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The deftness with which she hints at an alternative history of the Gospels is one of her book’s strongest points. Glimpses of what will become the cornerstones of the work of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John flash by.
Gidon, a young acolyte of Yehoshua, comes to live with Miryam after Yehoshua’s crucifixion. Over and over, he presses her for stories about her son. “There are no stories,” the embittered Miryam says. “He was a baby and then he was a child and then he was a man and then he was killed. That is the story.” This is not enough for Gidon. He wants and needs more. Miryam relents and makes up something for the young man. Yes, the child was called “blessed” in her womb, by a stranger passing through the village. Miryam knows that a “stranger” could mean an angel to this boy. A lie can be the beginning of a story.
At a gathering of his zealot army, just before Passover, Bar Avo raises bread and wine before his troops and tells them to eat, for this is the Roman armies’ blood and meat, which the Jews will devour. Misremembering an event can also be the beginning of a story.
Unlike Mantel, Alderman works tight. “The Liars’ Gospel” is not a particularly long book. I have read it through twice. Of all the books I have ever read, this one has made the era just before the Temple’s second destruction seem most alive. The book’s contemporary resonances are implicit. The fierce struggle over the land of Palestine and the Jewish place in it seems never to have stopped. The book is also a wonderful meditation on how storytellers bend reality into myth and how those myths can grow into a religion.
Michael Goldfarb is the author of “Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews From the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance” (Simon & Schuster, 2009).