Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees is the third installment in Daniel Taylor’s series of mysteries featuring Jon Mote, erstwhile Ph.D. student and special-needs adult caregiver, now book editor for Luxor House, a subsidiary of Continental Media, itself a small part of World Wide Holdings International, which in is run by an even larger corporation known to insiders as Imperial Interests.
The book begins and ends at a retreat center in northern Minnesota as fall is changing to winter. The central plotline takes place on a single day and is written in the voice of Jon Mote. Readers get Mote’s perspective on events as they unfold, but the unfolding involves a lot of flashing back to earlier events.
Those gathered at the retreat center are part of a Bible translation committee charged with producing the New World Standard Bible, the primary need for which seems to be making its publisher lots of money. In order to expedite the translation process, the publisher buys the 70s-era paraphrase of the Bible produced by Dr. Jerry DeAngelo (“Dr. Jerry”), a retired televangelist who’s glad to be back in the game. His dutiful wife, Cate, sits in on all meetings, saying little but knitting a lot.
Members of the committee are a diverse group, including Dr. Bart Sprung (“the most publicly known progressive figure”); Dr. Lilith Weekly (“an established feminist scholar”); Dr. Martin Shabazz Douglas (“a rising young black scholar”); Dr. Adam Corinth (“an expert on the historical books of the Old Testament”); and Dr. Peter Stone (a fundamentalist theologian “teaching at a Baptist university in Virginia”). If disagreement about a choice of translation arises, committee members vote, and ties are broken by Robert Green, an agnostic Jew from New York who represents the publisher’s financial interests and enforces its deadlines.
If you know anything about Bible translation committees, you know that this committee would never exist in real life. It’s too ideologically and ecclesially diverse. And with the exception of Adam Corinth, none of the members is a biblical scholar per se.
That niggling detail should be overlooked, however, because Daniel Taylor isn’t satirizing Bible translation as much as using Bible translation to satirize the sorry state of Christianity in America, of the academic study of religion, and of religious publishing. The satire works well, hilariously so at points. Bart Sprung seems like a mashup of Bart Ehrman and John Shelby Spong. Two other characters, Robby Clapper and Orlanda, are stand-ins for Rob Bell and Oprah. Even the Peter Stone’s redundant name—Peter derives from the Greek word for rock—is a witty caricature of fundamentalist immovability.
Moreover, if you like series novels, as I do, Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees continues the story of Jon Mote as he heals from the personal traumas related in Death Comes for the Deconstructionist and Do We Not Bleed?, which I reviewed here and here. He is reconciling with his ex-wife Zillah and continues to care for his older sister Judy, who has Down Syndrome. All of that makes for a rich, textured literary universe that’s enjoyable to explore.
As a mystery, however, Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees was only so-so, in my opinion. Several characters die in the novel, starting with Adam Corinth, and there are hints at a suspect, but the clue that solves the mystery arrives too abruptly when no one is looking for it. It is literally just found. As a mystery novel reader, that aspect of the novel was something of a letdown.
I can’t help but wonder, though, whether this observation is beside the point. The title of the book is Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees, which alludes to Jesus’ denunciation of the same in Matthew 23 and Luke 11. Taylor doesn’t cite any verses from those chapters in the book’s epigraph, however, instead quoting Deuteronomy 4:2 and Mark 7:13. Regardless, given the allusion and the quotation, it seems clear to me that Taylor has authorities in both academe and the church in mind throughout this book. They are the ones “making the word of God of none effect through you tradition” (Mark 7:13 KJV).
In other words, this book ultimately isn’t a mystery about violent murder but about misusing the Bible. The way some people use the Bible kills. If so, then I’d hazard the guess that Dr. Martin Shabazz Douglas is the real hero of the story.
If that doesn’t make sense to you now, read the book, and it will.
Daniel Taylor, Woe to the Scribes and Pharisees: A Jon Mote Mystery (Eugene, OR: Slant, 2020).
P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.