When you read Matthew or Luke or one of Paul’s letters, do you ever wish the authors had told you more of what happened or had told it in a different way? Many readers would like to know about dress or hair. Emotions. Reactions to the important events in Jesus’ life. Jesus’ boyhood. What people said to Paul. Even insignificant actions or conversation by New Testament characters. Not every moment of every life was a moment of deep drama with far-reaching consequences. Many involved with the trial of Jesus, for example, did not understand that he was anything more than a country rabbi gone ambitious.

The Bible approaches this vivid descriptive level at times. Arguments between Peter and Paul, the fear experienced by certain apostles, impetuousness, reluctance to change the status quo. But the Bible is not a novel. It gives us what we need to know about the work of God in our lives. The gaps in its accounts are not weaknesses but strengths in two important ways. First, they point to the truth of Scripture. Too many details with no loose ends or vague statements would indicate a man-made product. A first-rate novelist would not construct the books of the Bible as we find them. Second, God in giving the Bible to us in that form feeds the imagination of writers. In theme and plot the Bible is the major source of Western imagination.

The Bible does not produce complacency or satisfaction. It disturbs us; we cannot be satisfied when we read it. For those whose imaginations are highly developed, it raises questions like “How did that happen?” “Why did Pilate or Elijah or Peter react that way?” The Bible brings a writer’s imagination to boil. What comes from that imagination depends on how good he is at his craft, but also on how intuitively he reads Scripture. In other words, his spirit must be as well honed as his imagination and language.

A greater burden lies on the person who wants to tell a story about familiar events. If the initial event that triggered the tale has more body, more of a ring of truth about it, the novelist has failed, despite the skill with which he wrote. Henry James, who got ideas from newspaper items, wisely chose those buried on page twenty or thirty. Although more and more people are unfamiliar with the details of Scripture, the broad outline of Jesus’ life has not yet fallen into intellectual obscurity.

Many novelists have tried to retell certain events of the Bible, and in recent years quite a few such historical or biblical novels have been published by major houses. Few of these writers combine the three criteria I suggested: sensitivity of spirit, a well honed imagination, and effective language. Most of us know of the “classics” in the field, Ben-Hur, The Robe, and in recent years Dear and Glorious Physician and Great Lion of God. Ben-Hur made a better film than novel; the book has the worst characteristics of late nineteenth-century prose. And its didacticism quickly wearies the reader.

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Those biblical novels published in the past few years fall into two categories: historical, told from either the first-or third-person point of view, and contemporary, set in the twentieth century but concerned with New Testament events. The Word by Irving Wallace (Simon and Schuster, 1972) is the best known in the latter category. The Gospel According to James, younger brother of Jesus, has been found and authenticated, and it gives new life to the old faith. But it turns out to have been fabricated by a man seeking revenge on the church. The Judas Gospel by Peter Van Greenaway was published by Atheneum at about the same time (1972), has the same basic plot structure—a new gospel has been found—but differs in perspective. An authenticated papyrus is found that destroys the foundation of the church. To protect his church and the religion of millions, a priest commits several murders.

Wallace, who knows something about evangelical circles (CHRISTIANITY TODAY and Zondervan are mentioned), received a great deal of publicity, and The Word sold well. Van Greenaway remained relatively obscure. The Judas Gospel, though hardly a great book, deserves better. Van Greenaway shows more skill as a writer and paces his plot to keep the reader moving. Despite an interesting story, Wallace manages to be turgid and cliché-ridden. He interjects unimportant and boring sexual matters into his tale, something Van Greenaway never does. Wallace’s women are all alike and could have come from the cover of any Playboy issue. He presents us with a cast of one-sided characters. Van Greenaway centers his tale around one priest, whose degeneration is psychologically and spiritually convincing. He avoids creating just a sophisticated murder mystery. Both tales reach the same conclusions: religion, Christianity in particular, is false, a crutch of weak persons, but perhaps necessary to remain sane in a mad world.

Warren Kiefer uses the same basic plot in The Pontius Pilate Papers, published this year by St. Martin’s. A discovery of ancient scrolls contradicts the account in Scripture of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus by Pontius Pilate. After some international detective work, intrigue, a murder or two, and some incidental romances, scholars and archaeologists find that the scrolls have been forged (the papyrus original, the contents faked). But Kiefer cleverly leaves the conclusion open; perhaps, he hints, the person responsible for revealing the forgery falsified his findings. Why? To protect Christianity. Although the story is not badly written and is certainly interesting, it uses the new-Dead-Sea-Scrolls plot as an excuse for a Helen Maclnnes-like mystery tale.

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All three of these novels fail in one way or another to be what I think a good biblical novel should be. Primarily, the sensitive spirit is missing. A writer like Grace Livingstone Hill uses fiction to preach evangelistic sermons; these writers use the familiar events of Scripture to preach a kind of hedonism. Both purposes are equally illegitimate in the art of writing fiction. And in the hands of untalented to mediocre writers, the result is stultifying. John Milton wanted to “justify the ways of God to men” in his seventeenth-century version of a biblical novel, Paradise Lost, and even he, for all his genius, failed to bring it off in a wholly satisfactory way.

