The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramago

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José Saramago presents a richly imagined human interpretation of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a valid implied critique that, whilst Christian doctrine insists on the incarnation of Christ, claiming him to be fully human and fully divine, the Biblical gospels focus entirely on his divinity, and report almost nothing of his humanity. Saramago reverses this emphasis, and in his account, Jesus suffers doubt, feels morally imperfect, and finds sexual love with Mary Magdalene.

Like Kierkegaard in ‘Fear and Trembling’ struggling with the ethic of God instructing Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah, Saramago repeatedly struggles with the ethic of the Bible’s story of Herod’s massacre of the innocents (which is recorded only in Matthew’s gospel and nowhere else in historical record). Saramago’s moral challenge is valid – why didn’t God, and/or Jesus’s father Joseph, warn the other inhabitants of Bethlehem, rather than just selfishly fleeing themselves?

Saramago gently mocks the miracles of Jesus. How come 5,000 people, used to providing for themselves, had travelled without any provision? Why couldn’t a powerful God have simply overcome the Gadarene demons rather than having to transfer them into pigs? The swineherds were financially ruined and understandably angry. People ventured out to sea to recover the dead pigs for meat. The glut of fish from miraculous catches sends prices tumbling. Others of the miracles appear as pointless magic. The cursing of the fig tree is a mistake which even Jesus regrets and seeks to reverse.

Humanising the gospel account often renders it laughable, improbable, or ethically dubious. God appears only in occasional and mysterious ways, and reveals his plan as a litany of atrocity from the crucifixion of Christ, through a multitude of terrible martyrdoms, religious wars and Crusades.

Saramago is less successful in challenging the moral teachings of Jesus, other than pointing out that the Sermon on the Mount refers also to contexts of strife. It is as moral philosophy that a human Jesus has substance and credibility, but this figure does need disentangling from the religious Christ

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