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The Naked and the Resurrected

A Review of Norman Mailer's The Gospel According to the Son

By Robert M. Price


Is it blasphemy for Norman Mailer to issue a book and call it a "gospel"? Or to turn down the heat a couple of degrees, is it at least inaccurate or unrealistic? Is it rather a make-believe gospel? I think not. A gospel needn't be ancient, or even very old, to count as a gospel. For what, after all, is a gospel but a Jesus book, a writer's own evangel setting forth his or her vision of Jesus? I don't think there's a statute of limitations. There have, in my opinion, been at least three great twentieth-century gospels: The Last Temptation of Christ (both the original novel by Nikos Kazantzakis and the Paul Schrader/Martin Scorsese film), Kahlil Gibran's Jesus the Son of Man, and Tim Rice's libretto for Jesus Christ Superstar. Norman Mailer's The Gospel according to the Son, sad to say, suffers greatly by comparison.


Source Criticism

Not surprisingly, Mailer used primarily Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as grist for his mill. Mailer and his Jesus know enough about modern New Testament scholarship to warn us that the four gospels are not the work of eyewitnesses and that they are not completely accurate. Nonetheless The Gospel according to the Son is pretty much merely a slightly varnished mosaic of the four gospels. Mailer's first-person Jesus is like the evangelist Luke in that he objects to the shortcomings of previous gospels and yet feels free to make ample use of them! Here, in both cases, we can gauge what Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence" which makes a newer author, whether Luke or Mailer, exaggerate the differences distinguishing him from his major influences. We like to be regarded as original, even when we are not, especially when we are not. At least Luke had the good taste not to bad-mouth his predecessors Mark and Q by name!

In a major blunder, Mailer makes his Jesus (the first-person narrator) refer to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by name! In this way Mailer pricks the bubble of suspended disbelief. We are rudely brought back from our willingness to receive the narrative voice as that of Jesus, because Mailer rubs our noses in the manifest fact that the teller of the tale is a modern like ourselves, limited to the four gospels and chafing at the limitation. The effect is much like that in A Course in Miracles or other New Age Bibles supposedly revealed in the words of the Ascended Christ yet with all the grace of an auto mechanics manual. 

Mailer has done a bit of research beyond the borders of the canon, picking up bits and pieces from the Gospel of Thomas (sayings 25 and 28), the Gospel according to the Hebrews (its version of the Rich Young Ruler story in which Jesus rebukes the man's hypocrisy), and the marginal reading at Mark 3:1-6 in which the man with the withered hand tells Jesus he used to work as a stone mason.

Further afield than this, we seem to have an echo of the infamous "Satanic verses" episode in Islamic lore. According to one commentator on the Koran, the Prophet Muhammad was liable to being tricked into pronouncing spurious oracles inspired by Satan if he was not careful, though Allah would point them out afterward. The same thing happens to Jesus on page 136. And if The Last Temptation of Christ felt free to borrow from Buddhist lore the image of Jesus sitting down and refusing to budge till God revealed his will to him, so does Mailer seem to have taken a page from Herman Hesse's Siddhartha to use in describing Jesus' baptism. "The heavens opened for an instant and it was as if I saw a million, nay, a million million of souls" (page 34). Compare this with Siddhartha's final vision of his river running with the faces of all the people he has known in his long pilgrimage.

One must suspect as well that The Gospel according to the Son has been inspired by, and tips its turban to, The Last Temptation of Christ. We catch an echo of Kazantzakis when on a couple of occasions we are told Jesus hears the rustle of angel wings, when Lazarus emerges from the crypt still half-dead, when Jesus suddenly adds revolutionary rhetoric to his Galilean Summer of Love, and, of course, when Satan tempts him to come down from the cross to take up the life of an ordinary mortal. All of this is, one might say, too close for comfort, and it is difficult to see the point of these apparent borrowings since none of them has much of a function in Mailer's version.


