Growing up in an Irish Catholic family in the 1960s and 70s was an experience steeped in church-every-Sunday, frilly white communion dresses, tiny silver crucifixes on delicate little chains, nuns enveloped in billowing habits, and don’t-you-dare-lean-your-behind-on-the-pew-when-you’re-kneeling instructions from Mom & Dad. I can tell you with much certainty that the Catholic Catechism I used in Sr. Paul Regina’s religion class sure didn’t have anything in it about the Gnostic Gospels.
As I’ve aged, I, like many of my contemporaries, have lost a little faith in the teachings of the Catholic Church. It’s not so much a loss of faith but a real questioning of the things I was taught so many years ago. So I naturally gravitate to books that deal with themes that question the same things I question. In this case, that questioning involves the authority of the four gospels of the New Testament, and the place in history and faith of the Gnostic Gospels, or New Testament apocrypha.
Resurrection is a fictionalized account of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi gospels in post World War II Egypt. Gemma Bastian, our intrepid heroine, is a war-damaged nurse who lived through the Blitz in London which killed her mother and destroyed her home. Shortly after the war ends, her father, a Biblical archaeologist, is found in his Cairo office, dead of an apparent heart attack. Shortly after being informed of his death, Gemma receives a mysterious letter from him that sends her to Cairo on a mission. As she discovers more about her father’s work, it becomes clear that he had discovered something that would rewrite the history of Christianity. The story follows Gemma as she slowly pieces together the last days of her father’s life and culminates in her possession of the Nag Hammadi gospels.
This reminded me very much of early Elizabeth Peters fiction, which owes a lot to the gothic romances so popular in the 1960s and 70s, and which evolved into the inimitable Amelia Peabody series. The three primary characters — Gemma, Michael and Anthony (the two brothers who vie for her attention) are colorful and well drawn, but the real action in the story involves the discovery of the gospels, what they contain, and what happens to them. Malarkey’s story whet my appetite enough that I’m currently reading the scholarly works on the Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels. I realize that my father, who spent the first part of his young adulthood in the seminary, is probably spinning in his grave, but I have to say that what I’m reading is making me re-connect with the basis of my Christian belief. And that’s not a bad thing.