"For many of you," warn authors Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear, "this will be a controversial book."
There runs a small but sturdy thread of defensiveness in the introduction, the footnotes, and the afterword in The Betrayal, a novel that seeks to humanize Jesus and to portray his last days on Earth with historical accuracy. Repeatedly, they mention that they use early Christian texts, the etymology of ancient Greek and Hebrew words, Roman records, and Jewish laws to come up with a series of events that best reflect the reality of the life of Jesus and his followers.
What that means, although they don't come right out and say it, is that much of the Gospels of the New Testament is filled with great steaming piles of horseshit.
I can see how that would be controversial.
Back in the day, my college roommate and I went to see The Last Temptation of Christ, which featured a scene where Jesus imagines his life differently, had he chosen a different path. In this imagining, he sees himself marrying Mary Magdalene and living a quiet and peaceful life, happy in its anonymity. He of course turned away from the temptation, but from the way people carried on you'd think he was filmed in a g-string on a Pride parade float. We had our purses searched by police in line to buy tickets, because of the number of bomb threats called in to the theater.
So redonk. Anyway. Given a certain number of reactionaries that want their Jesus white and virginal and their Mary Magdalene a whore, it isn't surprising how careful the Gears are to let the reader know how thoroughly they've done their research. There are four pages of footnotes in what is supposedly a work of fiction.
The novel intertwines two stories, one of the last days of Jesus before the Crucifixion, and the other the story of three monks and a Pagan washerwoman on the lam.
In 325 c.e., under the ruler of the Emperor Constantine, the Council of Nicea met to determine which texts would be the official story of Jesus. These texts became the Biblical New Testament, and all other texts were ordered destroyed. To be caught reading or copying these heretical texts was a capital offense, punishable by death. Constantine sent squads out to the monasteries on a search and destroy mission to burn any existing books with an alternate version of Jesus' life. One of these monasteries was in Egypt, and housed Barnabas, an older monk who valued and believed these now illicit documents. This much is true.
From this launching point, the Gears build an action-adventure story that is somewhat da Vinci Code-ish, with its secret maps and clues and a search for The Pearl, a mysterious treasure of unknown value. Barnabus and his colleagues, sixteen-year-old novice monk Zarathan, who exists only to whine, Cyrus, the 34-year-old former Roman soldier turned Christian monk, who is incidentally incredibly smart, kind, courageous and totally hot, and Kalay, the Pagan who washes the Brothers' clothing. Kalay, just so you know, is a bone thrown to women who are interested in the Bible but find all the woman-hating tough to take. Kalay is also totally hot, skilled with a knife, illiterate but somehow well-versed in Hebrew language and culture to be invaluable at translating Barnabus' secret map. She is also extremely saucy and interrupts a lot, and, with the exception of Zarathan, who ineffectually whines at her to shut up, the men not only don't mind her but enjoy her and treat her as an equal.
In a novel that insists that it is striving for historical accuracy, the character of Kalay is asking quite a lot as far as suspension of disbelief goes, but I appreciated her all the same.
The adventure part of the story is kind of silly and goes on for a bit too long, the obvious storyline of the growing attraction between the two characters you want to see getting it on played out to an unsatisfactory end, and the ending of the novel abruptly dove into an overly dramatic series of events that could have been accompanied by dramatic hamster music. But the plot's not what you want to read it for. The Gears are archaeologists, well versed in ancient languages and the laws and culture of the time in which Jesus lived, and The Betrayal is a way of showcasing that knowledge. For the uninitiated, it's a fascinating ride. The Gears essentially tell you that everything you know about the Jesus narrative is mostly untrue, and they show you the research to back up their assertions.
This hit home with me to a certain extent, and will to anybody who dislikes religion, seriously doubts the existence of God, but loves Jesus. That may be just me, I don't know. We're probably a pretty small group. In contrast with those who believe the Bible is the exact word of God, I find the modern interpretation of Jesus to be cartoonish and grossly disrespectful, shaped mostly by politics and woman-hating, two things Jesus abhorred. I really appreciated the more realistic version of him as portrayed in The Betrayal, and I think, to the uninitiated searching for a deeper understanding of Jesus, the Gears have a lot of knowledge to offer.
by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear
June, 2008 by Forge Books
Monday, December 29, 2008