Ju-das. 1) Called "Judas Iscariot." One of the Twelve Apostles; betrayer of Jesus. 2) One who betrays under the appearance of friendship.
Who was Judas? Why did he do what he did? If we could converse with him today, what would he say? What if, in a way, a conversation could take place with the man who helped the Romans execute the son of God? What if a scroll is discovered in the Dead Sea, written in the first century, long before the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, detailing the life of Jesus from Judas's point of view? How would this document fit into the structures of the church? How would it change our views of not only Judas, but Jesus, and more than that, Christianity itself? Such is the premise of Simon Mawer's thought-provoking yet flawed novel, THE GOSPEL OF JUDAS.
The man charged with unearthing the validity and importance of this document is Father Leo Newman. His life is already in turmoil even before the discovery. He's middle aged, living in Rome, teaching English to make ends meet and he's falling in love with a married woman. He's beginning to have doubts about his vocation. Should he be a man of the cloth if he's in love with a woman already betrothed? There is also a family tragedy from the distant past that haunts him, and there are flashbacks to his mother's experiences in Rome during World War II. And, of course, there's the incendiary text.
Mawer, author of MENDEL'S DWARF and THE BITTER CROSS, writes with touches of Graham Greene, Umberto Eco, and Michael Ondaatje. It is a story about loss of faith and what it means to believe. But the story has some rough patches. Firstly, the reader has to wait until the end of the book to get to the mystery of what is in the scroll and what it means to the church. Secondly, the various plot lines and different writing angles confuse and confound the reader who expects a more archeological, Biblically-based novel (such as THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST by Nikos Kazantzakis and more recently QUARANTINE by Jim Crace). In particular, the flashback story of Leo's mother's tragic love affair in wartime Rome slows the movement of the plot and pulls the reader away from the main theme and drama of the story --- the manuscript.
All in all, THE GOSPEL OF JUDAS is a hit-and-miss novel. It is well-researched, intelligent and thought-provoking; however, some of those thoughts are "I thought this was a story about Judas. Where is it and why are we getting this love story instead?" The story fares best when it remains a religious-based thriller in which the scroll that played a vital role in the lives of Judas and Jesus is brought into a new and startling light.
Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley on January 22, 2011
The Gospel of Judas : A Novel