Daniel Silva has written some of my favorite suspense novels. The Order is not among them. While the book’s topic—the antisemitism of Europe’s far right, and its intermingling with Catholicism—is both interesting and relevant, the book’s execution is not.
Let me, first, deal with the topic. Antisemitism is on the rise in Europe, as well as the United States. One source of that is the European far right, whose nationalist parties verge on or veer into fascism. Historically, some of those parties held close ties with traditionalist forms of Catholicism. The fact of those ties is not a matter of dispute, though their extent is. (Think of the strenuous debates about Pius XII the Shoah, for example.)
One of the reasons for Catholicism’s antisemitism problem—and for Protestantism’s too—is the anti-Jewish polemic of several passages in the New Testament. For example, during the nighttime trial of Jesus by the Sanhedrin, we read this in Matthew 27:25: “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’” This verse historically served as the basis for the Christian accusation of deicide against the Jewish people.
These two elements—far-right antisemitism, Catholic antisemitism—are the fuel that drives The Order forward. And Gabriel Allon seems like the perfect driver for Silva’s vehicle. The lone child of a Birkenau survivor, a young assassin who meted out justice against Palestinian terrorists in the wake of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre of Israeli athletes, the director of Mossad, a spy with friendly ties to the current pope, if anyone can stop far-right anti-Semites, Allon can. And should.
But, and it’s a very large but, the way Silva executes the plot strains credulity. My two rules for successful suspense novels are that they 1) keep me turning pages and 2) don’t push my willing suspension of disbelief too far. Silva is such a talented writer that he easily satisfied my rule. I read this late into the night one Saturday evening.
The Order fails at the level of my second rule, however. Why? Largely because Silva steers the plot onto Christian origins and drives it badly there.
I’ve noted Matthew 27:25 and hinted at other New Testament passages that have served as the basis of Christian antisemitism, historically speaking. Instead of reading these passages as examples of intra-Jewish polemic, which they are, Silva’s plot requires that they be read as late historical inventions designed by Christians to curry favor with the Romans. This leads him to deny the historicity of these trials in toto, though not Jesus’ crucifixion.
To underscore the historical unreliability of the Gospel Accounts, Silva concocts a mysterious document called The Gospel According to Pontius Pilate that tells the unvarnished truth about Jesus’ death. (Of course, no such document exists, nor does Silva claim it’s real.)
At the same time as Allon and his colleagues search for this elusive Gospel, they uncover the machinations of the Order of St. Helena, a secretive and wealthy Catholic order with fascist ties and a desire to capture the papacy. To do that, the order murders Allon’s friend the pope, the event that sets the novel rolling in the first place.
The plot of The Order turns on whether Allon will be able both to find Pilate’s gospel and to reveal publicly the Order’s murderous designs. Since this is Gabriel Allon we’re talking about, the conclusion is foregone.
And yet, the book doesn’t work, at least not for me. I have graduate training in Bible and theology, so I’m aware of the debates about the historicity of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. To be honest, I find the notion that such a trial could never have taken place not credible. The notion that Jerusalem’s first-century priestly aristocracy was too scrupulous and too busy to hold a night-time trial on the eve of Passover strains this reader’s credulituy. In fact, the first-century high priests were criticized by multiple segments of Jewish society. If you think the Gospels are rough on the Temple aristocracy, try reading the Qumran community’s view of them, or Josepus’.
Moreover, the entire plot of The Order depends on a cabal of religious leaders breaking and bending rules in order to arrive at a politically desirable destination. Does Silva not recognize the contradiction of saying that a power-hungry Catholic order can do precisely what he denies a power-hungry Temple aristocracy could do? This seems psychologically implausible to me. When power is on the line, powerful people can and do break the rules to maintain their grip on power. That’s essentially what the Gospels accuse the priestly aristocracy of doing in Jesus’ day. It’s what Silva accuses the Order of doing.
The reason Silva seems to find such an accusation implausible is because of how that accusation was misread and abused in later centuries by Gentile Christians. And let’s be very clear: Silva is absolutely right that in the history of Christianity, passages such as Matthew 27:25 were used by Christian theologians and political leaders across centuries and denominations—Catholic and Protestant—to lay the charge of deicide at the feet of the Jewish people as a whole. This was and is both a sin and a stain, and such charges of deicide need to be firmly and persistently refuted.
But one can point out that a passage has been wrenched out of its original intra-Jewish polemical context and abused by Gentile Christians without undermining the basic historicity of the passage, as Silva does. The Gospels were written at a time when what became Judaism and what became Christianity had not yet parted ways. Many, if not most, “Christians” during this period were also “Jews.” Indeed, Josephus writes complimentarily about James, the brother of Jesus, who led the Jerusalem church up to the eve of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. So, was James a Jew or a Christian? It’s anachronistic to force a choice between the two.
One more thing before I conclude: In the course of debunking the historicity of the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ trial—among other things—Silva introduces a mysterious Father Joshua at two points in the novel, one crucial and another less so. To me, this figure—with stigmata, no less!—is so obviously a Christ figure that his appearance introduces massive cognitive dissonance into the story. On the one hand, the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death and divinity are unreliable. On the other hand, Father Joshua appears out of nowhere, provides Allon with crucial proof of Pilate’s gospel, speaks with a Galilean accent, and even appears at one point to be walking on the waters of Venice! If you’re going to be skeptical, be skeptical, Mr. Silva! Don’t also be mystical at the same time!
So, two stars from me for The Order. It’s a page-turner, sure, but it pushed my willing suspension of disbelief too far. The Order, if I may say so, is The Da Vinci Code if Dan Brown could write as well as Daniel Silva. But that comparison doesn’t improve the latest Gabriel Allon mystery, unfortunately.
Daniel Silva, The Order (New York: Harper, 2020).
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