That’s the first sentence of the blurb for Robin Helweg-Larsen’s novel “The Gospel According to the Romans”.
I was brought up in a ‘Christian’ household and attended Sunday school as a child. So I heard all the stories about Jesus – the Star of Bethlehem, the virgin birth, walking on water, feeding the multitude, healing the sick, raising the dead – indeed, rising from the dead. When I grew up and became a doubter and then a non-believer, I simply dismissed these tales as fairy stories. But now, the author has written this highly entertaining book about how it might have happened if a zealot called Jesus of Nazareth had lived and died in Roman Palestine at the start of a new era. If you’re a dyed in the wool, born again Christian, you might as well leave this page now. Helweg-Larsen warns that parts of his novel may well offend Christians.
Those bible stories I heard never talked much about Romans, which meant Jesus was never placed into context as a Jew living in occupied territory. Mister Helwig-Larsen has written this story from the point of view of Matthew Levi, one of the disciples who had been a Roman tax collector – and a spy for Pontius Pilate. Yes, that Matthew, the one referred to as Saint Matthew, which in this book is ironic in the extreme.
It is an enthralling story, providing on the way historical background about the Roman occupation and way of life, the countryside, the lives of the various Jewish factions and the impact of history on the population. In particular, the impact of the Roman’s brutal suppression of a revolt 20 years before and the subsequent crucifixion of 2,000 men. The story is completely plausible – although, of course, it is a work of fiction. The characters are 3 dimensional, each with virtues as well as flaws. Matthew is a pragmatic character, principally absorbed with making his way in society. Pilate offers him Roman citizenship in return for espionage and he is prepared to risk his life to earn the right to wear the toga. Hence, given the opportunity to join Jesus’ followers, he takes the risk. Matthew the spy who is at first totally committed to self comes close to reversing his allegiance at one point and his friends the Romans have their good points – and their bad. The author peppers this book with wonderful detail, such as showing the discipline and precision of a Roman detachment sent to quell the rioters in the temple and the deep gulf between the Roman way of life and that of the Jews.
This is one of those stories, like the fate of the Titanic, where we all know what the outcome will be, yet I kept reading, waiting for the explanation of the next ‘miracle’, for the next revelation about the disciples, Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, the meeting with Jesus’ mother, the last supper and the crucifixion itself. Matthew’s relationship with Judas, who the gospels tell us ultimately betrayed Jesus to the Romans, adds drama to the narrative. In the opening chapter we learn what Judas Iscariot really means – Judas, who carries a large dagger called a sica, is a ‘sicariot’, a word the Romans use interchangeably with ‘robber’, ‘insurgent’ and zealot. That information in itself sets the tone of the book. Judas never trusts Matthew, despite Jesus’ remonstrations and continually looks for opportunities to expose Matthew as a fraud. Towards the end of the book, I was drawn into how the author intended to resolve the issue, leaving Judas as the man who betrayed Jesus.
All in all, it’s a fascinating read. Throughout, Helweg-Larsen adds some intriguing insights into how people think and the very nature of religion itself. At one point Matthew ruminates on the problems of having only one God as opposed to the Greek or Roman approach of many Gods. One God must cover so many different facets – at once the God of mercy and of retribution, whereas in a pantheon different Gods represent different aspects of nature. The author also dwells on the way truth is distorted and exaggerated to become legend. The same process still happens today.
The depth of Helweg-Larsen’s research is impressive and he provides an extensive bibliography.
I can’t recommend this novel highly enough. It is a voice of reason which I might even liken to the small child in ‘the Emperor’s new clothes’. In the same vein, I recommend Mister Helweg-Larsen’s website where he posts always entertaining, often challenging stories about religion, myth and reality.
You can buy ‘The Gospel According the Romans” on Amazon.