Jehoshua: Signs and Wonders

Jehoshua: Signs and Wonders May 1, 2014

I am delighted to be part of the Patheos Book Club on Garrett Glass’ novel Jehoshua: Signs and Wonders. Please do visit the Book Club page here, and what other Patheos bloggers like Tim Suttle have had to say about the novel.

The novel offers a fictional account of Jesus (I will use that more familiar name, even though he is called Jehoshua throughout the novel) and the earliest decades of the phenomenon of Christianity. Glass sticks entirely to natural explanations and eschews invoking the miraculous. And so Jesus and his followers are viewed as healers, but they depend on a combination of medicinal remedies and the tactics used by all effective faith healers. An interesting non-miraculous way to have some disciples come to believe that they had genuinely encountered the risen Jesus is explored, which I won’t disclose as a spoiler.

Some of the historical judgments (e.g. that Jesus’ body was never buried but was thrown to the dogs) are ones which I do not find persuasive (I think that John Dominic Crossan has moved away from that view, which he helped popularize). And there were some points that seemed to me to be at best historical anachronisms, if not simply errors. I’m not referring here to the view that Jesus was slightly overweight, which I’m sure some will object to, but on that particular point there is no counter-evidence, and it would fit with the accusation that he was “a glutton and a drunkard“.

I should clarify that there is a wealth of content in the novel that reflects really great historical research. And so, having found myself tempted to nit-pick numerous exceptions, I decided to view the story as an exercise in alternative history, or like the different origin accounts one may encounter across a range of superhero movies and comic books. If one spent one’s time while watching Man of Steel comparing it to earlier Superman movies, one might – no, probably would – fail to enjoy it on its own terms.

If I found it impossible to consistently treat it as a plausible reconstruction of Christian origins turned into a novel, I absolutely did find it a thought-provoking attempt to narrate a naturalistic account of Jesus and those who knew him. It is certainly a useful thought experiment, for those interested in the underlying matters of history, to ask a key question:

If things actually happened this way in the past, could we have ended up with the New Testament that we have?

If there are points on which Glass can be criticized, there are some that are simply fascinating and to be applauded: Having Marcus, the author of the Gospel, meet Philo of Alexandria and talk with him about Jesus, and about how he plans to end his book about him; giving a significant role to Gamaliel at points in the story; having some characters reflect a skepticism which, if it sounds too modern at times, rightly seeks to challenge the sense some have that people of the past were uncritical and gullible – with the implicit “unlike me.”

Here’s a sample of what I’m talking about, reflecting the view of Jesus’ brother (p.261):

Saul was preaching that Jehoshua had raised himself from the dead, as testimony to his claim to be the Christos. This was patently ridiculous, thought Yakov. Men of the world – men steeped in reality – couldn’t possibly believe such a thing, and by preaching this, Saul was preying on the credulity of people who were looking for miracles in their own lives.

And here’s a quote from Gamaliel, speaking at the Jerusalem council (p.280):

I think our faith and our traditions are strong enough to withstand new thinking or criticisms, and if they are not, then perhaps we need to change our thinking. I would have welcomes the opportunity to listen to Jehoshua speak this [sic] thoughts on our faith.

If you don’t think that individuals would have thought and spoken as Glass depicts, then how do you think they would have reasoned and argued? Glass provides a great opportunity to think seriously about such matters, even if you would tell the story differently than he does.

One thing which makes Glass’ novel particularly thought-provoking is the life-changing impact that Jesus, and then his followers, had on others, without the supernatural needing to be involved. Another point that deserves serious reflection is the one that I highlighted above, but which is worth returning to as I conclude this post. Early on, we encounter disciples and relatives of Jesus seeking to codify what they remembered about him, and debating points about which they were uncertain. We have a particular impression of Jesus because of the stories that have come down to us. But how many other stories were told, why were these included but those omitted, and how might our impressions differ if we had more or different information?

Garrett Glass’ novel Jehoshua: Signs and Wonders is definitely worth reading if you are interested in early Christianity. Despite having mixed feelings about some of the ways that events were depicted, in terms of their historical plausibility, I sometimes feel the same way when reading other scholars. What Jehoshua offers is far better stuff than one encounters in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and that was still a great novel despite its historical issues. Novels are not supposed to be our sources for historical knowledge. But when they are written by someone with a serious interest in history, as Glass clearly has, historical fiction can be a wonderful and serious aid to reflection on history. The novel has appendices that discuss the interplay of fact and fiction in the story, as well as maps and other such details. We need more novels like this, which take the flat summarizations of individuals we encounter on the pages of the New Testament, and turn them into full-fledged fleshed-out stories.

I see that the sequel, Jehoshua: Conflagration, is now out, and so I’ll be wanting to read that too.

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