Two young Israeli boys discover an ancient red clay jar in a hidden cave tucked away in the Judean Desert near Qumran.
Inside the jar are several scrolls written by the Essenes two thousand years earlier, before the Great Jewish Revolt, including one legendary scroll engraved on silver that speaks of what may be the great Lost Treasures of Solomon buried around Jerusalem—consistent with the predictions of the fabled Copper Scroll discovered in 1947 near the Dead Sea. But one of the overlooked parchments turns out to be far more pivotal to Christianity than anything ever before discovered—a startling manuscript written by St. Paul himself that could rewrite religious history.
Father Michael Dominic and his friends are called to Jerusalem to inspect the silver scroll, but others are trying to get to the precious manuscripts first—members of a little known sect called the Mithraists, the chief rival to Christianity up to the fourth century…a wealthy Texas televangelist…an Egyptian antiquities broker…Israeli Mossad agents…and a cast of rogues each out for themselves.
Follow the adventures of Father Dominic and his loyal team from Rome to the Holy Land—through the colorful bazaars of Cairo to the ancient holy sites of Jerusalem and Jordan—in this engaging, historical international thriller.
THE JERUSALEM SCROLLS, the fifth thriller in the Vatican Secret Archive series by bestselling suspense author Gary McAvoy.
The Jerusalem Scrolls by Gary McAvoy
Series Vatican Secret Archive | Genre Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense
Publisher Independent | Publication Date February 14, 2023
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THE JERUSALEM SCROLLS
A Vatican Secret Archive Novel
© 2023 Gary McAvoy
THE ROMAN EMPIRE – 1ST CENTURY
Gathered in their vast underground mithraeum, or temple, somewhere in Rome, the vivid hues of a tauroctony—a painted scene of their god Mithras slaughtering a sacred bull dominating an end wall as the center-piece of the arched-stone chamber—the forty syndexioi, devout initiates “united by the handshake,” chanted in unison as they bound themselves to their pagan deity.
From the first through the fourth centuries, Christianity and Mithraism embodied two rival factions reacting to a similar series of cultural influences. Mithraism flourished for three hundred years before being extinguished by harsh persecution from the stronger Christian population. Comprised largely of Roman soldiers, Mithraists had found a covert camaraderie, a brotherhood of like-minded followers who shared a secret knowledge of the universe, specifically its constellations and cosmic movements.
Apart from these few clues, little remains of this once vibrant cult boasting thousands of subterranean mithraea, or temples, throughout the Roman Empire, many hundreds of them in the city of Rome alone.
JUDEA – 1ST CENTURY
Before he became Emperor of Rome in 69 CE, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, better known to history as Vespasian, was a famed and revered Roman legate—the equivalent of a high-ranking general—who, just a year earlier, led an army of 60,000 strong through the hot barren deserts of Judea in a years-long war against the Jewish population of the Holy Land.
On orders from Emperor Nero, Vespasian was commanded to suppress the major rebellions of Jews against the Roman Empire in what became known as the Great Jewish Revolt, a seven-year war fought mainly in Roman-controlled Judea. The Jews were greatly outnumbered, and suffered devastating destruction of their towns, expropriation of their lands for Roman military use, and widespread displacement of Jewish people from their ancestral homes.
At the base of the terraced cliffs on the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea—located in what was then called Palestine—a secluded ascetic community of some twelve hundred mystic Jews known as the Essenes could foresee what was in store for them. The Romans were coming to destroy their community and their way of life. It was only a matter of time.
Desperate to preserve and protect their life’s work—an extraordinary library of nearly a thousand sacred biblical scrolls, the product of their tribe’s past two centuries of scribal efforts— they carefully wrapped the parchments and papyri in linen, placed them into tall clay jars, and concealed them in a series of caves not far from their homes on a dry marl plateau called Qumran. They then fled to save themselves, hoping to return at some later time to restore their lives and continue their work.
But the Essenes never returned to their home, having been vanquished after the Roman Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. And their precious scrolls sealed in the nurtured protection of earthen jars lay undisturbed in the arid climate of the Qumran caves for nearly two thousand years.
JUDEA, ISRAEL – 20TH CENTURY
It was in the spring of 1947 when a fifteen-year-old Bedouin shepherd from the Ta’amira tribe named Muhammed edh-Dhib was tending his herd of sheep and goats among the hilly escarp-ments of the Qumran desert when one of the goats, in search of better pastures, went missing. Searching for his caprine runaway, Muhammed scrambled up the rocky sloping hillsides when he chanced upon one of the many hidden caves in the area.
Hoping to flush out the goat, but uncertain about entering a dark hole in the desert alone, the young boy tossed in several stones, for Muslim lore decreed that when in the suspected pres-ence of dark spirits, stones must be thrown at them. Erring on the side of caution, Muhammed did not want to encounter dark spirits in an underground cave. He just wanted his goat.
But to his surprise, each time he threw a stone into the cave opening, he heard the sound of an object cracking and breaking. In a newspaper interview he gave later, Muhammed was quoted as saying, “I started throwing rocks inside the cave and every time I was throwing a rock I was hearing a sound of breaking pottery. At that time I was confused by the sound, and I loved to know what is inside the cave.” Already apprehensive, though, the shepherd returned later with a friend to explore the source of the shattering sounds.
What the two young Bedouins found that day has forever transformed biblical scholarship and, indeed, even Christianity itself as it was previously understood. The cave was filled with cylindrical jars of red clay pottery—the same jars abandoned by the Essenes nearly two thousand years earlier. Seven of the jars contained a number of remarkably preserved parchment manu-scripts, written mostly in Hebrew, which came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls—biblical writings from between 150 BCE and 70 CE that largely predated even the Gospels, and which comprised the oldest surviving manuscripts of entire books later included in the biblical canons: Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Kings and Deuteronomy.
An antiquities dealer ultimately bought many of the scrolls, which soon found their way into the hands of biblical scholars. Publicity about the sensational discovery spread like gossip in a hookah lounge, and it wasn’t long before ambitious archeolo-gists and treasure hunters made their way to Qumran, unearthing tens of thousands of scroll fragments from ten more caves in the area, ultimately accounting for nearly a thousand Essene manuscripts.
In efforts to prevent the plundering of further scrolls and other rare artifacts bound for the illegal but lucrative black market, archeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority have for years conducted their own excavations of caves burrowed among the steep escarpments and canyons of the Judean Desert.
But the IAA’s efforts are often outnumbered by bands of highly motivated antiquity looters, and the fight to preserve the Holy Land’s cultural legacy continues unabated.
Seventeen-year-old Tamir Pinsky had spotted the cave he sought high on a steep plateau as he and his best friend, Azim Hourani, sped their jeep through the dry river bed wadis—deep ravines cut through the rock and limestone cliffs of the Judean Desert. It took a sharp eye to recognize it, but Tamir had trained himself to distinguish between shadow and oppor-tunity—for opportunity lay within many of the yet unexplored caves of the region. And he was here just days before, scouting the area by himself, when he chanced upon a cave hidden behind desert scrub and an odd arrangement of boulders. Clearly, previous excavators had to have missed this cave in earlier searches of the area. Just the luck he needed for his cave raiding mission.
This ancient and storied part of Israel was not far from the neighborhood in which both boys grew up: Abu Tor, one of the few Jerusalem sectors with a mixed, harmonious Jewish and Palestinian population. As Tamir was a secular Jew, and Azim was an Arab with little religious interest, both boys became fast friends at Terra Sancta High School in nearby Jabsheh. And their shared passion for caving—or more specifically, cave plundering —was what drew them that morning to the sandy outcroppings of Wadi Murabba’at, some eighteen kilometers south of the more famous caves of Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea.
Tamir parked his old jeep in the shadows between two towering escarpments to avoid being spotted by the occasional patrols of Israel Antiquities Authority inspectors. The jeep—an older general purpose vehicle with camouflaged markings of the Israeli army, from whom he had acquired it cheaply at auction— obscured itself naturally in the dappled, variegated desert land-scape. The IAA did not look kindly upon poachers of Israel’s cultural heritage, so for those in the business, it paid to be elusive.
