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Fictional History

by Terry W. Ervin II

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

Debbie Hollins trailed behind her father, up the steps and out of the lecture hall. John Hollins, associate professor and biblical scholar, nodded to several graduate students as he waited for his daughter to catch up.

“I imagine that wasn’t very exciting,” he said, resting a hand on her shoulder. “I have office hours until noon. Only one scheduled appointment, then lunch.”

Debbie adjusted the strap to her book bag. Watching her dad discuss ancient Hebrew culture while fifty students wrote furiously in their notebooks or tapped away on their laptops almost put her to sleep. She’d done her best, trying not to yawn and embarrass her father. Still, ‘Take Your Daughter to Work Day’ was better than sitting in pre-algebra. Debbie learned one thing for sure: History never changed. Mr. Ulm, her 7th grade American History teacher, used yellowed and stained overhead transparencies just like her father.

“This way, kiddo,” said Debbie’s dad. “We’ll take the stairs.”

Debbie had been in her father’s office plenty of times and never once was it exciting. A wooden desk facing the single window, gray file cabinets, chairs with orange striped cushions — probably from the 70’s — packed bookshelves filling every wall, and two long tables, one lined with stacked papers, most clipped into file folders.

But today, something was different. “When did you get that?” Debbie asked, pointing to the twenty-two inch LCD flat screen monitor. She knew it was against university policy to access games through the network, but she’d brought her Dirty Dancing DVD. He’d let her watch it last summer when he wasn’t using the computer.

Dr. Hollins smiled. “I convinced the department chair that your old man’s eyes needed it to complete his work.”

“Who is your appointment with?” Debbie asked, trying to determine if her father would be on his computer. Even if he wouldn’t let her watch a movie, she could work on her essay, telling what she saw and learned during her day at her father’s work.

“My graduate assistant, Anthony Stilzonie,” he said, switching on his computer. “You remember him from the barbeque?”

Debbie nodded, recalling Anthony. Tall with dark curly hair, and a big nose – but in a handsome sort of way. He stuck out from the other grad students in her father’s department. He was smart and funny, but Debbie thought he worked too hard trying to be the center of attention.

Just as Debbie got out her iPod, her father’s grad assistant knocked on the half-opened door before hurrying into the office. He stuttered in his stride, before flashing a toothy smile. “Debbie, right? I forgot Dr. Hollins said you’d be with him today.”

Debbie smiled back, trying to decide if he remembered her name from the barbeque or because her father said she’d be there.

Anthony set a stack of papers on the empty table, but held onto a clipboard. “Here are the quizzes from section one of your Sociology of Religion.”

“How did they do?” asked Dr. Hollins, leaning back in his office chair.

“Pretty good. I put a sticky-note on three you might want to look at.” Anthony strummed his finger over ragged loose leaf papers held by his clipboard.

Debbie slipped in her iPod’s earpiece but kept the volume low so she could hear what her father’s grad assistant was dying to tell him. Maybe something she could put in her essay. She’d already forgotten most of what her father had talked about during his morning lecture.

Her father sensed his assistant’s excitement as well. “What else have you got for me, Anthony?”

The grad assistant spread his clipped notes across the table. “This is so unprecedented!”

Debbie watched her father press his hands together at the fingertips and nod knowingly.

“Come on, Dr. Hollins.” Anthony held up several pages that looked like photographs of ancient-lettered jigsaw puzzles along with his handwritten English translations. “You’ve already translated this!”

“Okay, Anthony, tell me what you came up with.”

Anthony talked ten miles a minute, pointing and gesturing, and totally unable to sit down. He went on and on about how what he’d translated would change Christian dogma and religious canon. Debbie never missed church, and had attended Sunday school since the age of three. But she had trouble following what Anthony was saying.

Her father continued to nod and jotted an occasional note on a legal pad and finally interrupted his graduate assistant. “Anthony, before you go any further, I have a few questions for you.”

Anthony’s eyebrows rose. “Okay, shoot.”

“First, did you study and become familiar with how the scribe formed each letter of the Hebrew alphabet?”

Anthony nodded.

“And after that, did you determine, for this particular set of writings, how many scribes there were?”

Anthony pointed to his first page of notes. “I believe there was one. Only one.”

“I agree,” said Dr. Hollins, turning to open a document on his computer. “Did you note any variations?”

Anthony pointed to another page in his notes, like he was trying to reinforce to his mentor that he’d indeed done his homework. “Yes, I did. For a few hours I thought it might be two scribes.”

Dr. Hollins nodded, then turned back to his computer screen and highlighted a section of the pieced-together ancient Hebrew text. “Such as here?”

Debbie knew something was up with her father, that he was going to reveal something to his grad student. She’d heard the same calm voice, seen the same intense look in his eyes, the same creases in his brow. And she bet that Anthony wasn’t going to like it.

Anthony squinted. “That’s one of four instances, Dr. Hollins.”

“And what’s different about this as compared to the majority of the text?”

Possibly sensing a trap, Anthony shuffled through his notes. “On average, I measured the size of the lettering. Roughly ten percent smaller. With five percent less space between the letters.” He set his handwritten notes down. “But the lettering is virtually identical in formation. Thus, only one scribe.”

“What about the spelling?”

“The name Pilate is spelled differently in the smaller, more narrowly spaced lettering. But I researched, and although quite rare, the spelling in the passage you’ve highlighted has been observed in two other instances in scrolls roughly dated to that time period.”

Dr. Hollins said, “I agree with the archeological assessments and carbon-dating of the skull and other remains found in the cave. The writings date to roughly the mid-second century.”

“But...” Anthony began.

“You know my view on idiosyncratic theories.”

Debbie had no clue what her father had just said, but Anthony did.

“Are you implying that this set of writings is in some way Gnostic? This text is clearly an example of the Gospel of Luke.”

“One could argue that the identified passages contain elements contrary to Christian doctrine.”

Anthony stood erect and crossed his arms. “So, who’s to say this scroll isn’t accurate? Luke was a companion of Paul. Neither was an eyewitness to Christ’s life.”

Dr. Hollins pressed his fingertips together. “The content of Luke agrees with Matthew, Mark and John. No contradictions. Makes him an accurate historian, interviewing and recording eyewitness accounts, including the disciples.”

“Right,” said Anthony, pointing to the screen. “But it’s clearly there. No missing fragments, or guesswork. The writing is there. The words are there.”

Debbie looked at the screen filled with cryptic lettering, wondering what they were talking about.

“This is an important find.”

“I disagree. Unless a second instance is located. Nobody will take it seriously, Anthony.”

“They will. The translation is clear.”

“Let me rephrase. No one scholarly or knowledgeable will. You may garner a few interviews, maybe even a one-hour documentary. But the sensation will fade, as will your credibility.”

Debbie watched Anthony’s jaw muscles tighten, his cheeks redden. Even so, her father stood and put his arm on his grad assistant’s shoulder. “Think it over, Anthony. Our community is pretty small. Would the short-term notoriety be worth risking your reputation? Possibly your acceptance into a doctoral program?”

Anthony took a deep breath and exhaled. His eyes fell on Debbie, widening as if he’d forgotten she was in the office. “What are you going to do with the translation, Dr. Hollins?”

Debbie’s father gathered up Anthony’s papers and handed them back to him. “We’ll publish it, of course. In the proper context.”

“It’ll end up nothing more than a footnote.”

“If that’s what it merits. We’ll discuss it tomorrow, over lunch. My treat.”

“Okay,” said Anthony, shuffling toward the door. He turned, showing a weak smile. “Good to see you again, Debbie.”

Debbie didn’t know what to say, other than, “You too.”

As Anthony’s echoing footsteps faded, Dr. Hollins asked his daughter, “So, that should be something interesting for your essay.”

“He seemed pretty upset with you, Dad. What was he talking about?”

Debbie’s father signaled her over and brought up a new picture on the screen that showed a narrow cave with a clay pot, a skull, and a few scattered bones. “For decades and still to this day archeologists search the Holy Land for caves like this one, harboring ancient scrolls. This one was found by an Israeli teen, only several years older than you.”

“That skull looks pretty creepy. Was it from, like, a slave, buried with it all?”

Her father shrugged. “Maybe. Possibly the author of the scrolls.”

“What’d he write that Anthony thinks is so important?”

“Debbie, we’ve watched documentaries. Ones claiming to have found the burial tomb of Christ, or a lost gospel?”

“Yeah, until you get mad and turn ’em off.”

Her father laughed. “Yes, I do tend to do that.”

Debbie playfully rolled her eyes. “After making me and Mom sit down and watch it with you. But what did Anthony find?”

“Okay, Debbie. First, let me tell you what Anthony forgot.”

Debbie returned to her chair, trying not to frown. She knew her father would answer her question, eventually.

“One of the most important lessons that can be drawn from the ancient scrolls found,” he explained, “is that the Bible has been copied with amazing faithfulness for thousands of years. And manuscripts like this are compared to other ancient texts of the same passage, looking for similarities and differences. Which texts it predates and which it postdates. For clues as to how it was transmitted.”

Her father switched back to the picture with a section of text highlighted. “This one appears to have been transcribed, copied from one scroll to another.” Gazing intently at the writing, he added, “Let me put it this way. As evidenced by the overall text, this particular scribe appears to have been inexperienced, and in four identified instances, he inserted a nonstandard verse into the text. Smaller, less sure strokes and misspellings, suggest those parts weren’t copied.”

“Come on, Dad. Why? What’d he write?”

“Okay, Debbie. You know some scripture. Let me read what the scribe wrote and see if it sounds right to you. ‘And when they were come to the place, which is called Calvary, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand and the other on the left. Then Jesus said, Father forgive them — except for Pilate and Herod and those that arrested me — for they know not what they do’.”

“That isn’t right.”

Her father nodded.

“What does it mean?”

“Possibly that someone — this scribe, or his community — had an agenda.”

Debbie thought back to Mr. Ulm’s history class, one of his boring lectures. She might have even earned extra credit with her observation: “Trying to change history by rewriting it?”

Copyright © 2009 by Terry W. Ervin II

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