Redaction Criticism

How has Norman Mailer adapted and refurbished his source materials to produce his own distinctive gospel? Despite the great distance in time between Mailer's gospel and the ancient gospels, there is much similarity in the way they were composed. A comparison of one ancient gospel with its source materials (including earlier gospels) reveals some tendencies of gospel writing that stand out clearly in Norman Mailer's book as well. Ancient gospel writers liked to harmonize contradictions between their sources. They  tended also to soften offensive statements in their sources. Similarly, they often glossed earlier gospels, rewriting stories or sayings so as to solve problems that used to puzzle readers of the earlier texts. Finally, they employed midrash, a technique of embellishing and elaborating stories by adding new color and detail implied in the original, shorter versions. Mailer's gospel uses all these time-honored techniques.

First, harmonization. The ancient evangelist of the Gospel according to the Ebionites had before him Mark's baptism scene in which the heavenly voice addresses Jesus, "You are my son," as well as Matthew's in which the voice says to the crowd, "This is my son." The Ebionite evangelist didn't want to leave out either version, so he has both: the voice first addresses Jesus, then the crowd. Matthew 10:34-36 has Jesus warn that he will bring "not peace but a sword." Luke's version of the same Q saying changes it to "not peace but division" (Luke 12:51). Thomas harmonizes; he uses both: "I have come to throw divisions upon the earth, fire, sword, war" (16).

Most of the Jesus movies use the same techniques when they depict Jesus carrying his cross part of the way to Golgotha, then dropping it for Simon of Cyrene to shoulder it for him. Which gospel does this sequence come from? None. It is a harmonization of John, where Jesus carries his own cross the whole way, and the Synoptics, where Simon does the job for him. Mailer, too, harmonizes. For instance, he draws bits and pieces from the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, cutting out what doesn't fit and melding together what does. A bit of John here, some Synoptics there. The result is not exactly a seamless garment.

Second, softening the rough spots. Matthew smoothed out Mark at several points. Mark 10:17-18 had the Rich Young Ruler address Jesus, "Good master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answers, "Why do you call me good? Only God is good." This gave Matthew theological headaches: how could Jesus deny his goodness much less draw such a line between himself and God? So Matthew 19:16-17 has the inquirer ask, "Master, what good thing shall I do to inherit eternal life?" This time Jesus answers, "Why do you ask me about the good? Only God is good." Similarly, Matthew has John the Baptist and Jesus assure the reader that, despite appearances, Jesus was not really coming to be baptized for the remission of his sins (3:14-15). He has Jesus merely refuse to cure his unbelieving countrymen (Matthew 13:58) instead of having him unable to do it (Mark 6:5). John felt it unseemly for Jesus to try to weasel out of the crucifixion and not to carry his own cross, so he changed both (John 12:27-28; 19:17).

In the same way, Mailer feels compelled to make the best of the Slaughter of the Innocents which he has taken over from Matthew 2:16-18. Matthew doesn't seem to care about Herod's butchery as long as the infant Jesus is saved. Mailer, on the other hand, has Jesus speculate whether it may not be the spirits of all those infant martyrs that enable him to work his wonders. He makes the best of it! Mailer, like many readers, is affronted by Jesus' rude words to his mother in Mark 3:33-35, so he has Jesus immediately regret saying them and brood on them repeatedly through the rest of the book. Again, it might seem a little cold-blooded for Jesus to have stayed put for four days, just to allow Lazarus enough time to be good and dead (John 11:1-15), so Mailer has Jesus himself get sick and be unable to rush to Lazarus' bedside till it's too late.

Third, explaining puzzling points in earlier gospels. Matthew not infrequently glossed Mark. Why would Judas have volunteered to hand Jesus over to the authorities? Mark didn't say, and inquiring minds wanted to know. So Matthew hazarded the guess that Judas needed a few extra bucks. In Matthew 26:14-15, it is Judas who first mentions money, not the Sanhedrin as in Mark 14:10-11. How much money did Judas receive? Mark hadn't said, so Matthew (26:15) found the figure of thirty silver shekels in Zechariah 11:12.Why would Pontius Pilate, a notorious anti-Semite, have had the slightest scruple about putting Jesus to death? Mark didn't explain it to Matthew's satisfaction. So he had Mrs. Pilate pass her husband an urgent warning not to jinx himself by condemning Jesus (Matthew 27:19).

