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 questioning Mary, Jesus learns of the massacre at Bethlehem. He has inherited his father’s guilt and realizes that his own salvation as an infant came at the expense of other innocent lives. Horrified by what he views as his parents’ guilt, Jesus leaves home. He goes first to Jerusalem to ask the elders at the temple about guilt and next to Bethlehem to visit the memorial to the slaughtered children.
At Bethlehem Jesus encounters a shepherd and accepts the shepherd’s offer to join him and earn his keep. The shepherd, of course, is none other than the shepherd/angel who visited Mary at the annunciation and after Jesus’ birth. The adolescent Jesus spends four years with Pastor, the shepherd, learning the work. He learns to care for the sheep and to recognize each of them. He learns that for the good of the flock, old or weak sheep must sometimes be killed. No sheep are sold for material gain or sacrificial purposes. When Passover arrives, Jesus sets off for Jerusalem. He finds himself unable to kill a lamb merely for the purpose of God’s satisfaction. Jesus takes his lamb back to Pastor and the flock. Three years later while searching for lost sheep, Jesus encounters God in the desert. God promises Jesus power and glory after his death; in exchange, Jesus must give his life to God. To seal this covenant God demands the sheep (previously saved from sacrifice) as an offering. This sacrifice angers Pastor, who sends Jesus away.
On his way home to Nazareth, Jesus passes through Tiberias where he accidentally discovers he can predict where fish are located. (“Cast your net to the other side.”) After a few days of popularity with the fishermen,...
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