The Mystery of Mar Saba by James H. Hunter

The Mystery of Mar SabaThe Mystery of Mar Saba by James H. Hunter
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This Christian pre-World War II spy melodrama provides both action and (mainly unintentional) chuckles as it tells the story of how a forged ancient text is used as a geopolitical weapon.

My attention was drawn to this 1940 novel when I read an article in Biblical Archaeology Review about the historian Morton Smith, who became a controversial figure after he claimed to have discovered, in 1958, a missing fragment of the Gospel of Mark in an old book at the monastery of Mar Saba just east of Jerusalem. One interpretation of this fragment implied that Jesus may have had a homosexual relationship. Smith was accused of having forged the document, and apparently some thought that Hunter’s novel may have provided the inspiration, since it is about a New Testament-era text that is “discovered” at Mar Saba.

The controversy around Smith drags on posthumously (he died in 1991). As for James H. Hunter, he was, according to Wikipedia, editor of the Toronto-based Evangelical Christian magazine, and he wrote a number of “Christian thrillers.”

In terms of its prose, plotting, and characterization, this book is not much above a Nancy Drew mystery or Hardy Boys adventure. Picture a Hardy Boys book in which the protagonists are all intrepid, beautiful, fervent Christians, and the bad guys are callous, sneering, atheistic Germans and cowardly, bloodthirsty Arabs. The hero, Medhurst, is a wealthy American playboy who saw action in Palestine in World War I, picking up commando skills and flawless Arabic while he was there. He’s summoned by his old British C.O. who is now a police chief in Jerusalem to help deal with a network of Arab terrorists who are threatening to destabilize the region (plus ça change). En route he meets a ravishingly beautiful Christian girl, Natalie, who is in the power of a cruel etc. German archaeologist named Heimworth, and thus becomes involved with a fiendish German plot to damage the morale of Britain as a preliminary to an invasion.

Despite its obvious deficiencies, the novel did appeal to me in some ways. For one thing, Medhurst begins as a flabby agnostic and, surrounded by fervently Christian friends and colleagues, undergoes a conversion experience in Jerusalem. I myself traveled to Jerusalem back in 1981 in search of some such experience, and while I didn’t have it, I did have a number of powerful experiences in locales associated with the Bible. Also, I liked the strong faith of the characters, which made for a refreshing change from the smart-ass, materialistic characters that have dominated literature since then.

In sum, you’re most likely to enjoy this book if you:

  • are a passionate evangelical Christian
  • love reading Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books
  • are capable of believing that worldwide mass hysteria could occur over the contents of an apocryphal ancient letter

As I read I wondered whether this book could possibly have been in the genealogy of Raiders of the Lost Ark. . . .

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