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A Review of José Saramago’s "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ"

"The Gospel According to Jesus Christ" is one of José Saramago’s most well-known, controversial, and lasting contributions to the world of literature. This review explains why it was so controversial when it was published, and why one should read it even today.
José Saramago

José de Sousa Saramago, the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature-winning Portuguese novelist, lived from 1922 to 2010. During that time, he authored a long list of novels that still are not only potent and impactful enough to deeply affect their readers, but are also mostly controversial. During his lifetime, many critics, notably Harold Bloom, described Saramago as the greatest living novelist. Today, even after his demise, he retains an important place in the history of literature and, some would say, in the interpretation of history.

The Gospel According to Jesus Christ

Called O Evangelho Segundo Jesus Cristo in the original Portuguese version that was published in 1991, this book was released in English in the year 1994. One of Saramago’s most controversial novels, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, is a fictionalized retelling of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Despite the title, the novel is narrated in third person, but Saramago’s narrator remains concerned with Jesus’ perspective throughout the book. In the first hundred or so pages of the novel, the main character appears to be the carpenter Joseph, the father of Jesus, the man. After Joseph’s death, the readers follow Jesus throughout the course of his life, and Saramago pays particular attention to the psychological effects that being the son of God might have on a person.

Controversy and Exile

It is perhaps not surprising that The Gospel According to Jesus Christ generated mixed reactions when it was published in 1991. Catholics in particular spoke out against the work, which is a long way from depicting Jesus, and God (who appears as a character in the novel and speaks directly to Jesus) as unequivocally good. In 1992, the Portuguese government went so far as to censor the novel by removing it from the shortlist of a prestigious literary prize in 1992. This event had a profound impact on Saramago’s life. In order to protest Portugal’s censorship practices, Saramago went into voluntary exile on a Spanish island. He remained there until he died in 2010.

The Novel’s Importance

Despite its potentially offensive nature, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ provides a unique portrait of the life of Jesus, and ends with a remarkable interpretation of the events of Jesus’ death. One could describe the majority of the novel as entertaining, heartfelt, and well-written, but it is in the later chapters that The Gospel According to Jesus Christ really makes its literary mark. Without giving too much away, let it suffice to say that God reveals his plan for Jesus, and Jesus is not entirely sure that he likes the way history will unfold after he dies on the cross, leading to a religion being founded in his name.

Its Impact

Casual readers will find a lot to think about in Saramago’s gospel as it points out the consequences of Jesus’ life and crucifixion. Those who are willing to give these ideas a little thought will find The Gospel According to Jesus Christ even more rewarding. Beyond providing a rebellious interpretation of the Christ story, Saramago delves into theology and questions about the human nature in an accessible way; something that has rarely been achieved in the past.

The Deeper Questions

One of the greatest things about reading The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is that after taking in the story and understanding the interpretation and alternative theology that Saramago offers, the reader is led to consider matters at a more abstract level. The novel raises questions like:
  • What else is implied by the idea of the Judeo-Christian God?
  • What does the existence of other religions mean for any one religion in particular?
  • What does it really mean to forgive, or to sin, and what role does human feeling play in these actions?
Anyone who is interested in these questions or who is looking for an outstanding literary experience is encouraged to pick up a copy of one of José Saramago’s most enduring works.
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Published: August 30, 2013
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