by C.J. Darlington
Paul Maier Interview
"I can’t understand all these claims about author’s block and that kind of thing, or how desperately difficult it is to write." -- Paul Maier
Dr. Paul Maier is the Russell H. Seibert Professor of Ancient History at Western Michigan University and a much-published author of both scholarly and popular works. His novels include A Skeleton in God’s Closet—the thriller that became a #1 CBA best seller when it first released—and its sequel, More Than a Skeleton. Over 5 million copies of Dr. Maier’s books are now in print in 17 languages, as well as over 250 scholarly articles and reviews in professional journals.
What was it that sparked your love of history as a boy?
Clearly it was my experience in Sunday School. I was so tuned in, so turned on, by the biblical episodes, and I always wanted to know more. The teacher’s head would spin and they’d say, “Paul, ask your father. We don’t have anymore. The Bible’s sixty-six books. Please be satisfied with those.” Then I discovered Flavius Josephus, the 1st Century historian, and here we get a lot more detail about some of the biblical places, people and events. It really turned me on. I realized there was more to learn, and that we could get additional secular evidence that would match up with the internal evidence inside of Scripture. And so in this way I was able to get more detail, and I’ve actually been beating the bushes of the ancient world ever since, trying to find evidence that correlates with the episodes in the Old and New Testaments. I’ve just been having a lot of fun doing it.
There are so many possible areas of history to research and learn about. How did you decide to pursue Ancient history?
As I delved deeper I realized you could find enormous parallels and correlations in the New Testament rather than the Old Testament, only because it’s more recent. And so therefore I really got into Ancient Greek and Roman history to get the full contextual background of the New Testament. It's just been more fun in terms of matching up the evidence. The first thing I wrote was a biography of my father, but after that I realized there was one personality who straddles the secular and the sacred world, and that would be Pontius Pilate. He’s the perfect personality. He’s a Rome man in Judea at the time, and when I found out there was a lot of extra new information about Pilate that we had from history and archeology, that’s what really drove me into thorough research of that all important 1st Century.
Yeah, and that first novel you wrote back in the 60s was about him.
That’s right. It’s still very much in print, they’re still thinking of visual treatment, and so on.
Your first novel and your second, Flames of Rome, are what we’d call biblical fiction, but what was it that made you decide you wanted to write stories set in modern times?
Only because the modern
is simply the air of the ancient. Today all the sensational put downs
they all go back to where? The 1st
Century. They’re all arguing about what originally happened. And
so for that reason I thought it would be a lot of fun to deal with contemporary
Christianity as well, and the major attacks that are now taking place.
So I decided to do the Skeleton series on what I think are the
three greatest attacks on Christianity that we could possibly find. First
of all in The
Skeleton in God’s Closet [we deal with the question, what if
people thought they’d discovered the bones of Jesus?]. That would
be a major challenge, wouldn’t it? (chuckles) In the second one, More
than a Skeleton, I dealt with what could happen if somebody masqueraded
as Christ. That would be a fierce challenge. And in the third one (we’re
getting away from the Skeleton names because it’s getting
to sound a little detective/mystery), The Constantine Codex, really takes
third greatest challenge, and that’s Islam. But I also had a parallel
plot giving it more of a positive spin, and that is what would happen if
one of the earliest
manuscripts of the Bible, the Codex Constantinianos, which is what it really
is called, was discovered.
Now here’s the deal. The early Church historian Josephus writes that Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, had commissioned him to prepare fifty magnificently written copies of Scripture at his own church in Cesaria for use in the church. Not one of those has ever been discovered, but it would be a fabulously important document if it were discovered because this would be the earliest discovery of Scripture that we have. Well, we find Jon, my hero, discovering one of the fifty copies in the library of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarc, the Eastern Pope in Constantinople. Well, they call it Istanbul today, but it’ll always be Constantinople to me. This one, of course, is really going to shake the Christian world in a nice way because this one has the lost ending of Mark.
