By Samantha Seto
Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son is written as if it were an autobiographical account of the narrator, Jesus, who presents a firsthand coming-of-age story. The novel traces the linear trajectory of Jesus’ life story. Mailer, writing in the 20th century, is mindful of the original, historical Jesus and his story in the Bible. The novel has biblical verses embedded into the narrative that reflects the progression of Jesus’ life as related by the authors of the four Christian gospels: Mark, Luke, Matthew, and John. Mailer adapts Jesus’ unique voice by using a persona. Jesus’s first-person narrative voice creates a distinct account that retells yet perceives the series of events that compose the gospel differently. Mailer uses an analytical lens to make his point within the religious context of Jesus’ story. He provides keen insight into the role of character of Jesus. He gives the reader a glimpse of the good morals in Jesus that build the power of highest good from God. The good in Jesus is a noteworthy attribute because it contrasts the evil that God also tolerates. Mailer’s novel provides insight into the gospel by establishing Jesus’ presence and great impact that made all the difference in the world.
The novel portrays Jesus, who is the Son of God, making a very significant mark in history. Jesus was once a child gifted with divine power and a genuinely good heart. Jesus prefaces his retelling by relating such events not found in the Bible as a memory of his father, Joseph, “I could still see the strain on his face on the day he told me that he was not my father” (23). Mailer takes creative license that varies from the original account of the Bible. I think Mailer needs to take creative liberty to create an effective story. By taking creative liberty, Mailer has made this book his own. He imagines Jesus to have thoughts that spark deeper feelings within him. Jesus precisely has a distant relationship with his father Joseph. Mary always fears for the life of her son. She listens to a still small voice that belongs to God. The character of Jesus parallels the Scripture because he has moral and altruistic qualities who is also the Son of God. He also befriends John the Baptist, son of Zechariah. John the Baptist baptizes young Jesus in the river and they remain friends until the day John dies. His character symbolizes the light and good of the world. Jesus travels throughout the lands and his disciples, or followers, express great faith in him. Mailer’s choice of narrating from Jesus’ point of view allows readers to empathize with his great struggle to obey God’s commands and walk in the righteous path of the Lord. The reader can visualize the pain that this human soul endures. He is just one heartbeat. Jesus obeys the word of God because he puts his trust in the Lord. Jesus can walk on the water too. He sets the example for his disciples to have a strong faith in God. For instance, Moses obeys God and parts the Red Sea in order to lead the Jews out of Egypt. Abraham almost sacrifices his son Isaac for the sake of his great trust in God. Jesus claims to be the Son of God but his teachings are banned by law according to King Herod’s men in Judea. In fact, the rabbis do not believe he is the King of the Jews or the Messiah and regard Jesus’s teachings to his disciples at the temple upon a hill as treason. Yet the disciples sacrifice and devote their days to follow Jesus. The disciples’ view of the world is quite interesting. Their walk with Jesus is profound evident in the record of life events that provides input for the Bible. On the journey to obey the word of God, Jesus performs miracles such as turning water into wine for people at a wedding or splitting bread to feed the Jews. The wedding captured my attention due to Mailer’s detailed portrayal of Jesus finding the vase-like jars, walking to the fountain to fill them with water, and then miraculously having red wine at every table. The passage states, “Indeed I could feel an angel at my side. In that instant, the water in the jars became wine. I knew this. It had been accomplished by no more than the clear taste of one grape and the presence of one angel.” (61) It is simply a beautiful image of God’s wrath to grace people with good and peace on earth. Jesus describes that he feels “near to the Kingdom of God” as the beauty of the miracle occurs. The reader is in awe of the miracle that brings Jesus to a divine, amazing sight.
