An Atheist Gospel: The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and the Gospel Novel as Atheist Discourse

At both the BASR conference at the University of Kent last September, and the Ways of Knowing Post-Graduate conference at the Harvard Divinity School last week, I presented the early research I’ve conducted so far for one of my post-thesis projects.

Originally, this idea came to me when I read Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, and then Crace’s similar Quarantine, both of which tell different perspectives on the Gospel narratives.  Having studied these authors in my research on Atheism, it struck me as rather intriguing to see how two different types of Atheists chose to represent Jesus in two different, yet still critical, ways.  This then led to the question: do these novels present a type of Atheist discourse, a fictional representation of these author’s Atheism, isolated within a particular (and shared) fictional context?  I then researched a bit more, and discovered that not only was the Jesus novel a genre with roots reaching back to such critical texts as Strauss’ (1835-6) Da Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeited (The Life of Jesus Critically Examined) and Renan’s (1863) La Vie de Jesus (The Life of Jesus), but that it had also become a contemporary genre with examples coming from notable names such as Anne Rice and Anthony Burgess.  As well, I likewise found that there were in fact a few more Atheist gospels beyond Pullman and Crace’s examples.

This then developed into a (rather fun) research project.

I’ve provided more detail below, presented as it would, for the benefit of the reader, on a Post-Doc application.


Introduction: Discourse, Narrative, and the Precariousness of Defining Atheism

PART ONE: The Afterlives of Jesus

Ch. 1: The Historical Jesus

Ch. 2: The Fictional Jesus

PART TWO: An Atheist Gospel

Introduction: Fairclough’s Three Analytically Separable Elements

Ch. 3: Kazantzakis: The Last Temptation

Ch. 4: Saramago: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

Ch. 5: Crace: Quarantine

Ch. 6: Pullman: The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

PART THREE: Analysis

Ch. 7: The Atheist Gospel and Fiction as Ethnography

Ch. 8: Literary Atheism: Jesus as Myth, and the Atheism of Fictionalization



In the last decade, Atheism has become more and more publically disseminated, due in large part to the popularity of the ‘New Atheism’ of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. At the same time, the academic study of Atheism has in many ways echoed this popularity, creating a rather sundry discourse about how we methodologically approach the subject, as well as how we might theoretically define the term itself. As such, and regardless of the simplicity we might assume about its meaning, Atheism has become a rather precarious concept, to the point that we might accurately assert that there are just as many definitions of Atheism as there are Atheists. Thus, not only is constructing a definition an altogether difficult task, so is determining the philosophical foundations that underscore an individual’s identity as an ‘Atheist.’

This is partly the blame of our own academic discourse, a theoretical perpetuation of the manner with which religious scholars have stipulated or generalized the meaning of the term ‘religion.’ Perhaps, then, we might argue that a more expedient methodology would be to substitute this type of approach with one that affords the Atheists we intend to study with the opportunity to discursively define their own Atheism, and thus the manner with which they define the term, both individually, and in relation to an established religious belief. This research project will be an attempt at doing just that.

This is not, however, the only way in which this project will provide a distinct voice. In addition to the promotion of a discursive approach to the study of Atheism, the discourse chosen to conduct this research will come from sources not yet considered by previous or current researchers in the field: the ‘Jesus novel.’ Namely, this project will conduct a close analysis of four fictional texts that collectively share a common thematic interest: the story of Jesus Christ. Though for the last few centuries this genre has mostly presented apologetic accounts of Jesus’ ‘missing years,’ there has arisen an occasional text that provides not only a critical interpretation, but also a particular type of Atheist discourse. These ‘Atheist gospels’ will be my central focus, and my analysis will determine both the distinct Atheist voices used to construct these narratives, as well as how they themselves shape the meaning, and literary description, of Atheism on a larger scale.

Developing its methodology from the emerging study of the ‘Jesus novel’ (Ziolkowski 1984, Crook 2007 and 2011, Tate 2008a and 2008b, Ramey 2013, Maczynksa 2015, and Holderness 2015), this project will use these four texts as unique types of fictional ‘fifth gospels,’ novels written by Atheist authors, which present critical perspectives on the gospel narratives. What I intend to argue with this project, then, is not only that these ‘Atheist gospels’ offer a distinct contribution to the fictionalization of those gospel narratives, but that they equally provide a unique insight into the Atheist philosophies underscoring their own narratives. The result of this analysis will thus be twofold: an innovative discursive approach that will both question, as well as theoretically progress, the use of fictional narratives as sources on cultural concepts, that will likewise provide a useful insight into how such a concept can be determined by a textual representation that functions less like fiction and more like ethnography.


Though not structured as such, the research programme that I intend for this project is perhaps more easily determined by three themes: the ‘Jesus novel,’ fiction as ethnography, and Atheist discourse.

With the first theme, I will establish both a theoretical base upon which to build my own research, as well as indicate the lacuna that I intend to fill, by focusing on the dichotomous interplay between Jesus’ two leading ‘afterlives:’ the study of the ‘historical Jesus,’ and the study of the ‘fictional’ one. As such, I will be dividing this first theme into three essential parts: the Historical Jesus, the Fictional Jesus, and the novels that represent the latter. For the first, I will develop an introductory (and necessarily cursory) discussion of the Historical Jesus, utilizing early and essential sources such as Bultmann’s exegesis, Schweizer’s seminal Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), as well as a number of additional voices, such as Wright (1999), Ehrman (2011), and Bond (2012). For the second, I will likewise introduce the notion of the ‘quest for the fictional Jesus,’ relying on texts that have devoted their research to establishing this as a particular field. For the third, I will undertake a preliminary analysis (by means of an introduction) of the ‘Jesus novels’ themselves, so as to better introduce the genre, as well as further establish where within it my notion of the ‘Atheist gospel’ might fit.

For the second of my three-part thematic programme, I will turn my attention to using the ‘Atheist gospel’ as an ethnographic source. This itself will entail three specific foci: an introduction to the ‘Atheist gospel,’ how I might use these sources ‘anthropologically,’ and how they might represent an ‘Atheist narrative.’

For the first focus, I will introduce the texts themselves: Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation, Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Crace’s Quarantine, and Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. With the second, I will establish a correlative link between the literary aspects of reading and using ethnographic texts, and the use of fiction in the analysis of particular cultural identities. As such, I will trace within a number of theoretical examples (notably Clifford 1986, Geertz 1999, Eriksen 1994, and Ellis 2004) how ethnographic writing in general involves an act of fictionalization, thus giving way to the notion that even when focused on a fictionalized world, a novel can provide for us an insight into the author’s opinions and beliefs. This methodological perspective will then feed into my analysis of each ‘Atheist gospel.’ For the third focus, my examination will follow a specific discursive paradigm, which I will amend from Fairclough’s (2003) ‘three analytically separable elements’ in the study of discourse: the production of the text, the text itself, and the reception of the text. As such, it will focus first on a biographical examination of each novelist’s Atheism, determined by an investigation of their non-fiction, as well as interviews I intend (though not yet secured) to conduct with the two currently living authors (Crace and Pullman). Then, I will interpret how their Atheism has penetrated their texts, linking philosophical and cultural distinctions between their fiction and their non-fiction. This will be followed by my own ‘reception’ of these texts, wherein I will shape my final analysis around a discussion of their ‘ethnographic value.’

With the research programme’s third thematic element, my focus will center on linking the Atheism within these novels to a number of equitable sources on Atheist argumentation, from Bertrand Russell’s criticism of religious belief via his ‘celestial China teapot,’ to the critical notion that a further fictionalization of Jesus’ life not only makes the statement that the gospels themselves are ‘fictions,’ but so too is the character of Jesus as well. This third thematic discussion will likewise examine the ‘argument from fictionalization,’ taken up by contemporary Atheists such as Sagan (1995), Baggini (2003), and Dawkins (2004), as well as the Biblical scholarship that underscores the notion of the ‘Christ myth theory:’ Doherty (1999), Price (2000), Harpur (2004), and Carrier (2014).

To conclude the text, I intend to further argue how the ‘Atheist gospel’ functions as both an ethnographic description of a particular identity, as well as an example of Atheism in literary form.


Discourse Analysis

Fairclough, Norman. Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. London: Routledge,

Gee, James Paul. An Introduction To Discourse Analysis: Theory And Method, 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 2005.

Jaworski, Adam and Nikolas Coupland. “Introduction: Perspectives on Discourse Analysis” in Adam

Jaworski and Nikolas Coupland, eds., The Discourse Reader, Second Edition. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Paltridge, Brian. Discourse Analysis: An Introduction. London: Continuum, 2006.

Schiffrin, Deborah, Deborah Tannen, and Heidi E. Hamilton. “Introduction” in Deborah Schiffrin,

Deborah Tannen, and Heidi E. Hamilton, eds. The Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

Taira, Teemu. “Making Space for Discursive Study in Religious Studies.” Religion, Vol. 43, No. 1, 2013.

van Dijk, Teun A. “The Study of Discourse” in Teun A. van Dijk, ed. Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction, Volume One. London: Sage, 1997.

von Stuckrad, Kocku. “Discursive Study of Religion: From States of the Mind to Communication and Action.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 15, 2003.

———. “Reflections on the Limits of Reflection: An Invitation to the Discursive Study of Religion.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 22, Nos. 2-3, 2010.

———. “Discursive Study of Religion: Approaches, Definitions, Implications.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, Vol. 25, No. 1, 2013.

The Definition of Atheism

Aveling, Francis. 1907. “Atheism” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

Baggini, Julian. 2003. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bremmer, Jan M. 2007. “Atheism in Antiquity” in Michael Martin, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Buckley, Michael J. 1990. At the Origins of Modern Atheism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bullivant, Stephen. 2014. “Introduction” in Stephen Bullivant and Michael Ruse, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Drachmann, A.B. 1922. Atheism in Pagan Antiquity. Chicago: Ares Publishing.

Eller, Jack David. 2004. Natural Atheism. Austin: American Atheist Press.

———. 2010. “Chapter 1: What is Atheism?” in Phil Zuckerman, ed. Atheism and Secularity–Volume 1: Issues, Concepts and Definitions. Santa Barbara: Praeger.

Fergusson, David. 2009. Faith and Its Critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Flew, Anthony. 1976. The Presumption of Atheism & Other Philosophical Essays on God, Freedom and Immortality. New York: Barnes and Noble Press.

Hiorth, Finngeir. 1995. Introduction to Atheism. Pune: Indian Secular Society.

———. 2003. Atheism in the World. Oslo: Human-Etisk Forbund.

Hyman, Gavin. 2009. “Atheism in Modern History” in Michael Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 ———. 2010. A Short History of Atheism. London: I.B. Tauris.

Kahn, Charles H. 1997. “Greek Religion and Philosophy in the Sisyphus Fragment.” Phronesis 42 (3).

LeDrew, Stephen. 2012. “The Evolution of Atheism: Scientific and Humanistic Approaches.” History of the Human Sciences 25 (3).

McGrath, Alister. 2004. The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World. London: Double Day.

Maritain, Jacques. 1949. “On the Meaning of Contemporary Atheism.” The Review of Politics 11 (3).

Martin, Michael. 1990. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

———. 2007a. “Atheism” in Tom Flynn, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. New York: Prometheus Books.

———. 2007b. “Introduction” in Michael Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2007c. “Atheism and Religion” in Michael Martin, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Masterson, Patrick. 1965. “Contemporary Atheism.” Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 54 (214/215).

Non-religion and Secularity Research Network Glossary of Term. 2011. Available at:

Reid, J.P. and B. Mondin, eds., 2003. “Atheism” in The New Catholic Encyclopedia. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America.

Robertson, Roland. 1970. “Epilogue: Secularization” in Roland Robertson, The Sociological Interpretation of Religion. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Smith, George H. 1989. “The Scope of Atheism” in George H. Smith, ed. Atheism: The Case Against God. New York: Prometheus.

———. 1991. Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies. New York: Prometheus Books.

Stein, Gordon. 1980. “The Meaning of Atheism and Agnosticism” in Gordon Stein, An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism. New York: Prometheus.

Walters, Kerry. 2010. Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: Continuum. 

Historical Jesus

Allison, Jr., Dale C. The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

Bond, Helen. The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed. London: T& T Clark, 2012.

Ehrman, Bart. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Poirier, John C. “Seeing What is there in Spite of Ourselves: George Tyrrell, John Dominic Crossan, and Robert Frost On Faces In Deep Wells.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Vol. 4, No. 2, 2006.

Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest of the Historical Jesus. W. Montgomery, trans. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2005.

Witherington, Ben. The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth, Second Edition. Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1997.

Wright, N.T. The Challenge of Jesus. Downers Grove: Intervasity, 1999.

Fictional Jesus

Crook, Zeba. “Fictionalizing Jesus: Story and History in Two Recent Jesus Novels.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2007.

———. “Jesus Novels: Solving Problems with Fiction” in Delbert Burkett, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Jesus. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Holderness, Graham. Re-Writing Jesus: Christ in 20th-Century Fiction and Film. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Maczynska, Magdalena. The Gospel According to the Novelist: Religious Scripture and Contemporary Fiction. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Ramey, Margaret E. The Quest for the Fictional Jesus: Gospel Re-Write, gospel (Re) Interpretation, and Christological Portraits within Jesus Novels. Eugene: Pickwick, 2013.

Tate, Andrew. “This Other Christ: Jesus in Contemporary Fiction,” in Andrew Tate, Contemporary Fiction and Christianity. New York: Continuum, 2008.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Jesus Myth

Brodie, Thomas L. Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, Ltd., 2012.

Carrier, Richard. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, Ltd., 2014.

Doherty, Earl. The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Ottawa: Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999.

Harpur, Tom. The Pagan Christ: Recovering the Lost Light. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2004.

Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Warner, 2007.

Price, Robert M. Deconstructing Jesus. New York: Prometheus, 2000.

Thompson, Thomas L. The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David. London: Vintage, 2007.

Wells, Albert G. Did Jesus Exist? New York: Prometheus, 1975.

Gospel Re-Writes

Alderman, Naomi. The Liars Gospel. London: Viking, 2012.

Archer, Jeffrey with Francis J. Maloney, The Gospel According to Judas by Benjamin Iscariot. London: MacMillan, 2007.

Burgess, Anthony. Man of Nazareth. London: Magnum Books, 1979.

Chopra, Deepak. Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment. New York: Harper One, 2008.

Faber, Michel. The Fire Gospel. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2008.

Holmes, Marjorie. The Messiah. San Francisco: Harper, 1988.

Lagerkvist, Par. Barabbas, Alan Blair, trans. New York: Vintage, 1951.

Langguth, A.J. Jesus Christs. Los Angeles: Figueroa Press, 2002.

Lawrence, D.H. The Man Who Died. New Delhi: Rupa, 2004.

Mailer, Norman. The Gospel According to the Son. London: Abacus, 1997.

Moore, Christopher. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. London: Orbit, 2002.

Oursler, Fulton. The Greatest Story Ever Told. New York: Image Books, 1989.

Ricci, Nino. Testament. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

Rice, Anne. Christ The Lord: Out of Egypt. London: Arrow Books, 2006.

———. Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana. London: Arrow Books, 2009.

Toibin, Colm. The Testament of Mary. London: Viking, 2012.

Atheist Gospels

Crace, Jim. Quarantine. London: Picador, 2010.

Graves, Robert. King Jesus. New York: Penguin, 1946.

Kazantzakis, Nikos. The Last Temptation, P.A. Bien, trans. London: Faber and Faber, 2003.

Moorcock, Michael. Behold the Man. London: Millennium, 1999.

Saramago, Jose. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Giovanni Pontiero, trans. London: Vintage,

Vidal, Gore. Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal. London: Abacus, 1993.

***In my search this week for the perfect ‘featured image’ for this post, I came across these hilarious re-interpretations from the tumblr “Jesus-Everywhere,” which, though they present an interesting type of criticism, might likewise be viewed as just as valid in their appearance as any visual, or fictional, representation.***

jesus mariachi tetris jesus jesus wobble jesus pool party jesus hang gliding jesus corn dog jesus bull riding jesus model

One thought on “An Atheist Gospel: The Quest for the Fictional Jesus and the Gospel Novel as Atheist Discourse

  1. Pingback: Everything is Fiction: A Discursive Year in Review | everything is fiction

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