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The Gospel According to the Son

by Norman Mailer
Random House, 242 pp., $22.00

To read the surviving ancient examples of apocryphal gospels is to see how impressive the canonical ones usually are. The apocrypha, sometimes clever, sometimes silly, try to elaborate or continue those originals, thus following, with varying degrees of irresponsibility, the example of the Evangelists themselves. All manner of strange things are said to have happened to Judas; for instance, that the silver he gained by treachery he lost by gambling. Pilate, converted to Christianity, may seek to persuade the emperor Tiberius of the divinity of Christ, and even be accepted as a saint. Such things occur in apocryphal gospels. Norman Mailer has added to the genre a modern example that is clever but not silly. And in one respect it breaks new ground: it is the first, so far as I know, to be attributed to Jesus himself, a gospel-autobiography, no less, of the Son of God.

Each of the four canonical Gospels has a Passion narrative offering an orderly historical account of the last days of Jesus in Jerusalem. These narratives are by no means identical, but they resemble one another closely enough to suggest that they all base their variations on the same lost predecessor, an earlier written report of those last days. Discrepancies between them have to be explained by the doctrinal preferences of the communities for whom the Evangelists were writing, and by the predispositions of the writers themselves.

Events in the life of Jesus prior to the last visit to Jerusalem are much less coherently described and can hardly be said to constitute a narrative at all. The reports are presumably based on oral collections of sayings, miracles, and parables, with a few, mostly perfunctory, indications suggesting where Jesus was from time to time—in Capernaum, revisiting Nazareth, going back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, and finally moving into Jerusalem for the climax. Here John, lacking their common adherence to Mark, is widely different from Matthew and Luke, and not only because of discourses he attributes to Jesus that they know nothing about. For example, he describes several visits to Jerusalem before the final one they all describe.

This is more plausible than the single visit allowed by the other three, since it explains why Jesus and the disciples, normally working in Galilee, had friends in and around the city. But John, who on the whole offers the most connected account of Jesus’ career, can no more than the others provide a straightforward narrative of the pre-Passion ministry. Like Mark, he has nothing whatever to say about the birth, childhood, and youth of his hero, whereas Luke and Matthew provide rather elaborate but disparate accounts of the Annunciation and the Nativity. Luke takes most care to provide some sort of historical context to the early part of the life, for instance explaining the winter journey to Bethlehem as made necessary by a new Roman taxation policy. He also provides John the Baptist, said to be a cousin of Jesus, with his parallel nativity story, and alone sends the boy Jesus to lecture in the Temple.

Final agreement about the interrelations of the different versions is unlikely ever to be achieved, but most scholars still seem to accept that of the first three Gospels (called “Synoptic”) the shortest, Mark, came first; that Matthew and Luke used him as a basis, augmenting his account (though this theory is much contested) with material from another source (the hypothetical collection of sayings known as Q). Each of them must also have had access to some material peculiar to himself.

These conjectures are offered in explanation of the palpable similarities between the three Gospels and also of their deviations and disagreements. Indeed the learned have been at work for centuries either demonstrating the “harmony” of the three versions or explaining how they came to be dissonant. The unlearned have been content with an uncritical mishmash, sometimes preferring Luke (in whose version the Annunciation is made, as tradition assumes it was, to Mary, although in Matthew the angel addresses Joseph) but sometimes mingling both (Matthew’s wise men and Luke’s shepherds). The narrative of the interim between the Nativity and the Passion is likewise marked by concords and discords, stringing together in different ways traditions about journeys and parables and teachings, but in no case suggesting a definite progression. What is certain is that a later biographer of Jesus has more usable source material in the Passion story than in what comes before it.

So Norman Mailer, conscious of the source problem and conscious also of the chutzpah involved in his manner of solving it, decided to retell the whole story as a posthumous autobiography of Jesus, who could of course be represented as an authority on the facts of his early life. His Jesus starts off by being highly critical of the Gospels, accusing them of exaggeration and even of mendacity; he complains that they attribute to him words he never said, and play down his anger, which he thinks important. “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 on no more than a bush that tears free from its roots and blows about in the wind.” The Evangelists, he considers, were more concerned with enlarging or strengthening their own congregations than with the truth, which he will now provide. This attitude may seem a shade ungrateful when you reflect that those despised Gospels are virtually his only source, but Mailer’s Jesus is capable of being angry and unreasonable, and of course knows what later scholarship has to say about the situations and motives of the Gospel writers. With his author’s help he can correct those flawed reports and make clear what he really did, thought, and said.

