By Jose Saramago. Translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero from the 1991 O EVANGELHO SEGUNDO JESUS CRISTO.
377 pages
New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1994
ISBN: 0-15-136700-9

Comments of Bob Corbett
May 2001

This is the gospel according to Jose Saramago and it is an irreverent, profound, skeptical, funny, heretical, deeply philosophical, provocative and compelling work.

The opening third of the novel is dominated by the question of guilt and features a brilliant tactic of Saramago's, the construction of a coherent historical tale surrounding the traditional Biblical story which becomes more compelling than the sketchy gospel account. As we meet them Joseph and Mary are a young married couple, he barely 20 she in her mid-teens. Joseph is deeply religious, interrupting his work of carpentry to sit at the temple of Nazareth as often as he can. He fills his days with the traditional blessings for virtually every act one can imagine and stays in frequent discourse with his God. I was reminded of the character Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof.

Throughout much of this first third Saramago seems reluctant to allow miracles to occur in any obvious fashion. Since the primary form they take in this early part of the synoptic gospels is of angels appearing, Saramago allows there are angels, but disguises them as beggars or other more human forms, even as Herod's soldiers. The tone is light, even humorous and Saramago indulges himself in some linguistic jokes which he so loves. He tells us that "Unlike Joseph her husband, Mary is neither upright nor pious, but she is not to blame for this, the blame lies with the language she speaks if not with the men who invented it, because that language has no feminine form for the words upright and pious."

We follow them on the trip to register for the census and to the town of Bethlehem where the manger turns out to be in a cave on the outskirts of the small town. Saramago's first major theme enters with the slaughter of the innocents. Herod is the king and is dying. His mind is going and he is extremely paranoid seeing a plot to overthrow him at every turn and lashing out viciously at any suspected enemy. Herod knows the prophets and Saramago has him aware of Micah's prophecy that a child shall arises in Bethlehem who will become king. But Herod doesn't take the prophets very seriously. The marvelous problematic which Saramago presents us with is why would Herod, or any ruler for that matter, pick exactly NOW to slaughter the tiny handful of innocents who might exist in the small village of Bethlehem at any given moment. The prophecy had been given centuries earlier. What sets off Herod's paranoia is a dream. He dreams of the prophecy, wakes in a sweat and decides he'd best take action, thus he orders the deaths of all males children under the age of two.

Continuing with this more compelling and logical reconstruction of this history Saramago presents us with a second problem: how do Joseph and Mary eat? Jesus is feeding at the breast, but Jewish law requires a 33 days laying-in period for the woman followed by an animal sacrifice in the temple for purification. Joseph and Mary are quite poor and young with no savings. Joseph must find work and Saramago puts him to work in the reconstruction of the temple in near-by Jerusalem. The angel messenger turns out to be a disgruntled soldier talking with his buddies about this crazy job Herod has given them. Joseph overhears this complaint of the madness of Herod, the horror of having to kill these young children, but the impossibility of resisting his order without getting themselves killed. When Joseph hears that the slaughter is to be in Bethlehem he races off to save Jesus and hides Jesus and Mary deeper in their cave.

Then Saramago drops his first major bomb: the question of Joseph's guilt. Whether one uses the traditional Biblical story of the angel of heaven as messenger or Saramago's fiction of the overheard soldier, the point is Joseph was informed and then took action to save Jesus. But why in the world didn't he warn the people of Bethlehem. Saramago is simply astonished by this silence and the awful consequences of the death of these 25 children in this tiny village. His Joseph is consumed for the rest of his life by this profound moral guilt and even manages to pass the guilt on to Jesus at his own death.

In this first third of the novel Saramago is constantly concerned to reconstruct the story to call attention to odd gaps in the synoptic gospels' account, like the curiosity of what moved Herod to worry about this ancient prophecy at just this moment in time, and how did Joseph earn his living while Mary was honoring Jewish law by the period of laying-in for purification. I found this treatment fascinating, thus when it leads us to the moral argument for Joseph's guilt for the deaths of the children by his silence the arguments comes at us with tremendous force.

By delving into both the known historical facts of the time and what we know of human psychology and adding touch of common sense, he creates a "more likely story" than any of the four gospels. The surprise is that a very different story emerges, one that doesn't have the religious significance of the gospels.

This is typical Jose Saramago at his best developing the theme of limited skepticism and the creation of knowledge. He presents us with a post-modern sense of history and value as human creations, not out of nothing, but not objective either. The human, the author in this case, is limited by the known facts, yet must essentially create reality as best he can. There is no single reality which can arise, yet not every reality is as plausible as every other.

It is also fascinating in this early section, and especially given the role he will give to Joseph's guilt in Jesus' formation, that given the relative place of men and women in the society Saramago is at pains to paint the CENTRAL parent child relationship to be between Joseph and Jesus, not Mary and Jesus. This especially fits with his preparing the ground for Jesus' appearance in the temple since he's been painted as an astute student in the synagogue school, and a child who often discusses scripture with his father.