Brothers by Chayym Zeldis (Random House, 1976) is the most recent of the first-person narratives. It is unwieldy and farfetched in both theme and plot. The story is told by Jesus’ half-brother, who longs for power and dedicates himself to achieving that power in the Roman government. He makes an expedient marriage, eventually kills his wife, takes a Roman homosexual lover, and plans to overthrow the Romans in Galilee. In the attempt, which fails, he loses everything. But he still has his half-brother, Jesus, who was given away at birth to a barren woman, Mara, and her carpenter husband. He decides that the greatest power is the power to influence future generations to believe what he wants them to. Jesus is the instrument through which he plans to achieve it: “And I said to Simon Peter as we walked, ‘Now the Truth is dead. And the Lie will live.’ And Simon Peter was silent. And in his silence was his confirmation.… And I turned to the first disciple of the four and commanded him to take up his writing materials, and he did as I bade him and when he was ready, I spoke unto him, saying, ‘In the beginning was the Word.…’ ” So Zeldis concludes his novel. What has he said? The fantastic plot conflicts with the novel’s realistic structure. He never makes the reader believe in the possibility of his story. As a character study of a power-crazed person, it also fails. Even Iago wasn’t that diabolical.

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Not all the recent biblical novels are virulently anti-Christian. Three other first-person narratives are strikingly orthodox, and two of the three are worth owning and deserve more than one reading. Nicholas Roland’s story of Nicodemus, Who Came By Night (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971), brings the culture of Jesus’ time to life. The Sanhedrin and Jewish law, not fully explained in Scripture, become clearer in this novel. Although Jesus doesn’t appear in the story, he is considered by Annas as an up-and-coming rabbi, a possible candidate for election to the Sanhedrin. That is a convincing reason for the fierce, sudden hatred the priests showed toward Jesus. Roland vividly depicts the people who surrounded Jesus as they slowly came to understand who their rabbi was. Who Came By Night also is amusing in spots. Most people who write biblical fiction seem convinced—to the detriment of their stories—that humor had no place in first-century Judea.

Roland in the author’s note tells us that the novel “is written within an orthodox Christian framework.” We did not need that assurance. But Roland knows his audience and understands that many Christians dislike having Scripture expanded in fiction. So he explains what he invented and where he got his historical information. Paul L. Maier uses the same technique in his novel Pontius Pilate (published in 1968).

Another fine book came out late in 1975, The Little Book of Sylvanus by David Kossoff (St. Martin’s). Kossoff is the “translator” of a supposed historical document. Sylvanus, a skeptical witness to Pentecost, interviews others who also were in Jerusalem on that day. The tone is quietly humorous and inquisitive, without any melodrama. The style is appropriate to the tone—clean, concise, tidy. Both tone and style grow from the character, Sylvanus; nothing is out of place in this small volume. We know Sylvanus is fictitious, yet Kossoff makes him live. Just such a character must have been present at Pentecost, a careful, logical, but bewildered person. Sylvanus fits the spirit of Acts. Kossoff conveys the truth of Scripture in a way that is unusual among writers of biblical fiction, for Sylvanus does not believe what he witnessed. In “The Preamble” he tells us, “So let it be said at once that I possess no such faith or belief [in miracles and the supernatural].”

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Sylvanus is never converted; he remains skeptical to the end. But the reader may be. Kossoff says in his initial note, “It may be that Sylvanus did not exist. But his Little Book exists; this is it. And, if the existence of the author is in doubt, no such doubt need exist about that of which he wrote. He wrote of what Luke wrote. Of what the Beloved Physician told, so, in his own way, tells Sylvanus.”

His way is gentle. And matching that gentleness are lovely line drawings by Charles Keeping. Kossoff invents other memorable characters, too, whose personalities are outlined vividly, yet economically. Nafti the storyteller. Arram of Parthia, linguist and dealer in precious stones. Shalat, Sylvanus’s companion. And the apostles as Kossoff portrays them pulsate with life. Kossoff brings a sense of wonder and freshness to familiar events.

The other recent first-person tale, Leonard Wibberly’s The Testament of Theophilus (William Morrow, 1973), is likewise written from an orthodox perspective. It provides some interesting details about the life of slaves in the first century, as well as economics and court life. But the wooden style prevents the book from conveying the same sense of immediacy that The Little Book of Sylvanus conveys. Wibberly, too, functions as a translator of an actual document. As in Maier’s novel and in Theo Lang’s Word and the Sword (Delacorte, 1974), Pilate plays a central part. These three books present three different Pilates, with differing versions of his rule in Judea, his relation to the Jews, his attitude toward Sejanus, and his handling of Jesus’ trial. In each of the books, the presence of the Zealots is more apparent than in the New Testament. The portrayal of certain events of the day—such as using the temple corban, God’s holy money, to build the aqueducts or displaying the Roman military insignia in Jerusalem—gives one a sense of how insignificant Jesus, a Galilean rabbi, must have seemed at the time. Even though the writing may seldom rise above mediocrity, these stories provide a needed perspective, making the history-shaking events surrounding Jesus seem even more spectacular.