In like manner, Mailer himself wondered why on earth Jesus wouldn't allow the cured Gadarene demoniac to leave the Decapolis, where he was a hated pariah, and follow Jesus as a disciple. So in The Gospel According to the Son Jesus explains us that he already had a full complement of twelve, and that he couldn't risk having a Gentile on board.

Fourth, midrash. Mailer expands the stories by connecting the dots between them, drawing inferences where the ancient writers left only intriguing possibilities. In this fashion the authors of several ancient Jewish writings drew a midrashic inference from the fact that the Flood story is placed side by side with that of the sons of God marrying mortal women in Genesis chapter 6. They concluded that the divine-human interbreeding was blasphemous; it injected into humanity the wickedness which eventually provoked God's liquid justice. Thus 1 Enoch, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Book of Jubilees all retold the story making the evil of the sons of God explicit.

Mailer makes much of the fact that Judas' visit to the Sanhedrin in Mark immediately follows the Bethany anointing. He infers that it was Jesus' words about the poor on that occasion that caused Judas to lose all faith in him. Mailer discerns that Mark must have sandwiched the story of the woman with the issue of blood (Mark 5:25) between the halves of the story of Jairus' daughter (Mark 5:22-24, 35-43) for some good reason. On any reading, it serves to heighten the dramatic tension: imagine poor Jairus sweating and glancing at his watch as the old lady goes on at great length about her many operations and Medicare bills. "Let's get this show on the road!" But Mailer heightens the tension further: noting that Mark had Jesus sense that "power had gone out of him," Mailer reasons that Jesus feared the old lady had depleted his power to such an extent that he might not be up to the challenge of raising Jairus' daughter. So grows the legend!

Albert Schweitzer (The Mystery of the Kingdom of God) first noticed how the disciples' jockeying over who will be greatest in the kingdom always follows Jesus' passion predictions. What was the connection? Schweitzer's explanation, an ingenious one, was that Jesus had taught them that his kingdom should soon be inaugurated by his martyrdom: he suffers, enters into his glory, and they get a piece of the action. Equally ingenious is Mailer's suggestion that the disciples were taking Jesus at his word that he would soon be dead and gone, and that they were squabbling over who would take his place! So that's the way it reads in Mailer's gospel. 


Mailer's Messiah

What kind of  Jesus emerges from The Gospel according to the Son? Given all the badmouthing of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we might expect to have a critical, historical portrait, or an attempt at it. But if that's what we expect, then the Son of Man has come at a time we expected him not. We get more or less the traditional Christian Jesus. It is not that Mailer makes no attempt at all to free Jesus from confinement in his stained-glassed prison. But this does not amount to much, and it's stale to boot. Mailer has Jesus hale from a pious family of Essene carpenters, a favorite feature of the Rationalist lives of Jesus ridiculed by Albert Schweitzer (The Quest of the Historical Jesus) and used to better advantage in Upton Sinclair's little-known historical Jesus novel The Secret Life of Jesus. The connection is by no means implausible; Robert Eisler (The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist) and Hugh J. Schonfield (The Passover Plot) both showed how much sense the Essene carpenter link would make of certain gospel data. But Mailer drops the whole business almost as soon as he mentions it.

He flirts, too, with old-time Rationalism in explaining the miracles. Mailer's version of the feeding of the five thousand is both naturalistic and eucharistic, in accord with many modern scholars who see the whole story as stemming from ancient eucharistic liturgy. Mailer's Jesus does not miraculously increase the supply of food; he merely distributes tiny crumbs of fish and bread in a gesture of spiritual feeding, placing each crumb carefully onto each extended tongue, like a priest at the alter rail.    

Again, Mailer, having apparently set out upon a historicizing, if rationalizing, path, abruptly turns around, having his hero perform the most fantastic of the gospel miracles, including the Dionysian alchemy of water into wine and the walking on the sea. Mailer even ups the ante on one of the most spectacular tales. In his version, the man born blind (John chapter 9) is so darn blind that he has only empty eye-sockets! The ancient healing god Asclepius is said to have performeed this side-show prodigy, and so are modern radio preachers like R.W. Shambach. But Jesus?

Last but not least, Mailer's Jesus dies and rises from the dead. And just as Jesus Christ Superstar ends with Judas' voice echoing from the twentieth century, The Gospel according to the Son ends with Jesus narrating from heaven, musing over the ironies of Christianity and Christendom in their long and ironic history. If Gore Vidal's account of Christian origins was called Live from Golgotha, Mailer's might as well be dubbed "Live from the Right Hand of the Father" (see page 240). It invites us to picture the ludicrous eventuality of Jesus as Mel Brooks's character the Two-Thousand Year-Old Man, reminiscing about the good old days.


The Peril of Modernizing Jesus

Mailer's Jesus is not "thoroughly modern," like the 70's Jesus of Godspell. But The Gospel according to the Son does reflect its Sitz-im-Leben of twentieth-century America. Jesus attracts lipsticked homosexuals in Galilee, where pagan Gentile mores hold sway. Good thing they apparently knew nothing of Jesus' opinion of masturbation as a damning sin (page 175)!

Jesus becomes a DYFUS worker in the case of Jairus' daughter, whose ill-health, he immediately surmises, was due to living among a dysfunctional family. She must have been "acting out" by kicking the bucket--that'll show 'em!

Jesus is assimilated to pop-culture messiah Leo Buscaglia when Mailer has him reflect, "I stared at all in the room as if I had need of every man and woman there" (page 90). Here is the encounter-group Jesus of liberal seminarians.

But if Mailer's Jesus has not been grossly modernized, these few examples notwithstanding, he is inauthentically modern in a more subtle sense. More telling than that, Mailer's Jesus is a stranger to the sense of the gospel sayings attributed to him. He can make no more sense of them than the modern reader who quotes them with reverent befuddlement.


Mailer and Kähler

The greatest relevance of Norman Mailer's The Gospel according to the Son for biblical studies is as a test of the controversial claim of theologian Martin Kähler (The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ) that historical scholarship could never "psych out" the Jesus of the gospels and the Christian tradition. The historian could never account for the gospel portrait of Christ by appeal to psychological, biographical factors, as in the case of other noted historical figures. The reason for this is that the "historic biblical Christ" is greater than mere humanity, the Son of God in truth. While not inviting such comparisons, Kähler might have said with equal justice that no psychological accounting for Hercules or Oedipus is possible. These are epic figures, larger than life for all that their sagas ring with authenticity in the depths of the human spirit, and so with Jesus. This is one reason many theologians draw an impenetrable line between the "historical Jesus" that scholarly imagination might reconstruct on the one hand, and the "Christ of faith," the savior of the Church's preaching, on the other.

By contrast, Liberal Protestant theology has always been happy enough to dispense with the divine Jesus of the gospels in favor of an understandable Jesus made over in our image. Liberal theologians and preachers thought they could distill the personality of the historical Jesus from the gospels and hold it up as a kind of role model for modern Christians. They agreed with Kähler that the Jesus Christ of dogma and gospel could not be understood "from below" on analogy with our own personality or psychology. So they jettisoned that Jesus.

Where does Norman Mailer fit into this discussion? His Jesus walks on water, raises the dead, is conscious of being God's son, even reports to us from the throne of God in heaven! Mailer is depicting the gospel Jesus, the supernatural Jesus. But he is at the same time attempting to draw a plausible psychological portrait of Jesus. Indeed, that would seem to be the whole point of his book. If he were able to bring this off, he would have met Martin Kähler's challenge. He would have shown that the "true God and true man" Jesus is historically plausible, not necessarily a figment of the mythopoeic imagination. Historical Jesus scholarship might owe traditional dogma a second look. Has Mailer met the challenge? I think not.

I have already observed that Mailer's Jesus seems not to know what to make of his own sayings. Mailer fails to have his Jesus provide insightful commentary on the sayings, or even to provide an inner monologue from which the gospel sayings might naturally emerge. He consistently portrays Jesus as passively witnessing his own deeds and words as if another were the source of them. He is as surprised to find himself walking on the water as Sister Bertrille is when the wind first wafts her into the air on The Flying Nun. He is as surprised that his touch heals anyone as charlatan Marjoe Gortner was when he somehow managed to heal a blind boy on stage. "These words might as well have come from the sky. They seemed far away from me even as I said them" (page 212). This plaint of the dumbfounded Jesus might serve as the epigram for the whole book. He seems to be merely quoting the gospels throughout, which is of course exactly what he is really doing!

