Monday, March 26, 2018


I first wrote this story about three years ago, not long after I finished THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE.  Set in the same time and place, those who have read the story will recognize some of the characters and situations.  Travel with me now to the night after Passover in Jerusalem, 33 AD . . .


A Short Story by

Lewis Smith


          It was April in Judea, and the nights were still cool in the foothills around Jerusalem.  Three Roman legionaries, each a veteran of ten years or more, sat by a small fire under the shade of a grove of olive trees.  It was dark and quiet, and they talked quietly among themselves to fend off sleepiness.  At dawn another trio of soldiers would come to relieve them, and none of them wanted to face the flogging that sleeping on watch would cost.  Pontius Pilate was a good prefect, who had whipped the Judean Legion into shape when he arrived several years earlier - but he was also a strict disciplinarian, and since being wounded in a battle with Zealots earlier in the year, he had developed a wicked temper.

          A short distance away, a larger group of men were camped in front of a sealed cave.  Members of the elite Temple Guard that worked for the High Priest, they had been given the primary duty of guarding the tomb of the eccentric preacher who had been crucified that Friday.  Caiaphas had detested Jesus of Nazareth and seemed convinced that someone was going to try and steal his body if the tomb was left unguarded.  He had approached Pilate and asked for a guard, but the Prefect was still in a foul temper over being manipulated into crucifying the strange Galilean. He had told the High Priest to see to the matter himself. But then Pontius Pilate had second thoughts, and told his primipilus centurion, Gaius Cassius Longinus, to dispatch a few legionaries to keep an eye on the tomb and its Jewish guards in case anything untoward happened.   Decius, Tiberius, and Carmello were given the thankless task of staring at a tomb all night.

          So now the three soldiers sat and stared at the fire, occasionally standing and walking to the edge of the light to stare at the Jews, who were numerous enough to rotate shifts, so that five or six could remain awake while the others slept.  The two groups did not acknowledge each other in any way; the Romans regarded the Jews as uncouth, fanatical barbarians, and the Jews regarded the Romans as a brutal occupying force in the employ of a foreign government that they hated.

          “I’ve been here five years,” said Carmello Antonius, “and this was the strangest Passover I’ve ever seen.  I know that this Jesus wasn’t a bloodthirsty Zealot like Bar Abbas, but he scared me.  I’ve never seen anyone that could draw bigger crowds.  If he had ever given the word, he could have had all the Jews in the province out for our blood.”

          “I think that is why he had such a huge following,” Decius said.  “I went with Longinus when Pilate ordered us to go hear this Jesus last year and make sure he was not a threat.  Anyone can scream ‘Kill the foreigners!’ around here and get a few people to listen.  Jesus challenged the Jews to love each other and love their enemies.  It was a much different message from the usual rabble-rousing tirades they are used to.”

“But what about the miracles?” Lucius Tiberius asked.  “I keep hearing these stories about lame men walking and blind men receiving their sight.  Was there anything to that?”

“I know that Stichius, Longinus’ manservant, was at the point of death and this Jesus supposedly just said a few words from miles away and the man was back on his feet again the next morning,” Decius replied.  “All the other stuff I don’t know about, but I know Longinus was convinced Jesus had performed a miracle.”

“I knew that old beggar that used to sit by the pool of Siloam,” volunteered Carmello.  “He’d been paralyzed for years, legs like little sticks, completely useless!  But I saw him after that Jesus fellow healed him, and his calves were as big and strong as mine!”

“That’s impossible!” snapped Tiberius.  “I can’t believe you would fall for that!”

“I didn’t fall for anything; I saw it with my own eyes.  I knew the old man; his legs were withered and useless one day, and as strong as mine the next!” Carmello insisted.

“If you insist,” Tiberius said, his tone still disbelieving.  “But here is what I don’t understand – how could the Jews turn on the Galilean so quickly?  When he rode into the city a week ago, they were ready to crown him as their king.  I was near the city gate, and I have never seen a crowd so worked up!  Then, by Friday, the same crowd was howling for his blood!”

Decius snorted in derision.  “Who knows why Jews do anything?” he asked. “We’ve had this province for nearly a hundred years, and they are no closer to being civilized than they were when Pompey Magnus decided the Republic needed this gods-forsaken place.”

Carmello nodded.  “They are a fickle lot, true enough.  I don’t know what Longinus sees in them, to be honest,” he said.

“Longinus is a good soldier, but he ain’t been right ever since he married that Jewish girl,” said Decius.  “And Cornelius is just as bad!”

“How long until dawn, you think?” Tiberius asked to no one in particular.  “I want to get back to the barracks and get some sleep.”

“Another hour at least,” Carmello said.  “So, what did you make of all the goings-on Friday when they nailed this Galilean up with those two Zealot bandits?”

“An earthquake and an eclipse the same day,” said Decius.  ‘Ill omens, according to all the ancients.”

“That was no eclipse,” Carmello said.  “The sun wasn’t obscured a bit at a time – the whole thing grew dark all at once.  I’m telling you, I think it was related to this Jesus’ death.  The gods were not happy to see him killed!  I was out there on the crucifixion detail with Longinus, and I don’t mind telling you I was scared.  I thought the earth was going to tear itself in two right there at the foot of the cross!”

