Naomi Alderman's third novel begins with violence and ends with even bloodier violence. The opening describes the last moments of Jewish independence as Pompey's Roman army assails the city's fortifications.
It ends with the horrors of the Jewish-Roman war in first century AD which were sparked by Jewish insurrection and concluded in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. It is within this framework that Alderman presents the life and death of Jesus – from a Jewish perspective – fictionalised but blended with history.
The overarching framework of violence is an important one. Alderman suggests that Jesus's story cannot be seen outside of the context of Roman occupation and Jewish rebellion. There is no doubt cast over Jesus's sense of mission, but a question-mark hangs over his status as the "Messiah". Even his mother doubts. What is clear though, is that Jerusalem desperately needs a saviour who will lead people to freedom from brutal occupation.
It is courageous to challenge Christianity's most sacred story so, though it is typically iconoclastic for a writer whose first novel, Disobedience, upset the Orthodox Jewish community with its depiction of lesbian love. Alderman's revision of the Christ figure is a visceral, intelligent one, and it works superbly.
Jesus here is Jehoshuah. The reader is never given direct access into his mind: as the book's central mystery, he must remain mysterious. He is shown through the minds of three Jews – his mother, Miryam, his betraying disciple, Iehuda of Qeriot (Judas) and the rebel, Bar-Avo (Barabbas). All three narratives invert their historical stereotypes. They are tragic and heroic in their own ways, with the first two figures overwhelmed by a loss of faith or love, or both.
There is also a section from the point of view of the high priest of the temple, whose dealings with Pontius Pilate prepares us for the final "popularity contest" between Bar-Avo and Jehoshuah. The men here represent two kinds of saviours. Bar-Avo wants to save Jerusalem as ardently as Christ by formenting bloody insurrection. As we know, the one who believed in turning the other cheek lost the contest, and Bar-Avo takes Jews down a violent path. Bar-Avo himself wonders what might have happened if Yehoshuah had lived instead of him.
Alderman's story is filled with pathos and doubt and pain that shows not so much the suffering of one Jew – "the King of the Jews" – but of all the Jews.