Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Imagining the Vulnerable Bible

Andrew S. Jacobs

What if the Bible that sits on your shelf-the Bible you hear read from in services, the Bible from which your clergy preach sermons, the Bible held up by politicians inspired by its contents-was a lie?

What if some long-lost-or long-suppressed!-text suddenly came to light, dating to the first century, overturning everything you, your clergy, and your politicians thought you knew about Jesus and the origins of Christianity?

What if you found out shadowy forces has been conspiring-maybe even for centuries!-to keep the truth out of the Bible?

These are the driving questions of a cluster of novels that began appearing in the 1960s and which continue to appear today. These dozens of novels, mainly written and published in the United States, are unrelated to each other but have been drawing from the same well of fears and desires about biblical vulnerability for decades. I call them gospel thrillers.

Some of these novels have been bestsellers while others have been less well known. Some gospel thrillers are by authors you might have on your shelf right now-Irving Wallace, Elizabeth Peters, Robert Ludlum, Daniel Silva-even if you never knew they wrote about lost gospels and biblical conspiracy. All of these novels share themes and motifs that center the vulnerability of the Christian Bible to mysterious forces out to subvert, or hide, the truth.

In my new book, Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible, I ask why authors keep telling this story and why readers keep being drawn to it. What do they-and we-find compelling about imagining biblical truth at risk of being unmasked as the work of conspiratorial forces? These novels imagine the Christian Bible subject to the theological, political, and personal machinations of the very figures responsible for safeguarding its truths.

In these novels brave individuals have stumbled upon the truth: some are academics, some are disaffected clergy, some are innocent bystanders in the wrong place at the wrong time. These protagonists find themselves in a race against time, often traveling around the world, to unmask the conspirators and, in the process, bring that truth to light. They contend with the uncomfortable foreignness of biblical finds, with the possibility that orthodox belief has always been a lie, the fear that the ones who should know the truth are actually perpetrating falsehoods. Like all thrillers, these are stories of violence, conspiracy, and the momentary triumph of the protagonists.

The vulnerability of the Bible can be traced, in some measure, back to the way it has been studied in modern biblical studies scholarship: open to constant and (theoretically) endless revision due to new discoveries and new methods. These novels ask the question: what if those new discoveries and new methods revealed new, explosive truths about the Bible? The anxiety over biblical vulnerability, amplified into dramatic fiction in these novels, has also on occasion found its way into the “real world,” as new discoveries explode into headlines before, usually, fading into the background: conspiracy theories about the Dead Sea Scrolls, scraps of papyrus with shocking stories about Jesus, evidence of not-quite-lost gospels grip academic and popular imagination.

The fear of biblical vulnerability, whether bursting briefly into newspaper headlines or safely contained between the covers of a potboiler novel, never goes away and so, it seems, this little recognized thriller subgenre is likewise here to stay.

For more information on gospel thrillers, including summaries and reviews of the novels and deeper dives into the cultural background of their production, see my companion website here.

Gospel Thrillers by
Andrew S. Jacobs

About The Author

Andrew S. Jacobs

Andrew S. Jacobs is Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. Editor of the Elements of Religion in Late Antiquity (published by Camb...

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