As part of my normal Sunday morning trip to Costco, I like to head over to the book table to see if they have anything good. This past week, sandwiched in between the latest Daniel Silva and James Patterson books, I found The Last Ember.The plot of Daniel Levinâ€™s debut novel is similar to other historical-religious thrillers: Thereâ€™s a secret lurking under Rome and Jerusalem. Ancient artifacts have more meaning than one could ever imagine. Finding a buried secret could change the nature of the worldâ€™s major religions. Itâ€™s a fast-paced book of mystery, murder, and a bit of romance in between.
But thereâ€™s something different about this book, and the way it connects the stories of the ancient and present-day worlds.
MyJewishLearning had the chance to talk with Levin recently about his motivations and theories.
Levin says he was inspired to write the book after clerking on a case for the Israeli Supreme Court. The case, which is also the main storyline in The Last Ember, centers on an alleged illegal excavation beneath the Temple Mount. Preservationists believe that such excavations seek to destroy records and artifacts of Judeo-Christian history in Jerusalem.
â€œWhat we do know is that Titus was obsessed with controlling history,â€ Levin says. â€œNo one was more expert at manipulating and controlling the past than Roman emperors. When we see statues in museums today of missing heads and other important appendages, itâ€™s not erosion, but rather a systemic campaign of erasing people whose ideas or existence was inconvenient to Roman emperors. As a former classics student, I was taken at the similarities of historical revision of today and in the ancient world. Both are attempts to rewrite the past to fit one politics and belief.â€
As the plot thickens, Levin introduces an intriguing academic argument that starts to connect the pieces between the time of the Temple and today. He suggests that Flavius Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian and Roman apologist, was actually a spy for the Jews, while serving as Titusâ€™ official historian.
â€œWe know there was something funky in Titusâ€™ palace,â€ says Levin. â€œWe know that Berenice, who was a beautiful war prisoner from Jerusalem as well as and Josephusâ€™s publisher, Epaphroditus, along with Josephus, were all either expelled or killed on the same day. All had a connection to Jerusalem. Anyone Josephus touched turned up dead. He disappears from the historical record with a silence that is deafening.â€
So what was information was Josephus transmitting to the Jews? The Last Ember argues, though itâ€™s hard to believe, that through clues left in his books as well as archeological evidence, Josephus was laying a map to find the most important artifact Titus supposedly took from Jerusalem–the Temple Menorah.
â€œWhy is there is a spy plot in Titusâ€™ court at all?â€ Levin says. â€œThe temple was destroyed and there was nothing left to save.” Or, the novel, asks was there?
In answering that question, the novel–which takes places in only 24 hours–takes the reader through thousands of years of Jewish history. The Last Ember is at the same time a fun, easy-to read thriller and a thoughtful critique of the intersection of politics and archeology. Though the plot lines may be far-fetched, the verisimilitude of the characters helps the reader trust and believe the authorâ€™s words. And, as in most thrillers, itâ€™s a challenge to see if you can stay two steps ahead of the mystery.
But just as Levin warns, â€œIn Jerusalem, remember that first impressions are deceiving.â€