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I thought that I had said enough about the Shroud of Turin (“Wowed by the Shroud ?”, October 26, 2016), until I read “The Fifth Gospel” (Ian Caldwell, Simon and Schuster, N.Y., 2015).  The alleged burial cloth of Jesus is, in fact, the novel’s central character.  The other is the Diatessaron, the attempt by a 2nd century Syriac disciple of Justin Martyr, Tatian, to combine all four Gospels into a harmony, used for some time in liturgical readings until it was replaced by direct readings from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

This eminently readable though erudite novel is set in the Vatican in the final years of the pontificate of Pope John Paul 2.  The protagonists are two brothers, both priests, one a celibate Roman Catholic and the other, Greek Catholic and married, who is a seminary professor, estranged from his wife but living with their five-year-old son within the Vatican.  The plot centers on an exhibition of the Shroud of Turin, the curator of which is found killed by gunshot just before the exhibition is scheduled to take place.  It is a gripping story, set in the same locale as Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons”, but much better researched and written, and more credible than that other bestseller.

The author recalls the shock of the recent studies which revealed through carbon-dating that the Shroud was cloth of the 13th century and therefore clearly a fake.  Since then, specialists have objected that the carbon-dating was erroneous, and claim to have found evidence of the Shroud’s prior existence.  This is the . . . thread picked up by the novel’s author who traces the Shroud back a thousand years to Edessa !  Readers will be fascinated to discover the scriptural exegesis of the four Gospels and of the Diatesseron, establishing the fact that though the Shroud may be authentically ancient, it is nonetheless a fraud (though I personally suggested in my previous post that though an authentically ancient, blood-stained cloth, it  was perhaps created, innocently, to promote piety and devotion).

The author could have chosen to end his novel with a conclusion less disappointing for devotees of the Church’s most famous relic, considered to be nothing less than proof not only of Christ’s crucifixion but of His Resurrection.  It is, after all, only a novel, but it is one helluva good read.  Atheists and non-atheists both, will be challenged by the book’s historical and exegetical hypotheses, and will not regret discovering the hidden world of the Vatican in a captivating story they will thoroughly enjoy.