#3- James Goldberg on The Five Books of Jesus [MIPodcast]
“Here is something true: The imagination needs to be strong as the heart, sometimes stronger, because while to heart sustains the body, the imagination sustains the soul.“ —James Goldberg, The Five Books of JesusJames Goldberg is a Mormon author with Jewish and Sikh roots and these background elements permeate his recent novel, The Five Books of Jesus. The story of Jesus has been told and retold, of course, for centuries. Over the past 200 years or so a “quest for the historical Jesus” has been launched, with archaeologists, theologians, and historians combing records and ruins for evidence of the life and teachings of Jesus. At the same time, another quest was launched—“the quest for the fictional Jesus.” It’s not a quest to disprove the existence of Jesus or the historical accounts of his life; it’s a new genre of writing about Jesus—Jesus novels. The works are as varied as the authors, and they employ a variety of literary strategies and promote different theological perspectives. One scholar who has studied the genre says Jesus novels offer contemporary authors and readers the opportunity to pose new questions and gain new insights from our ancient counterparts.
Find out how Goldberg’s The Five Books of Jesus fits into this genre in this episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. The Five Books of Jesus is available in ebook or classic form. The other book Goldberg recommends during the interview is Kristen Randle, Slumming (New York: HarperTeen, 2003), but it looks like copies are scarce. A great book on Jesus novels in general is Margaret E. Ramey, The Quest for the Fictional Jesus: Gospel Rewrites, Gospel (Re)Interpretation, and Christological Portraits within Jesus Novels (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013). Thanks to Faded Paper Figures for providing music for this episode.
BLAIR HODGES: The story of Jesus has been told, re-told, and re-told again for centuries. Over the past two hundred years or so a quest for the historical Jesus has been launched with archeologists, theologians, and historians combing records and ruins for evidence of the life and teachings of Jesus. At the same time though another quest was launched which has been called the quest for the fictional Jesus. Now it’s not a quest to disprove the existence of Jesus, or the historical accounts of his life. The quest for the fictional Jesus consists of a new genre of writing about Jesus, Jesus novels, which have been used to explore the life of the Galilean prophet. Such works are as varied as their authors are. The authors often employ a variety of literary strategies and promote differing theological perspectives. One scholar who studied the genre says, “Such works offer modern authors and readers an opportunity to pose new questions, or to gain new insights from our ancient counterparts.”
I’m joined today by James Goldberg. He’s the author of one such Jesus novel, for lack of a better term. He’s an author, actor, and a professor of composition and creative writing here at Brigham Young University. Thanks for taking the time to join me on the Maxwell Institute Podcast, James.
JAMES GOLDBERG: You’re welcome.
HODGES: First I’d like you to just take a moment here to talk a little bit about your background.
GOLDBERG: I grew up LDS. My dad’s dad was Jewish so I grew up LDS with regular phone calls reminding us how many more Jews had won Nobel prizes than the zero Mormons.
HODGES: Yeah. Are we still at zero?
GOLDBERG: No. There’s an economist now I think.
HODGES: Okay, whew.
GOLDBERG: But I also grew up with a couple of Jewish holidays that we just continued to celebrate because they’re compatible with beliefs in that hybrid culture. My mom’s dad grew up Sikh, which is a north Indian religion. I think actually the fifth largest religion in the world, if you count Christianity as one, is Sikhism. He converted to Mormonism in the 1950s, but really we’ve continued a lot of that Sikh heritage in the family.
HODGES: Was he here in the United States?
GOLDBERG: He grew up in Pre-Partition India and then came to the United States in the fifties and joined the church, yeah.
HODGES: Cool. Then how did you get into writing?
GOLDBERG: How did I get into writing?
HODGES: Big question, but yeah.
GOLDBERG: I’ve got big extended families on most sides and I grew up with a family culture of just lots of storytelling. Storytelling kitchen kind of culture. So I was always around it. My dad’s a very good storyteller. My mom’s a good storyteller who did some writing. I don’t remember exactly when I decided that’s what I was going to do. I got interested in theater in high school and this sort of multifaceted way of interacting with an audience. I think very quickly within theater sort of gravitated toward new theater and writing, and then from theater out into other genres.
HODGES: So The Five Books of Jesus. This is a book that you recently published and you self-published this one. It’s kind of a creative adaptation or a re-writing or the New Testament gospels into a narrative form. In your introduction you say that “the gospels are at odds with modern readers’ expectations for specificity and consistency.” Expand on that a little bit.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. Well the first thing. One of the strengths of the modern novel as opposed to a film or something is that it gets you in character’s perspective, right? It tells you everything people are thinking and feeling. We’re really interested in the inner life of characters now. The Bible doesn’t care. I actually had a conversation a while ago about what does the Bible say about being gay? And I said nothing because when we say being gay now we mean an interior experience. The Bible talks primarily about the exterior.
HODGES: The actions, yeah.
GOLDBERG: And in a different context. Anyway, in terms of specificity the Bible is not necessarily as involved in details of people’s inner emotional lives. Another thing in terms of—
HODGES: The readers expect that in their books now.
GOLDBERG: Readers today expect that, right.
HODGES: So they go to the New Testament and that’s not there.
GOLDBERG: Right, it’s not there. Consistency. I think what we think is written in the gospels is a mix of what’s actually in the gospels, oral tradition, visual art, and I noticed this as I started studying for this book, we forget the variations. We’ve got four different gospels; within the gospels there’s a lot of variation, and we sort of tend to project whatever broad notions we have onto the whole text and so we resist sometimes what the gospel is saying because we’ve got a broader idea of how it’s supposed to be.
HODGES: Right. So when you decided to write this book how did that come up? How did this project begin then? To me it would be pretty daunting to take on scripture that way.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. Well, number one it’s scripture and number two it is the most told story in western tradition, with the possible exception of Adam and Eve, which is quite widely told. But it’s pretty thoroughly told. The genesis for me was I was brand new in a ward and was asked to give a fifth Sunday lesson about the life of Christ. The bishop and his counselor just say, “We’d really like you to do this. We think there’s something you can do with it.” I thought how do you do the life of Christ in an hour? You can’t. So I ended up doing a lesson about bringing greater imagination to your study of the gospels and saying when you read a passage how is it different if you stop and think what might people at the time have been thinking? What is this passage like if you don’t know how it’s going to end yet? A lot of times we know how it ends and read too quickly and we miss that sense of surprise. A lot of Jesus is built on one way people would have thought of things and flipping that. If we don’t take time to realize the first we miss the power of the gospels.
So I’d done this teaching about how could you approach the gospels differently studying individually and then I just got interested in okay how could I do this in storytelling in a way that it gives readers a sense of that surprise. I was also really interested in how a lot of the stories in the gospels depends some on that world and the assumptions of that world that are gone to us. How could I help take this power of the modern novel, which is point of view, and give you a point of view that is built in the assumptions of that time period as best I could approximate them?
HODGES: What kind of sources did you use? That seems, I mentioned the quest for the historical Jesus and the quest for the fictional Jesus, and it seems that they can’t be completely separate, at least in your project then if you’re also trying to incorporate some of the cultural and societal things that would have informed the New Testament then. So what did you use to do that?
GOLDBERG: That’s a great question. Maybe one thing to clarify. Sometimes quest for historical Jesus is to try to separate, well, I think the core is to try to separate Jesus from the gospels. So different people have said can the tools of modern inquiry give us some sense of which part of the gospels are matters of later belief and which are original Jesus? I have about zero interest in that.
HODGES: Right. There’s also the newer quest for the historical Jesus, which is this project of fleshing out the world of Jesus and the world of the New Testament.
GOLDBERG: Yes. That side I’m interested in. So I really was interested in who’s the Jesus of the gospels and that meant that most of what I was doing was scholarship based on individual scriptural passages. So I’d just take academic library, there’s actually a search engine where you can search by reference and get tons of scholarship to this passage. So I did some general background research. I had a fair amount of general background knowledge. As much as having a grandfather who grew up in a thoroughly rural preindustrial setting, there’s a lot about the Bible he understands very intuitively that’s not natural to readers now because he grew up in a similar world. But most of my research was passage by passage of the gospels looking at a variety of scholarly perspectives on what might—
HODGES: And we should be clear. So I like that you differentiated your project from the old quest for historical Jesus and that your retelling of the story wasn’t an attempt to narrow the gospels down to the core facts that scholarship might establish but rather to use what the evangelists put together and sort of breathe some new life into that or imaginatively enter into the text to help flesh it out into a story that can surprise us again, as we’ve become familiar with the New Testament.
GOLDBERG: One way you can think about this is how can I get a modern reader to experience something like an early reader would have experienced with the gospels? Somebody who had all that other equipment. They might have received the gospels in a very different way than we do.
HODGES: Right. You went with the five books of Jesus and that’s interesting because there are four gospels. Is there significance to the number five or is that just—
GOLDBERG: Yes. So one of the key things that I see in the gospels is that all of them are built around the Hebrew Bible. I worked for the Joseph Smith Papers Project for a while and one of the things that I loved most doing there were requests about sort of the Biblicism of the early saints. The Bible were their stories even in the 1830s. That’s how they made meaning out of everything. The number of biblical illusions in casual conversation from that period is incredible. The gospels are the same way. They’re very carefully crafted around these structures from the scriptures they already have. So the five books of Moses were sort of the most sacred of the Hebrew Scriptures.
GOLDBERG: My retelling is structured around five books where book one has seven chapters. It’s parallel to Genesis. The title is “Bereshit” which is the Hebrew for that first book. In the same way the five books are the five books of Moses telling the story of Jesus.
HODGES: Okay. One of the things you say in the introduction is a great quote, that’s a fairly complex explanation but in the introduction your literary sensibility puts it into a really interesting way. You say that “the New Testament gospels are like boats that sail on the deep sea of the Hebrew Bible.” So if you’re only looking at the surface of the water you’re missing out on what’s below that surface and the gospels are informed by the Hebrew Scriptures, deeply informed by them.
GOLDBERG: And in a way I think you could still ride the boat without all of it, but the way these structures really work, the ocean holds up a boat. In the same way really the structures of the Hebrew Bible are what are holding up the essential claims in the gospels.
HODGES: Right. There’s another thing that you do. You don’t just tap into the Hebrew Scriptures but you also draw on Talmudic sages and Urdu poets. What led you to that decision and how did you go about doing that?
GOLDBERG: Well the Talmud, for listeners who haven’t worked with the Talmud at all before, basically after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, which was in 70 A.D., the remaining mainstream of the Jewish community put most of its energy into the study of the scriptural texts sort of as a portable mode of worship. So you had this vast body of commentary that’s the Talmud and part of it’s about the Bible, part of it was the oral tradition of what happened in the temple. They told what they could and later they wrote down, and you have layers and layers of commentary.
We don’t have a lot of written sources about Jewish thought and life at Jesus’s time. The Talmud is one of our most exhaustive sources; it was written down a few centuries later, depending on which part you’re talking about, but in some cases talks back to what was going on in that period. So the Talmud was a valuable source for me for what might have been the debates within Jewish law that Jesus is speaking to. How does he interact with his contemporaries? So Talmudic sources were very important that way.
The Urdu poetry is a more literary choice. So a lot of the works in the Urdu poetic tradition you came from traditions where you could not come right out and say what you meant. That was certainly true in sort of conservative Islamic societies, well in India and Pakistan you had a variety, I wouldn’t call them all conservative Islamic societies. But you know, you had to treat carefully. Then again under the British the poetic tradition you would talk about love and your beloved was the revolution. So you’d use one set of imagery to mean another set of things. It really opened up Jesus’s parables to me to say… Jesus specifically says we tend to assume today that Jesus taught in parables because people understood. These were simple, concrete ways and it was a way to communicate more effectively.
HODGES: It’s an effective rhetorical teaching strategy or something.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. What the gospels say about the parables is Jesus taught in parables so people would not understand unless they had ears to hear, unless they were really listening. That’s because, I think, you had a culture where you couldn’t just come out and say anything. So he had to conceal and reveal certain things simultaneously. So sometimes I borrow from this poetry that’s designed to conceal and reveal in describing this movement that has to conceal and reveal its core.
HODGES: I think part of the plot as you lay it out then revolves around that teaching style in that there are people that come to follow Jesus or to listen to him for a time that have ears to hear maybe something that he didn’t intend. So some people leave. Simon’s friends, for example, that are more zealots and they interpret Jesus’s parables in a certain way and someone else takes it another way. So is that kind of—
GOLDBERG: Yeah. Maybe that’s one thing.
HODGES: Rather than just saying “here’s this cool thing Jesus is doing,” you show that there are consequences that reach beyond what even Jesus himself could control that is a result of using that teaching strategy.
GOLDBERG: I’ll give you an example. So part of it is the teaching strategy, part of it is what Jesus does mean. Forgiveness of sins sounds wonderful and is the core of Christianity. If someone walks up and says they can forgive sins that’s sort of a frightening prospect. What are they trying to achieve? What sort of sins are they planning to forgive? Right? Are they planning to get followers to commit sins—
HODGES: Plus who told you you could do that? Blasphemy—
GOLDBERG: Who told you to do that? There’s the conventional, there’s the blasphemy, there’s also other concerns. Ross Douthat, so he’s a largely political and social thinker but coming from a contemporary Catholic interested in social capital and those sorts of things. Anyway, he wrote a review of Reza Aslan’s book Zealot that’s very much in the quest for historical Jesus, right?
HODGES: Jesus as a revolutionary and that sort of stuff.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. So he’s trying to strip away layers of the gospel to find something else. One thing that Douthat said that I found really interesting about the book is Christianity comes from a complex figure in Jesus, who is compassionate but also demanding, who is zealous and pacifistic both, so you’ve got this multiplicity of teachings within Jesus as the gospels present him. Maybe one thing that I do as he’s teaching and there’s this guardedness is yeah that multiplicity can be offensive as well as appealing.
HODGES: Right. With the Urdu poets I just wanted to ask you about one specific example. There’s an epigraph that you include toward the end of the book just before the scene where Jesus betrays Jesus with a kiss. This—
GOLDBERG: Judas betrays Jesus, yeah.
HODGES: Did I say Jesus—
GOLDBERG: You said “Jesus betrays Jesus.”
