The youthful Jesus is portrayed working as an apprentice to his father the carpenter (plenty of verisimilar technical information on wood and tools), reading the scrolls of Ezekiel and Isaiah, which he will later freely quote, and experiencing for the first time on record a serious childhood illness (some of its effects seem to linger on in the later career). Also for the first time, he is seen to brood sadly over Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents, a massacre attributable to his birth, and perhaps an instance of that tragic mismanagement of which Mailer’s God is guilty on other occasions. This is midrash, and Mailer has a talent for midrash, explanatory extension or updating of existing stories (a talent novelists need); for example, he retells the story of the pregnant Elizabeth, whose babe leaps in the womb when the Virgin arrives on a visit. Luke does not say that the fetus had been without life until that moment, but Mailer does; it is a good touch, one more small miracle and in these exceptional circumstances nothing out of the way.
The Temptation in the Wilderness is a critical event in the Synoptics; John knows nothing about it, and in his plot the miracle at Cana has to serve as an equivalent threshold experience. Mailer puts both in. The Temptation, described in one charged verse by Mark, but at greater length by the others, especially Luke, is further expanded by Mailer. He makes the devil seem rather like Adolphe Menjou or perhaps George Sanders in some old movie, a blend of delicately perfumed politeness and sinister fecal underscent. Jesus of course withstands his temptations, but doesn’t emerge entirely clean; he loses something by this diabolical contact, retaining a certain “fealty” to Satan, a certain slight complicity with evil. When Luke said Jesus underwent “all the temptations,” commentators thought he meant all possible temptations, an interpretation that gave comfort when supported by a text from the Epistle to the Hebrews: “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”
But Mailer’s Satan ensures that Jesus is not without sin; he experiences lust, which by his own ruling is adultery in the heart, and also vengeful anger. He is rarely quite sure what it means to be both a man and the son of God, and occasionally needs and receives divine warnings. “When you are without Me, the Devil is your companion.” He wonders why he was chosen, and why he was tempted, just as he wonders why he has to die. During the Crucifixion he asks whether God is all-powerful. “Even as I asked…I heard my own answer: God, my father, was one god. But there were others. If I had failed Him, so had He failed me. Such was now my knowledge of good and evil. Was it for that reason that I was on the cross?” And later: “My Father was only doing what He could do. Even as I had done what I could do…. Had His efforts for me been so great that now He was exhausted?”
The subtlest notion here is that God-given power in a man can be wasted or exhausted, as it was wasted in that trivial first miracle at Cana, and exhausted when the hemorrhaging woman surreptitiously touched Jesus’ robe. Such failures of power become a major theme of the novel. Even God’s power is not adequate to his good intentions; he can be defeated, as in Herod’s massacre, and in the Holocaust. The point is ultimately theological; it is impossible to recount this myth without implying a theology and a fore-understanding, as Mailer knew when he took it on. So for him “human” implies “fallible,” and a human son of God may suffer from God’s weakness as well as his own.
He tries hard to do justice to other doctrines—his Pharisees are good in religious debate, sometimes too good for Jesus. But they are, finally, disagreeable figures with their hypocritical made-up minds and their extravagant cult of cleanliness. So there is a natural bias toward the views of Jesus, who actually seems much more human in preferring the unclean company of sinners and drinkers. Mailer even suggests that Jesus had a fondness for the gay men he came across in Capernaum, seemingly taking the merest hint from Matthew (11:23-24) that such people existed there: “And thou, Capernaum…shall be brought down to hell…. It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom, in the day of judgment, than for thee.” Thus an anathema, in itself a shade pharisaical, is converted into an expression of unpharisaical liberality.
In spite of the condemnation of the Evangelists as inaccurate and self-serving, quite large tracts of their writing are left more or less undisturbed, for instance Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. The best place to look for novelistic invention is in the treatment of characters. Jesus’ mother, for instance, is characterized as both modest and vain, proud of her son and his origin but thinking him unready to go out into the world; having brought him up in an ascetic Essene community, she would prefer him just to go on being a good God-fearing and woman-fearing Essene boy and perhaps eventually join the Qumran community. So there is tension between mother and son. Mark had emphasized the difficulty Jesus experienced when returning to his home town (he could not do any “mighty works” there, though Matthew considerately altered this to “many mighty works”), and Mailer takes this up, suggesting that Jesus’ hurtful rhetorical question “Who is my mother?” had left him with a bad conscience about her.
Lazarus, though unknown to the Synoptics, plays an important part in John’s story, and it is interesting to compare what the two writers make of him. His return to life from the tomb is here announced by the odor of rotting corpse; the Pharisees would be repelled by this new uncleanness. Lazarus himself is not unequivocally pleased to be restored to life. The smell of the corpse is in John’s version, and so is the alarm of the authorities—the High Priest fears that this especially mighty work may win popular support for the Galilean, with consequent disturbances, all too likely to be severely repressed by the Romans.
