These novels fantasize about the Bible as the victim of conspiracy (when forgers try to pass off a fake first-century gospel) and, more often, as the perpetrator of conspiracy (since it covers up the truth contained in the newly discovered lost gospel). These fantasies allow Gospel Thrillers to confront and contain U.S. fears and desires about the vulnerability of the Bible, a totem of white U.S. Protestant identity. I also posit that this vulnerable Bible is a product of modern biblical studies, which also on occasion confronts these same fears and desires around the Bible.
Dozens of these novels have appeared in the past 60 years, yet they seem largely unaware of each other: U.S. popular culture keeps retelling the same story. This project asks what we can learn about U.S. culture and the Bible from that story.
A wide range of novels featuring a newly discovered gospel appear in diverse forms and genres, as others before me have noted. In 2009, religious writer Robert Price catalogued a few dozen such novels, giving quick summaries and aesthetic-academic appraisals of many of them (see also this earlier essay by Price which appeared in The Fourth R in 1999). Librarian John Kissinger also addressed a smattering of so-called "Discovery novels" in a 1998 essay (PAYWALLED); an article in the Tampa Tribune (later picked and republished in Houston and Washington, D.C.) by Louisville-based freelance writer Thomas G. Walsh expounded on "Lost Gospels 'Found' in Novels," but had only identified "10 novels" since 1940 (September 4, 1994 Tampa Tribune issue; the article and its reprints is available through the Newsbank database, which I can't link here.)
These earlier forays into stories about "lost gospels" were more interested in the gospel aspect than in the specific genre of the novels. In fact, many genres have made use of the "lost gospel" plot device. Mystery writers such as Mary Higgins Clark and Laurie King have used the device of a "lost gospel" reappearing in their fictional worlds. (In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle even includes mention of a "lost gospel" in one of his late Sherlock Holmes stories, "The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez.") Wilton Barnardt's rollicking adventure Gospel and Simon Mawer's morose mediation on loss The Gospel of Judas likewise place a newly found "lost gospel" at the center of their novels. Lost gospels even appear in futuristic and science fiction novels, like literary critic Leslie Fiedler's 1974 The Messengers Will Come No More or David Howard's The Last Gospel, published in 2000.
By far the majority of the novels, however, are thrillers, and my study attends closely to the significance of this genre for a story about the Bible. The central elements of the thriller genre are: conspiracy, uncertainty, a race against time, a solitary hero on a quest for the truth, and, above all, a deep suspicion toward knowledge and power in the world around us. The fact that most "lost gospel" belong to this thriller subgenre, I argue, sends a potent message about U.S. fears and desires about the Bible.
Not The Da Vinci Code
Many people hear this description and think "Oh, like The Da Vinci Code!" (Price includes The Da Vinci Code in his survey of "secret gospel" novels.) I would agree that The Da Vinci Code responds to public U.S. suspicion of the political power of the Bible just like the Gospel Thrillers. But whereas Dan Brown built his complex world of conspiracy out of existing biblical and parabiblical materials (particularly gnostic texts), Gospel Thrillers invent a fictional gospel at the center of their action. This invention allows these novels to explore and contain key anxieties about the U.S.: issues of colonialism and the retrieval of "western" biblical materials from "exotic" lands; questions over textual authenticity, which also raise questions about textual reliability of the canonical Bible; and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of open-endedness that leaves the Bible perpetually vulnerable to new discoveries, conspiracies, and truths. Because these gospels are fictional, the novels can create a safe imaginative space to confront these anxieties and, when the novel ends, to set them aside once more.
A narrative similar to the "gospel thriller" has also recurred less frequently during this same period: the "body of Jesus" novel, in which the (theologically problematic) corpse of Jesus is sought, or sometimes even recovered. Some of these novels are humorous romps, like Tom Robbins' Another Roadside Attraction. Others are thrillers impelled by many of the same concerns as the Gospel Thrillers (indeed, often by the same authors: James Becker, who has written two books included in this study, also wrote a book about the recovery of Christ's body, The Messiah Secret, as did Daniel Easterman, who wrote Brotherhood of the Tomb). Like the non-thrillers I mention above, The Da Vinci Code, and the evangelical Gospel Thrillers I discuss elsewhere on this site, I do think these novels are part of the same broader cultural phenomenon but, for clarity, have excluded them from my study.