The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramago; translated by Giovanni Pontiero (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1991. 396 pp)
José Saramago was a Nobel Prize-winning author from Portugal. He passed away at the age of 87 on June 18, 2010. Although Saramago did not receive widespread recognition until he was 60 years old, he has been highly prolific in the years since. Blindness, one of Saramago’s most highly regarded books was made into a major motion picture in 2008. He is survived by his wife Pilar Del Rio and a daughter from a previous marriage.
Giovanni Pontiero was a British scholar and Portuguese translator. He studied at the University of Glasgow. He taught at Victoria University of Manchester and died in 1996.
If I had to label two of the most difficult aspects of Christian theology, they would be the trinity and the incarnation. Given the amount dialogue, discourse, and division in Christendom over both of these ideas, I assume many would agree. While the three-in-one nature of God is a tough one, the incarnation holds its own questions.
Over the centuries, the debate about how to classify Jesus has taken many turns. Is Jesus God? Is Jesus human? Is Jesus both?
More generally, Christians seem to lean toward the divinity of Jesus, which seems reasonable. The entire structure of Christianity rests on the life, death, and most importantly, resurrection of Jesus. To believe in the last aspect requires a supernatural position.
But is Jesus also human? Theologically, his humanity becomes important in that it creates the bridge to the world. If Jesus becomes fully human, he experiences the pros and cons of our human existence and provides a way of connecting us to the divine. The life of Jesus matters.
The orthodox answer to the incarnational question is to affirm both divine and natural in equal measure. But many Christians halt right there, never taking into account what it would truly mean for Jesus to be fully human.
A New Look at the Jesus Narrative
Setting aside a large swath of sacrilegious components to José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, this book dives headfirst into the human element of the Jesus narrative.
I assume most reading this review have a basic understanding of the gospel narrative. Jesus is born in Bethlehem; Jesus lives with his family and takes up its business trade of carpentry; John the Baptist baptizes Jesus; Jesus begins his ministry and performs miracles; Jesus dies on the cross.
While the reader observes these major touchpoints, the story focuses more closely on the margins of the story, asking questions of the Jesus we don’t hear about in Scripture, between his time in the temple as a teenager and the time when he begins public ministry.
“Four years from now, Jesus will meet God. This unexpected revelation, which is probably premature according to the rules of effective narration referred to above, is intended simply to prepare the reader for some everyday scenes from pastoral life which will add little of substance to the main thread of our story, thus excusing anyone who might be tempted to jump ahead” (188-189).
Sorry for ruining the story for those who didn’t know.
What It Means to Be Human
But the intrigue in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ resides in the humanistic portrayal of its main character. Even though the actions of Jesus include the supernatural elements we know from the source material, the inner life of Jesus blossoms with turmoil and difficulty. His reactions to the external circumstances resemble what I might think in the same scenario.
More controversially, Saramago paints the relationship between Jesus and the Father in a more difficult light. The calling Jesus has to follow the will of God isn’t quite so clear.
“So all my miracles are Yours. All you have worked and will work, and even if you persist in opposing My will, and go out into the world and deny you are the son of God, I will cause so many miracles to occur wherever you pass that you will be obliged to accept the gratitude of those thanking you and thereby thanking Me. Then there is no way out. None whatever, and don’t play the lamb taken to be sacrificed, who struggles and bleats pitifully, for your fate is sealed, the sword awaits. Am I that lamb. You are the lamb of God, My Son, which God himself will carry to the altar we are preparing here” (315).
The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is not for those offended easily. A critical take on Saramago might include some ideas about him trying to tear down this sacred story by introducing many of its controversial subjects.
But I see it slightly differently. I’m offended at certain parts, but I also see an attempt at exploring the humanity of Jesus. If we believe Jesus is fully human, then he participated in fully human things, many of which we wouldn’t want to discuss at the dinner table.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5