Some years ago, in the spring of 2000, I was spending my days in the Vatican, studying several unique manuscripts in the course of my research for a novel.
Access to these manuscripts required high academic credentials. I had none. But in the end, after several meetings and interviews that seemed at times to be interrogations, the Vatican Library had given me identification cards authorizing the access I needed to both the Archivio Segreto and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. These cards, which bore the seal of the Vatican, attested that the Vatican had bestowed an honorary doctorate on me.
I was under constant supervision, or surveillance, during the days of my research. But I was very fortunate that the guardian who had been appointed me was a kindly old prelate who was more devoted to librarianship and learning than to the Head Librarian in the Sky and the recondite hierarchical ambitions of the Vatican, all of which he seemed to have waved away long ago.
One afternoon, as we walked toward a destination in the vast underground maze of one great chamber that on this day was eerily deserted and silent, we passed a long, high wall of partitioned shelf upon partitioned shelf of strapped-shut leather tubes that cast a soft penumbral patinated glow in the dim lighting from the vaulted ceiling above them.
The old prelate and I upon first meeting had begun our brief, tentative conversational exchanges in Italian. Slowly, by interjecting phrases of English into our talk, he let it be known that his English was more fluent than my Italian. And so, after a few days, we spoke almost exclusively in English.
“What are these?” I asked, gesturing to the leathern tubes that seemed to be countless in their dark wooden places of rest in the wall that seemed to be endless. I was sure that they were papyrus scrolls.
Very, very ancient scrolls, as the leather cases that held them were ancient themselves, and the wood of the shelves appeared to have been there for centuries.
He nodded with a slight smile, as though sensing what I had surmised, and affirming it. “No one knows all that is here. Some of them are three or four thousand years old, maybe older.” He paused, then slowed his pace as we proceeded. “The even older writings, the clay tablets, are in a vault in a room that diverges from the start of this passage. Back there. We passed it a while ago. Some of these scrolls may be as old as some of those tablets. No one knows. That’s the trouble with this place. There has never been a complete and serious inventory of what is here.”
The passage of leather-cased scrolls led to a wider passage. He called this the place of books before paper. Piles and piles of the earliest codices: sheets rather than scrolls of papyrus or parchment, bound together between wooden covers. Most of these were from about two thousand years ago, among the oldest codices to have survived.
“Look at this,” he said. “The first books. Heaped and strewn like trash in the basement.” He mumbled something about ratti—rats, something about uno caseggiato bassifondo—a slum tenement; then he shook his head. “They say that Pius VIII sent his servants down here to fetch kindling to keep his fireplaces roaring in winter.”
Looking at this mess, he turned still as stone, as if he had been looking at it all his life. I picked up a codex. There was very little wood left of its original covers. The dust of the ages seemed to be the only solvent holding it together. The old man did not mind that I had raised it in my hands. I very carefully opened it, turned its friable, torn leaves. My fingers were filthy with its dirt. I slowly, gently turned a few pages, looking at what remained of the faded ink on those pages. It was written in Latin, in an elegant hand. I tried to make out the words, tried to make sense of them.
The elderly priest joined me in looking at the page. “Good parchment. Good atrament: looks like cuttle-fish, the best the Romans had. And the hand-writing: adept. A bit shaky, but adept. No cheap job, this one.”
He placed his own fingers to the pages, and, while I continued to hold the codex, removed my free fingers from the pages and let his take their place. He was reading the Latin far more ably and with far more alacrity than I had managed, and he pronounced the words in a whisper as he read.
“Tristissimus hominum,” he whispered. He repeated the phrase, no longer in a distracted whisper: “Tristissimus hominem. ‘The gloomiest of men,’” he translated. He seemed stunned. “This is a book about Tiberius,” he said. “By someone who knew him. Knew him.”
His fingers moved backwards through the pages with a professional care that did not hide his intent and rising but expressionless excitement.
Suddenly he stopped, his eyes fixed on a single word. The word was Iesvs, the Latin form of Jesus.
