Life & Culture

The Gospel according to Richard Zimler: demons, dreams and Yeshua

Richard Zimler's new book, The Gospel According to Lazarus, has been named one of the best books of the year so far. So what was his inspiration?


The Gospel According to Lazarus by Richard Zimler (Peter Owen, £14.99)

Most of us cannot remember our dreams upon waking, but Richard Zimler’s latest novel, The Gospel According to Lazarus, is influenced by a recurring dream that he first had several decades ago, following his adored, older brother’s death from Aids-related complications in 1989.

Zimler had been responsible for Jerry’s care, flying frequently back and forth from the San Francisco Bay area where he was living to support Jerry in New York as best he could. “When he died, I was very, very traumatised,” explains Zimler, speaking on the phone from his home in Porto. 
 “At the time, I had this dream where he came back to life. I saw him on the patio of a mansion, where I must have been staying as a guest and I thought everything is going to be ok, he’s come back to life.” In the dream, Zimler ran outside to speak to him and discovered that although Jerry recognised him, he was diminished as a person. “He knew he’d never be happy again, that he’d never be fulfilled so he was very disturbed. I was very disturbed.”

Zimler had the dream a few more times and then it vanished until after his mother’s death, 17 years later, also following a long illness. “And this time,” he emphasises, “I thought of Lazarus.” Lazarus, of course, appears in the Christian bible as a man supposedly brought back from the dead by Jesus.

“In my dream, Jerry comes back to life and Lazarus is the most famous story of someone coming back from the dead,” he says. Later, he wondered if there was a link because Jerry had converted to Christianity. But he also realised that the dream represented his greatest wish at that time.

“If you want to use Freudian terminology, you could say it was a kind of wish fulfilment.” 
 Our interview came before the events that moved Zimler this week to accuse two anonymous organisations of shunning him as a Jew for fear of offending pro-Palestinian activists. Ironically, we talked about how moved he had been by the Christian response to the book despite some negative comments (calling him satanic) from readers in Brazil.

He was sanguine about the novel’s chances in the UK, saying: “I suspect that people who might tend to feel negatively about that may not read novels, so I may be safe!” The hostility he subsequently encountered was clearly an unpleasant shock. 
 The Gospel According to Lazarus is written from the perspective of Lazarus himself, a childhood friend of Jesus. But how and why Lazarus was revived and what happened to him after he was caught up in the plot to arrest and execute Jesus — explanations missing from the gospel version — are questions that Zimler explores with compassion and poignancy.

Zimler’s telling is a strikingly evocative, rigorously researched, affecting tale of faith, love, friendship and sacrifice that was a number-one bestseller in Portugal, where he lives with his partner. The Sunday Times named it as one of their best books of the year so far.

He has given his own Jewish interpretation on the story, placing Jesus firmly in the historic context of ancient Jewish practice and tradition. Crucially, he chose to give Jesus back his Judaism. He is referred to by his Hebrew name, Yeshua ben Yosef as Zimler wanted to allow him to be what he was: a Jewish mystic, a rabbinical teacher and healer. “I think that was one of the most important things I was trying to do,” he says. “We know that Jesus was Jewish and yet we’re all prisoners of this idea that he was a blond, blue eyed Christian. But he had never heard the word Christianity.”

He admits that he feels a little resentful that Jesus has been co-opted by Christian dogma and turned into something he wasn’t. “I don’t know why Jews shouldn’t rebel against that and, to a certain extent, reclaim Yeshua ben Yosef as one of their own. His teachings are perfectly in line with rabbinical teaching from the first century,” he explains. “His mystical statements like the kingdom of heaven are also within the gnostic ideas that were permeating Judaism at that time.”

Zimler grew up in the New York suburb of Roslyn Heights and, like many students in the 1960s, he found more inspiration in Buddhism than Judaism when majoring in comparative religion at Duke University. His parents were left-wing non-believers and although the family celebrated the major Jewish holidays, his father was, he says, a “crazy” communist. “God wasn’t even allowed to come in through a window or a back door in our house.”

Yet after the 1998 publication of his best-selling first novel, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, a murder mystery set during the Spanish Inquisition, based closely on the events of the Lisbon massacre of 1506, the former journalist turned historical novelist established himself as a chronicler of Sephardi Jewish life in Portugal, the country that has been his home since 1990.

The book played a significant role in instigating a recognition and acceptance of Portugal’s Sephardi Jewish culture and heritage, he says. “I’m very proud of my novels but I think I’m proudest of the fact that I’ve brought back this part of Portuguese and European history from total amnesia,” he says.

Zimler admits that his interest in Judaism, and his utter fascination with Jewish myths and mystical traditions, came late to him. A chance discovery in his parents’ house, in the late 1980s, of the works of the historian and philosopher, Gershom Scholem, ignited a connection with Judaism that had been, for him, until then, “a superficial religion of barmitzvah parties and nothing of depth.” Suddenly, Zimler was confronted, “with this incredible tradition of wisdom and strange stories, demons and angels.” He was, he says, simply blown away.

The Gospel According to Lazarus highlights the practice and role of Jewish mythology, including the common use of talismans. “Throughout Jewish history, you can find people wearing talismans against Belial, the king of the demons or Lilith, the queen of the demons. Judaism is infused with mythological, mysterious, strange beliefs about everything from transmigration of souls and reincarnation to demonic possession.”

Lazarus is referred to as Jesus’s “beloved” friend in the gospel of St John, and Zimler wanted to be faithful to this reference, so the relationship between the two men is presented as one of soulmates. Zimler also hints at an undercurrent of homo-eroticism, certainly from Lazarus’s point of view, which is, he explains, entirely in keeping with the era as well as Lazarus’s background and experiences. “I did a lot of reading about sexuality of the time period and, briefly, they didn’t have the categories that we have now.”

“His feelings are perfectly normal. Just as his feelings towards his dead wife are natural — there is no discrepancy. That may shock or scandalise some people but my way of writing a historical novel is to inhabit the minds and spirits of the people I’m writing about.”

One of the most devastating aspects of the novel is the recounting of Lazarus’s suffering once Jesus is arrested and then crucified. Was he again reflecting Jerry’s early death? “The emotions that are so present and deep in the book definitely have to do with it,” he acknowledges. “But I think more than anything, it’s the feeling of injustice that I felt that permeates Lazarus’s experience.”

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