What you get,” says Mailer of the Gospels in an interesting interview in his publisher’s house magazine, “is some pretty dull prose and a contradictory, almost hopeless way of telling the story. So I thought this account, this wonderful narrative, ought to be properly told.” And unlike his apostolic predecessors he can claim to be a much practiced and experienced storyteller, a lifelong student of the possibilities of novelistic narrative, more sensitive to the interaction of plot and character than they could possibly be.

Inevitably he has much the same trouble as they had in giving Jesus a plausible itinerary during the Galilean years, but the authority vested in his narrator is such that he can adapt, explain, qualify, or reject their versions at will. In doing so he can hardly avoid, and indeed makes little attempt to avoid, infusing Jesus with a strong dose of Mailer, so the book is in some measure another self-advertisement. In that same interview he suggests that one reason for accepting this “dare” was that he himself has “a slight understanding of what it’s like to be half a man and half something else, something larger.” He means that the celebrity of The Naked and the Dead caused him, from twenty-five on, to lead a double life, as a famous person and as his “simple self,” the former role giving him a power he hasn’t always known how to use well; which was a problem also, he suggests, for Jesus, who was likewise half one thing and half another.

There is something attractive about this blend of self-analysis and self-confidence. “If I can write about Isis and Osiris and Ra,” he argues, “then certainly the New Testament is not going to be that difficult to do.” And having worked on Oswald and Picasso and Marilyn Monroe must have been a help, too. Of course he had on this unusual occasion to make experiments in quest of an appropriate style, avoiding the archaism of the King James translation but equally declining any uninhibited exhibition of that wonderfully agile, muscular, personal prose that made The Armies of the Night in particular incomparable in its kind. After a lot of work on this problem of decorum he invented his own serviceable version of what Eric Auerbach called sermo humilis, a lowly style, the very style the Evangelists wrote their Greek in; a simple, everyday manner that is faintly, appropriately, archaic as well. Thus equipped, he was able to apply his novelistic skills to a superior rendering of the story.

In addition to the advantage conferred by these skills Mailer could claim another of comparable importance. He seems to have had, until quite recently, very little interest in the New Testament, but was turned on to it by some remarks of the present Pope about “a fourth world which included all the underprivileged who lived among the two superpowers, particularly in America with our homeless.” Reading the New Testament, he found it “curious in the extreme.” And once he began the examination of the gospel story, this powerful “myth,” as he calls it, he also felt it an advantage to be a Jew, and so in sympathy with a Jesus who was no longer, as he had been to earlier generations of American Jews, an enemy or renegade, but a good man. “Whatever else Jesus was, he was that…. I became very fond of him.” And to portray a good man may well be the greatest challenge a novelist can face.

Although he offers rational explanations for some of the miracles, Mailer obviously saw no need to explain away all these and other supernatural occurrences, such as faith healings and “mighty works” generally, since by nominating Jesus as the author of the book he was accepting as a donnée the greatest miracle of all. So he takes miracles as they come—warning that they are less important than the teachings, sometimes scolding the Evangelists for exaggeration, but usually leaving the substance of the stories intact or even embellishing them. He explains the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand by saying that Jesus broke the loaves and fishes into very small pieces and dished out the crumbs one by one, with a sort of sacramental effect. (Like Mark, he includes two feedings, one a close copy of the other—a redundancy noticed and corrected by Matthew.)

Naturally he comments as he chooses on the miracles. After the little daughter of Jairus has been raised from the dead, or from a coma, he speculates that the child cannot have been happy to be reinserted in a house torn by marital discord. There is nothing to that effect in the Gospels, so perhaps here as elsewhere the author is expressing personal discomfort at the idea of bodily resurrection—and a sense that nobody concerned is likely to be overjoyed about it. When the blind man on the road to Bethsaida has his sight restored he exclaims that he sees “men like trees walking”—a fine instance of Marcan idiosyncrasy, but Mailer, like many a commentator before him, feels the need of an allegory when confronted by an oddity: “That is because men, like trees, bear a fruit of good and evil.”

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