Of course Saramago's historical reconstruction is, in an important sense, circular. The logic is possible only since he makes the assumption that most of the miraculous is exaggerated spiritualism. Thus the question becomes, what REALLY happened without the miraculous to fall back upon. Yet without the anti-miraculous assumption, Saramago's account is superfluous and counter historical, or at least counter Biblical

Joseph has never recovered from the devastation of not warning the people of Bethlehem of the coming slaughter. He has constant nightmares concerning the death of the innocent children whom he condemned to their death by his silence. He finally redeems himself, and like his son later, he dies at the age of 33 trying to rescue his neighbor. He fails, but in the process his nightmare finally disappears. He is crucified by the Romans as a revolutionary even though he is completely innocent. But is his son later on?

After Joseph's death Jesus leaves home at about the age of 12, presents himself at the temple of Jerusalem and dazzles the elders with his questions about -- ah yes: guilt. They are amazed at this child's depth of understanding of this decidedly adult problem. Jesus then is taken in by Satan who has disguised himself as a shepherd and he spends several years tending sheep in the rugged and isolated countryside. Saramago is setting up a major transition and the last two-thirds of the novel is concerned with the questions of who is God and why does he allow such evil, misery and suffering in the world. Closely connected with this question since Saramago is furious with God because of all this suffering, is the question of just how close is the relationship between Satan and God.

Jesus' life is played out in much the fashion that we know it in the traditional tale, but there are some strange and startling twists along the way, most notably his adult life-long sexual partnering with Mary Magdalene and his eventual attempt at rebellion against God.

Saramago's image of God is of an absolute power who hold humans as slaves. The human notion of merit, choice, even goodness is just human nonsense. An angel tells Mary that God says "no" much more often than "yes." But Jesus eventually meets his God in the desert, appearing to him in a cloud, but speaking with him. He seems to learn that he is the son of God, but he's not too sure. He is forewarned, but vaguely, of what is in store for him, but he does realize he is to die soon and after his death with become famous and powerful. Jesus doesn't really understand this all, but, after all, God is God and so he accepts his fate and as a symbol of this he is asked to sacrifice his favorite lamb to God. Once Jesus does this to show his submission and obedience his terrible guilt which he inherited from his father finally goes away and the novel moves toward its denouement.

Jesus had already begun working his famous miracles and most of them are told in a rather straight forward manner not much differently that in the synoptic gospels though in greater detail. Two notable exceptions are tied to Mary Magdalene. She is Jesus' significant other and they are never separated. When Jesus curses the fig tree for not having fruit, she jumps all over him. Why would you do such a thing, she challenges him, it isn't the season for the tree to bear fruit and you're behaving quite stupidly and badly. Jesus is shamed, sees what a dumb thing he expected, but is startled to discover that while he had the power to kill the tree in his anger, he doesn't have the power to bring it back to life. Saramago mocks the gospel stories in this tale, often done in a quite humorous fashion as in his simply hilarious story of the driving the demons out of the possessed man and into the herd of pigs. The astonishment and fury of the pig farmers when their pigs all go racing off the cliff requires Jesus and his disciples to have to beat a hasty retreat into the lake to escape the irate pig farmers.

Mary Magdalene's second interference is much more touching. Jesus and Mary Magdalene have returned to her home. Jesus becomes a dear friend of her brother Lazarus and actually cures him of his serious heart trouble, then, while Jesus is away on some miracle run, Lazarus dies. When Jesus returns he is deeply saddened and knows he now has the power to undo death, which he didn't at the time of the cursed fig tree. He is ready to do it, raises his hands in preparation and Mary Magdalene stops him. Don't, she admonishes, don't. It is enough for a person to have to die once, don't make him have to die twice. Since the gospel story, on Saramago's view, only needs it that Jesus could have raised Lazarus, he honors Mary Magdalene's wish and they bury Lazarus.

Saramago is moving more and more bitterly to reveal a mean, angry, power hungry God who will cause all the cruelty he needs to get his way. After Jesus and Mary Magdalene have returned to Martha and Lazarus' home, Martha becomes deeply in love with Jesus and his message. This love is completely platonic, but she craves his approval and is astonished that she, a completely virtuous woman would only be his dear friend, while her ex-prostitute sister would have Jesus as her lover. Jesus doesn't help matters when, in trying to reassure Mary Magdalene at one point, he tells her of his profound love for her, but does it in the presence of Martha. Saramago says: "These final words were intended for Mary Magdalene, but Jesus forgot that they would only aggravate Martha's distress and desperate loneliness, this is the difference between God and His son, God does it on purpose, His son out of carelessness which is all too human."

