A debut revisionist historical novel imagines a political interpretation of Jesus’ ministry and the birth of Christianity.
Pontius Pilate is ordered to leave Rome to become governor of Judea, a role he does not relish, though it’s ostensibly a promotion. Judea is notoriously insurrectionist, dominated by Jewish zealots who chafe at Roman rule. Pilate makes little headway upon his arrival, but recruits Joseph of Arimathea, a Jew, to spy on the Jewish Council. Joseph convinces the merchant John to also help, and Pilate encourages him to pose as a prophet and proselytize pro-Roman messages of conciliation. John becomes increasingly popular over time and known as John the Baptist, but also disenchanted, he ropes in his cousin, Jesus, to be his replacement. Jesus’ own Judaism perfectly suits Pilate’s ends—he’s progressive and contemptuous of the attachment to traditional rituals, and extremely critical of violent radicalism. He preaches a message of peaceful coexistence with Roman rulers, and even encourages Judeans to be less hostile to tax collectors. He amazes gathering crowds with staged miracles. Despite Jesus’ growing following, many stalwart traditionalists vehemently oppose his teachings. But when John, arrested on political charges, threatens to reveal the subterfuge, Pilate quickly hatches an opportunistic plan. He conspires to have John executed, and orchestrates Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, as well as an ersatz resurrection, to pit Jesus’ more pliable disciples against the anti-Roman contingent. Fleming develops a clever and historically convincing narrative that suggests a secular interpretation of the birth of Christianity, shorn of supernatural explanation. In addition, Pilate is made much more than a villain. While certainly impatient and capable of great cruelty, he also shows compassion and love, as evidenced by his utter devotion to his wife, Claudia. Jesus, too, is portrayed in artfully complex colors, theologically iconoclastic but also egotistical and sensitive to criticism. Fleming’s attention to historical detail is admirable—he must have studiously researched the cultural and political realities of the day. For those more interested in the scholarly plausibility of the plot, the author includes a note at the end of the book discussing precisely that.
An inventive and impressively researched alternative account of the influence of Rome on the genesis of Christianity.