Is the Bible really gospel truth? This is the question the honourable, academic Robert Babcock aims to find out on his quest to find the earliest copies of the gospels in order to prove the reliability of the story of Jesus as recounted in the King James Bible. However, this is not the key focus of Stephen Taylor’s fictional novel, Gospels. The main character is the perfidious John Campbell-John, a rogue, imposter and swindler who flees 19th-century England in an attempt to escape from his debts.
John meets the magnanimous Robert in Venice and, despite being polar opposites, become firm friends. After being honest for the first time in his life, admitting to owing thousands of pounds in gambling debts, Robert offers John the opportunity to accompany him on his quest through the deserts of Egypt. John accepts and the pair finds themselves on an adventure of discovery and personal redemption.
John and Robert make an unlikely but excellent team. Robert’s knowledge of the Bible and ancient history is vital, however, John’s propensity for falsehoods and cunningness gets them out of a few scrapes and tricky situations. Nonetheless, it is difficult for John to give up his old ways and his insular behaviour threatens to get them in more trouble.
Fortunately, Robert’s humility begins to influence the young scoundrel, as does his penchant for historical artefacts. As the story progresses, John begins to leave his past behind and becomes interested in Robert’s work, learning new things about Egyptian culture and the origins of the Bible. However, when a new gospel comes to light that threatens the whole of Christianity, Robert does not know what to do; and only John can give him counsel.
John Campbell-John is a character that the author introduced in a previous book. However, the timelines are not sequential, therefore Gospels is a stand-alone novel. The time frame for this book needed to be set in 1835 to correspond with historical truths. Although Robert’s discovery of a Gospel of Thaddeus Jude is an invention of the author, the quest itself is based on the journeys of three 19th-century Bible hunters. Stephen Taylor has conducted an enormous amount of research, including the biographies of Robert Curzon, Constantin von Tischendorf and Émile Amélineau who, on separate occasions, sought the same knowledge as the fictional Robert Babcock.
Despite being titled Gospels, the novel, for the most part, focuses on John Campbell-John and his wicked ways. Through a first-person narrative, John explains his past, his betrayal of a friend, and his addiction to gambling. Initially, he has no qualms about his behaviour and acts only for himself and his selfish greed. Whilst Robert goes in search of knowledge, John goes on a journey of redemption, coming to terms with his previous wrongdoings. However, acknowledging these faults is not enough, he needs to turn away from these roguish ways.
It is disappointing that the narrative does not focus more on the gospels, both real and imagined. There was enormous scope for an in-depth look at the life of Jesus and the inconsistencies in the Bible. The fictitious Gospel of Thaddeus Jude evokes a similar reaction in Robert as the Non-Canonical Gospel of Thomas found in the 19th-century had on many devout Christians. There was so much potential with this direction of thought, however, the author passes over it in preference to the life of John Campbell-John.
Slow to begin but increasingly interesting as it progresses, Gospels is a book of many themes. History, both 19th-century and ancient; religion, although not a Christian story; and achievement and absolution combine together to produce a unique tale that takes the reader from the back alleys of London to the River Nile and the deserts of Sinai. A subtle clue in the prologue keeps readers alert as they await the conclusion of the adventure – an ending that ambiguously reveals whether John moves on from the follies of his past.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon