Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy and the Bible in Popular Culture

(1940) J.H. Hunter, The Mystery of Mar Saba (Evangelical Books)


The prototype of the "gospel thriller" genre, this novel, written by Canadian author James H. Hunter and published by an evangelical press, condenses many of the themes that will become standard in the genre: the stark contrast between "good" (U.S.) heroes and "bad" (Nazi) enemies, plotted along lines of religion, gender, and race; the particular biblical colonialism of U.S. scriptural knowledge; and the absolute certainty that the gospel (in this case the "Shred of Nicodemus") could lead to the downfall of the West. Despite its publication date, The Mystery of Mar Saba anticipates many themes of the novels written after the discovery of the Gnostic gospels and Dead Sea Scrolls: the potential "heresy" of earliest Christianity; the possibility (and fear) of "new discovery"; and the tangled relationship between the Jewish origins of Christianity, U.S. imperial identity, and a new Jewish state in Palestine. The action takes places in the British protectorate of Palestine at the dawn of World War II, and is very much told from the perspective of the pro-Zionist Euro-Americans in charge of the colonial space.

Hero: George Anthony "Tony" Medhurst, a blueblood millionaire agnostic who discovers love and faith in Palestine while helping to foil a Nazi plot to bring down the British empire
Villains: Professor Heimworth, "noted German Higher Critic and archaeologist" who masterminds the "Shred of Nicodemus," as well as the "Hooded Ones," a local anti-Zionist terrorist conspiracy
Gospel: The "Shred of Nicodemus," which reports that the resurrection of Christ never happened; it was forged under duress at Heimworth's direction by a Greek scholar (whose "mother was a German Jewess") in order to bring down the British Empire

Reviews: The original publication garnered little attention, but as this Goodreads page attests, it has captured modern readership rather steadily.

This novel recently entered into academic conversation in relation to the ongoing debate about Morton Smith and the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark: see Stephan Huller's blogpost on Hunter; an essay by Craig Evans, which refers to this [PAYWALLED] article by Francis Watson; for a direct refutation of Watson's argument, see this essay by Allan Pantuck (PDF) and response by Watson (PDF). This intersection of modern biblical scholarship and the narrative desires of the gospel thrillers is not unique to this novel or the ongoing debate about Smith's "secret gospel."