“Iesus. And here, again, in the accusative: Iesum.”
He muttered something to himself in Italian, something that I could not clearly hear. Then he looked to me. It was as if he had discovered something that made every other discovery in the last two thousand years seem as nothing.
“This piece of overlooked kindling is the memoir of a man who knew both Tiberius and Jesus. It may be the only real proof that Jesus ever existed.”
He put the codex in his black briefcase. “You must say nothing of this,” he told me.
I nodded. We made our way to the file cabinet that held one of the medieval manuscripts I wanted to see for my research. We were both so fouled by the soot and dirt of the codex that we went first to a large wash-sink nearby. He was with me; he located the manuscripts for me. But he was a thousand miles away.
When I called him the next morning, he told me that we would not be able to meet again for another two days. And that we should meet at a certain café in a certain secluded little piazza a considerable distance from the Vatican.
At the café he explained that he had torn two pieces from two sheets of the codex and had them tested at the library’s laboratory. He had told the chief technician nothing about these scraps, only that that the analysis was a matter of urgent importance. Every analytical test had been performed. The frail scraps had been exactingly examined by transmission electron microscope, by scanning electron microscope, by ion and electron microprobes, by energy-dispersive X-ray spectrometer. Microscopic particles of the ink had been subjected to chemical analyses. The scraped-goatskin parchment and the black ink on it were of the same age, and dispersive penetration tests showed that the ink had been laid to the parchment since their making. Furthermore, the visual evidence of the nature of the pen that had been used—a calamus of the internal shell of the cuttle-fish—and the form of uncial script of the fragments corroborated the technical conclusions.
“It’s real,” he said.
Seeing that he had somewhat lost me along the way, but not knowing quite where, he paused, then said: “This calamus, the ancient Romans called it a calamarius, a sort of horny flexible pen made from the bone in the cuttle-fish, the ink-fish. The word calamari comes from this, but calamari is squid; cuttle-fish are seppie. Latin, Italian: the cuttle-fish is seppia. Somebody got confused. Probably an American.”
He smiled, then was silent and drank his coffee. A double espresso with a lot of sugar. Then, pointing to his heart, he took some pills, drank some water. He asked the waiter for another double espresso.
“And while they were doing this, I was doing this.”
He unclasped his briefcase and removed a fat dark-brown button-and-tie kraft envelope. Placing it on the table, he then placed his pale, spidery veined hand upon it. He unwound the string from the closure, then carefully withdrew the topmost of the sheets of paper within it.
It was thick fine white paper, and the image on it—the first page of the codex—was far more clear, darker and sharper, than the original. To be sure, the torn areas and the black smears here and there were also more striking; but the text had magically been restored, from faded to vibrant characters.
“They set it up for me, the scanner in the laboratory, tuned it to do this with one of the scraps I gave them. While they worked on the scraps, I worked on this. And while I did, I translated it.”
Again he placed his hand on the envelope. He raised the second little cup of espresso to his lips and drank as I tried to translate the Latin. I found the uncial script to be daunting; and years away from this most powerful of languages had taken from me much of my familiarity with its declensions and cases.
The first words that appeared, the first words that emerged after those words forever lost to the attrition of the ages, on a worn-away area of parchment that appeared as a gray stain on the scan, were sub Tiberio: “under Tiberius.”
“It’s real,” he repeated. “The laboratory dates it to the first century, to about two thousand years ago. It’s the memoir of an old man written for his grandson. An old Roman aristocrat of equestrian rank. What he writes dates it to about the middle of the first century. He wanted to leave this behind for his grandson, who was a child at the time. He wanted his grandson to read it when he grew to be a man, so that he could come to know his grandfather after he was gone. Nowhere does he address his words to anyone else. It is all for the grandson. And it seems to me to be at times as much a sort of—obliquo, perverso, how do you say?”
“Yes, yes. It seems to me to be at times as much a sort of oblique last-rites confession as it is a memoir.”