“One of the Jewish merchants I know – fellow by the name of Asher, a decent sort as Jews go – told me that the big veil in the Temple that hides their Holy of Holies from prying eyes, was torn in two from top to bottom at the same instant!” Decius interjected.

“An earthquake could do that naturally,” Tiberius said.  “But some of the other stories – why, I heard people saying they had seen men who died years ago up and walking around Jerusalem!”

“That’s what you get for listening to these superstitious barbarians,” Decius said.  “It was an earthquake, nothing more.”

“Yet it started at the moment that Jesus character died,” Carmello said.  “He threw his head back and hollered ‘It is finished!’ at the top of his lungs, then slumped down dead.  Then suddenly the ground was shaking so hard I couldn’t stand up, and lightning was striking everywhere, even though there wasn’t a cloud in the sky – the sun was black, but I could see every star, just like we can right now.  Old Longinus was even more scared than I was – he’d been keeping tabs on this Jesus for a while, and I think he more than half believed some of the stuff Jesus said about himself.  He started sobbing that we had killed the Son of God!”

“Well, he is killed, that’s the main thing,” Tiberius said.  “Whatever or whoever he was, he’s food for the worms now.  You fellows did make sure he was dead, didn’t you?”

“I drove my spear clean through his heart before we let his friends take the body for burial,” Carmello said.  “He didn’t even twitch, and the blood that came out was all mingled with water.  No doubt he was dead.  I don’t even know why we are out here.  Is old Caiaphas really afraid he might come back?”

“He thinks this man’s disciples will steal the body, and then say that he’s come back – which would be just as bad, from the priesthood’s point of view,” said Tiberius.

“Since when are you privy to the Jewish High Priest’s council chamber?” asked Decius.

“I was in the Prefect’s office when Caiaphas’ messenger asked for a guard,” Decius said.  “Those were his exact words.”

“Is that a shooting star?” asked Carmello suddenly.  A bright ball of light was streaking down from the heavens, growing larger and brighter as it drew near. The Jewish soldiers near the tomb saw it too, and were pointing and jabbering in their native tongue.  The ball of light didn’t flicker out, like most shooting stars – it grew bigger and brighter, lighting the entire garden in an eerie whiteness.

“It’s going to hit us!” shrieked Decius, covering his eyes.

Over their heads, the ball slowed down, and then suddenly split in two.  Instead of a blinding white globe, two oblong shapes slowly lowered to the earth at the tomb’s entrance.  When they touched the ground, they began to assume manlike forms.  As the two sets of guards watched in wonder, one of the white figures reached out and touched the massive stone that covered the entrance to the Galilean’s tomb. A pulse of light so bright that it obscured all else shot outwards from the tomb, and all the guards – Jews and Romans alike – collapsed to the ground like dead men.

The garden was silent.  The stone now lay flat, ten feet from the entrance to the tomb, and the figures, now resolved into tall men wearing robes of blinding white, positioned themselves at either side of the door, like an honor guard. As the sky began to lighten in the east, a third figure emerged blinking into the garden.

Decius, Carmello, and Tiberius lay still on the grass, unmoving, breathing softly.  A pair of bare feet, deeply scarred above the instep, stepped over them as the owner of those feet stepped forth into a new day – and a new age.

Monday, March 19, 2018

How Can We Trust the New Testament When It Is Full of Errors?

  I run a little weekly column in the local newspaper called ASK THE PREACHER.  Sometimes people send me questions, sometimes I repost questions I have encountered elsewhere and try to answer them to the best of my ability.  This was a good question I encountered earlier this week - and yes, others have answered it in more depth and detail than I have here - but for a short column I tried to cover as much as I could.

Q:  How can the New Testament be considered "inerrant" when there are so many errors in the manuscripts?

A:  The first thing that needs clarifying is the term "inerrant." Theologically, what this means is that the New Testament contains God's revelation through His Son Jesus Christ, and that its teachings on matters of faith and morals are complete, authoritative, and without mistake.  It does not necessarily mean that every word of every verse has been passed down precisely in each hand-written copy across twenty centuries of time!

  Bart Ehrman made a big splash about a decade ago with a book entitled MISQUOTING JESUS, in which he described that the Greek manuscripts contain over 400,000 variant readings from each other - in short, 400,000 "mistakes."  Since the original copies of the Gospels and Epistles that make up the New Testament were lost long ago, how can we possibly trust a text that has so many mistakes in its transmission?  Well, first of all - Ehrman didn't say anything that New Testament scholars have not known for the last two centuries.  When you are dealing with thousands of texts hand copied over a period of centuries, of course there are going to be variant readings.  In fact, these variations are useful for textual analysis, since they help us tell which texts were copied from which.  Secondly, Ehrman really fiddled with the figures to arrive at that total of 400,000 "errors."  For example, a single misspelled word that was copied into twenty different manuscripts made from the one containing the original error - most people would count that as a single error.  However, Ehrman would count it as twenty-one - the original, plus the twenty copies!  Over 70% of the errors he cites are simple misspellings by copyists, easily detected and easily corrected.  Another 25% or so are word reversals - switching the order of two words in a sentence.  Of those reversals, 80% of them were a single phrase - "Jesus Christ" in place of "Christ Jesus," or vice versa.  In other words, neither misspellings nor word reversals significantly effect the actual meaning of the passage wherein they occur!  A very small percentage of the variations are paraphrase - where a later copyist used a simpler or more modern word meaning the same thing in place of an earlier term that was more complex, or perhaps simply outmoded.

