John the Baptist is an inspiring spiritual leader but a less-than-riveting protagonist in this fictional treatment from Hansen (The Monsters of St. Helena, 2003, etc.).
John’s parents, a cousin of the Virgin Mary and a priest of the Jerusalem Temple, despair of having children, but at an advanced age Elizabeth becomes pregnant. (An author’s note explains that Hansen was drawn to this subject by his own experiences with infertility, chronicled in The Brotherhood of Joseph, 2008.) Young John escapes Herod the Great’s slaughter of innocents to embark on his spiritual path. First he encounters the Nasurai, a monotheistic sect related to Zoroastrianism; later he joins the Essenes, an all-male enclave of celibate, vegetarian, teetotalling ascetics. Appalled by the corruption of Judaism, as evidenced by the Temple’s brisk trade in sacrificial lambs, John retreats to the wilderness, where he attracts disciples with his regimen of baptism and purification. While Christian doctrine depicts John as merely a forerunner of Christ, Hansen’s portrait is strongly influenced by the Gnostic teachings of a John-centered sect called the Mandeans, who view the Baptizer as superior in rigor and restraint to Jesus with his messy miracles and winemaking prowess. Hewing closely to this reverential assessment, the chapters on John read at times like screeds by Paulo Coelho (albeit much better written); they are outpaced by alternating scenes starring that thoroughly un-ascetic bunch, the semi-pagan Herod clan. A tempestuous, incestuous convergence of two royal Israelite dynasties produces Herod the Great, whose lingering death is recounted in lurid detail, and his son Herod Antipas, who schemes his way to the throne. Antipas’ niece Herodias beguiles him into marrying her, making a dangerous enemy of his first wife’s father, a neighboring king. Hansen downplays Antipas’ bond with the Baptist, dissipating some of the conflict surrounding his decision to deliver John’s head to his stepdaughter, pretty, passive-aggressive pawn Salome.
A curious mélange of the sacred and profane, but always captivating when the sinners are onstage.