I'm not really sure what to make of Naomi Alderman's The liars' gospel. In some ways it was a fascinating read, in others supremely irritating. And, I think, part of the irritation to me at least, was that I felt that it claimed to have a new slant on how the gospels were interpreted; when in fact it wasn't a new approach at all.

The novel follows the life of Jesus from the latter end of his ministry through his death and resurrection to subsequent events in the wider Jerusalem community. Although, perhaps oddly, Jesus is not really the central figure here. The novel follows the story through people who will have a central role in the story, but only for a very limited time - Mary, Judas, Caiaphas, and Barabbas. Alderman comes from an Orthodox Jewish background, and for me this was the most fascinating part of the novel - her slant on life within a Jewish context was fascinating, shedding a new light on, for example, Jesus' arguments with the priests. Less anger, and more typical of a pious man from an adversarial religious tradition engaging with other pious men.I also thoroughly enjoyed the background drawn on the historic and political context.

Alderman's main premise is that the gospels are to a certain extent (perhaps even wholly) lies; as, and I think she has a point here, is any story or version of events. Any story, even an historical tale will be coloured rightly or wrongly, inaccurately or not, by the person who is telling the story, and their outlook on it. Alderman has looked at the gospels, studied the Torah, and Josephus, and other early historical accounts of the rise of Christianity; and has come to the conclusion that the story of Jesus is probably the story of several men intermingled. With multiple Messiahs roaming the Holy Land around Jesus' time - a time of great civil and political unrest, as well as religious fervour, this wouldn't be altogether unsurprising. I don't have a problem with this contention, neither do I have a problem with what she seems to imply in her acknowledgements, that possibly Josephus' mentions of Jesus may have been "massaged" at a later period to further enhance the validity of the gospels. That, I would guess, is equally true of the writers of the gospels themselves - there is some argument, for example, that the sections of the gospels that deal with Jesus being the vindication of Old Testament prophecies were not thought of while Jesus was alive, but were added later on.

What annoyed me about The liars' gospel though was that it was being presented as a new argument, when in fact all of this - the claims of multiple men mixed together, the remodelling of Josephus - is old hat; arguments that have been around for some time. Alderman, herself, rather bizarrely comes to some confusion here citing specific passages from Matthew to uphold her narrative thrust, so choosing the bits of the gospels that she thinks support her case. A very dangerous move and one that religious fundamentalists of all persuasions have been too keen to do throughout history (NOT that I'm suggesting that Alderman falls into this category).

More worryingly some points were just historically inaccurate. Her suggestion that there was biblical re-writing to shift the blame from Rome to the Jews as Christianity becomes big business doesn't make sense. Matthew, without doubt the most anti-semitic of the gospels, was almost certainly written around the end of the 1st century AD, a period when Christians were being heavily persecuted in Rome, and when most people, I guess, would have little thought that it would become a major world religion. So when does this re-writing happen? I'm not saying that Christianity doesn't hold some measure of responsibility for the anti-semitism of later centuries. It is also true that people can be far too eager to take simplistic views, and to be swayed by actions that are, at heart, more politically than religiously motivated. This has sadly been true throughout history; but to believe that Rome itself was putting some sort of a PR spin on the gospels just seems odd to me; and I think gives the Romans credit for a lot more foresight than they could possibly have had.

It's a well-written book, in many ways fascinating. I loved the Jewish context, it made me look at the New Testament in quite a different way. For those who know little about the history of the period, or religion, the novel will probably be a bit of a shock - the general description of it by critics appears to be "visceral", but what is more visceral than the original gospel accounts, which still pack a punch? - you only need to listen to something like Bach's St. Matthew Passion to realize that. Did it make me change my beliefs? No. But, I think it's the kind of novel that can be challenging to belief - and quite right too.



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