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.
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:
1. Why not consider the "lost gospels" from other points of view? Why not consider how Mary Magdalene or Judas Iscariot saw Jesus? Taylor Caldwell, in I, Judas, saw this tragic disciple as a zealot who was too arrogant to allow Jesus to follow His own path to the Kingdom of Heaven, demanding an overthrow of Rome, here and now. James Carse, in The Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, let a Samaritan woman tell the story. Steven Fortney, an American Buddhist under the influence of the Jesus Seminar, in The Thomas Jesus tells the story from Thomas' point of view, presenting Jesus as overtly homosexual. Michael Faber, in The Fire Gospel, tells the story of discovering the gospel of Malchus, the soldier whose ear, according to John, was severed by Peter. Faber turns the story into a postmodern adventure regarding the nature of the discovery and the authentication of the manuscript, not to mention the copyright issues with such a remarkable discovery, and the fury that results from the ultimate publication-focusing on the document rather than the subject matter.
2. Why not fill in the blanks left by the four Gospels? Surely a creative writer can picture the Christ child coming to an understanding of His godliness, or facing His interest in sexuality. Why restrict art to the words of Scripture? Among the most audacious of these alternate gospels is the one written by Norman Mailer, The Gospel According to the Son (1997), which purports to be the account written by Jesus Himself. It begins by giving some credit to Mark, though insisting his Gospel is exaggerated, and reveals that Matthew, Luke, and John gave Jesus words He never uttered, describing Him as "gentle" when He was pale with rage. This brief retelling of essential parts of the Gospel stories offers a puzzled Jesus, who is not at all sure of the nature of His ministry or even whether He is the Son of God. The book sounds like the outgrowth of reading the findings of the Jesus Seminar rather than the Bible.
3. Why not look for an explanation in history, tying Jesus' hopes and expectations to the contemporary passion for a Messiah? Or even better, why not look at other "myths" popular at the time, thereby explaining Jesus as a type of hero-like Moses or Hercules? The myth of the dying god can surely explain the contemporary interest in the crucifixion. Robert Graves' King Jesus narrates the life of Jesus some 50 years after the crucifixion from the point of view of a Greek historian named Agabus the Decapolitan. Agabus, a mouthpiece for Graves, a scholar of mythology, launches into very peculiar by-paths regarding the influence of the Great Goddess. D.H. Lawrence, another writer in love with exotic mythology, limited the story of Jesus (in The Man Who Died) to a post-crucifixion scene, in which Jesus reconsiders His mission on Earth and has an affair with a priestess of Isis.
4. In fact, why assume that the Gospels are factual? They are filled with angelic appearances, miracles, stories of the virgin birth, healings, and resurrections from the dead. Can't these be explained by psychology or some other natural means? Once the writer rejects the doctrine of divine inspiration of God's Word, he often respects no limits, feeling free to re-imagine the ancient story. Jim Crace, in Quarantine, thinks that Jesus cannot have survived the 40-day trial in the wilderness and must have gone mad-though He may have been resurrected.
Not every novelist is a postmodernist. Moderns often retell the Bible stories with great fidelity and reverence. Mary Ellen Ashcroft tells the story from the woman's point of view in The Magdalene Gospel, and Marjorie Holmes produced a trilogy in the manner of Frank Slaughter's The Crown and the Cross. Perhaps the best known of these New Testament stories in modern English is Fulton Oursler's The Greatest Story Ever Told, a reconciliation of chronological issues in the Gospels that avoids individual interpretation.
The writer who insists on introducing Jesus as a character in a work of fiction has a daunting challenge. A mere paraphrase of Scripture leaves the reader wondering, Why bother? But the writer too delighted with creative possibilities and unencumbered by faith in God's Word will allow art to triumph over truth, offending believers by ignoring the details of Scripture.
This is sacred material and must be approached with fear and trembling. Our discovery of truth may be enhanced by the creative imagination, but the Christian reader must be aware above all of who Christ is and how we know. The writer of biblical fiction can hardly expect us to "suspend our disbelief" and enter into the spirit of the story when that spirit violates our faith. The novelist may help the reader to see the truth "slant" and therefore enliven it, or discover a deeper meaning based on individual experience. But the Christian reader knows that truth is not changing. This truth is beauty-without any need for twisting or embroidering.
-Nancy M. Tischler is professor Emerita of English and Humanities at The Pennsylvania State University and author of Thematic Guide to Christian Literature