Although this novel is a work of fiction, it addresses some real themes which I hope readers will find interesting. I wanted to explore the question of why religious conflicts exist between the major religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, when in reality they all emanate from the same Abrahamic source. I also think there is considerable evidence to support the conclusion that religion has evolved over the centuries from a variety of sources, including Plato and Zoroastrianism, which are centuries older than the Abrahamic religions.
With regard to Christianity, ideas were formed initially by Paul in his Letters which are a significant part of the New Testament. There is a sense that our view of Jesus Christ has been formed by Gospels that were chosen by the Church many years after his death. In my novel, I speculated about Gospels that existed, but were not selected for inclusion in the Bible by the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century AD. These unselected documents are known as the Gnostic Gospels, many of which were found by the Dead Sea at Nag Hammadi in 1945. Within these rejected texts, I wanted to focus on the Gospel of Barnabas and the Gospel of Thomas.
The text of the Gospel of Barnabas is regarded as a forgery, but there is no doubt Barnabas existed and is often revered by Christians where many churches are dedicated to his name. He is referred to several times in the Acts of the Apostles who named him Barnabas, meaning ‘Son of Encouragement’. He was also introduced Paul to the growing numbers of disciples following Jesus ideas after his death. Barnabas’ real name was Joses which is the Greek derivation of Joseph. He continued to work very closely with Paul joining him in missions to Cyprus and around the region and establishing the early church in Antioch. Despite this, we know he fell out with Paul, over an argument which we are told was about his nephew John Mark. However, the basis of the disagreement appears unconvincing and it is feasible that Barnabas, as such an important player in the establishment of the early church, might have held a different view about what Christianity was all about. The Gospel of Barnabas is controversial as it promotes an Islamic view of Jesus, which has not been accepted by Christians. Muslims do accept Jesus, known as Isa in the Holy Koran, as a prophet, but do not believe that a human being could ever be the Son of God. It is possible that Barnabas shared a contrary view to that promoted by Paul.
Although my novel is mainly set in 2005, following the fortunes of Richard through Greece, Iran and Northern (Turkish controlled) Cyprus, we also read the journals of Robert de Valognes, an English Crusader knight who becomes disillusioned with the Crusader mission in the Holy Land. The Lies of Our Fathers starts with an extract from Robert’s journal where he relates his experiences of the siege of Antioch in 1098. Robert is a character of my imagination but the background of the siege is well documented and accurate, even though in the interests of brevity I have glossed over some of the finer points. What is true is the Crusader army killed many Christians in Antioch, which seems contrary to their overall aim in fighting a war against Islam. As I have said, Barnabas and Paul established the church in Antioch spending a period of fourteen years in the city. Therefore, it is entirely feasible that Robert’s experience in Antioch are credible. Antioch was the first place where the followers of Jesus were know as Christians. The point I am trying to make through this story is that the boundaries between the religions are blurred and have been unnecessarily distorted by history.
In my novel, I ask the question, what if an original version of the Gospel of Barnabas did exist? The story I am relating is not without foundation. In 2000, a leather-bound text written in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was discovered by Turkish police during a raid on a smuggling operation. The text is held in the Museum of Ethnography in Ankara. It is believed to date back to the 5th century AD and could be the Gospel stolen from the grave of St Barnabas in Cyprus, where he was born and executed by the Romans at Salamis.
This idea that documents which promoted a contrary view of Jesus is given more credence by the Gospel of Thomas where an authentic version was found in the Dead Sea scrolls. It is a series of sayings of Jesus rather than a biography. Many of the sayings are mystical rejecting the idea of Jesus being the Son of God. Thomas, famous for being the apostle that doubted the resurrection of Jesus, is known to have journeyed to India to preach. Today, there is a branch of Christianity related to St Thomas in Southern India around Kerala. Its traditions follow an earlier version of Christianity not recognised by the Western version created by Paul. The followers of Thomas built a monastery over his grave which is now a place of pilgrimage for Christians and Hindus. The mystery of Thomas will be a theme in my third novel in the trilogy called The Wilderness of Truth, set in Southern India.
A large part of this second novel in the trilogy is set in Iran. A sub plot in the story explores the schism between Shia and Sunni Islam. I speculated in the story about what might happen if the centres of Sunni (Saudi Arabia) and Shia (Iran) were to resolve their differences. In many respects this conflict between factions of Islam can be compared to the divisions within the Abrahamic religions. My story is asking the question, why do these conflicts in religion exist when there seems to be many points of common interest? These beliefs can be summarised as a belief in a superior being who we choose to call God.
While researching my novel, I visited Iran to experience first-hand this beguiling country, as a centre of Shia Islam and also a country rich in history and culture. Iran is often labelled as a pariah state, the bad boy of the Middle East. I think this is unfair. It is a country full of contradictions which celebrates the poetry of Hafez, the rich history of Persia and the Zoroastrian festival of Nowruz, while supporting a dour and authoritarian political regime.
Iran is the centre of Persia and the origin of Zoroastrianism. This ancient religion which predates Abraham is instrumental in defining the concepts of Good and Evil and laying the foundations of religion as we know it today, irrespective of which religion you follow. As the German philosopher Nietzche said, Zarathustra, the founding father of Zoroastrianism, invented morality. It defines the universality of religion. Please have a look at my blog on the subject elsewhere in my website.
I don’t believe I have any detailed understanding of the problem of diverse religious beliefs, but I hope, in this story, I have inspired interest in what is a complex and fascinating subject. If I have, may I suggest that you turn to the true experts in this field. For that reason, I have listed the following excellent books which influenced my thinking.
A History of God by Karen Armstrong -Vintage Books 1999
A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch – Allen Lane 2009
Iran – Empire of the Mind by Michael Axworthy – Penguin Books 2007
The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels – Phoenix 1979
Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms – Gerard Russell – Simon & Schuster 2014
The Crusades by Thomas Asbridge – Simon & Schuster 2010