Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

I thought I'd do a review of a book I've been reading over the past couple of days, fitting neatly as it does with all my recent boning up on Christianity. Plus I'm a huge fan of Jose Saramago and would highly recommend The Cave and Death at Intervals to anyone who has yet to discover him.

Hopefully the fact that it's about Jesus can be overcome and what readers I may have will find it at least vaguely interesting. Usual caveats: I'm not a Christian and I have only recently started taking an interest in it as a religion. My familiarity with the texts is somewhat limited - if I miss something that's in Corinthians or Acts, it's because I haven't read them.

Also, as I've gone to the bother of checking out some genuine sources and stuff, I've gone to the poncy effort of doing references. Check me out!

So, what's The Gospel According to Jesus Christ all about then? Well, it's an novel purporting to be an account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a man who Douglas Adams rather neatly summed up as being 'nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.' You've probably heard of him.

As I said in previous posts, the real gospels aren't meant to be historically accurate documents. They do, after all, feature a central character who returns from the dead (not that this is unknown, but in my experience those who return from the dead have an insatiable hunger for braaaiins. Seriously, I've seen films about it and everything). They are, however, thematically vital. For all the inconsistencies, those documents have survived the evolution and argument within the early Church and become the bedrock of the religion. Their conceptual space is important. Jesus' message has broad universal themes and the parables often have clear, if uncomfortable messages - and certain parables are repeated across the canon, such as the prodigal son.

Saramago therefore seeks to illuminate the life of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels. Key events are either replicated or woven into the new situations he creates. 'Father, why have you forsaken me' for example comes not on the cross but when a young Jesus sees his father crucified by the Romans.

This is important because the Gospels have certain major historical inconsistencies. As Chris Harman notes in A People's History of the World,

It claims his birth was in Bethlehem in the Roman province of Judaea, where his family had gone for a census during the time of Augustus. But there was no census at the time stated and Judaea was not a Roman province at the time. When a census was held in 7 AD it did not require anyone to leave their place of residence. Similarly, the New Testament locates Jesus's birth as in the time of King Herod, who died in 4 BC. Roman and Greek writers of he time make no mention of Jesus


Nevertheless, Saramago has Jesus born in a cave in Bethlehem after an arduous journey for the Roman census. It reminds me in a way of something David Harvey has to say about Capital, that Marx is taking the suppositions of classical economists as true in order to show that by their own lights they fail to produce the outcome they expect (Reading Marx's Capital Lecture 1).

And Saramago's Gospel is definitely heretical and blasphemous. Jesus has a prolonged, though monogamous, physical relationship with former prostitute Mary Magdalene, he spends much of the novel unaware of his divine status, and even equivocates nicely on the Trinity: 'you won't be dead in the absolute sense of the word, for as my son you'll be with Me, or in Me, I still haven't finally decided' says God at one point (2008:283). Jesus' brother James also gets short shrift, coming off as a petulant adolescent who wants nothing to do with his grandiose elder sibling. In contrast, James is generally held to have 'emerged as generally acknowledged head of the comunity at Jerusalem. Side by side with him were the 'apostles'' (Chadwick 1992:22)

The most interesting relationship in the book is probably the triumvirate of God, Jesus and the Devil. Jesus spends considerable time with both, and the Devil is a far more likeable presence than God.

I simply took what God didn't want, the flesh with all it's joys and sorrows, youth and senility, bloom and decay, but it isn't true that fear is one of my weapons, I don't recall having invented sin and punishment or the terror they inspire

(Saramago 2008:295)

he says, whilst in contrast God is made to spend over four pages detailing the gruesome deaths of various Christian martyrs, and comes across as every inch the God of the Old Testament: vain, patriarchal, arrogant and full of bloodlust.

Sympathy for the devil is an old theme of course, and criticism of God's character runs from Bertrand Russell to Terry Pratchett. Saramago's novel stands out in my eyes through bringing his usual sense of civility even to his outrage. Jesus, in particular, comes out fairly unblemished, relieved of responsibility for many of his more dubious teachings, a sensitive, intelligent man doomed by powers far beyond his or anyone else's ability to be saved from, a neat inversion of the traditional role of Jesus, that he is seen not as a deliverer from sin but a bringer of division and death.

Additionally, Saramago is very aware of just how Jewish Christianity is. Jesus inhabits an intensely religious Jewish land, and God himself is frequently concerned with his legacy as God of the Jews as much as his hope to change how he is seen (and hence who he is?) with his new idea of the Messiah.

Finally, he intelligently explores the big themes of justice, salvation, poverty, destiny, patriarchy, the nature of evil, the role of women and even love that fill the Gospels so. He has brought out a fantastic interpretation of the life of Jesus, and created from a story that has such mixed moral messages a firmly ethical interpretation of the story, in which God and justice are firmly separate and frequently opposing things. This is the greatest triumph of the book, that he has taken the life story of one who is supposedly one of the great moral teachers of all time, and shown that even if you grant him his story, a plausible interpretation is quite the reverse of what it is commonly assumed to be. Take Saramago's version of the Sermon on the Mount (warning - Saramago doesn't use speech marks to indicate when someone is talking so you have to work it out from the commas):

Blessed be you poor, Jesus told them, for yours is the kingdom of heaven ... but just then God became aware of what was happening and although too late to retract what Jesus had said, he forced him to speak other words which turned those tears of happiness into grim foreboding of the black future ahead, Blessed are you when men shall hate you
(ibid.: 309)
thus forcing the divisive elements of Jesus's philosophy squarely onto God's shoulders, leaving Jesus himself a far more enlightened figure than the Deity.

In conclusion then, if you'd like to see a coherent and humanitarian take on the life of Jesus Christ, one which captures many of the key ideas and underlying ethical implications of the New Testament, you could do far worse than pick up this book.

Fraser, Giles (ed.) 2007. The Gospels (Revolutions Series). Verso.
Gaiman, Neil and Pratchett, Terry 1991. Good Omens. Corgi.
Moorcock, Michael 1999. Behold the Man. Gollancz.
Nietzsche, Friedrich 2000. The Antichrist Prometheus
Nietzsche, Friedrich 1998. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future Dover Thrift.
Plato, 380 BCE. Euthyphro Internet Classics Archive.
Pratchett, Terry 1993. Small Gods Corgi.
Russell, Bertrand 2004.Why I am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. Routledge.

Chadwick, Henry 1992. The Early Christian Community in The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, McManners J (Ed.) OUP 1992.
Harman, Chris 2008. A People's History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium. Verso.
Harvey, David Reading Marx's Capital - Class 1, Introduction, available at
Saramago, Jose 2008. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Vintage.

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