Don’t be put off by the title

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
by José Saramago
translated from Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero

This month’s book club pick sounded a tad intimidating and I certainly would never have picked it up if not for the group. What I discovered was a complex, at times difficult, but also beautiful and funny book that I’m glad to have read.

Much could be made of the heretical aspects of this book. It was written by an atheist shortly after the publication of The Satanic Verses and definitely attracted the attention of the Church. But what struck me the most was that it seemed to be at least partly an attempt to answer some genuine questions – if Jesus experienced life as a real human man (whether or not he was the son of God) what would that life have been like? Saramago answers this in depth, from the landscape and food to the people, ways of speaking and acting, and the historical context – Jesus’s part of the world was under Roman occupation, which had its effect on everyday life. Saramago also explores how Jesus might have been treated when he started talking about his relationship with God, the reactions of those close to him and those of strangers.

Of course, it’s about more than that because it also takes some small but significant deviations from the accepted Biblical story. Mary and Joseph conceive Jesus in the usual way, with God only later claiming to have had some part in the union. God is indifferent toward his people but then decides he wants more followers so starts to pay attention and make demands of Jesus. Jesus and Mary Magdalene are lovers. Satan is a friendly, approachable, “human” character. And Jesus is perhaps a little too human even before Mary Magdalene comes along:

“…such is youth, selfish and thoughtless, and there is nothing to suggest that Jesus was any different from other boys his age.”

So yes, it’s certainly heretical. It suggests God only wants to expand his leadership, to have more followers, but is unhelpful in terms of how and tricks Jesus into accepting his fate. It also says that God and Satan are equal, or rather balance each other out. This is certainly not a cuddly, loving God.

The style is a little difficult to start with, written in Biblical rhetoric, sometimes reverent sometimes very not. It can be very detailed and descriptive, even beautiful (OT-like, perhaps), especially near the start. But in other places it is bareboned, more like reading the New Testament. There are no paragraph breaks (a Portuguese thing?) and speech is not marked out by speech marks. But I got used to those things quite quickly and found I was reading at a faster pace than I had expected considering how demanding the prose is in terms of references and allusions. There is a lot of pathos. These characters are so human, with hopes and fears and guilt and temptation and the little niggles of everyday life. It could have been a very serious book, so thank goodness for the wonderful sense of humour:

“…this revelation did not escape Mary despite the angel’s obscure speech, and, much surprised, she asked him, So Jesus is my son and the son of the Lord, Woman, what are you saying, show some respect for rank and precedence, what you must say is the son of the Lord and me, Of the Lord and you, No, of the Lord and you, You’re confusing me, just answer my question, is Jesus our son, You mean to say the Lord’s son because you only served to bear the child, So the Lord didn’t choose me, Don’t be absurd…”

Clearly a lot of research went into it. It directly references not only passages from the Bible but also other religious writings and historical/archaeological knowledge of what life would have been like in that time and place. To a certain extent it fills in the gaps left by the Biblical gospels, therefore there’s lots of detail about Mary and Joseph, and Jesus’ childhood, but it skips quite quickly through the evangelism and miracle-working of Jesus’s last few years.

I was never clear about who the narrator is. The title suggests that it’s Jesus but it doesn’t read like that, it reads like one of his followers. But no-one could know all of this except an omniscient narrator so is it God? Or Satan? Or Jesus but much later from his seat in Heaven talking about “Jesus” in third-person because he’s now Michael?

Whoever it is, the narrator sometimes interjects in a manner that drags you out of the beautifully and believably constructed world of 2000 years ago to the present day, whether by directly referencing something modern or by applying a modern perspective. For instance, the narrator is often at great pains to point out the misogyny of life back then.

Joseph takes centre stage for the first half or so of the book and is therefore fully fleshed out, despite his brief appearance and disappearance in the Bible. He is a good man who, in contrast with the thinking of the time, is tormented by guilt for his own personal wrongdoing, which lays the groundwork for the major difference between Judaism and Christianity, according to this text – that Jews say prayers and give thanks and make sacrifices as part of the collective guilt of mankind, wheras Christianity is about acknowledging and asking forgiveness for personal sins.

At book club we discussed how, because the reader already knows the story, or thinks they do, Saramago plays with this. There’s a sense when reading this book of “when’s it going to get to the part when xyz” and xyz either happens later than expected or in an underwhelming sort-of way or even doesn’t happen at all. But some scenes are taken almost word for word from scripture, cleverly woven in.

There was some symbolism that I noticed but didn’t get, and I suspect it would help to have some solid theological knowledge when reading this rather than just a semi-deliberately forgotten memory of Sunday School and acting out Bible stories for Girls Brigade. I did find myself looking up some passages because they either rang a bell or rang false and the result varied from discovering they were surprisingly similar to the Bible (e.g. the wedding at Cana) to being a combination of different gospels put together in a new way (Jesus’ birth) to being a twist or slightly skewed take on the Biblical telling (Judas betraying Jesus to the Romans). Sometimes the narrator gives us a clue as to how this “true” account might become altered, for instance when Jesus spends 40 days and 40 nights talking to God and Satan he is not in the desert, but almost immediately on his return his followers are talking about it as his time in the desert.

There is so much to say about this book (clearly), and it was definitely a good one to have a roundtable discussion of.

O Evangello segundo Jesus Cristo first published 1991 by Editorial Caminho, Lisbon.
This translation first published 1993 by Harcourt Brace.
José Saramago won the Nobel Prize in Literature 1998