  What does that leave us with?  A small handful of passages, like the ending of Mark's Gospel, where the exact wording is unknown. All the "doubtful passages" combined comprise less than 1% of the New Testament text, and none of them change a single major doctrine of the Christian faith.  Most modern translations put these verses into brackets and include a footnote explaining what the problems associated with them are.  In short, the New Testament has been transmitted for two thousand years, being copied exclusively by hand for the first fifteen hundred of those years, with at textual accuracy in excess of 99%.  No other work of the ancient world comes anywhere close.

Monday, March 12, 2018

THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY IS COMING!!! (and you're gonna love it!)

    May 1, 2018.  Mark the date on your calendar!  My new novel, THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY, is coming out that day, and it is a doozy!  I wrote this one in 2016, finishing it right after I returned from my trip to Israel.  That summer I read through it again, made my finishing touches, and sent it off to my publisher.  After I signed my contract, I went on to work on other projects and hadn't really thought about the story that much since then. 

   But as the publication date looms closer, and I begin to get ready to work on cover art, I decided to pull out the story and read it again, for the first time in nearly two years. I read the whole thing in two days. This is going to sound incredibly vain when I say it, but I am going to say it anyway:

    Simply put, I think this may be the best thing I have ever written. Fast paced, dynamic, and packing a powerful emotional punch, this story grabs you quick and never lets go.  Set in the Black Desert of Egypt, THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY is the story of a remarkable discovery: an ancient library, buried in the dunes, exposed by a sandstorm in Egypt, and found by a Bedouin shepherd not long after the fall of the Morsi government.  Anxious for some positive coverage in the world press after a long season of violence and anarchy, the new Egyptian government hires two foreign archeologists to excavate the site and curate the hundreds of ancient scrolls it contains.  But a group of radical jihadists, on the run from the Egyptian army, are hiding in the hills on the edge of the Black Desert - and they don't appreciate having an archeological excavation led by infidels on their doorstep!  Terrorism, mayhem, and hostage drama ensue as the members of the Capri Team race from the other side of the world to help rescue their friend and colleague, Vatican archeologist Father Duncan MacDonald.

   Here are a few things you need to know about THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY before it comes out:

   First, this is the third volume in a trilogy that began with THE TESTIMONIUM and continued in MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH.  Each story features the same cast of characters, a group of archeologists specializing in the Roman Empire/Early Christian era.  The first story was set on the Isle of Capri in Italy; the second took place in Israel's Negev Desert. The trilogy covers roughly a six year time period, following the team on their three separate adventures.

   Second, each of the Capri Team books is a stand-alone story.  You don't have to read the first two to understand the last one, although the latter two books contain some spoilers for their predecessors. But you can certainly purchase and enjoy THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY without having read THE TESTIMONIUM or MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH.  However, you will get a fuller picture of these characters and their personalities by reading the stories in order.  Read one or all - flip a coin, take your choice!

   Third, yes, these are Christian stories - by which I mean, they are written from a Christian perspective, and most (though certainly not all) of the main characters are Christians.  That being said, however, my first and foremost goal with each of them was to write a good story.  Message and morals don't do a bit of good if you write a dry, boring, or preachy novel that no one wants to read.  My goal in this series was to create fun, fast-paced adventure stories, gritty enough to be real but clean enough that I am not embarrassed for my Mom to read them!  If people pick up on and want to know more about the Christian themes I have woven into the story, that's fine.  If they want to simply enjoy a compelling adventure, that's fine too.  Writing something fun and readable and sharing a spiritual message at the same time are not mutually exclusive goals.

   Fourth - This newest book matters a great deal for me personally.  I have been writing novels since 2012, and this is my fifth published book.  I have enjoyed being a published novelist, and I want to go on writing.  However, I'll be honest, my stories have not sold as well as I would like.  I get great reviews from the people that do read them, but not enough people are reading them!  I'm going to pull all the stops out this time in terms of promotion and personal appearances, but I REALLY need people to buy this book. I promise, it is worth your money and time.

   Last of all - THANKS to all of you who have read my books and reviewed them, recommended them to friends, or just enjoyed them.  You are the ones who make this worth doing, and I hope my latest tale of faith, archeology, romance, and terrorism will be a fun reading experience for you.

    Now, if you would like to read the first two Capri Team adventures before diving into this latest one, here are the links for THE TESTIMONIUM and MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH.  Give them a read, but hurry!  May 1 is just around the corner.