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The Liars’ Gospel


Book Review

Title: The Liars’ Gospel

Author: Naomi Alderman

Publisher: Viking (2012), Penguin (2013)

Pages: 264

This novel is a concerted effort to exonerate the Jews from the crucifixion of Jesus. It consists of four ‘gospels’ just as there are four of them in the Bible. Here, the story is narrated by Mary (mother of Jesus), Judas (the betrayer), Caiaphas (the high priest), and Barabbas (a rebel). Caiaphas emerges as the real hero and Barabbas is the villain while Jesus appears as little more than a lunatic.

Right at the outset Jesus is portrayed as a worthless young man who never does anything useful. He is just good for nothing. He sits gazing into the air and speaking to himself. His parents are sick of him because he is so useless. Even when people start seeing Jesus as a teacher, the point that “he was out of his mind” is driven hard into the reader’s psyche repeatedly.

Mary finds Jesus so repulsive that she wonders: “is this my son? How did this man come from me?” Yet the mother in her cannot neglect the son and she goes in search of him one day against the wish of her husband. That puts an end to their marriage. Joseph divorces Mary.

Judas Iscariot is a disciple of Jesus. He is a political rebel too who wants freedom for the Jews from the Romans. He loves Jesus and assumes that the master is also working for the liberation of the Jews. He doesn’t understand it quite well when Jesus tells him that his job is “to teach people to look into the words of God until they see the heart of everything.” Jesus is not a political rebel. He is a spiritual master. He is not seeking the liberation of Jews from Rome but the liberation of human beings from evil. Judas is not able to understand that. He thinks that Jesus is becoming too self-important. When a woman anoints Jesus with very expensive perfume, Judas wants Jesus to stop that and ask the woman to spend her money on useful things like feeding the poor. Jesus counsels Judas to stop seeing only with his eyes. He should see with his heart. Judas is disillusioned with Jesus. That’s why he decides to betray him.

Caiaphas knows the value of compromise in life. He knows that the Jews can’t win against Rome by rebelling. “Rome’s daily business is death, her nightly amusement is the death match.” The Jews are trapped. “We must make accommodation with what they demand of us,” says Caiaphas. Neither Jesus’ spiritual rebellion against the compromising and commercialised religion of Caiaphas nor the political rebellion of Barabbas is acceptable to Caiaphas.

Barabbas rebels. He kills Romans whenever he can. He detests priests like Caiaphas who “connive with Rome and wheedle for their own fortunes.” The high priests are all rich and their money is stolen from the Temple, according to Barabbas. “And it’s blood money paid by Rome for our lives.”

Barabbas is caught in the end, betrayed by his own best friend just as Jesus is betrayed also by his best friend. But Pilate decides to have some fun and hence gives the Jews a choice between Jesus, their king, and Barabbas, a murderer. Pilate has not understood the people’s pulse. They want Barabbas to be released. Political freedom matters more to them than spiritual freedom.

“Out of a thousand men, do you know what nine hundred and ninety want?” Barabbas asks Ananus the high priest. “A good price for their crops, a good husband for their daughter, good rain in its season and good sun in its time. They don’t care who rules.” Most people don’t mind their shackles of which they are not even fully aware because their concerns are mundane. Neither Jesus nor Barabbas matters much to them. The priest who makes convenient compromises matters.

The title of this novel gives us a clue: The Liars’ Gospel. This is not history. This is not what might have happened really. But “every story could be told in four different ways, or forty or four thousand,” as the author tells us in the Epilogue. When Christianity emerged as a powerful religion in the Roman Empire, the Jews were victimised again – this time for the crucifixion of Jesus. The Christians thought about the Jews as murderers of Jesus for many centuries. Here is a novel that flings a question right on to your face: was Jesus really killed by the Jews? Was Jesus as great as he is thought to be?

The novel is extremely blasphemous for devout Christians. It is good fiction for lovers of literature. It is an alternative way of looking at history for those who are interested in rewriting history.

PS. I have used the normal English names of all the characters while the author uses their Hebrew versions such as Miryam for Mary and Bar-Avo for Barabbas.


  1. Great review! Of course this is appalling to me as a Christian! But then everyone has the right to seek the truth. It is God's gift of free will to mankind after all. Hope this author finds what is good for his soul. :)

    1. The author is a Jew who probably felt perplexed time and again by the Jewishness of Jesus. I strongly feel that she also wanted to 'prove' that the Jews were not the people who got Jesus crucified. Notwithstanding all that, the novel makes for compelling reading. It raises some very interesting questions.

  2. Hari OM
    Well, with the epilogue as you suggest it, this not an attempt to actually rewrite history, although it does offer a big reminder that any history has many viewpoints. That said, facts remain facts (albeit how they are recorded can also be distorted...) This would certainly be an interesting read and that notion most folk are ambivalent about who's in charge as long as their daily lives are not too badly compromised holds very true indeed if the current state of world affairs is anything to go by! YAM xx

    1. One acute problem, I think, is that not much was historically documented about Jesus in his time. So novelists imagine a bit too much. In this case, there was a nagging feeling as I read the novel that the author had an axe to grind. If not an axe, at least a personal quest that stops short of attaining artistic authenticity.

  3. Replies
    1. I enjoyed reading the novel probably because I am not a believer.


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