The earnest, prone-to-ramble Ripley--of the oft-panned Scarlett, the sequel to Gone with the Wind, plus many others--tackles a challenging, somewhat obscure subject here with distinctly mixed results. The first three-quarters of this epic comprise a carefully researched, minutely detailed and imaginatively conceived (it is, after all, fictional) ""biography"" of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who gave his burial site for the crucified Jesus of Nazareth and is credited with spreading Christianity to England and beyond. From the opening, when Joseph--a Jew and the son of a farmer--dreams as a 12-year-old of life as a traveler, then eventually marries his childhood companion Sarah, and still later goes on to highly successful business ventures transporting tin from far-off lands to King Herod's castles at Caesarea, Ripley is in control of her material and tells a gripping tale of an unfamiliar time with only a few lapses into anachronistic language. But the last quarter of the story--in which Joseph must face the aftermath of his friendship with the Emperor Augustus (whom he befriended via Herod), the evil machinations of Sejanus the Jew Hater, the trials of Herod's son Herod Agrippa, the deaths of his beloved Sarah and wise old grandmother Rebekkah, the miseries of his only daughter Ella (who was born with useless legs)--moves at a ludicrously fast pace, as though the author realized at end that she still had a great deal of ground to cover. As a result, when Joseph finally encounters Jesus of Nazareth, who heals Ella's legs with a single kind phrase and begins his crucial mission of conversion, his words and newfound beliefs have more the superficial tone of the modern-day televangelist than they do the ringing certainties of a true believer. More detail about Joseph and his time--real and imagined--than many may have imagined wanting, but with the significant exception of her weakened conclusion, Ripley makes this informative read also entertaining.