When I saw the book displayed at the library I knew I had to read it, even though I had never heard of it or its author, despite it supposedly being a bestseller.
The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell, was in the “Express Collection,” the books the Ottawa Public Library considers its most popular. It’s a seven-day loan period, not the usual three weeks.
With that title, I figured I knew exactly what the novel would be like. It was as if I had read it before. I knew it would be about an archeological discovery of an ancient manuscript, heretofore unknown, containing information about Jesus Christ that would rock the world. The information varies, but includes a denial of the resurrection. It seems every few years someone writes such a book.
Typically the hero investigates to see if this “gospel” is authentic or a fake. In 1972 Irving Wallace published The Word, while J.H. Hunter’s Mystery of Mar Saba came out in 1940. I’m sure there are others I have missed. It’s a genre or perhaps sub-genre, ecclesiastical intrigue. If Dan Brown’s work was better I’d lump in The DaVinci Code or Angels and Demons, but I see those novels as comedies not mysteries.
So I picked up The Fifth Gospel, expecting something like Hunter’s or Wallace’s book. I was pleasantly surprised. The author tells a good story, extremely well researched. The novel is set in Vatican City and I felt I was back there, but as a resident this time not a tourist. I disagreed with some interpretations of Scripture expressed by characters in the book, but that is normal (and healthy – though those who favour a literal interpretation of The Bible may be disturbed by the scientific/critical reading of John’s gospel which is featured prominently in the novel).
The “fifth gospel” in question is an historical document, not something Caldwell invented for his book. If you are a student of Biblical literature, you know there were many “gospels” circulating in the Middle East during the first millennia, but only four (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are canonical. We’re not going to get into the reasons for that here – books have been written on that topic. Suffice it to say there is good reason why the others are interesting as historical documents but not as theological treatises.
This particular fifth gospel is the Diatesseron. Unlike some of the so-called gospels, which purport to be eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life, the Diatesseron is a second century compilation, an amalgamation, of the four canonical gospels into one story. An original manuscript has yet to be discovered, but we know a lot of what was in it from later versions.
The tale is told through the eyes of Father Alex, a Greek Catholic (as opposed to Roman Catholic) priest and revolves not only around the fifth gospel but around efforts authenticate the Shroud of Turin. It’s a solid story, well and honestly told.
I mention honest, because too often in novels I find the reader is not given the information needed to make the conclusions the central character does. Ian Caldwell though gives you all the information you need. You might, like Father Alex, get a little sidetracked, but at the end you will understand everything that you observed along the route.
The Fifth Gospel is an entertaining and believable read. And an intriguing story. Plausible in its history, which makes it a compelling tale. It is though, fiction. Remember that when you read it.