Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

(2008) James Becker, The First Apostle (Penguin)

James Becker is one of the many, many noms de plume of Peter Stuart Smith, a retired U.K. naval intelligence officer and prolific author of thrillers of many genres (Smith also writes as: James Barrington, Max Adams, Jack Steel, Tom Kasey, Thomas Payne, Peter Lee, and Peter Stuart Smith; his LinkedIn page helpfully lists all of his names and titles). As his background suggests, he specializes in military and technothrillers under all of these names. As James Becker, he was written two archeologically-based thriller series: the Chris Bronson series, inaugurated by The First Apostle in 2008, and the Lost Treasure of the Templar Series, begun in 2015.

Many of the Chris Bronson novels deal with lost antiquities and the conspiracies that surround them; indeed, Becker returned to the Gospel Thriller in 2013 (The Lost Testament, the final Bronson novel) and, in 2010, published a novel about the rediscovery of Christ's tomb in northern India (The Messiah Secret, one of a related genre of "Jesus' body" novels). Other novels in the series deal with Dracula, evidence of Moses, and the Nazi Olympics.

Becker approaches the interwoven conspiracies of the Gospel Thriller genre, in which politics, religion, and antiquities intersect, in a clever manner by bifurcating his hero into two characters: an ex-spy and London police officer (Chris Bronson) and his on-again, off-again ex-wife, British Museum curator Angela Lewis (despite their pairing, the series is typically referred to as the "Chris Bronson series"). Bronson, in these novels, is largely uninterested in the antiquities the propel the plot; he is usually drawn into these adventures through personal connections and remains involved due to his special skills in spycraft. Lewis, by contrast, is drawn to the mysterious antiquities and is able to solve even the most obscure ancient puzzle.

On the one hand, this bifurcation makes for a (relatively) more realistic narrative: we need not imagine tweedy academics who are also adept at firearms and ziplines, or ex-military mercenaries who display a sudden deep interest in lost gospels. On the other hand, the logic of the Gospel Thrillers requires that political and biblical conspiracies be mutually reinforcing and, therefore, deeply entangling of all who get caught in their web.

The Bronson/Lewis novels are also notable for their complex approach to the cyberworld in the unfolding of their mysteries. Much as in The Prophetess, a decade earlier, the internet is portrayed as both an invaluable source of information in unpacking the mystery at hand but also a potentially treacherous realm through which bad actors can track down our heroes on the run.

The secret revealed by the "lost gospels" (here, not so much gospels as a series of apostolic documents) shows a split between the preaching of Jesus, which was Jewish and revolutionary, and the apostolic mission which followed, which was peaceful and universalist. That this split between the messiah and his apostles was a deliberate subversion has notable affinities with some endings of the Toledot Yeshu. This medieval collection of stories defaming Jesus as a nefarious magician, scoundrel, and failed rabbi also has a coda in which the Jewish sages send Peter ("Simeon Kepha," who is somehow also Paul) to divide Christians from Jews by separating them from Jewish Law and festivals. It's unclear (and unlikely) that Becker knew this story, and Nero's motivations are obviously different from the Jewish leaders depicted in the Toledot Yeshu. Both the medieval and modern texts, however, strive to come to terms with the Jewish origins of a non (or even anti-) Jewish religion.

Heroes: Chris Bronson, a U.K. police officer and ex-military officer and his ex-wife, Angela Lewis, a ceramics expert at the British Museum
Villains: Italian mafiosi obliged by an ancient pact with the Vatican to stop the discovery of the truth
Gospel: Several related authentic evidence from earliest Christianity: 1) A written confession by Paul attesting that he was an agent of Nero who invented the tenets of Christianity to pacify unruly Jews; 2) two diptychs which are actually receipts of payment from Nero to Peter and Paul; 3) the actual remains of Peter and Paul in Rome

A first novel under this name, a mass market paperback, received little press attention. Some crime novel blogs found the book exciting and novel, while others expressed disappointmentPublisher's Weekly praised its "imaginative and controversial plot."

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