HODGES: Well that’s my rewriting (inaudible) in my version. But there’s a quote from Ghalib, is that how you say it?
GOLDBERG: Yeah, Ghalib.
HODGES: Ghalib, a Persian poet and a mystic who sort of straddled the Hindi and Islamic traditions in his time, from what I gathered. He died in about 1869 so this is more relatively recently than the gospels are. But the quote you include right before the betrayal says, “I am like a candle that has gone out on the grave of a poor man.” I want to know what you were drawing out of that.
GOLDBERG: Maybe to talk about Ghalib, Ghalib was in the court at Delhi, as in New Delhi but there was no “New” yet. He lived through the time when there was a revolt against early British influence there to reestablish the… the Mughal court still existed, but to give them political power. The British just killed everybody. After the revolt, Delhi just hung people everywhere, sacked the city, absolute desolation, and he sort of speaks to that desolation. This image to me, “I’m a candle that’s gone out on the grave of a poor man,” just seemed so desolate. In Urdu actually the candle going out is the same word as someone falling silent. The tongue of flame, we have the same in English.
So this is between as we move from Gethsemane into the crucifixion. In a lot of fictional portrayals of Jesus, if you think of The Passion of the Christ or something, that’s rising climactic action. In The Five Books of Jesus in some ways there’s a sense of falling action and desolation as the apostles feel everything spinning out of control from their perspective. Jesus has tried to tell them what’s happening but the gospels tell us they didn’t understand. So I take the gospels seriously and say here are people who don’t understand what’s happening and it seems like everything is falling out of control.
The second half of that couplet is the quote at the beginning of the book. So Ghalib says, “I’m like a candle that has gone out on the grave of a poor man. In my silence are ten thousands of anguish soaked desires.” I guess that second half having an image of Jesus taking things upon him, that Gethsemane image, and then the exhaustion. I’m trying to show the exhaustion after this core moment of atonement in Gethsemane.
HODGES: That’s cool. I want to have you read an excerpt here. This is actually from the beginning of the book. It starts out here. I enjoyed how the book was written in the present tense. I’m not sure what the literary term is for that, but everything seems live, it seems present. You’re narrating it as it happens. You open the book with a striking description of a prophet absconding off to the desert. So I want to have you read that section. This is from the beginning of the book.
GOLDBERG: Right, the very beginning.
“It starts in the desert. In the beginning of the world says Genesis the whole earth was a void and the spirit of God swept over it. This desert out on the banks of the Jordan is no void, even in the night the camels moan and the crickets chirp, but when it does get quiet some say you can still feel the spirit of God sweep by. Breathe it deep down into your chest. A long time ago the prophet Amos looked out past his orchards and his flocks west of the desert in the east and said, ‘There are days coming.’ Yes, the vision must have fallen on him the way the sunset makes the desert suddenly cold. There are days coming, says the Lord God, when I’ll send a famine in the land. Not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but for words of the Lord. The ground itself will grow parched and cracked with your deafness and my absence. There are days coming, said the prophet, when men will wander from sea to sea from the north to the east. They’ll run back and forth looking for a word from me. But they won’t find it. It’ll be too dry, he said. So John doesn’t wander from sea to sea. John doesn’t run this way or that. He walks straight into the river until it covers his head then out the other side where the dust gets mixed in his beard. He listens to the camels moan and the crickets chirp, and then to the silence. The dead prophet Amos smiles. It starts to rain.”
HODGES: That’s James Goldberg reading a selection from his book The Five Books of Jesus.
So you come from a Mormon background and I want to talk a little bit about how that might have informed the book. Mormons haven’t been shy about challenging the supremacy of the Bible. We have an article of faith that says that as far as it’s translated correctly we accept that it’s scripture. We’ve also added additional scripture to the canon, but at the same time the church has also encouraged at least English speaking members to stick to the King James Version of the Bible. Now there are translations that would help modern readers understand the Bible a little bit better. I’ve benefitted from reading different translations. So there’s sort of this tension between recognizing limitations with the Bible and with translation, but also adhering to a certain version of the text. You’ve taken that text and reworked it yourself, so obviously it’s quite different from the King James Version. Did any of these tensions affect the way that you went about putting the book together?
GOLDBERG: That’s interesting. I think the reason we use the King James Version is almost Talmudic in the sense that I don’t know that we use King James because it’s any better than another translation but it’s a common reference point to have discussions across generations. Previous Mormon commentators, prophets especially, when we have prophets and apostles who have used the language of King James, been inspired by that, and base their commentary on that, we want to go back to that rather than to another version that maybe misses this particular nuance in the King James. To me a more Protestant view of scripture is that scripture is the standard and it dictates the way religion should be carried out. That’s a conventional sort of Martin Luther Protestant. I would see a Mormon view of scripture as treating scripture more like a Urim and Thummim. Scripture is past revelation that can be binding in certain circumstances that can help you make sense of life, but as much as anything it’s that thing you go to to seek revelation. So I think we’re a little more flexible.
HODGES: So you kind of counter that though. I think that’s one of the strengths of the book is when I come across a quoted scripture in the Ensign or in some source I notice my eyes tend to glaze over and I skip past it cause oh it’s a scripture, not because I don’t like scripture but because I know this, move along.
GOLDBERG: There’s a blindness of habit and familiarity.
HODGES: Yes. But with this when you reword things it calls it again fresh to mind. In my mind I can often still hear the cadence of the King James Version, oh I see where this is coming from, but it brings it fresh.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. King James is based on a certain era. It doesn’t work if I’m trying to give a sense of how Hebrew might have felt to people at that time to use early seventeenth century English. I guess maybe one thing I do want is that feeling of freshness and unfamiliarity. I want you to go back and look again at the gospels and maybe it’s connected to what I said, in the hopes that maybe there will be some, this is not scripture this is a novel, but if it can help you see with new eyes as you return to scripture after this, and I’ve had some very interesting conversations with people who say, “After this book I just had to go look at the gospels again.”
HODGES: That was my first impulse, was to do that.
GOLDBERG: I think you have a richer reading of the gospels having had the sense of surprise and sometimes that jarring difference, sometimes with the language I use here, sometimes with the framing, the context is just slightly different and it’s the framing that gives a new sense of what this might mean.
HODGES: Now if I take this back to the New Testament after having read The Five Books of Jesus there’s plenty more material in the gospels to think through. You weren’t able to incorporate everything obviously.
GOLDBERG: No, by no means exhaustive.
HODGES: Was it difficult to make those decisions about what to include or what not? Or was it a bit more organic? Did you sit there with your New Testament open and say—
GOLDBERG: Not only did I sit there, I mean the New Testament’s fairly large, so I would do things like add a complete list of parables. I made a decision early on. In matters of event and plot John differs enough that I did not hold myself accountable to John in any way. I occasionally will draw from something that’s in the gospel of John that was useful to me, but for the other three gospels I had a complete list of pericopes, but basically a scene-by-scene break down of what happens. There were some scenes that in the outline I’d put in, but then in the chapter I just could not do that one as well. But I took my structural ideas in terms of how to structure into these five books and what the structure of each book I wanted was, plus the raw material in the gospels, and how could I maybe bring two things together that weren’t in conversation before. I also had my list of what are the Old Testament, so to speak, passages that I want to use.
HODGES: Yeah, it seemed that you used quite a bit of the Hebrew Scriptures.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. I mean I guess in proportion it’s not that much.
HODGES: I’d say more than I would expect. It’s a reminder that there is a lot more of the Hebrew Scriptures in the New Testament, or at least that as a background to the New Testament, than we’d expect.
GOLDBERG: Just in the passage we read, what have we got? There’s the phrase Mark starts with the beginning of the gospel, right? So it starts in the desert. Where I’m playing very directly with directly translating even if it’s just those few words, Mark. I’ve also got Amos. The silence there is actually one thing you miss in the King James Bible when Elijah’s on the mountain in the King James English there’s the—
HODGES: The still small voice?
GOLDBERG: The still small voice is the final. There’s the fire, the earthquake, and the wind, and then a still small voice. Many scholars feel the Hebrew is closer to a silence. So I’ve got that same moment where John here is hearing this, this, and then silence because the gospel’s teller’s John is Elijah so I told John’s stories in the same ways that people tell Elijah’s stories, if that makes sense.
HODGES: Yeah. It does. It seems like you incorporate some information from the Book of Mormon. You have Jesus giving his disciples particular instructions. In the New Testament it seems as though Jesus is speaking generally. The Book of Mormon has Jesus take his disciples away from the crowd and talk to them that way. Did you consciously do that?
GOLDBERG: No, I did not consciously do that.
HODGES: Yeah, so the—
GOLDBERG: That’s an interesting question, whether there’s—
HODGES: You ended up doing that so I wonder if that’s like a subconscious thing from your Mormonism, or if you just thought this is an interesting way to incorporate these sayings of Jesus in a similar way to what the Book of Mormon has Jesus do.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. A couple of passages I can think of where there’s that the one at the very beginning of the second book where part of what I wanted as a writer was to individuate the apostles a bit and how do I do that? I took different sayings where each one has some interaction with the name of the apostle. It’s a play on the name or a play on something we know about it.
HODGES: Sons of thunder was really funny. You had the mother of, was it James and John of the sons of thunder?
HODGES: And she was getting on Jesus’s case a little bit, or at least—
GOLDBERG: Yes. Well the story is there are problems in Capernaum and she comes and tells Jesus “You need to come and fix this.” Come back to Capernaum and do this. In my telling the name sons of thunder is not necessarily directly about James and John when he says, “Lead the way, you sons of thunder, your mother predicts a storm.”
HODGES: Yeah, that was great.
GOLDBERG: Part of that is there are women in the gospels. Many of them we don’t have a lot of information, right? Here’s the reference. My guess would be to some of the earliest readers there was probably an oral tradition of what these women meant and people would go, “Oh, yes. They were with him.” We don’t have that now.
HODGES: You expand a little bit on that.
GOLDBERG: I do.
HODGES: You have Mary and Martha prophesying at one point.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. Based on the Old Testament, yeah. There’s an Old Testament story I’m lining up with that I thought was very convenient. But yeah. So I did use the… If there’s a woman’s name I used it, with the exception of you’ve got multiple Mary’s who some people treat as the same Mary and I did a composite Mary there. Every unique name in the gospels I used.
HODGES: Some people say that one of the Marys was a prostitute and you didn’t use that element.
GOLDBERG: Yeah, I didn’t use that element. It’s another one of those version things where you have in one gospel, and it’s been long enough I don’t remember which is which, but in one gospel you have this sinful woman washing the feet of Jesus and in another you have I believe Mary and Martha doing it. So some people combine those two, which is reasonable, and therefore identify Mary with the sinful woman. I didn’t end up doing that because I wanted to do other things with Mary.
HODGES: Another thing I wanted to ask you about was, and we touched on this briefly just at the beginning, was the issue of harmonization. Within the Mormon tradition we have James E. Talmage’s book Jesus the Christ, which has been hugely influential. It takes the New Testament and takes the pericopes and puts them in a harmonized order and tells this narrative story of Jesus. Everything’s in a timeline, everything’s situated that way. Your book obviously does a little bit of that as well. More recent New Testament scholars resist that, or at least they see problems with trying to harmonize the gospels that way. So I’m curious as to how you dealt with that. You were harmonizing but there’s also a resistence to harmonizing, or at least to the way that say Talmage harmonized. You don’t follow any particular order.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. I mean… I guess I don’t see the gospels necessarily as… This sounds bad, maybe, but I genuinely believe that Jesus Christ was there, that he atoned, that he said many of the things the gospels do attribute to him, but I don’t care that much about what is the actual chronology of Jesus, like it’s not interesting to me.
HODGES: Or Jesus (inaudible) type stuff doesn’t, where you’re going to color code whether this is likely said by him—
GOLDBERG: Color code. That doesn’t interest me as much as what are the gospels doing. To me the organization in most of the gospels, you know, I think of these people less as disciples of Jesus who were taking journals as he lived; as the writers of the gospels I see them as people who had a wide variety of stories about Jesus and looked to organize them into a way that for an audience where many people were still not even literate could remember them. So to me a lot of the gospels have their own structures that are not necessarily grounded in chronology but in shape, right? So I tried to do the same thing. What I wanted to do is what’s the shape, I give it these, you know, part of it is the five book structure, part of it is my sense of when do we have rising and falling action, but that was more interesting to me than what was the actual chronology.
Many of the things we say about chronology, was Jesus’s ministry three years? I think that comes from the number of Passovers in the gospel of John. In the other ones there’s not necessarily a time period. It could be very quick. Where did Jesus’s family live when he was born? Matthew has them living in Bethlehem, then going to Egypt, then moving to Galilee later. Luke puts them in Nazareth, and coming down to visit Bethlehem. It’s two different versions, both of them have interesting… I like both birth stories because they, look, in Matthew Herod is Pharaoh, there’s the killing of the first born. He’s telling a story people already know in order to tell the new story. Luke is telling a very different and interesting story about sort of the humility of Jesus and that classical imagery. I love both of them. I don’t see them as different details of the same chronological story. I see them as different versions that give us important insights into the character of Jesus and the nature of the gospel message.
HODGES: Yeah. So you sort of do some harmonizing but you resist an overall type of harmonization that tries to account for all these discrepancies between—
GOLDBERG: I’m not interested in chronological harmonization.
HODGES: So to give people kind of an idea who haven’t read the books some specific things, there’s an unusual harmonization tactic you employ that I really enjoyed. It’s to take a particular pericope and tie it together with a seemingly unrelated pericope and when you put them side by side it gives both of them a different emphasis than they had separately.
So for an example, the brothers of Jesus are only briefly discussed in the New Testament. There are times when they seem reluctant to follow Jesus, or they’re somehow ashamed of him, and you incorporate that. You observe that the names of the brothers match the names of the apostles that Jesus calls and you sort of connect that to Jesus’s declaration about who are my mother and my father and brother and sisters? You are, and he’s speaking to the disciples. So you kind of use these two seemingly separate things within the New Testament and lay them side-by-side. Where Jesus has called a new family when he calls his disciples but in a way that still called to mind his own family.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. I owe a lot of that to Mark because one of the key strategies that scholars who look into literary structure of the gospels they noticed in Mark he interrupts himself quite frequently to tell another story. For instance, the story of the healing of the daughter of Jairus is interrupted. On the way to healing there’s this story of the woman with the issue of blood. Scholars look at what is Mark trying to say by putting these together? And constantly in Mark he interrupts one story to tell another and there’s almost invariably solid arguments that there’s meaning to the combination of those two.
