My publisher doth magnify the Lord

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The Independent Online
IN THE wake of the absorbing new biography of Jesus Christ by A N Wilson, several readers have written to ask me if there are any alternative life stories of him by other fine writers. Yes, indeed - there are lots more coming out in the autumn publishers' lists, and here is a brief selection.

The Jesus Christ Story: a study in the economics of the Roman Empire by William Rees-Mogg. Lord R-M adopts the slightly unusual approach of seeing Jesus' life entirely in economic terms and goes more deeply than is usual into the episode of the moneychangers in the temple. (He seems to side with the moneychangers' flexible approach to denarius parity against Jesus' more doctrinaire attitude, if I have got it right.) While approving of Jesus' moral message, he finds many faults with his economics; the parable of the talents has never had such a roasting. However, he thinks 30 pieces of silver was just about right for Judas.

A Life of Jesus by Anthony Burgess. This is not the first time Burgess has written a biography of someone about whom nothing much is known - see his life of Shakespeare - so the approach is familiar. In fact, some of the material is the same as well. We learn, for instance, that Jesus was born in Stratford- upon-Avon during Elizabeth I's reign, that he wrote many miraculous plays and that however often his tomb is opened, no sign of Jesus/Shakespeare is ever found. Is Burgess trying to tell us something? Like that the two people are one and the same? Or is it just another fictional tour de force? Hard to say.

Memoirs of Jesus Christ by Kingsley Amis. Delightfully grumpy reminiscences by the Grand Old Man of English letters, out of which Jesus does not, I am afraid, come too well. Amis remembers Jesus as a rather priggish contemporary at Oxford, who turned up his nose at jazz and later made a fool of himself at the Garrick Club, before becoming an intolerable part of the literary establishment of England. The suspicion begins to dawn that Amis may well be mixing Jesus up with someone else.

The Judas Chronicles by George MacDonald Fraser. Fraser has had the brilliant idea of retelling the New Testament story with Judas Iscariot as the mock-heroic narrator. In this first episode we get no further than Jesus' teenage years, but Judas has already claimed responsibility for the star in the east (a trick with lenses), and the three kings (old friends of his dressed up for the occasion). He reveals that he removed the gold, myrrh and frankincense from their pots 'for safe keeping' - what the baby Jesus actually got was three pots of low- grade sand. Hilarious stuff.

What Jesus would have said about the Common Agricultural Policy by John Selwyn Gummer. He would, apparently, have approved of it. No jokes, no pictures, but lots of statistics about locust and honey production in the 1st century AD. Not for the general reader. Or anyone else.

How Like A Man by Fay Weldon. Her latest book tells the story from the point of view of the Virgin Mary, who comes over very much as a hard-working single parent surrounded on all sides by selfish men - indeed, the Holy Trinity itself is seen very much as a men-only club from which women are pointlessly excluded. The crucifixion comes across, in a way which is not quite satisfactorily explained, as women's revenge on the lot of them. Mary Magdalene seems to have been a lot of fun.

And On The Third Day by Jeffrey Archer. Is this the first time the story has been retold as a thriller? Very possibly. The plot revolves round the big question - will he come back on the third day, as promised, or won't he? The suspense suffers from the fact that we know perfectly well that he will come back. Archer is strong on plot but not very good at characterising men, women, animals, angels or gods.

Jesus Christ, Megastar by Barry Humphries. A tour de force, this. Humphries sees the New Testament as one long chat show, with everyone from John the Baptist to the woman caught in adultery as guests on Jesus' long-running show. ('Caught in adultery, were you, dear?' Jesus coos to the woman. 'I'm not surprised, if you were wearing that dress at the time. But how clever of you to make a dress out of a fishing net]')

Among other new lives of Jesus: William Shawcross's I Am The Sun, David Gower's The Man Who Chose The Final Twelve, etc, etc.

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