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«The Constantine Codex», Paul Maier

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Paul L. Maier

Shannon Jennings Weber was enjoying her lunch under the shade of a juniper tree-much as the prophet Elijah had done. She was digging at Pella on the east bank of the Jordan River, about twenty miles south of the Sea of Galilee. This was new territory for the archaeologist, who had had a string of successes with her spade in Israel. She had organized this dig in hopes of finding something-anything-to help fill one of the most crucial gaps in church history: the later first century, when Christians managed to escape the horrifying Roman conquest of Jerusalem in AD 70 by fleeing to Pella before the war started. Here, she thought, in the very capital of the earliest church, there must be clues under the soil, artifacts that would illumine the decades during which Christianity first took hold in the Mediterranean world.

Her husband, Jon, could not have been more pleased, since he too thought Pella an excavation site with huge potential. While teaching at Harvard, he regularly sent Shannon such e-mail queries as “Have you found the personal memoirs of Jesus yet?” or “How about Paul’s missing letter to Corinth?” Even the messages that told of his love and loneliness usually had a playful tagline, such as “Surely you’ve found one of Luke’s paintings of the apostles?” or “If you unearth the bishop’s chair of James, do excavate carefully.”

No sensational discoveries, however, had come to light, and tomorrow the team was scheduled to decamp. Before Shannon’s dig, teams from the University of Sydney and the Jordanian Department of Antiquities had uncovered several Bronze- and Iron-Age Canaanite temples, and the whole site sprouted white marble columns from the Hellenistic era that merely had to be restacked. Unlike the Aussies and Jordanians, Shannon’s team had focused on the fourth-century church of St. James. After clearing its base and discovering some interesting floor mosaics, curious ceramics, and a small cache of second- and third-century coins, they called it a season.

Few digs produced sensational results, and Pella was no exception. Shannon was satisfied with their results, though hardly elated. If only digs would produce treasures on demand! She grimaced, remembering a too-good-to-be-true find she’d been a part of several years previous. It had only proved the adage “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

As she munched on a pear, her eyes came to rest on what was likely the present-day version of the ancient church they were excavating-the Greek Orthodox Church of St. James the Just. There it sat, on a hillock just east of the dig, an aging, whitish gray structure with a blue dome that looked as if it had been plucked from an Aegean seaport. She had passed it daily en route to the dig and thought, playfully, how nice it would be if that church had kept continuous records across the centuries. It was a fanciful concept, of course, but if a church were, say, on fire, what were the two documents they would try to rescue? The altar Bible and the church records. There might be something worth seeing there before she packed up and headed home.

The next day, she paid a visit to the church and introduced herself to the priest in charge, who spoke surprisingly clear English. He was a spare little man, middle-aged, with a luxurious salt-and-pepper beard as if to compensate for his advancing male-pattern baldness. He had trouble making eye contact with Shannon, and the reason became clear when he said, “Yours is certainly the loveliest face to grace our premises in many months, Mrs. Weber. You must have Greek blood in you, no? Your dark hair, your-”

“I wish I could claim that distinction, Father Athanasius,” she replied. “But no, I’m just an Irish-English hybrid who moved to America. And I love old churches like this one. How long has it been standing here?”

He pointed a pensive finger to his chin. “This building went up in the 1700s, but it was built on… on foundations of the church before it.”

“And when was that one built?”

He smiled, shook his head, and said, “Centuries ago. Many centuries.”

Shannon smiled inwardly and wanted badly to surprise the cleric with word that she was excavating what was likely the grandmother church to this one. But that would be premature; first the official dig report had to be published. “Does your church have archives? A library?” she asked.

“Oh yes, of course.”

“I’m fascinated by old books. Might you be kind enough to let me see your collection?”

“But of course. Please to follow me.”

They walked across a sun-drenched courtyard rimmed with trellises of grapevines and entered a library annex. The priest showed Shannon row after row of books until they came to a section whose shelves were bending under the weight of ponderous old volumes, some bound in gray-white parchment skin. Here Athanasius stopped and explained why his church was named for St. James the Just. He picked out an ancient tome. “Here we have Eusebius’s Historia Ekklesiastica. You know Eusebius?”

“Of course! He’s the very father of church history.”

Athanasius smiled and nodded appreciatively. He laid the volume on a table and opened it to what seemed to be a bookmark of sorts, then translated the Greek that spoke of the martyrdom of James the Just of Jerusalem, Jesus’ half brother-or cousin, as some would argue-and the first bishop of the Christian church.

“Eusebius writes that he got this information from Hegesippus,” the priest continued. “You know Hegesippus?”

“Oh yes. My husband often raves about Hegesippus. He tells his classes that if we had the five lost books of that first-century Jewish-Christian historian, we’d know much, much more about the earliest church.”

Father Athanasius beamed. “Yes, yes-it is as you say.”

While he showed Shannon the text, her eyes quickly shifted to what was serving as a bookmark for the Eusebius passage: several brownish leaves of what seemed to be parchment of some sort. Their darker color showed that they had to be older than the Eusebius tome- much older. The writing in the text, however, was so faded as to be hardly legible.

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