So I got interested in how do you lay that. The second book in The Five Books of Jesus is sort of Jesus is now gathering his movement, gathering of the people, it’s the new Exodus. The old Exodus was the coming out of Egypt, the new Exodus is—
HODGES: Well and if the twelve disciples represented the twelve tribes this is the gathering of the twelve tribes, yeah.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. So we’ve got this gathering and yeah, we start out with those scenes from the gospels about Jesus’s family along with the calling of the twelve because I think they do speak to each other, absolutely.
HODGES: Another one. You seem to explain Jesus’s frustration with Peter. Peter comes to him and says, “You can’t die. What’s going on here?” Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.” “Get away from me, Satan” is how you phrase it. Jesus implies here that Peter’s questioning was like the verbal traps that the scribes were setting for him, so you kind of set that exchange between Jesus and Peter as the sort of exchange Jesus was having with these other people that was an adversarial exchange.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. Well one thing you see in book one, to move back a little bit from that moment, a lot of times where the gospels use the Pharisees I use disciples who end up leaving Jesus because to me you look at early Mormon history, a lot of the opponents are people with intimate ties to Mormonism—
HODGES: And then they start trouble.
GOLDBERG: Either it’s former Mormons or have family members who are Mormons. I see the same potentially happening, surely if people were indifferent to the movement why would they talk? Some of these may have been people who were drawn to Jesus. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s an interesting way to reread it and allow us to take seriously the questions of the Pharisees.
So yeah, when Peter comes to Jesus it’s in that phrase I give Peter a scripture to quote. There’s a well-known Jewish scripture in Deuteronomy that says, “I’ve set before you life and death, blessing and cursing, choose life.” In Judaism that’s a fundamental commandment. You choose life when you get there, very few exceptions to that. So Peter’s come with an argument and I think Jesus says in effect in my telling, “Look, I’m used to be being tempted, but it’s harder from you.” Part of that is the Pharisees, part of the allusion may be you’ve got temptations and that when Jesus says “Satan” Jesus has been directly tempted by Satan, right? We have that story.
HODGES: So one thing I wondered as I’m reading along here is how many of these juxtapositions that you created, how many of these insights that you bring into your book, how many of those came out of your own personal scripture study versus when you were doing this project all of these elements started coming to the fore. Is this something you had been doing before with the New Testament? Or is it new to this particular project?
GOLDBERG: Well this is the way that I’ve studied the scriptures for a long time. I’m interested in what might this mean? What is a multiplicity of possibilities and what do each of them teach us and how? For a long time I’ve been interested in Judas, for example, and what’s going on and what are possibilities. So some of the things were ideas that I’ve had for a long time.
There’s a passage where Jesus says his wo, wo to the different Galilean towns and contrast them with Phanesian cities that would have accepted him. Having grown up Jewish-Mormon I always have been a little sensitive about that, you know, this sense that the Jews were the only people who would have rejected Jesus, and years ago as a teenage I decide that the Jews may have been the only people who would have rejected Jesus, they’re also the only people who would have remembered him. In any other nation he would have been forgotten. So I had to have that. I stuck that in this book. This insight that… so yeah, in some sense there are things in my personal life that go way back and other times they’re borrowed insights from a wide variety of scholars and perspectives.
HODGES: And you mention Judas as well. You make a pretty big expansion on Judas. There’s a reoccurring nightmare and also interactions that he has with an angel. I was just curious about where that came from. I didn’t see any seeds within the gospel narratives themselves. That was probably the most original element of the story that you brought in.
GOLDBERG: So one of the things I played with in my understanding of Judas for a long time, and that is one of my older insights, is what if, and spoiler, I can’t believe I’m announcing a spoiler for something that retells the most told—
HODGES: Spoiler about the New Testament.
GOLDBERG: Spoiler about my expansion. I’ve been interested in what if Judas was trying to force God’s hand?
HODGES: Aren’t there theories—
GOLDBERG: Yeah, there’s some certainly in Jesus fiction, which you talked about at the beginning as a genre, it’s very common to treat Judas as a political zealot who sees Jesus as, well you’ve got the poor thing, because of the ointment could have been sold, you have a lot of people who say he’s sort of this conscience of social justice and when Jesus betrays that he betrays Jesus. I didn’t go that direction, partly because I don’t see a division in the ancient world between religious and political. So to have this contemporary political Judas just seemed out of place for me. I ended up instead with a very apocalyptic Judas who sees fundamental problems with a fallen world and fully expects Jesus to be the one who—
HODGES: Well he speaks with an angel who tells him… and it’s taken off of something Jesus himself said, right? Or at least in the Book of Revelation where these angels are just waiting. Hey we’re just waiting for the word. We want this world to end. We’re waiting to do it; we just are waiting on the word here.
GOLDBERG: The gospel seed of that is when Jesus is captured he says in the gospels, “Couldn’t I call down a legion of angels now?” or “Don’t you know that I could?”
GOLDBERG: So I took that saying to be expanded as this apocalyptic hope that Jesus has—
HODGES: Well how about the nightmare though? How about his sister? He has a nightmare about his sister.
GOLDBERG: So I was interested in apocalyptical thought in Judas so part of what I wanted to do is I wanted to make a Judas you could sympathize with, who sees problems with the world, wants them fixed. On the other hand I wanted Judas who, this is a big, he’s wrong. When he betrays Jesus it’s a bad thing. What I have with him is there’s a forcing of God that is almost violent in the way Judas does it.
HODGES: Done with a kiss too, right?
GOLDBERG: Right. So I’m sort of paralleling that to this thing with the sister. So the backstory with Judas is he’s from Jerusalem, he’s a Southerner, the others are Northerners, within my book. So he grew up in the slums and his sister’s been raped and he doesn’t know who did it. Of course rape is bad enough today. Rape in that sort of culture I imagine would have been significantly worse.
HODGES: Yeah. There would have been more societal repercussions that were really terrible and unjust.
GOLDBERG: The way to prevent rape then was to have this sense that female rape is in sense a male honor. It’s this “mess with my sister and I’ll kill you” culture. That really protected women in a more chaotic, lawless environment, but that also meant that if there’s something that’s harder for the whole family, for women specifically, there’s a huge cost.
HODGES: The woman’s value is then depleted because she has been violated is another thing, so men were protective of their property.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. So it’s very complicated. Anyway, so Judas is traumatized by this, doesn’t know, and he doesn’t blame any certain thing, says, “This is an example of how fallen the world is and why it needs salvation.”
HODGES: Yeah. Something like this would happen in his family.
GOLDBERG: I also in the second book, the second book has that twelve tribes of… each chapter corresponds in a sense to a tribe of Israel. I’ve got sort of layered imagery from Jacob’s blessings of his son.
