Ian Caldwell took ten years to write one of the most intriguing, erudite and surprising novels I have ever read. “The Fifth Gospel” is the story of two priests, both sons of a Greek Catholic priest who worked in the Vatican. Simon switched to Roman Catholicism, was ordained a priest, and became a Vatican diplomat. His younger brother, Alex, remained in the Eastern Rite, got married, was also ordained, and after his wife left him raised their son alone. He too worked in the Vatican as a professor of Scripture in a “pre-seminary” for young boys destined for the priesthood.
Their story centers on the research conducted by an Italian scholar, whose study of Tatian’s “Diatessaron”, an ancient document which presented not only the so-called Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) but all four Gospels, including therefore John, allowing readers to see at a glance the similarities and differences in the accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, seemed to confirm the authenticity of the famous Shroud of Turin. Revelation of the errors in the radio carbon dating conducted some years ago, accompanied by the discovery of ancient texts describing an image of Jesus kept in the Turkish city of Edessa for centuries before the Shroud appeared in France in the thirteenth century (see our earlier posts : search “The Shroud of Turin”), added weight if not proof to the validity of the veneration of Jesus’ burial-cloth.
At times I wondered whether some of the novel’s readers would persevere in following the detailed analysis of the Gospel texts, and especially of the argumentation concerning the unique characteristics of the fourth Gospel, which thorough exegesis reveals to have been far more “theological” than historical. In fact, the author shows how the Gospel attributed to John does not hesitate to invent alleged “events” in the life of Christ to drive home a theological statement of faith rather than to record historical events. It is this realization that leads the researcher to question and finally deny the authenticity of the Shroud : “John” invented certain details in the Passion narrative which contradict the Synoptic accounts, using cryptic references to the Old Testament to affirm the Messiahship and divinity of Jesus. The unidentified “Beloved Disciple” in John’s account is a literary creation, as is the account of the piercing of Jesus’ side. This last detail suggests that the blood-stain of such a wound on the Shroud indicates that it is not the cloth in which the corpse of Christ was supposedly wrapped.
The novel provides also a fascinating insight into the relations between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic versions of Christianity, and Pope John Paul 2’s determination to reunite them. One has to admire the skill of the author in exploiting such themes in this gripping, credible, fictional novel. Even more fascinating, perhaps, is what seems to be an insider’s view of life in Vatican City, the intricacies of Canon Law and even the procedure for an ecclesiastical murder trial of one of the novel’s protagonists. Readers of this Blog, in particular, will be surprised to find in a novel such erudite food for thought concerning the authenticity of the Shroud, and indirect confirmation of the plausibility of my own hypothesis about the creation of this supposed “relic” of the Crucifixion, if not the Resurrection of Christ (see my post, “Wowed by the Shroud”, October 26, 2015).