The Gospel According to Jesus Christ Summary

José Saramago


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

José Saramago reworks canonical stories of Jesus to tell the story of a somewhat reluctant son of a power-hungry God. Following the prologue, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ continues with a description of Jesus’ conception that could portray the conception of any baby in first century Nazareth. Only when Mary already knows she is pregnant does an angel (disguised as a shepherd) visit her to pronounce a blessing.

Because of the requirements of the Roman census, Joseph and a very pregnant Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in the company of numerous other inhabitants of Galilee also headed for their ancestral homes. Joseph has no family left in Bethlehem with whom they might stay, and the residents of the village have already offered any available rooms to their own kinfolk. A sympathetic woman offers the couple shelter in a cave outside the village that usually serves as a stable. Some local shepherds learn of the infant’s birth and bring gifts of milk, cheese, and bread. Among the shepherds is the angel who previously visited Mary.

During the weeks of Mary’s seclusion before her purification following childbirth, Joseph works at the building site of the Jerusalem temple. At the temple site one day, Joseph overhears the conversation of soldiers who have orders from Herod to kill all the male children of Bethlehem. Panic-stricken, Joseph runs the several miles to Bethlehem, leaving the main road to skirt the village in order not to be seen and stopped. This action, going directly to the cave to save Jesus rather than warning other parents in Bethlehem to flee, renders Joseph guilty of the deaths of twenty-five children. Henceforth he suffers from nightmares in which he is a soldier on his way to Bethlehem to kill his own son. Thus Saramago introduces the idea of guilt—both Joseph’s and God’s—and the impossibility of forgiveness.

In the midst of a lengthy rebellion against Rome, Joseph is mistakenly arrested and executed as an insurgent. After finding his father’s crucified body, Jesus begins having nightmares. He dreams nightly of being one of many children in a village square to which soldiers, among whom is his father, are coming to kill them. On...

(The entire section is 909 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Bloom, Harold, ed. José Saramago. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. A collection of essays on Saramago. One essay addresses Saramago’s views on the life of Jesus Christ.

Frier, David. “José Saramago’s O Evangelho segundo Jesus Christo: Outline of a Newer Testament.” Modern Language Review 100, no. 2 (April, 2005): 317. Frier argues that the failure of individuals to take control of their destiny leads to dogmatic religions and the bleak future that Saramago foresees.

McGonigle, Thomas. “Fictionalizing the Gospel.” Review of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Chicago Tribune, March 6, 1994, p. 147. A favorable review of the controversial work.

Roth, John K. “A Theodicy of Protest.” In Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, edited by Stephen T. Davis. 2d ed. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox, 2001. Exposition of the protest theodicy that underlies Saramago’s novel, with critiques and rejoinder.