For decades, biblical scholar Andrew S. Jacobs, author of six academic works on late antiquity and early Christianity, has been working on what he calls “a weird moonlight project.” He’s collected dozens of fear-and-conspiracy-ridden novels in which the Biblical text—as well as the truth and authority Christians find in Scripture—comes under threat.
These novels were written between 1940 and 2020 amid World War II, the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks, and the explosion of social media with its capacity for misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories about the government and society. Keeping the times in mind, Jacobs explores the fascination with biblical thrillers and how they affect perceptions of the Bible in his new book Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction and the Vulnerable Bible (Cambridge Univ., Jan. 2024).
Jacob writes, “These novels are not just a window into the minds of the biblically curious general reader; they provide insight into the ways U.S. cultures have fantasized about the Bible and how those fantasies emerge from and are embedded in the bedrock of the scholarly study of Christian origins.”
The plots often feature nefarious actors who hide, suppress, or claim to disprove the Bible. Others are centered on characters claiming their newly unearthed artifacts or scrolls reveal different, disturbing messages—Jesus was a married man, or the resurrection never happened. In Irving Wallace’s The Word, which spent 32 months on the New York Times bestseller list in 1972, “greedy publishers and power-hungry clerics” replace the modern Bible with a supposed long-lost Gospel—actually “a deceitful forgery”—that upends millennia of teachings about Jesus and God, Jacobs writes. He points out in his book, “The conspiracy at the heart of this Gospel Thriller has succeeded but, as Wallace noted to himself in 1961, ‘It makes men happy, like all religion, and doesn’t matter.’ The conspiracy can be thwarted, the conspiracy can succeed, and either way, the result is still the status quo: a world in which the Bible possesses the power to shape the way we see the world.”
In most of the books Jacobs examines, intrepid biblical studies scholars save the scriptures before any bombshell revelation can shatter their authority and influence. “What readers get in these books is the thrill of ‘what if,’ ” he says. “It’s like when you ride a roller coaster—there’s pleasure in the fear that is safe, contained, imagined, but not real.”
Beatrice Rehl, publisher of religious studies and archaeology books for Cambridge, says that “examining the thrillers—with their running themes of fear, conspiracies, and threats to the Bible people think they know—is timely now, when the evangelical movement is growing and more vocal, and fundamentalism is resurgent.”