his life with centuries-old dust rather than decades-old regrets.

He also pursued his work with the vigor of anyone answering a call from God, for that=s what archaeology was to him. Summers were spent traipsing through the Judean and Galilean regions in search of the breakthrough find that would revolutionize the study and understanding of the Bible. West was not only a researcher, but also a devout evangelical Christian.

Just this morning, he selected Psalm 112 for his morning devotion: AEven in darkness light dawns for the uprightY.Good will come to him...who conducts his affairs with justice.@ But a clutter of prayer requests had jumbled his mind. For the first time in his career he arrived at a dig site without funding. The third quarter NASDAQ dive had left the usual coffers empty. Nothing short of a preeminent find would secure a major grant.

Right now, all that shined down upon him was the 89 degree, 7.30 am sun. When scouting locations for this year=s dig, he first setup an extensive series of conversations with Mustafa el Din, the property steward of the nearby Church of Mary and Martha, home to the oldest known graveyard in Bethany. He had spent the previous week surveying the south end of the Kidron valley, honeycombed with graves and tombs stretching from the Mount of Olives to this tiny berg. Yesterday he settled on the site. Today, before the temperature climbed to its usual 95 degree high, he hoped to complete a preliminary inspection and choose a tel. Approaching the site, his eyes fell upon a small mound. Giving it an optimistic once-over, he offered up one last thought, AMaybe, just maybe, God, you=ll shine the light of Providence on me today.@

Unlike the Orthodox Jews of the region, Art had no real qualms about poking around old graveyards, no fears about violating the ritual laws regarding the impurities of corpses. Instead, removing a spade from the large duffel bag he carried, West eyed the variety of limestone rocks and slabs that surrounded the mound. With a deep breath, he selected a spot and, using all of his 6=2@, 195 pound frame, began the hard labor that defined the beginning of any dig. He worked methodically, alternating between his collapsible pickax and spade, until he encountered a stone much larger than usual. With sweat pouring from his brow, he finally managed to budge the boulder just enough for it to slip to the bottom of the sandy tel. Dropping the spade and mopping his head, Art estimated that he could probably squeeze himself into the opening -- head first.

Switching on his flashlight, he first peered into the hole and discovered a surprisingly large chamber. Too symmetrical to be a normal hole in the ground, the room appeared to be surrounded by carved walls. Shadows cast by the flashlight hinted of niches here and there. West noted that this was no place for a claustrophobe. Throwing caution to the wind, he thrust his head, then his shoulders, into the dark, dank space.

Slithering on his belly, he thought back to his youthful days as a Boy Scout. While spelunking in the North Carolina Appalachian caves, he=d nearly gotten trapped in a narrow crevice. Hoping for a less harrowing experience this go-around, West pushed and shoved a little quicker. Finally in, he tried to unfold himself to his full height, only to bang his head on the limestone ceiling.

AArt, Art, Art,@ he muttered, as he rubbed the rising welt where he once had hair, AYou=re a man of modern times -- not a five-foot ancient!@ As he informed his often surprised students, most people of the first few centuries, even the men, grew no taller than 5=4 or so, a fact demonstrated long ago by ancient skeletons discovered and measured by the Israeli archaeologists of this region.

He turned his attention to the back wall. Sure enough, there was a niche, a niche with some sort of stone object lodged within. Crawling towards it on his knees, he immediately recognized the object as an ossuary, a bone box used for ancient reburial.

As periodically explained in episodes of “Biblical History”, the practice of osslegium, or the disassembling and storing of a skeleton in an ossuary, probably began about twenty years before the turn of the common era and continued in the Jerusalem area until the fall of the city in AD 70. Scholars debated the origins of the practice, but West was sure that the rise of the Pharisaic movement in early Judaism had played a hand. As in all cultures, burial practices reflected the societal conceptions of the afterlife. Drawing on the famous Adry bones@ story in Ezekiel 37, Pharisaic Jews believed that God would one day raise the righteous from their graves and so it made sense that they would rebury the bones intact.

