The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty

Read: 27 September, 2009

Imagine if people living a couple hundreds of years from now forgot that the Harry Potter series was fiction. Imagine that they started to worship Harry Potter, to seek out relics from Hogwarts, and fought wars against those who did not believe that the historical Harry really did have magical powers.

That’s essentially the premise of The Jesus Puzzle. According to Doherty, Jesus was a mythic character, invented consciously by individuals who were  embodying the teachings of their sect in an archetypal character. But then, as the religion spread outside of this original community, the allegory was forgotten and adherents came to see Jesus as an actual historical figure. This is how Doherty explains the discrepancies between the gospels and the lack of biographical information given in the epistles of Paul.

To a lay reader, the argument is convincing. That being said, it’s worth noting that Doherty is not a scholar, the accolades on the book jacket are written by individuals (David B., Mary B., Jan K., and Rusty A., whoever they are), and he is something of a laughing stock among biblical scholars. “Mythers,” as they are called within scholarly circles, tend not to be very well received.

Indeed, even a lay reader may grasp that something is amiss after Doherty’s umpteenth reference to his persecution at the hands of academics. My own skeptical alarm bells tend to ring when authors imagine vast conspiracies against themselves or their ideas.

I’m not sure that I’d be willing to dismiss the book entirely, simply because Doherty does provide a perspective on many New Testament passages. I’ve found it useful in my reading of scripture over at my other blog, if only to have additional points of view to mull over while forming my own readings. Just keep in mind that Doherty is expressing a fringe opinion that is not taken seriously by those who know the material best.

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Testament by Nino Ricci

Read: 25 June, 2009

If there was a historical figure of Jesus, who was he? Where did he come from and what did he really believe and preach? Ricci explores these questions by composing four new gospels. Although independent stories, and largely covering different points in Jesus’ life, there is some overlap and quite a few “ah ha! That explains it!” moments as events are told from different perspectives.

Testament imagines a human Jesus, a Jesus who is mythologized and divinized by followers who loved and depended on him and who were lost when he was suddenly ripped away from them. Jesus is also a presented as a complex individual who comes to mean different things to different people. Those around him struggle to understand him, to fit him into simplistic models, but of course these cannot accommodate real personalities (which tend to be multi-facetted and even contradictory).

I generally dislike books written from multiple perspectives. Invariably, the author’s own voice shows through, making each account too similar (minus the occasional superficial difference, such as the use of phonetic accenting). But in Testament, each narrator feels like a completely separate entity. They have their own interpretations of events and pay attention to only those details that are of interest to them. Mary’s story feels like a female, world-weary, and maternal narrator, while Mary Magdalene’s story feels like a love-struck, hero-worshipping young girl. The construction of psychically real characters is clearly Ricci’s strong suite.

Testament is a continuing story. By this I mean that while only four stories are actually told, there are many other characters throughout the novel who hint at having their own interesting perspective to talk about, their own stories. The book could easily have been far longer, but instead Ricci chose to merely hint at these other stories, to provide food for the reader’s imagination long after the novel itself has been finished.

A great deal of research clearly went into the writing of Testament. It was a fun little game for me to try to identify which theory Ricci was calling upon at any given moment. While I don’t personally agree with all of his choices, he did certainly manage to collate many diverse theories into a cohesive whole and, more importantly, a historically believable story.

I found this to be a very enjoyable read. Not only is in entertaining and interesting, it is also intellectual (as far as these things go). It is a book that feeds the brain without the reader even noticing and, as such, can easily be enjoyed on a number of different levels. It certainly ought to be required reading for all Atheists and doubters from a Christian tradition.

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Lamb by Christopher Moore

Thank you, Zeba, for the recommendation.

Read: 11 January, 2008

The story is written from the perspective of Biff, Jesus’s best friend. In the modern day, an angel raises Biff from the dead so that he can write a new gospel. It follows Jesus from the time Biff met him as a child up until their deaths. It shows us Jesus’s early training as a stonemason, his travels into the East, and his eventual ministry.

Lamb is an absolutely hilarious comedy about Jesus that, surprisingly, manages to remain almost completely inoffensive. I loved reading it. It was very funny with a writing style similar to Carl Hiaasen’s, but lacked Hiaasen’s flaws (like the awfully disappointing endings). It was clever where it needed to be, sensitive where it needed to be, and funny where it needed to be. The characterizations of Jesus, Biff, and Mary Magdalene were stunningly constructed.

There were two portions that I felt a little let down by. The first is when Biff and Jesus get to Calcutta and see a ritual dedicated to the goddess Kali. The scene was important to the story, but it felt dry. It was too descriptive, like an anthropological study. I do understand that it’s supposed to be horrifying, so the humour of the rest of the story would have been out of place. But it needed something different. Reading the Afterward, Moore mentions that he had learned about the ritual from Joseph Campbell, which goes a way to explain the tone of the passage. Unable to use his normal humour, Moor had resorted to Campbell’s more academic writing style.

I was also a little disappointed that the story skipped over much of Jesus’ ministry. The reason given in the book is that the real gospels already tell that story, but I would have liked to have heard Biff’s perspective. I understand that it would have been more difficult to write about that portion without offending people and without getting preachy, but the pacing just didn’t match up with the rest of the story. It felt like the last few chapters ended the book with a bit of a “plegh.”

These two complaints are very minor, though. The book was awesome and I highly recommend it for pretty much anyone. Having studied the New Testament a bit, I found a lot of references to theories about Jesus and a lot of jokes that asked for a certain familiarity with the Bible to get and my previous knowledge enriched my reading. But friends who had no previous interest or understanding found no difficulty in following the story. I also think that reasonable Christians won’t find it at odds with their faith. There’s something for everyone.

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