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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.”

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.

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