The thing is, the present gospel of Mark ends with Mark Chapter 16 verse 8. To be sure, we have the additional material added later about snake handling and drinking poison, which is really secondary material. It’s not in the original Gospel of Mark. You see, Mark 16:8 ends with the women fleeing from the tomb for they were afraid. Now what a way to end the gospel! So most scholars assume there is a lost ending. Well . . . I provide the lost ending. But not only that, you know how the biblical books go, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans and so forth. Well, we discover there is a second book of Acts. Yeah! It’ll finish off Paul’s story. Now you’ve done Bible classes . . . aren’t you frustrated when you get to Chapter 28? Paul’s in prison for two years . . . like, then what happened, Luke? I did much of the research in my Flames of Rome book because we can recapitulate almost the trial of Paul before Nero. And so I used a little bit of that material to provide material in Second Acts. Now I’m not going to claim to write a whole additional book of the Bible, so I just have materials on Paul’s trial in that book and also the all important death scene where he goes out and is beheaded and so on. We finish Paul’s story too.
This is a busy book!
(Laughs) It’s a lot of fun.
It sounds like you knew the plots of these three stories before you ever wrote them. Is that correct, or did they develop over time?
Well, the first one, yeah. I knew that plot ever since Pontius Pilate came out because I was trying to think about what if there were a reverse version of the Easter account. But I was too scared to use that plot. I waited . . . well, I had to wait until my mother died for one thing. She would disown me because three quarters through the book, all the infidels, all the skeptics are cheering. Until they get hit between the eyes right at the end. So I was scared of the plot. But finally when she passed on I figured it’s time. I gotta get this thing out.
Then I envisioned another way Christianity could be attacked, and that would be through a false Christ. We have the passage after all in the New Testament, in the latter days people will come along saying they’re Christ. So I worked on that. Then while I was writing the second book the thought for the third came. One led to the other.
Does plot come first for you or characters?
Well, I decided on this couple, of course. Jon and Shannon, simply because both are scholars. One is an ace archeologist, the other an ace linguist, and they were a pretty convenient pair to carry through all three plots. Now I usually tell the reader that all three of these can be read independently even though they’re technically sequels. Nevertheless, you can read the third book without having read the first and so forth.
What does the actual process of writing a novel look like for you? You wear many hats. I’m surprised you find the time to write any of these books.
It’s just a lot of fun, quite frankly. I can’t understand all these claims about author’s block and that kind of thing, or how desperately difficult it is to write. Look, the scholarly books that I write or translate, yeah. Those take a lot of effort with the materials on either side of you. But a novel you can write on the plane or in the airport! Half of those books were written en route to somewhere. At least half of The Constantine Codex was written between planes and airports. And the other point is—it’s fun! I’ll tell you why. The secret is, writing is so close to reading that you wouldn’t believe how close it is. I’m telling ya. I’ve never seen that ever written anywhere, but to me, when you get involved in writing the book . . . okay, you’ve got the main idea of going from alpha to omega. But en route all kinds of surprising things develop in the process of writing that you hadn’t anticipated, and all of the sudden the light goes off in your head and you write like crazy in that direction. This makes the writing experience fun. I can recall one time when I was in the midst of writing A Skeleton in God’s Closet. We’d just finished dinner, and my wife asked me why I was leaving before dessert. I said, “I gotta get back to a good book.” And suddenly I realized, “Wait a minute. It’s my own book!” It sounds funny to say that, but this is how you get involved in your own project.
So you definitely don’t outline the fictional aspects so much.
I’d say I give it a general outline first. But the point is there are so many new things and new ideas while you’re following your outline that it becomes a lot of fun.
Now did you have difficulty writing about these two characters again, developing them over the course of these stories. Or did you just have great fun jumping back in with them.
More the latter, I think. Because the main character development I guess I developed in the first novel. Once that’s established, I guess I’m not a great one for the major demand you have in a novel where you have to have character development. I’m a little bit more action oriented.
I was just thinking of Indiana Jones. He doesn’t change much, but he changes a little.
(Chuckles) Well, with Indiana Jones the background comes out in the first and they keep going after that.
Now I’ve heard you say your mission and your goal is to find the points of tangency between scriptural and secular historical records. You’ve touched on that a little bit, but how did you do that with The Constantine Codex?
Here we give the whole background of the other half of Christianity, which is so overlooked nowadays, and that is Eastern Christendom. Everybody thinks that Christianity came from Christ, and then the Roman Catholic church in the West and then the Reformation, and that’s generally the story of American Christianity, generally. But don’t forget the greatest split in the church was not Luther and the Reformation. The greatest split in the church was when the patriarch of Constantinople, the Eastern Pope, and the Western Pope, ex-communicated each other. And that was the great split in the church, the great schism in 1073. I wanted to also tell the story of the Eastern church. Now Roman Catholicism figures prominently in the first two books, but this one has Eastern Orthodoxy figuring prominently. Because don’t forget if any lost Scripture were to be discovered, it would probably be there. For that reason I played the probabilities, and I had the Constantine Codex discovered, in what we might call the manuscript cemetery, in the basement of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople. And this is the reason also why the big debate between Jon and the world leader of Islam takes places in Hagia Sophia, the Temple of Holy Wisdom there.
