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The Gospel According to the Son

The Gospel According to the Son

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by Norman Mailer

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For two thousand years, the brief ministry of a young Nazarene preacher has remained the largest single determinant of Western civilization's triumphs and disasters. Now, Norman Mailer has written a novel about Jesus's life. Is God speaking to me? Jesus asks. Or am I hearing voices? If the voices are from God, why has He chosen me as His son? And if they are not from


For two thousand years, the brief ministry of a young Nazarene preacher has remained the largest single determinant of Western civilization's triumphs and disasters. Now, Norman Mailer has written a novel about Jesus's life. Is God speaking to me? Jesus asks. Or am I hearing voices? If the voices are from God, why has He chosen me as His son? And if they are not from God, then who gave me the power to perform these miracles?

It soon becomes evident that we are being told the story of a skilled and most devout carpenter who is living with prodigious questions. The result is an intimately readable account of a man thrust forward by the visions he receives, the sermons he offers, and the miracles he enacts until he comes to the apocalyptic end of his powers.

The Gospel According to the Son vividly recreates the world of Galilee and Jerusalem two thousand years ago. In a time of uneasy stability, the Holy Land is governed by a complacent but fearful establishment who rule over a despairing underclass — it is a time of great change, open to comparison with our own. Mailer's signal accomplishment is to create for us a man wholly unlike others who is nonetheless filled with passion and doubt, strength and weakness; a protagonist divine and human, a son of God who shares our condition.

In The Gospel According to the Son, one of America's greatest living writers has brought us a remarkable book — by turns bold, thoughtful, poetic, tragic, passionate, and, to our surprise and pleasure, suspenseful.

Editorial Reviews

Joan Smith

Hubris is one of Norman Mailer's most endearing qualities, and it's in perfect character that he has decided, in his latest novel, to render the story of the Gospels from the point of view of Jesus.

One of our finest writers and an outsized character in his own right, Mailer has produced some 30 books of fiction and nonfiction since his great World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published a half-century ago. He is a kind of bantamweight Don Quixote, jabbing (not tilting) at feminists, the CIA, the literary establishment and the governments of the U.S. and his native New York City. His style -- audacious, lyrical, loquacious, grand -- has always especially suited the epic form. He has never been afraid to take as his subjects the great public spectacles and myths -- Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, Marilyn Monroe, the execution of Gary Gilmore and, most recently, the lives of Lee Harvey Oswald and Pablo Picasso. And he has consistently imbued them with new life and meaning.

So it is keenly disappointing to read Mailer's most recent novel, The Gospel According to the Son. The best that can be said of it is that it is well-researched -- Mailer is clearly familiar with the Gospels, the Apocrypha and the scholarship regarding them -- and that he chose an inherently interesting story. In stilted language meant, one supposes, to echo the cadences of the King James Bible, Mailer renders a Jesus as opaque as the Jesus of the gospels, whose contradictions have troubled thoughtful Christians for centuries. Convinced that some of the more vengeful sayings of the otherwise infinitely forgiving Biblical Jesus had to have been the works of later, less enlightened sectarians, Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Jefferson both edited them out, as did the Jewish scholar and translator Stephen Mitchell, a longtime student of Zen Buddhism whose nonfiction The Gospel According to Jesus offers a far more coherent and provocative life of Jesus than Mailer's novel.

But Mailer chooses not to deviate from Christian orthodoxy, except in minor instances -- a new and more idealistic motivation for Judas, a slightly less spectacular interpretation of the loaves and fishes miracle -- which would not be a problem if Mailer had been able to bring this traditional Jesus to life. For his opportunity here -- and one would think it a challenge well-suited to Mailer's imaginative skills -- was to capture the spiritual evolution of a man who understood himself to be divine, a man who understood his destiny to be the spiritual salvation of mankind.