HODGES: Oh interesting. These are things I didn’t see.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. I mean there’s a lot of the Old Testament in play you would never notice. I do have sometimes a reader call me and say, “I was reading the Old Testament and I found this story and suddenly something makes sense.” It’s not necessarily Old Testament greatest hits all the time.
HODGES: Right. Right. Noah’s Ark does not make an appearance.
GOLDBERG: Anyway, the sister of Judas plays the Dinah role in that second book.
HODGES: Oh, okay. Yeah. Okay.
GOLDBERG: So there’s a variety of scriptural things. I’m not saying this is why it happened, but I am working with different elements of Old and New Testament that I weave together to make this new speculative Judas story.
HODGES: Your descriptions of some of the parables are also particularly memorable to me. I want to have you read a short excerpt. You managed to find some pretty funny moments here in Jesus’s teachings that I hadn’t thought of before. Right there.
GOLDBERG: Okay. So this is before the feeding of the multitude.
HODGES: Before he feeds the multitude he’s teaching them and he’s telling them, yeah.
GOLDBERG: “When his listeners seemed to be getting tired, Jesus tells funny stories. Everybody laughs at the way he staggers around as if he had a giant plank sticking out of his eye while he pretends to pluck out a grain of sand that’s gotten in Nathaniel’s. When the audience seems to be getting too boisterous, Jesus tells unsettling stories about men who stumble on their way to heaven and then cut off their feet so they can learn to walk.”
HODGES: I like how you incorporated a description of some of the parables. Some of them you expand on and you have Jesus actually saying them, but here you’ve taken a couple of them and just put them together but shown that it’s possible in those circumstances that he could have been doing a number of things. He’s teaching the same lesson. Like with the mote and the beam and hypocrisy and that. But you show that this could be a funny moment for Jesus. You find humor here.
GOLDBERG: The mote and the beam has become so embedded even beyond Christianity in the English language that we forget… A beam. This is not a big thing stuck in your eye. This is larger than your eye. I read someone who described Jesus’s language as “gigantesque.” These impossibly huge images. There’s almost no way that isn’t funny. A speck of dust, a mote, we only use that word, that word has survived entirely in the context of this. What it means is a tiny speck of something.
HODGES: Sort of like a sliver even.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. So I just see that it’s such a juxtaposition that if you weren’t aware of it, of course it’s funny. It’s preposterous, it’s huge, and it absolutely captures attention. You think about how could Jesus have taught large crowds? I mean you don’t have any technologies of magnifying. There’s constraints of… well the other thing is you don’t… contemporary American culture has a pretty calm… I was just watching a church video the other day. The mob scene is laughable. Contemporary Mormons cannot act like a mob. There are plenty of countries in this world where getting on a bus is a more boisterous and violent atmosphere than a mob scene in our movies.
But Jesus comes from presumably a culture where crowds are a little more restive and people were doing things and anyone whose been to the Middle East today can see if you’re trying to capture attention you need that sense of surprise. So I’m trying to give people a fresh sense of what that probably actually was like.
HODGES: Yeah and you also just mentioned just a second ago your attention to the practical realities of the traveling ministry, like the one Jesus was putting on. So he’s got these people following him around and you mention there’s this one part where you talk about wherever Jesus and his followers go it turns dirty and ugly. It reminded me of sort of like after a concert’s over and everybody leaves and there’s all this garbage everywhere and the grass is all trampled down and stuff.
So you pay a lot of attention to those types of circumstances and I think that’s a strong part of the narrative that I hadn’t considered before. These practical considerations of that type of a ministry.
GOLDBERG: I think some of the stories in the gospels are fairly difficult to understand without the embodied mundane realities and how intense they were.
Example: Jesus’s mother and brothers come to take him away and they want him to stop. Why do they do that? Well if you think about lots of people in a densely, I don’t know. If you have these crowds that actually press. These are not people who stand in line, line is certainly not part of this culture, so you have these people pressing, a press of the crowd is very real. Many of them have infectious diseases and open wounds. Who knows what. There’s a very clear and present danger to Jesus in this moment, right? I don’t think you can understand the family concern if you aren’t able to visualize that. We live in a much more orderly culture, sanitized society. We don’t get that.
HODGES: Today people might get the sense that his family was just embarrassed about some stuff he was saying. Maybe for us today you’ve got a relative who’s out there embarrassing you, so that’s kind of… but you draw attention to these other considerations that would have affected their situation.
GOLDBERG: There are certainly things that would have been there. If you want a real visual image of what’s going on, and again I think the original listeners, the research I’ve seen suggests that urban parts of the Roman empire were probably more densely populated than Indian cities today, but without being able to build as high. I mean very tightly packed. So if people knew that, these were people where the original hearers of the gospel knew what the press of the crowd meant. We don’t. We really have no concept.
HODGES: Well a concert is the closest to it I can think of, where you’re mushed into a venue, like these outdoor concerts where you’re right up against the stage and everybody’s pushing. And like you say, when you leave it’s filthy. There’s shoes lying around and you know.
GOLDBERG: So yeah you’ve got that. You asked about research. One thing I spent a lot of time researching sometimes is what can you see from, f you’re in Capernaum looking out, what can you see? How far do you have to go to get somewhere? How long does it take to walk from point A to point B? Many of the locations there are actually quite close. A couple of hours, maybe an overnight trip.
On the other hand, there’s one story that was very difficult for me to understand. You have one story, almost everything in Galilee then the journey down to Jerusalem, you have a single pericope that happens in the coast of Tyre and Sidon, which is quite a ways away.
HODGES: I remember that part of your narration.
GOLDBERG: But I think that physical reality made me stop and think about that story again, where we miss, to us it’s all place names.
HODGES: Yeah. It’s like a monopoly board here. Oh, it’s all just right in a row.
Alright, so there’s another excerpt here. What you did with the story of the rich young ruler and Jesus. The rich young ruler who comes to Jesus and says, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus says, “Follow the commandments.” And he says, “That’s great, I do that.” And he says, “Well alright, sell all you have, give it to the poor, and then come follow me.” And the rich young ruler leaves and Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
You expand on that. You enter into the rich young ruler’s thoughts and he’s dwelling on his future posterity and some other considerations that he has to take. “If I sell everything how will I provide for a family? How will I have inheritance for my posterity?” So you make him a much more sympathetic figure and he still goes away. So I’d like you to read the exchange that Jesus has with the apostles after the rich young ruler leaves.
GOLDBERG: Alright. So we have a moment just before that where the apostles are remembering their own callings, because these are men who did leave other considerations, and he didn’t.
“‘Why isn’t he coming?’ asks Andrew, ‘Didn’t he feel that?’
‘He must have,’ says Jesus, ‘but it’s hard for a man with so many riches to join the kingdom of God.’
‘It’s not that hard,” says Matthew, who regrets nothing.
Jesus glances at him. ‘You knew that money didn’t really belong to you, so you didn’t belong to it either. But it’s hard for a man who trusts his wealth to come into the kingdom of God. Harder than it is for a camel to pass through an opening the size of a needle’s eye.’
The apostles stare. Thomas looks for a puzzle in Jesus’s words, imagines the rich young man spending the rest of his life plucking out a camel’s hairs and passing them through a needle one at a time. The futility of the image exhausts him.
‘Is there any way, then, for a man like him to be saved?’ Thomas asks.
Jesus looks around at all the twelve. ‘How many things have you seen God do that men can’t? With God all things are possible. There will be joy yet in heaven over him.’
Peter knows he shouldn’t be bothered by this, but he is. He thinks of his wife and his mother-in-law, thinks of their faith and sacrifice. Why should a rich man with no family be excused for refusing to do something a poor fisherman has done? Peter knows he shouldn’t be bothered, but can’t stop thinking about a story the prophet Nathan once told King David. A story about a rich man who spared sheep that were only things to him and killed a poor man’s only lamb instead, a lamb that was all the love and duty in the world to that man.
‘We’ve left everything to follow you,’ says Peter, but he stops before he can give voice to his complaint. A peaceful heart heals the body, he reminds himself, but envy rots the bones. A breeze comes off from the hills towards the river, giving momentary relief from the lowland heat. Far ahead Peter can almost see what must be Jericho’s city wall.
Jesus turns to Andrew. ‘How many homes have you stayed in since I called you to follow me?’
Andrew thinks. ‘A few dozen at least.’
‘And how many women cooked for you and cleaned up after you like you were their own sons?’ asks Jesus.
Andrew smiles wide.
‘How many people have you met who were like brothers and sisters to you?’ asks Jesus. ‘How many houses would you be as glad to see again as your own home? How many fields do you love now as much as if you’d spent your whole life caring for them?’
Peter thinks not just of the villages, but of hills where he spent the night and risen with the sun in the morning. He thinks of drinking from the dew on the wild grass, of digging up plants with satiating bulbs. All of Galilee is his now. Galilee is his in a way no rich man will ever know.
‘Whoever leaves a house, or land, or loved ones for me and my gospel is given hundreds of homes and lands and loved ones in this life. Your reward is coming in this world already,’ says Jesus, ‘so there’s no need to be jealous of the lost who are brought back to life in the world to come.’”
HODGES: That’s James Goldberg. He’s reading a selection from his book The Five Books of Jesus.
I mentioned this before, but I’m interested in your thoughts on it. You wrote it in the present tense, so “Jesus says,” “the apostle says.” Did you make that decision early on? And I wonder why you did.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. I must have made it early on because early on I’m doing it. In English, I don’t know if this is true of other languages, but the past tense is the dominant tense for, say, a novel, because the past tense is the tense of truth and record. “It happened.” You can think you’re telling an anecdote. So, “I’m driving home today and this guy just whips around the corner and he hits me,” and if someone expresses skepticism, “Oh really?” “It happened.” We switch to the past tense. The present tense is a tense of story. It’s a very oral tense I think.
HODGES: That’s the impression I get.
GOLDBERG: So I told you earlier I’m not concerned about absolute accuracy and chronology, which is quite frankly unrecoverable with the tools that we have within this world and this life.
HODGES: You can approximate it, but you know, even then there are no guarantees here.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. I’m interested in what are the gospels saying as a story and a power of story? So I chose that story tense, that very oral tense. In a way I come from playwriting. If you wanted to you could think of the whole book as a monologue of me telling you the story of Jesus. But I think the present tense in a way gives it an almost outside of time feel. This is not something that happened once, this is a story that is still in some sense happening. So I like that almost outside of time, very oral feel, to the present tense.
HODGES: It did. It felt very live, reading it. I thought it was a really good narrative decision. There’s a little selection I want you to read that’s about halfway through this book. This is a part where it starts to set up some foreboding here. This is when Jesus is speaking to the seventy, and it seemed like the apostles are the ones who kind of struck on the idea of the seventy. Did I gather that right? That you sort of set up the apostles—
HODGES: Let’s get some people in here.
GOLDBERG: In my telling, I don’t know if there’s any scriptural ground for it, but I think it’s plausible. It’s two of the apostles specifically, Jesus has sent the others out on missions as I remember and left two at their temporary base. He leaves them there and their task is to take care of the people who were there being fed. You had these people fed, you had this experience with Jesus, how do you continue to organize it? So I think it’s Matthew and Thomas maybe—
HODGES: I don’t remember.
GOLDBERG: I don’t recall either. Their innovation is to set up these representatives from groups and then they divided and they have these leaders. Jesus sort of endorses what they’ve done and then the calling of the seventy is based on the initial innovation from apostles. I think in stories we tend to take the main character and give them all the innovations because we can track them. So Latter-day Saint history is that way. We use Joseph Smith as the tracking, for he’s the mythical character so we attach everything we want to teach to Joseph Smith.
HODGES: Yeah, Work and the Glory sort of does that, right? You’ve got Steve Handley, but you also have some of the volumes like this.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. I think in most cases the way I understand revelation… how does a revelatory community work? I think functional revelatory communities are not all the leader sends the revelation down. A lot of times the revelation is there within somebody’s calling and stewardship—
HODGES: And we see that happening. Harold B. Lee did that with the welfare program.
GOLDBERG: Absolutely. Again and again in our church the revelation happens closer to the ground. The role of the leader then is to show which things should be applied more broadly. So yeah I have Jesus use that model because I think it’s a good model, and I think it’s entirely plausible that within Jesus’s movement not every idea came initially from Jesus.
HODGES: You do a good job of introducing some tension to the narrative here when Jesus is sending them out. Jesus is almost sending them out thinking to himself, “If only they knew what’s coming.”
GOLDBERG: Yeah. You do have this organizational dilemma where if you give the long version Jesus has three years, if you give shorter versions it might not be. Whatever it was, Jesus did not live long and the establishing and organization is very difficult work and so it’s got to be an overwhelming training burden on him. So we’ve got a passage here about that.
“Before Jesus sends out the seventy he gives them a warning. They’ll be like sheep among wolves. They all nod gravely and brace themselves against dangers they vaguely imagine, but almost none of them really understand because almost none of them have spent time enough alone out in the hills have Jesus has to see how wolves hunt. So they imagine sharp teeth but don’t think about wolves’ intelligence and patience. They imagine bristled hair and aggressive growls, but don’t realize that wolves hunt mostly by testing their prey for signs of fear and weakness, that wolves are most likely to bite animals only when they panic and run. The seventy go out to preach. Where they’re successful the twelve follow to heal. Since they’re met with few obvious signs of hostility they forget all about wolves, but their enemies have not forgotten anything. Jesus’s critics have simply chosen to save the next confrontation for the right place and time.”
HODGES: The section ends there. So you’re sort of setting up what’s going to happen later, and you mention this before. There are people that have become familiar with Jesus or heard about Jesus and they’re sort of causing trouble in the different communities that Jesus is going to, so you’re setting up eventually what will become the movement to have Jesus arrested and put on trial. So throughout the five books, or throughout the first three books, Jesus’s voice is pretty constant, pretty present in the narrative. As we get toward the crucifixion and after the crucifixion it seemed to me, I don’t want to give too much away, so if you don’t want to fast forward through this part or whatever—
GOLDBERG: Second spoiler alert.
HODGES: Another spoiler. I know, how do you do that with the gospels? I don’t know. But Jesus’s voice sort of goes away after the crucifixion and resurrection, and then the narrative turns fully to the voice of the women and the apostles. I wondered about that narrative decision. In the New Testament you have scenes where Jesus meets with them, he goes out and calls them on the water and they come in and he’s got fish cooked up—
GOLDBERG: Yeah, that’s beautiful. Love that scene. I don’t use it, but I love it. Peter jumping shirtless into the water.
HODGES: Yeah, I was like why did James not put that in there?
GOLDBERG: Alright so a couple of things. First we do have Jesus’s voice, never his point of view. I am an arrogant, arrogant man but I simply cannot presume to write in the perspective of Jesus. So we have people close to him reporting, but we’re never getting his attitudes, emotions, except in the sense that other people see things and infer.
HODGES: Infer them, yeah. I didn’t notice that, but yeah you really do surgically move around Jesus that way.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. We’re around Jesus, but never… words are present, actions are present, point of view I never go there. How could you? Norman Mailer did it. But, again, I’m an arrogant, arrogant man but I’m—
HODGES: “Jesus Christ Superstar” I think has a little bit of that too.
GOLDBERG: So what happens though there is there definitely is a shift because we’re locked in the point of view of people around Jesus. After Gethsemane Jesus is separated. He’s on trial, he’s being persecuted, and all the points of view are at a greater distance from him. Jesus stops talking really. In the gospels there’s a limited number of sayings after Gethsemane, but there’s not a ton. I don’t believe I use all of them. I’m certain I don’t use all of them. So we’ve got that distance.
Part of what’s interesting to me in that moment is it’s got to feel to the apostles and other disciples that the ground is just falling out from under them. I really wanted to give that section that falling feeling and then how do they step again and actively make meaning. Because I think before… I don’t want Jesus’s resurrection being the only thing that makes meaning for them. I want them to be ready for the resurrection in a sense. They don’t know it’s going to happen. It totally surprises them. They have this crisis and regrouping that happens quickly in those three days so that when the good news comes it means something.
Now I mentioned earlier that I borrow heavily from the three synoptic gospels and a little bit from John. The backbone of the book is from the Gospel of Mark. You notice for example that I don’t start with the infancy narratives; I start where Mark does with John the Baptist. The earliest manuscripts of Mark don’t give us resurrection stories beyond the open and empty tomb. The awe of the empty tomb in the earliest manuscripts of Mark was that high point. This sense of wonder that Jesus isn’t there. We worried this was over, and then he was gone. Jesus wasn’t there. There’s an implicit rising, but that’s it. So I sort of follow that and we don’t go that much… for instance I do allude to a discussion that the Gospel of John has between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, but I don’t show it. It’s hers, it’s not ours.
HODGES: She refers to it. She says, “I spoke with him.”
GOLDBERG: But we do have this distance, maybe along with Thomas, where all the appearances are, so to speak, off-screen so that at that final moment where any Christian community that believes in the resurrection but it hasn’t been Jesus who came, in a way the story at the end of the book is about… because I’m telling the stories of the gospels rather than the stories of Jesus, the story at the end is the story of the Christian community. So what is this community that is rising after Jesus is dead? So he does visually recede a little, even though of course he’s still important. Everything they’re thinking about at the end is Jesus, but they’re wrestling. I didn’t deal with the stories the gospels give us where he’s there directly.
HODGES: Before we go I’ll add a personal note that I really enjoyed reading The Five Books of Jesus. I think it’s a fantastic book. I just strongly recommend it. As you mentioned someone else had told you, it made me want to go back to the gospels and see what I could see there again. To me it’s an opportunity to give us a new pair of eyes again with something that we’ve become so familiar with. So I really appreciate it. I think you did a fantastic work here.
GOLDBERG: Thank you.
HODGES: I think a lot of Mormon devotional literature is sort of light and lacks the dark and the shadows and some of the difficulties. To me this is like the perfect book to sit down with on a Sunday afternoon after church and read for a little while. It’s a perfect devotional piece.
GOLDBERG: I like that. I hope it is. I hope it’s a good book to launch you back into the scriptures. I think and I hope it’s a very good book to discuss with other people and play with. Look, there’s lots of ideas in here when giving sort of a frame that hints at an interpretation of the parable I usually picked the one you haven’t heard yet just to throw out more.
I think sometimes the point of our devotional literature ends up to be, say, we move towards, “Ah, this is true.” “Ah, this is good, God is there.” There’s a time when you need that. There are other times when the best devotional literature is the beginning of the discipleship question. What does this mean, where do we go? I guess our stereotype of what devotional literature would be the angel sweeps in at the ending, Greek theater style, but the angel comes at the end and everything’s all right. The scriptures, if you read, say the Book of Mormon closely, the angel is almost always an inciting incident. The first chapter where Lehi has a vision and God touching your life complicates it, rather than resolving it, almost always in the scriptures. I think this book is in maybe a smaller tradition in contemporary Mormon writing, but one it’s not alone there in saying how taking that weight of when God touches your life how does it complicate it, where do you go moving forward, so it’s that other side of the coin.
HODGES: Right. So you’ve written a book that provides that role. Are there other books that you’ve read that kind of have filled that role for you that people might be interested to read?
GOLDBERG: Yeah. There’s tons. One that’s a young adult novel written for the national market that has LDS characters. It’s called Slumming by Kristen Randle. I would highly recommend this because the premise at the beginning is you have these three Mormon youth who say, “You know what? We’re going to each pick someone and help them.” As a reader you sort of know, the text indicates to you they’re coming into this with a fairly superior attitude about oh, we’re so good and we’re going to bless people, and you know these people need a humbling. So you take these three very different stories of how that experience turns out and theirs as an adult reader still really pressing questions about, yeah, what is this journey of reaching out toward others and how does it turn out and where does it go and what’s right and what’s wrong? I really wish I’d read that book as a teenager. It would have been great to weigh those questions. There’s some pretty heavy theological questions he raises in there. I’d absolutely recommend Slumming for that.
HODGES: Cool. Any other projects that you’re working on right now? Any new books or plays? What have you got going on?
GOLDBERG: Well for writing I’m working on a kick-starter… so I’ve got the first two volumes of a graphic novel series actually.
HODGES: Are you collaborating with someone?
GOLDBERG: I’m collaborating with an artist. It’s an alternate world where the Ottoman Empire never fell. They’re using their old succession system where you have one brother who’s going to win, it’s an election rather than warfare, they used to fight for the succession, the one brother would succeed and the other brothers would be executed because if you have a spare brother there’s discontent and it’s a focal point. So we have a twenty-first century election where the losers must die. So it’s a way for me to sort of explore politics in general, but then very specific things about what might Muslim politics look like in a world where you don’t have the same post-colonial baggage and other things. So it’s a really fun story. Hoping to raise money to continue to get the art done for that, because it’s not sort of mainstream marketable but interesting. So that’s a big thing.
Yeah, working on a short story collection. Just got a job working doing writing for the Church History website, history.lds.org. I’m very excited to see what I can do, sort of a lone MFA and a bunch of history degree people. How do we tell everyday stories from church history?
HODGES: Wow. Well congratulations on the new job. Keep working on the projects. I love The Five Books of Jesus. Again it’s James Goldberg. He also teaches here at Brigham Young University. I appreciate you stopping by and spending time with me today.
GOLDBERG: Yeah. Thank you.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)