By Nino Ricci (Houghton Mifflin, 464 pp., $25)
Fictionalized accounts of the life of Jesus are nothing new. Charles Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, Fulton J. Sheen and second-century Gnostic writers are among the many who have given it a go, as are scholars E.P. Sanders and John Dominic Crossan. The most controversial of these narratives are the accounts that speculate about Jesus’ human side. Traditional Christian guilt, it seems, has a way of tempering the God-man equation’s latter half: It’s fine if Jesus suffers physical pain or has a doubt here and there, but heaven forbid that the “fully human” son of God might be prone to the seamier aspects of carnality. Of course, the “fully divine” side doesn’t make for such good fiction, so it’s easy to understand why Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son and Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ opt to portray Jesus’ humanity as matter-of-fact. Nino Ricci’s latest novel, Testament, also falls into this category.
Set in a far-flung corner of the Roman Empire, Ricci’s book retells the life of Yeshua (the Aramaic name for Jesus) through four dissimilar voices: Yihuda of Qiryat (Judas), Miryam of Migdal (Mary Magdalene), Miryam (Jesus’ mother, Mary) and a shepherd, Simon of Gergesa. Each has his or her own take on the significance of Jesus, who is portrayed by and large as a mysterious and charismatic teacher. Through this group’s differing interactions with the future Christ, Ricci implies the eventual trajectory of Christian mythology: Jesus the miracle worker, born of a virgin, resurrected, at the right hand of the Father, etc.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this would be no mean feat. But Ricciwhose Lives of the Saints was a best sellerhas established a reputation for writing riveting prose and realistic dialogue. Add to this his well-researched understanding of Palestinian history and Roman and Jewish philosophy, and you have a believable, utterly readable tale.
Ricci’s Jesus is complex: testy, occasionally petty, often contradictory and manipulative. Through it all, though, the author conveys the sense that there is something holy about this man whose message is not miraculous, but rather simple and radical. The kingdom of God is not a physical place but a philosophical reversal of the usual order of things, “giving the smallest heed to those of highest standing while always finding a way to raise up those whom no one else took into account.”
It would be tempting for Ricci to read contemporary notions of peace and justice back into history, and, to an extent, he does. At such times, however, his exhaustive research saves the day. The Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus’ account of the confrontation between Pontius Pilate and the Jewish multitude at Caesarea, for example, vindicates the author’s implication that the event, during which the crowd bared their necks for the Romans’ swords, is integral to the passive resistance movement.
Predictably, Ricci’s novel has pissed people off. His stripping away of mythological overlay leaves a naturalistic Jesus who is no ordinary man but human nonetheless. With Jesus’ connection to the Ultimate left sketchy at bestMiryam tells us his birth was the result of a rape by a Roman legate (a story that also carries some historical weight)it’s no wonder that orthodox and evangelically oriented groups have been vocal in their discontent. Even the well-balanced Christian Science Monitor warns that Ricci’s book provides “an unrelenting secular picture of Jesus that threatens to reduce Christian spirituality down to being really nice to everybody.”
Such criticism is easily dismissed. Not only is Testament defensible as an engaging read, but no matter how humanly it renders Jesus, Ricci’s story gets to the unblemished heart of the Christian message: There is power in compassion, and the well-placed are not to be trusted. Ideas like that are anything but heretical.
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