A debut historical novel reimagines the story of Jesus.
Vadok offers two parallel narratives separated by a generation, echoing each other throughout the book. One follows the life of a young man named Joshua, son of Mary and Joseph, who becomes a charismatic preacher in the Jerusalem area in the first decades of direct Roman rule. The other unfolds 40 years later in the embattled Christian community of Syrian Antioch, where a rabbi named Ariel, who was taught Christianity by St. Paul, finds himself confronted by the doubts and criticisms of the members of his congregation. They have lost their assurance that there’s any truth in the promises of Joshua and newborn Christianity. “I grieve for all those who’ve lost faith, for those who deny you and say you’ll never return,” Ariel confesses in prayer. “Those who dare say that you were wrong and cannot, or will not, come to vindicate the righteous of this sorry world.” In the author’s handling, it isn’t only Ariel’s friends and parishioners who undermine his faith—it’s also his parallel story, since the figure he prays to is a decidedly different character than the one Christians encounter in the New Testament. Joshua is a normal, flesh-and-blood man, a fan of the noncanonical Books of Enoch and an acolyte of John the Baptist. He may medically assess the state of some wretch’s leprosy, for instance, but he can’t cure it. Even the demons he exorcises may in reality be trauma resulting from sexual abuse. It isn’t long before Ariel is “drowning in a sea of scripture,” writing his own book about the life and teachings of Joshua.
The biggest risk in the framework of Vadok’s novel is likewise its greatest weakness: Its two narratives are unevenly captivating. Ariel is a likable figure, but 50 of him couldn’t match the elemental fascination of the Jesus character. The author shores up Ariel’s plotlines by stressing the upheavals of his time, the increasing oppression of Roman forces, the destruction of the great Temple of Jerusalem, and so on. The cynicism arising in the wake of Israel’s war with the Romans is the source of the discontent Ariel’s followers feel toward the Jesus story, and the period research Vadok has obviously done makes these sections feel realistically constructed. In this respect, the work will remind readers of other historical reconstructions of the New Testament such as Man of Nazareth by Anthony Burgess and King Jesus by Robert Graves. “I’m Rabbi Joshua of Nazareth. My companions here are my disciples,” Joshua says at one point. “We travel around to inform people that the time predicted by the prophets has arrived.” Vadok sprinkles his text with modern language (including obscenities), which helps both narratives to read more smoothly. And the interconnectedness of the two strains grows increasingly and pleasingly complex as the book progresses. This novel is an intriguing entry in the genre of Jesus fiction.
An ambitious, readable tale about a fictional Jesus and a religious scholar who tries to understand the Nazarene’s mission.