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Book review: Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, fiction and the vulnerable Bible by Andrew S. Jacobs

by
22 March 2024

Henry Wansbrough reflects on a modern genre of bestseller

THE author is a Senior Fellow at Harvard Divinity School and the prizewinning author of a study of the early Greek theologian Epiphanius of Cyprus. He has been amused and intrigued by the publishing phenomenon that he dubs “Gospel Thrillers”.

Since the 1960s, there has been a spate of publications (he strangely sometimes calls them “novels”) based on newly recovered or discovered fragments of ancient texts that have been claimed as whole or partial “Gospels”. Jacobs is intrigued by the shared features of them all, the claims that they are bombshells threatening Christianity, and the trails of secrecy, intrigue, deception, and merchandising which surround every new “discovery”, principally in the sands of Egypt or the monasteries of the Levant. Scholarly opinion about them and their importance has generally been widely divided.

Two well-known examples are the Secret Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Judas. Of these the former, claimed as a discovery in the monastery of Mar Saba in 1958 in the Judaean desert, gained notoriety from its suggested implications of a homosexual relationship of Jesus with a disciple. Many dismissed it as a hoax invented by its “discoverer” as a sly joke. The Gospel of Judas is a late second-century-AD Gnostic document chiefly notorious because in it Jesus expresses his gratitude to Judas for enabling him to pursue his course towards crucifixion.

There is plenty of discussion also of such phenomena as the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who in 1985, with a maximum of publicity, set about voting on which Gospel sayings of Jesus were genuine and which were not.

There is even discussion of the widely but not universally accepted reconstruction of the document “Q”, used by Matthew and Luke to supplement their use of Mark. Perhaps the best-known of all has been The Da Vinci Code, which needs no further introduction.

The book is written in an easy-going, light-hearted style, with plenty of “asides”; it is a casual book, an amusing and often entertaining sketch about the phenomenon rather than a major work of original scholarship. I would have been glad of a fuller discussion of the vulnerability of the Bible in the face of these discoveries. Do they enrich or invalidate our received understanding of Christ and his teaching?

From the start, Jacobs is sceptical about claims that these “novels” are bombshells that threaten to destroy or radically alter Christianity. Popular and often curious though they may be, do they tell us more about the reading preferences of the American public than about the gospel of Christ? Does the conclusion of the Preface sum them up adequately as “a niche genre, a minor footnote in the publishing world”?

 

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a former member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

 

Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, fiction and the vulnerable Bible
Andrew S. Jacobs
Cambridge University Press £30
(978-1-009-38461-2)
Church Times Bookshop £27

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