Mystery at the Meeting of Two Catholicisms

The Fifth Gospel: A Novel, by Ian Caldwell, (Simon & Schuster), 448 pages, release date 3 March, 2015

I was absolutely delighted to see a new novel out by Ian Caldwell, one of the co-authors of The Rule of Four, a literary puzzle novel built around (among other things) the Voynich Manuscript, an actual text from the middle ages, written in an unknown script and full of unusual illustrations.

The Fifth Gospel, Calwell’s new novel and a solo endeavor, shares many of the strengths of the first work. It’s highly intelligent, bringing to life questions of scholarship and church politics that quickly become more fascinating than they might appear on the surface. Instead of the Voynich, this book has two mystical centers: the Diatessaron and the Shroud of Turin. Most readers will have at least minimal familiarity with the Shroud—purportedly the burial cloth of Christ that was ultimately proved, using scientific dating techniques, to be a medieval forgery.

The Diatessaron will be less familiar. Assembled in the second half of the second century A. D., the Diatessaron was an early attempt to combine the texts of all four of the canonical gospels into a single text. Tatian, the compiler, wasn’t worried about contradictions among the gospels; he wanted completeness. Where the gospels disagree, he chose the wording from one, then edited it to include vocabulary and additional details from the other accounts.

Caldwell sets his novel within Vatican City (actually a country in its own right) near the end of the reign of Pope John Paul II. There are hopes of reuniting the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, and a new exhibit at the Vatican Museum focusing on the Shroud and the Diatessaron will provide an opportunity for representatives of the two branches of Catholicism to meet. Mere days before the exhibit’s opening, its curator, Ugo, is found dead by a gunshot wound in one of the papal gardens.

The novel’s action is recounted by Father Alex Andreou one of a pair of brothers who are both priests and who were both close to Ugo. Their father was a Greek Catholic priest (this denomination allows married men to become priests); their mother was the sister of a very high-ranking figure in the Vatican Hierarchy. Alex, like his father, is a Greek Catholic priest; Simon, his brother, is a Roman Catholic priest. Simon has been accused of the murder and refuses to defend himself. Alex is determined to prove his brother innocent.

The Fifth Gospel works wonderfully as a thriller. It’s one of those novels that keeps enticing one to read “just one more chapter,” followed by another and another. The sense of menace is palpable. The case hinges upon tensions among differing church factions.

If this were all The Fifth Gospel was, it would still be a rip-roaring read. What takes the novel beyond the thriller genre are Caldwell’s depictions of Biblical scholarship, cross-denomination conflicts, and the politics of the Vatican. The reader needs to sort fact from fiction—but this fictional tale has lots of factual scaffolding. One leaves it, not just entertained, but with richer understanding of the development of the Catholic Church—something that can fascinate regardless on one’s religious beliefs.

This is a book that should be picked up now—no waiting for the paperback edition. It is certain to spark all sorts of interesting conversations: literary, historical, and spiritual.