Title: The Liars’ Gospel
Author: Naomi Alderman
Publisher: Viking (2012),
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.