The Last Ember
By Daniel Levin
Riverhead, 2009, $25.95
There is no denying that Dan Brown has become one of the most successful contemporary writers on religious art. The Lost Symbol recently sold a million copies on its first day of release, and it would only take 81 such days to surpass total sales of The Da Vinci Code. Perhaps because of his success, many are less than impressed with Brown’s writings. “Usually we read the script, but in this case it wasn’t necessary,” a spokesman for the Roman archdiocese told The Telegraph (UK), explaining why a permit was denied for filming “Angels and Demons” at one of its churches. “Just the name Dan Brown was enough.”
Jewish responses to Brown’s books are harder to come by. David Klinghoffer has a great post on the blog Beliefnet titled “Dan Brown’s Jewish Connection,” and another key source is The Da Vinci Code: A Jewish Perspective by Rabbi Michael Skobac, education director of the Toronto branch of Jews for Judaism. “What is most puzzling is why this murder mystery/scavenger hunt with no real character development and a plot that’s little more than one long chase scene has become an international cultural phenomenon,” Skobac writes in the beginning of the pamphlet. The rest of the document continues to attack Brown, though critiquing a novel for its lack of historicity is about as absurd as insisting upon iambic pentameter in a science textbook.
Nicolas Poussin. “Sack of the Temple of Jerusalem” (1625-26)
Whatever one feels about Brown’s scholarship and his approach to Judaism, Daniel Levin’s new book The Last Ember, which is modeled on Brown’s bestselling techniques, is good for Jewish literature. Like The Da Vinci Code, Levin’s book can be accused of misinforming readers who aren’t clever enough to differentiate between history and fiction, but it also features a variety of historical facts, many of which are no doubt informed by Levin’s studies as a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome.
Without spoiling the plot of the book, The Last Ember is about former classics student Jonathan Marcus – a lawyer-hero in the tradition of John Grisham – whose firm calls him to Rome to offer his expert opinion on an ancient artifact. Marcus reconnects with an old friend Dr. Emili Travia, a United Nations official, and the two find themselves involved in an international treasure hunt for the Menorah looted from the Second Temple by Vespasian and Titus. The novel has all of the thrills and dangers of the The Da Vinci Code but a distinctly Jewish flavor in the plot’s reliance on Josephus’ history of the destruction of Jerusalem.
An anonymous tip delivered in Rome’s Jewish quarter becomes an opportunity for Levin to explain that all the Catholic souvenir vendors in Saint Peter’s Square are Jewish due to a 16th century law from Paul IV. Levin also maintains that all the artifacts in the book are real – including the ancient mode of preserving corpses by embalming them in oils inside Corinthian columns – and that he often found that stories from the Talmudic tractate Gitten corroborate Roman texts.
Several other elements of the novel are true. Titus declared on his deathbed that he had committed only one mistake, after an unidentified prisoner escaped the Colosseum, a detail that Levin manipulates as part of one of the novel’s many conspiracies. A large part of the story rests on the question of the Menorah’s whereabouts. The famous depiction of the looted Temple artifacts on the Arch of Titus shows the Menorah being carted off with the Temple trumpets, but in Dan Brown’s line of inquiry one can ask where the Menorah is being taken, by whom, and whether it is even the real Menorah.
Arch of Titus. 81 CE.
Levin also tackles a large political issue, which he says is very real: the destruction of artifacts beneath the Temple Mount. “The novel’s theme of ‘archaeology is politics’ is more relevant than ever,” Levin said in an interview. “The destruction beneath the Temple Mount depicted in the book is based on fact. The Israeli antiquities authority really did find 20,000 tons of archaeologically-rich soil dumped into the valley of Kidron.”
Recently, the “top religious official in the Palestinian authority,” Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi denied Judeo-Christian history in Jerusalem and said any artifacts that prove biblical history have been forged, Levin added. “The Temple Mount is the Bermuda Triangle of international jurisdiction,” Levin says. “The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that all illegal excavation must stop, but access beneath the Mount is open only to members of the Waqf.”
To Levin, supervision is the problem. A 2007 congressional bill, “condemning the Waqf’s digging activities at the Temple Mount site and deploring the destruction of artifacts vitally important to Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths,” curbed funding to the Palestinian Authority unless the illegal excavations ceased. UNESCO may be able to oversee the site given its role as a world heritage site, Levin said.
Engraving from a catacomb before fourth century. Courtesy of Daniel Levin
So does Levin know where the Menorah is? If you read his book you will find a story that is a good deal more probable than Dan Brown’s, but one that is unlikely to help biblically minded treasure hunters. The treasure might be in bringing more attention to biblical history, though. As it becomes harder and harder to find people who aren’t familiar with Robert Langdon, the symbologist, it is important to recognize all the good things Brown has done for the field. And the same can be said about Levin.
Before reading The Last Ember, I hadn’t given much thought to where the ancient candelabrum might be, but once one starts thinking about the question, one finds oneself heading down a really interesting path that is as much about mystery and ancient history as it is about Jewish art. And unlike some other people who have attacked Brown’s books on the grounds that they are fiction rather than scholarship, I think both Brown and Levin ought to be applauded for teaching their readers about Jewish texts, artifacts, and history.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.