He looked to the sky, breathed as deeply as he could, smiled as his eyes followed the movement of a swallow over a small, medieval church across the piazza.
“All my life,” he said—to me, to the sky—“I have doubted Jesus: the reality of Jesus, the historical existence of the Jesus of this Church. There was simply no real evidence. He appears nowhere in any record or document of the day. The odd, cursory references to him in Josephus and Tacitus have long been regarded as insertions by monastic scribes in the Middle Ages. Even the greatest of modern theologians, biblical scholars, and Christologists, from Crossan to Sanders and the rest, now agree that most of what is in the gospels could never have happened, and never did happen.”
He moved his hand across the dark-brown envelope. “This proves that I was wrong. This, and only this, proves that I was wrong.”
His smile deepened, grew more serene, as he became more immersed in the blue sky and the slow movement of the wispy clouds of this lovely spring morning.
“In fact, it is the earliest portrait of him, older even than the gospel of Mark. And the only portrait of him drawn from life.”
“I see a raise in your future,” I said with a grin. “I see one of those white cassocks and red beanies.”
“And I see danger.” He was no longer smiling, no longer facing the sky. He looked directly into my eyes. “If I were so much as to be suspected of having any knowledge of this thing, I’d be out of here on my ass. And worse,” he added cryptically.
“Then why are you trusting me?”
“Because you once wrote a book about Michele Sindona. It is not that he trusted you enough to talk to you. It is because it was a book involving many secrets and many people. And you are still here. And that is because you betrayed no one.” After a pause he added: “And because there is something about you that I like.” He shrugged. “Homo sum.”
“Where is the original?”
“I threw it back where we found it. Where you found it.”
“And what do you want me to do with this?” I gestured to the envelope, handed him back the sheet he had given me.
“Give it to the world.”
“I don’t think my command of Latin is up to the job.”
He placed the page I had returned to him in the envelope as gently as he had taken it from the envelope. From the bottom of the envelope, he pulled out sheets of cheaper paper that were folded into a bundle.
“Notes I made while reading it as I scanned it,” he said. “These will help you with some of the difficult words and sentences and passages. As for the rest, that is up to you.”
“If it is all that you say it is, if it proves that there was a Jesus, if it is the earliest and only first-hand account of that Jesus”—and I still did not really believe that any of this was true—“then why is it so dangerous?”
“Read it and you will see.”
He closed the envelope and gave it to me.
About a year later, at home in New York, I finished the novel I was working on. The old prelate and I kept in touch, but the codex or the contents of the envelope he had given me were never mentioned again. Only in 2004, after receiving word of the death of the old man, did I turn in earnest to what lay in that envelope. Almost every Saturday morning for three years I studied for at least an hour with a Latin tutor. I took again to reading the red-covered Loeb editions of my favorite Latin authors, trying to shift my eyes as little as possible from the Latin text to the facing English text of these volumes.
One day I rediscovered my favorite opening line of Catullus, in his nameless Poem XVI, written as a response to critics: “Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo”—“I will fuck your ass and fuck your mouth.” This sort of thing, as much as re-reading Virgil and Ovid, renewed my love of Latin and fueled my enthusiasm.
Then, finally, I read what had been given me; and then, as had been foretold, I knew.
I was fortunate that what I read had been written at a time when the Romans were not commonly writing in scriptura continua, a style of writing without word dividers, without spaces or other marks between words or sentences. What I read and worked with was written with interpuncta, crude dots used to divide words and sentences, a style that fell into disuse during the second century, when most writers in Latin reverted to continuous script.
I translated, then I translated again. I studied the translation until I was confident. Then I studied it until I was sure. I decided to use only one long section of the codex, for much else in it, the earlier parts of it, seemed somewhat prosaic and of slight interest except to historians of early first-century Rome. I decided to use the first two legible words of the original ancient work as its title. I also decided to put my name to it, rather than the name of the man, Gaius Fulvius Falconius, who nearly two thousand years ago wrote it in Latin for the eyes of his grandson, and for his grandson’s eyes alone.