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A prophecy: `The Judas Code' is coming

April 15, 2006|Mary Rourke | MARY ROURKE is a Times staff writer whose novel, "Two Women of Galilee," was published in March.

WHEN THE 1,700-year-old Gospel of Judas resurfaced this month, my first question was: "How long before a fast-typing novelist turns it into a bestseller?" Judas is second only to Mary Magdalene among the most compelling minor characters in the New Testament. Now that Magdalene is having her day as the misunderstood heroine in Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," the stage is set for Judas.

Whatever else Brown did with his novel, he spotlighted a growing trend: biblical fiction, long out of favor, is making a major comeback. Notable examples include Anne Rice's "Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt," released last year, which imagines the childhood of Jesus; and "Mary, Called Magdalene," a 2003 title by the historical novelist Margaret George that portrays Magdalene as a wealthy girl who grows up to become a close follower of Jesus.

Anita Diamant's "The Red Tent," published in 1997, launched the current trend. Her novel follows the story of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, who has a small but memorable role in the Book of Genesis.

Diamant's novel held the bestseller list for 48 weeks and turned mainstream publishers from lukewarm to hot for similar works.

Several scholarly books about the historical Jesus, written in the early 1990s, helped prepare the soil. They focused on the humanity of the man and on the world in which he lived. Their success made it apparent that readers were interested in biblical scholarship.

Among the best was John P. Meier's "A Marginal Jew" (1991), which recreated a gritty, gripping life story that went behind the familiar scenes of the New Testament. Another major nonfiction bestseller was Elaine Pagels' "The Gnostic Gospels," first published in 1979 and reissued in 1989. It explores ancient texts not included in the New Testament. Pagels considers these works fascinating examples of the wide range of beliefs that flourished in early Christian communities. The Gospel of Judas is also a Gnostic text.

The views expressed in these unorthodox gospels divert from widely accepted Christian teaching. This makes them all the more inviting to some writers of popular fiction.

For the most part, however, novelists who look to the Bible as a starting point choose figures who play a small but essential role in the sacred text -- and create a life for them. The absence of information about these figures is a fiction writer's dream. History meets imagination when a novelist begins with an authentic setting and several famous names from the period as the context for a lesser-known character's story.

My novel is about a friendship between Mary, the mother of Jesus, who has been the subject of hundreds of books through the centuries, although little is told about her in the Gospels, and Joanna, who has an even smaller role. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus heals Joanna of a disease, and she becomes a follower. She is married to Chuza, the chief steward of Herod, but she helps to finance Jesus' public ministry out of her own means. Like Mary, she was among the women present at the Crucifixion. She is also named among the women who witnessed the Resurrection.

Biblical fiction first secured a strong place in the mainstream book world more than 50 years ago. "The Robe," by Lloyd C. Douglas, was published in 1942 and reissued in 1953 after the success of the movie version. "The Silver Chalice" (1951) by Thomas B. Costain and "Dear and Glorious Physician" by Taylor Caldwell, published in 1959, wove biblical and other characters into books that became bestsellers. These works blended history, religion and romance into a popular stew.

"The Last Temptation of Christ," published in English in 1960, was similar, but different. In his novel, writer Nikos Kazantzakis portrayed Jesus as a man with human passions that cross the boundaries of traditional teachings about him. Mary Magdalene is the beautiful seductress who wins his heart. Conservative religious groups condemned the book as well as the movie version, directed by Martin Scorsese, when it was released in 1988.

Just as the latest biblical scholarship opens the way to new fiction today, the earlier cache of scripture-based novels came soon after dramatic findings. The Nag Hammadi library of Gnostic texts was discovered in Egypt in 1945 and made front page news. Two years later, the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a trove of biblical and non-biblical texts, were found in caves south of Jericho. The Gospel of Judas could be seen as one more proof that scripture scholarship is all about challenging traditional religious beliefs rather than upholding them.

I see it another way. The popularity of biblical fiction in all its variations suggests that believers and nonbelievers remain fascinated by religion and want to keep up with the most progressive edge of the field.

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