The story is a fairly good, interesting read. Mailer offers a unique perspective. The novel refers to the Gospel of Luke as it directly quotes the angel of the Lord who says, “Mary, thou hast found favor with God. Thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son. Call his name Jesus. He shall be great and he shall be called the Son of the Highest.” (Luke 1:30-32). The narrative surprised me at times such as when Mailer puts words into Jesus’s mouth. I did not imagine Jesus to have thought in the same way. Mailer clearly takes creative license by writing this story from the point of view of an omniscient narrator that knows the mind of Jesus. Jesus argues with Satan in an epic of good triumphing against evil. Mailer invents the dialogue from his own imagination. Jesus speaks of God, “He is all-powerful. The heavens and the earth, the stars and the sun, bow before Him. They do not bow to you.” (48) Jesus’s firm belief in God might be so, yet he puts-down the enemy. Jesus further indicates, “your words are poisonous,” which is directed to Satan. (53) The self-evident truth remains that Mailer lived after Jesus, thus we can never take this story as fact but rather a fiction. The subjectivity which Mailer introduces to Jesus’s familiar narrative arises in Jesus’ deeper internal state during his lifetime. Jesus narrates, “but according to my mother, the angel said little” (25). Sorrow dwells in his heart. As a reader, I sense Jesus’s melancholy in part due to his solitary walk in life. Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father. Mary cares deeply for Jesus and considers him to be different from the rest. This may allude to God taking the role of the Good Father. Mailer identifies with the narrator’s predicament because he feels that he must “give my own account” and “yet I would hope to remain closer to the truth” (13). Thus, Mailer invents his own point of view of Jesus, which characterizes Jesus in new, compelling light. The novel is centered around Jesus’s life such as his resilience against the struggle he faces. Since Mailer focuses on Jesus’s character, it gradually molds into a story rather than simply presenting a fact of history.
Mailer’s story accurately reflects the history of Jesus’ life in the gospel and follows a chronological order. It begins with Mary, a virgin from Nazareth, and Joseph, a poor carpenter, before Jesus is born. Jesus remains the true narrator throughout the entire novel. The angel appears to Mary to declare that she will conceive a baby in her womb who will be the Son of God. The white dove in the blue sky represents the Holy Spirit. Joseph thinks that if the Essene priests knew, “Mary could be stoned to death.” (13) Although she is innocent, the strict law would never allow her to be pregnant without a husband. A passage states, “Mary, however, went to visit her own cousin, Elizabeth, who lived in the hills to the east, for Elizabeth was six months pregnant” (26-27). The historical reference is quite accurate and parallels the biblical story. Elizabeth is also pregnant even in her old age with John the Baptist. Jesus retrospectively explains, “‘only when Elizabeth saw me,’ she liked to say, ‘was John able to quicken in the womb.’” (29) Elizabeth’s dialogue remains very close to the Scripture. The narrative mirrors the Immaculate Conception by illustrating the history of Mary’s life during the times that she is pregnant with Jesus. The Lord’s presence allows Joseph to listen to God’s word, “And while Mary was gone, a voice came to Joseph in his sleep” (27). As Mary conceives the baby, three wise men, or magi, are sent to find the Messiah. The three wise men set out on a journey to follow the North Star. The baby is born in Bethlehem. The baby’s name is “Yeshua,” which in their “rough dialect” means “Joshua” and translates in Latin to Jesus (27). Jesus essentially retells the truth of his birth. One passage states, “Mary was now heavy with me but willing to travel for three days from Nazareth to Bethlehem…it is also true that I was born in a manger by the light of a candle.” (15) On the night Jesus is born, the three wise men bestow gifts to Jesus: gold, myrrh, and frankincense. King Herod of Israel comes to know of a holy birth in Bethlehem from the shepherds. I anticipated the angel who appears on the clouds proclaiming, “‘this day is born Christ, the Messiah of the Lord.’” (16) King Herod is mad that the baby might be a threat to his reign. A baby watched over by a guardian angel may become a king. He orders for all the first born sons in Bethlehem to be killed. The Roman soldiers invade the city walls. The light from their torches contrasts the heavy rain pouring from the dark clouds in the sky. The soldiers violently slaughter every first born son. Blood pours from their bodies as they lie dead on the ground. Mothers weep into their son’s damp clothes. The sons of Bethlehem were no more. God’s delivers love and guidance to Mary and Joseph as they set out on a journey. They walk over sand dunes. God is with them. Jesus lives.
Mailer points to the traditional miracles that Jesus supposedly gave yet the narrative is filled with suspense and fear, making the novel a real page-turner. The suspense builds in the steps taken to perform the miracle. Mailer creates Jesus’s actions in real time that contribute to the miracle. I take the side of the protagonist. At times, Jesus faces a problem in which the good of the people is at risk. God never fails to bring the cure or solution. I fear will he make it? My heart races knowing that the good always wins yet I cannot help but doubt it. Jesus even brings a dead child who is sick back to life by means of a miraculous, powerful healing. The narrative perfectly describes the way in which Jesus breathes a person back to life. Mailer writes, “I held her hand and recited words I remembered well from the scroll of the Second Kings, saying: ‘When Elisha was come (came) into the house, behold, the child was dead, and he prayed unto the Lord. And he lay upon the child and put his mouth upon the child’s mouth and his eyes upon the child’s eyes and his hands over the boy’s hands, and he stretched himself upon the child and the flesh of the child was now warm, and the child sneezed seven times and opened his eyes.’” (98) The heroic character saves the sick and poor in spirit to restore his vast creation. Jesus dearly shows compassion. His compassion is evident in his kindness and care for others. Furthermore, Mailer provides a researched, historically accurate backdrop to the stories recorded in the Bible, describing to his readers how strict Jewish laws against preaching the word of God to masses of people stood in the way of the disciples sharing the gospel. The strict Jewish law is comparable to the historical fact of paying taxes to the king. Meanwhile the city of Jerusalem undergoes turmoil like a wave that spreads, creating tension. A rabbi recites a prayer at the temple upon a hill to the nation of Israel.
