Longley’s historical novel is the second volume of an extrapolation on the origins of Christianity.
The German critic Erich Auerbach famously writes that the Bible is “fraught with background”—it withholds more truths than it reveals. As much can be said of the gospels, and a variety of modern writers, from Norman Mailer to Robert Graves to José Saramago, have composed fictions intended to fill the gaps in the biography of Jesus. Longley joins their ranks with his Magdala Trilogy, a multivolume set designed to deliver a literary portrait of first-century Palestine made clearer in the light of new historical, textual and archaeological research. This book focuses on the adulthood and ministry of Jesus—here identified in the Aramaic as Joshua—and seeks to develop a believable profile of the man who started Christianity. In Longley’s version, Joshua shares the stage with Maria (Mary Magdalene), a Jewish prostitute and Jesus’ intimate, and Linus, a Roman soldier and the father of Maria’s son Marcus. Longley’s panoramic view of Joshua’s life benefits from the findings of the Jesus Seminar, a group of 20th-century scholars devoted to developing a more accurate understanding of the “historical Jesus”—the man apart from the myth. As such, Joshua is more man than God, though he remains holy. He is married and widowed; he loves, and has sex with, Maria; his miracles—and the miracles that seem to follow him—are more figurative than literal. But despite these elaborations, alterations and fabrications, Joshua remains a blessed figure and a hero. Longley’s volume is scrupulously researched but endlessly creative. Further, its historical Maria and its fictional Linus are worthy foils to the still-strong Joshua. (By book’s end, Maria is the novel’s real heroine.) And the author’s prose is lush and confident, though he writes with a sense of humility appropriate to one recalibrating scripture.
A provocative new picture of the “historical” Jesus.