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Miryam/Mary is a mother grieving for her dead eldest son when the story begins. He had been estranged from her, having left his family’s home rather than marrying and bringing a wife into it and filling it with grandchildren.
There is confusion over his final resting place, and it is a torment to her. When rumors reach her that perhaps he did not die after all, she scoffs angrily. Of course he’s dead. A mother would know if her eldest son were alive anywhere in the world. Certainly a Jewish mother would.
Miryam knows the terrible way he died. As a child, she had walked past rows of crucified Jewish rebels; she remembers the men crying out for their mothers. Alderman describes the crosses as “screaming trees.” The memory is a small comfort. She is certain that her son cried out for her at the very end.
Jehuda/Judas betrays Yehoshua to the Romans but doesn’t hang himself. His betrayal is an act of collaboration, and he simply continues down the path of accommodation with Rome.
Caiaphas is the ultimate politician: venal, but believing that every compromise he makes with the Roman prefect ultimately allows his people to survive the occupation until God sees fit to crush Rome.
Bar Avo/Barabbas is portrayed as the dark twin of Yehoshua. His name is a nom de guerre of the rebel underground, meaning “son of his father.” Well, every man is the son of a father, as Alderman reminds readers. How can the Romans find him?
This is audacious stuff. But there is more to the novel than simply reimagining the world in which the historical Jesus lived. Alderman also wants to describe an alternative way in which the four books of the Gospels were created. She is well-placed to do this.
The author grew up in an Orthodox home in North London. Her father is a prominent academic historian. She has been researching this book for 20 years. Alderman knows Hebrew and Latin and has clearly spent time looking through original sources.