The author Norman Mailer won the Pulitzer Prize in 1969 (The Armies of the Night) and 1980 (The Executioner’s Song) for his literature. Mailer’s books were nominated for the National Book Awards and he received a lifetime achievement award. Yet, this novel seems more ambitious compared to his earlier works. He uses a primary source, the Bible, to establish the basis of his story. The gospel that supposedly contains the truth about Jesus was created before Mailer’s time. The novel is derived from the classic roots of the Bible. In the Christian tradition the four gospels are the canonically recognized accounts of the life, words, and deeds of Jesus, but Mailer clearly adds his own interpretation to these Biblical accounts. Mailer interprets the Scripture in his own way. He projects his own unconventional view of the gospel in the first-person narration. The characters of the epic story in the Bible are transformed into humans with common attributes according to the emotions that drive their character. Mailer presents Jesus without flaws in his character, which is a quality reflected in his sound mind, voice, and thought. Jesus’ traits reveal his identity. In the end, Jesus is sacrificed on the cross for the sake of humanity. Jesus precisely gives readers hope of salvation from his death and resurrection. God the Father created the world knowing that mankind would fall and needed a savior. Jesus’s sacrifice is part of a plan ordained by an omniscient God. The power of God has worked through Jesus Christ for people to inherit eternal life and enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The traditional story of the gospel through the eyes of Jesus combines history with the psychology of the human mind. Jesus must have a been an active thinker in addition to experiencing feelings during the time that he lived on earth, which is evident in the role of his character. In the Current Era notation, history is measured according to the year of the Lord. Scholars separate dates in history according to the term B.C. referring to “before Christ” and A.D. meaning “after death.” The story brings the reader’s attention to the character of Jesus. I recommend The Gospel According to the Son to readers interested in the human mentality and emotional state of Jesus, who may appreciate this work of fiction.
To conclude, I desire to pay tribute to Mailer’s novel. I read this novel on the train that took me to and from Penn Station in Baltimore, Maryland and Union Station in Washington, D.C. I did not mind the long chapters. Mailer essentially invents the character of Jesus to present him in a new, favorable light. Yet, Mailer remains accurate in his portrayal of the gospel. The author has done his research using valid sources. He conveys a story that is strongly rooted in the Scripture even when he adds his own interpretation. Therefore, readers should not shy away from a novel that has a fresh lens. It may take a leap of faith. Nevertheless, I trusted Mailer from the very first page of the novel. I was interested to read this famous writer’s view of Jesus in the gospel. I turned each page believing that Mailer reflected on Jesus in his own way. Mailer fashions his novel with a new perspective and establishes the narrator’s voice to share the good news of the gospel. Although it is not possible for Mailer to know the mind of God, I praise this novel because Mailer’s intuitive sense is so powerful. He imagines it this way to offer a story, rather than retelling the historical fact presented in the pages of the Bible. I have learned a great deal from reading this story that I may have never thought of otherwise. Mailer’s story gives rise to contemporary writings that derive from timeless pieces of literature. Most love stories written in the 21st century have minor details that allude to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and so forth. The novel keeps the message of the gospel alive.
You can find the book here: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/106285/the-gospel-according-to-the-son-by-norman-mailer/9780345434081/
 Mailer, Norman. The Gospel According to the Son.
 The Holy Bible. New International Version (NIV).
 Mailer, Norman. The Gospel According to the Son.
 The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer. The Pulitzer Prizes.
Samantha Seto graduated with a B.A. as a Writing Seminars major and History of Art minor at the Johns Hopkins University. She is a third prize poet of the Whispering Prairie Press. Samantha has published in many journals including Ceremony, Soul Fountain, Black Magnolias Journal, Scarlet Leaf Review, Breadcrumbs, and Chicago Literati. She lives in Washington, D.C.