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Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite
The Holy Conspiracy by Kristi Saare Duarte takes on the greatest legend of our time in the rise of the Christian faith in early Palestine. Following the death of Yeshua (Jesus) at the hands of the Romans, Jesus’ brother, Jakov (James the Just), Mariamne (Mary Magdalene) and many of Jesus’ followers move to Jerusalem, where they continue to worship at the Temple and spread the teachings of Jesus to those who would listen. Mary was married to Jesus and bore him a son after his death. What they teach though is far from today’s established Judeo-Christian faith. They spread Jesus’ message of love and self-sacrifice for others but nothing of Jesus being the Son of God or having died for their sins to bring them to salvation. James and his band are convinced Jesus was a great teacher and philosopher but nothing more than that, and they are determined his legacy will survive in their lives and their “commune”. A stranger from Tarsus (Saul – later to become Paul) tells the congregation that he has seen Yeshua in a vision on the road to Damascus and that Jesus was in fact the son of God and died for our sins. James and his followers reject outright this blasphemy and believe they as personal confidants of Jesus know truly what was in his heart. Whilst James and some of the original disciples opt to stay in Jerusalem, many choose to go on the road and preach in opposition to this new interloper, Paul, and his “twisted” version of Jesus’ life. Of course, as we all know now, it was Saul (Paul) who was the more successful of the evangelists, as the “Good News” of Jesus’ death and resurrection quickly spread across the known world and became Christianity.
Wow! What a fascinating concept. As one brought up in the Judeo-Christian belief like me, author Kristi Saare Duarte really does challenge the reader’s preconceptions of the early Christian life. If one accepts the precept that “history is written by the victors”, it would be absolutely correct to see Paul and the Roman Catholic Church as the victors in this battle, as they spread their version of Jesus’ life and his legacy across the world as the doctrine of Christianity. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls shows us that the Essenes were just one of the many branches of Christianity that emerged in the years following Jesus’ crucifixion. James’ group of devout followers of Jesus’ teachings bear many similarities to the community of Essenes mentioned in the scrolls, which gives some real authority to this novel. The story is compelling (as holy conspiracy theories often are) but more than that, the story is incredibly easy to read and the author has done a tremendous job of highlighting the characters and communal environment of early Palestine. In a world where women were second-class citizens and their opinions of no interest to men, Mariamne comes across as a strong, powerful, intelligent, and deeply loving woman, who was easy to identify with. Her tangled and confusing relationship with James was definitely the highlight of this tale. I don’t often give a novel the status of teaching us about “real” history but this story certainly raises and, in some cases, answers some fascinating questions about the birth and growth of one of the world’s preeminent religions. A truly thought-provoking and satisfying read and one that encourages me to seek out more works from this author.