There are novels in which the one who tells the story to the reader is not the character from whose standpoint the reader perceives the action. The narrator may be telling someone else's story as that character saw it. The narrator may be an "omniscient narrator" who can tell the reader just what the protagonist is thinking and seeing. Or the narrator may simply follow the action, so to speak, tagging along with the protagonist, describing what happens to him, but still having to guess what the protagonist may be thinking, just like the reader. This approach allows the story to retain a greater amount of suspense, since many secrets can be withheld from the reader until the protagonist sees fit to speak his mind.

Here is a strange piece of narrative strategy: Jesus is the protagonist as well as the narrator of The Gospel according to the Son, and yet he appears no closer to his own thoughts and motives than an external observer! The closest we come to the inner life of Jesus is sharing his banal, after-the-fact reactions. Jesus was surprised that he did this, that Peter said that, whatever. This or that bothered him. We feel we are hearing one of those stupid TV interviews in which the host asks the movie star, "What was it like working with Betty Davis?" "It was great. I liked it." Big deal.

The effect is eerily similar to that in the strangest religious movie ever made, Mohammed Messenger of God (1977). For fear of ruffling Islamic feathers (something not too hard to do), the producers decided to refrain from showing the Prophet or letting his voice be heard. Other characters had one-sided conversations with the invisible Prophet. The camera eye took his place. While the viewer in this way shares the protagonist's perspective, the result is completely hollow since there is no subjectivity of the character for the viewer to enter into. The same is true of Mailer's The Gospel According to the Son. His Jesus is simply a camera eye, his commentary as superfluous as the vacuous chatter of the TV commentators on a football game.


Historian or Nestorian

Surely Mailer is capable of better! What happened? In this case, I think we can lay the blame on the tools rather than the workman. The book stays pretty close to the wording of the gospel passages it assimilates, and the result is a quasi-biblical style throughout. In a radio interview Mailer said he had worked his way through part of an early draft in which he sought consistently to mimic the terse yet artful prose of the Bible, but he found the style not quite suitable to his purpose. And thus the style of the published version is not straight Bible pastiche. But Mailer has sought to have his cake and eat it too. In the end he did not stray far enough from his prototype. His stylistic compromise is unsuccessful, and so is the novel as a whole, because along with the biblical prose he has retained its limitations. The Bible very seldom lets us read the minds of its characters except by inference from their actions. Seldom do they speak their minds, spill their guts. And this mode of story-telling set the evolution of biblical prose on a certain trajectory, one with very limited resources for character introspection. This is why it took as long as Saint Augustine's Confessions for true autobiography to emerge in Christian literature.

So Mailer has failed to depict the inner life of the Christ of faith. Nor has he tried to portray that of the historical Jesus. He did make a preliminary survey of contemporary historical Jesus scholarship, including some of the work of the Jesus Seminar, but early on he decided it was a quicksand pit: who could really be sure where in the haystack of sayings and stories the needle of the historical Jesus lay? Here Mailer might have been of some help to us. Couldn't a novelist with his eye for characters have chipped away at the marble of the gospels and yielded a plausible and striking portrait, even if it was just a guess, of the historical Jesus?

What has he done? Mailer has succeeded, inadvertently, in depicting the Christ of Nestorian Christian faith. This fourth-century "heresy" posited a Christology according to which the divine Word had become incarnate in the man Jesus of Nazareth without the two joining in a single identity. The unity of the two subjectivities, Jesus and the Word, was a harmony of will and purpose, not a "hypostatic union of natures" as in the rival Christology which became "orthodox" dogma. The favorite text of the Nestorian would be: "He has not left me alone, for I always do that which pleases him" (John 8:29). The Nestorian idea was confusing: Jesus remains distinct from the Word, so are we supposed to imagine Jesus as some sort of "channeler" for the Word? If so, what makes him any different from the Prophet Isaiah?

But this is the Jesus of Norman Mailer's gospel: the Son, the Word, is rattling around in there somewhere, but the narrator Jesus seems as clueless as we are. The things he says and does, presumably at divine instigation, are as much a mystery to him as they are to us.


CopyrightŠ2009 by Robert M Price
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