The Brooklyn Bruiser joins a long roll-call of seekers, doubters and dreamers

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The Independent Online

26 February 1997

In the days before New York taxis were piloted by Russians or Koreans, a critic waggishly remarked that Norman Mailer wrote the sort of books that cab drivers would write – if they could write. He had a point. It was 49 years ago that the Brooklyn bruiser (now 73) launched a career full of affronts and outrages with his wartime epic The Naked and the Dead. Since then, his fiction and non-fiction has punched its way from Hollywood to the CIA the Apollo moonshots to Lee Harvey Oswald. Even Picasso (the subject of a recent prurient slice of biography) has more than his fair share of cabbie appeal.

Now, thanks to a brief note in the spring catalogue from Random House, New York, we know that Mailer has picked the toughest bout of the lot. The forthcoming Gospel According to the Son – at 225 pages, a mere telegram by his standards – consists of a first-person narrative by Jesus in a tone its author describes as “neither pious nor satirical”. Already, the holy warriors are loading their biggest guns. And Mailer will no doubt relish every skirmish. He used to hang out with boxing champs, and once unwisely joined a bar-room brawl while in the company of a peaceable heavyweight. “I reckon that fighters should stick to fightin’,” the boxer gently counselled him, “and writers should stick to writin’.” Some hope.

More than 200 hundred years ago, the Enlightenment brought historical study of Bible stories out of the shadows of heresy. Probably the first version of Christ’s life published from a non-dogmatic viewpoint came from the scholar Reimarus (1694-1768). Since then, authors have been tempted by the chance to wed these extraordinary tales to the secular forms of the novel, the biography and (during this century) the cinema. Creative minds would let their imagination play over Moses, or Joseph, or even Jesus, and the fury of the orthodox would fall on them – right up to the bemused councils who banned Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Thanks to the tricky doctrine of the Trinity, dramatisations of the Son have proved more troublesome than versions of the Father. And the Old Testament itself abounds with startling scenes of God Behaving Badly. It’s hard to think of any post-Biblical Almighty who acts with less conventional pomp than the riddling old grouch who answers Job out of the whirlwind like a sulky retired builder (“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”). Since then, the Ancient of Days has turned up in many semi-comic guises. They stretch from the tetchy gaffer of the medieval mystery plays (memorably acted by Brian Glover in Bill Bryden’s National Theatre cycle) to the wiseacre in golfing garb played by veteran comic George Burns in Carl Reiner’s 1977 film Oh God!

But as Mailer will discover, with the Second Person of the Trinity, the routine scarcely ever alters. In their introduction to a new Oxford World’s Classics edition of the King James Bible, Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett recall the “instant scandal and controversy” caused in 1846 by the English translation of a book that painted a portrait of Jesus that, though sympathetic, “was wholly human and non-supernatural”. The work was David Friedrich Strauss’s Life of Jesus and the translator was a young intellectual called Mary Ann Evans. She would soon adopt a prudent male pen-name: George Eliot. At this period, the Cambridge theology examiners could still show just what they thought of all this new-fangled sceptical scholarship by asking candidates (as they did in 1848) to “Give the date of the Deluge” . The correct answer? 2348 BC, of course.

Strauss’s version of Jesus probably moved further away from church dogma than the Nikos Kazantzakis novel that Martin Scorsese adapted in his Last Temptation of Christ. In theological terms, the sexual and domestic fantasies that landed Scorsese’s 1988 film in hellishly hot water merely confirmed that Christ was entirely human as well as entirely divine. Christian orthodoxy has accepted that point since the fourth century AD at least.

Oddly, none of the instant reactions to the news of Mailer’s book has registered that a comparable novel already exists. In 1991, the distinguished Portuguese writer Jose Saramago (tipped several times for the Nobel Prize) published his Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Although framed as a third- person narrative, Saramago’s take on The Greatest Story Ever Told aims, like Mailer, to escape both piety and mockery to achieve a fully-fledged and challenging reality.

Saramago echoes Kazantzakis and Scorsese as his Jesus, in the years before his ministry, sets up house with Mary Magdalene. (The notion of a long-term liaison with the Magdalene has deep roots in ancient heresy and also turns up in Barbara Thiering’s interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls – Jesus the Man.) Saramago’s Gospel doesn’t stand alone in recent literature. The Four Wise Men by French novelist Michel Tournier poses questions of history and belief in a spirit that rises above dogma and debunking. Clearly, the US clergy and laity who will agitate against Mailer know little and care less about what goes on among writers of decadent Catholic Europe.

So Mailer joins a long roll-call of seekers, doubters and dreamers. With the New Testament, modern research has stimulated fresh tellings of the ancient tales by paying attention to the Gospels as an ill-matched set of contradictory tales. Here, after all, are four sketchy narratives mostly composed from hearsay during the second half of the first century AD, and written in the low-status Koine Greek of Eastern Mediterranean ports – the equivalent of Estuary English, if you like.

We now know (as does Mailer) that the four narratives that made it into the Christian canon were far from unique. In 1946, at Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt, the so-called “Gnostic” gospels came to light. These were the holy texts used by isolated communities who mixed knowledge of Jesus’s teaching with elements of Platonic and Oriental creeds. They include the Gospel of Truth, the Everlasting Gospel, the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Thomas – which has curious parallels with Mailer’s project, as it contains the sayings of Jesus without any intervening narrative.

It’s worth reflecting that the sheer number of these separate stories tends to disprove the view (now revived by A N Wilson’s life of Paul) that Jesus in his time rated as one small-time Jewish apocalyptic preacher among a hundred others. For a minor-league Galilean exorcist, he seems to have had a pretty busy press agent. He even appears in the great history of his age composed by the ambiguously pro-Roman Jewish leader Joseph Ben David (Flavius Josephus) – though most scholars now think that these passages were snuck into Josephus’ text by later Christian apologists.

Whatever ecclesiastical flak Mailer has to catch, he is unlikely to finish up in court for his pains. The US Constitution, remember, was devised by a clique of deistical freemasons who just about believed in God but certainly didn’t think that fighting over Him was any sort of pastime for a gentleman. Here, the common law of blasphemy still protects, not faith in general and not Christianity in particular, but merely “the formulas of the Church of England as by laws established” . Under that law, Gay News editor Denis Lemon went to jail in the 1970s for publishing a poetic fantasy about Christ on the cross by James Kirkup. And, within the past few months, film director Nigel Wingrove has lost his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights against the refusal to certificate his erotic video about Saint Teresa of Avila, Visions of Ecstasy.

So Mailer’s future foes may have more of a chance to (as it were) nail him in Britain than the States. Whatever the fate of the Son’s Gospel, it seems a shame that critics aren’t prepared to wait for the tale before they curse the teller. After all, what sort of scurrilous film about the life of Christ would you expect from a promiscuously gay Marxist atheist who was eventually murdered by a rent-boy? What we got (thank heavens) was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s intensely beautiful and moving Gospel According to Saint Matthew, a work so luminously reverent that it could push Professor Richard Dawkins straight into the nearest pew. “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” Now who was it who said that?