If this sort of book was discovered, or something else, how would you weigh whether you would accept it or wouldn’t accept it?
I’d weigh it the same way that I have charted in The Constantine Codex. When this marvelous discovery takes place you can’t believe the tests that they put on it. First the physical tests. Checking the age of the parchment by Carbon-14. Checking the orthography, how the printing dates, how the beautiful script is written, is it typical for that time? What about the pollen analysis? Those are just the physical tests. Then you have the content test. You see if this is typical of the way Mark would write when we talk about the ending of Mark. What about the grammar and syntax. Does that work? Is there anything in the new text that would contradict the surrounding text? All those sorts of questions you have to ask.
You've had an amazingly full career as a scholar, teacher, writer. But of all the descriptors you’ve heard of yourself, how do you really want to be known?
Oh, boy. That’s a really good question. Well, just recently I retired from teaching at Western Michigan University here. They had my retirement banquet a few weeks ago. I taught for fifty years. I’ve set the record. Out of 850 faculty, I’m the only one who’s taught fifty years. It’s really funny. My last lecture was a lot of fun, the tv people were there, the reporters were there. The Detroit Free Press, a major newspaper . . . I couldn’t believe this, had my retirement on most of the front page! And then get this. All of the second page with a photograph. I thought they only did this with presidential funerals. Which only proves it was a low news day.
I guess teacher and author would be the two roles I cherish most. I do love to teach. I think I’ve been very fortunate. There’s nothing happier that can happen to a person than to be paid for doing what he loves to do anyway. And I also enjoy writing. The combination has proved very pleasant.
Was teaching something you went to school for, something you wanted to do from a young age?
Remember those vocational
tests you took in high school where they ask you three or four questions
. . would you like to play an organ, build
an organ, sell an organ, those kind of things. On those tests
I always came up very high in teaching or preaching. So I did study for
the ministry also. And then after getting my Phd at the University of
I was trying to decide, what am I going to do, preach or teach? And something
I realized, in many ways they are the same thing. Preaching is only teaching
with a very blessed bias! (Laughs) So I accepted a call into the campus
ministry at Western Michigan University.
Back in 1958 PhDs were not numerous, and so when the head of the history department found out I had one, he asked if I wanted to come on the faculty and teach as well. I couldn’t believe they were offering me this, but they did. So for forty years I both taught and preached in the campus chapel. And of course this raised all sorts of eyebrows. Is this mixing church and state? Yeah, you bet it was. If Madeleine Murray O’hare had heard about me she probably would’ve launched a lawsuit. And then there were the comments, “Well, Maier. Does that mean you have two full time salaries?” I said, “Look, fellas. Two sub standard salary equals one normal salary.” And they’d come back saying, “Yeah, but that’s moonlighting!” I said, “No, no, it’s sunlighting. It’s out in the open. Everyone knows about it.” (Chuckles) It’s been a fun run, it really has. I retired from preaching in 1999. And then for the last ten or eleven years I’ve been only teaching. But I do weekend seminars across the country in churches, schools, and Universities, except for the summer months.
So you really are doing what you wanted to do as a young man. That’s pretty neat.
Exactly! I didn’t have to choose between preaching and teaching.
And by sharing history too, in a way you’re very subtly getting out the truth.
A lot of people misunderstand fiction. I was on the 700 Club recently, but it’s like pulling teeth to get fiction on that show because people say fiction’s a lie. Well, it’s a pleasant lie, let me tell you because first of all, in my books, in Pontius Pilate and Flames of Rome, there we have 98% fact, and all I do is provide dialogue. In fact I have scholarly notes at the end of both of those novels which you don’t find in a regular historical novel.
The three rules I have for proper historical fiction: Number One: never, ever contradict known historical fact. Because truth is stranger than fiction. It just is. If we’d only tell the stories as they actually happened this is something no author could ever create. It’s more fascinating. Why do they have to go and screw up history? I don’t understand that. Number Two: every personality mentioned in both of those books is real and called by that name. Every proper name in the book is real. Number Three: only where all the facts quit can you dare to have projected history or slightly fictional mortar to hold the bricks together, and I’ll tell the reader at the end of the book where those mortar bits are. I think this way a person can not only be entertained by a novel but also be educated by a novel.
