Review – The Constantine Codex

I looked forward to reading Paul Maier’s book The Constantine Codex from the first time I heard about it. Being interested in history and theology, a thriller that combined both was very appealing. So, when the book was offered free for Kindle, I quickly downloaded it.

The premise is intriguing. A biblical scholar and his wife discover a copy of the New Testament older than any that currently exists – going back to the time of the emperor Constantine. This by itself would be a major find and a boon to biblical scholarship but there’s more, it’s not just an older copy but one with additional text never before seen. This raises the question of canonicity – should this new material be included in the Bible? Against this backdrop the protagonist also finds himself involved in a Christian / Muslim debate before a world-wide audience which subjects him to the wrath of radical Muslims.

Given the potential in this plot, I dove into this book with much excitement – most of which quickly evaporated. The book is not well written. It is full of clichés and the descriptive language is often downright corny:

“Silence in the room was deafening…” (p. 263)

“The explosive joy suffusing Jon when they kissed rapturously after that first hug he later called “one of the greatest moments in my life.” (p. 370)

The historical data woven into the story often seems tacked on just to get the information in rather than flowing naturally from the plot. For example, when crossing to Mt. Athos, we read:

“Jon could only hope that the weather would stay favorable, recalling that a fierce storm had destroyed an entire Persian fleet off the coast of Mount Athos in 492 BC, two years before the great Battle of Marathon.” (p. 75)

What does a storm that happened over two thousand years ago have to do with the outlook for the weather today? That’s like going to Naples and saying, “he could only hope the volcano didn’t erupt destroying the city, recalling that Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed by it in 79 AD”

The plot has great potential for intrigue and excitement but unfortunately everything happens easily and right on queue. There’s little suspense and no attempt to make very unlikely events seem believable. After hundreds of years, one of the most sought after copies of the New Testament in all of history is found simply lying at the bottom of a bookshelf in plain sight in the Orthodox patriarchate in Istanbul after a five minute survey of the room by our heroes.

But, what bothered me the most were the theological assumptions of the book. To be sure, this is a work of fiction, but all fiction is to some degree based on truth. And for Christian writers, when writing fiction that touches on theological topics, precision and accuracy are as important as in non-fiction books – perhaps more so. To be fair, there were several times when theological topics were handled well. For example there’s a good discussion about the double standard that exists when criticizing Islam as opposed to Christianity. But, there were also times when precision was required but was lacking. For example, when thinking about the whys of monasticism Jon (one of the main characters) notes that it is common among the world’s faiths. He also notes that St. Paul spent three years in the desert after his conversion then, without skipping a beat, relates the story of Siddhartha Gautama, who left his wife and child to explore the meaning of life:

He was there for seven years until he finally found the answer while sitting under the Bodhi tree and became the first “Buddha,” or “Enlightened One.” (p. 56)

He wonders (“ruminates”) to himself why such behavior is common and concludes that perhaps it’s easier to hear God in the desert. But the passage makes no differentiation at all between Buddha’s experience and Paul’s. Did Buddha find the “the answer” and was his experience as legitimate as Paul’s? I doubt Maier (or his character Jon) would answer “yes” but lack of precision leaves the reader wondering.

Then there is the fawning deference given to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy:

“…it was quite an honor to be hugged by no less than the eastern pope himself—and even be kissed on both cheeks.” (p. 234)

“Wow! Coming from the pope himself, that’s . . . quite humbling.” (p. 288)

This kind of effusion happened whenever Roman Catholic or Orthodox leaders were encountered. It was like listening to a teenage girl who vows never to wash her cheek again after being kissed by Justin Bieber. The deference also showed itself in other ways. Those who use the questionable longer ending of Mark’s gospel to sanction snake handling are “pathetic” (no argument there) but the Orthodox monk who thinks his monastery has the finger of John the Baptist among their relics is “sincere” and a “dear brother.” This double standard seems to be a result of the author’s selective ecumenism as revealed in a passage about Jon and his Roman Catholic friend:

As they matured, however, each had moved from a right-wing conservatism to a centrist, more ecumenical stance. (p. 293)

Christian maturity is the willingness to ignore real and significant theological issues – things such as the nature of justification – and those who don’t are “right-wing conservatives” who probably use the Bible like a talisman (p. 102) – which is apparently worse than using the petrified body parts of saints that way.

The overarching assumption of the book is the existence of a “Christendom” where the Reformation never took place (or has little importance) and the Church is primarily Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy – with a bone thrown to a couple of the more liturgical protestant denominations (the main character is Lutheran). Trouble is, “Christendom” no longer exists – if it ever really did. In the end, it’s not just a lost codex that needs to be rescued from the early middle ages but the world-view of the characters in this book as well.

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