The Prophet Motive, by John Bimson, is fundamentally about the narrow divide between understanding and misunderstanding. This swings from the minor and often hilarious slips which constantly hover in the background of English-American conversation, right through to the life- and world-threatening consequences of extremist interpretation of biblical prophecy.
The book was originally written with an expectation that the year 2000 would see an outbreak of millennial doomsdayism. As things turned out, this did not happen on a large scale, and even the excitement about the year 2012 – complete with feature film – was rather understated. However, The Prophet Motive can still be read as an echo of contemporary thought and preoccupation. Like so many former prophets, you just have to move the dates…
The book is undeniably funny, though with a very dry British sense of humour that some people may not click with. If you read it, be prepared to find serious subjects tackled in an offbeat way. The scenes towards the end, with multi-way puns on the word “seal” are something of a tour de force, and show up the military habit of thought as just as rigid and fundamentalist as the extreme religious group they confront. Conversely, if you cannot find humour and a sense of fun in tackling biblical prophecy, fringe views on the end of the world, middle eastern relationships, and archaeology, then this book is not for you. The position is summed up in the closing words, “Laughter… fosters self-critical detachment and has the power to defanaticise. I believe it is no coincidence that the Essenes of Qumran imposed penalties on members who giggled.”
The primary technical vehicle for the plot is the investigation of the history of Israel in the couple of centuries before and after the time of Jesus. It is handled with skill and accuracy, including the state of Dead Sea Scroll research up to the time of writing the book (the late 1990s). The wide variety of motives that different people and groups have for looking at this period is captured, together with the whole spectrum of ability levels and preconceptions.
The book is very much plot driven, and only one or two of the characters change to any real degree from start to end. I did feel that the very last episode (Project Peter, Phase 2) was rather too easily dismissed as a non-event in favour of the climax of the personal quests of the two main characters. I suspect that Phase 2 was only really brought in for two reasons. First it takes the triumphal edge off the successful struggle against Phase 1. Secondly it allows a very cool snippet of humour turning the tables on the millenarianism that dominates the book. On balance, though, a potentially much more serious threat is casually discarded in a few words.
Sadly The Prophet Motive is currently out of print owing to the demise of the small press who took the project on, and at the time of printing no thought was given to electronic publication. It is to be hoped that this might change with the revolution in publishing which has happened in the last few years. Technically the book has been well proof-read and well edited, and I think it has good mileage in it still.
I really enjoyed this book, and think it would be accessible to a general audience. Certainly it helps already to know something about the areas tackled – the interpretation of prophecy, the nature of archaeological work and evidence, and so on. However, there are enough explanations along the way that if you did not know much about (say) the Dead Sea Scrolls beforehand, you will get to know what you need.
For me this was a four star book. I don’t often read fiction set in the present day, nor stories that are quite so plot-focused. So for me personally, the book missed a few elements which I look for. However, I would certainly recommend it as an exciting and entertaining read, and am very glad to have come across it. I suspect that people who are more familiar with this genre might rate it with five stars.
Finally, a disclaimer – John was my PhD supervisor a few years ago when I was working on Triumphal Accounts in Hebrew and Egyptian. However, that was long enough ago, and on a sufficiently different area of biblical and related studies, that I don’t feel this has compromised my objectivity at all.