Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

(2008) David Gibbins, The Lost Tomb (UK: The Last Gospel) (Bantam)

David Gibbins is a Cambridge-trained archeologist who, after a decade in the academy, turned full time to writing archeology-themed thrillers, most of whom feature a dashing Doppelganger of the author, Jack Howard. (He also written two historical novels set in different periods of Roman history.) The Last Gospel, which was published in the U.S. as The Lost Tomb, is the third Jack Howard novel.

As we might expect, The Lost Tomb makes much use of Gibbins' insider knowledge of underwater archeology taking us from the grottos around Mount Vesuvius and the famous "Villa of the Papyri" in Herculaneum to London to Rome to the coast of California to the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem under which the intrepid archeologists find the actual tomb of Christ.

The novel folds in myriad threads that appear in both Gospel Thrillers and popular imagination: Mary Magdalene as Jesus' wife; a "true" church free of both institutions and written texts (at one point, in a historical flashback, Jesus refuses to commit his ministry to writing); even rumors of primitive Christianity brought to ancient Britain although not as in some legends by Joseph of Arimathea, but by Claudius the Emperor, who met Jesus in their youths.

The suggestive connection to Britain and the highly individualized church that resists institutions even allows Gibbins to posit a link with Pelagianism as an "original" form of Christianity. (Pelagius, a fourth-century monk, sparred with Augustine over the role of human will in salvation; Augustine won.)  Along the way Howard and his team also come across the site of Paul's shipwreck and the apostle's tomb, as well as the tomb of the British warrior-queen Boudica.

Hero: Jack Howard, an independently wealthy underwater archeologist who travels the world bringing up sunken treasures, along with his intrepid co-workers and sidekicks (especially the ingenious engineer, Costas); he meets several guides and helpers along the way in the novel; in flashbacks we also meet Pliny the Elder and a Christ-curious emperor Claudius
Villains: The concilium, an ancient cabal (dating to the time of the Emperor Constantine) of three shadowy figures from the Vatican determined to stop Howard from uncovering the potentially heretical truth about Christ; they also appeared in earlier Jack Howard novels
Gospel: The authentic words of Jesus as recorded in both Greek and Aramaic by Claudius, who met the preacher in the 20s, and was hidden beneath the Holy Sepulcher: it reveals that there should be no institutional church, that women were part of the ministry, and that Jesus was married and had children

The novel spent several weeks on the New York Times and Publisher's Weekly Mass Market Fiction Best Seller lists but, like many "mass market" novels, was not widely reviewed in print. One international review raved: "If you're looking for something with the intrigue of Dan Brown's religious conspiracies blended with the obsessive detail of Tom Clancy, David Gibbins is your man" (Singapore Business Times, January 2, 2009). 

The book has been reviewed by online readers; we are now securely in the age of the book review blog. Some reviewers are tepid but engaged with the technical aspects, and more than one reviewer remarks upon Gibbins' similarities to technothriller megastar Clive Cussler. 

Goodreads reviewers have been a mixed (although the sheer number of reviews shows the book's reach); Amazon reviewers suggest the technothriller aspects have been more appealing than its "Da Vinci Code" similarities.

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