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Our Jesus

Naomi Alderman’s provocative novel The Liars’ Gospel puts Jesus back in the Jewish time and place whence he came

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Rabbi Shmuley Boteach claims Jesus was a Jew who never meant to create a new religion. He tests his theory on Harvard scholar Noah Feldman.

Twenty years ago, while studying Hebrew and Latin in high school, London writer Naomi Alderman found herself fascinated by the conflicting and overlapping Jewish and Christian accounts she was reading of the first century AD. She remembers telling her Hebrew teacher, “Someone should write a novel about Jesus, but from the Jewish perspective.” Her teacher thought it was a terrible, if not outright dangerous, idea.

Now Alderman herself has written that novel. The Liars’ Gospel tells the story of the life and death of Jesus from four perspectives: that of his mother Miryam (Mary); his disciple and later betrayer Iehuda from Qeriot (Judas Iscariot); the High Priest Caiaphas; and Bar-Avo (Barabbas), the murderer and rebel whom Pontius Pilate releases instead of Jesus. Each of the four characters is drawn from the New Testament, but in Alderman’s telling, they are fully Jews, like Jesus himself, and are steeped in the rituals and beliefs of their time. It’s a provocative and fascinating retelling of one of the foundational narratives of Western culture.

This is not the first time Alderman has used fiction to challenge orthodoxies. Her first novel, Disobedience, told the story of Ronit Krushka, a lapsed Orthodox Jew who returns to London when her estranged father, a revered rabbi, dies. The novel portrays adulterous and lesbian love affairs, among other transgressions, and it offended some in the Orthodox community in which Alderman grew up. It also earned Alderman the U.K.’s 2006 Orange Prize for New Writers.

Vox Tablet’s Julie Subrin speaks with Alderman about how she tackled the story of Jesus, reactions to her novel from Christian readers, and how Jews can and should shed their fear of Christianity. Give a listen, and if the conversation leaves you wanting more, enter our sweepstakes to win a free copy of The Liars’ Gospel. [Running time: 24:35.] 

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Where’s the link to the audio?

    It’s at the bottom of the text, on a computer. If you’re accessing via mobile phone or ipad, you’ll need to download (for free) thru iTunes, Stitcher, or another podcast download app.

      rightcoaster says:

      It did take a moment of head-scratching to figure out how to launch the podcast the first time. One has to notice the speaker symbol and realize the need to click on the right-pointing arrowhead.

Heywood Gould says:

Sholem Asch’s The Nazarene is a novel about Jesus from a Jewish perspective.

Lamay Darnel says:

Thank you for sharing,I am still a little fearful during Passover and Easter,In the recent pass I have gone out side to find the car has been egged,the doorknob covered in ketchup so that if I reach for it to lock the door I end up with ketchup on my hand,I am in a way thankful ,I ask a neighbor why me and I was told you are still a Jew,the other around here say they are Jews but they aren’t Jews anymore they just think they are, but you are a good Jew,The Gardeners love to cough up big honker and spit on my windshield,I am not as observant as I was, still keep kosher,and keep my head cover

    andrea kaden says:

    What? Where do you live???

    silverbackV says:

    You have to understand, those aren’t Christians doing that. The acts which you have endured are from ignorance on the part of the perpetrators. Many things have been done in the “name” of Christ that never would have happened if the perp had understood the nature of YHWH! Don’t let them drive you from your faith.

This aura above JC’s head was like the mysterious glow that appeared over characters who were about to die in “The Purple Testament,” a spooky episode of “The Twilight Zone” set in the Pacific during World War II. I’ve sometimes wondered if Rod Serling intended that the visual effect should resemble Christian art. In fact, I’m sure that was his intent.

The Hyam Maccoby novels discuss this in great depth and give an alternate look from a Jewish perspective.

Interesting interview, but I differ with Naomi’s view and the conclusions drawn. Growing up, I was pretty secular. As I entered my 30s and was raising my children, I went on a long and arduous spiritual exploration. My passion has always been ancient cultures, histories and religions. Raising my children in the Bible Belt (after growing up in Queens, N.Y.,) was a shock. As I stated in my previous post, “Revolution In Judea” gives a much more accurate description of the religious and historical issues of the time, including the “Sinat Chinam” and corruption of the period on the part of both the Romans and the Jews.

rshapiro says:

Fascinating interview that made me want to read the book – one I probably would have had zero interest in if I had not listened.

Thank you for a great podcast. Week after week, I always enjoy listening to Tablet’s podcasts. This is my favourite Jewish themed podcast that I listen to. Happy Passover to all.

Lawrence Cohen says:

Just a great interview…..but I wonder why no mention of the earlier “Passover Plot” was never mentioned…..
(by the way, a former rabbincal teacher of mine had to give a talk to a Christian group during the weeks before Passover and he later told me that he wanted to entitle his talk “a Jew looks at Jesus with a Jaundiced Eye”….said in jest undoubtedly. But, he was asked to have dinner at the talk and declined the food saying that he had given it up for Lent…ha!) He was a Rabbi who could tell a joke….

Alan Weberman says:

change the last supper to the last sedar and everything will be besedar

Wonderful interview. She put in words my feelings about Christianity and Jesus. Thank you so much! I always felt uncomfortable with Easter, but this year I feel different. Maybe it is kinder, gentler, forgiving me…

DSarna says:

Alderman’s novel is important, and I am glad Tablet published this interview. However, there are a few points that must be made:

1. Jesus was clearly a rebel against established Rabbinic practice.

2. The high priesthood in second temple times was a lucrative office; the office of High Priest was sold to the highest bidder. They were often in open conflict with the Rabbinate, as clearly recorded in the Mishnah.

3. Josephus, the source of much of our knowledge of the period, and whose views are accepted by Alderman as fact. He was certainly, however, an apologist for Rome, and was traditionally viewed as a Jewish traitor. It is true that he has been “rehabilitated” by modern Jewish historians, but his reliability is still a subject of much dispute.

    rightcoaster says:

    And your point is?

    When you capitalize “Rabbinate” and “Rabbinic”, you imply there was some sort of organized and hierarchical structure set up against the Temple and the priesthood. Would you please support that, and please also provide some of those clear Mishnaic citations?

      DSarna says:

      For example, before Yom Kippur, the Rabbis would come to the High Priest’s house, go over the service with him (since they s
      Second Temple High Priests ofter were unfamiliar with it), and then get him to swear an oath not to deviate from the required order. See

      The Rabbinates controlled the sanhedrin, a highly organized body or 70 High Court judges, who all exercised authority over the lower courts.

        rightcoaster says:

        I think you are misreading Yoma. The Hebrew need not, and I think cannot, translate as “we”. Where do you infer that “we” refers to some organized group of rabbis? My own copy of the Mishnah does not read at all as you have it (no “we”, in particular). The Mishnah was compiled about 200 years the destruction of the Temple. The rabbis who compiled and debated the meaning of these rules were looking backwards, and you provide no basis for inferring they had involvement contemporaneous with Jesus. Finally, the idea that some organized group of rabbis controlled the Great Sanhedrin (71) during the time of the Temple is anachronistic. After the destruction in 70, a Sanhedrin reestablished at Yavneh was indeed dominated by rabbis, but there seems to be no basis for what you assert in the year 30. After all, with the destruction of the Temple, the priests were out of a job.

        The Mishnah does say that elders of the Court had to make sure the High Priest knew his business — after all, the occupant of that office changed frequently — and the Day of Atonement service had to be done exactly right. But it is a complete distortion to say a bunch of rabbis filled that instructional role. It had to be those who knew the Atonement ritual well, and they would have necessarily been priests.

          DSarna says:

          I read Yoma in the original Hebrew. The link has both. I really do not understand your comment.

          The Temple was destroyed in 69/70 CE.

