The fictions of Jesus the Christ have become many in number, multiplying like the loaves and the fishes at Bethsaida. In that they were pseudepigraphical accounts and written up two to three centuries after the events depicted, the gospels could be considered as the first round of Jesus novels, although such a cogitation might not sit well with the devout. These ‘good news’ texts include the not-quite-always synoptic threesome (Luke, Matthew, Mark) followed by wild departure that is attributed to the apostle John, all of which have been subjected to some seven major translations culminating in modern paraphrase. However, much to Bishop Irenaeus’s chagrin, other gospels continued to persist despite canonising councils and innocent popes. We have the Jewish-Christian gospels representing the Nazarenes, Ebionites and Hebrews; the gnostic gospel of Thomas; the docetic gospel of Peter; the political gospel of Judas, the hypothetical Q document; the infancy gospels of James, Thomas and Mary; the Marcion Gospel; the Gospel Harmonies; the Coptic Gospels; the Dead Sea Scrolls; and the various codices and fragments of Nag Hammadi. Indeed, there is little beyond early church politics to prove the veracity of one gospel over another, amplified by Elaine Pagels’ recent hypothesis (in Beyond Belief) that the canonical gospel of John was written as a corrective polemic in response to the earlier gnostic gospel of Thomas. But despite questions of dating, orthodoxy and authenticity, many of these source texts have been plundered for 20th Century novels, fictions from the sacred to the profane. If there is but one originating historical truth then all retrospective accounts must be considered blasphemous.
A strong impetus for the spate of 20th Century Jesus novels was inadvertently supplied by Albert Schweitzer in The Quest for the Historical Jesus, a work that inspired ensuing second and third quests conducted by a series of German authors and more recently, the ‘Jesus Seminar.’ Schweitzer’s idea was to strip away two millennia of hagiography and get to the historical essence of the man, which resulted in his portrait of the eschatological prophet very much in keeping with the Judaic tradition. His method of enquiry led to David Friedrich Strauss’s Jewish messiah, Karl Barth’s Essene Jesus, Friedrich Ghillany’s Mithraic Jesus, and Bruno Bauer’s exalted Jesus of the communal imagination. But it was Ernest Renan’s seminal Life of Jesus that first presented the historical Christ within something of a novel setting, indeed it was scoffed at as “pure fiction” by Schweitzer. Renan, a revered rationalist and Hebrew scholar, attempted to present an entirely human Jesus who sought to undermine Roman rule and establish a new theocracy, often resorting to subversive methods (like the staged raising of Lazarus) to win support. Although presented as a biography Renan’s work opened the door to similar accounts of a purely historical Jesus, many of which can be found in 20th Century novels from around the world. Anthony Burgess’s Man of Nazareth sought to depict Jesus as part of very real and viable Roman world, alternating between exacting explanations and a powerful series of flashbacks in an attempt to synthesise the biblical material. Similarly, Nino Ricci in Testament strips away the mythological portents and presents Jesus as an eccentric genius caught between two competing cultural identities. Another quite remarkable work that deserves far more attention is King Jesus by Robert Graves, which although deeply controversial attests to some remarkable scholarship in presenting a very new hypothesis. Jesus, son of Antipater (Herod’s oldest son), is embroiled in a complex Hebrew plot to bring about the ‘Golden Age.’ It delves into the dark patriarchal religion with its competing mystery cults (which include Graves’s ‘White Goddess’ theme) and its succession of warrior-priest kings. An equally brilliant attempt to present a historical gospel is José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, a beautiful novel that explores the psychology of Jesus from a poetic and visionary standpoint. Here, Jesus lives and operates in a real word of senses and impressions as a man but is strongly implored from within to navigate the omens and take on the godhead. George Moore takes on a similar task in The Brook Kerith by presenting Jesus as a man of conflicted states of being. Eventually, the passionate and meditative thinker overcomes the impulsive revolutionary and finds his true purpose. Often, this quest for the historical Jesus has a distinct mission and Shasaku Endo annexes Jesus from the trappings of the Old Testament in order to make him more suitable for Japanese culture. This is not to say that A Life of Jesus is not a deeply historical text for it follows St. Paul’s well-documented attempt to make Jesus and his message more palatable for the gentile world.
