A debut novel offers a literary reimagining of Jesus’ life and ministry from the perspectives of those who encounter him.
Darmud has no pretensions about his moral standing: “I knew I was a worm.” An incorrigible womanizer beset by greed, he establishes a prostitution ring in Alexandria, but his Uncle Alexander Lysimachus exiles Darmud when he discovers it. Alexander sends his nephew to Jerusalem to work for his friend Eleizer, a Pharisee and member of the powerful Sanhedrin. Eleizer tasks Darmud with vigilantly following Jesus, the “upstart Jewish teacher who thinks he’s a prophet.” The Sanhedrin fear that Jesus’ mounting popularity will be interpreted by the Roman authorities as the beginnings of a political insurgency and that they will tighten their control of the Jewish State as a result. Meanwhile, Mariamme of Sepphoris, a traveling tradeswoman, is falsely accused of adultery and dragged out into the streets of Jerusalem to be stoned to death. But Jesus intervenes and prevents the mob from satisfying its lust for violent punishment. She meets Darmud in Magdala, and the two become romantically involved, but he’s only interested in her as an instrument of carnal satisfaction and a potential source of information regarding Jesus. Later on, encouraged by her friend Nainah and servant, Amos, she attends some of Jesus’ sermons and becomes a devoted follower. But Judas Iscariot objects to her proximity to Jesus, especially after hearing the lascivious rumors Darmud spreads about her in an effort to sully her reputation.
Harris chronicles Jesus’ ministry up until his resurrection, shifting deftly from one first-person narration to the next. Readers are treated to the impressions of a slave, a blind man granted his sight by Jesus, and notable biblical figures like Judas and Pontius Pilate, among others. The author’s dramatic interpretation of the New Testament is meticulously faithful to the historical record but also artistically inventive. She has a gift for the nuanced construction (and reconstruction) of authentic characters. Harris delicately depicts Judas’ internal struggle on the way to his betrayal of Jesus and the profound remorse he experiences when he realizes precisely what he’s engineered: “My heart stopped beating. At that moment I saw what would happen, and what I had done. I had brought it about. My cursed desire to please everyone, and to be everyone’s darling, my pride, my self-imposed isolation, my intellectual arrogance, my touchy dignity.” Darmud, too, is intriguingly cynical—while some see a savior in Jesus, he only perceives an “enigmatic, misleading, and slippery” con man, and he’s incapable of thinking otherwise: “I was out to find a sinister motive in Jesus and by damn I was going to find one.” The author allows herself some fantastical literary devices, which are powerfully employed, like the personification of fear and the “Powers of Darkness.” The entire novel reads like an espionage thriller and manages to unfurl with crackling suspense despite the conclusion’s being historically foregone. This is an exceedingly intelligent re-creation of a story so familiar such an authorial feat should not be possible.
A historically provocative and dramatically riveting tale.