The Gospel of Judas

first published by Little, Brown in the UK (2000) and the US (2001). Paperback in the US (Penguin) and UK (Abacus)

"...a gripping, utterly compelling story."
The Times

Amongst the ancient papyri of the Dead Sea a remarkable scroll is discovered. Written in the first century AD, it purports to be the true account of the life of jesus, as told by Youdas the sicarios - Judas Iscariot.

If authentic, it will be one of the most incendiary documents in the history of mankind. The task of proving - or disproving - its validity falls to Father Leo Newman, one of the world's leading experts in Koine, the demotic Greek of the Roman Empire, and man the newspapers like to call a 'renegade priest'.

But as Leo absorbs himself in Judas' testimony, the stories of his own life haunt him. The story of his forbidden yet irresistible love for a married woman. The story of his mother's passionate and tragic affair in war-time Rome. They are stories of love and betrayal that may threaten his faith just as deeply as the Gospel of Judas...

The Gospel of Judas is a story of betrayal and resurrection, the story of a man’s loss of belief and his discovery of love; maybe it's a novel for the new millennium.

US Reviews...

 

UK reviews:

From The Daily Telegraph, 17th August 2005

Mawer's novel is a meditation on what might happen if the events on which Christianity is based were proved never to have occurred, expressed through an intelligent and sensitive character-study. It also conforms to the rule that any novel dealing with long-lost manuscripts must be exciting. And so fascinating is its account of papyrus scholarship that you may find yourself subscribing to [the protagonist's] favourite periodical, Papyrology Today.

Jake Kerridge, reviewing the paperback edition.

From The Times, 16th August 2000:

"Simon Mawer tells a gripping, utterly compelling story. He weaves together the threads of his complex plot with a deftness that keeps the reader mesmerised to the very end of the book. By the time Leo Newman has to take his fateful decision, we are deeply caught up with his dilemma, and swept inevitably along to his conclusions. And like Leo we are left to cope with the awful, unbelieving void of its outcome.
Lisa Jardine


From The Observer, 13th August 2000:

"… the quest for the ultimate truth gives life to Simon Mawer’s characters in his compelling new novel. Leo Newman, a lapsed Catholic priest, is asked to adjudicate on the authenticity of a papyrus scroll…

"… the plot leads, with the inexorability of the best thrillers, to the point where Leo has to decide whether or not to bear false witness to the truth he has discovered. The twists are surprising and genuinely tense. For this is a book in which nothing is quite the way it seems. The question mark of authenticity hangs over every character like a sword…

"There is a great deal in this book. It is part an introduction to papyrological scholarship, part a discussion on the role of witness in biblical history and part a meditation on the nature of truth and authenticity… it is thrillingly readable…

"Mawer has set himself a task of the greatest scope. He has set out to dramatise the question of truth, the most intractable question of all. We end with a piece of kitsch, which is a good pragmatic answer to the conundrum of truth. Why is it, wonders Newman, that magical powers are never ascribed to beautiful works of art? Why do people always see tears in the eyes of worthless pieces of kitsch? The answer is that people find their own truth. The disturbing message we take from this excellent novel is that this might just be as close as we ever get."
Philip Collins


From the Daily Express, 19th August 2000:

...Mawer's poetic language superbly conveys the cloistered world of Vatican Rome and the passion, heat and history that immerses that even more pivotal holy city, Jerusalem...

..this novel develops into a gripping read with a superb dramatic climax. Never a comfortable journey, it reveals the destructive potential of both love and faith.
Laura Kibby

 

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From the Sunday Telegraph, 6th August 2000:

"... Since the unearthing of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, the notion of a text being discovered which rocks the foundations of the Church has become a familiar fictional formula...

Unlike his predecessors, however, Simon Mawer has done his homework and the descriptions of papyrus science in his book are impressively authentic... The archaeological descriptions of Rome and Jerusalem are also well-informed and vibrantly realised.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable and extremely well-written novel: hokum, but first-class hokum."
Matthew D’Ancona


From The Scotsman, 12 August 2000:

"Simon Mawer weaves an absorbing tale of a priest’s faith being put to the test... The Gospel of Judas is intelligent, unusual, and absorbing. It is a straight novel with something of the attributes of a thriller...

