Finding Jesus the man is a rich and rewarding search
As Simon Callow prepares to play Jesus on the Belfast stage, Malachi O'Doherty is drawn more to Christ the man than Christ the Son of God
Published 27/03/2013 | 09:00
There is one argument you never hear Christians make in defence of their claim that they have a special relationship with Jesus.
It is that Jesus was obviously a real person, that his personality is accessible in the text of the Gospels like few others in the ancient world.
And the evidence for that is that he fascinates not only believers in his divinity, but countless novelists and playwrights.
Next week, Simon Callow plays the part of Jesus on the stage of the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in a one-man play by Matthew Hurt, called The Man Jesus.
When writers of fiction take on the life of Jesus, it is always the man in him, rather than the godhead, that appeals.
That, I believe, is because he is fascinating as a man, while incomprehensible as God.
Hurt joins a long list of writers who have recreated and re-imagined the gospel story. They include Colm Toibin, who has just published The Testament Of Mary and CK Stead, who wrote My Name Was Judas.
The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis became a controversial film. And there are dozens more.
I have added my own to the list, a book called Iscariot, and published it myself on Kindle.
Many of these books are attempts to see Jesus through the eyes of others close to him, like Mary Magdalene, Mary his Mother, or Judas the betrayer.
But why would novelists want to recreate the story of Jesus, already told four times in the Bible? Why, indeed, do so many want to go over territory that so many other writers of fiction have explored before them?
I think it is because this is a story that keeps on giving, the more you imaginatively engage with it. Producers of Nativity and Passion plays know this.
Many writers have read the gospels as adults and been amazed to find them populated with living, breathing characters, as vivid as those you would find in a modern novel.
There are not many richly-drawn personalities in the ancient world, though there are some others.
They are in the Greek and Roman classics, which many modern writers, including our senior poets, Michael Longley and Seamus Heaney, continue to labour over.
There are some in the myths of Arthur, or the old Celtic tales, but not many. You can read and understand the story of the death of Dermuid in Dermuid and Grainne and understand why a jealous old man could not bring himself to save the young man's life. The stories we tell each other have not changed much.
So close your eyes and imagine Jesus of Nazareth confronting the hypocrites who want to stone a woman for giving herself to a man. What is he sketching in the dust with his stick?
Put a religious meaning on that moment and you probably see him writing an important verse of scripture.
View it as a novelist and he is writing the name of a woman that half those guys with stones in their hands have already been taking their pleasure with.
"Is there any among you that wouldn't be as happy to lie with her as the man who did? No, I thought not."
The difficulty with the gospels is not in how to understand Jesus as a man, but in how much you would have to blank out in order to preserve a vision of him as divine.
When a woman wanted to anoint him with expensive spikenard, he defended her against the claim that it would be more generous to sell the stuff and feed the poor. "The poor you have always with you."
Clerics will contort reason to read something other than cynicism into that remark. I'd rather not; I like it as it stands. It may not inspire much love for Jesus in me, but it makes him real; it sounds like a man I know. And what of: "Let the dead bury their dead", the jibe he threw at a man who wanted to go to a funeral?
If that was the only caustic remark he made, we might be justified in being puzzled by it.
Jesus rode into Jerusalem (apparently on a donkey he sent his men to steal) and when he reached into a fig tree for fruit to eat and found none, he cursed the tree so that it would never bear fruit again.
How do people rationalise that story with a belief that the Gospels are literally true and an account of the life of a man who was – and still is – God?
Would they say the ways of God are mysterious? That doesn't stop them trying to explain other stories.
Why did Jesus go into the desert for 40 days if he was God? As God, he wouldn't have needed to retreat from the world and find his inner bearings.
The question doesn't arise if Jesus was human, doing the sort of things that humans do.
I love these stories.
I love the vivid recreation of a plausible human being in this ancient writing, a human being with a temper and a sense of humour.
The bit that is unreal to me is the Sermon on the Mount.
I just can't imagine the same man who blasted the fig tree telling us that the meek inherit the Earth.