by Anne Rice. New York: Knopf, 2005. ISBN 0-375-41201-8. Hb., 336 pp. $25.95.
Jesus has lived the first seven years of his life in Alexandria, Egypt. The novel covers his family’s move back to Galilee after King Herod’s death and Jesus’ first year in Nazareth. The plot concerns how the boy Jesus discovers his birth story and true identity.
Two incidents found in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas open the novel. Jesus’ blunt words to a bully result in the bully’s death. In view of the ensuing ruckus caused by the dead boy’s family, Jesus decides to raise him from the dead. In the context of that incident, we also learn that the child Jesus had earlier fashioned sparrows out of clay on the Sabbath day, and then clapped his hands to make them fly away after he was criticized for working on the Sabbath. In an afterword, Rice defends her decision to embrace these apocryphal accounts because she finds a deep truth in them that speaks to her.
Other miracles follow: Jesus heals his uncle Cleopas, makes the rain stop, brings a snowfall to Nazareth, and cures an old rabbi of his blindness. To be sure, Rice’s seven-year-old Jesus is more restrained than the child of the apocryphal infancy gospels; he is not an enfant terrible; he is not malicious in the use of his powers. Still, Jesus does miracles when he seems to know that he probably should not or even after he has made a promise not to perform any more.
The result is that Jesus is clearly a Wunderkind. In the postscript, Rice compares her portrait of Jesus to the other characters she has launched into the world: “After all, is Christ our Lord not the ultimate supernatural hero, the ultimate outsider, the ultimate immortal of them all?” The implied answer makes me uncomfortable. Are we well served by comparing Jesus to modern notions of the superhero?
As Jesus’ powers emerge, he hears snippets of talk about events surrounding his birth and begins to ask questions. Joseph and Mary initially do not think the time is right to share the story. They have only taught Jesus not to call Joseph his father. Jesus learns the full story in piecemeal fashion. At first, he seems to be happily absorbed in the rhythms of village life in Nazareth, dividing his time between studying in the synagogue and working with Joseph in nearby Sepphoris. Not even a dream, in which Jesus converses with Satan, disrupts this sense of peace. Something, however, brings about a change in Jesus. He has an urgent need to know all of the details of his birth. Jesus has lost his baby face, he no longer likes to hang out with the women, and most pertinent of all–he is now eight! Jesus had been told not to ask Joseph, so he queries his uncle Cleopas, his mother Mary, his brother James, and an old rabbi. In this way, Jesus gets all the information of the Matthewan and Lucan birth narratives–with some interesting twists that I will not divulge.
The prose of this novel is enjoyable, although I did wonder if the effort of the narrator to achieve a seven-year-old voice was always successful. The work is well researched and takes seriously the Jewish milieu–apart from the oft-noted faux pas of referring to “the tribe of David.” Of course, Rice has taken liberties in matters of chronology and historical personages and events.
One literary element that seemed a bit overdone was the numerous references to blood in the narrative. I counted more than forty occurrences of the word “blood”. There was a revolt in the land after Herod the Great died and this seven-year-old witnesses the slaying of two men. Still, without having read any of Rice’s other novels, I had to ask myself whether the many references to blood represented a lingering effect from her many vampire novels.
I found the novel unconvincing in its portrait of the boy Jesus largely because of the odd juxtaposition of his abilities. When this boy is painting the finished work of Joseph, he is not allowed to paint borders because he cannot keep the lines straight. So, Jesus cannot paint a straight line–but, if we need a clay sparrow to fly or a snowfall, he’s our boy! I am not sure we can have it both ways. I am more attracted to the boy who cannot paint a straight line. I assume that many Christians, like me, tend to picture a seven-year-old Jesus as a typical Jewish boy–no unique powers, who may or may not know anything about his birth story.
Randy Argall is an associate professor and the chaplain at Jamestown College, Jamestown N.D. He is an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and is a member of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and the Institute for Biblical Research (IBR).