The Many Lives of Jesus

By T.F. Rigelhof | May 30, 2002

Nino Ricci, Testament, a novel_
Doubleday Canada, ISBN 0-385-65854-0

Nino Ricci’s new novel Testament is likely to spark some lively discussions. Few Canadians want to openly confront the historical–and hysterical-ways in which children born out of wedlock have been treated by our society in the past. Even fewer want to hear it openly said that Jesus Christ was in all probability, quite literally, a Roman soldier’s bastard if a marriage of convenience hadn’t been hastily arranged by the young woman’s family. In his fictional Testament, Ricci accepts the Talmudic tradition that the father of Jesus was a Roman legate even though he does not name him Pandira or Pantera as the early Rabbis do or follow the lead of those modern writers who want to equate him with the Roman archer Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, who was stationed in Palestine until 9 AD. As readers of Nino Ricci’s other novels already know, few writers have more sympathy and understanding for those who bear the mark of such “illegitimate” births. Testament doesn’t merely accept Jesus’s peculiar parentage as a possibility: it proclaims it early and often, explores it from several vantage points, and makes it a key element in the sequence of events that led to the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. While this might surprise and disconcert readers, the Jesus of Testament is less sensational than the one found in several other fictionalizations.

When I spoke with Nino Ricci over the telephone from his home in Toronto, I wanted to know if he had set out to write a deliberately provocative and inflammatory novel about Jesus? Ricci began our conversation by insisting that “My first priority was writing a novel, telling an interesting story. Clearly I chose a topic that came with some baggage. I chose it largely because it’s a subject that interested me and had been an obsession over the course of my life. What I’m trying to do is look at this character-this probably historical personage-who has come to us as Jesus and to try to understand him outside the religious tradition of seeing him as divine and to imagine what such a person might have been as a human.”

The things that most concern Ricci in Testament are the same things that dominate his other books: estrangement from the dominant society, conflict between generations, family strife, and opposing world views. Ricci wants to make perfectly clear that Testament is not a discrediting of Jesus or Christianity. “What I was not trying to do,” he told me, “is to recreate a true historical Jesus or even for that matter to debunk anything. I don’t have enough of an investment in Christianity to want to debunk it. But I do have an investment in western culture, and the Christian tradition obviously has influenced everything about western culture. In the 21st Century, it’s hardly a revolutionary statement to say that Jesus is not divine. It’s an attempt at understanding. I think a lot of people of my generation in the Western world grew up with some form of Christianity and may even continue to subscribe to it, but often in a kind of rote way, more for the sake of THE continuity and ritual that it provides than out of any real adherence to its central tenets. I think this book will give people in that position a chance to think about where they’re coming from and maybe understand that place in a different way or a new way. The central position of the book — of seeing this Jesus as a man and not a divine being– is clear throughout.”

Or, as he writes in his author’s note at the end of Testament, “This is a work of fiction. While it takes its inspiration from the figure who has come down to us as Jesus Christ, it does not purport to be an accurate historical representation of that figure. At the same time, I have made every effort to work within the bounds of historical plausibility, based on what is known to us of the time and place in which Jesus lived.”

Testament‘s weight and worth as a Nino Ricci novel is unlikely to be the key reason why it will be bought, read, discussed and possibly become the most provocative and best-selling book published in Canada this year. This is a novel about Jesus, and books about the life of Jesus outnumber those about Shakespeare, Napoleon, Lincoln or Hitler. Historical reliability (or even plausibility) is not to everyone’s taste: a quick search of Internet databanks suggests there are at least two dozen diverse and sometimes wildly fanciful novels about Jesus and ten dozen biographies of his life readily available in English or English translation.

