It’s excellent. Read it.
I have quite a number of retellings of the Christ myth, so if I tell you that this may be the best, even better than The Good Man Jesus And The Scoundrel Christ, believe it is good. It says something so widely overlooked and even forgotten but so obvious – this is a Jewish story. In traditional Jewish communities, where the rituals and observations and practice in everyday life are kept alive, as it was without change for millennia, the past is not some distant thing, nor some mythical land. It is there by your side, it is living. There is an unbroken chain stretching back from this day to that day, through the centuries, in which people like you said this prayer, people like you broke this bread. The world may be different but people don’t change.
Miriam (Mary, mother of Christ) is a Jewish mother who hoped for nothing more than for her son to grow up and marry and give her grandchildren. Now he is gone and he has not even left her grandchildren to grieve with, nor help her as she grows old. Iehuda of Kerioth (Judas Iscariot) is a man seeking a return to a more pure and authentic faith in the time of Roman-occupied Judea, when the temple leader is appointed by Rome, by the emperor, by a man claiming to be a living god, in blasphemy. Yet his faith seems unfounded when the new firebrand reformist preacher he follows begins to espouse the same blasphemies of being a living god. Caiaphas is a man holding a difficult peace, preserving his people’s way of life and making concessions to its conquerors, trying to mitigate the all-powerful might of Rome and reign in the more extreme elements among his own people who could bring the troubled peace crashing down. And Bar-Avo (Barabbas) is a resistance fighter, a terrorist, a freedom fighter, a criminal, a man who kills his own people as well as the enemy if he believes they have collaborated or become complacent about their degradation.
These people could be now as they were then. People holding difficult peace. People seeking freedom and an authentic religious life. People enduring through grief and disappointment. Nothing is mysticised or otherised. And Alderman’s writing is so good, these are rich, full, identifiable people.
The book is composed of four parts, each narrated in first person by each of the characters. The book is bookended though with a prologue and an epilogue, detailing the first and second sieges of Jerusalem. This gives context to the world these characters inhabit. It is vital to understand what the overarching, defining force was in this world. That every person reacts and lives in reference to this situation. Pompey conquers Jerusalem, he slaughters the temple’s men, violates the holiest place in the temple with his heathen presence, and makes the temple leaders appointees of Rome. The religio-ethnic tension between the occupying force and the occupied stems from this. And the fact that the Jews live and worship is a gift merely by the mercy of Rome, and not their right as free people. And their religious leadership becomes a political tool of their oppressor, permanently entangling the struggle for political freedom with religious purity and authenticity.
When the book ends, it ends with the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, who believes that the mercy shown to the Jews has not been met with gratitude, and for their defiance, destroys their city utterly. A million people in Jerusalem were starved, slaughtered or hacked through, the buildings of the city razed, the temple burnt and the Holiest of Holies defiled and destroyed. The Jews are scattered to the four winds, those that survived, and must continue on.
Once it establishes this historical setting, what makes this book amazing is how sympathetic everyone is in their own way, even when they have diametrically opposed viewpoints. Alderman’s writing is so good that with each new character you are brought in and totally on their side, even while recognising their flaws.
I loved her portrayal of Iehuda (Judas). I’ve seen many sympathetic portrayals of Judas in various media, I didn’t expect anything particularly new from this one. Yet I got it. Many portrayals of Judas are of a man mistakenly doing what he thinks is the lesser of two evils, or a man racked with ambivalence and remorse. Alderman’s Iehuda is neither. He is a man who desperately needs his faith in God and believes Yehoshuah (Jesus) is the one to lead a truly revolutionary reform of the religion, return Judea to a real relationship with God who seems to have abandoned them to occupation. The corruption of the temple leaders who allow a blasphemous, living god to be sacrificed to in the temple every day, the idolatry of the coinage being minted with graven image of that living god, the transformation of their most holy and pious religious positions into political positions won with favours and wealth, where contemplation is not on the spiritual but on the machinations of empire – all these draw him to this new cult. He is heart and soul devoted to it. So when Yehoshuah (Jesus) starts to show the same corruption, same blasphemy, same politicking, by claiming to be a living god, by allowing himself to be anointed in expensive oils as gestures of wealth, by playing favourites amongst his followers about who is in his inner circle of “disciples”, Iehuda (Judas) can’t stand it. For him, it Yehoshuah (Jesus) who betrays him, not the other way around. In fact Yehoshuah (Jesus) betrays the whole cause. And for Iehuda (Judas) it is a true return to God to report him to the authorities, a true act of devotion to the one true God to renounce this imposter. He is not ambivalent, but happy. He has done the right thing. He is reunited with the true faith.
Caiaphas is just as interestingly portrayed. Caiaphas is widely discussed by the other characters as being corrupt, and he is, just not as they think. Caiaphas does not see himself as religiously corrupt. He knows he has made concessions to Rome, but he thinks he has won more battles than he has lost, and he has mitigated a lot of the worst excesses of Rome. For him, the most important thing of all is to ensure the continuation of the temple, the daily sacrifices to God, the sanctity of the Holiest of Holies, the ability to wash out his people’s sin when he meets with God on Yom Kippur. All else is secondary. There must be peace for the temple to continue, the relationship with God is all that matters. So what if it is undignified? So what if there is injustice? So what if the Romans kill the young men and everyone is too afraid to stop them? Your dignity, your justice and your grief should not be as important as your dedication to God. Call yourself pious? Yet you would risk bringing down their wrath on us all, risk them destroying the temple? True adherence to the faith would require that the preservation of the relationship with God in paramount. Therefore any concession to that end is justified.
What is really good in this chapter is that Caiaphas meets Pilate. Pilate wants temple gold to pay for building an aqueduct, and doesn’t understand or care that this would sacrilegious, for gold dedicated to the glory of God to be used by Rome’s emissaries for projects of their liking. And Pilate bursts out into a rant, that despite the fact he is set up as the antagonist, is massively sympathetic, especially to me as someone without faith. He brays that everything that’s in this city is holy, the gold is holy, the food is holy, the building is holy, the coins are (un)holy, everything – EVERYTHING – is a source for religious offence. He’s trying to build an aqueduct to bring you clean water, you fucking backwards peasants, and you’re too fucking superstitious to even appreciate what’s trying to be done for you! It is a great scene, in which Pilate’s absolute rightness and wrongness is played off this arbitrator who knows that there will be riots and death as a result of this man’s pigheadedness towards those he’s been set over to rule. It’s every occupation ever. Why don’t you love my mercy you idiots!
The last chapter is of Bar-Avo (Barabbas), whose name means “son of his father” and therefore is understood to be a nom de guerre. He is a resistance fighter, a savvy, smart, quick and ruthless leader who spends his life fighting to free Judea from Roman rule. He has no tolerance for those who capitulate to Rome, who pander to the Romans, who ease their way, who collaborate to bring about a subjugated Judea, and in this other Jews are as much his enemy as the Romans. He commits random acts of “terror” to ensure people never become complacent about Roman rule. The peace Caiaphas so desperately craves is Bar-Avo’s (Barabbas) greatest nightmare and defeat. He resists to the end, until as an old man, with his band of loyal Zealots, they storm the temple and kill its Rome appointed leaders. For which, Rome pays them back in spades.
So where is Yehoshuah (Jesus) in all this? He is far from the centre of things. He is of greatest importance to his mother, and barely remember by Caiaphas and Bar-Avo (Barabbas). He has a decent following, but no more really than a lot of other reformist, messianic, apocalyptic cults had at the time. Does he pose a threat to the temple leaders? Not in a religious sense, but he is an embarrassment to them because they are tasked with keeping the population docile under Roman rule. A few of his scattered followers believe he has risen from the dead, but since no one sees him, they figure that his body was simply stolen in order to be given a proper burial. Not even his mother really believes. This is a retelling of the Christ myth in which Christ is a minor character. Why he said what he said, why he did what he did, why he died how he died, is what’s important. He himself is but a shadow. The negative space where religion and politics collide in an occupied land.
Absolutely read this book. This may be my longest review ever. That’s how much I enjoyed this book. Read it. Read it now.