An Israeli archaeologist, Michael Dagan, is led by his son, Ya’acov, to a cistern under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where Ya’acov and his fellow Israeli militants are spying on the Palestinians. The military intelligence mission is complicated by their unearthing of a large jar that holds the remains of a crucified man. The importance of the find is enlarged greatly by its coming not long after the discovery in Lithuania of the so-called Vilnius Codex, an ancient manuscript containing some late additions to Josephus’ JEWISH WAR and describing the supposed disposal of Jesus’s body in a manner consistent with the circumstances of the find in the cistern.
A close friend of Michael Dagan, the Simonite monk and archaeologist Father Lambert, is summoned from London to view the remains in the jar. Shortly after his return to London, he is discovered hanging from his cell window, an apparent suicide. His devoted protege and fellow monk, Andrew Nash, is shocked by Father Lambert’s death and is consoled by his good friend, Anna Dagan, daughter of Michael Dagan and sister to Ya’acov.
Andrew’s brother, Henry, a prosperous and cynical rake, is having an affair with Anna, unbeknown to Andrew, but dumps her after three months, the span he always allots to his liaisons. The discovery of the dead priest’s body, and the fear that he killed himself out of spiritual disillusionment after viewing the body in the cistern, propel this cast into action.
Andrew’s greatest concern is with the state of his dead mentor’s soul; Anna is depressed by her affair with Henry and overcome with tender feelings for Andrew, while anguishing over her awareness of her parents’ preference for the chauvinist Ya’acov; Henry is becoming tired of the meaninglessness of his life, especially as he compares his roue’s existence to the life of faith that Andrew leads but which he cannot share; and Anna and Ya’acov’s parents are distressed by Anna’s alienation not only from her family but also from the vision of Israel’s historic destiny that gives their lives meaning.
Piers Paul Read works this all out skillfully. The love affair ingratiates, the history lessons instruct, and the well-constructed plot puts these mainly likeable people through their paces in a series of pleasing surprises and revelations.