It wasn’t always so. Saint Paul, arguably the first Christian, discounted the importance of needing to know very much about Jesus when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:16 “Even though we once knew Christ in a human way, we no longer think of him in that way.” Only a few facts about Jesus were essential to Paul and his followers. Donald Harmon Akenson (a sometime novelist and one of this country’s more accomplished historians) argues in Saint Saul: A Skeleton Key to the Historical Jesus( 2000) that Paul is the closest thing we have to a direct witness and ought to get greater attention from historians and novelists than he usually receives as a source on the life of Jesus because, among the short list of other things he wrote in his epistles, Paul simply will not have it said that Jesus was born of a Virgin: such a superstition was incompatible with seeing him as Son of the Lord God. Nino Ricci is quite right to suggest that in the 21st century, it is anything but revolutionary to say that Jesus is not divine by virtue of a miraculous birth. The idea goes back to Paul. What counted for Paul is the religious meaning of Jesus’ life and death: Jesus was God’s natural son and through union with his death and resurrection every member of the human race could become a child of the one Lord God and enter into his kingdom.

The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John provide a few more highly selective “facts” and many powerful sayings attributed to Jesus within bare bone narratives that serve mainly as vehicles for a proclamation of the Kingdom of God. That’s what counts for most Christian believers. But not all. There have always been believers who wanted to fill in the large empty spaces the official accounts leave in the life of Jesus, or fabricate the things he said that are left unrecorded. And there have always been skeptics, inside and outside the church, who have questioned the credulity of those who believe that Jesus did and said what the Gospels say of him-In part because the four canonical gospels disagree with one another. The Nicene church accepted the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John despite their diversity and forcefully rejected the attempts by Tatian in the second century to reduce the four to a single “gospel harmony.” At the same time, the church dismissed a welter of other lives of Jesus. Or deliberately lost them.

An ancient legend holds that each of the original twelve apostles (including Judas in some accounts or replacing him with Mary Magdalene in others) created gospels of their own. The Gospel of Thomas and the fragments of others that have been found are, on the whole, bizarre and reveal little. This is also true of the many local legends about Jesus that flourished throughout the Middle Ages and still provide fodder for modern writers whose imaginations have Jesus traveling throughout India –as James W. Deardoff has it in Jesus in India–or settling down to married life in the south of France with Mary Magdalene and raising a family whose sons give birth to a royal bloodline in France as Leigh Baignent proposes in Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Medieval and even modern writers who probed the gospels so critically that they viewed the inconsistencies as inaccuracies or raised awkward questions about miracles were discouraged, to put it mildly, from placing their ideas in wide circulation. Books were burned or banned and authors were silenced by exile, prison or persecution throughout the centuries that Christianity has been headquartered in Rome.

In 1846, a then-unknown English writer who called herself George Eliot translated the German philosopher David Frederick Strauss’s Life of Jesus into English. Strauss attempted to explain why even highly educated Christians believed in events which did not have any historical basis, were contrary to common sense, and violated the natural order. Using the resurrection as his key example, Strauss concluded that religion is an expression of the human mind’s ability to generate myths and interpret them as truths revealed by God. Strauss characterized Christianity as a stage in the evolution of pantheism. His book was a cause celebre and resulted in a new focus on Christ’s life as a mythical construct that neither supernaturalist believers nor rationalist doubters could adequately interpret or ever understand. Charles Dickens reacted to Eliot’s translation of Strauss by reaffirming his own comfortably orthodox beliefs and wrote a thoroughly conventional The Life of Our Lord for children. This began a tradition of novelists imaginatively recreating Jesus in response to their own spiritual crises a lineage that includes D.H. Lawrence’s The Man Who Died (1929), Robert Graves’ King Jesus (1946), Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1960), Jose Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1994) and Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son (1997).

