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Holy dynamite!  

25 November 2016

Peggy Woodford finds realistic detail helps a far-fetched narrative

The Secret Scrolls
Sonia Falaschi-Ray
Matador Publishing £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


VERITY HUNT, the finance director of a charitable foundation supporting the restoration of catacombs beneath St John the Evangelist, Syracuse, flies in to investigate progress on the project. Large sums have already been spent, and need to be accounted for before the call for more money is granted.

She and her companion, Dr Crispin Goodman, a classicist and expert on Roman catacombs, quickly discover that Cesare Romano, the boss of the building company in charge of the restoration, is a deeply dodgy man with a finger in many lucrative pies, including people-smuggling (euphemistically described as “shipping”). Double-dealing, obfuscation, procrastination, and real danger loom.

Hunt and Goodman are finally given access to the catacombs, and, during a visit on their own, make an extraordinary discovery behind a newly collapsed wall: they find an ancient, well-sealed, lead-lined metal chest full of papyrus scrolls. Written along the top of a scroll is a message in Greek: “From Rabbi Gamaliei in Jerusalem to Marcus Antonius Paulus in Caesarea, greetings.”

Their reaction to this theological dynamite — unknown letters to St Paul on his travels — is both reprehensible and understandable: they fear that the scrolls might disappear into a private collection and be lost to biblical scholarship, but, if the Vatican takes charge of them, they will disappear from sight for years. So Hunt and Goodman decide to take the scrolls back to their hotel to steam the papyrus gently to enable them to unroll the scrolls safely and read them.

The central part of the novel gives us these fictional letters written by his friends and disciples to St Paul on his journeys round and across the Mediterranean.

I hugely enjoyed Falaschi-Ray’s novel; she certainly knows her Sicily, and the background details of this exciting if far-fetched story ring true, which is very important when the find is so explosive, both doctrinally and in terms of financial worth.

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