Q. You subtitled the book “Gospel as novel, novel as Gospel.” Why?
A. First off, it’s a nod to Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night which is subtitled “History as a Novel, The Novel as History”. It’s a great post-modern novel that meant a lot to me in my youth.
Secondly, although I always want to tell a really good story, to me, this is genuinely more than a novel. It’s also a Gospel. And by that, I mean even more than just “Good News” which is the usual translation of “gospel.” Everything I have ever written in the past has been planned and outlined in advance. This was not. As thoroughly researched as it seems to be, it all came to me with my rational mind turned off. It was like automatic writing or a gift from the Muse or maybe from God (some will say Satan). I don’t know. I just know that it was a totally different writing experience for me. Sure, I had read a lot of things over the years that had stuck with me and they certainly poured into the amalgam of what flowed out onto the page, so to speak. But I genuinely felt like it was a revelation. And before you think I’m ego tripping, I want to add that I think anyone can do this if they open themselves up to it. In fact, my earliest thought for publishing this was to build a website where I would post it and readers could add to it, embellish, whatever, in a modern version of what I think must have happened with the various elements of oral tradition that eventually found their way into the Gospels as we know them.
Back to process—When this started pouring out of me, I typed Chapters 2 and 3 first and then wrote the Translator’s Note (which I later rewrote several times) and Chapter 1 as it appears. Then I continued on with Chapter 4 to the end. I sometime started mid-sentence, because that’s the way it came to me. There were times where there was a hole in what was coming to me and right there I placed a note that something was illegible or created an analog hole in the papyrus and picked up with what came to me next. The fragment or chapter breaks were similarly the result of what flowed out of me, starting where they do and ending where they do.
When I finished, I went back and corrected typos and added all the end notes and Scripture references. Of course, that required research and rational thought. There were also moments during the writing when—after reading what I had written the previous day—I had to check classical sources to make sure what I remembered was correct. It usually was. I was amazed at how closely the sermon I devised for Epictetus in Corinth lined up with things he said in the recorded Discourses. Sometimes I had to correct a quote. But basically all of it is off the top of my head.
I have also written a more traditional historical novel called The Blood of Men and Angels. It tells the story of Thomas and Josephus’ trip to Rome to try to free three priests and their encounters with Paul and Nero there. On the long voyage to Rome, Thomas finally shares his past (including the story of Jesus) with his young former student who now is trying to come into his own as a diplomat and leader in Jerusalem. We also encounter a lot of wild Roman and Greek characters, too. It was thoroughly planned and will be edited and re-edited to make the best novel I can make out of it.
But I was wary of re-writing the Gospel because of the revelatory experience of writing it. I just don’t think I should be screwing with the gift I feel I was given.
Q. Okay, so if it felt like a revelation, why did you add the Translator/Editor’s Note? Doesn’t that point out that it’s fiction?
A. Sure, and that’s why I did it. Even though I had these feelings about the book’s origins, objectively I couldn’t whole-heartedly proclaim this as Truth with a capital T. So I announced straight off that the document had been discussed everywhere-- 60 Minutes and other books written about it—claims that could be disproven in a second so that anyone reading would know it’s also the work of a storyteller.
When the publisher had to determine how to classify the book, I did some thinking and some research. Because I didn’t know what to call it. Ultimately, I decided it’s both a gospel in the sense that it is "good news" -- the content of the text can lead to a better, happier life-- and was, to a degree, a personal revelation. And for all the literary theorists, it’s also a postmodern historical novel entwining historical speculation with a postmodern device called intertextuality. The narrative tries to make sense of the nonsense that the New Testament makes of early Christian history with a dependence on classical and New Testament texts and a constant challenging of the Scripture.
Q. Isn’t it also a faux memoir?
A. For sure. One of my all time favorite novels is Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man which opens with a pompous scholar commenting on the memoir you’re about to read. Timothy X. Hardesty’s note in the Gospel is a nod to Berger… as well as a disclaiming device.
Q. You like faux memoirs then?
A. I love them. Especially Portis’ True Grit and Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate. I have read them both several times. And Berger’s tremendous book.
Q. But you brought that mode, that device to the Holy Land. That’s an audacious thing to do. Some would say blasphemous.
A. Yes, well, I am not the first. Robert Graves published King Jesus in 1946. I’m sure there have been others.
Q. But not many have so directly set out to debunk Christianity.
A. That’s true, I guess. But my intention was to target fundamentalism…
Q. Wait, can you define that term as it relates to Christianity?
A. Well, as I understand it, several decades ago a pamphlet circulated in America called “The Fundamentals” and its whole message was that the Bible was literally the Word of God and therefore had no inconsistencies or errors and that idea caught hold and persists to this day in many Protestant churches. It was a fairly new idea. I get the sense that the Catholic church was capable of seeing metaphor in Scripture rather than taking everything literally like these Bible worshipers today.
Anyway, my intention was to target fundamentalism while trying to find the wisdom in the Gospels and emphasize that. There is much in what Jesus teaches that echoes the Buddha. The sort of “Stop judging and love” theme. The blessing of peacemaking and generosity. These are things that lead to a good, happy, enlightened life. Not the belief in miracles and mythologies about a loving God impregnating a mortal woman and then demanding that we believe that in order to win a salvation purchased by the horrifying, brutal death of his son, this demi-god Jesus. How loving is that? And how could that have ever caught on? God is love, but He is willing to damn us for all eternity for not believing something so ridiculous. That even though God’s omnipotent, he must damn us if we don’t believe—because why? Because there is some rule imposed on Him that he must damn us? But he’s omnipotent. It makes no sense at all. And again, not very loving.
Q. You seem to delight in pointing out the improbabilities of Christianity.
A. Delight? Well, maybe. It feels more to me like frustration. In Matthew 1: 21-23, to announce the conception of this divine Messiah, the author quotes the prophet Isaiah saying that Jesus’ birth will fulfill the prophecy, but when you look at the verse he’s referring to (Isaiah 7:14) , it has nothing to do with predicting a divine Messiah. Now, the author of Matthew could get away with this because for 1500 years very, very few people had access to the Scriptures. The average guy couldn’t just look up in Isaiah what Matthew is claiming to verify it. Only priests knew anything of the Bible and until printing presses were everywhere and the Reformation broke the stranglehold of the Catholic Church, people just had to trust the priests. And by the time people finally had access to the Scriptures to see all the fictions and inconsistencies, the tradition of the factuality of the Bible was so deeply imbeded that critical thinking about it was pretty rare. But we’re in the 21st Century now. Centuries after Voltaire and Spinoza and Hume and countless critical analyses by Bible scholars that are taught in reputable seminaries and we still have this fundamentalism. Go figure.
Q. So you’ve written this hybrid—a fictional narrative, a sermon or discourse on Jesus’ teaching and a speculative and critical look at how Christianity developed—and you’re calling it a Gospel. I’m sure most people think that word should be reserved for an ancient text written by someone who heard the oral tradition of this history from witnesses, right?
A. Well, most of the Gospels were written well after all the witnesses were dead. There were dozens of Gospels that are now called aprocryphal and then there are the four canonical Gospels. We call them Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but nobody really knows who wrote them. They were probably guys who felt an inspiration—just like I did—to tell the stories in the way that some spirit moved them to tell it. They all lived in different parts of the Empire and did not know what the others were writing—with the exception of the authors of Matthew and Luke who probably had access to Mark since they both quote it extensively. As for reserving the term Gospel for ancient texts, well, why? Are people today incapable of inspiration? If God (if it exists and in whatever form it exists) inspired people in the first century after Jesus, who says that stopped thereafter forever? Some panel of bishops somewhere? Just as you see a development of thought and theology in time from Mark to John, who says that development had to stop? The same guys who burned heretics at the stake? We should listen to them?
Q. One thing that distinguishes your book from the other Gospels is that the memoir continues in time past the era of the Jesus and his disciples. It covers all kinds of secular history and personalities that have nothing to do with Jesus’ message.
A. The author of Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles which continues on after Jesus’ death. It takes Paul to Rome where most scholars believe he was killed. My book does too, and then goes on to show how Christianity developed for the rest of the century in the face of the Roman persecutions. And along the way we meet the famous Jewish historian Josephus-- who I mentioned before—who is the only First Century Palestinian non-Christian historian to write about Jesus, to confirm that he was a real person who taught for awhile and then was executed by the Romans. And we meet several philosophers of the time like Demetrius the Cynic and Epictetus. And we see how alike Jesus’ teaching was to theirs.
Q. Various writers have compared Jesus’ teaching to the Buddha’s and others have found parallels with the Stoics and the Cynics, but you want to draw them all together. Isn’t that a stretch?
A. I don’t think so. Two hundred and fifty years before Jesus’ time, the Emperor Ashoka sent Buddhist missionaries west. We know they went to all eastern parts of the Roman Empire—especially to Egypt and Greece. They passed through Palestine. These ideas were spreading throughout the Mediterranean world. And of course the Cynic philosophy was around even before that. There are marked similarities with Jesus’ teachings—the rejection of materialism, the insistence on ethics, generosity and compassion as sources of psychological health for the individual and the identification with the eternal Divine Order rather than self-centeredness as we live life, moment to moment. I think mankind was just then primed for this kind of wisdom. But as H.G Wells pointed out, it’s so much easier to make God figures out of people like Jesus and the Buddha and worship them than it is to follow their teachings in a day in, day out practice. And so with the help of a priest class, these wisdom movements get institutionalized into churches and temple ritual centers and become part of the power structure and the original wisdom is soon ignored. I’ve done my best in the book to try to bring it back to the forefront.
Q. I guess it’s fitting to end this with a question about the End Notes… or footnotes—as they appear in the printed book. They are a major part of the experience of the book for you?
A. Yes. They were originally End Notes. I loved the experience of reading the book in a Microsoft Word doc and having them pop up when the cursor landed on them. But Footnotes will have to do for print.
Q. They are kind of a Greek chorus, chiming in now and then, with a modern viewpoint. But sometimes they are just frustrating. When one says we wish Thomas had said more about this or that—it’s obvious Thomas could have said more. The writer writing the footnote also wrote what Thomas chooses to tell us. Right?
A. Well, this takes us back to the first question. And my first answer. Everything Thomas says is what I was given to type out—no more, no less. I didn’t mean to be coy with the episode with Jesus and the woman or when Thomas says Peter sometimes garbled parables in the retelling and those garbled versions made it into Luke. It’s just what came to me on the “breath of wind” we know as “inspiration.” And when later I thought about that content with my rational mind, I couldn’t come up with anything better to say than what I said in the notes.
On the other hand, I think it’s good to back up Thomas’ claims with scholarship, whether it’s from the Bible, Josephus or the Greek classical writers. All kinds of people make all kinds of claims regarding Bible content. I thought it important with these notes to make the best case possible for the claims in the book. If Thomas claims Jesus was arrested and executed in a case of mistaken identity, I want people to know that (at least in some translations of Matthew) Barabbas is called Jesus Barabbas. That some translations omit that textual fact is more evidence that we are being denied the full story by believers with their own agenda. If people don’t realize that Jesus’ brother James hardly appears in the Gospels and suddenly out of nowhere is the leader of the Jesus’ followers after his death, I want readers to understand the implications of that textual sleight of hand. The notes help people see that Bible “truth” is very much hostage to the theology of the inventors of Christianity and less to do with the wisdom Jesus gave us.