My reading choices in the past few months have focused on 1st century Palestine. It all started when a friend recommended Christopher Moore's Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal
. It's fiction and a clever work of imagination but Moore did some decent research to serve as the basis of his narrative. He has a pretty blank slate work with since not much is known about Jesus until about age 30. Apparently some tradition suggests that he traveled east in his earlier years, an idea that Moore expands with no small amount of humor. I read Moore's A Dirty Job
years ago and found it wildly inventive and funny. Moore does a good job with the Jesus story. I give it as much credence as the Bible and it's WAY
About the same time I was reading Lamb
I found A Jew Among Romans: the Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus
by Frederic Raphael at the library. I vaguely recognized the name from a classified add that often appeared in The Nation
claiming to offer proof (for only $1 and a self addressed-self stamped envelop) that Jesus Christ was an invention of Flavius Josephus. I figured I might learn what that proof was. What I learned was that Palestine was was awash with Jewish nationalism, factionalism, messianism and terrorism in pursuit of the promised Kingdom of Israel in the years before and after Jesus of Nazareth. I learned that in 66 CE (most any time actually, since they often profited from the Roman occupation) wealthy and educated Jews, including Josephus, thought that rebelling against the Romans was very ill-advised. I learned, too, that many other Jews would kill anyone who questioned the rebellion.
As governor of a city besieged by the Romans and defended by zealots, Josephus was was a dead man no matter what he did. What he did was manage to survive by making himself useful to the victorious Roman general Vespasian. Josephus ended up in Rome as historian when Vespasian became emperor. Josephus wrote history that flattered his patron but it serves as a valuable chronicle of 1st century events. A Jew Among Romans
taught me some history I did not know and added context to the familiar history and myth I do know. I never learned if Josephus invented Jesus Christ.
Well before reading either of these books I had a request in at the library for Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
by Resa Aslan. It drew attention when it came out a few months ago; from Fox News wingnuts
coming unglued about a Muslim writing about Jesus to and religious scholars/authorities
who question Aslan's research. Whatever it's quality and interpretation, Aslan's research is extensive--53 pages of notes and 10 page bibliography. Aslan examines the historical record, which excludes the Gospels and other New Testament accounts written after the fact with a point of view, to place Jesus of Nazareth in the messianic and revolutionary traditions of 1st century Palestine and questions whether Jesus intended his message for non-Jews. That said, Aslan acknowledges that Jesus of Nazareth is the only one of the several messiahs of his era who is remembered and the religions created in his name have flourished, even if the remembered Jesus is not the actual Jesus.
immediately after A Jew Among Romans
added to Zealot's
credibility. Both relate the same events without contradiction. Zealot focuses more narrowly on Palestine and events in Jesus's life but offers a rich background of the era's politics and culture. A Jew Among Romans
is more broadly focused, as Josephus life events took place on a larger stage than Jesus. The two books reinforced my belief that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure. I don't need him to be anything more than that.
Another version of the Jesus story is "The Ballad of Mary Magdalen". Mary figures prominently in Lamb
, the most readable and fun of the three works. Seems only right to end with her story.
"The Ballad of Mary Magdalen"
is written by Richard Shindell. It's one of many fine selections on "Cry, Cry, Cry"
by Shindel, Dar Williams and Lucy Kaplansky.
Labels: books, history