When Ernst Renan, a French historian, published his own Life of Jesus in 1863, the debate became still more complicated. Rejecting Strauss’s skepticism about the value of the New Testament as a historical document, Renan read the gospels as carefully as possible and analyzed them both in terms of his own travels in Syria and Palestine and against whatever he could discover in the archeological record. For Renan, Jesus was an uneducated but wise Jewish prophet from a green and shady rural Galilee who gave birth to a true religion, a romantic religion of the heart that few parched urbanites in Jerusalem could accept but many city dwellers throughout the ancient world would misinterpret and corrupt. Renan’s Jesus preached that the individual conscience was in direct connection with God and that there was no need whatsoever for any institutional religion. Jesus, in Renan’s view, inadvertently provoked both the Jewish priesthood and the Roman empire to such an extent that they retaliated by killing him and pressuring his disciples into making him over into things he never was: a fierce polemicist and miracle worker. Renan’s Life of Jesus became an international bestseller despite condemnation by the Church of Rome.

By the beginning of the 20th Century, the academic conflicts and controversies that raged between mythologists and historians over who Jesus actually was and what he might have actually said and done led the German theologian and Bach scholar Albert Schweitzer to publish The Quest for the Historical Jesus in 1906. Concluding that all post-Gospel lives of Jesus say much more about their authors than their subject, Schweitzer declared the quest to find Jesus in the gospels or anywhere else absolutely futile. He abandoned theology and music, took up medicine, set off for Africa as a medical missionary and inspired many to once again follow the unhistorical, un-mythological Christianity preached by Saint Paul.

It has taken nearly a century of diligent archeological and textual work by dedicated scholars and the discovery of caches of ancient manuscripts on the shores of the Dead Sea and at Nag Hammadi in Egypt to develop firmer methods for creating more nearly objective lives of Jesus. Over the past twenty-five years, several vigorous and masterly works have emerged in North America John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus: the Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1993), E.P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism (1987) and The Historical Figure of Jesus (1996), John Meier’s multi-volume A Marginal Jew (volume 3, 2001) among them. What distinguishes these Jesus scholars from their predecessors is that they understand Jesus within the context of Jewish life in the first Century A.D. and provide a more nuanced view of where Jesus might have fit in. Even so, they each view Jesus in ideosyncratic ways. Crossan sees him as a preacher of radical egalitarianism who offers a way of healing to an impoverished, powerless peasant society. E.P. Sanders shifts the emphasis to the future. He pictures Jesus as a prophet who prepared people for the coming of God’s kingdom. John Meier combines present and future, viewing Jesus as a teacher who sees God’s kingly rule as already present but not yet complete. During the same quarter century, a number of novelists looked into what the scholars have been doing and generated a mixed assortment of fictions that regard Jesus from unorthodox viewpoints. Morley Callaghan, Anthony Burgess, Guy Davenport, John Updike, Reynolds Price, Jim Crace, and Simon Mawer are among the many who have produced more or less intriguing works.

When I asked Nino Ricci about which books that influenced him, I was not at all surprised to hear that he’d read John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus . He said, “Crossan’s book doesn’t say that much about Jesus and in some ways that’s what was helpful about it. It says a lot about the social context he comes out of and makes an argument for what Jesus could have drawn from that context: the idea of Jesus having been influenced by Cynic philosophy and so on, which does come up in my novel. I do owe a lot to him for establishing that context.” Ricci’s Testament retells the story of Jesus of Nazareth from the points of view of four witnesses to his life: three will be familiar to readers of the New Testament Gospels as his devoted follower Mary Magdalene, his mother Mary, his betrayer Judas, and the fourth, Simon of Gergesa, a Syrian shepherd, who is Ricci’s own invention. Only Simon, a non-Jew, knows Jesus by his Greek name. To the others, Jesus is the Semitic Yeshua of Notzerah and they are known to themselves and others as Miryam of Migdal, Miryam the wife of Yehoceph, and Yihuda. These unfamiliar names are central to their identity as Roman era Aramaic speaking Mediterranean artisans and peasants who are the economically disadvantaged, politically powerless underclass of Crossan’s book.

