Although Naomi Alderman’s 'The Liars’ Gospel' takes issue with the mythology around the life of Jesus, it shouldn’t surprise any Christians who did their Scripture homework at school. Most ought to have got over the shock discovery that Jesus was not the polite, Victorian, Anglo-Catholic of my unconscious imagination at least.
He wasn’t blond; “Christ” was not his family surname; some of his most famous sayings were lifted from the Torah; and he wasn’t even called Jesus.
Its originality comes from Alderman’s setting of the story of Jesus in the context of Jewish history — as a chapter in a bigger tale. This she does brilliantly; she’s drenched in the scholarship.
The epigraph she has chosen, from W H Auden, elegantly spells it out: “the ploughman may/ Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry, /But for him it was not an important failure.”
Alderman grudgingly admits to Yehoshuah’s charisma, but depicts him throughout as crazy — he rants, he gibbers, he answers wise words with egomaniacal nonsense, and his talent for attracting crowds is worrying the Roman authorities.
This version, like the original, is told in four “gospels” — the testimonies of four people whose lives were changed by a wandering preacher called Yehoshuah.
The first is Miryam’s: her son Yehoshuah has been dead for a year and she is torn between grief for him, and fury at the trouble he is still causing. Her husband, Yosef, never got on with Yehoshuah (a Christian would argue that this is because the boy was actually his stepson) and he has gone off with a younger woman. As if this wasn’t depressing enough, Miryam is now a tourist attraction for Yehoshuah’s followers.
The next gospel belongs to Iehuda of Qeriot, better known as Judas Iscariot. In the New Testament, this is the man who betrayed Jesus and later hanged himself. In Alderman’s version, he has become a successful after-dinner speaker on the Roman party circuit.
Alderman writes acutely about Iehuda’s loss of faith in Yehoshuah, formerly his best friend — “No man should be told he’s a god while he still lives.” The traditional villain of the piece has become the hero.
The other two voices belong to the High Priest, Caiaphas, whose life is a nightmare of appeasing the ghastly Romans; and Bar-Avo (Barabbas), the political rebel released by Pontius Pilate because the rabble preferred him to Jesus.
Or so the story goes. “Storytellers know”, writes Alderman, “that every story is at least partly a lie.”
By turning this incredibly well-known story on its head, Alderman brilliantly places the beginnings of the world’s most successful religion against the chaotic background of an occupied country.
Her scholarship is lightly worn and expertly deployed. More importantly, it is never allowed to stand in the way of a very pacy, compelling and refreshingly commonsensical novel.