The Liars’ Gospel Book Review
Following our journey back to the Spanish Civil War last week in my book review of The Shadow of the Wind, this week I am about to take you all back a little bit further in time…
“He was a traitor, a rabble-leader, a rebel, a liar and a pretender to the throne. We have tried to forget him here”
A year after her son Yehoshuah’s crucifixion, Miryam is not only grieving her first-born son, but also recovering from his rejection of his family. When one of his young followers finds their village, and asks to hear the stories of Yehoshuah’s childhood, Miryam has nothing to say. Certainly the idea that her son had any father other than Joseph does not occur to her. To Iehuda of Qeriot, Yehoshuah is a wise man and a close friend who brought him comfort after the death of his young wife. However, his uneasiness grows as Yehoshuah’s followers, and eventually his teachings, increasingly express the belief that he is the Messiah.
There is a matter of which Caiaphas never thinks. Not that he has decided not to think of it, but it simply does not cross his mind…
To Caiaphas, the High Priest, Yehoshuah was a blasphemous troublemaker, who now means nothing to him. And last of all is Bar-Avo, the leader of a Jewish rebellion, who knows how to play the game. He and his men have killed many Roman soldiers, and provided families with food when they most need it. To the crowd, as they are asked to choose between Yehoshuah and Bar-Avo, there really is no choice. As Yehoshuah is led away, Bar-Avo wonders how the story would have played out if it had been the other way.
In Alderman’s account, Mary is no virgin, Judas is still alive, Barabbas is a freedom fighter and to Caiaphas, the preacher Jesus was a bit of an inconvenience, rather than the victim of any plot. That Jesus went missing from his tomb is a surprise to none of them. Whether or not this is a book for you depends really on whether you mind the suggestion that Jesus was an inconsequential preacher who somehow gained much more momentum than others (some reviewers on GoodReads object quite vehemently to this). But this isn’t just Alderman declaring that the Bible is a lie; it’s much more subtle. It’s a book about people, and how people tell stories, which may or may not be lies, which become legend. Much of the book is imagined by Alderman, but as she explains in Author’s Notes, many parts of the book, including Yehoshuah’s rejection of his mother, are taken directly from the Bible.
The Liar’s Gospel opens with violence, ends with violence, and is violent throughout. As well as presenting an alternate story of Jesus of Nazareth, it also tells the story of the Roman occupation of Judea, beginning with Pompey’s siege of Jerusalem, and ending with Titus’s siege of Jerusalem. Religion is just part of a power struggle. The Romans attempt to install golden statuettes of themselves and their gods in the Jewish temples, and the people rebel, and are slaughtered. Not an easy read, especially the final siege of Jerusalem, but it is a beautiful and poignant read. The characters are sympathetic in their own ways, just trying to survive – after all, how long could anyone hold sway with a man claiming to be the Son of God?
And yet, in the midst of Bar-Avo’s rebellions against the collaborating priests, the rise of Yehoshuah is spoken of. The most poignant line for me comes from Bar-Avo’s friend Isaac, who tentatively suggests that the growing worship of a Jew may bring greater kindness towards the Jewish people.
“He was a Jew, Yehoshuah. If he were… not like Mithras or Ba’al, but if his worship were even as widespread as the cult of Juno –”
“All right, Robigus then. Even Robigus, the god of crop blight, if he were as loved as that… a Jew… might not the Empire soften towards us?”
A beautiful, and poignant fictionalised account of Jesus Christ. I say “fictionalised”, but what do we know about what may have happened?
Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Have I convinced you to give it a go? Let me know in the comments below.
Title image Die Festnahme Christi by Caravaggio.