Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Andrew S. Jacobs's "Gospel Thrillers"

Andrew S. Jacobs is a historian of early Christianity and religious cultures of late antiquity. He has taught at the University of California, Riverside; Scripps College; Harvard Divinity School; and Boston University. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School.

Jacobs applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible I am starting to describe Israeli “women soldier-scholar” characters who appear in several “gospel thrillers” novels focused on lost gospels discovered in the same area as the Dead Sea Scrolls. I note my interest in these characters at the top of page 99: “these novels struggle to reconcile the desire for new (white, Protestant) biblical truths with the foreign otherness of modern Israel, westernized, but not western. These women soldier-scholars are not the central protagonists of the novels, but rather adjuncts and love interests to the non-Israeli male main characters.” I analyze two characters on page 99: “Lieutenant Sarah Arad” from The Masada Scroll and police investigator “Lela Raul” from The Second Messiah. I note in the conclusion of this section on page 101: “These women embody for readers the desirable otherness of the new biblical find — and, by extension, that of the canonical Bible that also once emerged from these hot sands.”

As it happens, this section of Chapter 3 of Gospel Thrillers is one of the most vivid illustrations of the cultural fantasies about the Bible that I argue play out in this little-noticed fictional genre: a vindication of the Page 99 Test! “Gospel Thrillers” is my name for dozens of novels published from the 1960s to the present in which a “lost gospel” plot allows readers to imagine and confront exaggerated conspiratorial fears about the Bible in U.S. culture. Chapter 3 looks at novels that invent a new “Dead Sea Scroll” that would reveal shocking truths about Jesus, Christian origins, and the western Bible; it amplifies “real-world” political concerns about Israel, theological fears about the Jewishness of Jesus, and anxieties about the way religious identities have shaped what we know about the Bible.

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1940s is one of the inciting historical events that prompted conspiratorial thinking about the Bible in the U.S. and its fictional exaggeration in “Gospel Thriller” novels: not only the possibility of new texts coming to light from the time of (or even the hand of!) Jesus himself, but the shadowy forces that could allow or impede new discoveries from coming to light: the newly fashioned State of Israel, allied with but not quite identical with western interests; and the Catholic church, an arm of which exerted official control over publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls and which has, in much modern U.S. popular culture, embodied the intricate spider’s web of institutional religious conspiracy on a global scale.

In Gospel Thrillers I dig into other conspiratorial pathways floating through U.S. culture that find vivid, technicolor representation in these novels: their Cold War origin, their obsession with heresy and orthodoxy, their desire for biblical secrets coupled with a longing for biblical status quo. But these stereotyped bits of exotic and erotic color that first appear on page 99 encapsulate quite nicely the tangle of fears and desires that my new book explores.
Visit Andrew S. Jacobs's website.

--Marshal Zeringue