Holy Fact, Holy Fiction
Abrams, Rebecca, New Statesman (1996)
The Liars' Gospel
Viking, 272pp, [pounds sterling]12.99
Ever since I was a child, I've been fascinated by novels about biblical figures in which the boundary between fact and fiction, always the thorn in historical fiction's side, is especially ambiguous. David Maine took on Noah in his novel The Flood, then Cain and Abel in Fallen, working the sparse details of the known stories into richly imagined domestic dramas. In Only Human, Jenny Dish recast the story of Abraham and Sarah as a love triangle, with God the arrogant, petulant and gloriously narcissistic third party. Diski and Maine deploy humour to explore the relationship between the human and the divine to great effect. Comedy is the dominant key for these retellings but it's comedy shot through with something much darker.
Now Naomi Alderman enters the fray with The Liars' Gospel, a novel that circles around the elusive historical character of Jesus. She is by no means the first. Norman Mailer's The Gospel According to the Son put the familiar story into Jesus's voice to interrogate the New Testament versions. Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ attempted to extricate the human Jesus from the Messiah his disciples made of him. Others, from Thomas Jefferson to Stephen Mitchell, have likewise attempted to distil the teachings of the itinerant preacher Jesus from the overwritings of the early Christians.
Alderman, however, is doing something rather different. While The Liars' Gospel shares a central preoccupation with the nature of truth and the inherent slipperiness of words and memories, it roots its characters firmly and vividly in their historical and political context. You can see, hear, smell and taste first-century Judaea on every one of its pages. Alderman, whose previous two novels were concerned with contemporary Judaism, here succeeds magnificently in re-Judaising a story set 2,000 years in the past.
Jesus, Mary and the others are given back their Jewish names: Yehoshuah, Miryam, Iehuda. Yehoshuah/Jesus is one of numerous preacher-healers roaming Judaea. Pilate is one beleaguered and incompetent local ruler among many and answerable to his bosses back in Rome in what was then a relative backwater in the vast sprawl of the Roman empire. Religions existed cheek by jowl and had as much to do with power as with belief--then as now.
Violence was endemic. If you think things are bad in Syria today, compare it with living in Jerusalem circa 30AD. Civilian massacres were routine, bloodshed common, deadly skirmishes between rebels and rulers commonplace. …