Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

(2007) Paul Block and Robert Vaughan, The Masada Scroll (Tor)

Another co-authored Gospel Thriller by an author of historical fiction (Block) and an astonishingly well-published author of hundreds of novels of genre fiction (Vaughan). This first collaboration (a sequel followed in 2009) is, on the one level, a typical "Dead Sea Scrolls" Gospel Thriller—although here the title Gospel, written by Dismas the son of the homonymous thief crucified with Jesus, was found at the hill-top fortress of Masada. Portions of the novel, told in flashbacks, follow Dismas from the time of the crucifixion through the spread of Christianity in the first century.

The Masada Scroll is also a paranormal thriller, as the lead character, a Catholic priest and expert in biblical archaeology, has visions of figures in the past with whom he shares a mystical link. Other miracles occur throughout the novel, both in the present day—as assassins pretending to be terrorists go on a violent tear to recover the Gospel of Dismas—and in the interstitial flashbacks. In these flashback scenes, Simon of Cyrene possesses a miraculous cloth perpetually soaked with Jesus' blood bearing the mystical symbol taught by the resurrected Christ: a logo proleptically combining the Christian cross, the Jewish star, and the Islamic crescent (visible on the book cover). This trevia Dei—"threefold path of God"—has been passed down mystically through the centuries, and finds its last home with the visionary priest in the present day. The Gospel of Dismas itself, written in a strange combination of Hebrew and Greek, is a code predicting current events, including the murder of one of the archeologists.

This paranormal and mystical element makes its way into several of the Gospel Thrillers in the twenty-first century, up to the most recent, The Book of Judas. This reliance on the paranormal heightens the mysterious and unruly power of the Bible that lies at the heart of the fears and desires expressed in the Gospel Thrillers. Control over the Bible and its truths is not just about belief and persuasion, it is now also about possessing special powers. 

The story of Dismas told in flashbacks is also notable for the way it incorporates themes from apocryphal New Testament literature, such as the so-called Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. In these second- and third-century texts, an apostle converts prominent women to a life of chastity, creating conflict with the local authorities. The enemy of the movement is a persistent and corrupt Roman magistrate named Rufinus, whose wife Marcella secretly converts to Christianity (although in the novel she is not seduced into a life of chastity but rather falls in love with Dismas's brother, Tibro). 

In the present: Father Michael Flannery, a Vatican archaeologist and designated the last "Keeper of the Trevia Dei" at the novel's end; Preston Lewkis, a young U.S. archaeologist; Sarah Arad, an Israeli soldier, spy, and expert in antiquities; Azra Haddad, a Palestinian worker at the Masada dig who discovered the scroll (and the "Keeper" who precedes Fr. Flannery)
In the past: Dismas, a follower of Christ and author of the Gospel; Simon of Cyrene, the first "Keeper" of the Trevia Dei
Villains: Via Dei, founded by Gaius of Ephesus, a follower of Jesus: a centuries-long conspiracy of hard-liners within the Catholic church who will go to any lengths to defend the "one faith"
Gospel: An authentic Gospel of Dismas hidden for "50 generations," bearing the mark of the Trevia Dei on it (although nothing about the symbol apparently appears in the Gospel itself); recovered by Haddad, it is handed over to the Via Dei; its Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic text contains a code referring to events happening in the present day

The authors even include the text of the opening of the Gospel of Dismas in Hebrew and Greek in the final pages of the novel, supposedly "commissioned by the authors from a theologian and scholar at Seton Hall University who was given access to the scroll found in the Masada jar and wishes to remain anonymous." The "Author's Note" further promises "an official translation" which will eventually be "released to the public." Given the actual narrative of the novel, this coda does not make any narrative sense but the inclusion of three pages of Hebrew and Greek in the last pages of the novel adds a bit of exotic authenticity.

Sequel. Vaughan and Block write a sequel in 2009, Armor of God, which follows Fr. Flannery, now Keeper of the Trevia Dei, on the run from the Via Dei and entering into the apocalyptic era predicting by the Gospel of Dismas.

The novel did not receive much national press attention (apart from a small capsule review in the Tampa Tribune); but has received some attention from book review blogs (see here) as well as typical sites such as Amazon and Goodreads.

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