But the sadness of Lazarus is new, and so are Jesus’s doubts about whether this was a good thing to have done. John’s Jesus had a double response to his friend’s sickness and death; he claims divinity in his encounter with Lazarus’s sister Martha (through this illness “God’s glory is to be revealed and the Son of God glorified”); but after Lazarus dies, he weeps, humanly, at his meeting with his other sister, Mary. The human yields to the divine: the raising of Lazarus, a solemn parody of birth or rebirth, justifies the claim “I am the resurrection and the life.” In this episode, and in the anointing of Jesus by Mary, John is completely out of touch with the Synoptics; he is on his own and manifestly a very powerful writer. Mailer reduces the complexity of the episode by preferring to use the story of the anointing in a quite different context, as the Synoptics do. What he chooses to tell of Lazarus he tells impressively; but in this head-to-head storytelling contest John seems to be the victor.
In his treatment of Pilate (he releases Barabbas for a bribe, is deeply cynical in the philosophical debate with Jesus) Mailer is again adapting John, as other apocryphal gospels had done before him, and here with more success. He has an understandable preference for John as the best of the tellers, but again deserts him, making the Last Supper a Passover meal. John had wanted to place it the night before, so that the Crucifixion would coincide with the killing of the Passover lambs. On such occasions the redactor has to choose, and either choice has its points; any redaction of the story is going to involve loss as well as the hoped-for gain. For example, Mailer rejects Mark’s thrillingly unexpected “I am” (his Jesus’ first proclamation of divinity, made at the moment when Peter was denying him) in reply to the High Priest’s demand to know whether he is the son of God. Mailer chooses the tamer response recorded by Matthew and Luke (“I am what you say”; or “So you say”). It is a loss.
Apart from the central figure the novelist devotes most of his inventive power to Judas. Like others before him, he is unwilling to dismiss Judas as a petty thief and traitor. His Judas is a fiery, intelligent, rather worldly disciple, who knows about corrupt dealings between the Jewish priesthood and the Roman occupiers, and is always skeptical about some of the dominical claims. Mailer invents for him an important conversation with Jesus, who senses that he is dangerous but continues to love him. This Judas is above all devoted to the poor, and is shocked when his protest against the waste of money on ointment prompts the reply “The poor you have always with you.” It is because of this betrayal of what for him is the true cause that Judas turns against his master. Jesus himself feels guilty at having put his honor and ease above the needs of the poor; and he will not condemn Judas for condemning him. These are new and novelistically plausible interpretations.
Other personalities (Peter and Thomas, for instance) are virtually unchanged from the Gospel accounts, but Mailer has a special interest in Levi the publican (a tax collector in Roman employ and usually known as Matthew), supposing him to have been called to discipleship despite his odious occupation because he looked cheerful, perhaps because he was streetwise, liked his drink, and was acquainted with vice. Such men are the readier to repent and least like the Pharisees. Nearly all of this is pure invention.
The colt on which Jesus rides into Jerusalem is, in this new version, unbroken, restive, requiring to be subdued. Since Luke records that this was an animal “whereon yet never man sat,” this is a legitimate addition to the original, but it conflicts with the image of a Messiah entering not in glory but mounted on a humble farm animal, an ass’s colt; so the interpretation gains a small and persuasive detail but loses a big idea. One amusement offered by this novel is this: deciding whether a particular midrashic extension is reasonable and does as much good as harm. Mailer’s are usually explicable, but one left me baffled: John’s unnamed Beloved Disciple, whom Jesus addressed from the Cross, is here, without explanation or apparent reason, called Timothy, not the name of any of the Twelve as they are listed by the Synoptics (e.g., Mark 14:13) but of a younger man years later, a Greek-Jewish companion and helper of Paul’s. Other identifications have, of course, been proposed—John himself, for instance, and Lazarus; even the latter seems more plausible than Mailer’s choice.
In the process of augmentation Jesus is given several uncanonical saying which sound more like Mailer than Jesus: “It is natural to mourn for oneself”; “No heart is so hard as the timid heart”; “The destruction of each man is to be found in the pity he saves for himself”; “A man of small mind develops a hard shell so that he can protect his small thoughts.” Whether these sayings can be called plausible depends largely on how convincing this Jesus is as a Mailerian character. “I am the Son of God yet also a man,” he says, and as a man he has many faults: he makes too many promises, is sometimes confused, sometimes reacts too quickly, is sometimes too clever by half, is sometimes caught in two minds. He experiences fear, desires vengeance, has lascivious reveries, is attracted by sinners, and has fits of rage. The doctrine of the incarnation requires that he be a man in all ways, yet also without sin, like Adam before the Fall—a god willingly but sinlessly sustaining the whole burden of humanity. Mailer makes Jesus too human for that, seizing on every moment of wrath and belligerence recorded by the Evangelists and adding more. This Jesus is not perfect. An angel in a dream quotes to him John’s line: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” and his response is “How I hoped that the angel spoke truth!” He is the son of God, though never quite sure of it.
His mission is a failure, in part because Satan was right about the way all men (and the Church) would turn to the worship of Mammon, partly because, contrary to report, his Father in heaven, who sent him, isn’t perfect, either. Mailer sees God as doing his best, but still suffering some crushing defeats. This view is, approximately, Manichean, dualist; Satan is still powerful in the world. This is one reason why the poor we have always with us. There is no overt theological discussion: Mailer is not interested in lucubrations on such problems, and his very partial theodicy amounts only to saying that God is doing his not wholly adequate best. The writer’s powerful mind works in a specialized way, not by theological argumentation but by telling or retelling a story. The result is (for once) a short book, a book of considerable intellectual force. Having accepted the “dare,” Mailer can make a fair claim to have come honorably close to winning it.