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In Anne Rice's most recent foray into fiction, the novelist uses first-person narration to tell the story of “God in a man-suit” at the ages of seven and eight.
The good news is, Rice is an accomplished writer. The story holds one's interest — even if one believes, as I do, that Rice is completely off the mark in her interpretation of the very few facts we have available.
The bad news is that Rice has returned to the Roman Catholic Church lock, stock, and barrel. As far as she is concerned, all gospels — even the noncanonical ones — are straight history. In an epilog, Rice says she believes the canonical gospels were written in the 30s and 40s, many decades before every genuine scholar believes they were written. The Romans destroyed the Temple on August 27, 70 CE. Rice says that if the canonical gospels had been written after that, surely they must have mentioned that destruction, even if it did happen 40 years after the Crucifixion.
She is wrong, of course. Even the earliest canonical gospel, Mark, includes references to the destruction of the Temple; that's one way we know when to date it. Rice claims to have done meticulous research, including reading every word written by Flavius Josephus FOR FUN, but she apparently skipped Josephus's Jesus bar Ananus, who in the 50s CE prophesied the destruction of the Temple, angering the ecclesial power structure. The chief priests and scribes turned this later Jesus over to the Romans, who decided he was crazy, whipped him “til his bones were laid bare,” and let him go. (Wars 6.5.1-4)
The truth that Anne Rice fails to acknowledge is that all four canonical gospels were developed to link Jesus to the Jewish lectionary, the better for worship services; ALL of the miracles alleged by the canonical gospels can be traced to origins in the Hebrew Scriptures (and Bishop Spong and other scholars have done so); and NONE of these miracles is alleged by any source outside the canonical gospels — not Paul, not James, not Peter, not John, not pseudo-Paul, not Hebrews, not Revelation, no one. Unlike Anne Rice, first-century Christians did not need miracle stories to believe the good news proclaimed by Jesus.
But so it goes. For Rice, Jesus was born in 1 BCE, to the accompaniment of magical signs and angels. And never mind the FACT that Herod the Great had died three years earlier, in March of 4 BCE, and was therefore unavailable to talk to the magi or demand the massacre of the innocents. (And that every historian capable of writing would have mentioned a massacre of babies and toddlers in outrage if it had happened in “the real world.”) If the gospels of Matthew and Luke are literal history, Joseph had to travel from his own nation, Israel, almost 100 miles to a completely different nation, Judea, to be counted in the Judean (not Israelite) census — possibly a week's journey. Forget that in “the real world” it was illegal to travel during a Roman census, which counted taxpayers. For Rice, if it's alleged of Jesus in a source she approves of, it's literal history. If it conflicts with the known facts, reality loses.
Rice even repeats some of the evil fantasies of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, including Jesus's accidental murder of a playmate — but not others, such as all the other parents of his “village” (not Rice's Alexandria, Egypt) complaining to Joseph and Mary about their murderous son and being stricken blind for their blasphemy (IGT 4:1-5:2).
For Rice, James was Joseph's son, five years older than Jesus; Jesus's other three brothers and "all his sisters" were cousins; and Mary of Nazareth was never in her life allowed the joy of sexual intercourse — she was eternally punished for the sin of becoming pregnant out of wedlock. For Rice, literacy was almost as universal in the first century as it is today — and no one had the slightest difficulty in reading Hebrew, even without the technique called pointing (invented in the Middle Ages) to help with the vowels.
I can't say I would recommend Anne Rice's newest book to anyone who is more interested in the gospel of Jesus than in the gospel of Paul of Tarsus. This Jesus, even as a small child, is definitely God in a man-suit. Or rather, a boy-suit. He can bring clay birds to life (IGT). He can heal cancer (Rice). He can restore sight to the blind (Rice). He can resurrect dead people (Rice).
HOWEVER, I AM grateful to Rice on one point. She portrays the massacre of the innocents as literal history, and never mind the fact that Josephus and other enemies of Herod would have reported the incident if it had ever happened in reality. And despite the fact that Bethlehem was tiny in the first century, she puts Herod's massacre total at a mind-boggling 200 — approximately ten times what the death total would have been if the incident had happened in the real world.
Rice portrays the boy Jesus as having been kept in ignorance of his divinity until after the death of Herod the Great, supposedly in about 4-6 CE — only eight to ten years later than his true death — while the young family lived in Egypt, with Philo of Alexandria as Jesus's first rabbi. (Philo, 20 BCE-50 CE, was a real-world Jewish philosopher who did not know how to read Hebrew and whose extant writings betray no knowledge of Jesus.) The boy Jesus does not learn the truth until his second Passover in Jerusalem, during which he wows the teachers in the Temple à la Luke 2, only four years younger than in the gospel.
And when he learns the truth — that 200 innocent lives were lost because of him — he goes into a kind of a fit. And the fit lasts for days. The little boy just can't handle the idea that he is ultimately responsible for the loss of approximately 200 innocent lives.
For me, this scene rings true. NO ONE who believes that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8) could handle being told that God was responsible for the destruction of 200 innocent lives.
Here is where I'm grateful to Rice: For me, the scene underscored what *I* believe to be the truth: that Matthew invented the massacre of the innocents in order to link Jesus with Moses and Herod with Pharaoh, and did not think of himself as writing literal history. MY God does not murder even the guilty, much less the innocent. MY God would never, never, never, never, NEVER EVER be ultimately responsible for anyone's death or suffering. Even of the demonstrably guilty, much less then innocent.
God is everywhere. Because of this truth, whenever any part of God's creation suffers, God suffers. God suffers with the hungry, the thirsty, the estranged, the naked, the imprisoned. God suffers with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, the abused, the despairing. God suffers with the fly whose wings have been pulled off by a cruel child. God suffers with the victims of torture. God suffers with the criminal being executed of a crime; God suffers with the person of conscience who is compelled to push the button or flip the switch.
God does not need to enter the world with angels trumpeting, shepherds and magi adoring, hallelujahs to the heavens, and oh, yes, a massacre of hundreds of innocent babies and the ruination of the lives of many hundreds of innocent parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
GOD DOES NOT MURDER. GOD DOES NOT RUIN LIVES. God does NOT cause suffering, with the possible exception of necessary suffering — dentist-type suffering.
God is the greatest Being of all — which is to say, God is “the humblest of all and the servant of all” (Mk. 9:35). Not only does God not NEED special effects, but to attribute such a need to God is ultimately idolatrous. God is not some Dubya-like popinjay.
Blessed are those who have “seen” the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Christian Testament and believed. More “blessed are those who have NOT seen [miracles], and yet have come to believe” (Jn. 20:29) ANYWAY. More blessed are those who believe you don't need someone walking on water to convince you to love God and your neighbor.
Blessed are those who believe the gospel of Jesus, but who have their doubts about the gospel of Paul. Or Anne Rice.
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