Burning the Torah: Writing as Betrayal in Four Fictional Gospels

Burning the Torah: Writing as Betrayal in Four Fictional Gospels Abstract In ancient Jewish, Greek, and even Christian tradition, mistrust of writing was not uncommon. This mistrust may not be evident in the four canonical gospels, in which Jesus himself is depicted as reading and writing. But it re-emerges in four of our fictional gospels—Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, Gore Vidal’s Live From Golgotha, Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son, and Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. In all four novels, the Evangelists are condemned for having betrayed Jesus with their half-truths, lies, and ulterior motives. The irony, of course, is that our four novelists are guilty of same offence. I According to Rabbi Yohanan, one of the Sages quoted in the Talmud, ‘those who write down legal traditions (halakhot) are like those who burn the Torah. And anyone who studies from them receives no reward’. Rabbi Yohanan’s prohibition on writing did not extend to non-legal traditions (aggadot), but Rabbi Judah ben Nahmani, according to the Talmud, built a veritable wall between oral tradition and the Written Torah: ‘things transmitted in memory you may not recite from writing,’ he warned, ‘and things transmitted in writing you may not recite from memory’ (B. Temurah 14b). In point of fact, portions of the Oral Torah were written down, just as the Written Torah was quoted from memory. But, as Martin Jaffee has reminded us, the authorised medium for the transmission of Oral Torah was not the scroll or the codex, but the person of the Sage himself.1 Many of the Church Fathers shared the ancient rabbinical preference for oral over written tradition. In his lost five-volume work The Sayings of the Lord Explained, Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis, recalled that: whenever anyone came who had been a follower of the presbyters, I inquired into the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other disciple of the Lord, and what Aristion and the presbyter John were still saying. For I did not imagine that things out of books would help me as much as the utterances of a living and abiding voice.2 We know this passage because it was quoted by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. That Papias knew of Mark’s and Matthew’s writings is evident from other passages quoted by Eusebius. In one passage, Papias quotes the presbyter John—whom Eusebius believed to be a different John than the disciple named in the gospels—as saying that: Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. … Peter used to adapt his teaching to the occasion, without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them.3 The point is that Mark’s written gospel needed to be authenticated by the living testimony of the presbyter John, not the other way around. Papias’ preference for the spoken word was shared by no less a Church Father than St John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople. In his first homily on the gospel of Matthew, Chrysostom apologised for resorting to writing: It were indeed meet for us not at all to require the aid of the written Word, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the grace of the Spirit should be instead of books to our souls, and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course. That writing is merely ‘the second best course’, Chrysostom continued, is confirmed by God’s own words and deeds. The Old Testament indicates that God ‘discoursed’ with Noah, Abraham, Job, and Moses ‘not by writings, but Himself by Himself, finding their mind pure’. Similarly, the New Testament reveals that ‘neither to the apostles did God give anything in writing, but instead of written words He promised that he would give them the grace of the Spirit: for “He,” saith our Lord, “shall bring all things to your remembrance.”’4 The above passage from Chrysostom was quoted by the late Jacques Derrida in one of his earliest published essays, ‘Force and Signification’. Like Chrysostom, Derrida regarded writing as graceless, unspiritual, impure. The difference was that he embraced the ‘secondarity’ of writing, which he celebrated as endlessly constitutive of meaning in its own right, not as a feeble reminder of the Word inscribed by the Spirit on our hearts. As he wrote just before quoting Chrysostom: It is because writing is inaugural, in the fresh sense of the word, that it is dangerous and anguishing. It does not know where it is going, no knowledge can keep it from the essential precipitation toward the meaning that it constitutes and that is, primarily, its future. … There is no insurance against the risk of writing. Writing is an initial and graceless recourse for the writer, even if he is not an atheist but, rather, a writer. We experience writing as secondary, Derrida went on to explain, because it presents itself to us as already read, as if the writer were merely transcribing a pre-existing, immaterial Word. ‘Is not that which is called God,’ Derrida asks, ‘the absolute witness to the dialogue in which what one sets out to write has already been read …?’5 Derrida’s argument with Chrysostom is echoed by a series of fictional gospels published since the Second World War, starting with Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ and ending (for the time being) with Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. What distinguishes these gospels from others of the same genre—Jose Saramago’s mesmerising The Gospel According to Jesus Christ for example, or Nino Ricci’s magisterial Testament—is the fact that the act of gospel-writing is problematised by the authors. In these ‘meta-gospels’, as we might call them, we encounter followers of Jesus who are also writers—writers who are instructed by mysterious figures to record the life of Jesus as it happens (or happened). What is more, writing is represented as a deeply suspicious activity—clandestine, agonising, and errant, with the power to make and remake history. In these latter-day gospels, to write about Jesus is, in effect, to betray him. At the same time, writing is depicted as profoundly seductive. However reluctantly, the writers in these gospels come to accept their assigned task, even to take secret pleasure in it. II Papias believed that the Gospel of Matthew was written by the disciple of Jesus who bore that name. Such testimony may be of limited historical value, but it stoked the fiery imagination of the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Matthew, believing that ‘God had placed him next to this holy man in order that he might faithfully record the words he said and the miracles he performed’, begins to compose his gospel as soon as he is called to join the disciples—but without Jesus’ knowledge. As he dips his quill into his inkwell, he hears: a rustling of wings to his right. An angel seemed to come to his ear and dictate. With a sure, rapid hand, he started to write: ‘The Book of the Generation of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham. Abraham begot. …’ He wrote and wrote until the east began to glow bluish-white and the first cock was heard to crow.6 Inevitably, the sound of the crowing cock recalls Peter’s denials, hinting that Matthew, too, is destined to betray Jesus—not by denying him, but by writing about him. A few nights later, Matthew takes up where he left off, intending to write of Jesus’ birth to Joseph and Mary in Nazareth. As soon as he puts pen to page, however, he hears the beating of angry wings and a voice trumpeting in his ear: ‘Not the son of Joseph! What says the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” … Write: Mary was a virgin. The archangel Gabriel descended to her house before any man had touched her and said, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” Straightway her bosom bore fruit. … Do you hear? That’s what you’re to write.’ Growing angry in turn, Matthew complains: ‘It’s not true. I don’t want to write, and I won’t!’ But the angel replies, with ‘mocking laughter’: How can you understand what truth is, you handful of dust? Truth has seven levels. On the highest is enthroned the truth of God, which bears not the slightest resemblance to the truth of men. It is this truth, Matthew Evangelist, that I intone in your ear. …7 Here Kazantzakis alludes to the kabbalists’ mystical understanding of the Torah, with its seven layers of esoteric meaning. Eventually, Jesus notices Matthew’s notebook and asks to see it. After reading the opening pages of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus grows angry, throwing the notebook on the ground and screaming: Lies! Lies! Lies! The Messiah doesn’t need miracles. He is the miracle—no other is necessary! I was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem; I’ve never even set foot in Bethlehem, and I don’t remember any Magi. I never in my life went to Egypt. … After Matthew explains about the angel, however, Jesus grows silent, thinking to himself, ‘Bethlehem, Magi, Egypt, and “you are my beloved son”: if all these were the truest truth. … If this was the highest level of truth, inhabited only by God … If what we called truth, God called lies.’ Jesus then picks up the notebook and hands it back to Matthew, telling him: ‘Write whatever the angel dictates. It is too late for me to…’8 But his sentence trails off into silence, implying that he is no match for the power of the written Word. By now, the reader has concluded that Matthew—or the angel who dictates his words—is indeed in the process of betraying Jesus. Things get more complicated, though, when we come to the infamous ‘Last Temptation’ itself, in which Jesus is offered one final temptation as he hangs on the cross. An angel appears to him in a vision, announcing that God no longer requires his death and that he is free to live a normal human life, with a wife and a home. He proceeds to climb down from the cross, wed Mary Magdalene, and settle down to a quiet domestic life, with its ordinary joys and sorrows. In old age, however, Jesus receives a visit from his former disciples, including Matthew, who complains: All my work has gone for nothing, nothing, nothing! How masterfully I matched your words and deeds with the prophets! It was terribly difficult, but I managed. I used to say to myself that in the synagogues of the future the faithful would open thick tomes bound in gold and say, ‘The lesson for today is from the holy Gospel according to Matthew’! This thought gave me wings, and I wrote. But now, all that grandeur has gone up in smoke, and you—you ingrate! you illiterate! you traitor!—you’re to blame. You should have been crucified. Yes, if only for my sake, so that these writings might have been saved, you should have been crucified!9 Obviously, Matthew’s ambivalence about his work has long since vanished. He has become an Author, whose angel is Ego. Now it is Jesus who is betraying his Evangelist. As for Kazantzakis, he, too, considered himself an Evangelist, a modern lover of Christ whose mission it was to rescue the Saviour of Mankind from his imprisonment within the walls of the Bible and the Church. Like the great anti-clerical scholar Renan, his nineteenth-century predecessor, Kazantzakis sought to demythologise the gospels, to liberate Jesus from the shackles of miracle, mystery, and authority. In this sense, he was the anti-Matthew. In another sense, however, Kazantzakis fancied himself a modern Greek Matthew, the author of a new, symbolic gospel for modern man, at once sacred and profane. Like his hero Christ, Kazantzakis embodied the struggle between Spirit and Flesh, between Apollo and Dionysus, between Ego and Id, testifying to the truth of the human condition in words written in his own blood, sweat, and tears. III Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ was released in 1988 amid cries of blasphemy, street protests, and sporadic violence. A few years later, Gore Vidal published an even more blasphemous novel, Live From Golgotha, a lewd, satirical, self-referential gospel with a confusing plot in which an NBC television crew travels backward in time to record the Crucifixion on videotape. The host of the television show, and the putative author of Vidal’s gospel, is Timothy, the Bishop of Thessalonika, St Paul’s former travelling companion. Just before the Crucifixion, Timothy speaks with Pontius Pilate, who turns out to be: an unnatural blond whose striking appearance all in all was not too unlike David Bowie’s, his impersonator in a recent film in which we were all unusually portrayed. … In a vision, Jesus … leaves the cross and goes off and gets married, and then decides to return to the cross for no urgent reason.10 This, of course, is a wink to those who have seen Scorsese’s film, which Timothy has discovered, presumably, by means of the television set that was delivered to his palace in Thessalonika, across time and space, by Chester W. Claypoole, Vice President of Creative Programming at NBC. Live From Golgotha begins with a dream in which St Paul appears to Timothy in the year 96 AD and warns him that a mysterious computer genius from the future, known as ‘the Hacker’, has loosed a virus that is systematically deleting or corrupting the New Testament gospels. Only Timothy, it seems, can foil the Hacker by writing the one true gospel, the Gospel According to Timothy, and hiding it in the mop room of the cathedral in Thessalonika, where it will be discovered two millennia later. The problem is that, in the course of writing his gospel, Timothy is constantly interrupted by time-travellers from the future (‘kibitzers’) who influence his work. Chet Claypoole, for example, brings him the notebook of Somerset Maugham, from which he decides to lift a lurid description of a sunset.11 More troubling are the figures from his own past who turn out, in retrospect, to have been more ‘kibitzers’ from the future. In Ephesus, for example, he once bumped into a woman he now recognises as Shirley MacLaine, the Hollywood actress and New Age devotee, who lived there in one her previous lives. Or did he? ‘Did I really see adorable Shirley then?’ he asks himself. ‘Or am I now in the act of writing this epistle to the New Age being inspired by congruent forces inside as well as outside my ken?’12 In the funhouse world of Live From Golgotha, such questions are unanswerable. The act of writing renders memory itself uncertain. For help, Timothy decides to visit John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, who is still alive and living in Rome in the year 96 AD. It so happens that Timothy had met Mark in Rome once before, just before the Great Fire of 64 AD. In Timothy’s telling, however, these two visits to Rome are conflated, with Timothy knowing everything he knows now, in the year 96 AD, and Mark knowing no more than he did then. It is as though Timothy, in the course of writing about his earlier trip to Rome, has been transported back in time, becoming, in effect, a kibitzer in his own story. Fortunately, Mark trusts him when he warns that his gospel—Mark’s gospel—will be lost forever unless he, Timothy, is able to make a copy and hide it. So Mark dictates from his original manuscript while Timothy writes it down: without all the begats admittedly, but with a lot of vivid new stuff which Mark had been forced by his publisher to cut, including the highly relevant lesson 254: ‘Let every voice but God’s be still in me because today we let no ego thoughts direct any words or actions.’ So Jesus spoke directly to Helen Schucman.13 Helen Schucman was the author of A Course in Miracles (1975), which, she claimed, had been dictated to her by Jesus himself. So even Mark’s original manuscript has been corrupted by the Hacker—or was Helen really there in Palestine with Jesus? Vidal’s narrative circus act makes it impossible to stabilise the meaning of the text. The ultimate plot twist in Live From Golgotha is that the Hacker turns out to be none other than Jesus himself, masquerading in the twentieth century as ‘Marvin Wasserman’. Why would Jesus, of all people, conspire to hack the gospels on which Christianity is based? The answer is that he is a Zionist, whereas Christianity is a fiction invented by St Paul. As Timothy explains: The letters he wrote me are the basis of what he was the first to call ‘Christianity’, thus parting company not only with the Jews but the Jesus party of Jews at Jerusalem. We both knew, even without the kibitzers who are now circling me like vultures, that we were historic and, perhaps, unique in religion as we … were able to make so much out of what was basically so little. The Jesus story was never much of anything until Saint cooked up the vision-on-the-road-to-Damascus number and then pulled the whole story together. …14 Thus it is Pauline Christianity, and the Church that Timothy serves, that must be safeguarded from the Hacker, who plans to return as the Messiah in the year 2001 AD and bring the world to an end. The fact that Christianity was ‘cooked up’ by St Paul is irrelevant. What matters is that it be preserved in written form. Timothy’s gospel ends with his vow to hide his manuscript in the cathedral mop room—a precaution that, he believes, will save Christianity before the Hacker can execute his plan. The irony, of course, is that the Gospel According to Timothy, discovered by Gore Vidal and published under the title Live From Golgotha in the year 1992 AD, had no such purpose. On the contrary, Gore Vidal was intent on debunking Christianity and all monotheistic religion. A few months before the publication of Live From Golgotha, he delivered the Lowell Lecture at Harvard on the theme of ‘Monotheism and its Discontents’. ‘The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture,’ he proclaimed, ‘is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved—Judaism, Christianity, Islam. These are sky-god religions. … Those who would reject him must be converted or killed for their own good. Ultimately, totalitarianism is the only sort of politics that can truly serve the sky-god’s purpose.’15 Vidal’s weapons in the great apocalyptic battle against monotheism, of course, were those of the comic novelist—wit, mockery, and laughter. And who sallied forth to meet him as the dour champion of monotheism? None other than his old rival Norman Mailer. IV In 1971, Norman Mailer head-butted Gore Vidal in the green room before their legendary verbal fisticuffs on the set of The Dick Cavett Show. They resumed their feud in 1977 when, at a Manhattan party, Mailer reportedly threw a glass of wine at Vidal and punched him in the mouth. Fifteen years later, after the publication of Live From Golgotha, Mailer was determined to beat his old rival again, this time at the sport of gospel-writing. And what better way to one-up Gore Vidal than to narrate his gospel—the One True Gospel—in the voice of Jesus himself? While I would not say that Mark’s gospel is false, it has much exaggeration. And I would offer less for Matthew, and for Luke and John, who gave me words I never uttered and described me as gentle when I was pale with rage. Their words were written many years after I was gone and only repeat what old men told them. Very old men. Such tales are to be leaned upon no more than a bush that tears free from its roots and blows about in the wind.16 So Jesus decides, after 2,000 years, to write his own gospel. Only divine writing, it seems, can represent the truth of what happened. I say ‘write’, although some students of oral tradition—notably Werner Kelber—have concluded that Jesus was probably illiterate.17 This conclusion flies in the face of Christian tradition, which assumed that Jesus was not only literate, but sent letters to King Abgar and others.18 In the apocryphal Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea, for example, Jesus writes a laissez-passer for Demas, the Good Thief, so that he may enter Paradise: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came down from the heights of heaven, who came forth from the womb of the invisible God without separating from him, who came down into the world so as to be made flesh and to be nailed to the cross, so that I might save Adam, the very one whom I made, to my archangelic powers, the gatekeepers of paradise, servants of my Father: I wish and order that the one who was crucified with me should enter, that he should receive forgiveness of sins on my account, and that putting on an immortal body he should enter paradise and dwell there. …19 The miracle here is not that Jesus knows how to write. Of course he knows how to write; he is the Son of God. The miracle is that he can write with his hands nailed to the cross—unless he merely dictates it to an angelic scribe. What about the four canonical gospels? Curiously, they depict Jesus writing on only one occasion, in the course of John’s memorable story of the Woman Taken in Adultery. I quote the Authorised Version: And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he had heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto time, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote upon the ground. (John 6:3–8) Some ancient editors and copyists added ‘the sins of each of them’ to the end of verse eight, explaining why the scribes and Pharisees slink away one by one until Jesus is left alone with the woman.20 Inevitably, Christian tradition identified the Woman Taken in Adultery with Mary Magdalene, who plays such an important role in Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation. In Mailer’s version of the story, Jesus writes with his finger on the ground in order to avoid looking at the woman, whom he fears is beautiful. So fearful is he that he does not even know what he is writing and is careful not to let the Pharisees see it. As he writes, he whispers verses about unclean women that he remembers from the scrolls he has studied. Meanwhile, Peter sits down next to him with the scroll he lugs around with him, pointing to a passage about whores and adulteresses as he reads it aloud in ‘the old Hebrew tongue’, albeit ‘with great difficulty’.21 The surprising thing is that Jesus cowers before the Law, as laid down in the Hebrew scrolls. Far from boldly proclaiming the liberating Spirit of the Law, he is bound by its letter. If Mailer’s version of the Woman Taken in Adultery is rather silly, consider his version of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. In the first place, writes Jesus, there were only five hundred present, not five thousand, as all four gospels claim. And he did not multiply the five loaves and two fishes. What really happened, according to Jesus, was far more mundane: I took those five loaves and divided them exceedingly small, until there were a hundred pieces of bread from each loaf. Then the two fish gave up more than twice two hundred morsels. And, with five hundred bits of bread and five hundred of fish, I passed these morsels to each of the followers, doing it myself for all five hundred.22 Mailer’s Jesus may not have performed the miracle attributed to him by the Evangelists, but his accounting is impeccable—so impeccable, in fact, that Mailer’s version of the feeding becomes more unbelievable than the miracle recorded in the gospels. Yet Mailer’s gospel is far from naturalistic. After feeding the five hundred with his microscopic bits of bread and fish, Jesus and his disciples row back across the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida, where Jesus disembarks, leaving his companions asleep in the boat. When a storm materialises at night, however, a concerned Jesus starts to swim back to the boat. Of a sudden, I was up and above the waters! I was walking! And I could even hear my Father’s laughter at my pleasure in walking upon His water. Then came a second wave of His laughter. He was mocking me. For I had concluded too quickly that there was no extravagance in his miracles.23 Evidently, Mailer wanted to have his cake and eat it, too. On the one hand, the Evangelists must be guilty of exaggeration, for otherwise there would be no need for Jesus to set the record straight. On the other hand, Jesus does perform miracles; in the end, he even rises from the dead. That is more than can be said of Mailer’s gospel, I am afraid, which lacks the blasphemous passion and existential urgency that propels Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation. By comparison, Mailer’s gospel is surprisingly inoffensive and, frankly, a little dull. Kazantzakis’ Christ is in constant agony, tormented to the point of madness by the World, the Flesh, and the Devil; Mailer’s Christ is aloof and retrospective, mildly irritated at the gospel writers’ errata. In effect, Mailer’s Christ betrays himself by writing about himself in such uninspired terms. In the end, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Mailer simply could not muster much enthusiasm for writing a gospel. Whereas Kazantzakis identified himself with Christ heart and soul, pouring the fire burning in his veins onto every page of his gospel, Mailer regarded Christ as a bit of a curiosity, recounting his story in bloodless, un-Maileresque prose. He spent many hours conversing with Michael Lennon about God and the Devil, but only a few minutes talking about Christ, judging by the published transcript.24 He wrote The Gospel According to the Son not out of an existential crisis, but rather to one-up Gore Vidal and, one suspects, to place the capstone on the Canon—the Canon of Norman Mailer. V My final example of gospel-writing as betrayal comes from Philip Pullman’s fable The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which splits the Second Person of the Christian Trinity into twin brothers, one named Jesus, the other named Christ. From the beginning, Jesus is strong and forthright, whereas Christ is weak and clever. When Jesus begins his ministry, Christ wants nothing more than to help his brother transform his haphazard counter-cultural movement into the Kingdom of God on earth. Of course, God could lift a finger and it could happen at once. But think how much better it would be if the way were prepared by men like the Baptist, men like you—think of the advantages if there were a body of believers, a structure, an organization already in place. … I can see the princes of the nations—I can see Caesar himself having to bow down before this body, and offer obeisance to God’s own Kingdom in place here in the world. Jesus, however, wants no part of his brother’s vision of a Church. ‘What you describe,’ he replies, ‘sounds like the work of Satan.’25 Before long, a Mysterious Stranger comes to speak privately with Christ. ‘I want to make sure that you have your rightful reward,’ he tells Christ. I want the world to know your name as well as that of Jesus. In fact, I want your name to shine with even greater splendour. He is a man, and only a man, but you are the word of God.26 A few chapters later, when Jesus goes off to preach the Sermon on the Mount, Christ tags along with a tablet and stylus, intending to take notes. When someone in the crowd accuses him of being a spy, he is rescued by the Stranger. Deciding to confide in the man, whom he takes for a priest, Jesus asks: ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ The Stranger replies: It is an excellent thing to do. Sometimes there is a danger that people might misinterpret the words of a popular speaker. The statements need to be edited, the meanings clarified, the complexities unraveled for the simple-of-understanding. In fact, I want you to continue. Keep a record of what your brother says, and I shall collect your reports from time to time, so that we can begin the work of interpretation.27 The Stranger, of course, omits to explain who ‘we’ are. Christ takes him for an emissary of the powerful Sanhedrin; readers familiar with Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy may well take him for a henchman of the Magisterium. Like Matthew in The Last Temptation of Christ, Christ cannot resist embellishing Jesus’ deeds in the scrolls where he expands his notes. Consider, once again, the Feeding of the Five Thousand. As in Mailer’s version, Jesus does not multiply the loaves and fishes. Instead, he merely shares what little he has with the crowd, urging others to do the same. And sure enough, it turned out that one man had brought some barley cakes, and another had a couple of apples, and a third had some dried fish, and a fourth had a pocketful of raisins, and so on; and there was plenty to go round. No one was hungry. Christ, however, records it as ‘another miracle’.28 The next time the Stranger appears, Christ asks why he is so interested in his scrolls. After warning Christ that what he is about to reveal is not for everyone to know, the Stranger explains: In writing about what has gone past, we help to shape what will come. There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way to the Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was. I am sure you understand me. As the Stranger gathers up Christ’s scrolls and prepares to depart, he adds: There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God.29 At the time, Christ is thrilled by the Stranger’s words. Only later, when he learns what part the Stranger wants him to play in his brother’s drama, does he begin to have second thoughts. That part, as noted by Rowan Williams in his review of Pullman’s fable for The Guardian, is the part of Judas.30 Writer and Betrayer become one as Christ agrees, with a heavy heart, to hand his brother Jesus over to the authorities, knowing that he must die if the Church is to be born. As the Stranger explains, the Church can exist ‘only—only—if at the centre of it is the ever-living presence of a man who is both a man and more than a man, a man who is also God and the word of God, a man who dies and is brought to life again’. Christ, however, is suddenly full of doubt. When he asks whether the Resurrection will happen, the Stranger replies: ‘Yes, it will happen, if you believe in it.’31 Evidently, Christ convinces himself that the miracle will occur, for he carries out the Stranger’s instructions, betraying his brother with a kiss. After Jesus is crucified and buried, Christ visits his tomb at night. Suddenly, the Stranger is there at his side; together they watch as shadowy figures carry Jesus’ body out of the tomb. ‘Are you going to pretend he is risen?’ Christ exclaims. ‘He will be risen,’ replies the Stranger, to which Christ retorts, ‘How? By means of a trick? This is contemptible. Oh, that I fell for this! Oh, I am damned! Oh, my brother! What have I done?’32 Nevertheless, Christ promises to play his part in the charade, allowing himself to be mistaken for his risen brother Jesus. The Stranger assures him that it is a great part indeed. ‘When the records of this time and of Jesus’ life are written,’ he proclaims, ‘your account will be of enormous value. You will be able to determine how these events are remembered right up until the ending of the world.’33 Years later, after Christ has moved away, changed his name, and settled down to the quiet life of a net-maker, the Stranger visits him one last time, bringing Christ’s old scrolls with him. It is time, the Stranger says, to start putting the story of Jesus in order. Christ’s first impulse is to refuse the scrolls, to let someone else tell the story. As he breaks bread with the Stranger, however, ‘he couldn’t help thinking of the story of Jesus, and how he could improve it. For example, there could be some miraculous sign to welcome the birth: a star, an angel’. Furthermore, ‘there were a hundred details that could add verisimilitude. He knew, with a pang that blended guilt and pleasure, that he had already made some of them up’.34 Every novelist knows that pang—the guilt of betrayal, the pleasure of making things up. Even Philip Pullman, whose love of literature was born in the library of his grandfather’s rectory, must have known that pang.35 In the case of Pullman and our other novelists, however, the question arises: Were they, too, betraying Jesus? That was not their intention. Each of them poses as a loyal defender of Jesus—the true Jesus, the good Jesus, the Jesus who has been betrayed by the writers of the canonical gospels. Even Gore Vidal—no lover of Jesus—implicitly defends the historical Jesus against the Christ of faith. In their novels, they expose the process by which Jesus was betrayed—a process that appears to be indistinguishable, ironically, from that of novel-writing itself. And there is the rub. By making things up about Jesus, Kazantzakis betrayed him as surely as Matthew does in The Last Temptation. Gore Vidal betrayed him as surely as Timothy, who knowingly conspires with St Paul to invent Christianity out of whole cloth. Norman Mailer betrayed Jesus as surely the four Evangelists, whose exaggerations prompt the Son to write his own gospel. And the scoundrel Pullman betrayed the good man Jesus as surely as his brother Christ, embellishing a story that takes on a life its own. If writing about Jesus is a form of betrayal, however, it is—as even Chrysostom had to acknowledge—a necessary one. Like the Evangelists they condemn, our novelists just cannot help themselves. The pleasure of writing fiction is just too great. And it is a good thing that it is, for it is only in being betrayed—in being written about—that Jesus is crucified and resurrected in the reader’s imagination. REFERENCES Footnotes 1 Martin S. Jaffee, ‘A Rabbinic Ontology of the Written and Spoken Word: On Discipleship, Transformative Knowledge, and the Living Texts of Oral Torah’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65.3 (1997) 525–49. 2 Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G.A. Williamson (New York: Dorset Press, 1975), p. 150. 3Ibid., p. 152. 4 St John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel According to St Matthew, First Series, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 10, ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing, 1994), p. 1. 5 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 11. 6 Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ, trans. P.A. Bien (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), p. 326. 7Ibid., p. 349. 8Ibid., pp. 391–2. 9Ibid., p. 494. 10 Gore Vidal, Live From Golgotha (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), pp. 208–9. 11Ibid., p. 53. 12Ibid., p. 86. 13Ibid., p. 152. 14Ibid., p. 173. 15 Gore Vidal, ‘Monotheism and its Discontents’, The Lowell Lecture, Harvard University, 20 April 1992, http://www.gorevidalpages.com/1992/04/gore-vidal-monotheism-and-its-discontents.html. 16 Norman Mailer, The Gospel According to the Son (New York: Ballantine, 1997), pp. 1–2. 17 Werner H. Kelber, The Oral and Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1983). 18 Jesus’ legendary correspondence with King Abgar of Edessa can be found in Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Plese, The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). 19Ibid., pp. 579–80. 20The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 138, note i. 21 Mailer, Gospel, p. 182. 22Ibid., p. 120. 23Ibid., p. 122. 24 Norman Mailer and Michael Lennon, On God: An Uncommon Conversation (New York: Random House, 2007). 25 Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010), pp. 43–4. 26Ibid., p. 58. 27Ibid., p. 74. 28Ibid., p. 90. 29Ibid., pp. 98–9. 30 Rowan Williams, ‘Book of the Week’, Guardian, 2 April 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/03/good-jesus-christ-philip-pullman. 31 Pullman, Good Man, pp. 172–3. 32Ibid., p. 226. 33Ibid., p. 228. 34Ibid., pp. 243–4. 35 Christopher Hitchens, ‘Oxford’s Rebel Angel’, Vanity Fair, October 2002, http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2002/10/hitchens200210.print. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Literature and Theology Oxford University Press

Burning the Torah: Writing as Betrayal in Four Fictional Gospels

Loading next page...
 
/lp/ou_press/burning-the-torah-writing-as-betrayal-in-four-fictional-gospels-g10LsJnV2D
Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com
ISSN
0269-1205
eISSN
1477-4623
D.O.I.
10.1093/litthe/frx033
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

Abstract In ancient Jewish, Greek, and even Christian tradition, mistrust of writing was not uncommon. This mistrust may not be evident in the four canonical gospels, in which Jesus himself is depicted as reading and writing. But it re-emerges in four of our fictional gospels—Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, Gore Vidal’s Live From Golgotha, Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son, and Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. In all four novels, the Evangelists are condemned for having betrayed Jesus with their half-truths, lies, and ulterior motives. The irony, of course, is that our four novelists are guilty of same offence. I According to Rabbi Yohanan, one of the Sages quoted in the Talmud, ‘those who write down legal traditions (halakhot) are like those who burn the Torah. And anyone who studies from them receives no reward’. Rabbi Yohanan’s prohibition on writing did not extend to non-legal traditions (aggadot), but Rabbi Judah ben Nahmani, according to the Talmud, built a veritable wall between oral tradition and the Written Torah: ‘things transmitted in memory you may not recite from writing,’ he warned, ‘and things transmitted in writing you may not recite from memory’ (B. Temurah 14b). In point of fact, portions of the Oral Torah were written down, just as the Written Torah was quoted from memory. But, as Martin Jaffee has reminded us, the authorised medium for the transmission of Oral Torah was not the scroll or the codex, but the person of the Sage himself.1 Many of the Church Fathers shared the ancient rabbinical preference for oral over written tradition. In his lost five-volume work The Sayings of the Lord Explained, Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis, recalled that: whenever anyone came who had been a follower of the presbyters, I inquired into the words of the presbyters, what Andrew or Peter had said, or Philip or Thomas or James or John or Matthew, or any other disciple of the Lord, and what Aristion and the presbyter John were still saying. For I did not imagine that things out of books would help me as much as the utterances of a living and abiding voice.2 We know this passage because it was quoted by Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History. That Papias knew of Mark’s and Matthew’s writings is evident from other passages quoted by Eusebius. In one passage, Papias quotes the presbyter John—whom Eusebius believed to be a different John than the disciple named in the gospels—as saying that: Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remembered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. … Peter used to adapt his teaching to the occasion, without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings, so that Mark was quite justified in writing down some things just as he remembered them.3 The point is that Mark’s written gospel needed to be authenticated by the living testimony of the presbyter John, not the other way around. Papias’ preference for the spoken word was shared by no less a Church Father than St John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople. In his first homily on the gospel of Matthew, Chrysostom apologised for resorting to writing: It were indeed meet for us not at all to require the aid of the written Word, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the grace of the Spirit should be instead of books to our souls, and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course. That writing is merely ‘the second best course’, Chrysostom continued, is confirmed by God’s own words and deeds. The Old Testament indicates that God ‘discoursed’ with Noah, Abraham, Job, and Moses ‘not by writings, but Himself by Himself, finding their mind pure’. Similarly, the New Testament reveals that ‘neither to the apostles did God give anything in writing, but instead of written words He promised that he would give them the grace of the Spirit: for “He,” saith our Lord, “shall bring all things to your remembrance.”’4 The above passage from Chrysostom was quoted by the late Jacques Derrida in one of his earliest published essays, ‘Force and Signification’. Like Chrysostom, Derrida regarded writing as graceless, unspiritual, impure. The difference was that he embraced the ‘secondarity’ of writing, which he celebrated as endlessly constitutive of meaning in its own right, not as a feeble reminder of the Word inscribed by the Spirit on our hearts. As he wrote just before quoting Chrysostom: It is because writing is inaugural, in the fresh sense of the word, that it is dangerous and anguishing. It does not know where it is going, no knowledge can keep it from the essential precipitation toward the meaning that it constitutes and that is, primarily, its future. … There is no insurance against the risk of writing. Writing is an initial and graceless recourse for the writer, even if he is not an atheist but, rather, a writer. We experience writing as secondary, Derrida went on to explain, because it presents itself to us as already read, as if the writer were merely transcribing a pre-existing, immaterial Word. ‘Is not that which is called God,’ Derrida asks, ‘the absolute witness to the dialogue in which what one sets out to write has already been read …?’5 Derrida’s argument with Chrysostom is echoed by a series of fictional gospels published since the Second World War, starting with Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ and ending (for the time being) with Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. What distinguishes these gospels from others of the same genre—Jose Saramago’s mesmerising The Gospel According to Jesus Christ for example, or Nino Ricci’s magisterial Testament—is the fact that the act of gospel-writing is problematised by the authors. In these ‘meta-gospels’, as we might call them, we encounter followers of Jesus who are also writers—writers who are instructed by mysterious figures to record the life of Jesus as it happens (or happened). What is more, writing is represented as a deeply suspicious activity—clandestine, agonising, and errant, with the power to make and remake history. In these latter-day gospels, to write about Jesus is, in effect, to betray him. At the same time, writing is depicted as profoundly seductive. However reluctantly, the writers in these gospels come to accept their assigned task, even to take secret pleasure in it. II Papias believed that the Gospel of Matthew was written by the disciple of Jesus who bore that name. Such testimony may be of limited historical value, but it stoked the fiery imagination of the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Matthew, believing that ‘God had placed him next to this holy man in order that he might faithfully record the words he said and the miracles he performed’, begins to compose his gospel as soon as he is called to join the disciples—but without Jesus’ knowledge. As he dips his quill into his inkwell, he hears: a rustling of wings to his right. An angel seemed to come to his ear and dictate. With a sure, rapid hand, he started to write: ‘The Book of the Generation of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham. Abraham begot. …’ He wrote and wrote until the east began to glow bluish-white and the first cock was heard to crow.6 Inevitably, the sound of the crowing cock recalls Peter’s denials, hinting that Matthew, too, is destined to betray Jesus—not by denying him, but by writing about him. A few nights later, Matthew takes up where he left off, intending to write of Jesus’ birth to Joseph and Mary in Nazareth. As soon as he puts pen to page, however, he hears the beating of angry wings and a voice trumpeting in his ear: ‘Not the son of Joseph! What says the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” … Write: Mary was a virgin. The archangel Gabriel descended to her house before any man had touched her and said, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!” Straightway her bosom bore fruit. … Do you hear? That’s what you’re to write.’ Growing angry in turn, Matthew complains: ‘It’s not true. I don’t want to write, and I won’t!’ But the angel replies, with ‘mocking laughter’: How can you understand what truth is, you handful of dust? Truth has seven levels. On the highest is enthroned the truth of God, which bears not the slightest resemblance to the truth of men. It is this truth, Matthew Evangelist, that I intone in your ear. …7 Here Kazantzakis alludes to the kabbalists’ mystical understanding of the Torah, with its seven layers of esoteric meaning. Eventually, Jesus notices Matthew’s notebook and asks to see it. After reading the opening pages of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus grows angry, throwing the notebook on the ground and screaming: Lies! Lies! Lies! The Messiah doesn’t need miracles. He is the miracle—no other is necessary! I was born in Nazareth, not in Bethlehem; I’ve never even set foot in Bethlehem, and I don’t remember any Magi. I never in my life went to Egypt. … After Matthew explains about the angel, however, Jesus grows silent, thinking to himself, ‘Bethlehem, Magi, Egypt, and “you are my beloved son”: if all these were the truest truth. … If this was the highest level of truth, inhabited only by God … If what we called truth, God called lies.’ Jesus then picks up the notebook and hands it back to Matthew, telling him: ‘Write whatever the angel dictates. It is too late for me to…’8 But his sentence trails off into silence, implying that he is no match for the power of the written Word. By now, the reader has concluded that Matthew—or the angel who dictates his words—is indeed in the process of betraying Jesus. Things get more complicated, though, when we come to the infamous ‘Last Temptation’ itself, in which Jesus is offered one final temptation as he hangs on the cross. An angel appears to him in a vision, announcing that God no longer requires his death and that he is free to live a normal human life, with a wife and a home. He proceeds to climb down from the cross, wed Mary Magdalene, and settle down to a quiet domestic life, with its ordinary joys and sorrows. In old age, however, Jesus receives a visit from his former disciples, including Matthew, who complains: All my work has gone for nothing, nothing, nothing! How masterfully I matched your words and deeds with the prophets! It was terribly difficult, but I managed. I used to say to myself that in the synagogues of the future the faithful would open thick tomes bound in gold and say, ‘The lesson for today is from the holy Gospel according to Matthew’! This thought gave me wings, and I wrote. But now, all that grandeur has gone up in smoke, and you—you ingrate! you illiterate! you traitor!—you’re to blame. You should have been crucified. Yes, if only for my sake, so that these writings might have been saved, you should have been crucified!9 Obviously, Matthew’s ambivalence about his work has long since vanished. He has become an Author, whose angel is Ego. Now it is Jesus who is betraying his Evangelist. As for Kazantzakis, he, too, considered himself an Evangelist, a modern lover of Christ whose mission it was to rescue the Saviour of Mankind from his imprisonment within the walls of the Bible and the Church. Like the great anti-clerical scholar Renan, his nineteenth-century predecessor, Kazantzakis sought to demythologise the gospels, to liberate Jesus from the shackles of miracle, mystery, and authority. In this sense, he was the anti-Matthew. In another sense, however, Kazantzakis fancied himself a modern Greek Matthew, the author of a new, symbolic gospel for modern man, at once sacred and profane. Like his hero Christ, Kazantzakis embodied the struggle between Spirit and Flesh, between Apollo and Dionysus, between Ego and Id, testifying to the truth of the human condition in words written in his own blood, sweat, and tears. III Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ was released in 1988 amid cries of blasphemy, street protests, and sporadic violence. A few years later, Gore Vidal published an even more blasphemous novel, Live From Golgotha, a lewd, satirical, self-referential gospel with a confusing plot in which an NBC television crew travels backward in time to record the Crucifixion on videotape. The host of the television show, and the putative author of Vidal’s gospel, is Timothy, the Bishop of Thessalonika, St Paul’s former travelling companion. Just before the Crucifixion, Timothy speaks with Pontius Pilate, who turns out to be: an unnatural blond whose striking appearance all in all was not too unlike David Bowie’s, his impersonator in a recent film in which we were all unusually portrayed. … In a vision, Jesus … leaves the cross and goes off and gets married, and then decides to return to the cross for no urgent reason.10 This, of course, is a wink to those who have seen Scorsese’s film, which Timothy has discovered, presumably, by means of the television set that was delivered to his palace in Thessalonika, across time and space, by Chester W. Claypoole, Vice President of Creative Programming at NBC. Live From Golgotha begins with a dream in which St Paul appears to Timothy in the year 96 AD and warns him that a mysterious computer genius from the future, known as ‘the Hacker’, has loosed a virus that is systematically deleting or corrupting the New Testament gospels. Only Timothy, it seems, can foil the Hacker by writing the one true gospel, the Gospel According to Timothy, and hiding it in the mop room of the cathedral in Thessalonika, where it will be discovered two millennia later. The problem is that, in the course of writing his gospel, Timothy is constantly interrupted by time-travellers from the future (‘kibitzers’) who influence his work. Chet Claypoole, for example, brings him the notebook of Somerset Maugham, from which he decides to lift a lurid description of a sunset.11 More troubling are the figures from his own past who turn out, in retrospect, to have been more ‘kibitzers’ from the future. In Ephesus, for example, he once bumped into a woman he now recognises as Shirley MacLaine, the Hollywood actress and New Age devotee, who lived there in one her previous lives. Or did he? ‘Did I really see adorable Shirley then?’ he asks himself. ‘Or am I now in the act of writing this epistle to the New Age being inspired by congruent forces inside as well as outside my ken?’12 In the funhouse world of Live From Golgotha, such questions are unanswerable. The act of writing renders memory itself uncertain. For help, Timothy decides to visit John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, who is still alive and living in Rome in the year 96 AD. It so happens that Timothy had met Mark in Rome once before, just before the Great Fire of 64 AD. In Timothy’s telling, however, these two visits to Rome are conflated, with Timothy knowing everything he knows now, in the year 96 AD, and Mark knowing no more than he did then. It is as though Timothy, in the course of writing about his earlier trip to Rome, has been transported back in time, becoming, in effect, a kibitzer in his own story. Fortunately, Mark trusts him when he warns that his gospel—Mark’s gospel—will be lost forever unless he, Timothy, is able to make a copy and hide it. So Mark dictates from his original manuscript while Timothy writes it down: without all the begats admittedly, but with a lot of vivid new stuff which Mark had been forced by his publisher to cut, including the highly relevant lesson 254: ‘Let every voice but God’s be still in me because today we let no ego thoughts direct any words or actions.’ So Jesus spoke directly to Helen Schucman.13 Helen Schucman was the author of A Course in Miracles (1975), which, she claimed, had been dictated to her by Jesus himself. So even Mark’s original manuscript has been corrupted by the Hacker—or was Helen really there in Palestine with Jesus? Vidal’s narrative circus act makes it impossible to stabilise the meaning of the text. The ultimate plot twist in Live From Golgotha is that the Hacker turns out to be none other than Jesus himself, masquerading in the twentieth century as ‘Marvin Wasserman’. Why would Jesus, of all people, conspire to hack the gospels on which Christianity is based? The answer is that he is a Zionist, whereas Christianity is a fiction invented by St Paul. As Timothy explains: The letters he wrote me are the basis of what he was the first to call ‘Christianity’, thus parting company not only with the Jews but the Jesus party of Jews at Jerusalem. We both knew, even without the kibitzers who are now circling me like vultures, that we were historic and, perhaps, unique in religion as we … were able to make so much out of what was basically so little. The Jesus story was never much of anything until Saint cooked up the vision-on-the-road-to-Damascus number and then pulled the whole story together. …14 Thus it is Pauline Christianity, and the Church that Timothy serves, that must be safeguarded from the Hacker, who plans to return as the Messiah in the year 2001 AD and bring the world to an end. The fact that Christianity was ‘cooked up’ by St Paul is irrelevant. What matters is that it be preserved in written form. Timothy’s gospel ends with his vow to hide his manuscript in the cathedral mop room—a precaution that, he believes, will save Christianity before the Hacker can execute his plan. The irony, of course, is that the Gospel According to Timothy, discovered by Gore Vidal and published under the title Live From Golgotha in the year 1992 AD, had no such purpose. On the contrary, Gore Vidal was intent on debunking Christianity and all monotheistic religion. A few months before the publication of Live From Golgotha, he delivered the Lowell Lecture at Harvard on the theme of ‘Monotheism and its Discontents’. ‘The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture,’ he proclaimed, ‘is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved—Judaism, Christianity, Islam. These are sky-god religions. … Those who would reject him must be converted or killed for their own good. Ultimately, totalitarianism is the only sort of politics that can truly serve the sky-god’s purpose.’15 Vidal’s weapons in the great apocalyptic battle against monotheism, of course, were those of the comic novelist—wit, mockery, and laughter. And who sallied forth to meet him as the dour champion of monotheism? None other than his old rival Norman Mailer. IV In 1971, Norman Mailer head-butted Gore Vidal in the green room before their legendary verbal fisticuffs on the set of The Dick Cavett Show. They resumed their feud in 1977 when, at a Manhattan party, Mailer reportedly threw a glass of wine at Vidal and punched him in the mouth. Fifteen years later, after the publication of Live From Golgotha, Mailer was determined to beat his old rival again, this time at the sport of gospel-writing. And what better way to one-up Gore Vidal than to narrate his gospel—the One True Gospel—in the voice of Jesus himself? While I would not say that Mark’s gospel is false, it has much exaggeration. And I would offer less for Matthew, and for Luke and John, who gave me words I never uttered and described me as gentle when I was pale with rage. Their words were written many years after I was gone and only repeat what old men told them. Very old men. Such tales are to be leaned upon no more than a bush that tears free from its roots and blows about in the wind.16 So Jesus decides, after 2,000 years, to write his own gospel. Only divine writing, it seems, can represent the truth of what happened. I say ‘write’, although some students of oral tradition—notably Werner Kelber—have concluded that Jesus was probably illiterate.17 This conclusion flies in the face of Christian tradition, which assumed that Jesus was not only literate, but sent letters to King Abgar and others.18 In the apocryphal Narrative of Joseph of Arimathea, for example, Jesus writes a laissez-passer for Demas, the Good Thief, so that he may enter Paradise: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came down from the heights of heaven, who came forth from the womb of the invisible God without separating from him, who came down into the world so as to be made flesh and to be nailed to the cross, so that I might save Adam, the very one whom I made, to my archangelic powers, the gatekeepers of paradise, servants of my Father: I wish and order that the one who was crucified with me should enter, that he should receive forgiveness of sins on my account, and that putting on an immortal body he should enter paradise and dwell there. …19 The miracle here is not that Jesus knows how to write. Of course he knows how to write; he is the Son of God. The miracle is that he can write with his hands nailed to the cross—unless he merely dictates it to an angelic scribe. What about the four canonical gospels? Curiously, they depict Jesus writing on only one occasion, in the course of John’s memorable story of the Woman Taken in Adultery. I quote the Authorised Version: And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he had heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto time, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote upon the ground. (John 6:3–8) Some ancient editors and copyists added ‘the sins of each of them’ to the end of verse eight, explaining why the scribes and Pharisees slink away one by one until Jesus is left alone with the woman.20 Inevitably, Christian tradition identified the Woman Taken in Adultery with Mary Magdalene, who plays such an important role in Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation. In Mailer’s version of the story, Jesus writes with his finger on the ground in order to avoid looking at the woman, whom he fears is beautiful. So fearful is he that he does not even know what he is writing and is careful not to let the Pharisees see it. As he writes, he whispers verses about unclean women that he remembers from the scrolls he has studied. Meanwhile, Peter sits down next to him with the scroll he lugs around with him, pointing to a passage about whores and adulteresses as he reads it aloud in ‘the old Hebrew tongue’, albeit ‘with great difficulty’.21 The surprising thing is that Jesus cowers before the Law, as laid down in the Hebrew scrolls. Far from boldly proclaiming the liberating Spirit of the Law, he is bound by its letter. If Mailer’s version of the Woman Taken in Adultery is rather silly, consider his version of the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. In the first place, writes Jesus, there were only five hundred present, not five thousand, as all four gospels claim. And he did not multiply the five loaves and two fishes. What really happened, according to Jesus, was far more mundane: I took those five loaves and divided them exceedingly small, until there were a hundred pieces of bread from each loaf. Then the two fish gave up more than twice two hundred morsels. And, with five hundred bits of bread and five hundred of fish, I passed these morsels to each of the followers, doing it myself for all five hundred.22 Mailer’s Jesus may not have performed the miracle attributed to him by the Evangelists, but his accounting is impeccable—so impeccable, in fact, that Mailer’s version of the feeding becomes more unbelievable than the miracle recorded in the gospels. Yet Mailer’s gospel is far from naturalistic. After feeding the five hundred with his microscopic bits of bread and fish, Jesus and his disciples row back across the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida, where Jesus disembarks, leaving his companions asleep in the boat. When a storm materialises at night, however, a concerned Jesus starts to swim back to the boat. Of a sudden, I was up and above the waters! I was walking! And I could even hear my Father’s laughter at my pleasure in walking upon His water. Then came a second wave of His laughter. He was mocking me. For I had concluded too quickly that there was no extravagance in his miracles.23 Evidently, Mailer wanted to have his cake and eat it, too. On the one hand, the Evangelists must be guilty of exaggeration, for otherwise there would be no need for Jesus to set the record straight. On the other hand, Jesus does perform miracles; in the end, he even rises from the dead. That is more than can be said of Mailer’s gospel, I am afraid, which lacks the blasphemous passion and existential urgency that propels Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation. By comparison, Mailer’s gospel is surprisingly inoffensive and, frankly, a little dull. Kazantzakis’ Christ is in constant agony, tormented to the point of madness by the World, the Flesh, and the Devil; Mailer’s Christ is aloof and retrospective, mildly irritated at the gospel writers’ errata. In effect, Mailer’s Christ betrays himself by writing about himself in such uninspired terms. In the end, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Mailer simply could not muster much enthusiasm for writing a gospel. Whereas Kazantzakis identified himself with Christ heart and soul, pouring the fire burning in his veins onto every page of his gospel, Mailer regarded Christ as a bit of a curiosity, recounting his story in bloodless, un-Maileresque prose. He spent many hours conversing with Michael Lennon about God and the Devil, but only a few minutes talking about Christ, judging by the published transcript.24 He wrote The Gospel According to the Son not out of an existential crisis, but rather to one-up Gore Vidal and, one suspects, to place the capstone on the Canon—the Canon of Norman Mailer. V My final example of gospel-writing as betrayal comes from Philip Pullman’s fable The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which splits the Second Person of the Christian Trinity into twin brothers, one named Jesus, the other named Christ. From the beginning, Jesus is strong and forthright, whereas Christ is weak and clever. When Jesus begins his ministry, Christ wants nothing more than to help his brother transform his haphazard counter-cultural movement into the Kingdom of God on earth. Of course, God could lift a finger and it could happen at once. But think how much better it would be if the way were prepared by men like the Baptist, men like you—think of the advantages if there were a body of believers, a structure, an organization already in place. … I can see the princes of the nations—I can see Caesar himself having to bow down before this body, and offer obeisance to God’s own Kingdom in place here in the world. Jesus, however, wants no part of his brother’s vision of a Church. ‘What you describe,’ he replies, ‘sounds like the work of Satan.’25 Before long, a Mysterious Stranger comes to speak privately with Christ. ‘I want to make sure that you have your rightful reward,’ he tells Christ. I want the world to know your name as well as that of Jesus. In fact, I want your name to shine with even greater splendour. He is a man, and only a man, but you are the word of God.26 A few chapters later, when Jesus goes off to preach the Sermon on the Mount, Christ tags along with a tablet and stylus, intending to take notes. When someone in the crowd accuses him of being a spy, he is rescued by the Stranger. Deciding to confide in the man, whom he takes for a priest, Jesus asks: ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ The Stranger replies: It is an excellent thing to do. Sometimes there is a danger that people might misinterpret the words of a popular speaker. The statements need to be edited, the meanings clarified, the complexities unraveled for the simple-of-understanding. In fact, I want you to continue. Keep a record of what your brother says, and I shall collect your reports from time to time, so that we can begin the work of interpretation.27 The Stranger, of course, omits to explain who ‘we’ are. Christ takes him for an emissary of the powerful Sanhedrin; readers familiar with Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy may well take him for a henchman of the Magisterium. Like Matthew in The Last Temptation of Christ, Christ cannot resist embellishing Jesus’ deeds in the scrolls where he expands his notes. Consider, once again, the Feeding of the Five Thousand. As in Mailer’s version, Jesus does not multiply the loaves and fishes. Instead, he merely shares what little he has with the crowd, urging others to do the same. And sure enough, it turned out that one man had brought some barley cakes, and another had a couple of apples, and a third had some dried fish, and a fourth had a pocketful of raisins, and so on; and there was plenty to go round. No one was hungry. Christ, however, records it as ‘another miracle’.28 The next time the Stranger appears, Christ asks why he is so interested in his scrolls. After warning Christ that what he is about to reveal is not for everyone to know, the Stranger explains: In writing about what has gone past, we help to shape what will come. There are dark days approaching, turbulent times; if the way to the Kingdom of God is to be opened, we who know must be prepared to make history the handmaid of posterity and not its governor. What should have been is a better servant of the Kingdom than what was. I am sure you understand me. As the Stranger gathers up Christ’s scrolls and prepares to depart, he adds: There is time, and there is what is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God.29 At the time, Christ is thrilled by the Stranger’s words. Only later, when he learns what part the Stranger wants him to play in his brother’s drama, does he begin to have second thoughts. That part, as noted by Rowan Williams in his review of Pullman’s fable for The Guardian, is the part of Judas.30 Writer and Betrayer become one as Christ agrees, with a heavy heart, to hand his brother Jesus over to the authorities, knowing that he must die if the Church is to be born. As the Stranger explains, the Church can exist ‘only—only—if at the centre of it is the ever-living presence of a man who is both a man and more than a man, a man who is also God and the word of God, a man who dies and is brought to life again’. Christ, however, is suddenly full of doubt. When he asks whether the Resurrection will happen, the Stranger replies: ‘Yes, it will happen, if you believe in it.’31 Evidently, Christ convinces himself that the miracle will occur, for he carries out the Stranger’s instructions, betraying his brother with a kiss. After Jesus is crucified and buried, Christ visits his tomb at night. Suddenly, the Stranger is there at his side; together they watch as shadowy figures carry Jesus’ body out of the tomb. ‘Are you going to pretend he is risen?’ Christ exclaims. ‘He will be risen,’ replies the Stranger, to which Christ retorts, ‘How? By means of a trick? This is contemptible. Oh, that I fell for this! Oh, I am damned! Oh, my brother! What have I done?’32 Nevertheless, Christ promises to play his part in the charade, allowing himself to be mistaken for his risen brother Jesus. The Stranger assures him that it is a great part indeed. ‘When the records of this time and of Jesus’ life are written,’ he proclaims, ‘your account will be of enormous value. You will be able to determine how these events are remembered right up until the ending of the world.’33 Years later, after Christ has moved away, changed his name, and settled down to the quiet life of a net-maker, the Stranger visits him one last time, bringing Christ’s old scrolls with him. It is time, the Stranger says, to start putting the story of Jesus in order. Christ’s first impulse is to refuse the scrolls, to let someone else tell the story. As he breaks bread with the Stranger, however, ‘he couldn’t help thinking of the story of Jesus, and how he could improve it. For example, there could be some miraculous sign to welcome the birth: a star, an angel’. Furthermore, ‘there were a hundred details that could add verisimilitude. He knew, with a pang that blended guilt and pleasure, that he had already made some of them up’.34 Every novelist knows that pang—the guilt of betrayal, the pleasure of making things up. Even Philip Pullman, whose love of literature was born in the library of his grandfather’s rectory, must have known that pang.35 In the case of Pullman and our other novelists, however, the question arises: Were they, too, betraying Jesus? That was not their intention. Each of them poses as a loyal defender of Jesus—the true Jesus, the good Jesus, the Jesus who has been betrayed by the writers of the canonical gospels. Even Gore Vidal—no lover of Jesus—implicitly defends the historical Jesus against the Christ of faith. In their novels, they expose the process by which Jesus was betrayed—a process that appears to be indistinguishable, ironically, from that of novel-writing itself. And there is the rub. By making things up about Jesus, Kazantzakis betrayed him as surely as Matthew does in The Last Temptation. Gore Vidal betrayed him as surely as Timothy, who knowingly conspires with St Paul to invent Christianity out of whole cloth. Norman Mailer betrayed Jesus as surely the four Evangelists, whose exaggerations prompt the Son to write his own gospel. And the scoundrel Pullman betrayed the good man Jesus as surely as his brother Christ, embellishing a story that takes on a life its own. If writing about Jesus is a form of betrayal, however, it is—as even Chrysostom had to acknowledge—a necessary one. Like the Evangelists they condemn, our novelists just cannot help themselves. The pleasure of writing fiction is just too great. And it is a good thing that it is, for it is only in being betrayed—in being written about—that Jesus is crucified and resurrected in the reader’s imagination. REFERENCES Footnotes 1 Martin S. Jaffee, ‘A Rabbinic Ontology of the Written and Spoken Word: On Discipleship, Transformative Knowledge, and the Living Texts of Oral Torah’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65.3 (1997) 525–49. 2 Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G.A. Williamson (New York: Dorset Press, 1975), p. 150. 3Ibid., p. 152. 4 St John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel According to St Matthew, First Series, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 10, ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing, 1994), p. 1. 5 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978), p. 11. 6 Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ, trans. P.A. Bien (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960), p. 326. 7Ibid., p. 349. 8Ibid., pp. 391–2. 9Ibid., p. 494. 10 Gore Vidal, Live From Golgotha (New York: Penguin Books, 1992), pp. 208–9. 11Ibid., p. 53. 12Ibid., p. 86. 13Ibid., p. 152. 14Ibid., p. 173. 15 Gore Vidal, ‘Monotheism and its Discontents’, The Lowell Lecture, Harvard University, 20 April 1992, http://www.gorevidalpages.com/1992/04/gore-vidal-monotheism-and-its-discontents.html. 16 Norman Mailer, The Gospel According to the Son (New York: Ballantine, 1997), pp. 1–2. 17 Werner H. Kelber, The Oral and Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1983). 18 Jesus’ legendary correspondence with King Abgar of Edessa can be found in Bart D. Ehrman and Zlatko Plese, The Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). 19Ibid., pp. 579–80. 20The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 138, note i. 21 Mailer, Gospel, p. 182. 22Ibid., p. 120. 23Ibid., p. 122. 24 Norman Mailer and Michael Lennon, On God: An Uncommon Conversation (New York: Random House, 2007). 25 Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010), pp. 43–4. 26Ibid., p. 58. 27Ibid., p. 74. 28Ibid., p. 90. 29Ibid., pp. 98–9. 30 Rowan Williams, ‘Book of the Week’, Guardian, 2 April 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/apr/03/good-jesus-christ-philip-pullman. 31 Pullman, Good Man, pp. 172–3. 32Ibid., p. 226. 33Ibid., p. 228. 34Ibid., pp. 243–4. 35 Christopher Hitchens, ‘Oxford’s Rebel Angel’, Vanity Fair, October 2002, http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2002/10/hitchens200210.print. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)

Journal

Literature and TheologyOxford University Press

Published: Sep 1, 2018

There are no references for this article.

You’re reading a free preview. Subscribe to read the entire article.


DeepDyve is your
personal research library

It’s your single place to instantly
discover and read the research
that matters to you.

Enjoy affordable access to
over 18 million articles from more than
15,000 peer-reviewed journals.

All for just $49/month

Explore the DeepDyve Library

Search

Query the DeepDyve database, plus search all of PubMed and Google Scholar seamlessly

Organize

Save any article or search result from DeepDyve, PubMed, and Google Scholar... all in one place.

Access

Get unlimited, online access to over 18 million full-text articles from more than 15,000 scientific journals.

Your journals are on DeepDyve

Read from thousands of the leading scholarly journals from SpringerNature, Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford University Press and more.

All the latest content is available, no embargo periods.

See the journals in your area

DeepDyve

Freelancer

DeepDyve

Pro

Price

FREE

$49/month
$360/year

Save searches from
Google Scholar,
PubMed

Create lists to
organize your research

Export lists, citations

Read DeepDyve articles

Abstract access only

Unlimited access to over
18 million full-text articles

Print

20 pages / month

PDF Discount

20% off