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Summary and book reviews of The Jesus Thief by J.R. Lankford

The Jesus Thief

by J.R. Lankford

The Jesus Thief
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  • Published:
    Mar 2003, 287 pages

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Book Summary

The story of a momentous undertaking -- an attempt to clone Christ. Brilliantly conceived, masterfully written, this soaring novel is a triumph, and a touching and unexpected love story, born amid swirling events.

"It never failed to move Felix, this image on the cloth, viewed with scorn or veneration by millions over centuries ..."

So begins a virtual autopsy of the Shroud of Turin in J R Lankford's sweeping novel that mixes medical high tech with the author's obvious love of people, cultures and religions.

The Jesus Thief is the story of a momentous undertaking -- an attempt to clone Christ.

At its center is Dr. Felix Rossi, a wealthy microbiologist who burns with unspoken questions as he leads a scientific investigation of the Shroud. Do the threads contain the blood of Jesus? Is the DNA still intact?

Later at his Upper East Side New York home, he must avoid the scrutiny of a fiancée, a devoted sister, and a prying maid as he works. When a reporter suddenly appears, hidden allegiances form against him. He must find a modern Mary without delay.
The Jesus Thief takes the reader from society galas to Irish pubs to Harlem churches to Italy in Fascist and current times with all the suspense of a detective novel, the drama of a thriller, and the periodic chills of high adventure. It tells of lost family ties and a lost heritage, of a man's search for God and a poor woman's yearning to be special. It tells a touching and unexpected love story, born amid swirling events.

Brilliantly conceived, masterfully written, this soaring novel is a triumph. You will believe every word and haunt bookstores in hope of a sequel.

Author’s Note
In 1988, a scientific team took samples from The Shroud of Turin, a 14 by 3-1/2 foot piece of ancient, handmade linen purported to be the burial cloth of Christ. The samples were subjected to radiocarbon tests in labs in Arizona, Oxford, and Zurich. All three labs dated the Shroud’s linen between AD 1260 - 1390.

It seemed that the most famous winding sheet in the world was, after all, one of the many fake Christian relics produced in Europe around this time—few of which had ever been near Jerusalem, much less the crucified body of Jesus Christ.

Unconvinced, two Shroud experts subsequently announced, "We believe the Shroud has been patched … with material from the sixteenth century." Was the carbon dating done on part patch, part Shroud, skewing the results?

The historical record could indeed imply that portions removed from the edges—perhaps as early as the reign of Charles IV of Bohemia—were later replaced or repaired, commingling first century and sixteenth century threads in the corner from which the radiocarbon test samples came. A renowned textile expert examined a sample and said, "There is no question that there is different material on each side … It is definitely a patch."

In 2002, chemical analysis confirmed these experts were right. The authenticity of the Shroud became more plausible, but its Pontifical Custodians have not so far rejoiced, having newly removed all patches from the Holy Cloth.

Unless and until the Church approves new tests, the faithful must rely on results from the previous scientific investigation. The 1978 Shroud of Turin Research Project said in its Final Report: "We can conclude for now that the Shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man. It is not the product of an artist. The bloodstains are composed of hemoglobin and also give a positive test for serum albumin. The image is an ongoing mystery."

Meanwhile, one part of the puzzle seems to have been solved. Two highly regarded scientists associated with universities in Jerusalem and North Carolina studied pollen samples taken from the Shroud and concluded their source was a plant that grows in Israel, Jordan, and Sinai and nowhere else on earth.

Chapter 1

Wednesday p.m., January 12—Turin, Italy

For the better part of his forty-two years, Dr. Felix Rossi had wanted to be here in the Capella Della Sacra Sindone, the chapel at the top of the stairs in the Duomo, Turin’s Renaissance cathedral, when priests came to open the tabernacle. Only six times before in the twentieth century had it happened and rarely in the presence of anyone but the priests. He’d wanted to stand beneath Guarini’s famous glass-paned dome as the sun cast dazzling kaleidoscopes of brilliance down through the tabernacle’s iron gates. The day had, at last, arrived.

In awe he waited with Father Bartolo, black marble beneath their feet, a white marble balustrade surrounding them, angels at each end. Everywhere in this chapel its designer, Guarini, had put statues of angels. For over four hundred years they had been here—blowing trumpets, playing harps, flying on spread wings, hovering in a frozen watch as they ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
The following are intended to enrich your conversation and help your reading group find new and interesting ways to approach this novel.

  1. In chapter one, we see Dr. Felix Rossi torn by a very personal crisis. At this point in the book, how do you think Felix would define faith? How do you see his understanding of faith change or evolve during the story?

  2. When we meet Maggie, we learn that she reads Vogue, that she's matched her skintone to color swatches, and we know quite a bit about her feelings for her Graham Smith hat. How did you feel about Maggie and her attention to fashion when you first met her? What did you think made her so appearance conscious, given the fact that she doesn't think she's pretty? Besides being a fashion ...
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BookBrowse Review


The Jesus Thief is a marvelous novel. It explores the possibility that blood from the Shroud of Turin could be used to clone Christ. This subject matter could easily result in sensationalist drivel, but instead Lankford has crafted an exciting and thought-provoking story which examines the feasibility of such an event, as well as its moral and physical implications. The characters are well-developed and their motives for taking part in such an extraordinary act are realistically complex and nuanced. The way they each do or don't come to terms with their actions provides a vehicle for Lankford to deal with weighty issues, leaving readers to draw their own theological conclusions. In short, this is a lucid and accomplished novel with an utterly riveting plot that twists and turns to a thrilling conclusion.  

Media Reviews

With thorough research and lots of detail she makes this whole idea seem believable, even possible.

Midwest Book Review

A gripping and original novel ... raging controversy ... sharply written, thoroughly entertaining, thoughtful and thought-provoking

Makes you believe there are still heroes in the world.


Starred Review. This is great stuff!

Heartland Reviews

The Jesus Thief is a fascinating thriller ... excellent symbolism ... Its pace rockets along to a touching conclusion.

Author Blurb Dr. Robert H. Foote, Cornell cloning science pioneer
A spellbinder ... people can learn a lot from this novel.

Author Blurb John Grant, Co-Editor, Encyclopedia of Fantasy
It's all tremendous, page-turning fun.

Reader Reviews


The Jesus Thief has something for everyone. Lankford explores concepts that are important to all of us -- love, religion, family, ethnic identity, relationships, loyalty -- and shows us true-to-life characters negotiating these common principles in ...   Read More

Dave Shields

Jilla Lankford's earth-shattering new novel, the extraordinary tale of a man who attempts to clone Christ, doesn't merely deliver on the high expectations created by such a blockbuster idea, it exceeds them in every way. Lankford handles weighty ...   Read More

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