…ecce homo… – John 19:5 (Latin Vulgate)
Basically there are three kinds of novels: novels where everything is made up (e.g. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz), historical novels where the author aims to be as accurate as possible and often goes to great lengths to research the topic under discussion (e.g. Wolf Hall) and then there are the novels that are based on an historical event but play fast and loose with the facts (e.g. Stephen King’s 11/22/63). I mention this because on the cover of The Silence of Gethsemane is says, “A Novel” and I’m not sure what kind of novel it is. It’s based on the life of an (arguably) historical character and is a result of “thirty years of private research” and yet I found myself nitpicking my way through most every chapter. The problem is the author is writing about the gospels—we talk about the gospel truth, don’t we?—and yet just look at how people squabble over what’s written in those four short books. Some refuse to believe that a man called Jesus even walked the earth despite the Bible’s meticulous chronology, others are willing to accept his existence since there is some historical evidence that he existed in addition to the accounts in the Bible but they still think he was only a man, still others believe him to be the son of God and some even think he was God. They can’t all be right. As a work of fiction the Jesus in this book can be anything its author decides he ought to be and none of us can whinge about his decisions but as the author of a work of historical fiction he owes it to us to get his facts straight. There is nothing readers of historical fiction hate (or love depending on their persuasion) more than finding something that’s factually inaccurate like a character popping a Polo mint into their mouth in New York when it should be a Life Saver. The problem with ‘facts’ is that they aren’t always as factual as we might like them to be.
In this account Jesus is an ordinary flesh and blood man; there’s nothing divine about him; his father is a local carpenter and his mother was no longer a virgin at the time of his birth. This is not the first time Jesus has been presented this way. I remember well—even though I was only nine when it was first broadcast—watching Dennis Potter’s Son of Man with my family and my father’s bitter criticisms of Potter’s play.
There are no miracles, no resurrection, no Mary Magdalene, no Last Supper and no thirty pieces of silver. In their place it offers an occasionally violent, frequently fascinating dramatisation, focusing on the psychological underpinnings of the characters. It opens with a powerful juxtaposition: Jesus in the wilderness, shivering in an agony of self-doubt, while religious agitators in the city are murdered by the Romans during a mass gathering. – Sergio Angelini, ‘Son of Man’, ScreenOnline
The entire play is currently available on YouTube here.
Benoît’s book presents a much calmer Jesus. We first meet him in the Garden of Gethsemane. His disciples are all asleep and Jesus is reviewing the events that have brought him there. In effect then this is a fifth gospel and it’s a first person narrative which is unusual as it’s the first I can remember ever reading. Even with Potter we have to stand on the outside and wonder just what’s going on in Christ’s head.
Let me digress for a moment. William McIlvanney wrote three novels featuring his detective Jack Laidlaw. The first two have third person narrative but the last book, Strange Loyalties, is written from Jack’s perspective and I didn’t take to it at all at first. I’d already formed my internal picture of who Jack Laidlaw was and it was like some other guy had come along and taken over the part. Well, that’s a bit how I felt reading this book. The Jesus in this book just didn’t gel with the Jesus I had been brought up with. The man in my head was physically and mentally perfect, was sure of himself and understood his life’s purpose even as a young boy. He wasn’t searching; he had no doubts; he was very much in charge of his own destiny. Benoît’s Jesus took some getting used to.
My biggest problem was with the ‘facts’. Let’s examine a few. First point: We’ll all have heard Jesus at one time or another referred to as “the Nazarene”
…and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophets: "He shall be called a Nazarene." (Matthew 2:23)
but was he also a Nazirite as Benoît casts his Jesus? So, what’s a Nazirite? Simply put they were individuals who took special vows of service. The word means ‘dedicated one’ or ‘one singled out’. The vows were voluntary as was the duration during which they agreed to serve as a Nazirite although Jewish tradition eventually imposed a minimum time limit of thirty days on them. During that time they agreed not to drink alcohol, not to touch a dead body and not to cut their hair. I know of three individuals who were lifetime Nazirites: Samuel, Samson and John the Baptist, the latter two being designated as such by God. The Bible says nothing about Jesus being either a God-appointed Nazirite or him taking vows voluntarily and yet Benoît chooses to make him one. (See the article Nazirite or Nazarene if you’re interested.) Of course the Bible doesn’t say he wasn’t one either. Benoît concludes he was one because Jesus is so often portrayed with long hair but who said he had long hair? Not the Bible. Long hair was actually frowned upon.
Second point: Jesus does meet John the Baptist in Benoît’s book but he doesn’t know him. This puzzled me because as far as I was concerned they were second cousins. Everything hinges on a single verse:
And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. (Luke 1:36)
This is the angel talking to Mary and later on, of course, Mary visits Elizabeth. The question is: In what way were they related? The Catholic Encyclopaedia gives us as much of an answer as there is: “All our information concerning … the parents of Mary … is derived from apocryphal literature.” So maybe the two women weren’t cousins but if they weren’t fairly closely related why was Mary visiting Elizabeth? Seems reasonable. And yet Benoît’s Jesus is a complete stranger to John. That I found a bit harder to swallow but, again, it’s not impossible.
And so I stumbled on, nitpicking here, nitpicking there. The subject of prayer bothered me. Third point: We all know when asked by his disciples how they should pray—in fact they actually interrupted him praying—Jesus outlined what’s become known as the Lord’s Prayer and the book does cover that but it wasn’t until page 141 that we get to see Jesus say in so many words, “I decided to spend the night praying on my own.” Up until then he’s slipped off on his own to enjoy a moment’s peace and quiet and he talks often about how much he needs silence but he never discusses praying up until this point in the book. I found that very strange. Stranger yet in the Afterword Benoît talks about how he sees Jesus’s notion of prayer:
Meditation. I can think of no other word to describe his way of praying, which was unheard of in Judaism, and was met with surprise and a total lack of understanding by those closest to him. He never shared the secret of this private, inner world, although from what we are able to tell it was not dissimilar to the practice used in Hindu-Buddhism.
Why when his disciples approach him, when he “had gone off to be alone for a while as was [his] wont” doesn’t he teach them this form of prayer? Why provide them with a rote prayer which is what it’s become nowadays? And it’s wrong to say that meditation was unknown to the Jews: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” (Joshua 1:8)
Fourth point: the miracles. These get split into three: the ones Benoît completely ignores (all the “miracles involving the natural world”), the ones he provides alternate solutions to (the turning of water into wine, the feeding of the multitudes) and the cures, including the various resurrections from the dead (which he accepts). I can see why he makes the distinction because Benoît places a great deal of emphasis on the faith of the person being healed—as Jesus says to the once blind man in Mark 10:52, “Go … your faith has healed you”—but dead people don’t have faith so that argument kind of falls flat.
That Benoît accepts supernatural healings and attributes these to God opens up some interesting issues like, Fifth point: Satan the Devil, a.k.a. “the Evil One.” Jesus does go off for a wander in the wilderness—albeit after his baptism by John:
Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus also was baptized (Luke 3:21)
Now Jesus, full of holy spirit, turned away from the Jordan, and he was led about by the spirit in the wilderness for forty days, while being tempted by the Devil. (Luke 4:1)
not before it as Benoît states—and there he is tempted by the Devil but rather than describe the Devil as an individual with whom he can interact this is how Benoît writes about Jesus’s temptation:
And then strange apparitions started surging up inside my head. Let loose by the lack of thoughts, a fearsome opponent was attacking me, harrying me until my inner life began to ebb away. I knew it was the Evil One, whom Israel traditionally portrays as Satan or the Devil, he who divides. He danced round and round inside me, as if mocking me in that ironic, fiendish way of his, knowing that I was in his clutches, that my attempt to escape was just the result of my pride.
So, a voice in his head, self-doubt perhaps, and yet later in the book there are instances where the Evil One possesses people in the crowd to stir them up. On occasions Jesus orders him to leave them. Now that’s demon possession and if the demons are real and can be exorcised then why after Jesus successfully resisted Satan in the wilderness did God’s angels not appear and minister to him?
Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him. (Matthew 1:11)
No one can survive on his own in the desert, he said. You seek the solitude that cleanses? This is where you will find it. Behind you lies utter destitution. Travel far into its depths, far enough to forget about us but not too far, so you can come and drink regularly from our springs. Sometimes you will find a few dates on this rock. They will help keep you alive without breaking your fast.
That’s believable. Remember when Lot encountered the angels at the gate to Sodom he thought they were just weary travellers (Genesis 19:1,2). Benoît might have done better though if he had simply presented the Evil One in human guise, as did George Stevens, when he cast Donald Pleasance as ‘The Dark Hermit’ in The Greatest Story Ever Told. That way the man could have continued to reappear as does the Dark Hermit throughout the film thus avoiding the whole issue of whether the Devil is a person or a force.
These few examples are just here to illustrate how open to interpretation the source material is. Don’t get me wrong Benoît gets an awful lot right but I doubt too many who pick up this book will be as well-read on the subject as I am. Those who are, especially those who accept Jesus as either a perfect man or as God incarnate, will have loads of problems with this book—Jesus, for example, had to be born in Bethlehem for prophecy to be fulfilled; you can’t just change that to Capernaum even though he did live there for a time.
Putting all that aside as best I can let’s consider the book as a work of fiction.
Benoît has the same problems here as Ron Howard had when he made Apollo 13: how do you make a story interesting when everyone knows exactly how it ends? Benoît handles the ending cleverly: he—wisely in my opinion—skips it completely. The book begins and ends with Jesus sitting waiting in the Garden of Gethsemane along with his sleeping disciples for his imminent capture. While he’s waiting Jesus reviews his time as a rabbi. So, as I’ve said already, what we really have here is a fifth gospel, The Gospel of Jesus. And his truth is nowhere near as assured as the four others are. You get a definite sense of a man finding his way.
Before a man finds his way he probably needs to realise that he’s lost his way and that’s what we see in the opening chapters, a Jesus who’s looking round at the religious leaders and the growing number of sects and realising that the entire Jewish nation has lost its way. Then he hears of a voice in the wilderness and goes to hear what this John the Baptist has to say for himself. He never looks back afterwards:
John the Baptist’s grim, ominous tone made a deep and lasting impression on me. Once I got home and reimmersed myself in the humdrum routine of the workshop, the voice I had heard by the Jordan kept on echoing in my mind incessantly. I knew that my life had changed forever. John had held up the blazing inferno of the apocalypse before my eyes; dazzled by it, everything about the life I had led up till then suddenly struck me as prosaic, occupations and people alike. On the shores of the lake nothing had changed, yet to me it was now flat and colourless. This world of ours was doomed, the end was upon us: the axe had already fallen on the tree of Israel.
He begins going to the synagogue outside of normal services and studying the scriptures. He realises that, if John is the man spoken of by the prophets, his role is to “[p]repare the way of the Lord.” He’s no clue at this point that he is the person whose arrival John is heralding. He returns to the Jordan and becomes a disciple of John. Later when John announces that one stands among you who you do not know Jesus suspects that he’s talking about him but he hasn’t connected all the dots yet. This is, however, where he encounters four other disciples of John: Andrew, his brother Simon, Philip and Nathanael—who are the first to accompany him on his wanderings—and a fifth character known only as “the Judaean” who I thought would turn out to be Judas Iscariot (as I knew he was from Judea) but as he turns up later it couldn’t be him; actually “the Judaean” is never named but he appears often throughout the book as do individuals like Lazarus and Nicodemus both having their roles expanded beyond what we know of them from the four Gospel accounts. I assume “the Judaean” is the “So-and-so” referred to by Matthew (26:18) since later on he is the one to offer up his house so that Jesus can celebrate what we now know as the Last Supper. He would also appear to be the mysterious “thirteen apostle” that Benoît discusses at length in his book The Thirteenth Apostle. (This wee list of a possible thirteen is interesting though and it doesn’t include either Matthias (who replaced Judas Iscariot) or Paul who became the “apostle to the Gentiles”.)
The first place this small group travel to is Cana where there was due to be a wedding. Here is where I would have expected the first miracle but here’s what happens in this account:
She [Jesus’s mother] had a quiet word with the servants who took me to an alcove where there were six large water jars that were being kept cool. Looking inside, I saw they contained that bitter and quite undrinkable syrup which in hot climates like ours is used for making wine. It had to be diluted in just the right proportions to turn it into a drink fit for the gods.
So no miracle. The only thing to come of it is that the Judaean witnesses everything and realises that there is more to this man: he “wasn’t just a country carpenter.”
And so the book progresses. The first healing occurs just two chapters on—the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law—and this is how Benoît describes it:
An elderly woman was lying on a bed, struck down by one of those fevers that can bring death in a matter of days. Unable to give voice to his fears, [Peter] leant over and wiped the sweat from her face, then stood up and looked at me. In his eyes burned a slightly wild look of expectation, a mute desire.
I straight away knew what he wanted. Unlike the simpleton in the synagogue [whom Jesus alone had encountered the day before], this prostrate woman didn’t appear to be possessed by Evil, She wasn’t screaming and shouting, she posed no threat—she was just going to die.
I took her by the wrist and helped her sit up. Startled, she got to her feet and just stood there, swaying slightly. Then without a word of thanks she walked out of the room. A moment later we heard her bustling round the fire, wielding kitchen implements and getting the menfolk’s supper ready.
Jesus never questions where this ability has come from or what his limits are and when shortly thereafter, word having spread from house to house, ailing people arrive at the door from every quarter he sets about healing “most of them” irrespective of what was wrong with them.
And on we go. It’s like we’re wandering through an alternate universe. Everything’s the same only not quite the same. Perhaps one thing Benoît does make a little clearer than the Gospel writers is just how Jesus could do what he did and be seen by so many and still end up being hated. Simply put everyone would’ve been quite happy for the Messiah to arrive as long as he did so on their terms. The religious leaders weren’t opposed to change but any changes were made at a painfully slow pace—there was no room for sweeping improvements—whereas the common people would’ve been more than happy to see the back of the Romans; they didn’t want to have to wait for the kingdom of God.
Where I think this account falls short is in Jesus’s voice. It would be easy to blame the translator here but I don’t think that’s the case. I just found him a bit dull. At the time of writing this review there’s not much online to see what others thought but two made comments worth mentioning: Kirsty on Goodreads said, “Benoît's interpretation of Jesus was one of the least likeable characters I’ve come across in a while,” whereas Rebecca over at newbooks says, “I wasn’t sure whether it was the voice of Jesus or that of the author which came through most strongly.” This is a man who is expecting to be arrested in a few hours and painfully executed within a couple of days most likely and yet there’s a wearisomeness to his storytelling. Grated there’s a lot to weary him—his bickering disciples would test the patience of a saint (and this Jesus certainly isn’t one of them)—and the religious leaders, the Scribes and the Pharisees, just drag him down at every opportunity plus there’s the Evil One’s constant efforts to undermine his work. At least Potter’s Jesus had a bit of life about him. There’s not enough man here for my tastes. Benoît’s intentions are commendable and it’s not a bad effort, I’ll be honest, but great literature this is not. It’s storytelling—or retelling if we’re being honest.
I’m not sure who this book is for. Those who have a faith already will probably enjoy picking holes in it as did I and I’ve no faith left, not even a smidgen. Those who are looking for some kind of spiritual connection probably won’t be able to relate to this guy because he’s too good. He’s never seriously tempted by anything, not even a woman who he admits he has little interest in. If you’re going to present the Jesus as the imperfect man then we need more of the imperfections for him to feel real to us.
You can read the first nineteen pages here.
Religious scholar and novelist Michel Benoît (which I believe is a pseudonym–see here) was born in Madagascar in 1940 (then a French colony). In 1962, having studied Biochemistry under Nobel Prize winner Jacques Monod and obtained a PhD in Pharmacology, he entered the Benedictine order as an unordained monk at the abbey of Saint Benoît sur Loire, remaining there for twenty-two years. Because of his ideological non-conformity, he was eventually “discharged” by the Catholic Church and decided to devote himself to research and writing.
His first book, Prisoner of God, an autobiographical account of his life in the monastery, became an international bestseller when it was published in 1992. This was followed by two religious essays, a travel book based on a trip to India, and then the thriller The Thirteenth Apostle, “the story of an ancient sect detailed within papyrus sheaves hidden in the caves at Qumran”.