Introduction

The rise of the novel and the emergence of Jesus as a literary character happened in the same historical period, propelled by some of the same cultural forces. For almost two millennia literary representations of Jesus were consumed primarily in religious contexts. The eighteenth century, among its many other revolutions, brought about more secular ways of approaching sacred scriptures—as historical documents or as literary masterpieces. Following the example of German philosopher Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694–1768), who recast the gospels as the biography of a first-century Jewish nationalist, several generations of European scholars embarked upon a transnational project known as the “quest for the historical Jesus.” The goal of this rationalist quest was to peel back layers of myth and miracle in order to uncover the historical man: Jesus of Nazareth. While Reimarus pioneered reading the gospels as a historical document, Bishop Robert Lowth (1710–1787) introduced the idea of reading the Bible as literature. Lowth’s Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1753) inspired the German Romantics and their disciples to foreground the aesthetic dimension of scriptural texts. The twin processes of historicizing and aestheticizing the Christian canon prepared the groundwork for a new kind of narrative—the novelistic life of Jesus.

Nineteenth-century Fictionalizations

The first lives of Jesus were not yet novels, but rather hybrids of historical scholarship and literary narrative. The genre’s magisterial pioneer was David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu, kritisch bearbeitet (1835–36; Eng. trans., The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined). The genre’s first popular, if not scandalous, hit was Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus (1863; Eng. trans., Life of Jesus), whose lyrically rendered Jesus emerges not as a divine miracle worker but a sensitive human soul in communion with nature. Renan’s popularity revealed the reading public’s readiness for gospel novelizations, a demand that was met—for the next several decades—with a steady stream of increasingly novelized lives of Jesus, including works by John Robert Seeley, Frederic W. Farrar, Cunningham Geikie, Alfred Edersheim (whose 1883 The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah offered a Jewish point of view on the gospel story), Edwin A. Abbott, and Joseph Jacobs.

While nineteenth-century life of Jesus fictions strove to present their protagonist with historical accuracy and scholarly respectability, the popular genre of biblical romance offered less subtle literary pleasures. Perhaps the best-known example is Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), recounting the sensational adventures and conversion of a young Jewish aristocrat. Wallace’s miracle-working, sentimentalized Jesus became a staple of the late nineteenth-century gospel romance. A Gothic take on the genre can be found in Come Forth (1891) by American couple Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward and Herbert Dickinson Ward; and Marie Corelli’s Barabbas: A Dream of the World’s Tragedy (1893). The late nineteenth-century fashion for biblical intrigue also resulted in a flurry of fake apocryphal gospels masquerading as newly discovered lost scriptures—what scholar Edgar J. Goodspeed calls “modern apocrypha.” The best known, and still influential, example is Nicolas Notovitch’s La Vie inconnue de Jésus-Christ (1894; Eng. trans., The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ), whose Jesus completes his spiritual formation during a journey to India and Persia.

A more sober take on the gospel narrative appears in late nineteenth-century novels which use the figure of Jesus to address contemporary social ills under the broad banner of Christian socialism. The most enduring legacy of this sub-genre is the question “What Would Jesus Do?” derived from Charles M. Sheldon’s In His Steps (1897), in which a homeless Christ-like stranger effects the spiritual transformation of a modern-day congregation. Many Christian socialist novels feature protagonists modeled on the figure of Jesus (what literary scholar Theodore Ziolkowski calls “fictional transfigurations”); others imagine the historical Jesus of Nazareth reappearing in modern times (Ziolkowski’s “Jesus redivivus”), as in Charles T. Stead’s 1894 If Christ Came to Chicago! and Edward Everett Hale’s 1895 If Jesus Came to Boston; still others offer historical accounts of the gospel story while emphasizing its protagonist’s message of social justice.

As it rose in popularity and prestige, the secular genre of the novel addressed a reading public deeply familiar with biblical narrative and diction; not surprisingly, the gospels remain a key influence in the novelistic canon, as evidenced by the proliferation of “Christ figures” such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Myshkin. Conversely, the rise of the novel transformed the way Europeans read the gospels, shifting focus from theology and typology to character development and sentiment. The spectacular emergence of the fictional Jesus illustrates these new priorities: the novel could provide its hero with a physical description (more often than not whitewashed to fit a racist Eurocentric ideal), a fully rendered historical and social context, and an inner life, making the Jesus of fiction more affectively compelling than the Jesus of the gospels.

Twentieth-century Jesus Fiction: Continuity and Disruption

The dominant genres of gospel fiction established in the nineteenth century—the historical novel, Christian socialist fiction, biblical romance—continued into the twentieth. Reconstruction of Jesus’s life and times can be found in works by Dorothy Clarke Wilson, D. S. Lliteras, Frank G. Slaughter, Taylor Caldwell, and Sholem Asch, whose Yiddish trilogy—Nazarene (1939), The Apostle (1943), and Mary (1949)—emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus and his milieu. In an era of violent political upheaval, the gospel story provided moral gravitas to leftist social critiques like Upton Sinclair’s They Call Me Carpenter: A Tale of the Second Coming (1922) or Henri Barbusse’s Le Judas de Jésus (1927; Eng. trans., Jesus), while the rise of modern totalitarian regimes gave new resonance to Jesus’s status as a political prisoner, as seen in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1967). Finally, echoing the success of Ben-Hur, two sentimental gospel romances, The Robe (1942) by Lloyd C. Douglas and The Greatest Story Ever Told: A Tale of the Greatest Life Ever Lived (1949) by Fulton Ousler, inspired popular Hollywood adaptations and earned their authors the status of spiritual authorities.

