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. Win a copy of The Liars’ Gospel here.

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.

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