Matthew. Mark, Luke, and Nino
Successful novelists in our society receive a lot of attention but not much respect. They're not the sort of folk one calls when something really important is happening: like your infant has an earache or the sump pump in the basement just burned out and it's raining oceans outside. For real problems we call people we respect.
That lack of general respect is why novelists so often go for the Big One: comparing themselves with God which, if it works, garners more than just attention. The most direct, but dangerous, form of the fictional Godtrip involves rewriting God's word. Which is to say: rewriting the Hebrew or the Christian scriptures or (if one has not a prudent bone in one's body), the Koran.
In my view, the writers who have done this best in recent times are Joseph Heller (God Knows, 1984), Gore Vidal (Live from Golgotha, 1992), Norman Mailer (The Gospel according to the Son, 1997) and Spike Milligan (The Bible: the Old Testament according to Spike Milligan, 1991). Nino' Ricci's attempt at a new scripture is not in their league by a long shot, but neither is the book an abject failure. It's not a potato pancake, just lying there, but it is a soufflT that doesn't rise very high.
The reason is that, despite Ricci's having done a lot of reading in the scholarly literature on the Historical Jesus and on the development of the two Testaments, he doesn't quite get how they work. And he does not seem to realize that they are the inevitable back-text for whatever he writes. There's no blank slate here. Crucially, the key characteristic of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is that they are ridiculous. That's how God's voice sounds when filtered through really brilliant scribes. The divine voice demands that the faithful believe all sorts of wild things. So, when one tries to write a novel with the scriptures as back-text, it's necessary either to find joy in the ridiculousness of the divine voice and, if possible, spin it faster and faster: as do Heller, Vidal, and Milligan.
Or, one can do what Norman Mailer does: accept everything with the flatness and low emotional affect of a Believer who questions nothing. In that mode, one just slightly rearranges things; yet it is a path of emotional compression that requires immense talent if it is not to bore the reader. It should not be assayed by anyone still requiring training wheels.
Ricci takes a middle course, alas. He tells us the kind of story that we get from ex-priests who still want to stay in touch with the church. They constantly affirm that Jesus was definitely a Great Guy, but not the Son of God.
In the gospels according to Nino, Ricci is trying to accomplish on an artistic level what scholarly searchers for the Historical Jesus are doing: telling what Jesus of Nazareth might have done as a human being, and then explaining how this man somehow was transformed by his followers and their descendants into a god or, maybe, the God.
Ricci has done his homework well. He has read almost all of the main work on the Historical Jesus that has been done in the last twenty years and he samples and adapts that material responsibly. For example, my instructions that one should use the original Hebrew and Aramaic names of Jesus and his followers, in order to avoid making them Christians long before Christianity was invented, is adopted. As is my argument that the scriptures fairly clearly indicate Jesus' illegitimacy, and Gwen Nowak's suggestion of his Roman male parentage; and the work of the Jesus seminar, of John Dominic Crossan, of Joseph Meiers, of E.P. Sanders, and dozens of others are employed with skill and propriety.
Yet, the book ultimately fails.
In part, this is because it takes a talent much bigger than Ricci's to write a book that outshines the original, or can even be exhibited in the same gallery with it. But bad strategy hurts him as well. Ricci's decision to compose his novel as four new gospels inevitably forces the back-text, the New Testament, to become the foreground, and to be placed besides its pale imitator for comparison. Further, Ricci's use of the first person singular¨"I saw" etc.¨implicitly boasts that his own gospels are superior to the original: they are all in the third person and in none of them is there any direct claim that "I saw" any of the events they narrate. Ricci, in presenting us with an everyday human Jesus and in forcing us to compare his gospels to those of the New Testament, is consequently setting his work up to be an almost certain loser. The only artistic talent I have seen who managed to show an everyday Jesus who is not dead-boring compared to the Jesus of the New Testament is the Irish Renaissance novelist George Moore. His The Brook Kerith (1916) stand as the twentieth century's best shot at the master from Nazareth.
Still, there are nice touches in Ricci's effort. For example, he is convincing on Jesus' becoming socially disreputable because of his habit of permitting female followers to accompany him, something Jewish social conventions would not permit. And, in a touch that is not merely echte-Canadian, he has snow falling on the final Passover, thus darkening the skies and simultaneously purifying the landscape. If you have ever seen snow in Jerusalem, you will know that is a truly unsettling phenomenon: a perfect backdrop for the Crucifixion.
Ricci's four new gospels are those of "Yihuda of Qiryat" (Judas Iscariot), "Miryam of Migdal" (Mary Magdalene), "Miryam his Mother" (the Blessed Virgin Mary) and "Simon of Gergesa" (who, with his travelling companion, a con-man named "Jerubal", is a conflation of an innocent pagan shepherd, of Simon Magus, and of the Good Thief.) These are tough characters to work with, especially in the first person singular. Unfortunately, a verbal Cuisinart has caught Ricci's pen. All four of these gospel "writers" come forth in the same register¨only the names and the incidental details appear differentiated.
For all that, I greatly enjoyed reading this effort and I think divinity students and enthusiasts for books on the Historical Jesus will like it too. Despite its failure as a novel, the work can be read as a set of nifty little solutions to several of the puzzles contained in the New Testament. But for anyone who might read purely for pleasure, this is a book to borrow, not buy, and even then just to skim. ˛
Donald Harman Akenson is author of Surpassing Wonder, The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds and of Saint Saul, A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus.