Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy and the Bible in Popular Culture

(1994) Larry Witham, The Negev Project (Meridian)


A journalist in the D.C. area for many years, Larry Witham began writing books in the 1990s. The Negev Project was his first book, and one of only three fiction works he has written (although, notably, he does not list this novel or his next novel, Dark Blossom: A Novel of East and West, on his author's website). Most of his books are nonfiction treatments of art, religion, and science. The Negev Project appeared in 1994 and mixes political intrigue—particularly the recent (first) Gulf War and the Middle East peace process—with the personal and professional struggles of biblical scholars.

Notably less conspiratorial than some novels, The Negev Project places most of its tension and drama in these two interlocking spheres. (Indeed, I debated whether the novel should be included among my "thrillers" or perhaps set aside with other, non-thriller lost gospel novels. I decided, for thematic as well as narrative reasons, to keep it in.) The "project" of the title is actually a peace scheme brokered by a Palestinian and Israeli, a plan to establish a multinational, multireligious economic zone in the Negev. The various "new" gospel fragments have been recovered by Bedouin in the Negev, transmitted to factions of the Muslim Brotherhood in rural Jordan, and smuggled out of the country to the U.S. and the U.K. The "new" gospels help sow necessary political dissension among the militant Islamic factions and create important momentum for the Negev project to get off of the ground.

The novel is more realistically embedded in the dual worlds of biblical scholarship and Middle Eastern politics than many Gospel Thrillers. Loose stand-ins for the Society of Biblical Literature ("the Biblical Literature Society") and the Jesus Seminar ("the Jesus Colloquium") appear. The Negev Project is also more notably optimistic than many novels set in and around Israel. Peace prevails, biblical scholarship is redeemed, even for faithful Christians, and the schemes of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists both quietly fade off the stage.

Heroes: 1) Nick Hampton, a biblical archaeologist who was once a faithful Baptist; 2) Habib Muhammad and Simon Rabin, a Palestinian imam and Israeli businessman with a plan for peace in the Negev; 3) Jack Winslow, a retired dean of Princeton Theological Seminary involved with the "Jesus Colloquium"; Irina Pleshnikov, a Chinese-Russian librarian from Leningrad
Villains: Diverse drugs and arms dealers and terror groups, often affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan; Bruce Banner, a scheming Harvard professor; Harlan Wesley Stockwood, an inerrantist Baptist leader looking for proof of the gospels (Banner and Stockwood are more sinister than real threats in the novel)
Gospel: 1) authentic Aramaic fragments of Jesus' sayings discovered in the Negev, in which Jesus expresses opposition to John the Baptist and declares himself a "new Adam" (which requires a "new Eve," thus marriage); 2) Chinese translations of Nestorian documents, preserved in the Soviet Union, in which "Michael of Damascus" quotes some of these same Jesus sayings

Reviews
While The Negev Project may have launched Witham's successful post-journalism writing career, it received little notice at the time of its publication and has received little notice since. A single review in print appeared in the Washington Times (where Witham worked as a religion reporter at the time); reviewer James Schall, a Jesuit politics professor at Georgetown, enjoyed the book ("a good yarn") but expressed disappointment at the irenic ending ("the utopianism about the lion and the lamb lying down together in this world"). The novel has received no reviews or ratings on Goodreads or Amazon.

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