Now, what about the Skeleton series? There I realize all the foreground information is fictional. But the backgrounds of how to do archeology, in the first book, or how to identify the truth from a fake in the second book, or in this case, the marvelous history of Eastern Christendom comes to life. So the reader here too, in the contemporary novels is pleasantly informed. I hope he is.
What are you going to do now that you’ve retired?
More of the same, except giving tests and having to read student papers and grading them, which I didn’t like about teaching. But other than that the same thing. I’ll continue writing and doing seminars across the country.
What is your favorite Scripture and why is it special to you?
My favorite Scripture will be anything written by St. Luke. I’ll tell you why. Not because he’s the only Gentile author in the Bible, not because I’m anti Semantic or anything like that at all. But you see, Luke as a Gentile is very much concerned with my favorite methodology. Now Luke isn’t using Maier’s system, I’ll be the first to say that Maier is trying to use Luke’s system. Of all the Biblical authors, isn’t it Luke who’s constantly comparing sacred and secular? He’s the one who gives us a date for the Nativity and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He’s the one who’s always throwing an anchor out into the mainstream of Greek and Roman history. Therefore I use Luke to check up on his facts, and he comes out smelling like a rose. And take the book of Acts. Here you’ve got a way to check up on Luke even geographically. Paul goes on his missions journey, well hey. Those places are known today. Let’s see if Luke got the order right. I’ve had a lot of seminars over there too, and I’m always impressed by the tremendous accuracy of St. Luke, so he’s my favorite author.
If you could say anything to someone who’s struggling with their Christian faith, what would you say, and what would you like to leave them with?
I would ask them to check out the magnificent outside corroboration we have for what is claimed in the Old and New Testament Scriptures. Check it out! This is what I’ve been doing ever since I had those questions. I’ve played the role of an apologist, defending the Christian faith. I would love to talk to that person, or at least have them read my book In the Fullness of Time in which we check out those beautiful points of tangency. So if a person is having any doubts, check out the doubts. Check out the claims, and see if there’s any reverberation in the non biblical evidence. Not only is there reverberation there and fall out from the original explosion, but the outside evidence beautifully corroborates the historicity of the Scriptures. Sometimes the outside evidence even . . . now you’re going to think I’m heretical for this, but it ties down some of the strings that are left dangling in Scripture! For example, let’s take a famous episode in the Bible. The beheading of John the Baptist. Where did it take place? Now don’t tell me at the neck. (Laughs) It took place, well, we can’t answer that because the New Testament doesn’t tell us where it takes places. Josephus does. He records the same episode and tells us it happened at Herod’s fortress palace, Mahaerus, at the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea.
Here’s another one. I have more fun when I have seminars where nobody has heard of Josephus before, and I say but wait a minute, you’ve all used him. They mutter, “What do you mean? I’ve never heard of him.” So I ask them to tell me the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. They’ll tell me all about Herod’s birthday party, and how the party was getting dull, so his dear second wife Herodius provides a special floor show. And her dancing daughter comes out, and of course they name her Solomi. And then I say, okay you all know it was Solomi. How did you know that? Well, the Bible says it. No, it does not. Her name is not in the Gospels at least not this one, there’s another Solomi who comes out to the tomb at Easter who’s a different Solomi. Well, how did they know? It’s from Josephus. He’s the one who names that dancing daughter.
Here’s another one! Who was the first bishop of the church anywhere on earth? Well clearly it’s James the Just at Jerusalem, Jesus’ half brother. The book of Acts tells us that. Historians tell us that. Well, wouldn’t you think the New Testament would tell us what happened to him later in life? You would think so. It doesn’t. Guess who does? Josephus. He says that twenty-nine years after the Good Friday episode, quote: “Then James, the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ, was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin.” Here’s the first bishop of the church, his fate is not given in Holy Scripture, but in a secular record. See what I mean about some of the threads that are now tied down by the extra Biblical evidence?
I’m not criticizing the Bible, of course. I think this is one of
the proofs that the Gospels were written before the death of James, before
the fall of Jerusalem. Wild horses couldn’t have prevented the Gospel
writers from talking about the Great Fire of Rome in 64 or the Fall of
Jerusalem in 70 if it had happened. I’m just sure it did not happen.
This is why there is very powerful proof for the early writing of at least
the Synoptic Gospels.
C.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.