The Gospel According to the Son

Essay by chinookCollege, Undergraduate October 2006

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Displaying neither keen biblical learning nor much imagination, Norman Mailer's retelling of Jesus' life and times makes one question what the author had in mind. Despite Mailer's reputation for idealism, much of this "autobiography" of Jesus would satisfy those who advocate a literal reading of the Bible. Mailer's "Jesus" tells his story by generously quoting and paraphrasing the New Testament. The book harmonizes the many texts disparities between the four Gospels by weaving material from each into a seamless chronological storyline. To add historical detail and "factual" weight, Mailer throws a bit of material from Josephus (a first-century Jewish historian) into the mix. As a work of fiction the book adds such skimpy creative content to the basic story that it tempts one to ask, why bother? Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are a better read.

In this work Jesus emerges as an ordinary human being who happened to have been conceived under unusual circumstances that, much to his confusion, granted him unusual powers.

He is like the John Travolta character in the film Phenomenon. In spite of widespread scholarly agreement to the contrary, Mailer tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that he occasionally spoke Hebrew, that he actually gave the long speeches attributed to him by John, and he literally turned water into wine. He also walked on water, and so forth. In short, this is largely a 19th-century Sunday school Jesus.

Nevertheless, Mailer has added some theological and ethical twists. First is the notion that Jesus' wilderness encounter with Satan tainted Jesus, perhaps fatally so. His victory over temptation was not total. Satan clung to him, weakened his resolve, and finally may have diluted his commitment to the poor, evidenced by Jesus' luxuriating in the precious oils offered him by a female follower. This caused...