BOOK REVIEW / True stories of good and evil: Jesus - A N Wilson: Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 15; Jesus the man - Barbara Thiering: Doubleday, pounds 16.99

'WHAT IS truth?' asks A N Wilson in his exhaustive attempt to unravel the tangled web of Jesus's life as it is presented in the Gospels. 'Getting into the right frame of mind in which to understand the New Testament is not easy,' he says ominously, and indeed I had not realised how hard it could be. Gone are the holy pictures, ox and ass and swirling angels; nothing is simple, and truth and belief, like the kingdom of heaven, are only to be found within the questing, individual spirit.

Wilson dismisses the possibility of finding a 'historical' Jesus, and regards the search as crass and futile. Not only did each New Testament writer select and distort his material for his own ends, but the material itself was not intended to provide source information for biographers. The stories are told with reference to the ancient Jewish scriptures, so that Jesus takes on the role of Moses, or of Joshua, and prophecies are fulfilled through a dazzle of symbols. The smashing of the legs of the crucified finds its parallel with the breaking of bones of the Passover lamb after it has been consumed (as ordained in Exodus), pointing to Jesus as the Lamb of God, dying to take the world's sins away.

Facts may occur from time to time, but they are overlaid with scriptual echoes, superstition, and the trappings of a demon-haunted world. For Wilson, Jesus was a Galilean holy man, teaching in the tradition of the Hasidim, miracle workers, healers and exorcists who moved about the country. He deviated from accepted practice in the company he kept - publicans, sinners, political agitators and women - and in his message of loving kindness, forgiveness and humility. He did not claim to be the Messiah or wish to found a new religion or even offer a pattern for living well.

It was Paul who spread Christ's word to the gentiles and created the foundations of the early Church, the dreadful notion of original sin, the eternal contrast between man's evil and God's righteousness, but also divine grace, love and a mystic crucified leader. Paul's obsession with the crucifixion - he said that he 'boasted' of the cross - leads A N Wilson to one of his rare flights of fancy. He suggests that Paul may have been the high priest's assistant who came to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and who had his ear sliced off by Peter. This man was called Malko, which means 'king', as does Paul's original name, Saul. Wilson would like to meet Paul and inspect his ears.

Mainly he is strict on matters legendary. In the chapter caustically titled 'His Wondrous Childhood', he has a lot of fun with the Gospels, both synoptic and apocryphal. He points out that the word which is traditionally translated as 'carpenter', in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and Joseph, actually means either a craftsman or a scholar; it does seem more likely that the boy who argued with the wise man in the Temple at Jerusalem came from a talkative, bookish background than the dusty sunlit workshop of folklore. There are some excellent stories from James about Jesus and his little playmates; on one occasion he turned them all into goats and their parents had to come and beg Mary and Joseph to restore them; in Thomas's he strikes people dead so that he may bring them back again. He was not popular.

Although Wilson demolishes the stories of the wise men, the virgin birth, the stable and the star, pointing out that 'none of this delightful tableau is to be found in the pages of the New Testament', he is never crudely dismissive; he admits that these scenes are profoundly haunting and poignant, and may provide an emotional truth which is equally valid. Wilson lost his own faith some years ago, and although the prevailing tone is dry and analytical at times he responds to his material with such spontaneity and lyricism that it is shocking. Describing the hopelessness of trying to conjure up a physical Jesus he suddenly says: 'there are moments in the New Testament where one has the sensation of having only just missed the Presence. It is like walking into a room which a person has only just left, and seeing evidence of their presence - the impression of a head against a cushion . . .'

His account of Christ's agony in the Garden and the crucifixion is profoundly moving and horrible. Here again the objective truth-seeker has faded into the background. Indeed there is so much that is powerful in this book that I wished he had abandoned the impossible task of biographer and simply written a novel. One is left with a feeling of overwhelming sadness, not only for Christ's tragic end, but for the whole unending saga of religious wars and persecutions; Wilson suggests on the last page that if Christ had looked into the future he might have wished not to have lived.

Wilson has little time for those who stray far from the Gospels' pattern of Christ's life, nor does he care for what he terms the 'forensic' interpretations drawn from medical gossip. Jesus the Man, Barbara Thiering's extraordinary version of Christ's life, is based on a highly personal reading of the Gospels deriving from a 'revolutionary new theory' that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written during this time and that the 'pesher' technique which is used in some of them can decode the text. The 'pesher' is a sort of biblical commentary which offers hidden historical meanings. This method enables Dr Thiering to tell us that Christ survived the cross, drugged and comatose from snake poison, married Mary Magdalene and lived to be about 70. Well now.

This is a very long book, full of curious tables, diagrams and notes. I quote: 'Preparation. paraskeue. p: the day for adjusting the measurement of hours which had become 3 hours fast. The feast of unleavened bread. +2 1/2 version combined with the 31st. Friday for keeping up the Ex12 rule.' I'd rather read the Gospels without this lady's assistance.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee