Now, don’t be put off when I tell you that this is a book about Jesus. The reaction is to summon in your mind the image of some pious reflection of the life and works of God’s only son. That’s exactly what The Liars’ Gospel isn’t.
True, Jesus, or Yehoshuah, does form the epicentre around which the story unfolds but this is really the tale of the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and its brutal and bloody consequences.
The book is separated into four parts, each one a ‘gospel’ of a particular character. First, we hear the story of Miryam – you’d probably know her better as Mary. Here, the grieving mother harbours Gidon of Yaffo, a fugitive from a nearby village where a rebellion (one of many) has broken out. This rebel, little more than a teenage boy, is a follower of her son and brings news of his resurrection. As much as her heart wants to believe it, this is something she cannot accept as true.
Gidon is hungry for stories of his saviour but Miryam has none to give. However, we are treated to the tale of a strange boy who, much to his father’s (his biological father, at least) disgust, will not take a wife or otherwise behave as a man of the time should. He asks endless questions and wastes his time marvelling at nature.
Later, we feel Miryam’s sense of rejection as the adult Yehoshuah chooses a new family – his followers – and will scarcely acknowledge the one into which he was born. Despite her best efforts, Miryam cannot convince her son to return to the relative safety of his hometown and, even before he is crucified, she resigns herself to his loss.
Next up, we hear the tale of Judas, known here as Iehuda of Qeriot. One of Yehoshuah’s first followers, Iehuda watches helplessly as his old friend becomes intoxicated by the myth that has grown up around him. He can see that Yehoshuah has, willingly or otherwise, been used as a convenient tool for rebellion – a figurehead for a movement dedicated to removing the Romans from Jerusalem. The godly cause in which Iehuda once believed has become a ridiculous folly and little more than another cult.
He tries to make Yehoshuah see reason but is met with the same cryptic questions that he has come to expect. Caught in a crisis of faith and fearful for his life, Iehuda does the only thing he can and thus cements his name in history as the great betrayer. He reluctantly accepts his reward, changes his identity and allows the lie of his suicide to spread.
The third part concerns Caiaphas, the High Priest of the great Temple of Jerusalem – a figure the bible would have us believe as heartless and cynically concerned with the Temple’s financial interests. In this version, Caiaphas is a victim of circumstance. He is under pressure from Pilate to provide money for an aqueduct.
Again and again he refuses, rightly stating that the gold in the Temple’s coffers has been donated by the people for the upkeep of the Temple alone. He finally crumbles and in a risky attempt to point the finger of blame at his cruel Roman master, inadvertently instigates a riot in which hundreds of civilians are killed.
For me, the fourth and final story was the most interesting. This is the story of Bar-Avo (Barabbas), the thief, the rebel and the murderer of Roman soldiers. We hear of his rise through the ranks of the rebellion through acts of defiance and, of course, great remorseless violence. Through his bravery, he becomes notorious as a freedom fighter. He only wants to rid his land of these Roman scum an keeps the favour of the people by action, not empty rhetoric and preaching.
His fight becomes a counterweight to that of Yehoshuah’s followers. Much like Yehoshuah, we see him travelling the land recruiting men, one at a time, to the cause. Following an act of betrayal, Bar-Avo finds himself in a cell with the man proclaimed to be King of the Jews – a man he finds puzzling and disturbing. In a great scene, he uses Pilate’s vanity against him and surreptitiously negotiates his freedom.
I found this book fascinating as a piece of historical fiction. Naomi Alderman has stripped away the supernatural elements of the man we know as Jesus and portrays him as merely a man. Sure, he seems to be a man with more than his fair share of mental illness but what man is without such faults?
I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone but, having looked at some of the less-than-favourable reviews on Goodreads, it probably won’t go down too well with devout Christians. If you’re a Christian who expects their image of Christ the Lord to be reinforced by this book, I’d advise you to steer clear. If, on the other hand, you’ve got an open-mind and even a fleeting interest in Middle-Eastern history, you’ll probably be swept away.