"Mawer is a writer of remarkable gifts. His Rome and his Jerusalem are living and vivid characters in his novel. Not only are they described convincingly; they help to form the narrative. They impose their mood on it, and on Leo. More importantly, they serve to establish the authenticity of the author’s inventions… in the end Leo too convinces. The picture of a man brought to the end of what was always a short tether is moving.

This, it seems, is (Mawer’s) fifth novel. On its evidence he deserves to be better known than he is; it should make him so."
Allan Massie


From the Daily Mail, 8 December 2000:

"The Gospel of Judas is a brilliant novel for those like me who want a believeable explanation for the resurrection... Because of Mawer's deep knowledge of ancient scrolls and the language in which they are written, Father Newman (and the reader) accepts the Judas one as genuine. Yet if only what is true in fiction were also in fact!"
Ludovic Kennedy

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US Reviews:

From the Christian Science Monitor, July 2001:

Noted for his combination of passionate storytelling and scientific themes, Simon Mawer tackles a challenging set of problems in his new novel...

...at times the reader feels physically wrenched by the events in the novel. The spareness of the prose and the unresolvable tension of the situations can catch your breath.

The Gospel of Judas establishes Simon Mawer as a world-class novelist. Faithful to the world as fact, [the novel] shows how our emotional dependence on fact dehumanises us. Mawer's use of the novel to explore social, political, intimate and religious history reveals the power of this genre to redeem the present.
Thomas D'Evelyn


From the Boston Globe, July 2001:

...a breathtakingly subtle literary style ...an irresistible thriller of uncommon substance.

The three plot lines reflect one another like a triumvirate of mirrors, each laden with themes of guilt, betrayal and redemption… so much attention to the formal aspects of plotting and theme might easily have turned the novel heavy handed and schematic, but Mawer avoids this by his thoroughgoing skill as a fiction writer. All of the symbolic and thematic elements arise organically from the actions and figure neatly into the plot. The same is true of Mawer's handling of the setting - Rome and Jerusalem are vividly evoked without an excess of description. And the rich vein of expert biblical and scientific knowledge that runs through the story serves not to display the author's erudition, but to figure upon the problems of the characters.

What makes all this work so well, however, is Mawer's beautifully rendered prose. Clean and straightforward, it is incredibly nuanced in capturing the emotional response to faith, love and sex. Mawer seems to inhabit the deepest reaches of Newman's humanity - the doubt that hides within religious belief, the physical repulsion that can accompany the joy of sexual intimacy.

Unlike Greene, Mawer does not labor under the misapprehension that an unhappy ending is more profound than a happy, or at least promising, one. Thus Newman does not have to die for his sins. Instead, he must live for them, learn from them, seek his salvation in fear and trembling.
Chauncey Mabe

 

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From The Atlantic Monthly, June 2001:

The priest whose faith threatens to collapse is a familiar figure in Western fiction. But in the hands of the British novelist Simon Mawer that figure takes on fresh, eloquent life. Indeed, Mawer's protagonist, Father Leo Newman, a biblical scholar based in present-day Rome, is a memorably hard case, shaped by a family background that taps into the heart of the Nazi-era nightmare, and possessing the intellectual tools that guarantee he'll recognize faith-shattering truths when they come his way.

Those truths emerge most vividly in a newly discovered "Gospel of Judas," found in a cave overlooking the Dead Sea. If genuine, it pre-dates all the Gospels of the New Testament and will change the premises of Christian faith forever. But other sorts of truth—sexual, psychological, vocational—also begin to wear down Leo's defenses as Mawer draws the disparate strands of his story together. The book's assured orchestration of linking imagery and parallel incidents (two troubling deaths, two love triangles) offers keen formal pleasure. And pleasure turns to deeper satisfaction as Mawer delves into the failed resurrections and flawed transfigurations that result from his characters' volatile desires, delusions, and deficiencies.

