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

Colonialism and the age of Bible Hunters

The Bible in U.S. cultures is at once the icon of "Western" (meaning, primarily White, Euro-American) "civilization" and a material product of the "East." Put more simply: the Bible of modern biblical studies is an imperial resource derived from colonized lands. The nineteenth-century era of European imperialism was also the age of the western "Bible Hunters," who sought biblical manuscripts, as well as evidence for the apostolic age outside of the biblical canon, in the crumbling empires of the middle east and Asia. They framed their textual treasures as "discoveries," analogous to colonial agents "discovering" natural landscapes that had been known to local inhabitants. It's important to understand this kind of "discovery" from two simultaneous angles:

1. As analogous to the triumphant entry of Napoleon into Egypt in the early nineteenth century, accompanied by swarms of "experts" on ancient Egyptian culture; Napoleon's extraction of Egyptian monumental remains, installed in the cityscapes of museums of Europe, represent the view of "the East" as both object of Western triumph and source of Western knowledge. So, too, the "eastern" manuscripts of Bibles extracted by Bible hunters.

2. As analogous to the missionary trips flowing from the Protestant United Kingdom throughout the Victorian era, certainly enabled by the institutional apparatus of British colonialism, but impelled by the idea that the entire world could be made Christian and, in turn, give proof to the truth of Christianity over all other religions.

The Bibles that come to light (and even that locution suggests that they were somehow mired in darkness before being viewed by Western eyes) are at once the eastern spoils of the West and the providential proof of Christian truth. Both attitudes are unsurprisingly triumphalist, but also surprisingly fragile. To extract Western truth from the "foreign" territory of the East is to ask how Western that truth really is and how true it is, after centuries kept in the hands of others. This hope for new, triumphal truth coupled with anxiety about its durability and reliability shadow these Bible hunting endeavors, as well as Gospel Thrillers that come in their wake.

For more information on manuscript "discoveries" during this period, see the invaluable study of Brent Nongbri: God's Library: The Archaeology of the Earliest Christian Manuscripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018) as well as Dr. Nongbri's invaluable weblog, "Variant Readings."

The map below notes locations of major "biblical discoveries" in the 19th and early 20 century, including some early discoveries in the capacious libraries of Europe. Click on a "pin" below for more information on key "discoveries" and the "Bible Hunters" who made them.

 

 

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