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A Skeleton in God's ClosetA Novel
By Paul L. Maier
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 PAUL L. MAIER
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSabbatical: (def.) A year of absence for study, rest, or travel granted some college or university professors every seven years.
The greatest of the academic perks," Jonathan Weber often called it, though he himself had been too busy to take a sabbatical in recent years. A cascade of scholarly articles and books had flowed from "the Busiest Pen in the East," as Time once portrayed Weber. If university professors were supposed to "publish or perish," Weber was clearly courting immortality.
His major work, Jesus of Nazareth, had appeared the previous fall, just in time to catch the Christmas market. A book of vast-though surprisingly readable-erudition, the 580-page tome was expected to "bomb" in the trade and sell only to the scholarly world. But the bomb detonated unexpectedly in the general market, and the months since had cluttered Weber's quiet, scholarly life with media interviews and appearances, accolades and controversies. A few of his faculty colleagues groused openly that popularity tainted scholarship-and perhaps scholars.
Never mind, Weber mused. At the close of the semester in June he would skirt the snares of success and flee the classroom. The sabbatical would be his salvation and Austin Balfour Jennings his savior. Months earlier, Jennings, the internationally famed senior archaeologist at the British School in Jerusalem, had all but demanded Weber's presence in Israel with the playful lines:
You seem to have retained at least some of the lessons I taught you at Oxford back in your Rhodes Scholar days, dear fellow, as witness your recent publications. But what about field experience? Yes, I know you spent a summer with Rast, digging that fabulous cemetery near the Dead Sea. But that's nothing compared to what we're uncovering at Rama. You'd best join us this summer and get your fingernails dirty for a worthy cause. There's a good chap....
Rama was the prophet Samuel's hometown, and although Jennings had failed so far in his quest to discover the grave of the prophet himself, he had unearthed some artifacts "of possibly spectacular importance," he wrote, adding, "You must come share the excitement!"
Such language was hardly vintage Jennings, Weber reflected, since his Oxford mentor despised sensationalism. A master of understatement, the unflappable Briton would likely have yawned on the foredeck of Columbus's ship as land came into view. Weber tried to pry out further details, coaxing by correspondence, but to no avail. Jennings would tell him only in person, only in Israel, and only at the dig itself.
On the blessed ninth day of June, Jonathan Weber had graded his exams, processed his seminar papers, and marched with the faculty in the commencement procession through Harvard Yard. It was a rite of passage for Weber, too, since his sabbatical year, including the summers straddling it, would extend for the next fifteen months. At his home that night in suburban Weston, he set no alarm and planned to sleep as late into Sunday morning as a pampered teenager.
The phone's ringing was penetrating, persistent, and altogether brutal. "Ungodly hour!" Weber muttered, as he yanked the receiver to his ear and emitted something that passed for "Hello."
"This is the Vatican City operator. Is Dr. Jonathan Weber there?"
"One moment, please, for Dr. Sullivan."
Almost before his sleepy neurons could respond, Weber heard-indecently loud for such a distance-the voice of his roommate in graduate school.
"Hello, Jon! Hope I didn't call too early."
"Hi, Kevin! No, it's all right." But why lie? He added, "Though it is bloody 5:45 AM!"
"Oh, but it's going on noon here in Rome. Beautiful day, by the way!"
"So, what would the Reverend Kevin F. X. Sullivan, PhD, SJ, have on his mind besides the weather? Oh, sorry, sport. I'm finally waking up. Good to hear the likes of you!"
"How's your book on Jesus doing?"
"Inching up 'The List,' believe it or not. Why, I don't know."
"Congratulations! By the way, Mondadori has just published you in Italian-Gesu di Nazareth."
"Really? I'd no idea it would be out this soon!" Now Weber was fully awake; authors have endless interest in their published progeny.
"I understand you're digging this summer in Israel, Jon?"
"Right. With Jennings at Rama."
"When do you leave?"
"That soon? Glad I caught you! Jon, I have a big favor to ask-"
"Could you arrange to stop off at Rome en route?"
"Why? I'm flying direct to Tel Aviv."
"It's extremely important, Jon."
"Well, I can't tell you over the phone. Trust me."
Déjà vu, thought Jon. First Jennings and now Sullivan-Come over here on blind faith. Then he replied, "Unless it's earthshaking, Kev, I'd really like to fly direct. Perhaps on the return-"
"Jon, we need you to stop in! And yes, it may indeed be 'earthshaking'!"
"Ah, the Holy Father and I."
"Oh, sure! Then I fly on to Moscow for a reception at the Kremlin, right?"
"No. I'm not kidding, Jon. This is very serious."
Weber paused for several moments, then asked, "Why me?"
