LONDON — In a stunning and audacious new novel, The Liars' Gospel, Naomi Alderman places the story of Christ's life and death in a deeply researched historical context.
The story of Jesus is "The Greatest Story Ever Told," according to Hollywood. But Alderman goes beyond cinema legend and New Testament scripture and looks at the historical truth of Jesus.
Is it a question even worth asking? And can a Jewish person be the interrogator? Alderman proves that the answer to both questions is yes.
As a Jew in a country where the head of state, the queen, is also the head of the church, Alderman is particularly attuned to the need to explain how a Jew who was born and died in Roman Judaea could have founded a religion that came to dominate the last 2,000 years.
"If you're a person of faith and you think you know what happened it's sorted out for you," says Alderman. "If you're not, you must somehow account for the entire history of Western Civilization."
The novel tells the story of a Judaea that is under a brutal Roman occupation. Its Jewish natives are in a perpetual cycle of rebellion against the occupiers. The anger smolders, then bursts forth in violence. Rome crushes the rebellions and covers the hills with crucified rebels. Then the cycle starts smoldering again. Some Jews seek hope in the teachings of charismatic rabbis performing miraculous cures and preaching the end times and the destruction of Rome.
Alderman tells the story of one of these preachers, Yehoshua (Hebrew for Jesus), recently crucified, through the memories of four people who knew him: his mother, Miryam, a follower, Lehuda of Queriot, the high priest, Caiaphas, and a rebel leader, Bar Avo. The characters are familiar in their English names — Mary, Judas Iscariot, Barabbas — but their stories and memories are completely different from the Gospels.
The book is compelling because these new stories are plausible. One example: Miryam is a mother struggling with grief and anger at her first born son leaving home, rather than bringing a wife into it and filling the house with grandchildren. A young follower of Yehoshua comes to visit. He begs her to tell stories of his beloved rabbi as a boy. Miryam scoffs. Eventually this sweet young man wears her down. She makes up something to please him. A "stranger" told her when Yehoshua was in her belly that she was blessed and so was the child growing within her. "Stranger" in Jewish parlance of the time could be an angel. So a story is born, to please a sorrowful shepherd boy, and it circulates its way into theological fact.
The Liars' Gospel is published just in time for the Easter/Passover season which is apt because the 20 year process of thinking that Alderman put into the book began with Easter.
"It was recurring every Easter, I must write this book," she said.
In the secular West, nothing marks out Jewish difference and outsider status than Easter. Christmas has been commercialized and turned into a generalized celebration of children. But Easter is different. There is no getting around the trial and crucifixion of Jesus as it is recounted in the Gospels: the Jews as a group are condemned out of their own mouths. It is an awkward time even in the most tolerant and ecumenical of societies.
Part of Alderman's process was to challenge Hollywood's treatment of the crucifixion. "The Mel Gibson movie was viciously anti-Semitic," says Alderman. Her research into the reality of Jewish life under Roman occupation taught her that crucifixion was pretty common. "You've got one guy on the cross but if you pull the camera back you would see thousands of other Jewish men on crosses. Why this one person rather than the 29,999 other Jewish men?"
Her book was partially motivated by trying to answer that question.
Alderman has a rationalist's approach to belief, but this is not where she started out. She was raised in a religious home and for many years practiced Orthodox Judaism. Now she inhabits a more secular place. "I don't eat Kosher, don't do the Sabbath, I do Passover and fast on Yom Kippur." Alderman adds, "I'm still very Jewish."
After mulling the Jesus story for a decade and a half she finally got underway on the book in earnest a few years ago, with a reading of the Gospels. "Not being a Christian I was able to read them with a clear eye," she said.
How much of the Gospels are factual? She points to the moment in the Gospel of St. Mark. When Jesus is betrayed, an unnamed young man tries to protect him. The youth is assaulted by soldiers, loses his loincloth running out of their grip, and flees naked from Gethsemane. By the time the scene is described in the last of the gospels to be written, that of St. John, the young man has been written out.
The detail in the Gospel of St. Mark, she believes, is so striking, yet of this world, that it must be a "fact." Beyond that, she says, we can't know for certain much of what is "factually" true in the story of Christ. As a reader of both Latin and Hebrew, Alderman has been able to use primary sources, but she can only say with certainty that there was a charismatic preacher named Yehoshua who traveled Judaea with a band of followers performing cures and preaching the end times.
Alderman acknowledges the book is an audacious one for a Jewish person to write. A certain kind of Christian believer reading it would consider The Liars' Gospel blasphemous. "But it's probably healthy to confront the fact that not everybody agrees with your faith," she said.
When she talked about the book to her Hebrew teacher, a Holocaust survivor, the teacher told her, "Nobody should write a book about this." Alderman understood where her teacher was coming from, even if she ignored the advice.
The novelist says, "This book couldn't have been written even as recently as the 1960's. I am taking advantage of the world we live in, which permits this."
Her implication is that a Jew can try to write about the Jewish Jesus and the Jewish world in which he lived at this moment in time, but maybe not in the future. Part of Jewish identity, drilled in over several bloody millennia since Jesus lived, is skepticism about good times. Persecution is always just around the corner.
Alderman adds, "If people are offended by the book I defend their right to be offended — as long as they don't say we should kill her and everyone like her."