The Gospel of Judas is the second of Mawer's novels to be published in this country, and it fulfills the high expectations raised by his U.S. debut, Mendel's Dwarf, three years ago. Here we have another gifted British writer of idea-driven fiction, deserving of mention alongside Iris Murdoch, William Boyd, and Michael Frayn. Mawer's prose is admirably lyrical, playful, and precise. His greatest strength, however, is in crafting probing, puzzlelike narratives that yield compelling dramas of the mind and heart. Three of his earlier novels have not yet been published here. It is time to bring them out.
Michael Upchurch


From the Baltimore Sun, April 2001:

Mawer knows how to marry the power and beauty of words. He pieces together sentences so delicate and revelatory, I found myself rereading passages to savor them. He's equally skilled at plot, deftly layering intricate pieces of story back and forth across time and locale. The novel as millefiore.

While other thriller writers take on spies, serial killers and bad cops, this author wrestles with faith, redemption and the authenticity of Christianity.

Leo Newman is a priest about to fall. In the midst of his struggle with fidelity to God, he's asked to decipher a newly discovered ancient scroll. The writer of the scroll identifies himself as Judas and his account of Jesus' crucifixion is vastly different from that of the New Testament. If Father Newman validates the scroll, he invalidates not only his life, but Christianity. He would become Judas. "He knew all the pain of betrayal," writes Mawer, "how compelling it was, how necessary. Betrayal stemmed from belief, that was its compulsion."

Mawer intertwines Newman's struggles with the lives of the three significant - and significantly damaged - women in the priest's life: his mother, his first lover and his current lover. The twists in their lives are unexpected and troubling. But don't expect a neat ending with easy resolutions. This is a book about a man who struggles with faith. Mawer leaves the reader as he leaves Father Newman, questioning.
Jody Jaffe

 

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* Starred Kirkus Review, April 2001::

Religious mystery, sexual intrigue, and the enigmas of identity--all are mingled together in this breathtakingly readable thriller.

The story's symbolic resonance is announced in the very name of its protagonist: Catholic priest Leo Newman, who is sent to Jerusalem to join an international team entrusted with deciphering a newly discovered Dead Sea Scroll--a fragment of papyrus purporting to be the story of Christ's martyrdom as observed by his betrayer Judas Iscariot. British author Mawer surrounds this central situation with Father Leo's later relationship in Rome with a rootless young woman named Magda Novotna, and, with a series of flashbacks to WWII, and a German woman's adulterous relationship, her "punishment", and her connection--revealed only in the superb closing pages--with the man who would become Father Leo. For he, like Judas, is a "betrayer"--of his vows, and of his close friend Jack, an ailing diplomat, with whose wife Madeleine this fallen "new man" conducts a passionate, guilt-ridden affair. Its abrupt termination, and the violent transformation that awaits Father Leo in the Holy Land, are the high points of a powerfully charged narrative that consistently absorbs--and surprises--the reader. In a very real sense, "the gospel of Judas" is as much Father Leo's own story as it is a mystery unto itself: either an inflammatory "piece of anti-Christian propaganda" or a radical reinterpretation of the four gospels that proves beyond dispute that Christ did not rise from the dead. And, in a stunningly savage climactic irony, it's the apostate priest himself who is seemingly "resurrected.

Readers who've enjoyed Arturo Perez-Reverte's sophisticated thrillers won't want to miss The Gospel of Judas. Mawer is rapidly proving himself one of the genre's contemporary masters.
Kirkus Associates


From Publishers' Weekly, April 2001:

A crisis of faith is at the heart of this fascinating, thoughtful literary thriller revolving around the discovery of a manuscript written by the historical Judas. Father Newman, close to middle age, is a scholar living in Rome ... when he is sent fragments of some first century AD scrolls to decipher...
...it is only when this Gospel of Judas makes its appearance, like a metaphor come alive, that the whole idea of what it means to be a Judas becomes the subject of the book. It's a hook that Mawer uses to stunning effect. What Newman, already shaken by the end of his affair with Madeleine Brewer, does to that ancient manuscript is the ultimate betrayal in the novel, but as in so many interpretations of the crime of Judas, the betrayal is really the outward evidence of an affirmation of faith. Discerning readers will relish Mawer's excellent writing and subtle treatment of a potentially over-the-top subject matter.
PW


From the Library Journal, April 2001:

Mawer has penned a tale that is strongly reminiscent of Graham Greene and Umberto Eco. Written on a high intellectual plane it offers much food for thought, while vivid pictures of Jerusalem and Rome add further to its depth.
Fred Gervat, Concordia Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY.

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