The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
First edition Cover (Portuguese)
|Original title||O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo|
Published in English
|Media type||Print (paperback)|
|Pages||396 pages (paperback edition)|
|ISBN||ISBN 978-0-15-600141-0 (paperback edition)|
|LC Class||PQ9281.A66 E913 1994b|
The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (original title: O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo, 1991) is a novel by the Portuguese author José Saramago. A fictional re-telling of Jesus Christ's life, it depicts him as a flawed, humanised character with passions and doubts. The novel garnered controversy with some critics, especially among the Roman Catholic Church, accusing Saramago of possessing a "substantially anti-religious vision". It was also praised by other critics as a "deeply philosophical, provocative and compelling work".
"Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." Luke 1-4 (back cover)
This book re-imagines the life of Jesus Christ, using the events depicted in the canonical gospels as a scaffold on which to build its story. It more or less follows the chronology of the life of Jesus Christ. However, much greater emphasis is spent on the earlier part of Jesus' life than in the canonical gospels.
The book describes an alternate history to the life of Jesus Christ as depicted in the Bible. It begins with Jesus's conception, in the spiritual presence of God. Jesus' birth is heralded by a mysterious character, who claims to be an angel. Later, at Bethlehem, Jesus is born in a cave, and three shepherds - including the "angel" - arrive to bring him presents.
As described in the Gospel of Matthew, Herod the Great receives a premonition of the birth of the "King of the Jews" (in the biblical account of Matthew, he is informed by the Magi; in the book, however, he is visited in his dreams by the prophet Micah). He orders the Massacre of the Innocents. Jesus survives, but his father, Joseph, who has learned of the plan, neglects to warn the other families in the village, ensuring that his son is safe first, and is plagued by nightmares for the rest of his life.
Later, when Jesus turns thirteen, Joseph is crucified by the Romans who mistakenly think him to be a Zealot fighter. From the night of his father's death, Jesus inherits his nightmare. He learns about the massacre from his mother, and grows aloof from his family, amongst whom he can no longer live peacefully. He leaves the family and Nazareth and makes his way to Jerusalem, where he visits the Temple, thence to Bethlehem.
He works as an apprentice to a shepherd (called The Shepherd who is understood to be the Devil and the mysterious "angel" mentioned earlier). The Shepherd instructs Jesus in the ways of hedonism, and at one point tries to convince Jesus to use the sheep for sexual release. Eventually, he meets God in the desert. God forces Jesus to sacrifice his favourite sheep, and says he has a design for him. Upon hearing of this, the Shepherd tells him to leave immediately. Jesus makes his way back home through the Sea of Galilee where he discovers an amazing talent to catch myriads of fish, and Magdala where he meets and falls in love with Mary Magdalene, then continues back home to Nazareth.
Jesus is not believed by his family, and so he leaves them once again, meets Mary Magdalene (without marrying her) and goes to work helping the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. One day out on the Sea by himself, he is visited by God and the Devil. God tells Jesus of his plan for Jesus to institute Christianity, because God is annoyed at being only the God of one race, and that other gods seem to get all the glory. Jesus is initially against what he sees as a selfish plan bound to lead to great suffering of many, but is made to see that he actually has no choice in the matter.
Jesus becomes a prophet of God, continuing to work miracles but also preaching. He gets himself arrested, repeatedly calling himself King of the Jews. Having heard news of John the Baptist, who was put to death not for preaching the coming of the Messiah but allegedly for disapproving of King Herod's incestuous marriage, Jesus decides that his own death could likewise obscure his divine nature and thus thwart God's plan.
The novel ends with Jesus' realisation that God's plan, and the ensuing centuries of torture, slaughter, and misery that Christianity will bring, will proceed despite his efforts. His last words from the cross, in referring to God, are "Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done."
- Hardback, 1994: ISBN 978-0-15-136700-9
- Paperback, 1994: ISBN 978-0-15-600141-0
- Paperback, 1999: ISBN 978-1-86046-684-7