He grasped the end of the stone box and pulled. From its size he determined it to be a one person adult ossuary. Because only a minority of ancient Jewish ossuaries bear inscriptions, he was a little surprised to see the encrusted Aramaic letters.

Eliezer, son of Simon

Though a common name, readers of the English translations of the Bible were familiar with the famous Lazarus of Bethany, whose Hebrew name was actually Eliezer. Trying unsuccessfully to check his excitement, he reminded himself that an inscription alone does not an identification make.

A quick scan of the wall with his flashlight revealed two other small, but empty niches. However, just above the compartment that contained the Eliezer ossuary, the light fell upon a protruding rock, approximately 3-feet in width. Centuries had taken a harsher toll on the rock than on the ossuary. Pulling out a small brush from his backpack he whisked away the top layers of dust. Then, holding the flashlight in his mouth, he poured some water from his canteen onto the limestone facing. As the letters came to light, his heart beat accelerated. He saw the wordsY

Twice dead...

And was that next word Aunder@?

Twice dead under...


As if the limestone facing knew an encore was expected, the inscription continued:

Twice born of Yeshua, in sure hope of resurrection.

His breath caught. In his mind, the verses of John flashed by at marathon pace, finally coming to rest on chapter 11.

...Jesus called out in a loud voice, ALazarus, come out!@

The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen,

and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them,

ATake off his grave clothes and let him go.@

Fumbling with the zip of his pack, he quickly pulled out his digital camera and began shooting pictures of the ossuary and the inscription. But as he moved to shoot the full wall, he heard the ominous scraping of stone against stone. And then, but for the beam of his penlight, all went dark.

CHAPTER TWO: An Overturned Stone

Sixty-four and nearing the twilight of his career, Dr. Patrick Stone bore the bitter scars of a life that failed to meet expectations. With a doctorate from John Hopkins University in Ancient Near-East Studies and a second from Tubingen in Germany, no one could dispute his skills as a scholar. His personality and resulting personal life were another thing altogether.

Few knew of the failed romance early in his graduate days. He=d fallen as deeply and hopelessly in love as possible for a narcissist with the daughter of his master=s thesis advisor. The match, in Stone=s view, couldn=t have been more perfect. Her intellect nearly matched (without, of course, eclipsing) his own; her 5=1@ trim figure perfectly accentuated his own 5=5@ Napoleonic stature; and she understood intimately the life of an archaeology academic. And therein, as they say, lay the rub.

It never occurred to Stone that she wouldn=t want a life any different from the one from which she came. She enjoyed his company, to be sure, and she had stayed with him throughout his doctoral work. But when it became clear that he intended to pursue a fourth degree, in Germany no less, without so much as a conversation about it with her, she left.

On rare occasions, usually helped along by one glass too many of Glenfiddich, he still remembered the unkind predictions she made B based on her father=s shortcomings. AMy father B he never made department chair in all his years at Chicago!@ And, AMy father B he abandoned his family year after year, months at a time, for archaeological crumbs!@ She had no intentions of recreating that life for herself, or for the children he would never commit to fathering. All this she delivered in lieu of the Ayes@ he expected when he proposed to her with a replica of an ancient marriage band made especially for her during his last trip to Jerusalem.

Since then, he=d sworn off women -- completely. He might well have become a monk, except that monasteries were neither conducive to accumulating personal accolades, nor known for the tolerance of envy. While his work continued to draw praise, few wanted to seek him out, or even claim him as a colleague. As others in his field gained acclaim, rather than celebrate their discoveries, he fumed about being passed over.

For years Yale had been his academic home, but recently Stone began spending more of his time in Israel researching the material culture and social networks of Second Temple Jerusalem. His Yale colleagues were only too glad when Stone was granted a research position that allowed him to spend more time abroad. No one knew quite what he expected to achieve, but rumor had it that he sought nothing less than a first century A.D. document that would cast doubt on traditional Christian claims.

Raised in the South, Stone still had a mama=s boy devotion to his sole surviving parent, who lived in a Kingsport, Tennessee nursing home. He dutifully sent the monthly support for her care. Holidays were spent in Tennessee; vacations were spent in Tennessee. Summers were divided between research trips B and Tennessee. Some semblance of peace was found visiting with her and walking the woods behind the boyhood home he still maintained.

Stone=s undergraduate years at a conservative Protestant college (in Tennessee, of course) led him to entertain the notion of Christian ministry. He quickly realized, however, since he was already one of the biggest intellectual fish in his small pond, that life held the potential for something much more lucrative than ministry. So he transferred to the University of Chicago and stopped attending church altogether. Though it has often been said that there is no believer so zealous as one converted later in life, it may also be said that no unbeliever is so zealous as one dissuaded from faith as an adult. Patrick Prentiss Stone was most certainly the latter.

Over his black, unsweetened morning coffee, Stone ruminated on Art West=s return to the region. He knew his self-appointed rival had arrived several weeks previous to his own, permits in hand, to excavate in Bethany. Wanting to stay abreast of any interesting developments, he=d given his research assistant, Ray Simpson, the unglamorous (not to mention, unscrupulous) task of following the new darling of popular archaeology. AHow that guy got a TV show, I=ll never know,@ he grumbled. Every time West touted a new discovery Stone seethed with envy. Not once had the twit mentioned him or any of his books on the show.

He gave a start as his cell phone began chiming the first movement of Beethoven=s Fifth Symphony at full volume. Blinking his beady gray eyes, he reached for it, finding a very excited Raymond Simpson on the other end of the line.

AWest just disappeared into a tel! It=s got to be a tomb!@ the graduate student reported. Stone jerked to attention. ASay that again, Simpson?@

AWest just climbed into the hole he=s been digging all morning. He=s been down there for at least fifteen minutes!@

AWell, well, well. Must have found more than sand if he=s still in there. Stay put. I=m on my way. And don=t let him out of your sight!@ He rang off and hurriedly grabbed his keys from the Egyptian bowl on the hall table. ALet=s see if we can=t find an old cemetery ghost to scare Mr. Biblical History away long enough for me to get a good look in that pit.@ Stone=s mind danced with possibilities as his white Volvo sped towards Bethany.


JohnO said...

Next please!

WWJD said...

Thank you for the enjoyable read. Looking forward to next chapter.

mafutha said...

Love it. Are you going to include material you wrote about in the book "What Have They Done With Jesus?" and the beloved disciple?

(Plug, Plug....)

Still reading that book and that chapter makes you think.

mafutha said...

One more comment. You might want to do this in the same way that Stephen King did with his The Plant Novel.

Be Nice to have an Internet Novel....

Anonymous said...

Way to turn the tables on "The Da Vinci Code" and "The Jesus Family Tomb"! Instead of writing a thrilling detective story about a discovery that will shake the very foundations of Christianity, a detective story about a discovery which confirms it. Brilliant reversal.

Mark Clark said...

Ben, I like this alot. Hopefully you do well with it. On a side note, I don't know if everyones reading was the same but mine had all kinds of weird symbols and stuff throughout (@, A, +, =) if it was just my computer then don't worry about it, but I just wanted to make sure...

Lisa said...

Discovered your blog by accident a week or two ago, so no, you don't know me (nor I you, to be technical about it). My main piece of advice, as an English major and a would-be editor, is simply this: show, don't tell. Characters ought to have backstories, yes, but those ought to come out as the stories flow. Stone's sworn off women? Have him show it in the way he treats his attractive graduate assistant. Have him reminisce wistfully to Art much later in the book about his failed love.

Just some (hopefully) constructive criticism from a reader.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Lisa. This is a work in progress so all constructive comments are welcome. Though I have an honors degree in English, I am just getting into this genre. So I appreciate the help.

Mafutha--- what did King do with his Plant Novel? I am unfamiliar with that.


Kevin W. Woodruff said...

I hope James Cameron has the option on this. Seriously, I enjoy reading this blog everyday. I don't always agree, but I always find food for my mind and soul

Peter Kirk said...

Mark, it is not just you who are having problems with strange marks in this text. The problem is with the embedded HTML "<span style="font-family: &quot;WP TypographicSymbols&quot;;"><span style="">A:lt;/span></span>", and other similar portions. This is telling the browser to display the letter "A" in the font "WP TypographicSymbols". Now presumably this font is an ancient hacked font (of a kind which should never be used on modern computers) which has a quote symbol in place of the letter "A". But the only people who will see this post properly are those who happen to have this obsolete font installed on their computer. Anyone else will simply see a letter "A".

Sorry for the technicalities. But, Ben, I'm afraid you will have to get this problem fixed if anyone is to read this novel with any kind of ease, without being repeatedly tripped up by odd typography. But the fix is very simple: just replace every example of the HTML code I quoted, or similar, with the appropriate quote character from the standard character set. Or you can probably do it with a search and replace in Microsoft Word, if that is what you prepared this text in (and I know from the embedded codes that this was created in some Microsoft application).

In general it is not a good idea to copy HTML exported from a Microsoft application into a blog post. Microsoft adds all kinds of strange codes to HTML which confuse Blogger, and indeed confuse anything except for Microsoft products.

Peter Kirk said...

The HTML I tried to quote in my previous comment didn't come out quite right, but I won't try to correct it as this is near enough to get the idea.

Junction said...

I like it...educational and entertaining at the same time!

VBM said...

I really enjoyed it so far, but it seems like you brought out some big events very quickly, without any buildup. Maybe there will be even more impressive revelations and events later, and this is just that first chapter "grabber". Looking forward to more!

Ben Witherington said...

Well Gentleman, when I posted this in Word Perfect 11, it had all those squiggles you mentioned. When I posted it properly in Microsoft Word, it has none, so far as I can tell. So, I honestly don't understand how to fix it, without unfixing on the blog, if you catch my drift. There are no ancient fonts or archaic versions of Microsoft on this computer. So, I am stumped.... Any wisdom? It has been suggested that the problem is for those who are running Macs rather than PCs. Again, any wisdom is welcome.



Ben Witherington said...

P.S. At no point has this been in html format.


Joel said...


A simple way to make it work would be to save it as a text document first. A "save as" to text will remove any "funkiness" that word or word perfect want to add. You can then copy and paste the text into your blog and it should keep all of those weird characters away...


Scott said...

A) You have to change the name Arthur James West before a certain someone starts to think it means "A Jim West."

B) If you get stuck you can either have 1) Lazarus be inside the ossuary and solve problems in the Middle East with Arnold type action, or 2) have main character miraculously come back to life, and take vengeance (just in case Cameron wants to do an action movie)

Ben Witherington said...

Well you see, I can't really much change the name of Art West. That's the name of my grandfather, and I wrote this for him, only he is James Arthur West which would make such an association even more likely to be made. If I reverse the first two names, then the connection will surely be made.


P.S. I will try the text file route with the next two chapters, but it sure looks fine on all the computers here.

mafutha said...

King Decided to release his novel "The Plant" as a internet novel. For a charge of (I think) $2 you could get a copy of the chapter in 3 different forms (text, html & pdf). I remember paying for it because as I was downloading the segments and reading it became more interesting. In the end it was a success but King never tried it again. I guess he decided to go on to other projects.

Sean Babu said...

Dr. Witherington,

I hate to tell you this, but "The Lazarus Effect" is the name of a novel by Frank Herbert published in 1983.

(Link goes to Amazon.)

Ben Witherington said...

Yes I know there was an earlier novel named the same. I found out after I wrote this. Harper Collins says, no big deal.


Sean Babu said...

Oh, that's good. The title fits your work much better...