Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy and the Bible in U.S. Popular Culture

(2010) Leslie Winfield Williams, The Judas Conspiracy (JoSara MeDia)


Leslie Winfield Williams has a background in English literature (a Master's and a PhD) and theology (with a Master of Sacred Arts from Yale, where she has also held fellowships). She's the author of several books on spirituality, two novels (including The Judas Conspiracy), and most recently a short book about Thomas Cranmer. 

This novel is set in New Haven, where Williams has spent time. Indeed, much of the drama takes place at or near Yale Divinity School: one of the murder victims in the story is the fictional Dean of YDS, Andrew Guilford, who has discovered the mysterious gospel among his family possessions. Dean Guilford's wife (and host of a local cooking show) is also a murder victim. 

Like The Negev ProjectThe Judas Conspiracy takes place largely in academic (and adjacent white collar spaces, especially the law). Even the heroine, Isabella O'Leary, the tough-as-nails New Haven police officer who has just arrested the "Campus Killer," spent a year in Divinity School before personal tragedy sent her into law enforcement. Some of the action and attempted murders even take place at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion.

At the center of this high-stakes and murder-filled thriller is a full Greek version of the Gospel of Judas, Coptic fragments of which came to light in 2006 in rather spectacular fashion. Smuggled out of the Holy Land by Crusaders, preserved by English nobility, it has ended up among the papers of the Guilford family. It is sought by a centuries-old, global network of gnostic Christians known as "the Sethian Brotherhood." Wealthy and influential, they possess the resources not only to seize the Gospel of Judas, but to attempt a massive terrorist disruption of mainstream Christianity: blowing up the National Cathedral during Thanksgiving. (The plot is foiled.) The theological content of this "Sethian Brotherhood" does not seem to resonate too closely with what scholars have written about classic "gnostic" Sethians; but perhaps that is to be expected of a covert religious conspiracy (the novel suggests).

Heroes: Isabella O'Leary, a tough New Haven cop with tragic past; Paul St Clair, a biblical scholar at Southern Methodist University and member of the Guilford family
Villians: Various nefarious members of the "Sethian Brotherhood": John McCullough, Grand Patriarch, a wealthy fop in the U.K. who is  direct descendant of Judas; the American Patriarch, revealed to be Malcolm Guildford, who murders his wife and his brother, the Dean of Yale Divinity School; a young Sethian named "Gabriel," revealed to be John "Jeeter" Smythe, Malcolm's godson
Gospel: The authentic authentic full Greek version of the Gospel of Judas; accidentally destroyed in a fire at the end of novel

ReviewsThe Judas Conspiracy has received very little attention, either in print or online. It was reviewed very positively in the San Antonio Express News and the single reviewer each on Goodreads and Amazon enjoyed it thoroughly. The novel also received honorably mention in the "commercial fiction" category from the Eric Hoffer awards, given annually to a variety of books published by self-publishing presses and academic presses.

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