The Liars Gospel by Naomi Alderman presents the story of Yehoshuah (Jesus) from the perspective of four well-known Biblical figures. The story takes place against a backdrop of rumour, fear and violence in Roman-occupied Judea.
The Liars’ Gospel opens as a lamb is sacrificed in the temple. This is a daily sacred ritual in which blood is spilled for the glory of God. However, on this particular day, Roman soldiers invade the temple, “and everything that came afterwards followed from this”.
Spilling of blood
In Christian tradition, Jesus is the Lamb of God. He is the human sacrifice made to wash away the sins of the world. While the spilling of blood is a theme that runs throughout all four stories in The Liars’ Gospel, the symbolism is ambivalent. Readers will interpret the theme from their individual perspective, tradition and world view.
Naomi Alderman’s take is that none of her protagonists in The Liars’ Gospel believes that Jesus was other than “a wandering healer and teacher”. This is an occupation he shared with many of his contemporaries.
The story she tells, particularly from the perspectives of Miryam and Iehuda of Qeriot, is human and the historical context is vivid and colourful — even, at times, frightening.
Miryam, Yehoshuah’s mother, is torn between grief for the loss of her son and rage at his rejection of her. She tries to forget the troubled teenager who chose a new family of followers above her. In common with the other protagonists in The Liars’ Gospel, Miryam has no sense that her eldest son is anything more than a rebellious young man. Her attempt to connect with her wayward son goes against the wishes of his father, Yosef. Ultimately, this contributes to the breakdown of her marriage.
For Iehuda of Qeriot, Yehoshuah was “his friend, the man he loved best in all the world”. This is because Yehoshuah is a father figure and teacher who took the place of the father Ieuhuda had lost in childhood.
Struggling with faith
Of the four protagonists, Iehuda is perhaps the most interesting. This is because he struggles with his faith and conscience. There is an ambivalence throughout his account between what is true and what is false, what is said and what is felt.
Love and loyalty, betrayal and shame all play their part in an intricate and very human way. For example, Iehuda ultimately disguises himself to live as a Roman under the patronage of the wealthy Calidorus. In this role, he entertains guests with stories: “And while he tells this liar’s tale, Iehuda reminds himself of how it really was.”
The remaining two protagonists are Caiaphas, a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, and Bar-Avo (Barabbas), a rebel leader. Caiaphas treads dangerously, balancing the demands of his priestly role with those of Rome
Naomi Alderman conjures a vivid and colourful world where political unrest is ever present and rumour thrives. The Liars Gospel is an unusual and thought-provoking read.
The Liars Gospel by Naomi Alderman is published by Viking, August 2012. ISBN: 978-0-670-91992-5.
If you like the sound of this novel, you might also like Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary.