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Book Review: The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramago

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Jesus: a household name for most of the Western World. We know who he is, what he stands for, and we think we know his origins. But do we really know it? Or is our knowledge more a product of myth and legend? José Saramago’s fictional account of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ provides an alternate history, a history that may be said to be more realistic, from the point of view of a skeptic.

This novel tells the tale of Jesus, son of Joseph, from the time of his birth, up to his death. It follows most of what the Bible says Jesus’ life was, with a few major changes. I’ll assume that readers of this review are familiar with the Biblical account of the life of Jesus, so I’ll just point out the changes that are crucial to this alternate account.

First of all, Saramago’s Gospel fills in the “missing” years of Jesus’ life. In the Bible, there is an account of the life of Jesus from his birth up to when he was 12-years old. Then nothing else is reported until when he is 30 and is baptized by John at the Jordan River. In this novel, however, this is not the case. There are plenty of accounts of Jesus’ life in between. His father Joseph dies when he is 13, and he leaves his house to fend for himself for several years, spending time as a shepherd with a character named Pastor, who is later revealed to be the Devil.

Saramago rearranges several Biblical episodes in this book. For example, the Bible states that Jesus spent a considerable period of time alone after being baptized, and the Devil proceeds to tempt him. In Gospel, however, the temptation occurs while Jesus is a shepherd with the Pastor. The Bible also states that Jesus spent 40 days with God, learning of his purpose here on Earth. The novel sees this as an episode on the Sea of Galilee, when a mist envelops the boat that Jesus was occupying, and God and Jesus, together with the Devil, had a conversation.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this novel is the fact that Jesus is portrayed to have carried on a relationship with Mary Magdalene. Yes, folks, Jesus is not a virgin in this novel. He has a partner. And given what I know about religion and its supporters, I don’t think that sits well with the conservative folk. 

But seriously, is the Biblical narrative realistic? Reading this book has made me reflect on my own religious upbringing, and it has lent support on my current beliefs, which is one of irreligion. Is it really realistic for a regular human being to be free of natural human desires, including sex and alcohol? I find this book a more realistic account of a man who, having existed 2000 years previous, happened to have big dreams for himself.

Another aspect of Gospel raised is that of faith. Religion teaches us that God is Almighty, and that it is a virtue for one to give one’s life to God, whether by being a martyr or by devoting one’s time and effort for the works of God. However, has it ever occured to anyone of us that God is perhaps the most selfish being that humans have ever conceived of? God is restless, God is never pleased, God needs sacrifices, God needs lambs that are not injured or diseased. God needs martyrs, God needs people who will be decapitated, beheaded, burnt alive, tarred and feathered, and so on. There is an episode in the novel where Jesus asks God about the future, and God responds that there will be wars (pertaining to the Crusades), in which there would be plenty of people who will die just so that God can be appeased. From a skeptic’s point of view, that is a very selfish supernatural being, requiring the deaths of plenty of individuals just for his own self-satisfaction. 

In reading The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, it might sound like Saramago is preaching to the choir: after all, I already identify as an atheist. But I challenge all the believers out there to pick this book up and see an alternative account. My experience with religion in the past was such that believers were discouraged to read material that might compromise one’s faith. But in my point of view, unless one challenges one’s faith, then one doesn’t know whether one’s faith is strong or weak. Read this book and see if you still believe in the mythological account of the Bible. The way I see it, there’s more points in which one needs to suspend one’s disbelief in the Biblical account than in Saramago’s. 

Needless to say, I loved this book. I am giving this book 5 out of 5 stars.

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About Jeruen Dery

  • I read this book several years ago. The fact that Saramago was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for this particular book lead me to believe that his words were more telling that I fully grasped. In fact, it was a very good read.

    Did he receive the Nobel Prize for this novel?


  • Vinny Clancy

    One thing that this interpretation fails to consider is that perfect atonement for the redemption of all of mankind required a perfect sacrifice. Perfect in this context is free of hatred, lust, chemical dependencies, and imperfect anger. In order for Jesus to save anyone, he had to have lived is life in accordance with the will of the all mighty yet all merciful, all merciful yet just, all loving yet capable of righteous discipline, Eternal Being. With all due respect, you would do well to consider the depth of love this kind of sacrifice and dedication takes and then consider whether or not Jesus was perfect.

  • Hello RetireInStyleBlog,

    It was indeed a very good read, I agree. Regarding your question about the Nobel Prize, I am not sure. He won it in 1998, but by then, there had already been 7 years since he first published this book (the Portuguese version was published in 1991). And in between, he has also published Blindness, which is another awesome read. So I am not sure.

  • Hello Vinny,

    I do agree that a perfect atonement requres a perfect sacrifice. I agree that it makes sense, given a Christian point of view. I have been raised as a Christian myself, and I was taught that Jesus was the only one who can perform the sacrifice since every other human was imperfect. However, that logic only works if we buy all the other assumptions associated with it. And that I do not. I equate believing in Jesus as believing in myths and legends. Thus, I prefer Saramago’s account, which in my opinion, is more realistic.

  • Vinny Clancy

    Hi Jeruen,

    I count the Old Testament, Gospels and Epistles as documented eyewitness accounts of His sayings and teachings, by which He states He is the Son of Man prophesied about for a thousands of years. We can discuss Pagan, Sumerian, and all other kinds of early religions that have similar claims, but that isn’t the purpose of this post. Everyday we all hear things that we can’t necessarily prove as true but take someone’s word as bond. I lump honest politicians in the myths and legends category. I respect your point of view although I have been convinced through careful study and what I will simply call a strong conviction, that He is Lord. By the way, you don’t have to buy into Jesus as Savior, it’s free. Thanks for the respectful rebuttal and stimulating article.

  • Mohsin

    Hi, peace be upon you..
    As the greeting suggests that I am a muslim, just passed by reading this article. And just when I feel falsifications in the biblical account of Jesus by some authors who wrote it after the time of Jesus (pbuh), also curious to know where did Saramago get information about Jesus (and his alleged relationship with a woman)? from the time-machine? My humble request to readers is to try reading the Islamic account of Jesus (pbuh) and his life from birth to his ascension and his coming back in the future, InshaAllah, so that you will find the truth.

  • gabo

    Hi Mohsin. Saramago did not attempt to tell the “truth”. His book is just fiction and if he attempted something was a criticism about christianity (and implicitly judaism)…

  • Margo

    Umm has it occurred to anyone that God IS love and that He created each of us with the purpose to know, love, and serve Him? Of course, God did not want us to be mere robots who automatically loved Him, so He gave us the gift of free will so we are free to love or reject Him. Saramago attempts to argue that God is evil and forced people to die for Him. Actually, every martyr listed in his book FREELY chose to die out of their LOVE for God. They chose to die rather than reject their heavenly Father. God is the source of all of our longings. God has our BEST interests at heart and never gives us anything we cannot handle. Why not try giving Him more of a chance instead of making rash assumptions?