Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

(2011) Glenn Meade, The Second Messiah (Howard Books)

Glenn Meade is a bestselling author of about a dozen thrillers, originally from Ireland but working for much of his career from the United States. The Second Messiah is his seventh novel and (to date) his only Gospel Thriller; most of his novels (set both in the present and the recent past) deal with international espionage across the globe. In a Q&A posted on the Simon & Schuster website (the parent company of his publisher) Meade talks about coming to a "religious" book as a kind of midlife reflection, and reiterates his displeasure with the secrecy and profligacy of the Roman Catholic church.

The novel is a classic Dead Sea Scrolls thriller in which a new gospel has come to light in recent excavations and various interested parties—political, theological, economic—are racing to find it. Meade is more sensitive than other novelists to the heritage issues involved in excavations at Qumran, featuring several local Bedouin (or, as he prefers to call them, "Bedu") characters actively resisting the archaeological encroachments of Israelis and foreign excavators (although his portrayal of "Bedu" still lapse into romantic nativist tropes: "the desert geography had to be in the Bedu's blood" [p. 115]). The novel is also deeply critical of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, while still hopeful that it will produce saintly figures (like the newly elected Pope Celestine in the novel) who will redeem the ancient religious institutions.

Heroes: Jack Crane, a U.S. archaeologist who has discovered a "bombshell" scroll at Qumran, near the site where his parents (also U.S. archaeologists) made a similar discovery before their tragic death in a car accident; Lela Raul, an Israeli police inspector who had known Jack as a young man and is now investigating a murder at his dig site

Villains: Various Vatican and Mossad (Israeli intelligence) operatives who, we learn, have worked together for decades to conceal Dead Sea discoveries that might threaten either entity (although some in the Vatican, including the new Pope, are eager to end the secrecy); Hassan Malik, a millionaire "Bedu" arts exporter whose father died in the same crash that killed Jack's parents and now seeks revenge against all of the "outsiders" excavating in the desert

Gospel: Several secret gospels are referred to (including the one Jack's parents unearthed); the new discovery is a report made by Judas to the Essenes about an impostor Jesus who Judas turned in to Roman authorities for execution to save the real Jesus's reputation (thus, the "second messiah"); the suggestion is that confusion between the real Jesus and the impostor may have led to false narratives (including a resurrection) being included in the New Testament; at the end Hassan has the new gospel to publish and the Pope promises to release all other similar secret gospels (and divest the church of its wealth). The gospel is partly written in Atbash cipher, a transposition code used in the Hebrew Bible and associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls by Hugh Schoenfield (author of The Passover Plot).

Reviews. Press was generally positive for Second Messiah. Reviewers at Goodreads generally enjoyed the plot but were often critical of the unrealistic dialogue. Publisher's Weekly was lavish in its praise ("[Meade] teeters on the edge of genius and sacrilege"). Coming within a decade of The Da Vinci Code, and only five years after the film, comparisons with Dan Brown abound in online reviews and marketing.

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