The Magdalene Scrolls (1978) is an historical fiction novel I’ve been wanting to read for quite a while — partly because of the lure of ancient scrolls themselves and partly because of the idea of archaeology uncovering ancient things and what they reveal of the past. You might think at first glance that this novel would have something to do with Mary Magdalene but the only connection is that the dig is in Khirbet Migdal and that the author of the scrolls, David ben Jonah, would have called the town Magdala as he was writing the scrolls in the 1st century AD. Ben Jonah had been an extremely pious Jew and became associated with a group called Nazarenes — followers of Jesus the Nazarene.
When Ben Messer, paleographer, professor of Near Eastern studies at UCLA, and son of a rabbi, receives the first scroll discovered by archaeologist Dr. John Weatherby, he is excited to say the least. First, the scroll was written in Aramaic with the odd phrase in Hebrew, and second, it was being written by an ordinary but well-educated Jew. This was not a religious text but the story of the life of David ben Jonah, a life anticipating its end and willing, no, compelled, to unburden its guilt in a confession to his son who he hopes will find the scrolls, understand and forgive.
Ben has long ago left his Jewish heritage behind. Traumatized as a child by neighbourhood goyim for being a “killer of Jesus” as well as by his mother’s stories of Majdanek concentration camp where she had watched Ben’s father buried alive by the Nazis, Ben turned his back on everything Jewish after his mother’s death and left New York for California. However, his Jewishness returns to haunt him and as he reads the story of David ben Jonah, a devout Jew who trained to be a rabbi then disgraced himself one evening after drinking too much and is forced to leave his studies in shame, the story begins to mesmerize him. As the scrolls come one or two at a time, days apart, as they are uncovered on the other side of the world, Ben can’t sleep, can’t eat, quarrels with his fiancé, and begins to lose his grip on reality. He takes on David’s limp, begins wearing sandals, and, at times, believes he is David ben Jonah. In fact, if it weren’t for a keen student from his Ancient and Modern Hebrew class, he might not survive the kind of “mind-melding” that occurs as he absorbs the culture and pathos of David’s Jerusalem.
One of Barbara Wood‘s 1st published novels, this is an amazing combination of two stories, past and present, that delve into the human psyche, the role of religion in man’s attempt to understand his own humanity, and the indelible mark man’s inhumanity can leave on the heart and mind of an individual. It shows how facing the past can bring some resolution and a sense of peace. The characters are at once familiar yet larger than life; the atmosphere of ancient Jerusalem, its temples, its markets, embrace the reader as it embraces the characters in this novel. It is a complicated journey that leaves the reader with a slight sense of discomfort as well as wonder and is well worth the read. * * * * *