In the late 1970s I saw an atrocious mini-series on television called “The Word.” It starred David Janssen and was based on the novel by Irving Wallace. It is my understanding that Wallace’s novel is pretty bad, as well–Wallace once wrote a novel about writing the novel he was writing, which even in a post-modern concept sounds pretty terrible (I think, to be really original, he called that one “The Novel”). In any case, the whole premise of “The Word” was that an investigator discovers that the gospels were a hoax–an entirely made up account, based somewhat on historical personages, but expanded on in elaborate ways to create an interest and a cult. Woah, I thought. Why couldn’t it have been like this? How do we know that the Gospel was inspired, rather than invented? (No use writing in, I’m familiar with the “you must have faith” verses–I might know them better than you, in fact.) Since then I’ve been fairly skeptical about the word. In some ways, this might explain my fascination with the concept of the unreliable narrator, as ultimately the most unreliable narrator of all is the author him- or herself.
Which is a bit far afield of the novel in question, but puts a little background on why I was interested in this novel about the search for a fifth gospel. While basically an adventure story, with kidnappings and arsons and misunderstandings and close calls, etc., the intellectual basis for this story is solidly researched, as evidenced by the copious footnotes and the index. The danger about mixing such solid research in an extremely James Bond-ish plot (even if none of the characters achieve Bond’s superhuman status) is that the audience is not quite sure what to believe.
Interspersed with the adventure story is the lost gospel itself, which tries to cover some of the myths and popular beliefs about the other gospels and the disciples that wrote them. Fundamentalists will be offended, no doubt, just as they were offended by The Last Temptation of Christ and Live from Golgotha. But Barnhardt’s view has a strong feeling of verisimilitude, even if his made-up gospel doesn’t.
The book is long, but not over-long, and the action is exciting, if straining credulity at times. Overall it provides solid entertainment with just enough thought to make you think twice about those other gospels, and the books surrounding them.