Ricci’s Yeshua of Notzereh is so radical an egalitarian that he treats women in a resolutely modern way. Viewing Jesus through the eyes of Testament‘s two Miryams is extraordinary in its myth-shaking naturalness. Mary Magdalene has come down to most of us as a redeemed prostitute although there’s no scriptural evidence for it. Ricci rejects the stereotype and makes Miryam of Migdal less melodramatic, more easily comprehensible as a young woman in search of a future that doesn’t free her from being a daughter only to entrap her as somebody’s wife. One of the titles traditionally given the Blessed Virgin Mary is Our Lady of Sorrows and that’s the essence of Ricci’s Miryam the wife of Yehoceph: a mother who struggles helplessly to comprehend the decidedly different, often difficult, sometimes incomprehensible stranger who is always her son but never her husband’s child. Ricci, who has acquired the status of an honourary feminist because of his equally open sensibility to the minds and hearts of highly vulnerable uneducated women in his previous novels, told me, “The women’s points of view are a natural for me in that they are certainly missing from the traditional accounts. We never really get to hear from the women and yet they are there which is one of the surprising things about the Jesus tradition. The inclusion of women does seem a revolutionary aspect of his ministry.”

Ricci was also influenced by the writings of Flavius Josephus, the recreant who was born in Jerusalem less than a decade after Jesus’s death and later became the official Jewish historian for the Romans throughout the final decades of the first century. “Josephus is a very wily character. You never quite know how to take him and how much of what he says is true. He contradicts himself : says one thing in The Antiquities and another in the Jewish War but we feel that there’s a real character there narrating that history who is very implicated in it. He’s a turncoat who betrays the Jews and goes over to the Roman side when it proves convenient to do so. I think Josephus is much cagier and more opportunistic than my Yihuda is.”

When I asked him what he thought of other novelists who had written of Jesus, Ricci said that he thought D.H. Lawrence, Robert Graves, Nikos Kazantzakis, and Jose Saramago were all “over the top.” “They were writing in a much different time period,” he continued. “It was a much more radical thing to do coming out of the cultures that they did. I don’t think this novel is a particularly radical act on my part. I hope I still have radical acts left in me for my final statement. This, for me, is a moving forward into the new millennium.” He then went on to say something that did surprise me. “As a young man I was very taken with the movie Jesus Christ Superstar. I rewatched it as I was working on the book and it’s a bit dated but there certainly is a lot in that Jesus that’s in my Jesus and even in my Judas. I would have to say Superstar is an influence. I think at the time it was a very brave and innovative thing to do.”

How brave and innovative is Testament by comparison? Ricci leaves that question up to his readers to answer. What he most wants to do is get people thinking and, in particular, reach those who are coming out of the Christian tradition but don’t know what sense to make of it. “People are really curious about this subject at bottom and yet it never gets talked about because we feel it’s been sort of colonized by the extreme wing of Christianity. People have a lot of thoughts and questions and conflicts in their own backgrounds.”

Indeed, we do.

3072 w. Uploaded May 30, 2002 (a truncated version of this appeared in the Vancouver Sun)


  • T.F. Rigelhof

    Terry Rigelhof is a Contributing Reviewer to The Globe and Mail's Books section, an occasional contributor to Dooneys Café and CNQ, and the author of nine books – the forthcoming Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984 (Cormorant Books, Spring 2010), a book of essays on writing in Canada, This is Our Writing (Porcupine's Quill), two novels, a novella, a collection of short stories, a brief biography, George Grant: Redefining Canada (Editions XYZ for the Quest Library where he is also a member of the Editorial board), and two volumes of memoir, the second of which is Nothing Sacred: A Journey Beyond Belief (Goose Lane Editions). Two of his books of fiction have been translated into French by Ivan Steenhout and published by Les éditions de la Pleine Lune. Les éditions de la Pleine Lune has also published Dérives du Sacré, a translation of Nothing Sacred: A Journey Beyond Belief.

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