"Remember how you advised us on the Shroud business-the way you coordinated the scientific testing?"
Weber thought back to the days of John Paul II and how he had convinced the Vatican to have the supposed burial cloths of Jesus-the Shroud of Turin-tested for age via carbon 14. "But we proved the Shroud a forgery, Kevin," he resumed.
"Never mind. Honesty's the name of the game."
"How much time would you need?"
"Just a day. Longer, if you let me show you around Rome."
"No, another time. Okay, Kev. I'll switch to Alitalia and stop off at the Eternal City. Phone you my arrival details shortly."
"Thanks, Jon! See you soon! Ciao!"
The night before his now-earlier flight to Rome, Weber crossed out all the items on his "must-do" checklist except one phone call, which he now made to his parents in Hannibal, Missouri. After two rings, his mother came on the line: "Pastor Weber's residence."
"Isn't it Mrs. Weber's residence too?" asked Jon.
"Who ... who's this?"
"I represent the Boston chapter of Women's Lib-"
"Jonathan! Oh, Jon, it's you. Erhard! Get on the other phone! It's Jonathan. Oh, Jon, we're so proud of you! Several of the ladies at church have bought your new book, and-"
"Several?" thundered the clerical voice of the Reverend Erhard Weber at the other phone. "The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has had you on top of the best-seller list for several weeks now. Congratulations, son!"
"Well, it's not that big a deal, but thanks, Dad. Anyhow, my sabbatical is under way, and I wanted to call you before flying overseas tomorrow. I'll be stopping off at Rome on the way to Israel."
"Why Rome?" his mother wondered. "We knew about Israel, but-"
"Well, among other things, the pope wants to have a chat with me." That was the line he had wanted to drop on that Missouri Lutheran parsonage ever since Sullivan had called him.
"Well, that's fine, son," his father replied. "But why? You're not turning Catholic, are you?"
Jon laughed. "No, I'll give you a full report later on. But Mom, don't send me a packet of Protestant tracts to give to the pope, okay?"
"Heh, heh!" his father chuckled. "Trudi would do just that! Heh, heh!"
"Well, I have to run. You have my address in Israel?"
"Jonathan," his mother interposed, "I ... I only wish Andrea were going with you-"
"Don't, Mother. Not now. But we'll say in touch. Take care!"
Although they were calling his flight, Jon zigzagged through a phalanx of travelers at Boston's Logan Airport and reached a newsstand, where he bought a New York Times before hurrying onto the Alitalia 747. Swinging into his seat, he flipped to the "Books" section of the Times and broke into a low smile. His own three-column photograph smiled back at him in an "Author's Portrait" feature with caption: "Jonathan P. Weber, Reginald R. Dillon Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Harvard University and author of Jesus of Nazareth."
"LIFE OF JESUS TOPS LIST" was the header of the story that followed, but Jon suddenly abandoned his reading and folded the paper. A silver-haired dowager sitting to his right had been looking over his shoulder and was starting to compare real and still life.
Once airborne, however, he twisted away from her gaze, unfolded the paper, and continued reading the article surreptitiously, as if it were hard-core pornography. He winced a bit at the irreverent first line of the piece:
"Jesus!" is both the title of the new number one best-seller and also the reaction of the publishing industry to what may well be the trade phenomenon of the season. Lives of Christ are nothing new in the book business-an estimated 20,000 titles have been published across the world in this century alone-and it is commonplace that more books have been written about Jesus than any other figure in history. What, then, distinguishes Weber's work? The critical jury is still out, but an early consensus points to the way he has supplemented the biblical account with fresh evidence from a wide array of ancient disciplines, ranging from Babylonian astronomy to Roman provincial law. His portrayal also cuts across denominational lines. Endorsements have arrived from evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and even ...
Well, not quite, Jon mused. The Fundamentalists don't like parts of it, of course, but some of them would probably criticize God's own arrangements in heaven! He returned to the article:
The result may be the definitive life of Jesus for this generation. And all this from a very unprofessorial-looking scholar of comparatively tender years. (The man is only 43.) No beard etches his jawline, no gray speckles his dark blond thatch. Weber is medium tall, and carries a spare but solid frame, well-equipped for the archaeology he plans to pursue this summer in Israel. His steel-blue eyes and square-cut chin remind some of Robert Redford.
"Bloody nonsense!" Jon muttered, stuffing the Times into the seat pouch in front of him. The verbal fare was getting a little rich for his blood and could lead to fat in the head. No one knew his limitations better than himself.
When the woman next to him fell asleep, however, he returned to the article. The story now focused on the ancient languages he had mastered-Aramaic (the tongue Jesus and his disciples actually spoke), Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as well as the modern research languages. Biographical details carried him from student days at Harvard to Oxford, and then on to his doctorate in Semitics at Johns Hopkins, before returning full-circle to teach at Harvard. But the ICO hadn't been given enough credit, Jon thought.
The ICO had been his dream-the Institute of Christian Origins. It was an academic talent pool that held quarterly symposia at which some of the world's finest scholars contributed their latest findings as to how Christianity was launched in the first century. Membership in the ICO was "by invitation only," and its roster included intellectual blue bloods who were delighted to have their scholarship reflected-with due credit-in Jon's new book.
The ICO had been funded by Philadelphia philanthropist J. S. Nickel, the chain-store prince and devout layman who, in the fiscal sense, had made it all possible. Jon hoped everyone would understand that dedicating his book to "Joshua Scruggs Nickel and all my colleagues at the Institute of Christian Origins" was a debt repaid.
Dinner aboard the 747 offered pasticcio, prosciutto, and melon as appetizers, with tortellini as the pasta course. Only an Italian gourmet could decipher the courses that followed, each served up with choice vintages from the vineyards of Italy. Jon thought the dessert a little showy, if not risky-flames shooting up from the "Vesuvio Surprise." A strolling violinist in Tarantella costume accompanied the after-dinner brandy. Clearly Alitalia was going all-out for its new direct flight to Rome.
Jon doused the overhead light and tried to sleep several hours before the too-early Atlantic dawn intercepted the plane somewhere over Ireland. His mind, however, would not disengage. He felt a strange interplay, a curious volley between two quite contrary moods-elation over the current success, yet also a relentless pain over the loss that had gnawed a gaping hole in his life. What should have been the glad late springtime of his career could not be shared with the one who had mattered most to him.
Why? Again he asked himself the nagging query raised ever since Job. In his younger, more religious days, he had asked it of God. But God had not replied.
Andrea deserved to share his success, he reminded himself. She was such a great part of it all. The album of his sleepless mind opened again to the July he'd spent at Heidelberg during his Oxford days. The first snapshot showed an exquisite, petite blonde caressing a book in the university library-north German or Scandinavian, he had opined at the time. The next zoomed in on the girl at a party in the Roter Ochsen, hoisting a stein of suds and blowing them in his face when he doubted that she was a Fulbright from Virginia! (She'd refused to speak English, and her German was so good.) A gallery of photographs followed, progressive enlargements of an outrageously rapid romance.
It was all straight out of Sigmund Romberg, The Student Prince revisited. Germans might call it schmaltz, but every syllable of the old university song had applied to Andrea and himself in spades:
Ich hab' mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren auf einer lauen Sommer Nacht ...
English could never convey the mood: "I lost my heart in Heidelberg on a mild summer night ..."
He proposed to her on one of those nights, blazing with stars, as they stood at the parapets of the great castle overlooking the Neckar River. She hesitated, worried over the mad pace of their courtship, but then wrapped her arms around him and murmured, "A year from now I'd feel exactly the same way. Yes, Jon! I want to be your wife with all my heart!"
As if timed for the event, half the skyrockets in Germany seemed to explode over the valley below in one of the Schlossbeleuchtungen or castle illumination/fireworks displays Heidelberg offered each summer. "Now, that is music to suit the occasion!" said Jon, enclosing the lithe, willowy figure in an embrace of exuberant joy.
When they married and moved to Baltimore and Cambridge, the promise of happiness was easily fulfilled in fact. Andrea proved versatile in her roles as housewife, colleague, and critic, equally at home in the kitchen or the study. She also wanted to become a mother, but they waited until the ICO had been launched. Then, in November, Andrea happily announced her pregnancy, and they celebrated by spending Christmas as a second honeymoon in Davos, Switzerland.
Both were excellent skiers, but neither had ever skied Davos. Blizzards in early December had blanketed the Alps with an unusually heavy base, and during breakfast on the final morning of their holiday, Jon and Andrea had heard the echoing booms of cannon setting off controlled avalanches before the lifts started up. A warming wind from the southeast proved this a wise precaution, but someone had overlooked a bulbous snow mass looming over a hidden run on the expert course.
Jon twisted in his seat on the jet, his stomach taut, his hands gripping the armrests like two vises, trying desperately to warp the past into a different channel, a new vector in which he and Andrea would simply have left Davos after breakfast and taken the next plane home. He even constructed a fresh scenario of the time since then, tableaus that featured Andrea at her vital best, and now sleeping on his shoulder in the adjacent seat.
Excerpted from A Skeleton in God's Closet by Paul L. Maier Copyright © 2007 by PAUL L. MAIER. Excerpted by permission.
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