The boys scrambled up the rocky hillside with the natural skill of mountain goats, their tactical boots gripping the tangled maquis of the rocky mesa as they headed toward the concealed cave above them.
“You will not believe what I found here, Azim,” Tamir said with unbridled enthusiasm the closer they got. “Soon we will be rich!”
“But why didn’t you just bring it down when you found it?” his friend asked as he panted and grunted his way up the ridge.
“Like I told you,” Tamir repeated, exasperated by his friend’s complaining, “the pottery was too big for me to carry down the jebel by myself. Don’t you ever listen to what I say?!” Azim held his tongue, more interested in getting rich than winning an argument.
When they had reached the summit, they stopped to take a breath, drink from their water bottles, and turn to look at the view from their high perch atop the escarpment: the largely undisturbed vision of soft brown undulating hills, sandy dunes and high plateaus as far as the eye could see, broken only by the occasional oasis with ancient trees of Sodom apples, poplar, jujube and acacia surrounding precious watering holes.
“I never tire of looking out over our beloved desert, Azim. So rich with the history of both our peoples, never mind the conflicts. We are both here today after centuries of struggle and persistence by those who have come before. Are you not moved by that? How can one fail to be in awe of our land?”
“You always were the dreamer, Tamir, with your head in the clouds. It is just a desert to me. Nothing but sand, after all.”
The young Jew looked at his friend with dismay. Then, letting judgment pass, he said, “Alright, Azim. I’ll show you there’s more here than just sand. Let us take what we have come to get.”
Pushing aside the brush and bushes, Tamir led his friend into the dark cavity of the cave opening, keeping an eye out for black desert cobras and horned vipers common to the area. Neither of them were particularly fond of asps, especially those hiding in the relatively cooler caves.
But the attraction of what Tamir had found in this particular cave just days before was worth the risk. With flashlights in hand, they carefully entered the dark mouth of the tunnel leading them deep inside the cavern, their beams cautiously sweeping the nooks and crannies for coiled snakes.
Reaching the back depths of the underground chamber, Tamir’s flashlight shone on a single red clay jar a meter tall, set back inside a natural alcove in the limestone wall. He lifted off the lid of the jar to show Azim the treasure he had discovered.
Inside it were several rolled parchment scrolls, most written in some combination of Aramaic, Hebrew or Greek. Next to those was a rolled and heavily tarnished silver scroll, hammered as thin as parchment and inscribed in the Mishnaic dialect of Hebrew. The light of their torches also shone on dozens of Nabataean drachmas, an ancient Greek currency, along with several imperial dinars from the Roman period.
“These will sell well, my brother,” Tamir exclaimed. “We just need to bring these to Ishak Ramzi in Tel Aviv; he will take care of the rest. And the clay jar itself is also valuable, which is why I needed your help to get it down the jebel. Here, give me a hand.”
Each taking an end, they gently lifted the ancient crock, the coins inside making rattling sounds as they hustled it from the cavern mouth and carefully hauled it down the hill through the dense maquis. Once they reached the jeep, Tamir opened the rear gate and carefully positioned the jar between several afghan rugs he had brought, securing and concealing it thoroughly so it wouldn’t crack during the two-hour drive to Tel Aviv and Egyptian dealer Ishak Ramzi’s antiquities shop in Jaffa’s Shuk HaPishPeshim.
As the jeep headed toward the city that never sleeps, they passed a sign reading “Entering the Land of Benjamin.”
GARY MCAVOY is author of several books including his bestselling thriller series “The Magdalene Chronicles,” and his newest series, “Vatican Secret Archive Thrillers.” His nonfiction work “And Every Word Is True” has been hailed as a sequel to Truman Capote’s landmark book “In Cold Blood.” Gary is also a professional collector of ancient manuscripts and historical documents, much of which informs his writing projects.