The final theme, the evil of God, is finally revealed in detail during the second meeting of Jesus and God which takes place in Satan's presence. This is meant to retell and replace the forty days in the desert and the temptation. Jesus wakes one morning to discover that the lake is covered in a deep mist. The fishermen are terrified to go out on the lake, but, in silence, Jesus takes a boat and rows out. When he gets to the middle of the lake the fog lifts a bit and he discovers God sitting in the bow of the boat. Moments later they hear a swimmer coming and it is Satan, the same shepherd with whom Jesus spent his many years of youth as a shepherd. A discussion which is both hilarious and profound begins in which God reveals in detail to Jesus who Jesus is -- the son of God, and what his plans are for him. Jesus presses for details and is quite surprised to discover that this is much more than the promised Messiah. Jesus is to become not just the king of the Jews and lead his people to power, rather Jesus is to die in order that God will be able to use his death (no mention of the resurrection) as a stepping stone to a single world religion. The stakes are much higher than becoming king of the Jews. But, God allows under careful interrogation from Jesus and at Satan's prompting, that this will take thousands of years to achieve and will be achieved only with huge amounts of bloodshed. Jesus is utterly horrified at this prospect and quite shocked. Satan cuts in: "One has to be God to countenance so much blood." Jesus presses this issue and eventually God reveals much of the horror that will follow. At one point Saramago just lists in short phases the deaths of selected martyrs such as: (just to choose a random sample)

"…Maginus of Tarragon decapitated with a serrated scythe, Mamas of Cappodocia disemboweled, Manuel, Sabel, and Ismael, Manuel put to death with an iron nail embedded in each nipple and an iron rod driven through his head from ear to ear and all three beheaded, Margaret of Antioch killed with a firebrand and an iron comb, Marie Goretti strangled, Marius of Persia put to the sword and his hands amputated…"

and on and on and on, about 7 pages of alphabetized horrible deaths.

Then God makes a tactical mistake. When Jesus, who is just astounded beyond belief, keeps pressing him on this issue, he tells him of much of what will follow: the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the untold numbers of religious wars and on and on. All for the purpose of bringing God the religious domination that he wants. Again it is the voice of Satan who reveals the ultimate evidence of God's evil: "… the end justifies the means." Jesus presses on and is increasingly disturbed by God's evil and is quite curious of the close relationship with Satan. God tells him: "… unless the devil is the devil, God cannot be God." The interview eventually ends and when Jesus rows back to shore his is amazed to discover that he'd been on the lake for 40 days and that this fog and storm which kept all others off the lake has drawn people from all over the region to see this phenomenon.

It's all too much for Jesus and he decides to rebel against God's plan. He tries, and those last pages are too filled with surprises to tell here, but in the end, of course, God gets his way and Jesus is tricked into fulfilling his role in the whole sordid story of bloodshed in the name of the Christian religion.

The Saramago of the last chapters is an angry and raging author reeling from the evil, misery and suffering brought to the world in the name of spreading and maintaining Christianity. In the process Saramago challenges, startles, amuses and even shocks most of us. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is simply not to be missed. It takes its place alongside such challenging works a Nikos Kazantzaksis' The Last Temptation of Christ and Pier Paolo Pasolini's film The Gospel According to St. Matthew as alternatives to the standard accounts of the gospels which have entered into popular culture and consciousness.

Some follow-up discussion of the novel with LJ Lindhurst and another review of the of the novel from Bob Galloway

Some comments from Gilles Renard

Giles Renard

Good evening sir,

I came across your essay on The gospel according to Jesus Christ, while doing some extra research on the novel for a course on intertextuality. I found it to be very clear and precise, so first and foremost I would like to thank you for the new insights with whom you have provided me. (Although i am quite sure you have received much better and more valuable praise than that of a second year student in linguistics...)

As I read the follow up discussion, i recognised myself in the enthousiasm that lighted up LJ Lindhursts emails like a Christmas tree... And I felt the need to defend the other side of the spectrum. Where Lj has not been raised by a Catholic family, I have been bred in a Catholic nest, and was hatched in a Jesuit College. This already provided me with enough Biblical background knowledge to rechristen the Pope. Although I have renounced my Faith long ago (as most Jesuit-educated people tend to do) I have never lost my interest in Christianity, Religion and ethics in general.

Which brings me back to the novel. And the one point I would like to argue. You talk about God being Evil. And I agree. But is that Evil a bad thing? The one thing that captured me in the book, is that God actually defends His being Evil. I felt that Saramago used the old Yin Yang cliché to answer the all-time Question "If God is good, why is there pain and misery in the world?" There have been many answers to this question, some good, some bad, but I think that Saramago's answer is the best one I've come across yet. (As I understood) God is not only inherently good, he is also inherently bad. Which actually should not be so surprising, because we all know that God is everything. And it all makes sense. In making God a flawlessly flawed character, Saramago gives a reasonable, logical explanation for all that is wrong in the world today. It's not the intricate plan of an all-powerfull, all-good Deity. It's the intricate plan of an all-powerfull, but farily human Deity. If God created us after his image, why should we be the only ones capable of wrong doing?

So perhaps I should refine my earlier point,the one thing that captured me most in the book is that God succesfully defends His being Evil, but that doesn't necessarily make God an entirely bad character. I would say he succesfully plays the Devil's advocate but the metaphors would become to entangled for me to work with.

I think that mixing religion with logic is a fairly hard thing to do. But Saramago has done it, and he has done it exceptionally well. He got me captivated enough that I am writing an e-mail to someone who has posted a review nine years ago, not a lot of books can spark such reactions I think.

With kind regard,
Gilles Renard
Bachelor linguistics and literature
Antwerp, Belgium

Bob Corbett

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