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4 trowels

ON THE THIRD DAY

By: Piers Paul Read
Random House: New York
1990 (HC)

On the Third Day is a novel that explores the nuances of religious beliefs, political intrigue and human frailty. Set against the backdrop of the first Intifada (Palestinian protests against the Israeli government) of the late 1980s, Israeli archaeologist Michal Dagan, along with his son Ya’acov, discover a skeleton in a large storage jar hidden in a cistern in the caverns beneath the Dome of the Rock in Old Jerusalem. The skeleton bears all the signs of a First Century A.D. victim of crucifixion, with additional signs of a deep wound in the rib area and a crown of thorns impressed on the skull. Could this be the body of Jesus Christ? Strong corroborative evidence had been provided by the so-called Vilnius Codex— a supplement to the Jewish historian Josephus’s Jewish Wars first discovered by German scholars around the turn of the century, then lost in the fog of wars and revolutions, and then re-discovered in Lithuania a few years earlier. This codex claimed that Pontius Pilate had the body of Christ removed from its tomb and hidden in a storage jar and buried in a cistern beneath the Temple Mount.

Dagan realizes the enormity of the discovery and summons his old friend Father John Lambert, a Simonite monk and celebrated Biblical archaeologist at Huntingdon College in London to verify or dispute the identity of skeleton. Dagan believes that only an eminent scholar and observant theologian like Lambert could convince the Christian world of such a devastating blow to two thousand years of Christian doctrine—the belief in the risen Son of God!

Father Lambert honors his friend’s request, investigates the subterranean site, returns to the Simonite monastery in London and apparently commits suicide—an explicit acknowledgement that the skeleton is indeed that of Christ and that he could not bear to live with the knowledge that his most sacred beliefs—indeed the beliefs of millions of Christians throughout the past two millennia—have been annihilated.

Brother Andrew Nash, an archaeology student at Huntingdon College and assistant to Father Lambert, discovers the body of and is understandably devastated by the loss of his beloved mentor. But the curiously organized nature of documents on the dead archaeologist’s desk and the fact that his field journal is missing leads Brother Nash to wonder whether there is more to the apparent suicide than meets the eye. His suspicions are further piqued when he and Michal Dagan’s daughter Anna call the Israeli archaeologist to inform him of Lambert’s death and Dagan asks if it could be murder.

Andrew informs the prior of the monastery of the archaeological discovery potentially catastrophic event. Lambert’s death is attributed to natural causes to avoid embarrassment to the Church and Andrew and Cardinal Memel, head of the Simonite Order, are dispatched to Jerusalem to establish the truth behind the skeleton—Andrew to provide archaeological expertise and Memel to provide the theological authority. What follows is an intense struggle to discover the truth and still maintain belief in the face of seemingly overwhelming evidence.

The plot device that employs an archaeological discovery that puts in doubt the Biblical account of Christ’s resurrection has been used numerous times in archaeological fiction. More often than not they tend to be at best mildly interesting potboilers that are quickly forgotten. On the Third Day is a rarity in that it is thoughtful and thought-provoking and in addition to being a legitimate thriller, it examines questions of human frailty, religious zeal, human sexuality and the behavior of institutions in crisis. Too many authors are able to construct earth-shaking events as the basis for their novels, but then have their protagonists act in unbelievable stupid or irrational ways. Piers Paul Read presents a perfectly cataclysmic event—a discovery that could literally destroy one of the world’s great religions—and then has his characters react in believable ways that remain faithful to their temperament and nature, whether it be the devout Andrew whose faith is challenged almost beyond comprehension; or Anna Dagan, the secular Jewess who must struggle with a love for Andrew and an incredibly complicated relationship with her family; or Michal Dagan, the scholar haunted by the deaths of his parents at the hands of the Nazis and now his unwitting complicity in the death of his old friend John Lambert; and even John Lambert himself, who may have, before his mysterious death, come face to face with his un-risen Savior, and could not bear the awful truth.

Four trowels for this imaginative novel, written more than two decades ago, but still relevant and as fresh as tomorrow’s headlines.

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*MVAC Educational Programs are supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.  Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in these programs do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
*This project was supported, in part, by the National Science Foundation.  Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation.