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Faith, fiction and the historical Jesus: theological revisionism and its influence on fictional representations of the Gospels (c. 1860-1920)

By Jennifer Stevens


This thesis is concerned with the stimulus and influence of studies of the historical Jesus on literary depictions of Christ. It examines imaginative reconstructions of the Gospels, alongside significant works of Biblical scholarship, and seeks to establish the role played by fiction in promulgating ideas of the Higher Criticism in Britain. At the same time, it considers how far the demands of working with a sacred source encouraged or restricted literary innovation. The contextual aspects of the study underline how advances in disciplines such as psychology, anatomy, and archaeology informed writers’ conceptions of the New Testament. The Introduction traces changing perceptions of the relationship between fiction and faith in the light of contemporary developments in Biblical interpretation. Chapter One examines a representative selection of Lives of Jesus, looking specifically at their affinities with fiction. The following chapter explores the kind of prose-fiction writing that developed in response to these Lives and to theological revisionism generally. The second part of the thesis focuses on two Anglo-Irish writers: Oscar Wilde and George Moore. Their transformations of the Gospels are analysed in the context of some of their other literary works, their attitudes to Christianity, and their engagement with theology. Chapter Three considers Wilde’s New Testament oral tales, looking especially at their treatment of current theological debates. Chapter Four considers the reappearance of these tales in the writings of Wilde’s contemporaries, and links the study’s two major authors through its discussion of Frank Harris, an acquaintance of them both. The final two chapters deal with Moore’s abiding interest in the religious temperament, following through the development of his drama, The Apostle, into the novel, The Brook Kerith. The Conclusion considers the aesthetics of Biblical fiction and its contribution to the religious discourses of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries

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