But Mailer's Jesus does not develop. He pronounces. Mailer's retelling is as sketchy and inexpert as a children's Christmas pageant. Mailer, who often says that he never stops writing because he has so many children to support (he has been married six times), may simply have given himself too little time for this project. Or maybe, for the first time, his timidity in the presence of an understandably intimidating subject defeated his considerable imagination. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Only a novelist as daring as Mailer would attempt to retell the story of Jesus in Jesus's own words. There are reasons for this, paramount among them the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of plumbing the psychology of, and creating an internal voice for, a man meant to be divine as well as human. And the Jesus whose soul Mailer bares in his brave, beautiful and ambitious new novel is meant to be both, for Mailer revises the Gospels only partially here. His Jesus is the Son of God, a Jewish miracle worker who speaks with God and debates the Devil, who is crucified for his teachings and who, three days later, rises from the dead. To tell Jesus's story, Mailer adopts biblical-style prose that works powerfully well: "In those days," he begins, "I was the one who came down from Nazareth to be baptized by John in the River Jordan." Mailer is brilliant in depicting the human side of Jesus--his confusion and pride as he comes to understand who he is; his love for sinners and hatred of the pious; his terror at his impending fate and, above all, his grapplings with the limits of his powers. True to Mailer's theology, expressed in earlier works, of an anthropomorphic God at war with other Powers, this Jesus and his Father can know defeat. But this philosophical stance proves an aesthetic weakness, for by presenting Jesus's martyrdom as "debacle and disaster," in effect a twist of fate, Mailer's telling loses the force of inexorable destiny that exalts the telling of the Gospels. Less persuasive still is Mailer's attempt to represent Jesus's divinity. To do so, he most often relies on a mundane literalism. He learns too heavily on the miracle-working, and his presentation of the Last Supper lacks any sense of mystical mystery. His treatment of the Resurrection and what follows is flat as a board, and full of splinters, for here he forces Jesus to become his mouthpiece for this theological opinion and that. But if this novel is partially a failure, it is a great and profoundly moving one that is also a triumph. Its penetration into Jesus's human heart rivals Dostoyevsky for depth and insight. Its recreation of the world through which Jesus walked is as real as blood. Ultimately, Mailer convinces, more than any writer before him, that for Jesus the man it could have been just like this; and that is, in itself, some sort of literary miracle. (May)
Library Journal
This novel is exactly what it sounds like: the gospel story retold from Christ's point of view. Although Mailer treats his New Testament sources with respect, Jesus turns out to be just the sort of character one would expect to find in a Norman Mailer novel. He is embarrassed by his Jewish mother and complains that God the Father barely speaks to him. He questions his success in healing the sick and struggles with his growing celebrity. Worse, he waffles on crucial issues like voluntary poverty, alienating Judas and other hardcore revolutionaries. Of particular interest is the central role Mailer assigns to Satan. Jesus believes that God and Satan are equally matched and that neither one will ever get the upper hand. In short, Mailer has concocted a profoundly heretical "gnostic" gospel. The problem is that few readers will have much interest in Mailer's theology, and, taken simply as a novel, the book leaves much to be desired. Recommended mainly for comprehensive collections of Mailer's work. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/97.]Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch., Los Angeles
John Updike
His Gospel is written with direct, rather relaxed anguish that yet has an eerie, near-Biblical dignity. -- The New Yorker
Kirkus Reviews
One of the most curious products of Mailer's perpetually surprising career, this gracefully written short novel chronicles the life of Jesus, as told by Himself long after his crucifixion and assumption into heaven.

Making continual references to the four traditional gospels (whose authors are gently chided for their inaccuracies and exaggerations), Mailer's Jesus offers a generally plainspoken and sometimes plodding account of his youth and apprenticeship in Nazareth, his acceptance of the burden with which the voice of God charges him, his ministry and miracles, encounters with the Pharisees and conviction for blasphemy, and his death at Golgotha. There's real tension, and little glints of inventive power, in such episodes as Jesus's temptation by a suave Satan, and his exorcism of the giant Legion and destruction of the Gadarene swine. But many other passages (most flagrantly, the Sermon on the Mount) amount to no more than flat paraphrase. Occasional flashes of Mailer's pugnacious intellectual gamesmanship surge through in his characterization of a Jesus who devoutly recalls and recites the wisdom of the Old Testament (in one arresting sequence, his rescue of the woman taken in adultery is followed by his memory of the most sensual verses in the "Song of Solomon"), and in random vivid metaphor ("I could feel the love of God. . . like an animal of heavenly beauty. Its eyes glowed in my heart"). Yet the text is marred by anachronistic lapses in tone, and one waits in vain for fuller development of the God-vs.-Devil dialectic that elsewhere dominates Mailer's fiction (though it must be said that this novel's God explains Himself rather more than the biblical one ever did). Only Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate emerge as even perfunctorily characterized individuals; everyone and everything else is subordinated to the narrator's exploration of his mission and his nature.

It's lucid, competent, to all appearances sincere—and thoroughly unexceptional.