          I think you are engaging in eisegesis, reading into a text what you would like it to say.

          rightcoaster says:

          Good that you are able to read and translate Hebrew. How do you translate the verb in “…mafrishin kohen gadol…”? My grammar was never the best, and I can’t get first-person plural out of something ending in a final nun, and certainly the “anakhnu” is not explicit. מפרישין Can you unambiguously translate that into a first-person plural? And to whom would the “we” refer to anyway, if you could? It could not have been a rabbinate that did not then exist.


 renders it ” Seven days before the Day of Atonement the high-priest is to be removed from his house …” and as I said my own Denby edition Mishnah also does not say “we removed”, rather it says “was taken”.

          I said 70 (CE), close enough; the figure 71 is the number in the Great Sanhedrin; I regret the confusion. The point is that the final compilers of the Mishnah were not there in 30. And that what happened in Yavneh may not be what happened at Jerusalem as to the leadership of the reconvened/reconstituted Sanhedrin.

          I stand by my position(s) on the readings (or misreadings) and the history, and I still wonder what your original point was; you have not yet answered that.

          DSarna says:

          Lehafrish is to segregate. The Hight Priest was segregated lest he become impure (by having sex) or otherwise become ineligible to perform the Yom Kippur service. My point was that some of the arguments made by the author are either disputed or refuted by others.

          rightcoaster says:

          I must have misunderstood you: I thought you were asserting that the Rabbinate, an organized body of rabbis, ran the show and segregated the High Priest to tell him what to say. In fact, your first reply above says it was the capital-R Rabbis who did this. Your original post got up my nose because you imputed powers to an organized rabbinate (Rabbinate) that simply did not exist, and that (unlike the RC Church) never existed and does not exist to this day. And you asserted that Jesus was “a rebel against established Rabbinic practice”. That’s hogwash, and just as trayf. There was no such thing as “established rabbinic practice”, that’s a Christologically helpful fabrication without historical foundation. Jesus, albeit undoubtedly a good one, was one of many preachers: Jews have produced all sorts of preachers, teachers, prophets, sectarians, and messiahs. And the ferment of the times produced other apocalypticists (sic?) than he.

          DSarna says:

          The late Second Temple period was a time of many sects. These are referred to as minim by the Rabbis. We have irrefutable evidence of this from the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as Josephus. Jesus was one such sectarian Jew. See and also the book by the same author with the same name.

          rightcoaster says:

          And your point is, and was? What you say here in no way supports anything you presented before to which I objected, and it does not refute any of my assertions.

          DSarna says:

          My purpose was, and is. to inform the Tablet readership on this subject. I have no interest in either confirming or taking issue with your opinions.

          rightcoaster says:

          Ok, fine and noble intent. But your information is not correct, and is misleading.

    levinjf says:

    Also, Josephus was a Cohen and raised in the Temple culture, although I believe he claimed to be of the rabbinic, not sadducee, party.

rightcoaster says:

Is there no way for Tablet to silence this jerk?

Do you write about Yehoshua, Jesus, having bipolar disorder? And that was what caused his crucifiction. Some Jewish psychiatrists believe this, as do I. He had a following but then went crazy and people felt bad for him but he was still executed. That was the way they got rid of crazy people back then because they did not have mental hospitals or medications.

    levinjf says:

    Where did you hear that? All over the world in ancient times crazy people were allowed to wander around as beggars. They could even insult kings and get away with it. Remember David feigned madness to escape from the Philistine king, who merely expelled him, saying “Do I need any more meshuganahs in my kingdom?”
    A wandering madman once insulted Ivan the Terrible, who ignored the offense that normally would have gotten someone killed.

Jerry Waxman says:

As others have commented there is little uniqueness in Alderman’s idea. There is nothing unique about her views. (“Why should I pray for a Third Temple if I don’t get to go inside?” — shows quite a lack of understanding, IMO.) In spite of that, I think I’ll read this novel someday; Alderman did mention details that historians tend to leave out – like the sheep culture. It sounds like it could be an informative and entertaining novel.

    Are you saying I *would* have been able to enter the courtyard of the Cohanim? ;-)

      Jerry Waxman says:

      This question shows a lack of understanding of my comment. If your novel is equally as well-informed as your comments are . . . well, no need to be petty.
      Since this article was posted, I’ve learned of another author’s take on Jesus that sounds more interesting. The author did his research, and wrote about Jesus the man in the context of his times. If someday I have a need to read about Jesus, now I have a choice.

        Naomi Alderman says:

        Well, I certainly shan’t be reading anything further of yours, so I guess we’re even.

        Please do continue judging books before reading them, I’m sure that’s a great policy. In addition, do go on replying in a hostile way to friendly, mildly cheeky comments. That, also, I’m sure will serve you well in life.

        Well over the fast!

daniel says:

Nobody here read Sholem Ash? If you like this subjecxt, you should look for his work. Originally in Yiddish it has been translated..

Lawrence Weinberg says:

I have a good friend, a Lutheran. Wewere once talking and I said oh no, I’m a Jew and of course you hate Jews. And he said no, I don’t hate Jews. So the back and forth went no, no, I understand, you don’t have to apologize. And he said no, really, we don’t hate you. Well it was eye-opening for me. I guess you just have to be fortunate and find accepting gentiles, and be a model citizen. Give them a reason to appreciate us as people. No, not suck up, not at all. Just be a good diplomat, and change one or two minds in your lifetime. My daughter was in the uber-shiksa sorority and I assure you she was both the first Jew that any of these girls ever met, and a favorite sister. And to the gentiles that hate me, I usually say “Hey, no hard feelings about the thing with Jesus, right?” It’s a two way street.

    Rick says:

    Lawrence, Jimmy Buffett (who is from my hometown and we went to school together) had a song “Changes In Lattitudes, Changes In Attitudes”….Today I know plenty of Lutherans etc who don’t think twice about my Judaism, and to others its a big deal. But trust me on this one; had you been Jewish in rural Mississippi in the 50’s, you’d not have had that Tra la la I’m a diplomat attitude. You’d be making sure you were on the other side of the street, out of their way, not make eye contact, etc etc. It’s not about how “good you are” or “your attitude”; the KKK killed some of the nicest Jews and African Americans in those “good ol’ days”, it’s “which way the culture rolls these days”…..and, it seems to be a bit better for Jews than it was then, but not for all the crazy white supremist survivalists. You could in your best Bob Barker voice yell “Come On Down” and hand them the keys to a new Mercedes SUV…before they lynched you; and it would not be because you had any character defects, it would be your “accident of birth”.

Rick says:

I grew up Jewish in rural Ms. Came from a fairly secular family. We did the High Holy Days at Temple. I bet I’ve celebrated twice as many Christmases and Easters as Passovers and Chanukahs (I don’t proudly add) but that is the way it was. Always invited to friends homes and learned to enjoy the cultural exchange as did they. Keep in mind Jesus would have been frightened of Christianity too. He never knew there was going to be a Christianity; he never tried to form a new religion; it was founded around 71 AD by the 1st Church Of Rome. All Jesus was trying to do was reform Judaism which was, being run by the pharisees (about 1% of the Jewish population) and not very well behaved…Jesus’ brother James was a Pharisees. It is believed Jesus was an Essene; more like the pagans, communed with nature; were vegetarians or vegans and healed others (Essene means “healer”); and the other sect were the Samatarians. So the Mel Gibson stereotype is nothing like what existed at the time. Most Jews were moderate (Essenes and Samatarians) and didn’t much care for the 1% Pharisees (sound familiar)? Jesus loved the Torah, rabinnical study etc. There was nothing about true Judaism he didn’t cherish. Really nothing to be frightened about but ignorance.

    rightcoaster says:

    Most of what you said, that I copy here, is not correct:

    All Jesus was trying to do was reform Judaism {Actually Jesus was an apolcalypticist, predicting the end to be near — so repent. Reforming any organizational structure was not really on his list.}

    … being run by
    the pharisees (about 1% of the Jewish population) {totally wrong, a Christian gloss on the times — you have no other source for that than the NT, the Pharisees were not a dominant party in 30 CE, not until after Temple was destroyed and Sadducee influence with it } and not very well
    behaved…Jesus’ brother James was a Pharisees {and so was Jesus a Pharisee, if you had to classify him among these choices: Sadducee, Pharisee, Essene, “not involved in those questions”. Think: if James was a Pharisee and the head of the Jerusalem branch of the earliest followers, how could he have been different from his brother? Sad.-Phar. differences had to do with Oral Law (Pharisees) vs Torah-only (Sadducees) Sadducees were literalists, Pharisees (and Jesus) did interpretive stuff. From Pharisees came rabbinic Judaism } .

