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When Jesus is the hero

2009 Books Issue | Novelists who make Him the main character find many ways to answer the question, "Who do you say that I am?

Issue: "2009 Books Issue," July 4, 2009

After the death and resurrection of Christ, several of His followers shared their memories of His life and ministry with fellow believers. The four Gospels that were finally accepted as inspired Scripture excluded many Gnostic gospels-purported to be by Judas, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and others-as well as "sayings" of Jesus. Some saved these discards for future reconsideration, and in the past 150 years scholars in search of new material have rediscovered these documents.

This revival of Gnostic gospels has coincided with a tsunami of "Jesus novels." Of the over 200 novels that have Jesus as the protagonist, the great majority have come since World War I. Many can be traced to the famous 19th-century French scholar Ernst Renan, who wrote his detailed, sympathetic, but humanistic The Life of Jesus in 1863.

In loving and heavily footnoted detail, Renan wrote this first "historical" record of Jesus from His birth (in Nazareth) to His death and the "legends" of His resurrection. Renan challenged the birth stories, the miracles, and the divine nature of Jesus, insisting that He was a great man who came closer to being divine than any other great ethical philosopher. Renan's powerful influence was probably the reason that C.S. Lewis responded that if Jesus was not the Christ, then He was a liar or a lunatic.

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Later writers have sometimes chosen Renan's approach, with modifications. Some try to harmonize the Gospels to produce a single story. Some insert new knowledge gleaned from historical and archaeological research to flesh out the background-as Sholem Asch did in his justly famous The Nazarene (1939). Asch explains much of the Jewish, Greek, and Roman background for the Gospel stories. He is so knowledgeable about Jewish rituals and politics that he makes the whole argument leading to the crucifixion thoroughly understandable. Remarkably, this Jewish author, writing in Yiddish, produced a sympathetic and compelling explanation of the power and glory of Jesus the Messiah. Rather than twisting the words of Scripture, Asch tells his story in the voices of three observers, Judas, the commander of the Antonia, and Joseph of Arimathea-allowing him to filter the action and motivation through the minds of a Zealot, a Roman, and a Pharisee. But, like Renan, Asch assumes that the resurrection is a folk tale spread by the disciples.

A more orthodox telling of the story-from the point of view of John-is Walter Wangerin Jr.'s Jesus: A Novel (2005). This poetic fiction characterizes Jesus (with red hair, small and slender body), Judas (a wild young boy), Mary Magdalene (a frail waif), and the others of the well-known story, using imagination only where facts are missing. Wangerin imagines the scenes of Jesus' ministry with humor and passion, humanizing Christ while retaining the majesty and power of the greatest story ever told. His beautiful ending-the first chapter of John's Gospel-reinforces the sacred message of the novel.

Recently Anne Rice wrote two volumes of a series, "Christ the Lord" (see WORLD, Dec. 3, 2005, and Feb. 23, 2008). Rice accepts the testimony of the Gospels that the historical Jesus was born in Bethlehem, lived briefly in Egypt, and moved with His family to Nazareth, until He took the road to Cana and began His ministry.

Rice's daring first-person narrative in both Out of Egypt and The Road to Cana is an audacious attempt to read the mind of Jesus. Basing her story on the few details available describing the early years of Jesus' life, Rice blends the Gospels' stories with the Gnostic gospels, adds a bit of historical background regarding rebellions against Pontius Pilate, flavors it with the archaeological discoveries regarding the life and culture in Alexandria and Galilee, and binds it together with her famous imagination.

Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation of Christ (1951) made a stir with his suggestion that Jesus was tempted to abandon His calling, marry, raise a family, and settle down to make a living in the carpentry business. Kazantzakis' Christ-usually called "the son of Mary"-sounds suspiciously like Nietzsche's Zarathustra, slightly mad, clearly sexual, and full of contradictory aphorisms. Elaborating on the Gnostic gospel of Mary Magdalene, Kazantzakis assumes that Jesus and Mary Magdalene have been in love since they were toddlers, openly displaying their hunger for one another. For this writer, Mary provides the image of Jesus' greatest temptation-to embrace the joys of life on earth.

Some of these writers and a host of others have predicated their stories on a post-Christian deconstructionism. For example, doubting that we ever know the complete or absolute truth, many modern novelists who write about Jesus ask themselves one of the following four questions:

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