Father Nil

(creator: Michel Benoît)

Michel Benoit
Father Nil is a French Benedictine monk who teaches the Gospel of St John to novices at St Martin's Abbey in the Val-de-Loire. We are not told very much about him, but it emerges that he makes a quiet, conscientious researcher, and is determined, loyal and courageous. "The aim of monastic life is to track down the passions and eliminate them at their root. From the time he had entered the novitiate, Nil had been well schooled: St Martin's Abbey turned our to be an excellent establishment of self-renunciation. Since all his strength was bent on his search for truth, this caused him little pain. On the contrary, he was glad to be freed from those instincts that enslave humanity, for its greater woe."

Michel Benoît (a nom de plume) is a religious scolar and novelist. After obtaining a PhD in Pharmacology, he entered the Benedictine order as an unordained monk at the abbey of Saint Benoît sur Loire (from which he took his pen name), remaining a monk for twenty-two years. Because of his ideological non-conformity, he eventually left the Catholic Church and decided to devote himself to research and writing. His first book, Prisoner of God, an autobiographical account of his lfe in the monastery, became an international bestseller when it was published in 1992. This was followed by two religious essays, a travel book based on a trip to India, and then the thriller The Thirteenth Apostle, which although fiction, is claimed to be derived from his lifetime's research on the life of Jesus.

The Thirteenth Apostle (first published in France, 2006. English translation, 2007) tells how Father Nil's friend Father Andrei is mysteriously killed on a train on his way back from Rome. In the corpse's clenched fist, Father Nil discovers a piece of paper containing some enigmatic clues and decides he must conduct his own investigation. He finds that the dead priest had discovered proof of the existence of a thirteenth apostle and an epistle stating that Jesus was nothing more than an inspired prophet, not the Son of God - two things that would spell great danger for the Church.

We keep flashing back to Biblical times, starting with the Last Supper, to find out what might have really happened. It turns out that Peter had persuaded Judas to betray Jesus so as to get him looked after in safety while the disciples joined a Zealot revolt - and, when this does not work, and Jesus is actually crucified, Peter stabs Judas to death. Peter does not really believe in the divinity of Christ, or his resurrection, but pretends otherwise as "the idea of resurrection attracted the crowds, who found in it a means of putting up with a life that otherwise was devoid of hope". Not quite what the Bible says.

We also learn of the Nazoreans - a community excluded from the official Church by Peter and Paul - which appears to have thrived until the 7th century, playing an important part in the birth of Islam.

While Nil pushes ahead with his investigations in Rome, the Pope's advisers, led by the unscrupulous Cardinal Catzinger (who bears more than a passing resemblance to the real-life Cardinal Ratzinger), and other rival factions are trying to lay their hands on the priest's findings. These include the eleven members of the Society of St Pius V who will resort to anything, even murder, to defend the faith. They are led by a particularly unpleasant sex-mad monsignor. For him, ""to unite carnally with the young woman lying in the place of the divine crucified one was the most sublime act he could ever accomplish". As a friend tells Nil, "You don't know what a dangerous place the Vatican is - you have to mistrust each and every one here". And even Cardinal Catzinger is not above a little blackmail and murder.

The story of an ancient sect detailed within papyrus leaves hidden in the caves at Qumran form the basis of this "exhaustively researched" novel. It all sounds very reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code and its imitators, but Michel Benoît does not think much of Dan Brown: "His scholarship does not exist. I am a scholar," he claims. But his story is no more convincing, as when a single old papyrus is accepted by Nil as proving "irrefutable proof that Jesus did not rise from the dead".

As the publishers point out opposite the title page, "This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental." There seems to be quite a conflict between this statement and what the author is really trying to do, as he takes his own (unlikely?) interpretation of the Biblical story very seriously. The result is ultimately rather unsatisfying, as it is neither a work of scholarship nor a really convincing piece of fiction - but falls somewhere between the two. But it is certainly not without interest.

There is an interesting review of this book on The Independent site.

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Le Secret cover
The French original had a more arresting cover than the English translation.
The Thirteenth Apostle cover
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