Naked and the Resurrected
of Norman Mailer's The Gospel According to the Son
Robert M. Price
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Peril of Modernizing Jesus
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)!
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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?
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.