Each of these biblical novels includes some interesting piece of history that most of us do not know and usually don’t get in Sunday school and church. For that reason, these books have a value rather like that of the maps of ancient lands included in most Bibles. Commentaries may give the same information, but few of us read them. And the facts told as a story are more interesting and easier to remember than the same facts in an encyclopedia entry. A good example of this kind of usefulness is found in Justus by Arthur L. Lapham (Concordia, 1973), which gives a very fine account of how the Sanhedrin conducted a trial.

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Generally such novels do not deal with Christ’s birth; his passion is the more popular topic. Two From Galilee by Marjorie Holmes is the most recent and best-known exception. Holmes should have anticipated Kossoff in using a low-key style. Her love story of Mary and Joseph is melodramatic, cloying in tone and pedestrian in language. Balthazar, the Black and Shining Prince (Westminster, 1974) shows that a good Christmas novel is possible. Alvin Lester ben-Moring, a Presbyterian minister, writes the story of the three Wise Men for children, though adults, too, will appreciate it. The illustrations by John Gretzer add to the book’s appeal. Ben-Moring’s sentence structures and vocabulary are on roughly the same level as Holmes’s; he simply uses his tools better, and therefore more lucidly.

The only Old Testament tale in the lot has just been published by Tyndale: The Mantle by William H. Stephens. He treats the pagan rituals realistically, conveys the sexual aspect of pagan worship without resorting to Hollywood hoopla. Both his Elijah and his Elisha are more than one-dimensional characters.

This sampling represents the types of biblical fiction being written. Most of these novels have one thing in common: mediocre writing. Only a few flaunt disbelief in Scripture or take unnecessary liberties with history as recorded in the Bible. Although, as I began by saying, biblical novels can satisfy our desire to know more than the Bible tells us, most of them fall too far on the side of melodramatic total revelation. We want our imaginations presented with possibilities, but not at the expense of the mystery of Scripture. Kossoff and Roland manage to keep the mystery while they try to fill in the biblical blanks. The balance is delicate, difficult to achieve and maintain. When successful, such a novel can feed both the imagination and the spirit.

As I followed his gaze the light seemed to change, and the ceiling, which was fairly high, began to shimmer and glow. At first I thought the vibration of the roaring noise was making my eyes play tricks, for above us there seemed a blanket of fire, suspended, floating. The glare was intense now, and I shut my eyes for a moment, sure that my mind was deranged by the vast thunder in my head. I felt Shalat’s fingers dig into my arm and I again looked up. My eyes saw, but my brain would not, still does not, accept it. Above us, using the roar of the wind for its own sound, was a ceiling of flames, pointing downward. There was no heat, although the colour and hunger of the flames was fierce. As we stood, hypnotized, the flames began to group, then to divide, then to change shape, so that now above us there were swords, or crosses, pointing down. But they were not shapes of light, they were of fire. They were made of flickering roaring fire—for now the noise belonged to the flames.

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There was no terror in the room, no fear. The people hardly moved. The men on the platform not at all. They seemed transfixed, exalted.…

Now the swords of fire began to move in a way that was almost beautiful. They moved gently, past and across each other, changing places, forming into lines. Above the audience, the lines were broken here and there, there were gaps. But above the heads of the men on the platform the row was complete. For the first time I saw Joseph, at one side of the platform, facing us. He was very pale, with his head back, looking up at the flickering sword pointing down at him. He looked happy, fulfilled, as though a wait was ended.

Now there was a change in the sound. It changed key, steadied. It became less of the elements, more vocal, or choral almost. No music, or words. A single sustained note, extraordinarily agreeable and pleasing to the ear. As this change in the sound took place so did the movement of the swords of fire cease. They, like the sound they made, also steadied, and then, awesome to see, began slowly to descend. There was about an arm’s length, perhaps a little more, between the tip of the flame and the head below it, and the downward movement was gentle, as though to allay terror, to comfort, to bless. But there was no terror.

I was aware also that there was now no movement either. Only the crosses of fire had movement; in their burning, and in their descent. The people were like stone. Then, all at the same time, the sword tips touched heads. So gently; almost playfully. No one flinched. All seemed to know, to be quite unsurprised, that no burning or scorching would take place.

It was a strangely peaceful, and beautiful moment.

Then all began to change. The crosses of fire faded and their light followed. At the same time the high continuous sound began to die away. People began to move, as though coming to life, awakening from sleep. It was not quick, the change. The large room seemed dull after the brilliant white light of the swords; very quiet after the great noise. The eyes grew accustomed again to the ordinary sunlight. There was a sort of pause; gentle, a relief.

Then suddenly,frighteningly, human noise began.

—Taken from The Little Book of Sylvanus by David Kossoff, copyright 1976, St. Martin’s Press; used by permission. Illustration by Charles Keeping.

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