So often, writers attempt to get at truth simply by considering another point of view, and after all this is often the only distinction between the original gospel writers and their heretical rivals. As with all scriptural texts, a way to increase the notion of authenticity was simply to attribute the corpus to a first-hand witness, whether major or minor. Many novelists of the 20th Century followed this tendency although a few chose to subvert it by bringing in new or historically dubious witnesses. Norman Mailer takes the most direct witness approach in The Gospel According to the Son by writing his novel from Jesus’s point of view. This is controversial in and of itself because all the sayings of Jesus are traditionally taken on faith through the witness of the disciples and first saints of the tradition. Mailer genuinely attempts to massage the gospel material but in typical Mailer fashion drifts off into many strange tangents, including Jesus’s internal wrangling with Jewish culture and an epic psychological battle with Satan. Gabriel Meyer keeps it in the family by offering Jesus’s father’s account in The Gospel of Joseph. So much has been written about the relationship with the heavenly father that the earthly father is so often relegated to a footnote in the story. Based on a series of Coptic texts Joseph is presented as a sort of masonic sage and finally given his due. Taylor Caldwell chooses a couple of obvious witness, although each controversial in their own way. I, Judas tells the story of shamed disciple, Judas Iscariot, who must betray himself in order to fulfil Christ’s explicit directive, which is necessary to the divine plan. Great Lion of God is the account of Paul, alleged author of about half of the New Testament despite never having met Jesus Christ in the flesh. Her account is largely sympathetic with the man who arguably changed the course of an infant Christianity, infusing many new and specifically non-Jewish ideas into the mix. Pär Lagerkvist also takes on a challenging point of view in presenting the account of Barabbas, the ultimate sinner pardoned to make way for Jesus’s execution. Barabbas is an extraordinary novel about a peripheral figure made to agonise over the terms of his freedom on the road to his own belief. Arguably, Anita Mason takes on an even more obscure figure in The Illusionist in the enigmatic and esoteric figure of Simon Magus. In her account, both Simon and Jesus are part of a large tradition of miracle workers and showmen, despite the fact that Jesus is already dead at the time of the story. Not content with a single witness Sholem Asch weaves a complex tapestry from the competitive accounts of Cornelius (Pilate’s Jerusalem governor), Judas Iscariot, and yet another Joseph (this time a young student of Nicodemus). In doing so, Asch is able to creatively deal with the oft-perceived inconsistencies between Roman and Jewish accounts in his novel, The Nazarene. Perhaps more famously, at least due to the adapted film version, Lew Wallace goes outside of the gospel witnesses to tell the tale of Judah Ben-Hur, another Jew similarly betrayed into impossible conditions. What most people don’t know is that the novel Ben Hur is strangely subtitled “A Tale of the Christ” despite the fact that less than 20% of its pages have anything to do with the personage of Jesus Christ. In Kingdom of the Wicked, his second and slightly less well-known novel on the subject, Anthony Burgess provides the irreverent account of Sadoc, an ailing Roman shipping clerk, whose gross exaggerations on events are posited as the reason for the fantastical nature of our surviving gospels. Frank Yerby introduces Nathan bar Yehuda in Judas my Brother, the account of a son of one of Jesus’s childhood companions. Rather cleverly, he manages to combine copious theological material with very secular considerations of the era. But perhaps the most adventurous point of view account can be found in Gerd Theissen’s Shadow of the Galilean, which is not a novel in the strict sense. Here Theissen follows the life of Jesus but without ever really catching up with the elusive prophet. It is a story around the figure, casting the net wide in his societal circles in order to present a shadowy yet creative anachronism of the gospels.
Perhaps a subset of the modern POV gospels can be described as feministic, those coming from a feminine viewpoint and/or infusing various levels of feminist thought, despite the first example coming from a male writer. James P. Carse hints as another masculinist gospel in the title of The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, traditionally an attribution given to the apostle John, but throughout ascribed the pronoun “she.” Jesus’s ministry of trenchant sayings is freshly invigorated from a women’s perspective, and more so from a position of deep intimacy. But most feminist accounts follow the mystical figure of Mary Magdalene, an increasingly perplexing figure that crops up numerous times in various mystical schools and their subversive texts. In According to Mary Magdalene Marrianne Fredriksson tells the tale of this delphian women long after the death of Christ, a story necessitated by the increasing distortions of the male disciples and their converts. Fredriksson retains the early church notion that Mary was a reformed prostitute but allows her character to contradict their persistent dogma. Similarly, Angela Hunt’s Miryam of Magdala is the dark and conflicted figure in Magdalene, a novel that explains so-called “demon possession” and Mary’s on-going struggles with dark forces despite the intervention of a decidedly human Jesus. Michele Roberts takes up the mantle by couching her story in the contentious discovery of an authentic “fifth gospel” in her novel, The Wild Girl. Something toward the essentialist feminist position is strongly evoked as the patriarchal trappings of the Judaic worldview are dispensed with quickly, allowing Christ’s message to centre on a spiritual and tantric unity.
Most often it is the more subversive accounts of the life of Jesus that get the most attention, simply because their authors choose to magnify elements of the story that the traditionalists tend to overlook. Such a divisive figure was Hugh J. Schonfield who set out to “spill the beans” about a very tactical and decidedly mortal messiah planning out his PR campaign in meticulous detail. The Passover Plot presents the elaborate yarn of Jesus and his co-conspirators fixing the crucifixion in order to ensure survival and thus strategically aligning themselves with many Old Testament prophesies. Arguably the most hailed of Christological fictions is Nikos Kazantzakis’s acclaimed novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, although much vaulted by Martin Scorsese’s controversial film version. Less conspiratorial than Schonfield’s plot, but perhaps equally blasphemous, Kazantzakis presents a very human Jesus riddled with doubt and anxiety. The famous dream sequence from the cross opens up a hypothetical and alternate reality that provides a telling gloss on the Christ that eventually emerges from Pauline Christianity. Such an embattled human figure can also be found in Jim Crace’s wildly imaginative Quarantine, a novel that zeros in on Christ’s mysterious 40-day fast in the desert. In that desert fasts are rather traditional zealot fare Jesus is accompanied by a strange collection of pilgrims, each reacting differently to the rough but exotic locale and the hallucinations that come with voluntary starvation. As per natural bodily conditions Jesus dies at about the 30-day mark but the religion generated in his name is born of the bizarre connections made in those caves. Delving deeper into both the split personality and competing perceptions of Jesus is A.J. Langguth’s little known Jesus Christs, a post-modern novel that attempts to look at the emerging savour through a kaleidoscopic lens. In this remarkable work the figure of Jesus is singularly unobtainable, a complex web of personalities and projections eternally multiplying and mutating either by design or chance.
In the wake of Dan Brown and writers of his ilk the figure of Jesus has been sequestered to the cagey province of the treasure-seeker, where his person ekes into being through excavation and the unravelling of intricate puzzles. Wilton Barnhardt’s genre-fiction account, simply named Gospel, is a complex detective story involving a precocious theological student and a battle-hardened ex-Jesuit. The notion that new discoveries can shake the very foundations of Christianity is well grounded in 19th Century rationalism and the quest to uncover new manuscripts. Following the controversial work of Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln (the first two of which sued Dan Brown for plagiarising Holy Blood, Holy Grail in The Da Vinci Code), Liz Greene’s historical The Dreamer of the Vine explores the notion that Jesus married Mary Magdalene at the Wedding of Cana and that their secret bloodline extends throughout the ages, in this case interweaving with the extraordinary prophecies of Nostradamus.
For others, the treasure is quite simply found within, and Christ becomes an internal figure to be channelled through the imagination or the astral plane. Of course, this idea was very much promulgated by the ‘Ascended Master Teachings’ of the Theosophists, as inspired by various tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism. Such an exotic imaginal rendering comes from the remarkable Russian author, Mikhail Bulgakov, in The Master and Margarita, a fiction channelled through a distraught writer and psychiatric hospital inmate known only as ‘The Master.’ A secondary narrative involving Pontius Pilate, Jesus and Satan occasionally haunts this 402-page epic through some strange but candid gnosis, often to alarming effect. In another novel by Kazantzakis, The Greek Passion, the truth of the gospel is evoked through the staging of old passion plays. Meek and rustic Greek villagers at first don the habit of their roles but then develop a devastating religious fervour as the masque becomes real. In the irregular account of The Fool in Christ: Emmanuel Quint, German author Gerhart Hauptmann embodies Christ in a poor, rejected lowlife riddled with strange dreams and a persecution complex. In similar fashion the great Gore Vidal channels his Messiah through the ironically named Eugene Luther, a key elder in the Cavite movement founded by one John Cave (with telling initials). Vidal’s Christ is both stymied and animated by oppositional figures, an Isis goddess figure and a meddling populist named Paul.
Of course, the attempt to conflate or merge Jesus with esoteric or pre-Christian pagan elements is not a new phenomenon, the best being D.H. Lawrence’s controversial and ground-breaking novel, The Man Who Died (originally The Escaped Cock). As with many subversive accounts Lawrence’s Christ escapes the cross and transcends the whole Judeo-Christian experience in a secret, mystical, but decidedly human afterlife. In an admixture of ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths a resuscitated (both physically and spiritually) Jesus enters the Temple of Isis by the ancient waters of Babylon to become a bridegroom of a very different sort. In Paul Park’s The Gospel of Corax, Jesus becomes the travelling companion of a Roman healer, and when exposed to the Zoroastrian Magi and various Buddhist sages decides to shed his rebel status for that of an enlightened Eastern mystic. Such accounts attempt to explain the similarity between Jesus’s message and that of other shamanic saviours of the East, many of which were born of a virgin and rose from the dead three days after violent execution. Other writers attempt to assimilate the miracular proclivity within the Jewish tradition with older and contemporaneous systems of magic, perhaps encouraged by Morton Smith’s famous theological treatise, Jesus the Magician. One such author, Richard A. Muller, explores the power of staged illusion in his provocatively named novel, The Sins of Jesus. Muller follows the common device of focusing on those missing years where Jesus develops magical powers (in both senses of the word), which somehow leads to self-deception and esoteric truth, both of which inform and drive the resultant mythos that comes down to us through two millennia.
Often bizarrely, it is the most outlandish and deliberately satirical stories of Jesus Christ that seem to uncover the greatest truths. The great scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian comes to mind, when the newly converted followers immediately split into two rivalling factions, one set following the gourd and the other the strewn sandal, in a clever parody of schism and denominationalism. For Benito Pérez Galdós the vehicle for such elucidation is comedy and his Nazarin presents Christ as the quintessential quixotic fool, stumbling hilariously through the stations of his mission. James Morrow’s bold farce, Only Begotten Daughter, follows the story of Jesus’s futuristic half-sister, Mary Katz, born of a celibate father after a sperm bank accident. Her story presents the culmination of the second-coming prophecy in a way that current believers would never readily accept, with a second godly progeny turning gasoline into milk just to distinguish herself from the first. Where some authors satirise by deft mirroring and hinted alternatives others are bold and up front with stark and purposeful makeovers. Chris Moore made quite a splash with his fairly recent offering, Lamb, in which the one true gospel is imparted by disciple and “best bud” – Biff. Moore makes no attempt at historical veracity and has no sense of biblical loyalty whatsoever, giving a wholly contemporary account of Jesus as a man of Kung Fu, Yoga, sleight of hand, Chinese food, lattes and the art of making explosives. Theodore Sturgeon’s Godbody also tackles Jesus on contemporary terms, probing the possibility of his return to a small American town where he then becomes a divisive and morally dubious figure. In much the same way, Skylight Press author, Chris Hill, explores how the emergence of a messianic figure on a small remote British island would affect its inhabitants in his recently released Song of the Sea God. Other authors have employed the sci-fi device of time-travel, often farcically, in order to get at something authentic in the late Iron Age. In Michael Moorcock’s sardonic novel Behold the Man, Karl Glogauer travels back in time and is shocked to find a shy, reluctant healer that bears no resemblance to any accepted religious notion of Jesus Christ. Such a discovery leads to an emotional crisis and the bizarre irony that the true and historical Jesus is not a convert of the faith that bears his name. Quite the opposite in The Didymus Contingency, Jeremy Robinson’s protagonist travels back in time with the expressed intent of uncovering a liturgical fake, only to find a refreshingly human character full of life and verve in dark and desperate times. Not to be outdone, Gore Vidal caricatures the source of Christianity as being under threat by a computer hacker’s virus in his cyberpunk classic, Live from Golgotha. In this story Saint Timothy is visited by Saint Paul in a vision and exhorted to write his gospel before the teachings of Jesus (originally an obese man) are deleted forever. With a clever net of interweaving satires Vidal suggests that Paul’s version of Christianity (and that of the many pontiffs that follow) may have itself been a hack of the original, suggesting that the New Testament is some sort of simulacrum. Thus, any gospelising intent becomes pure fiction.
The blasphemetic gospels, as presented here, elucidate a phenomenon that is still in its infancy stages for there are many more to come. In that it comprises a sizeable multi-genre literary corpus it is surprising that there has not been more comparative and theoretical scholarship on the subject. Perhaps the only attempt thus far is the criminally little known work of Theodore Ziolkowski who’s Fictional Transfigurations of Jesus scrutinises the aesthetic challenges of various novelists that have attempted to depict the enigmatic and iconoclastic figure of Jesus Christ. Along with a few of the better known authors briefly examined above Ziolkowski explores rare and out-of-print novels by the likes of Giovanni Papini in order to understand literary ‘christomania’ and its plethora of Christological fictions. Perhaps the heretical impulse to concoct a ‘fifth gospel,’ whether written or unwritten, is in all of us that live in the shadow of Christendom, and that such an impulse even as it takes us beyond the borders of blasphemy, extends to something orthodox within.
Daniel Staniforth is the author of The Groundlings of Divine Will, a book that wilfully distorts the orthodoxy/heresy binary in a perverse mirroring of Jesus and Shakespeare and their gospel traditions.
© Daniel Staniforth/Skylight Press