Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

"Finding the Bible": Colonialism and the gospel quest

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 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. I think it's important to understand this kind of "Bible hunting" 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 the Gospel Thrillers that come in their wake.

The map above marks the sites of major "discoveries" of Bible hunters of the modern period.

Akhmim Codex/Berlin Codex
P 46/Chester-Beatty Codex

Vatican Library (Vaticanus Ottobonianus 443)
Didache (Monastery of the Holy Sepulchre) (codex Hierosolymitanus)
Bruce Codex (and Bruce's acquisition of Enoch mss. from Ethiopia)

Askew Codex

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