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José Saramago: O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo (The Gospel According to Jesus Christ)

Saramago is an avowed atheist and frequently criticises religion so a book on Jesus by him was never going to be a hagiography. His story is of a man who struggles with his faith and his guilt but without criticising the religion he inspired. It might be compared with Pasolini‘s The Gospel According to Matthew, often wrongly translated in English, as in this link, as the Gospel according to St Matthew. For Pasolini, Matthew was a man, not a saint. The other obvious comparison is with Kazantzakis Ο Τελευταίος Πειρασμός (UK: The Last Temptation; US: The Last Temptation of Christ), perhaps best-known in the film version, which caused so much controversy.

The story starts with the immaculate conception which is anything but immaculate in this book. While the breath of God does appear, Joseph has straightforward (and very quick) sex with Mary. There is no angel Gabriel. Instead, a beggar appears at the door, asking for food. It soon becomes apparent that this opinionated beggar is some sort of divine creature, whether angel or devil is, at first, not entirely sure, though we later learn who he is. He will appear throughout the book, visible to Mary and Joseph and, as the shepherd, Pastor, instructing the eighteen-year old Jesus in the ways of the world. To show that we are dealing with the human world more than the divine world, we follow Mary’s agonies during pregnancy, particularly as they travel to Bethlehem for the census. We also see much more of Joseph than we do in the bible. He is a worldly man, unaware that he has fathered the son of God, and concerned with making his living. As in the bible, the couple struggle to find anywhere to stay in Bethlehem and end up in a cave, used as a stable. Jesus is delivered by Salome, a woman who has had experience as a midwife, and whom Jesus will meet when he comes back to Bethlehem as an eighteen-year old. While there are some shepherds who happen to be there (but not coming especially to see Jesus), there are no magi.

The key event is the slaughter of the innocents. Joseph, who has had to stay in Bethlehem because of the census, gets a job on the new temple in nearby Jerusalem. We have already met Herod and Saramago takes great delight in mocking him and his afflictions. Joseph overhears soldiers talking about killing boys under the age of three and hurries back to the cave, concerned about his son. However, there is no flight to Egypt (which only appears in the Gospel according to Matthew and not the other three), as they feel secure in the cave, assuming, as Joseph had heard, that the soldiers would only look in houses and this, of course, turns out to be correct. But Joseph, on return to Nazareth, starts having a terrible dream that he is one of Herod’s soldiers and that he has been sent to kill his son. He will continue to have this dream for the rest of his life. Equally as important, the beggar-angel appears again to Mary and tells her that Joseph is even more guilty than Herod as regards the slaughter of the innocents, as he had heard about it but did nothing to save the other boys, which he could easily have done. Her defence is that he was understandably concerned with his own son but the beggar-angel is adamant in his views and this guilt is passed on to Jesus.

We know very little about Joseph from the bible, though more from the apocryphal History of Joseph the Carpenter. Saramago elaborates considerably. We learn of Joseph’s (violent) death, of his nine children with Mary (only one is mentioned in the bible) and his guilt over the slaughter of the innocents, as well as of him as a man, all of which has been invented by Saramago. As for Jesus, he is somewhat in the background, till he grows up and then, at age fourteen, after his father’s death, he leaves his family and goes back to Bethlehem to search for his roots, meeting Salome and the beggar-angel-Pastor, who is not a Jew but who instructs Jesus about earthly and more spiritual matters. Initially, we do see some evidence of the holy, for example the breath of god, though no physical manifestation of him, and the crucifixes used by the Romans to kill the rebels under Judas of Galilee, which start growing as trees again. There is, in the early part, no God speaking to Jesus or, indeed, anyone else, as in the bible. Jesus remains very human, albeit a human concerned about theological matters and about the issue of guilt. God, however, does play a larger role when Jesus is an adult and comes across as something of a petulant headmaster. There is a wonderful scene when God, the devil and Jesus are out on a boat on Lake Galilee for forty days, discussing various matters and, not surprisingly, God does not necessarily come off best.

It is difficult to see whom this novel is aimed at. Christians will, in many cases, take offence, while atheists, agnostics, anti-clericalists and the like are unlikely to read a novel to inform themselves on this topic and, if they did want to read a novel to debunk the whole Christian myth, they would probably be much better off reading Michael Moorcock‘s Behold the Man. Saramago’s aim is not to debunk the whole Christian myth. Jesus, in this book, eventually becomes the son of God, though he insists to the Pharisees that he is not the son of God, only the king of the Jews. However, he is recognised as holy by his disciples and others. It is a fascinating account but I think that I prefer the Moorcock.

Publishing history

First published 1991 by Caminho, Lisbon
First English translation 1993 by Harvill
Translated by Giovanni Pontiero