THE PREFACE THE PUBLISHERS LEFT OUT
The Ironsmith is a novel about Jesus. I call him “Joshua” because that is the closest English transliteration of his real name, which was probably “Yeshua”—his name only became “Jesus” after it had passed from Aramaic to Greek, then to Latin and finally to English. Another motive, I am prepared to admit, was to distance the reader from the narratives found in the Gospels, to keep the reader from being hypnotized by the traditional story.
But this is a work of fiction. It is not my intention to offer a revisionist history and I don’t make any claims to special information. Jesus wasn’t a friend of the family and I didn’t discover his memoirs in some desert monastery. I have drawn on the modern scholarship about the historical figure of Jesus, which is available to anyone who takes the trouble to read it, but my Jesus is a creature of my imagination and the events described in the novel are either wholly made up or are, again, imaginative recreations.
But is there any way other than fiction to bring Jesus back to life? Probably not. After all, the Gospel writers themselves were recreating a Jesus who had already become something like a figure of myth. The Jesus of Mark is always in a hurry and has a temper. The Jesus ofLuke is perfectly serene. The Jesus of John is hardly even human. And, it must be noted, none of them was writing biography in anything like the modern sense. They took remarkably little interest in Jesus as a personality. Thus we don’t know if he was tall or short, or if he had a sense of humor, or how he liked his lamb chops. Anyone trying to write about Jesus the man has very little to work with and has to face the dozens of nettling scholarly questions about how much of that very little is reliable.
For instance, we all know the story about the woman taken in adultery. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”—remember? It is a wonderful story, but its authenticity is questionable because it only appears in John and only in late manuscripts. Thus was probably just a story about Jesus that was floating around and some scribe decided to stick it in. The Revised Standard Version of John relegates it to a footnote.
If by now I haven’t put you off completely, remember while you are reading The Ironsmith that history says nothing about Jesus having a cousin named Noah and that Caleb and Eleazar, the competing servants of Herod Antipas, are just characters in a made up story. I am not writing history, but I am trying to make the dead past come back to life, at least in your imagination.
And there is something else of which you should be aware. The past was not like the present and should not be reinterpreted as some version of our own experience. The past must be understood on its own terms.
For instance, the Judaism of the 1st Century C.E. (or A.D., if you prefer) was not identical with any form of the religion that exists today. Judaism in Jesus’ time was rooted in custom and animal sacrifice (a characteristic it shared with nearly all ancient religions) and was centered on the Temple in Jerusalem which, thanks to the Romans, no longer exists. The Age of the Rabbis had not yet begun. The possibility of a life after death was a new idea, largely rejected by the priesthood. The idea of a personal relationship between God and his worshippers, a major priority in later Judaism, was also a new idea. We find it in a number of early figures, of whom Jesus was one, but, for most Jews, God’s special relationship was with the Jewish people as a whole and the individual pretty much had to look out for himself.
And what applies to Judaism as a whole also applies to Jesus. Whatever else he was, he was a 1st Century Jewish peasant from Galilee. If we strip away the theology that has gathered around him—and, after all, Jesus is in no way responsible for what people made of him after his death—this is what we are left with. He probably spoke Aramaic with an accent most Judeans would have regarded as comic. He was a hick from the dark side of nowhere.
But he is also, out of the whole of antiquity, almost the only voice we have from the submerged ninety-five per cent of mankind that wasn’t born to wealth and literacy. For that alone he is historically important. He is the uncommon common man, struggling to be heard.
And he was also, at least in my opinion, a great man and a tragic figure.
Consider, if you will, the world into which he was born and the intellectual options that were available to him. The 1st Century, at least for someone like Jesus, was bereft of Economics and Political Theory. There was no Science. Jesus had access to none of the tools with which modern man explains to himself what is happening around him. All Jesus had was God.
It is true that for several centuries a few members of the leisured classes had been playing with other ways of understanding experience. The Platonists had their ideal types and the Pythagoreans their numbers. Aristotle had codified logic and the Epicureans had even developed a primitive version of atomic theory. But for the mass of humanity these developments were so remote that they might as well have been taking place on another planet.
For ordinary people, the people whose labor formed the indispensable base of all human culture, God—or, in you were a pagan, the gods—supplied the explanation for everything that happened. If the rains failed, it was God’s will. If your wife died in childbirth, it was God’s will. This was even more true for the Jews, who understood even bodily illness as God’s punishment for sin. Consider the story inMatthew 9, 1-2, where a paralytic is brought to Jesus. What does Jesus way to him? “Take heart, my son, your sins are forgiven.” God was the explanation for everything that happened.
So what was Jesus to think, looking about him at a world in which peasants were being driven off the land which was their inheritance from God? What was he to think of a Galilee in which an ogre like Herod Antipas murdered God’s Prophet John and built his capital city over a grave yard? If he was to believe what Scripture told him, that God was a God of justice, he had to believe that God would right these wrongs. And John the Baptist, whose disciple he almost certainly was, had taught that God was about to renew His creation by raising the just and the pious and humbling the wicked.
So Jesus preached that “the last shall be first and the first last,” and it was for this the Romans crucified him.
The Romans, bad as they were, would not have executed anyone for preaching “love thy neighbor.” Crucifixion was a punishment they reserved for political offenses—in other words, anything which they perceived as a threat to their power. The two thieves who were crucified with Jesus, if indeed they existed, were probably what we would call highwaymen, who were classed with rebels because only the Romans and their creatures had a right to take what they wanted by force of arms. A mere purse snatcher would have been dealt with in some less public and cumbersome way.
Thus we can take it for granted that the Romans crucified Jesus because they understood his message as a challenge to their power. The message that God would humble the mighty and raise the downtrodden would be taken as a call for rebellion. Jesus was punished as a political criminal.
So Jesus died for the crime of proclaiming God’s kingdom, which, it is clear, he regarded as imminent. John the Baptist is quoted in bothMatthew and Luke as declaring “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree,” and Paul writes in 1st Thessalonians in language implying that “the day of the Lord” is not far off. Jesus occupies a middle position between these two figures, so it is reasonable to assume that he also believed the kingdom was near at hand, and he himself confirms this in Mark 13, 30: “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place.”
The Romans were not much for theological subtleties. As far as they were concerned, the proclamation of God’s kingdom was a call to rebellion and they acted accordingly. They visited upon Jesus about as painful and humiliating a death as it is possible to imagine.
And he cannot have but known that he was courting such a death. In Jerusalem he was under Roman authority, and during the Holy Days they were particularly sensitive to anything that might stir up trouble. By preaching in the Temple he was incurring a terrible risk.
From the perspective of nearly two thousand years later, it all seems dreadful and pointless. The cataclysmic event which Jesus foretold never happened. Jesus’ ministry was the starting point for the development of a new religion which, I suspect, he would have regarded with astonishment and contempt, and the world rolled forward through centuries of tyranny and oppression.
And Jesus himself was proclaimed divine, a turn of events we can be reasonably sure he never contemplated.
But, again, Jesus is not responsible for what others made of him after his death. And he was under no responsibility to answer to the expectations of distant posterity. He lived in the 1st Century, not the 21st, and in the context of his little moment in human history his life assumes a certain tragic grandeur.
And I think that those who deify him accord him less than his due. Divinities are immortal. They do not have to face the prospect of extinction. Jesus the divinity would merely have been going through a little pantomime of death—some pain perhaps, and then business as usual. Jesus the man was facing the real thing. A god has no need of courage. There is a certain kind of nobility which belongs only to human beings.