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The Gospel of Judas: A Novel

Overview

A priest experiencing a crisis of faith — and the married woman to whom he is attracted. A scroll newly discovered near Jerusalem that, if authentic, could open Christianity to a complete reinterpretation. A tragic love affair unfolding in Fascist-dominated Rome during World War II. These are the elements of a magnificent literary entertainment — a novel that resonates with tales of love and betrayal as it deals profoundly with questions of faith and what it means to believe.
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Overview

A priest experiencing a crisis of faith — and the married woman to whom he is attracted. A scroll newly discovered near Jerusalem that, if authentic, could open Christianity to a complete reinterpretation. A tragic love affair unfolding in Fascist-dominated Rome during World War II. These are the elements of a magnificent literary entertainment — a novel that resonates with tales of love and betrayal as it deals profoundly with questions of faith and what it means to believe.
— At once a love story, a thriller, and a rich novel of ideas.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Discerning readers will relish Mawer's excellent writing and subtle treatment of potentially over-the-top subject matter.
Boston Globe
...Mawer has miraculously mingled the best attributes of Graham Greene and James Michener...a breathtakingly subtle literary style...
Christian Science Monitor
...establishes Simon Mawer as a world-class novelist...his use of the novel to explore social , political, intimate and religious history reveals the power of this genre...
Free Lance Star
...beautifully rendered prose. Clean and straightforward, it is incredibly nuanced in capturing the emotional response to faith, love and sex.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A crisis of faith is at the heart of this fascinating, thoughtful literary thriller revolving around the discovery of a manuscript written by the historical Judas. Father Leo Newman, close to middle age, is a scholar living in Rome, teaching English to make ends meet, when he is sent fragments of some first-century A.D. scrolls to decipher. The text seems to be the earliest version so far of the New Testament, the first eyewitness accounts of Jesus's life to be discovered. But Newman is distracted from his studies by his growing attachment to a married woman, Madeleine Brewer, and by mounting doubts about his vocation. A family tragedy in the distant past haunts him, too, and flashbacks to his mother's experiences in Rome during WWII alternate with the present-day narrative. Summoned suddenly to Jerusalem when a particularly exciting papyrus is unearthed, Newman finds himself confronted with what seems to be a text written by Judas, denying that Christ rose from the dead. It's only when this Gospel of Judas makes its first appearance, like a metaphor come alive, that the whole idea of what it means to be a Judas becomes the subject of the book. It's a hook that Mawer (Mendel's Dwarf, etc.) uses to stunning effect. What Newman, already shaken by the end of his affair with Madeline Brewer, does to that ancient manuscript is the ultimate betrayal in the novel, but as in so many modern interpretations of the crime of Judas, the betrayal is really the outward evidence of an affirmation of faith. Discerning readers will relish Mawer's excellent writing and subtle treatment of potentially over-the-top subject matter. National advertising; 5-city author tour. (May 22) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The idea of a newly discovered fifth gospel particularly by Judas is certainly intriguing, but Mawer spends the bulk of this novel dealing with far more mundane and typical plot lines. When Father Leo Newman, a biblical scholar, is forced into a crisis of faith and sensuality by a requisitely mysterious and attractive woman, it is all too familiar, having been explored in so many other books and films. At times Mawer also suffers from the same excessive love of language and word play as his protagonist, and the novel loses its focus. This complex story, read by Graeme Malcolm, has some fine moments, but the promise of the title is never fully realized. Joyce Kessel, Villa Maria Coll., Buffalo, NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Religious mystery, sexual intrigue, and the enigmas of identity—all are mingled together in this breathtakingly readable intellectual thriller. The story's symbolic resonance is announced in the very name of its protagonist: Catholic priest Leo Newman, who is sent to Jerusalem to join an international team entrusted with deciphering a newly discovered Dead Sea Scroll—a fragment of papyrus purporting to be the story of Christ's martyrdom as observed by his betrayer Judas Iscariot. British author Mawer (Mendel's Dwarf, 1998, etc.) surrounds this central situation with Father Leo's later relationship in Rome with a rootless young woman named Magda Novotna, and with a series of flashbacks to Germany during WWII, and a German woman's adulterous relationship, her "punishment," and her connection—revealed only in the superb closing pages—with the man who would become Father Leo. For he, like Judas, is a "betrayer"—of his vows, and of his close friend Jack, an ailing diplomat, with whose wife Madeleine this fallen "new man" conducts a passionate, guilt-ridden affair. Its abrupt termination, and the violent transformation that awaits Father Leo in the Holy Land, are the high points of a powerfully charged narrative that consistently absorbs—and surprises—the reader. In a very real sense, "the gospel of Judas" is as much Father Leo's own story as it is a mystery unto itself: either an inflammatory "piece of anti-Christian propaganda" or a radical reinterpretation of the four gospels that proves beyond dispute that Christ did not rise from the dead. And, in a stunningly savage climactic irony, it's the apostate priest himself who is seemingly"resurrected." Readers who've enjoyed Arturo Perez-Reverte's sophisticated thrillers won't want to miss The Gospel of Judas. Mawer is rapidly proving himself one of the genre's contemporary masters. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316973748
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 5/8/2002
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.32 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


Bless me Father, for I have sinned."

A curious structure, the confessional. A cross between a wardrobe and a prie-dieu, a varnished wooden construction that is probably the only piece of furniture never to have awoken the interest of collectors. You'll not go into a precious modern house, somewhere in Islington, say, and find a confessional in the hall and a careless confession by the proud owner that it was "Something we picked up at an auction. We thought it'd go so well just there. Wonderful for hanging coats."

No.

A confessional has other resemblances: a booth in the visiting room of a prison, for example; the place where, for a few minutes a month, the condemned meet the free to exchange platitudes and recriminations.

"Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." A shadow beyond the grille. The intense, anonymous intimacy. The awful fact that a soul is about to be laid bare, that horror may be revealed. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned." But she was merely suffering from scruples, an affliction of the religious that is just as tiresome as a rash, is a kind of mental rash in fact. You scratch and it only gets worse. People go off to Africa to work in the missions because of scruples. They catch real rashes there. "I have doubts," she said.

"Good Lord, my child, we all of us have doubts," he told her. "I have doubts."

"Do you? What are yours?"

"Who is hearing this confession?"

Was there a suppressed giggle from the far side of the grille? He even stole a glance to his left, but she was no more than a shadow beyond the metal lattice. Outside, the shifting, shiftless crowds of thegreatbasilica; inside the stuffy wooden box, this curious intimacy with a half-seen, barely apprehended silhouette.

A breath of perfume drifted through the barricade that divided them: something musky, something with an underlying hint of sharp fruit. "I'm sorry, Father. Forgive me."

"You must take this seriously or not at all," he admonished her.

"Of course, Father."

"And other than these doubts?"

"I touched myself, Father."

"Was it just once?" One should not get overinquisitive. There was, of course, a sin in that. There was a whole pit full of sins waiting for the confessor, a pit that writhed with the snakes of voyeurism and prurience.

"More than once."

"If it's become a habit then that's one thing. And if it's just an occasional weakness that's another. Which is it?"

She giggled. Quite definitely this time, the shadow beyond the grille giggled. "I'll take the occasional weakness."

"Are you serious about this?"

"I'm sorry. It was the way you said it. As though you were bartering with me. Trading contrition for penance."

"You mustn't make a mockery of it."

"Sorry," she repeated. "I'm sorry."

He said something about the motives for confession, recited some little lecture about true contrition, about the love of God and the forgiveness of sin. "Sin is absence of God. Nothing more, nothing less. If you truly wish to return to God, then confession has meaning. Only then."

"Yes," she said. "That's what I would like."

He noted the careful conditional but let it pass. "As an act of penance say a decade of the rosary and a prayer for my own spiritual well-being. Now make an act of contrition." The rituals of religion, a vocabulary understood only by the initiate: she recited some little formula of self-accusation and pious resolution, and in return he gave her absolution. Then she whispered thanks and left the confines of the box, let slip that curious, transient intimacy that the confessional creates, drifted out of the claustrophobic shadows and into the world.

He turned to his right and slid the other shutter back to reveal another presence, another shadow, another complex of sin and doubt and anguish. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned."

At six o'clock in the evening he slid both shutters closed and, as a surgeon might peel off his surgical gloves, removed the stole from around his neck. Confessor, surgeon. There was a similar intimacy, the one spiritual, the other physical, and a similar anonymity. The one pokes among the bowels of the patient, the other among the innermost secrets, and both do it all in a spirit of resignation and emotional indifference.

Leaving the confessional box, he walked out into the crossing of the transepts, beneath the awful, vacant dome, beneath the substandard mosaics, beneath that great volume of space that Michelangelo Buonarroti subsumed into the building in a manner that amounts to grand larceny. Could pure space evoke a sense of the numinous? People shifted around on the pavement like grains of sand drifting back and forth across the floor of a tidal pool—tourists, and pilgrims, and those, the majority, perhaps, that lay somewhere in between. Candles flickered around the balustrade where you stand and look down into the sunken space where the tomb of the Apostle lies. People crowded around like onlookers at the scene of an accident to see if it was really true. Someone even asked him about it; and of course he assured her that it was, that it really was possible that the Apostle himself was buried there.

"Only possible, Father?" she retorted. "What kind of faith is that?"

And indeed, what kind of faith was it? A poor, dried-out thing, a construct put together of habit and defiance and anxiety. "The material fact is not important," he told her, "and presumably lies in the realm of archaeology, not theology. The spiritual reality is that you are as close to God in your own sitting room as in the basilica; but the basilica has worth if it strengthens your faith."

And then the woman—gray-haired, an accent that he took to be German, a worn and defeated face—said a curious thing:

"Does it strengthen your faith, Father?"

It was raining outside. Lights glittered in the wet basalt slabs of the piazza and a Christmas tree daubed the space with a smear of northern paganism. The orange glow of the city lit up the clouds like the backwash from a great conflagration. He hurried through the rain to his rooms, and showered and changed for a reception which was to be held that evening in one of the innumerable palazzi of the city, the closing reception of a congress that had been going on throughout the past week.

The reception was a dull affair, a milling of black and gray and navy blue beneath the cavorting nymphs and goddesses of a late mannerist ceiling. Pink breasts and flaccid penises flopped around above the heads of the earnest clerics. There was the occasional splash of color from a bishop, or a lady diplomat doing the duty rounds, or the wife of an Anglican priest (and the boyfriend of another), but the predominant theme was Roman—clerical, introverted and self-satisfied.

"This is Manderley Dewer," someone said to him and he found himself shaking hands with one of the few women in the place. She surprised him by recognizing his name. "Didn't I read something by you in the Times? Something about scrolls from the Dead Sea?"

He looked at her distractedly, awkward in the presence of women. "Hardly scrolls. A few fragments. The En-Mor papyri."

"The earliest pieces of the gospels," said the man who had introduced them. "Quite the most important textual find in the last fifty years."

The woman attempted some kind of conversation. "Isn't the point that if the fragments do come from a gospel it would push the earliest date to before the Jewish War in AD 68?"

"That's what the article said," Newman agreed. "Politically it's a wonderful idea."

"Politically?"

He glanced away over her shoulder as though looking for something, escape, perhaps. "Religious politics. Mud in the eye for the scholars who claim that the gospels are late inventions put together by the early Church. But that's not the point, is it? The point is the pieces themselves, the texts, the witness."

She contemplated the idea, her head tilted to one side, a faint smile on her lips. "It excites you, doesn't it?"

The word excite seemed threatening. He felt a shifting embarrassment.

"What do you mean, excite?"

"The texts. They excite you." There was to her smile a kind of slant that he couldn't read. Eyes can be dead things, charged with expression only by the refraction of incident light; but mouths have their own life. And hers had some quality of irony that he couldn't read.

"Yes, I suppose they do."

What else did he see? What does a celibate see in a chance encounter with a woman? He saw a face of modest proportions, large eyes of indeterminate color somewhere between green and brown, a look of faint anxiety beneath the insouciance. Hair ill-kempt and touched with the tones of autumn. She seemed rather younger than he—in her early forties, he thought, although he had little practice in judging the age of women, or anything much else about them, come to that.

And what, he wondered, did she see? Dull, dry cleric?

Something sterile? Something at the dead end of humanity, probably.

There was that silence that so often comes after the first words. What else was there to say, after all? Where could the point of contact be? "Are you here for the conference?" he asked.

"Here or here?"

"I'm sorry?"

The confusion seemed to amuse her. "Here is this room, yes. Here in Rome, no." Her husband was a diplomat, she explained. She shrugged as though it was of no interest, and it was her turn to glance around as though for distraction. Somebody remarked on the ceiling (everyone remarked on the ceiling when there was a pause in the conversation), and she looked upward at the dusty swirl of phallic gods and mammary goddesses, before looking back at him and smiling that particular smile, and asking, "Do you think they had scruples, Father?" And in a moment he caught the same drift of scent from her as had come through the grille of the confessional, a sharp touch of citrus that didn't seem to emanate from a commercial perfume at all but rather was something natural and dangerous. And he had a most profane thought: that this was like the way the apostles at Emmaus had recognized Christ after the resurrection, by a mere gesture, by a combination of words, perhaps even by a smell.

He felt himself redden: grave discomfort, sweating with embarrassment under stiff clerical gray. Mercifully the others on the edge of the conversation had moved away to examine some piece of furniture and they were momentarily alone. "How very awkward," he said.

"Do you think so? What about the separation of office and person?" She put her head on one side as though to examine both him and the proposition together, finding them both faintly amusing. "Anyway, I'm the one who should be embarrassed, and I'm not. So I'll give you leave not to be either. You must have heard a lot worse in your time. I must say, I imagined you older."

"And I imagined you younger."

She winced. "Touché. A silly little adolescent, maybe?"

"Something like that."

"I'm afraid confession makes me that way. It always reminds me of school. D'you know, we used to make up sins just to have something to confess? I expect you know that, don't you? I touched Anne-Marie when she was in the shower, I told Matilda that I don't believe in God, I said a rude word behind Sister Mary Joseph's back, that kind of thing. But now I can assure you that I'm much more grown up." She was laughing, as though to deny the assertion at the same time as she stated it. "Anyway, you must come round some time. Where do you stay? You must come round for dinner. Give me your number."

It is not uncommon for Catholic women to befriend priests. It is a kind of patronage. Priests are to be supported materially, while they in turn support the faithful spiritually. If you come from the Protestant tradition, maybe you do not see it in quite the same way, but looking after a priest is a kind of good work. If you don't come from any tradition at all, you probably cannot see why there might be a celibate priest in the first place and why, for God's sake, a woman might ever concern herself with such a man.

"I'm sorry," he said, "I didn't quite get your name... Manderley?"

She glanced up from her handbag where she was rooting around for a diary or something. "Madeleine. Madeleine Brewer."

There. Madeleine Brewer. The very first encounter. Thus the chaotic hand of coincidence had its way, like the petulant hand of a child rearranging the pieces on a chessboard.

"Tell me," she said, pen poised over her address book.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Which character in The Gospel of Judas did you most closely identify with? Explain why.

2. There are three important female characters in the novel - Madaleine; Magda; and Leo's mother, Gretchen. What role does each woman play in Leo's life? How does each woman's life experience contribute to Leo's understanding of the world and his own place in it?

3. What did you think was the most surprising moment in the novel? Why?

4. Have you had a pivotal moment in your own life that made you re-evaluate everything that came before?

5. What do you think is at stake if Father Leo Newman validates the scroll? And if he denies its authenticity?

6. What do you imagine is the significance of Leo Newman's name? In what way does Leo's character change in the course of the novel?

7. There are three storylines running through the novel. In what ways do they overlap, intersect, resonate? How did the novel's structure influence your reading of the book and your enjoyment of it?

8. The Gospel of Judas has been described as a novel of betrayal and resurrection. Can you trace these themes through the narrative? Do you think Leo's resurrection in the present-day passages is a triumph or a failure?

9. Discuss the contrast between the Italy of Leo's youth and the Italy of his adulthood.

10. Does The Gospel of Judas remind you of any other literary thrillers you've read? How are the books similar? How are they different?

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 26, 2007

    INTERESTING BOOK

    I had mixed feelings about this book because I expected a bit more of an 'archaeological' adventure. Then I readjusted my expectations. This is a good read. The characters are flawed and, therefore, human. The intertwined stories make it an interesting reading.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    Excellent religious thriller

    Near the Dead Sea, a new scroll from the time of Jesus has been discovered. The church sends Rome teacher-scholar Father Leo Newman to investigate and translate the newest find. Leo is going through a difficult period as he has doubts about his chosen avocation ever since he met and sinned by having an affair with Madeline Brewer. Still, Leo immediately travels to Jerusalem to join an international team inspecting the rich find, but his assignment is to concentrate on one particular papyrus. <P> Leo quickly realizes that the document the Church sent him to inspect apparently contains the Gospel accordance to Judas Iscariot. Instead of supporting the other Gospels, this scroll denies much of what has been claimed. Leo begins to comprehend how Judas felt when he condemned his best friend to death. <P> THE GOSPEL OF JUDAS is an insightful look at the Judas betrayal but in a modern text and through Leo¿s break in faith. The story line is fast-paced especially in an allegorical manner that compares Leo to Judas. The flashbacks to World War II are cleverly written, but the story belongs to the Leo-Judas relationship that, in turn, proves how talented Simon Mawer truly is. <P>Harriet Klausner

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