From the Publisher
Praise for The Gospel According to the Son
“Quietly penetrating . . . [Norman Mailer’s] gospel is written in a direct, rather relaxed English that yet has an eerie, neo-Biblical dignity.”—John Updike, The New Yorker
“A book of considerable intellectual force . . . The writer’s powerful mind works in a specialized way, not by theological argumentation but by telling or retelling a story.”The New York Review of Books
“Challenges readers on the religious right and the atheist left with equally rich interpretive tasks.”The Dallas Morning News
“An informed and believable work of fiction . . . of what may have been going through the mind of Jesus during his epic ministry.”San Francisco Chronicle
Praise for Norman Mailer
“[Norman Mailer] loomed over American letters longer and larger than any other writer of his generation.”The New York Times
“A writer of the greatest and most reckless talent.”The New Yorker
“Mailer is indispensable, an American treasure.”The Washington Post
“A devastatingly alive and original creative mind.”Life
“Mailer is fierce, courageous, and reckless and nearly everything he writes has sections of headlong brilliance.”The New York Review of Books
“The largest mind and imagination [in modern] American literature . . . Unlike just about every American writer since Henry James, Mailer has managed to grow and become richer in wisdom with each new book.”Chicago Tribune
“Mailer is a master of his craft. His language carries you through the story like a leaf on a stream.”The Cincinnati Post

Product Details

Random House Value Publishing, Incorporated
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Read an Excerpt

In those days, I was the one who came down from Nazareth to be baptized by John in the River Jordan. And the gospel of Mark would declare that on my immersion, the heavens opened, and I saw "a spirit like a dove descending." A mighty voice said "You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased." Then the Spirit drove me into the wilderness, and I was there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan.

While I would not say that Mark's gospel is without truth, I would say that it is much exaggerated. And I would offer less for Matthew, Luke and John who gave me words I never uttered, and described me as gentle when I was pale with rage. Their words were written many years after I was gone, and only repeat what other men told them. Very old men. Such tales are to be leaned upon no more than a bush that is cut away from its root and blown about by the wind.

So I will try to give my own account. For those who ask how my words have come to this page, I would tell them to look upon all that is here as no more than a small miracle. (My gospel, after all, will speak of miracles.) Yet, I hope to remain closer to the truth ...

Meet the Author

Born in 1923 in Long Branch, New Jersey, and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Norman Mailer was one of the most influential writers of the second half of the twentieth century and a leading public intellectual for nearly sixty years. He is the author of more than thirty books. The Castle in the Forest, his last novel, was his eleventh New York Times bestseller. His first novel, The Naked and the Dead, has never gone out of print. His 1968 nonfiction narrative, The Armies of the Night, won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He won a second Pulitzer for The Executioner’s Song and is the only person to have won Pulitzers in both fiction and nonfiction. Five of his books were nominated for National Book Awards, and he won a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation in 2005. Mr. Mailer died in 2007 in New York City.

Brief Biography

Provincetown, Massachusetts, and New York, New York
Date of Birth:
January 31, 1923
Date of Death:
November 10, 2007
Place of Birth:
Long Branch, New Jersey
B.S., Harvard University, 1943; Sorbonne, Paris, 1947-48

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The Gospel According to the Son 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mailer's daring account of the Gospel is compelling in that it gives a totally new view to the image of Jesus as a man and deity. Mailer risks extreme criticism by writing The Gospel According to the Son, but succeeds in challenging the minds of his readers to examine the life of Jesus from an abstract and enlightening perspective. In this book, Mailer skillfully articulates the thoughts and inquiries concerning the life of Jesus Christ, regardless of the reader's religious beliefs or convictions. This work of fiction is masterful and a necessary addition to the literary world.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you believe that Jesus is divine, and that the Bible is literal, then you will find fault with the book. However, if you believe or open to the idea that Jesus had human frailties like the rest of us then you'll love the book. Mailer shows Jesus struggling with the idea that he is the son of God, with temptation, and in what Jesus said to the disciples. I found this book helpful in understanding my faith better.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Kudos to Mailer for having the courage to write this book. Jesus has been undergoing revisions since Paul first wrote his letters and this version does no real damage to his reputation. It's too bad that this 'Gospel' is not among Mailer's best work and that the subject has been covered better in plenty of other places. Read the original Gospels.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a Protestant clergyman with a love for the Bible, so I was disappointed in some of the liberties Mailer takes with the biblical text. This is a common hazard for any writer trying to write Bible-based fiction. However, I found Mailer's work stimulating to my thinking, and I think it is worth reading for anyone who is not upset by some of his conjectures about Jesus' thoughts and feelings.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mailer is one of the most talented writers of his generation. This is not one of his finest books, but it's his most daring. How many other writers would even consider this book? It's sure to tick a lot of people off, but if you're openminded, it's a great