The Liar’s Gospel by Naomi Alderman

“They knew it would be that day. It is impossible to follow the fortunes of a battle closely without knowing when they are reaching their conclusion. Especially when that battle concerns the city in which you live.
They had fought off the army as long as they were able. They had the advantage, to begin with: the walls were high, the ramparts thick. As the army worked below, filling the ravine with boulders and felled trees, they hurled down rocks and arrows upon them. They worked in shifts, night and day, pulling the matter out of the moat by the cellar doors as quickly as it was placed there. They struggled. But they were undone by God.
…They had known it must come and yet had not believed it until they saw. The impregnable wall was breached. Then there were cries. Bring men, bring fire, bring swords, keep the invaders back!
…The Romans swept through the sanctuary so quickly that they themselves seemed surprised, even alarmed, at how easily the thing had been done.”

“…Pompey motioned his men to lower their weapons.
…The centurion drew his sword, grabbed the priest’s chin, pulling it up and back, and slit the man’s throat.”

“…This had been the last offering made by a free man in the Temple.”

The High Priest was replaced by Pompey’s friend: “a Jewish prince who had been most cooperative during the siege and whose men had fought for Rome. It was a fitting gift for a loyal ally. This business concluded, Pompey left a garrison at Jerusalem and headed back to Rome in triumph.
This was how it happened. And everything that came afterwards followed from this.”

The rest of the book is divided into four sections and an Epilogue. The four sections are titled Miryam (mother of Yehoshuah/Jesus), Iehuda from Qeriot (Judas Iscariot), Caiphas (High Priest at the time of the crucifixion) and Bar-Avo (Barabbas).

Miryam’s viewpoint is presented through interaction with a young man named Gidon from Liar's GospelYaffo who has come to Natzaret in search of the village of Yehoshuah the Teacher, “to find his friends and family here, to meet them and to befriend them.” Miryam replies to this with “He was a traitor, a rabble-leader, a rebel, a liar and a pretender to the throne. We have tried to forget him here.” But Gidon has re-opened Miryam’s memories of her son:

“She remembers the screaming trees that night.
She thinks of them many days, and of what happens to those who  challenge and fight and argue. And how little this boy seems to understand of where the words will lead.
She remembers the screaming trees and  she thinks: if she can bear not to speak to him, it will be better for him. But she knows she does not have that strength.”

Thus Gidon becomes the means through which Miryam’s relationship with her son Yehoshua is conveyed to the reader. She tells him that if he wants to learn there are better teachers to be found than herself but he replies that he has already sought out a teacher and that teacher cannot teach him anymore. And so “she teaches him what she had learned when her parents took her to hear the great Rabbi Hillel speak, that our duty to love each other is the highest of all the commandments of God. That our duty of charity extends even to our own bodies, and we must care for them because our souls are guests in them.”

She asks Gidon, “Who are your people?”
He says, “My family are those who believe what I believe.”

“She has heard of such groups. The Essenes are one –  they live together and follow the same customs although they are not kin – and there are other small groups, those who follow the same principles or who gather around a teacher.
“Amd where are they?” she says, because she thinks he will say that it is agroup who live in the caves, or in the desert, or in the wooded hills near Juerusalem.
“We are scattered,” he says. “Now we who followed your son Yehoshuah are wandering. Teaching. We are spreading his words.”

And so, through Miryam and Gidon the reader gets a sense of life in Yehoshua’s village immediately after Yehoshua’s death. The events in Jerusalem at the time of his death are also revisited through Miryam’s experiences/memories. This would be particularly interesting to anyone who has read Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary (see archives for April 2014).

The other three sections are every bit as interesting and informative as the section on Miryam. In the market place Iehuda (Judas) overhears strangers discussing what has happened to Yehoshua’s followers. “At one point she implies that some of her friends here in Caesarea send and receive letters from dispersed disciples. He has heard that there are rebels here, still – Caesarea is a Roman town, the capital of the region, a waypoint for trade, so a good place for all kinds of conspiracy. But it is a mark of how little they accomplished that it is not dangerous for her to mention Yehoshua in the market square. No one is afraid of those who followed him.” Iehuda even hears himself and his own death discussed : “”He threw himself from a rocky cliff onto a field of stones.” He thinks about what he has heard and considers contacting his old friends and explaining his actions (he led the Romans to Yehoshua and identified him for them). He recalls his relationship with Yehoshua: “There had been others travelling with Yehoshua before Iehuda arrived, but Iehuda knew that he was special to him. Yehoshua could tell him things the others could not understand.”

The sections on Caiaphas and Bar-Avo were particularly interesting as I had not read any other literary attempts to present them. Caiphas has what he sees as more important concerns to deal with such as the threat to temple finances from the Romans who want money for an aqueduct. Caiphas recalls seeing Yehoshua on three occasions and he had concluded that “the man is entirely mad, but it may still be possible to save him.” Witnesses shouted that Yehoshua had spoken against the Temple and had called himself the Messiah, the rightful king. “Under Rome, there is no king but the Emperor and those whom it pleases the Emperor to set on little thrones for a time.” The situation is presented that if he had only remained silent the case would have been dismissed. Even then he might have been saved but Pilate got wind of what was happening and Caiaphas had to hand Yehosua over to Rome’s judgment. Yehoshua was executed and Bar-Avo was released. Another fascinating chapter of the story.

Th author writes this in her acknowledgments: “…after I had finished researching this novel my mother, Marion, happened to find her father’s Victorian copies of Josephus. Eliezer Freed, my grandfather, who died when I was two years old, was a novelist and a short-story writer, fluent in ancient languages, a self-taught musician, inventor and scholar. I flicked through his Josephus with mild curiosity about differences in translation. And there, in his own handwriting, I found that my grandfather had marked up precisely the passages that I had been looking at: the ones about Jesus. He had the same question mark in the margin, the same part bracketed where we both, I imagine, made the same frown at the same moment.”

And this from the author’s Epilogue: “Storytellers know that people enjoy tales that explain to them the origin of things, the way things come to be the way they are. This story is no different. Every story has an author, some teller of lies. Do not imagine that a storyteller is unaware of the effect of every word she chooses. Do not suppose for a moment that an impartial observer exists.”

Also from the Epilogue: “Storytellers know that every story as at least partly a lie. Every story could be told in four different ways, or forty or four thousand. Every emphasis or omission is a kind of lie, shaping a moment to make a point. So when, between thirty-five and seventy years after Yehoshua’s death, Mark and then Matthew and then Luke the complier and then John the theologian came to tell their stories it was as well for them to exonerate the Romans who ruled the empire they lived in, and to blame the Jews, whose wickedness had clearly caused the destruction of their holy city…nothing happened without a reason.”

This story’s author may or may not be impartial but she certainly offers a very credible explanation of how some things came to be the way they are. Highly recommended to those interested in another version of this event and time.

2 thoughts on “The Liar’s Gospel by Naomi Alderman”

  1. I was interested in this book before, but the bits you’ve quoted from the epilogue have cinched the deal for me; the observations remind me of comments that both Lynn Crosbie and Margaret Atwood have made about fiction and lies.

  2. It was strange to find those bits in the epilogue: I was completely satisfied with the book until then. At that point I was captivated and prepared to read it again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *