The Real Jesus

A consensus of archaeological evidence suggests that the Nazareth of Jesus’ boyhood was a small village located on an unfertile chalk hill 1,200 feet or so above sea level, near today’s bustling city, with no more than a few dozen families living there at any one time (which also means that the synagogue mentioned in Luke was probably very small and the rabbi likely not from the top of his class–Nazareth would have been a bad assignment). Historical evidence provides a similar picture: Josephus mentions forty-six towns in the area of Galilee, and the Mishnah lists eighty-three. Nazareth makes neither list. Jesus’ Nazareth barely makes it on the map. Likewise, a consensus of historical and biblical evidence suggests that the young Jesus was an unremarkable person for being the Son of God. Virtually nothing is known of him from secular historical sources, and the biblical record commits less than three hundred words to the period between his birth and baptism. Nazareth’s Jesus, in other words, was a nobody.

So it is surprising to find Jesus described as a polyglot wunderkind and Nazareth as a bustling town of marketplaces, three-story homes, and a large synagogue in Anne Rice’s new novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (Knopf: 2005), a book that claims a thorough historical accuracy: “And over the years, I’ve become known for that accuracy” (305).

Allowances must be made in historical fiction, but when claims like the one above are profferred–and with such swagger–they tempt the reader into a fact-finding mission. Did boy Jesus really zap playmates to death and then bring them back to life, and was he a first century Houdini who could disappear in and out of crowds? Christ the Lord Were there three-story houses in Nazareth from whose rooftops one could have counted the crosses in Sepphoris, which were four miles away? And did tiny Nazareth’s synagogue have, not one, but three brilliant rabbis? Otherwise harmless fictions become glaring errors in the face of such claims of historicity.

The first half of Rice’s novel is a whirling adventure of battles and near-escapes, fire and blood–especially fire and blood (apparently you can take the girl out of the vampire, but you can’t take the vampire out of the girl). But scholars such as Raymond Brown, to whom Rice pays tribute at the end of her book, depict the political scene in Palestine at the time as uneventful, save one uprising when Jesus was about twelve.

From Aunt Sarah’s copies of Homer and Plato on her bookshelf to Joseph’s scrolls of the entire Hebrew Bible–along with some from the Septuagint apparently for good measure (scrolls fall like manna from heaven throughout the book)–the reader is treated to fantasy fiction, none of which would’ve mattered had Rice not set her book up to be the ne plus ultra of historical accuracy. At one point she even scolds the entire field of biblical scholarship by suggesting that

When Jewish and Christian scholars begin to take [the Jewish War and Fall of the Temple] seriously, when they begin to really study what happened during the terrible years of the siege of Jerusalem… Bible studies will change. (316)

This from the one who used the Infancy Gospel of Thomas as the template. No wonder the kid can thrill with sparrows created ex nihilo, accidental healings, rain stoppage, and behaving for one’s parents at all times–with one notable three-day exception, but what’s a kid to do with two fathers competing for his attention? When Jesus gets sick on the boat ride from Egypt to Israel, for example, it feels contrived since, at other moments, he raises people from the dead and even heals himself. Can the Son of God get motion sickness? Who knows? But this reader wished he had vomited over the side of the boat. I would’ve liked him better.

Rice’s portrayal of Jesus is not, however, all heaven and no earth. There are moments in the book when he seems all too human. He is often scared, for instance, to the point that, as Jesus himself says, “The fear became part of the story” (90). And so it does, again and again and again. Initially one has sympathy for this poor boy incapacitated by fear, but the sympathy soon gives way to a morbid fascination and, finally, irritation. I found myself asking, “Isn’t this the same kid who can stop the rain?” But no sooner has the reader recovered from this onset of divine melancholia when he is jolted back to Jesus as uber-mensch, larger than life and certainly wiser than a seven-year-old boy has a right to be:

I laughed to myself. She had seen an angel before I was born. An angel had told Joseph to bring us back, I had heard it said. And I had seen them. I had seen them but only for a moment. Less than a moment. They came in great numbers, numberless like the stars in their numbers, and I’d see them for a moment. Hadn’t I? What had they looked like? Let it go. This is not the most difficult part. (100)

Where I come from, seven-year-olds don’t laugh to themselves nor do they sound like Plato on ecstasy, even if they are the Son of God. Between his crying and dreaming, pondering and pontificating, Jesus rarely talks and almost never laughs (unless he’s laughing at himself, of course), and this sets up the inevitable concession three-quarters of the way through the novel where Jesus finally says,

I wasn’t a child anymore. According to the custom, a boy assumes the yoke of the Law when he’s twelve, but that didn’t matter. I wasn’t a child. I knew it when I watched the other children that morning at play. (266)

Really. The reader knew it from the first page, and this is the novel’s central diffi- culty–Jesus never is a child. One can see Rice finally throwing up her hands when she gets to the passage above and declaring, “Hang it all, this kid’s growing up!” But he’s been grown up all along, of course, and is too serious, too frightened, and too sad to be relatable to the average reader (read sinner). In short, he’s annoyingly perfect, even when he’s afraid.

This tendency towards idealizing spills over into the descriptive passages of the book. If the first half of the novel reads like a western, the second half, which takes place in Nazareth, morphs into a Thomas Kincaid painting:

In the long late night, I ran through the groves of trees up and down the slopes until I couldn’t see Nazareth. I found flowers so sweet that I wanted to pick them and make them grow at home. And at home, there was the sweetness of the wood shavings, and the nice smell of the oil that we rubbed into the wood. There was the smell of baking bread always, and we knew when the best sauce was there for dinner as soon as we came home (225-26).

One almost expects little hobbits to appear.

There are compelling moments, too, as when Jesus meets an angel in a dream, who turns out to be Satan appearing as an angel of light. He tries to tempt Jesus, first with beauty and then with despair, but is ultimately unsuccessful because, as Jesus tells him, “That is your doom that you don’t know how it will end” (194). Ironically, it is in this dream state when Jesus is most human. There are also great moments toward the end of the novel where, for example, Jesus is finally told by a Temple rabbi about the Slaughter of the Innocents, which causes all the previous scenes of sacrifice in the novel, both human and beast, to melt into a poignant and awful significance. And the last five pages are almost worth the previous two hundred and ninety-five. Mary’s explanation to Jesus of who he is–both child and Son of God–ushers in a new tone to the novel (albeit a bit late) that moves easily at the depths of a reality not often encountered in Christian fiction.

The book ends with Jesus telling Salome, his childhood playmate, what he has finally learned, “That whatever is born into this world, no matter how, and for whatever reason, is born to die” (300). Jesus then steps out into the night and wonders when he will see the angels of heaven again, who can comfort him in the midst of this hard truth, but then he realizes he wasn’t sent here to find angels. “I was sent here to be alive. To breathe and sweat and thirst and sometimes cry.” One wishes Rice had followed Jesus’ lead and told such a story, which is very much worth the telling. It hasn’t been told yet.

Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s latest book, Jesus: A Novel (Zondervan: 2005), essentially picks up where Rice’s book leaves off, with Luke’s account of Jesus’ family in Jerusalem for Passover when Jesus is twelve (though he is only eight in Rice’s novel). Jesus a Novel The novel, divided into three books with nine parts and narrated by “The Beloved” (the beloved disciple), alternates between The Beloved speaking in first person in one part, and then assuming third person limited omniscient perspective from the point of view of Mother Mary in the next. It is anyone’s guess how he knows Mary’s thoughts, which are (occasionally) italicized, and it’s only made more confusing by the fact that The Beloved apparently also knows Jesus’ thoughts, which are italicized, and the thoughts of the crowd, italicized as well. Wangerin’s liberal use of italics, it turns out, only serves to confuse, not clarify, since they are also used to indicate when Mary is telling a story, or when The Beloved is telling one; and they’re used for the cries of the crowds, and the devil’s voice, and song lyrics. The net effect is a disjointed reading experience.

It doesn’t help that the Beloved turns out to be one of the peskiest narrators to grace the pages of a novel. He constantly interpolates his own editorial commentary, like in the following passage where Zechariah is celebrating the Passover:

Oh, sing it, ancient Zechariah. Sing it like Joshua. Or if you must, cry it out as your namesake did, the prophet Zechariah the Son of Iddo. Make it real again, and say…

O sweet Priest, tell the story for us all, for every generation yet to come…

Finally, Priest, before you’re done, speak the reason for which the Lord has undertaken the saving of Israel…(26-27)

This, mind you, comes not from a section where The Beloved is narrating in first person, but from a “Mary” section where, presumably, he is in limited omniscient narrative mode; in the background, in other words. But this first century narrator qua master of ceremonies doesn’t know the meaning of the word, and so the reader is subjected to his ponderings and ejaculations throughout the novel. (No clear reason is provided, incidentally, for the different spellings of the word “Oh” in the above passage, though both spellings are repeated throughout the book.) At one point–and one point only–The Beloved actually addresses the reader directly, in one of the ubiquitous saccharin sentimentalizing passages in the novel:

And even as the pledge flew forth on the beams of my eyes, Jesus was looking back at me. I swear, he answered, And I love you. Not in something uttered. but in the twist of his body, ankle to chin; in the tension while he held my gaze; in the vast landscapes of his knowing; and in this, that he parted his lips and showed the rims of his white teeth, smiling. Jesus loved me. I shall hereafter–both in this account and in the assizes of eternity–be known as nothing save his “Beloved.” The Beloved: seek no name for me, nor any other character else. Or read your own name into my person. I have none of my own.

Jesus smiled. The moment has lasted my lifetime. (135)

The novel drips with this kind of verbiage, and it becomes a truly onerous task to wade through.

Wangerin is unable to give any cadence to his narrator’s voice; a register is never established, because he seems to have written this novel while inebriated with the Spirit, or perhaps while listening to Enya. There is no other reason why a writer of his reputation would have engaged in such kitsch. Throughout the novel, campy colloquialisms and the Queen’s English share the same page, and come often from the same mouth:

Mary remained fixed, even as the man approached her and put forth his hand and cupped her chin a moment. Next he took her hand and drew it from her mouth to his own.

She whispered cautiously: “Yeshi?”

He answered: “Mother.”

And the woman broke into tears. A great boo-hooing, a shaking of her head, and a rubbing of her eyes–while Jesus stood still, her hand to his cheek, and twinkled upon her, which caused even greater bouts of boo-hooing. (84)

Then there’s Mary telling The Beloved of her former husband Joseph, who “died betimes, did Joseph” (376). Boo-hooing? Twinkled upon her?? Died betimes?! Where does Wangerin get this stuff? There are countless other examples of this verbal disconnect, like this one from Joseph, who sounds like an Ivy League Professor of English one moment, a hick from the Ozarks the next:

“Well,” said Joseph, “but you’ve troubled me the more by trusting me the less…”

“Mary. I follow you in most everything,” he said…

“But in this you’re wrong,” he said finally. “It don’t trouble me to hear the truth. Nor to speak it either. So Jesus isn’t my blood son. So this don’t trouble me.” (51)

And finally we have the various and dizzying descriptions of our protagonist. Rather than quote in full passages, perhaps it would be best to simply draw up a composite verbal sketch of Wangerin’s Jesus, taken directly from selected passages throughout the novel. He is freckle-faced and short; referred to as Mary’s “golden boy” and “His Majesty” when he is but twelve; “short, glittering” at his baptism, “lightly built… Patience in his eye… a face uncluttered”; he moves “lean as an antelope”; “eyes made glittering by constant motion, by his watchful attention to everything around him. The graceful tread, the body light and lean and accurate;” “utterly confi- dent” with a “certain starriness to his gaze”; “at once sweetly accessible and altogether unknowable”; “enigmatic, unfathomable, utterly free of polite conversations,” and Mary would watch “the effect of this presence upon others, how the young, both male and female, would begin to gaze at him the way a bride will gaze at her groom…”; his voice “took on a dreaming quality: Something. So. Pure”; he was “lovely…his lips drawn together as if he were in continual thought, his even brow, his rusted lashes, two starlike freckles on his upper lids, causing in his glances a celestial flashing…”; and when he stands up he is “like thistledown on an ascending wind”; and finally, “Jesus, sober again and as always not a whit disheveled (I think it was the precision of his hairline and the perfect shape of his skull in every profile which gave him the appearance of perpetual neatness…”).

There is something terribly wrong in this sort of verbal treacle, something that belies a deep and profound misunderstanding of the Incarnation. It mistakes sycophantism for worship and makes an idol of the man. It lacks, for lack of a better word, reverence. This isn’t a man, this is Superman. Wangerin paints with his words not a human being but a Hallmark card caricature, someone more at home on the Lawrence Welk show than in the company of whores and lepers. This is not Jesus. It is Adonis.

Wangerin unwittingly states the problem perfectly towards the end of the novel when he writes, in the voice of The Beloved, “Well, then: I cannot lay my pen aside until I’ve given expression to the mystery inexpressible, the timelessness and the placelessness of the Lord” (389). Exactly–Jesus, apart from the Gospel accounts, is inexpressible. Every Jesus movie has proven that true, every attempt at recreating his life in words has done so. Some things simply don’t lend themselves to an indulgent imagination. Are there strong points in the novel? Yes–at long intervals. The friendship he has with his disciples is, at times, believable and engaging. Peter is a well-drawn character (how I wished, in fact, that Peter had been the narrator). But too much of what is truly and inexcusably bad about the novel outpaces anything that is good. The light flickers in the darkness, but the darkness has put it out.

Is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob also the God of double-entendres and implications, of inferences and subtleties? And of his Son? Did he go through the terrible twos? Was he ever sent to his room? Did he, as my father is fond of saying, bump into the furniture in the dark? We know virtually nothing of his life from shortly after he was born until shortly before he died, but it is precisely this absence of knowledge, the sheer paucity of information, the obvious lack of attention he must have drawn to himself, that speaks volumes about who he must have been. It seems that Jesus was, in a word, ordinary. And why is that so important? Because he is the Lord of the every day, God of the ordinary, and because in this life of ours, the ordinary is where we meet him. We don’t recognize him otherwise. And in these two novels, that is what they have in common: a Jesus who is utterly unrecognizable. And as such, not at all interesting.

Michael Bruner is a writer and ordained Presbyterian minister who teaches in the English and Religion departments at Azusa Pacific Univeristy in South California. He is a former dot.com and advertising executive and recently completed a book comparing Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy.