The Liars’ Gospel

By – January 25, 2013

It is impor­tant to qui­et the lamb, that is the first thing.” So begins Nao­mi Alder­man’s The Liars’ Gospel, a fic­tion­al account of Jesus’ life set against the back­drop of the Jews’ strug­gles against Roman rule.

Alder­man gives us four points of view, or gospels, on the life of Yehoshuah (Jesus), focus­ing main­ly on the time between his depar­ture from home and his death. We hear from his moth­er, Miryam (Mary), who laments her son’s depar­ture and has trou­ble accept­ing him in his new role as a teacher.”

We hear from his fol­low­er, con­fi­dant, and lat­er his betray­er, Iehu­da (Judas), one of the most com­pelling char­ac­ters in this sto­ry. It is through Iehu­da’s eyes that we see Yehoshuah evolve from a man who has gath­ered a few sup­port­ers through his mes­sages of forgive­ness and heal­ing, to a man who is lead­ing a move­ment of thou­sands of fol­low­ers. Through Iehu­da we see how Yehoshuah los­es his way grad­u­al­ly, in small mis­steps, veer­ing incre­men­tal­ly far­ther away from the mes­sages he start­ed his teach­ings with and into a more self-serv­ing role.

We hear from the high priest, Caiaphas, whose life’s work was to main­tain the precari­ous bal­ance between the desires of the Jews and the demands of the Romans.

And final­ly we hear from a young Jew­ish rebel, Bar-Avo (Barab­bas), in whose hands lies the fate of the Jew­ish peo­ple at the time.

In this fic­tion­al account of Jesus’ life the sac­ri­fi­cial lamb is an apt metaphor for Jesus’ fol­low­ers, for the Jew­ish peo­ple, and for the high priests who shep­herd them through Roman rule.

With exquis­ite prose, Alder­man gives us a human treat­ment of a man from hum­ble begin­nings who, some­how, has been dei­fied. Through her gospel we can begin to answer the ques­tion of how, exact­ly, that might have happened.

An Inter­view with Nao­mi Alderman

by Ada Brun­stein

Nao­mi Alder­man was a final­ist for the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture and is a Sami Rohr Prize Lit­er­ary Insti­tute fel­low. Her most recent book, The Liars’ Gospel, was pub­lished by Lit­tle, Brown and Company.

Ada Brun­stein: What made you want to write this book?

Nao­mi Alder­man: I first thought of the idea for this book about twen­ty years ago when I was six­teen or so. I was study­ing both Hebrew and Latin at the same time which gives you two quite inter­est­ing per­spec­tives on the same peri­od. And my Hebrew teacher was telling me that there were ref­er­ences to Jesus in some of the ancient Jew­ish texts of the peri­od. And I said Oh some­body should write a book about this,’ and she said, no no no they shouldn’t; no one should write a book about the Jew­ish Jesus.’ And of course that kind of strong reac­tion will make it stick in your mind.

And then it was this idea that would recur to me every East­er when there would be all sorts of things on the BBC about Jesus and East­er and it would just be so sim­plis­tic as an under­stand­ing of what was going on at the time: there are nasty high priests who did nasty things and Jesus died. It’s so much more com­pli­cat­ed than that.

AB: How did you choose the char­ac­ters you chose for these four gos­pels from among all the char­ac­ters in Jesus’s life?

NA: They are the ones who spoke to me.

I would have loved to have got­ten some­thing out of Mary Mag­da­lene but I couldn’t make her say any­thing to me.

I sup­pose the high priest def­i­nite­ly chose him­self because that char­ac­ter seemed so neglect­ed and I think he’s my favorite of the four because it just feels like a per­spec­tive that I haven’t ever seen.

Barab­bas was def­i­nite­ly the last one for me to choose and for a long time I wasn’t sure he was right, but as I thought about it he got more and more right.

Judas also I think basi­cal­ly chose him­self. I was very inter­est­ed in whether I could por­tray him as some­body who was incred­i­bly sin­cere in his var­i­ous beliefs rather than again a pan­tomime vil­lain char­ac­ter, a blaggard.

AB: Your por­tray­al of Judas is indeed more nuanced than the way we usu­al­ly see Judas por­trayed. Can you say more about how that charac­ter evolved?

NA: In fact the char­ac­ter note for Judas I got direct­ly from the Gospel of Mark, which is the ear­li­est Gospel. This is what you get in the sto­ry of how that hap­pened: You have two things jux­ta­posed right next to each oth­er. There’s the sto­ry of how they go to Bethany, or Bei­th Anya, and this woman comes and pours per­fume on Jesus’s head. In Mark it says one of the dis­ci­ples said why did you let her do that? The per­fume could’ve been sold and mon­ey could’ve been giv­en to the poor.’ And Jesus gives a real­ly ter­ri­ble answer. He says why wouldn’t I let her do it? I will not be with you for too much longer, but the poor will always be with you.’ It’s a ter­ri­ble answer. And then the very next line is and then Judas went to betray him.’ And read­ing that as a nov­el­ist I thought well, one of the dis­ci­ples,’ that seems like it was obvi­ous­ly Judas and that was obvi­ous­ly his rea­son. And once you have that as the rea­son —because that’s quite a chal­leng­ing ques­tion to which Jesus gives an evi­dent­ly awful answer — that’s the basic note of that character.

Inci­den­tal­ly John, which was writ­ten much much lat­er evi­dent­ly came to the same con­clu­sion as me. So he goes, Judas said why did you let her do it, the per­fume could’ve been sold and the mon­ey giv­en to the poor.’ And then John adds anoth­er bit say­ing that Judas only asked this because he want­ed to steal the mon­ey and keep it for him­self.’ And you go John, boytchik, you know you’re mak­ing that up. You saw what I saw in there which is that if you’re fol­low­ing a man who gives that answer then you can have a rea­son to feel like you have already been betrayed.’ This is the char­ac­ter note for Judas. He’s a man who betrays but he also feels he’s been betrayed.

AB: What was your own reli­gious back­ground grow­ing up?

NA: I grew up real­ly Ortho­dox. My par­ents are both still real­ly Ortho­dox. Not Hare­di but very obser­vant, keep­ing kosher and keep­ing Shab­bos and keep­ing not only Passover and Yom Kip­pur but also Tu b’Shvat, Sukkot, Tzom Gedali­ah. And I was prob­a­bly reli­gious until I was 26 or 27. And I was still fair­ly obser­vant until my first nov­el was pub­lished. It was real­ly the pub­li­ca­tion of that nov­el that let me some­how leave it on the shelf.

AB: In many ways this is a book about the pow­er of the sto­ry more than the pow­er of the sto­ry teller.

NA: Thank you for under­stand­ing that. I would hate to tell any­one else how to read my nov­el and I hope that I write in such a way that I don’t force an inter­pre­ta­tion on the read­er, but to me Caiaphas is the hero of that sto­ry, as well as the high priests who fol­low him. These peo­ple who sac­ri­ficed basi­cal­ly every­thing in order to keep the peace. And Barab­bas is the vil­lain. Now, I think I leave it open enough that you could read it the oth­er way around. But I did­n’t not expect at the end of the book to have come to that opinion.

And not every­thing that Jesus said is good. For exam­ple that answer that he gives about the per­fume is a ter­ri­ble answer. But one of the things that he says, for exam­ple love your ene­my, that’s a great say­ing. It’s a great thought and by the end of the book hav­ing thought a lot about the his­to­ry of the time, it would’ve been bet­ter if they [the Jews] hadn’t been in con­stant rebel­lion. The con­stant rebel­lion did them no favors whatsoever.

In a way I’m with Jose­phus. He was a Jew­ish noble­man. For a while he had been part of the resis­tance against Rome and even­tu­al­ly he changed sides and helped the Romans. He was a trai­tor. But the situa­tion of a trai­tor is inter­est­ing and some­times peo­ple become trai­tors be­cause the alter­na­tive is worse. So Jose­phus has his views and he wants to argue in his book that it would’ve been much bet­ter for the Jews to not resist, and after hav­ing looked into the peri­od I end­ed up agree­ing with him. But the fun­da­men­tal­ists in Jerusalem both then and today would com­plete­ly dis­agree with that.

AB: In the book there are ways in which Jesus seems insane. When you were writ­ing this book were you think­ing of any sim­i­lar mod­ern day extreme reli­gious lead­ers, for exam­ple cult leaders?

NA: I start­ed from the premise that he wasn’t the son of God. So with that in mind then one has to explain some of the things that he said. Now some of the things that he said are very very good and if we can believe the account in the gospels, he’s clear­ly a thought­ful per­son who wants to dig into the mean­ing of rit­u­als and laws. And let’s not for­get I grew up real­ly reli­gious and there are some real­ly inspi­ra­tional rab­bis out there who dig into that stuff, who talk about it very humane­ly. If you don’t believe in God and the Torah then they do sound a bit insane, but at the same time I would not like to say that Jesus is mad. At cer­tain points he def­i­nite­ly seems mad but I think there’s an ele­ment of mad­ness which is just believ­ing things that peo­ple around you don’t believe and in that sense I think most of us have some pri­vate madness.

I def­i­nite­ly did try to think about the kinds of peo­ple through­out his­tory who are like this, both peo­ple who have had won­der­ful influ­ences and peo­ple who have had ter­ri­ble influences.