By the twentieth century the idea of Jesus as a fictional character was no longer scandalous—yet writers continued to shock the reading public with unconventional retellings of the canonical story. One notorious example is D. H. Lawrence’s novella The Escaped Cock (1929, also published as The Man Who Died) in which Jesus survives his crucifixion, journeys to Egypt, and impregnates a priestess of the goddess Isis. This syncretic union reflects Lawrence’s modernist fascination with comparative religion. Another controversial story of post-crucifixion survival is George Augustus Moore’s The Brook Kerith: A Syrian Story (1916), whose protagonist comes to reconsider his youthful teachings. A similar plot device structures Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1953), whose crucified hero imagines an alternate reality in which he marries Mary Magdalene and lives into old age. Even though Kazantzakis’s Christ ultimately resists this “last temptation” to fulfill his divine mission, the novel (and Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film adaptation) continue to arouse controversy. Another scandalous novelization, Robert Graves’s historicist King Jesus (1946), casts his protagonist as the grandson of Herod the Great, and thus the legitimate biological heir to the Jewish throne. These unorthodox fictions mark a new stage in Jesus’s life as a literary character: the authority of the scriptural account is dislodged by the imaginative autonomy of the novelist.

Revising the Canon

Deeply suspicious of received canons, contemporary fiction sets out to reconstruct voices absent from the official record and probe the relationship between narrative and power. In many recent gospel retellings, Jesus is viewed and reinterpreted from unexpected, unorthodox perspectives. One body of revisionist fictions seeks to rectify canonical androcentrism through what theologian Elisabeth Fiorenza calls the “hermeneutics of experience”: recuperating the lives and perspectives of biblical female characters. Michèle Roberts’s The Wild Girl (1989) and Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (2012) are two among many examples of such gynocentric fictions. Other texts marginalize Jesus to focus on the gospels’ villains: the crucified thieves, Pontius Pilate, even Judas (who inspired a large body of retellings, like Jorge Luis Borges’s 1944 story “Three Versions of Judas”). Finally, some novels introduce multiple points of view—a structure that inverts the genre of the gospel harmony. Examples include Nino Ricci’s Testament (2003), Naomi Alderman’s The Liars’ Gospel (2012), and, most radically, A. J. Llanguth’s Jesus Christs (1968), an anachronistic collage that eschews causality and linearity. These volumes mark a contemporary loss of faith in finding the “true” Jesus of history, focusing instead on the endless hermeneutic potential of the Jesus story.

Science fiction offers further adventurous possibilities for gospel revision, as in time-travel narratives that take us to first-century Galilee, often with unorthodox results. The protagonist of Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man (1969) travels back to the first century, discovers that Jesus of Nazareth is a mentally ill young adult, and decides to save the future of Christianity by reenacting the gospel narrative. In Gore Vidal’s postmodernist queer comedy Live from Golgotha (1992), the identity of Jesus constantly shifts and slips, at the whim of the novel’s sly narrator.

In many contemporary gospel fictions the figure of Jesus takes second place to the narrative of Jesus. Rather than seeking to reconstruct historical truth, create a compelling psychological portrait, or enlist scriptures in the service of social justice, writers interrogate the textual authority of the gospels and their exegetes. The postmodernist tendency toward self-reflection is apparent in a number of recent scriptural metafictions: the intrusive narrator of José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991) draws attention to the process of constructing narrative truth; Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010) imagines Jesus’s twin brother as the first gospel writer. Both novels portray Jesus as a somewhat naïve figure whose life story is appropriated by power-hungry ecclesiastical institutions. Other contemporary metafictions—capitalizing on the sensationalist potential of archaeological discoveries like the 1945 find in Nag Hamadi—imagine recovering, editing, and translating scriptural texts to highlight the diversity of heterodox Christian scriptures and the processes of inclusion and exclusion involved in canon formation.

Even as contemporary writing turns away from fidelity to the canonical Jesus story, the popularity of traditional Christian fiction continues unabated, as seen in the success of Ann Rice’s Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana (2008) or Jerry B. Jenkins’s 2006–2010 tetralogy (John’s Story, Mark’s Story, Luke’s Story, Matthew’s Story). Such quasi-devotional fictions can serve as supplements to Bible study, animating the figure of Jesus with the tools of literary realism. In the course of two centuries the gospel and the novel came to inform and transform one another, producing new ways of reading scripture and scripting fiction. The modern literary Jesus, liberated from the confines of his textual origins, is free to reflect the values and concerns of each author and reader.

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Magdalena Maczynska