(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Review: Naomi Alderman, The Liar’s Gospel

I read Naomi Alderman’s book The Liars’ Gospel: A Novel because a friend was trying to get her to speak at a debate in Westbourne Grove. Sadly, he failed, but the book, for all its profound Jewish distrust of the madman Yehoshuah and the unfriendly religion that his followers devised, is worth reading for at least three reasons. The first is a matter of hermeneutics—of how we read, how we interpret, how we re-interpret. The other two reasons have to do with how Alderman’s Yehoshuah—our Jesus—fits into history. Since modern evangelicals tend to have a very poor grasp both of storytelling and of history, The Liar’s Gospel may have some truths to teach us.

All stories lie

Alderman tells her story with conviction but admits that storytelling is not a straightforward or innocent undertaking. The title is aimed not at the Christian account of the life and death of Yehoshuah alone but against all storytelling. “Storytellers know that every story is at least partly a lie.” That is a sound postmodern hermeneutical principle.

In the novel the elusive figure of Yehoshuah is seen through the eyes of his alienated mother Miryam, of his betrayer Iehuda from Qeriot, of the high priest Caiaphas, and most significantly of his militant counterpart Bar-Avo, Barabbas. He is seen also through the eyes of the emerging Christian movement of the Roman world, which needed both to exonerate Rome for its part in Jesus’ death and to commend him as a fitting rival to the divine Caesar; and, of course, through the eyes of Alderman herself, who is both fascinated and repelled by her anti-hero.

Alderman wears her own prejudice mostly on her sleeve, but occasionally her critique seems forced and a little dishonest. For example, she accuses the followers of Jesus of fabricating prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem after the event because it “made him look wiser, as it made the Jews look worse for not believing” (loc. 3933). But she puts into the mind of Caiaphas the thought that “it it hard to imagine who will stop the various factions in Judea from shattering apart and breaking themselves on the wheel of Rome…” (loc. 2166); and Bar-Avo acknowledges that the temple will run with blood, as Yehoshuah had predicted, because “we will make it happen” (loc. 3649). If Caiaphas and Bar-Avo could predict the destruction of the temple as a consequence of Jewish rebelliousness, why could not Yehoshuah have done the same?

For the Christian reader today, however, trying to come again at the Gospels with fresh eyes, these strange, disorienting Jewish perspectives, may be illuminating. They force us to abandon the hermeneutical high ground of modern evangelical opinion about who Jesus was and see things differently. We may not like what we see. We may be very uncomfortable with Alderman’s cynical defamation. But such defamiliarization, I would suggest, is a necessary—and really quite invigorating—step on the road towards the renewal of the mind of the church.

King of the Jews

There are plenty of books that relocate Jesus in his cultural context. This book relocates him in a narrative-historical context. It threads the story into Josephus’ account of the bloody events that, within a generation, would culminate in outright war between the Jews and Rome. Alderman tells the story of Jesus by telling the story of Israel under Roman occupation, which is how it should be.

Alderman’s Yehoshuah starts out as a charismatic teacher and miracle worker preaching an extraordinary but impossible gospel of love for enemies; but he mutates into something self-obsessed and deranged as the story progresses, a figure who courts disillusionment and betrayal. It is the humane Iehuda who sees that Yehoshuah is beginning to take himself too seriously and makes the case against him:

We are not here to glorify YOU. Not your name but God’s name. Not your words but God’s words. Not you, not any one of us. Something bigger than us. The poor, the crippled, the broken. To help them, not to make you into a little god. An idol.

In the end, Yehoshuah announces to Caiaphas that he is the “expected king” who will be seen sitting at the right hand of Yahaveh, who will descend to earth with him on the glowing clouds (loc. 2450). He tells Bar-Avo that when he dies, “the whole of creation burns, and God himself descends from heaven to judge the righteous and the guilty” (loc. 3304). The world will burn “when the abomination that causes desolation is in a forbidden place”; there will be earthquakes and famines, and he will “come in clouds with great power and glory”.

‘Listen… Bar-Avo, son of no one, don’t you think that God Himself will take his revenge for what has been done in this city? You make your plans and gather your forces to you, and you hope to overturn His will, but don’t you know that He has sent the Romans to scourge us so that we’ll repent and return to Him before the end of the world comes? Bar-Avo, king of bandits, God is angry with His creation and the time has come to fold it up and put it away. You are as much a tool of His will in this as any Roman soldier.’ (loc. 3320)

Because the story of Jesus is told by Jews—by Caiaphas, by Bar-Avo, by Alderman—we see much more clearly that it cannot be separated from the story of Israel’s descent into self-destructive madness. Under those conditions you cannot have a popular figure condemned by the high priest and the Sanhedrin, substituted “in a pitilessly cruel game” for a man who had “committed murder in the insurrection” (Mk. 15:7), executed on a Roman cross, and not accept that the central question to which Jesus was the answer is: What should first century Israel do to be saved from the disaster of a war against Rome that they were bound to lose and lose catastrophically?

The manner of Jesus’ trial and execution make a mockery of any lingering hopes that he will prove himself to be Israel’s legitimate king. Bar-Avo later interrogates one of the men who worshipped the dead Yehoshuah. If the messiah has come, he asks, “why does not the lion lie down with the lamb?” Where is the final judgment? “Where is the true king of Israel now, if he has performed this strange trick and returned from the grave? Why does he not take his throne?” The man insists that these things will happen “soon and in our days”. “Before this generation has passed away, there will be the signs and portents, the lord Messiah will return and the Temple will run red with blood” (loc. 3644).

It has been a recurring theme of Jesus scholarship over the last 100 years or more—since Weiss and Schweitzer—that Jesus mistakenly thought that the world was about to end. Conservative interpreters have tried to get round the problem of Jesus’ urgent apocalypticism by letting his “end” slip into an ever-receding future, but this is simply indefensible exegetically. Jesus believed that judgment would come soon, not on the whole world but on his own people, not because they rejected him alone—as Alderman would have it—but because they had rejected a long line of prophets who had called them to repent. In this he was not mistaken.

Alderman appears to take the now outmoded view that in Jesus’ mind the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple would bring the whole cosmos crashing down like a house of cards. I think that this is a misreading of the prophetic language—Jesus planned for the future of his people. But by letting the story of Jesus sink beneath the surface of an ultimately futile struggle for political freedom Alderman gives us, I think, a rather compelling vision of his inalienable Jewishness—not as a matter of cultural origins only but as a potential solution to a national crisis.

The triumph of the Jews

Finally, Alderman touches on the longer term political implications of the fact that, in the years after his death, Romans as well as Jews came to believe in Yehoshuah. Someone suggests to Bar-Avo that the time may come when there are more temples to Yehoshuah than to Mithras or Isis. Bar-Avo dismisses the thought that the empire would be more favourably disposed towards the Jews if Yehoshuah became a god. “If Yehoshuah ends by being loved in Rome they will find a way to use him against us” (loc. 3679).

No doubt the exchange is too conscious of the subsequent history of European anti-semitism, but I think it embodies a solid insight. Even in the New Testament the overarching controversy is not whether Jews and Greeks needed Jesus as their personal saviour but what the “worship” of Yehoshuah would mean for the standing of Israel and its God in the Greek-Roman world. Gods rise and fall, but as Bar-Avo says, “only our God rises above them all and lives forever”. What difference would it make if the “dead man Yehoshuah became a god”?

For Paul the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations constituted precisely the triumph of Israel’s God (Phil. 2:9-11). Aldermann, naturally, sees it differently.

And in time, a new god rose in Rome. A small cult, grown slowly mighty. And although one might say: this was the triumph of the Jews, this Jew-god risen to a high place in Roman esteem, nonetheless by the time he arrived there he was no longer a Jew at all, quite the reverse in a sense.

She goes on to complain that this new cult was welcomed by Rome because it justified laying blame for the destruction of Jerusalem—”one of the greatest and most famous and most prosperous and most beautiful cities on the earth”—firmly at the door of the Jews. That rather goes against the grain of the evidence: Christianity was embraced largely because it was like Judaism and became problematic because it shared Judaism’s intolerance of idolatry. But again, my point is not that Alderman has construed matters fully accurately but that she captures something of the political-religious nature of that Jewish movement which claimed that Israel’s God had raised his Son Jesus from the dead.

Image of The Liars' Gospel: A Novel

On Amazon (US):

Naomi Alderman
Little, Brown and Company (2013), Hardcover, 320 pages, $25.99