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)

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