Alderman, Naomi. “The Liars’ Gospel: A Novel”, Little, Brown and Company; Reprint edition, 2013.
Jesus from the Jews Who Knew Him Best
Yehoshuah walked around Judea when the Roman’s occupied it and he orated, gave sermons and healed the sick. Naomi Alderman moves a year ahead and Yehoshuah is out and gives us stories from four different people. His mother mourns him, his friend Iehuda has lost his faith, the Temple High Priest tries to maintain a peaceful atmosphere and a rebel, Bar-Avo works to recreate the peace that is deteriorating. We find a time of political unrest, power-plays and tyranny. People are publicly protesting and dictators forcefully try to take them down and right in the middle of all of this is the death of Yehoshuah, an inconsequential preacher. Did a miracle happen or did someone lie? Naomi Alderman takes one of the oldest stories in history and makes it new.
If you have not realized it, Yehoshuah is the Hebrew name for Jesus and the first part of his story here is told by Miryam (Mary) who was not happily married to Yusef (Joseph) who left her. Miryam mourns her first-born son even though he had hurt her many times because of his lack of respect for his father—not Yusef but God. Her son’s family is now made up of his disciples. He left home without saying anything to his mother and refused to see her when she came to him. We see Yehoshuah as remote and mean, fierce and obsessed but with tremendous charisma that others see.
Iehuda (Judas) tells the second part of the story. He is now a jester in a Caesarea in a Roman mansion. The Crucifixion took place years before this and now he relates funny stories that denigrate Yehoshuah yet he remembers the spell that had been cast on him and how he came to be a disciple and for a while was Yehoshuah’s closet friend and the only person who could argue with him. He warned him not to believe the followers who took him to be the Messiah and then alarmed the Romans. Because of this, a distance grew between them and the other disciples began to hate him. Iehuda lost his faith in Yehoshuah and betrayed him. He feels no guilt and God speaks to him.
Caiaphas, the High Priest, tells part three of the story and we do not hear much about Yehoshuah. Caiaphas worries that his wife is unfaithful to him but he does remember a madman and his group of thugs who had damaged the tables in the courtyard of the Temple. Iehuda came to Caiaphas to tell him where Yehoshuah could be found and captured. When they brought him in, Yehoshuah condemned himself. Caiaphas wanted to spare him his fate but Pilate demanded that he be handed over to Rome to be executed (or so this story tells it). Perhaps things might have been different if Caiaphas had not been so worried about his wife’s infidelity.
Bar-Avo (Barabbas) tells the fourth part of the story. He has been a member of the Roman army since he was a teen and he becomes a recruiter and a leader of men. He is betrayed by someone he trusted and is captured by the Romans. The conversation between him and Pilate is wonderful writing. When Pilate offered to release one of his captives we see why Bar-Avo was chosen. He seemed to be something of a terrorist willing to murder innocent citizens because he knew the crowd will not blame him but will blame the Romans. Here Bar-Avo kills Ananus (Annas the Younger) and he collaborates with the Romans.
The epilogue is all Aldermen. She relates graphically the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and how the cult of Yehoshuah came into being. Yehoshuah stops being a representative of the Jews but the victim of Judaism which is to be revenged on the people. It is that story and borrowed stories from other religions which gave Yehoshuah the title of son of God and had him rise from the dead.
There have been many books that are takes on the life of Jesus and so it is difficult to say this novel is original. However, the story telling is magical—even if you do not believe what is written here, you will find yourself swept into the story.
Alderman has done extensive research to bring us this book and she uses what she has found to entertain and inform. Heavy issues are covered here—faith and the relation between religion and politics and she does so in a way that is light and easy to read. In the section on Miryam, Alderman shows us grief and anger and she does so beautifully. It is the balance of the gaining and the loss of faith and Alderman uses a light touch to tell us this. By emphasizing personal and very human perspectives on events, she is able to come at the story from a fresh perspective. She suggests that the story of Jesus that is read today is based on lies. I am sure that there are many who will find this story to be blasphemy and shun it but that is their loss. Alderman suggests that the Jesus story we have now is based on lies and filled with propaganda but she does use the physical construct for her story. This is not a narrative that is filled with messages but it is an exciting and entertaining read. God does okay here but it is the concept of organized religion that is taken to task. However, I must tell you that the sex scenes are quite graphic (sex scenes in a Jesus story?).