A Novel View of the Gospels

By Pires-O'Brien, Joaquina | Contemporary Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

A Novel View of the Gospels


Pires-O'Brien, Joaquina, Contemporary Review


Joaquina Pires-O'Brien

Anniversaries revive memory but milestones evoke reappraisal. As Western civilisation starts the countdown for the third millennium there has been an increase in the number of religious books about the life of Jesus and in books that question the Christian orthodoxy, while these two categories are far surpassed by the number of esoteric titles. The first period of history to reappraise the story of Jesus was the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, when a number of points in the Gospels were brought to light. Excluding those assertions of the latter that can neither be proved nor disproved, in spite of being contrary to modern science, such as the virgin birth, many errors have been found regarding the dates for events such as the birth of Jesus. Although some biblical scholars have attempted to bring the story of Jesus from Religion into History there are still many that conform to the simplistic view that 'for God everything is possible'. The greatest difficulty with the story of Jesus is not the anachronisms, the inconsistencies or even the mistranslations of the Gospels but the lack of information from the period encompassing His late childhood, adolescence and early adulthood. As a result, little is known about the ordinary aspects of His life which is precisely the aspect that mostly arouses our curiosity. After all it is the birth of Jesus that marks the calendar whose milestone we are about to celebrate.

In the 2,000-year interval since the birth of Jesus, a tremendous accumulation of knowledge has changed the world many times until the present scientific and technological advances we take for granted today. Although the accumulation of relevant facts has allowed Science to explain many questions about the Universe, the same cannot be said about History, where proofs are scant and evidence is patchy, especially for those ancient cultures that were conquered by others, such as Roman-occupied Judaea, where Jesus was born. Moreover, the scope of historical explanations is limited by the fact that serious historians, like serious scientists, are bound by the demands of proof and evidence. While scientists and historians are caught in their methodological web, a writer of fiction, however, has the freedom to explore all the possibilities. In this aspect, it is Literature rather than History that will first bring forward new attempts to settle the many historical disputes that surround the life of Jesus. This is not to say that the writer has an easy job, far from it. To succeed, he or she too must carry out a great deal of research in order to understand the time and place where Jesus lived.

Jose Saramago is the talented Portuguese writer who won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. His book, Gospel According to Jesus Christ, first published in 1991, is a burlesque and provocative novel whose omniscient narrative is a revelation and whose assertions, like those found in the Gospels, cannot be proved or disproved. The life of Jesus is recreated in a detailed and historically accurate narrative that unveils smoothly and convincingly. The many questions regarding Jesus's human existence are explained, although a whole new set of metaphysical questions surfaces from the dialogues of the protagonist. The talent of the writer is flaunted throughout the narrative by the use of contemporary aphorisms to bridge the time gap, and by the choice of those trifling events in the life of the characters that wins the reader's empathy. The apparent simplicity of the text is achieved through a highly skilled use of syntax, where troublesome reflexive verbs and oblique pronouns are frequently flexed, although this aspect can only be fully appreciated in the original Portuguese vernacular.

Jesus is the first-born child of Mary and Joseph, an ordinary Jewish couple from Nazareth. (The idea that Jesus is one of several children is a direct challenge to correct Catholic teaching.) From birth, or perhaps from conception, He has been a magnet for the supernatural, which is shown by the disproportionate number of coincidences He encounters. …

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