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.
Ada Brunstein is the Head of Reference at a university press.