Jesus: what a crapster. Work-shy, arrogant, disrespectful and preening, he posed and sweet-talked his way around Roman-occupied Judea performing miracles that were nothing more than hustlers’ street tricks, recycling age-old advice from the Torah as his own words of wisdom and taking whatever free hospitality and perks he could get, egged on by gullible friends happy to warm themselves by his light, puffed up by the credulity of simple-minded locals desperate for relief, distraction and entertainment. When the rumours were put to him that he was the Messiah, the expected king, the one whom they all had been waiting for, in his pride he neither demurred nor denied, but silently maintained a smug face. Seeing this, his friend Judas lost faith and respect for him and betrayed him to Pontius Pilate, who executed him.
That is just one perspective on the short and ignominious life of Jesus – or Yehoshuah, to return to him his proper name and not the simplified moniker given by his Roman executors. Naomi Alderman’s stunningly accomplished and powerful third novel The Liars’ Gospel examines various interpretations of the figure whose legacy still has the power to inspire, to compel, to humble, to educate and to fascinate billions of people two thousand years after his execution alongside countless other Jews viewed by the Roman empire as threats, insurgents, pretenders, dangerous rebels, saboteurs or provocateurs. Alderman’s previous novels, Disobedience and The Lessons, are both excellent – but this third publication is of a totally different order, a novel of such intensity, meaning and depth that it must be destined to become a classic. It feels like the book Alderman knew she was meant to write – and indeed such an impulse is hinted at in the author’s afterword.
The novel begins a year after Yehoshuah’s execution and is told in four parts, each of which delivers an ever wider and deeper analysis of the consequences of his shiftless, bootless life; of the increasing brutality of the Roman occupiers; and of the mounting desperation, anger and confusion of the Jews themselves as a once thriving, civilised, proud and complex society is torn apart. The consequences begin closest to Yehoshuah, in his village of Nazareth and amongst his family and former neighbours, with the first part of the story narrated by his grieving mother, Miryam.
To Miryam, Yehoshuah is a beloved but distant son, intensely charismatic but difficult to understand, bristling and unsympathetic, hostile towards his father Yosef. Miryam’s voice is shrewd, a survivor’s voice, and she spares no pity for herself, nor does she spare any diplomacy on the story. Yehoshuah is not the product of a virgin birth, nor is he an immaculate conception (that is, uniquely born free from sin), but a chippy and careless wastrel who snubs his mother and goads and enrages his father. Well past the customary age to marry and establish his own house, he spends his time wandering about alone or with his friends, courting his increasing numbers of fans yet (as is written in the Gospel of Mark) turning his own mother away from a feast.
Miryam is not a believer or an unbeliever but a rugged individual who is struggling not only with the personal aftermath of the death of her son but also with the political aftermath of the occupying force’s suspicion of her, especially when she takes in a young man, Gidon, who had been one of the rebel rabble following Yehoshuah. When Gidon claims that Yehoshuah has “risen” – based on the fact that when various friends, vested interests and family go to claim the body, it has gone, and each party assumes it was stolen or taken by the other – it has no mystical meaning for her, or for anyone else. The detail about the missing body remains a logistical puzzle and a running joke, with no ethereal dimension.
Judas – or Iehuda, to give him his proper name – then takes up the story, which is largely one of his own jealousy and increasing cynicism, disbelief and ultimate loss of faith. Alderman’s representation of this famous backstabber and traitor is lean, flinty and melancholy. Iehuda is a serious and somewhat ascetic man, thoughtful and watchful but not malicious. As he tells it, with the slippery uneasiness of a man trying to convince himself he’s in the right, he genuinely or almost-genuinely believes that Yehoshuah is deceiving his followers and that his increasing popularity is based on false and exploitative showmanship and glib second-hand words. Initially enthralled, he steadily witnesses Yehoshuah’s increase in confidence until he sees him as unbearably pompous. He thinks that the Romans will merely flog Yehoshuah lightly to make an example of him to other sham prophets, then release him to demonstrate the ‘mercy’ of Rome.
When Yehoshuah is crucified, Iehuda’s guilt plays out with slow turmoil as he remembers the astonished faces of the other disciples when they realise who has summoned the Romans. Afterwards, Iehuda cannot summon up any defiance, only a lurking restlessness and darkness and a bleak telling of what happens next. Unable to live with himself peacefully in the same world as before, he humiliates himself by becoming the party-piece of a rich tourist who had followed Yehoshuah’s camp for his own amusement. At this rich man’s house he is patronised by and amuses the guests by telling the story how he betrayed Yehoshuah.
What The Liars’ Gospel makes clear is that Yehoshuah was not a legend in his own lifetime nor even in the decades that followed, although “there may well indeed have been such a man, or several men whose sayings are united under that one name. Tales accreted to him, and theories grew up around and over him.” In his own time, he was a forgotten semi-nobody, swamped by the violence to come, just another bit of collateral damage recalled with regret and bitterness, even ambivalence, by his friends and family and former followers. What immediately followed his short life – vindicating a prediction Yehoshuah himself had made, although it was an easy and obvious one requiring no special insight – was years of increasing violence, Roman control, Jewish rebellion and brutal Roman oppression and the infiltration and then defilement of the Temple, resulting in catastrophe.
The final two narratives of the novel, those of the shrewd temple High Priest Caiaphas and of a later rebel named Bar-Avo (or Barrabas) who has risen to importance Mafioso-style through the criminal alleyways and hustling local politics of Jerusalem, demonstrate the drastic social, economic, religious, political and brutalising effects of the occupation. The atmosphere moved from the personal and mysterious to the military, the ethereal to the ruggedly tactical. Caiaphas treads an increasingly self-incriminating line between religious integrity, personal hypocrisy, respected social power amongst the local community and diplomatic control when dealing with Pontius Pilate. He represents the thinking, feeling, scheming worldly man who is stretched to his utmost by tyrannical demands from above and an increasingly desperate populace all around. Alderman is incredibly sharp when tracing the petty, patronising concessions of those in power towards those they are dominating, the sense of cultural superiority they bear towards those they feel they are rightfully subjugating. On the receiving end there is Caiaphas’s pitiful pride in small rituals preserved, even as everything is gradually destroyed in a wider sense and the Temple itself is under increasing threat. At the same time Alderman takes ripe, cynical comedy from the sleaziness, arrogance, pretension and sexual and class hypocrisy of the priestly class who sanctimoniously and tenderly sacrifice lambs while using women as pieces of meat, compare tributes of oil and wine from wealthy supporters and bargain in small disputes between rival traders in the town.
Throughout the novel images of blood and bloodshed, meat, sacrifice and the cutting and piercing of flesh abound. The sacrificial lambs slaughtered inside the Temple recall the Jews massacred by Pompey, Pilate, Tiberius, Caligula, Titus, all Romans of varying status, madness, pomp and arrogance. Rome is represented as diseased yet indomitable, decadent yet decisive, distant but unerring in its quashing of all rebellion. Incidentally, The Liars’ Gospel features some of the most unflinching, exciting, hardy and physical war writing I have ever read. She understands everything from broad tactics (“First, encircle the city with a great host of men….see that no man can leave or come into the city… guard the high mountain passes… allow no food in, no wagons delivering grain…then it is wise to build a high wall around the city…”) to group fights, ambushes, surveillance and even individual scuffles. She seems to know about everything: Temple rituals, military strategy, the distinctions of Greek, Roman and Jewish culture and habits, political history and the way geography, politics, economics, commerce and trade influence each other.
With every page the novel becomes wider, deeper, darker, more foreboding and more violent. Time speeds forward and violence runs swiftly outwards like blood in Jerusalem’s stone gutters. Bar-Avo is a new kind of Jerusalem man. Streetwise, selfish and without the class pride of Caiaphas, born into degradation, boredom and anger, careless of the pacifism and weightless words of Yehoshuah’s set and of the sanctity of the Temple, he is a gangland underlord and fixer who becomes a people’s leader, intent upon removing the new High Priest – not Caiaphas now, but a man placed there by Rome itself. Alderman writes:
Massacres and riots and rebellions and battles are nothing new now. ….For every Roman excess there is a rebellion. Every rebellion is put down with increasing brutality. Every brutality hardens the people a little further, making the next uprising more violent. Every act of violence justifies a more extreme show of force in suppressing it. There are fewer and fewer people amongst the Jews who trust Rome at all. …The thing has no end. Or no end but one.There is a steady poisoning of civil society by violent rebels and violent Roman spies alike, a forcible turnover from thought to action and action to violence and a horrific and haunting end which has consequences, as we know, for many centuries to come.
By the resounding, huge-scale end of the book, the barely remembered Yehoshuah’s words and deeds have a desperate, poignant purity and simplicity. When it comes to him, The Liars’ Gospel is simultaneously the construction and deconstruction of a legend, a tribute and a takedown, written by an author who is both bedazzled and bemused. Yehoshuah appears and disappears with sudden consequence, irritating yet meaningful, underwhelming but unnerving. He buys his own hype, alternating between destructive volatility, nonsensical babbling and insufferable piety. Each manifestation brings with it the thrill of charisma, the tremor of social threat and political change, a charge of mystery, the toll of oncoming treachery. Yet this figure remains an enigma, even to his own mother, even to his betrayer, even to his enemies. He was one of many young men milling about, enraged by the occupation, unwilling to submit to the violating and oppressive presence of soldiers or the weight of Rome, in a society that was full to the fringes of fake prophets, misfits, schemers, fakes, failed rebels and conmen.
The question, Who was Jesus? has haunted millions, even those who like me are non-religious and do not believe in God, for thousands of years. Naomi Alderman has not answered that question, and I hope nobody does, because (as she hints), his meaning is in his mystery. And it probably doesn’t matter exactly who he was. It certainly didn’t matter to the Romans, who crucified many thousands alongside him. What Alderman has written instead of an easily digestible Jesus parable complete with prophecy, miracles, martyrdom, resurrection and return, is a visceral, beautifully structured, flawlessly written and totally devastating major novel about occupation, violence, brutality, ignorance, oppression, resistance – and ruin.
The Liars’ Gospel by Naomi Alderman is published by Penguin.