The Mar Saba Codex – Reviews

“This is a new kind of fiction for the new century, one that engages both narrative and ideas at the same time. Well-written and well-crafted, Codex harks back to the intellectual fiction that characterized some of the most important novelists of the last century.”

– Jeff Malpas, Professor of Philosophy and ARC Professorial Fellow, University of Tasmania Distinguished Visiting Professor, LaTrobe University


While attending a Catholic conference in the US to boost the faith in difficult times, Australian political journalist and ex seminarian Jack Duggan is made aware of a controversial codex written by a 4th century Syrian bishop. Only photographs of the codex are available, the original having gone missing soon after its discovery at the Palestinian monastery of Mar Saba. Within a few pages we are engaged in Duggan’s struggle with his religious past, a past that furnished him with the expertise to translate the codex, but left him antagonistic to all things religious. From there we are carried into the thick of a story that reveals, step by step, what this ancient codex contains, and it contains not a few historical surprises. At once a kind of thriller, a romance and a slice of life, The Mar Saba Codex is a big story with many an unexpected twist that traverses the globe from Sydney to San Francisco, and from New York to Rome, reaching its grand climax in the old walled city of Jerusalem where equally belligerent forces strive for dominance.


From: Mike <gleason.mike@xxxxxxxxxxx>

  • Date: Wed, 16 Nov 2011

The Mar Saba Codex by Douglas Lockhart © 2011 O Books
ISBN: 978-1-84694-618-9 673 pages Paperback $34.95 (U.S.)

As is my usual habit, I had set aside ten days to read and review this work, and my first impression was that I would probably need all that time, based simply on the sheer size of the book. I normally read between 25 and 40 pages a day, but I would need to nearly double that to keep to my personal schedule. Fortunately that increase was easy to sustain, as the story-telling is first-rate.

It will help you understand the background and the underpinnings of this novel if you have the experience of having been raised in the Roman Catholic faith (it isn’t vital, but it definitely helps), since much of the intrigue makes more sense if you know the background. Even that experience may not prepare you for the machinations which are revealed as the plot develops. The average Roman Catholic layman has no concept of the politicking and, for lack of a better term, back-stabbing that goes on behind the scenes.

Early Christian history can be fascinating so long as all the minutia is not allowed to get in the way of a general understanding. The major plot line is slow to develop, but that is necessary, since there is a great deal of historical set-up which is needed for the book to be intelligible (unless the reader was raised in a heavily Catholic environment). The one danger I can foresee is that, since there is so much history in the early parts of the book (accurate history), readers may be tempted to treat the entire book as factual, which it is not. Is the premise believable? It absolutely is. The reactions of established churches to the books of the Nag Hammadi library, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and (more recently) The Gospel of Judas all show a reluctance to surrender orthodox viewpoints without opposition. That doesn’t make them evil or wrong, merely resistant to change and reluctant to allow dissenting views to be given wide dissemination.

The back cover describes this book as “At once a thriller, a romance, and a slice of life…” By the time I was about one third of the way into the book I had seen the slice of life, had a hint of romance, but had not seen any aspects of it being a thriller. The action was minimal, but I anticipated it picking up speed and altering its emphasis as the background was thoroughly wrapped up. As I neared the mid-point of the book the action began to speed up, although the romance remained pretty much below the radar screen.

There are numerous minor editing glitches (an ongoing pet peeve of mine), with the most noticeable being disagreement of tenses of some of the verbs used. There are also a few instances of inappropriate paragraphing (e.g., starting a new paragraph halfway through a sentence). But, hey, it is not a a huge problem, and it is one I am trying to learn to ignore ? especially when it is the only downside to a particular book.

The writing, although fairly slow paced, is excellent and the depictions of the primary characters are totally believable. The description of the surroundings is adequate enough to give the reader a feel for them without distracting from the activity and the characters themselves. Given some of the locations, it would be easy to wander off into grandiose prose, but Mr. Lockhart resists that temptation quite nicely.

There is an excellent sub-plot with the involvement of a ‘conservative’ movement within the Catholic Church (the Children of a New Catholic Dawn). Although I have never personally encountered such an organization the existence of such group is more than plausible. The call for reformation of the Roman Catholic church hierarchy has been building for decades and the formation of such a group in opposition to the liberalizing movement is to be expected

As I neared the conclusion of the book (more than three quarters of the way through it), I still was of the opinion that ‘thriller’ may have been too strong a word to describe this book. Don’t get me wrong, it is an extremely well-written book. It holds your interest and, at times, makes you reluctant to put it down. There just isn’t enough action (in my opinion) to qualify it as a thriller. If it didn’t revolve so heavily around the machinations of the Christian religion, I might be tempted to use the phrase ‘spell binder’ in place of ‘thriller’.

By the time I approached the end of the book I was definitely inclined not to put it down. It still wasn’t an action filled experience, but it was enthralling. The only reason I might hesitate to recommend this excellent novel is the price ? but don’t let that put you off, I’m a notoriously cheap S.O.B. In the store or online I might have hesitated to pick it up, but having read it, I’m glad it came my way.

As we near the colder, less active months here in the Northern Hemisphere, this book will give you something to look forward to after your day’s activities. Grab a warm beverage and a snuggly blanket, sit down and allow yourself to be swept away.

Sample Customer Review from Amazon

From Dr. Mark Fulton, November 7, 2011

The “Mar Saba Complex” is a fascinating fictional story about the publication of a recently discovered fourth century document discussing the relationship between the earliest followers of Jesus and the Catholic church. The legitimacy of today’s Catholic church and the foundations on which it is based are expertly questioned. Douglas draws on his deep knowledge of history and today’s Christianity to ask profoundly important questions, questions that all Christians and those influenced by Christianity should be asking. He manages to weave this into a story that involves the pope, the Vatican and the media, and in so doing has written a book that is not only entertaining, but relevant and informative.

Douglas is a deep thinker and a man who believes in the power of the truth. He echoes what hundreds of expert historians around the world have been writing, particularly in the last century or so. Jesus was never a Christian. He was a sectarian Jew, and he would be appalled by the Christianity today that purports to use “his” theology and ethics. Saint Paul, who never met Jesus, and who fought bitterly with his family and disciples, was the real creator of Christian theology. The mythical Jesus of today’s Christianity is out of date, largely irrelevant, and serves primarily only to bolster the power of churches. The mythological Jesus is old fashioned, and, in fact, becoming obsolete. Douglas thinks that is a shame, and he explores the minds of churchmen (including the pope) who are waking up to this fact, as well as the traditional forces that are opposed to change.

I thought the novel was very good at demonstrating how public opinion is manipulated by the media.

This novel is a wake up call to today’s churches to bring themselves into the twenty first century or face being regarded as totally irrelevant. It is also a wake up call to each and every one of us to become informed and not just pawns manipulated by institutions for their own benefit.

I have read scores of books about the history of Jesus and the place of today’s Christianity (I have, in fact, nearly finished my own book on these topics). In my opinion this novel from Douglas, along with his other historical works, belongs in the cream at the top of the pile. It is beautifully written, real, relevant, historically accurate and thoroughly entertaining.