I def­i­nite­ly think there’s a pat­tern with Jesus that exists with a lot of oth­er reli­gious lead­ers. Some of them turn into what we call cults because they don’t get a lot of fol­low­ers and some of them turn into what we call reli­gions because they do get a lot of fol­low­ers. And some of that is pure acci­dent about which one hap­pens to strike at exact­ly the right moment.

So if you look at the found­ing of Mor­monism, of Sci­en­tol­ogy, you can see the same sort of things. There’s the charis­mat­ic guy at the cen­ter, but inter­est­ing­ly the thing doesn’t usu­al­ly start to take off until the char­ismatic leader has died and then there’s some­body else who comes on and takes on that legacy.

AB: We’ve talked about the pow­er­ful men in this book. Now tell me some­thing about the women.

NA: Caiaphas’s wife, who doesn’t have a name. I love her. I dis­cov­ered her in the text in the way that you dis­cov­er the exis­tence of a plan­et, by see­ing how the oth­er plan­ets’ orbits are affect­ed by it. So Caiaphas is real. His father-in-law Annas is real. Annas had four sons and a son-in-law who all became high priests. So this is a very pow­er­ful man. The son-in-law is very sug­ges­tive because clear­ly there’s an implied wife there whose father was the high priest, whose hus­band was the high priest and whose four broth­ers were all high priests. It’s impos­si­ble to imag­ine that she’s an air­head. This is a woman right in the cen­ter of pow­er and no one has even both­ered to record her name. So that is part of the rea­son I didn’t give her a name, as a lit­tle protest to the ill-treat­ment giv­en to this woman.

It seemed to me if you have four sons and a son-in-law who become high priests then the son-in-law is in a slight­ly tricky posi­tion because he has to stay in the good graces of his father-in-law, who is an extreme­ly pow­er­ful man and it seemed to me that the rela­tion­ship with the wife would be crit­i­cal. How that rela­tion­ship with the wife was main­tained would be of vital impor­tance. So I want­ed to focus his sto­ry on that, so I made her cool. And I thought with four sons and a son-in-law as high priests, is it pos­si­ble that Annas would not have edu­cat­ed his daugh­ter? Is that con­ceiv­able? I found it com­plete­ly inconceivable.

And also the sec­ond wife, I love her as well. She’s also called Hodia’s daugh­ter through­out, except he does ask her her name and her name is the num­ber daugh­ter that she is which is Bat She­va, the woman whom David falls in love with (well, takes a fan­cy to when he sees her bath­ing on the roof, let’s be real about it). That’s also a ter­ri­ble name, Bat She­va, sev­enth daughter.

It seemed to me that to por­tray the life of Caiaphas accu­rate­ly one would have to talk about the fact that his posi­tion is real­ly depen­dent on whom he’s hav­ing sex with.

AB: Judas is an observ­er amid this insan­i­ty” and he slow­ly watch­es it unfold and grad­u­al­ly goes from being a believ­er to not so much and these moments of real­iza­tion are painful. You feel for him.

NA: Good! I’ve giv­en up being an Ortho­dox Jew so I have some sympa­thy for peo­ple who have lost their faith. And I felt like I had to respect both parts of his sto­ry. There’s a Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion that he was the most beloved one of Jesus, they were the clos­est, and you have to respect that. And then you go so what does it take for a per­son to go from being the favored one and the clos­est one and the best one to being the one that betrays him?’ Well, that takes a break; an intense emo­tion­al expe­ri­ence of loss. I want­ed to con­vey that.

Ada Brun­stein is a free­lance writer and an acqui­si­tions edi­tor for Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press. She has an MA in Lin­guis­tics from NYU and an MS in Sci­ence Writ­ing from MIT. Her writ­ing has appeared in The New York Times, New Sci­en­tist, Dis­cov­er, and The Vocab­u­la Review.

Discussion Questions

  • Read­ing The Liars’ Gospel, did you feel like it was telling the sto­ry from a Jew­ish perspective? 

  • Despite being main­ly a work of fic­tion, did read­ing this book change any of your thoughts or per­spec­tives on the char­ac­ters por­trayed or on the begin­nings of Christianity?

  • In your opin­ion, who is the real hero” of this story?

  • Bar-Avo won­ders what would have hap­pened if Yehoshua had lived and led a rev­o­lu­tion rather than him (Bar-Avo). What do you think? How would that have changed history?

  • Which char­ac­ter did you iden­ti­fy with (or sym­pa­thize with) the most? 

  • Did this book meet your expec­ta­tions? Did it sur­prise you in any way?

  • The book does not shy away from graph­ic images – lan­guage, vio­lence, sex­u­al con­duct, human suf­fer­ing. Did you feel like this was nec­es­sary to the sto­ry? Did it have pur­pose or did it feel gratuitous? 

JBC Book Clubs ques­tions © Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, Inc., 2014