    It is believed Jesus was an Essene; more like the pagans, communed with nature; were vegetarians or vegans and healed others (Essene means “healer”); and the other sect were the Samatarians.

    {Um, this is totally wrong, Jesus was a Galilean who came under the influence of apocalypticist John the Mikveh Man, who was also not an Essene. The Samaritans (sic) lived in Samaria and their origin is not really known, but they disputed with the other Jews on whose Torah observance was correct, it’s too complicated — go read this: }

      Rick says:

      Thank you kindly for your interpretation. Mine is my story and I stand by it. I do not use Wiki for any reference of those who have passed and there is not proof, only interpretation; same as yours; same as mine. So we will agree to disagree, but enjoyed your slant very much. Thank you.

ruth simmons says:

The early church was Jewish. Jesus came for the Jews first and the rest of us just were very lucky. I think any hatred towards you is spiritual envy. I believe heaven will be a very Jewish place and I look forward to it.

M. Ackermann says:

And what if Jesus’ story is mainly a way for us Christians to make the thora to our holy book as well (as the Moslems did with Mohammed later)? Should these 2 prophets not be considered the greatest promoters of the mosaic law, of Judaism and its huge treasury inncluding the Talmud? Religion is not a matter of nationality or race and any animosities between the 3 mosaic religions can never be truly religiously motivated in my opinion.

both the old and new testaments are based on metaphors: god floated over the water, moses was pulled from the water and jesus walked on the water…..these stories are not true in the literal sense, but contain spiritual truths….

ThorsProvoni says:

Didn’t Sholem Asch write a series of novels on this subject back in the 30s?

The first volume was The Nazarene.

Modern Judaism is so different from Judaism at the time of Jesus that writing a novel of a Jewish Jesus is completely pointless and a rather silly exercise.

Robert Graves, who was steeped in the poetics of classical Hellenism, probably gives a truer portrait of Jesus in King Jesus.

Jesus has been the subject of many novels. The most interesting one is “King Jesus” by Robert Graves which was written in 1946 and a scholar edition of Graves’ works includes “King Jesus.” In it, Jesus is depicted as a member of the Herodian family but rather than a son of God, a philosopher. The most memorable scene is the one where his followers (apostles) dislocate his thigh by jumping on him from a tree while he is in a squatting position, so he would limp like Jacob after wrestling with the Angel. The narrator is a Roman, and he describes the life of this “king.” When Asch wrote his book about Jesus, he faced severe criticism for giving Jesus recognition from a Jewish source. All my life, I’ve known some Jews who consider Asch as “treif” because of it. says:

At first I was hesitant about the title and what it might have implied, but I enjoyed the interview with Naomi, because this is a subject that I am really interested in. I’m now
going to download the Kindle version. I can’t wait to read her book.

Ronni says:

Jesus was a man who allowed people to worship him and that is Blasphemy. He Can not be the Messiah if the claims about him are true. Mosses said their would be one that would come like him and that we must listen to him. If Jesus was this individual he must be fully man like Mosses and subject to sin as Mosses was subject to sin. If he was God then God would be a Liar as it is written that God is not a man. He has no image or bodily form he is a spirit !

Andrea Muraskin says:

Interesting interview. I just have to note here that the author misquoted slightly the episode of the Sopranos where Tony beats up an Orthodox Jew. Tony does not say “We’re the Romans.”

The Jewish man is writhing around on the floor, still defiant. He says something very close to “The Jews have lasted for 2000 years! We’ve outlived the Babylonians, we’ve outlasted Rome. Where are the Romans now?”

And Tony says “You’re lookin’ at ‘em, asshole.”

Some great writing there :).


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Our Jesus

Naomi Alderman’s provocative novel The Liars’ Gospel puts Jesus back in the Jewish time and place whence he came

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