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In tale of Jesus, the wonder's in the details

Testament: A Novel, Nino Ricci, Houghton Mifflin: 458 pp., $25

May 27, 2003|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

The Jesus presented in the New Testament's Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is a bigger-than-life charismatic personality, traveling the Galilee region, curing the sick, raising the dead, feeding the multitudes, turning his cheek, entering Jerusalem to wave palm fronds and songs of praise, and ultimately, triumphing over death. The result of a virgin birth heralded by angels and overseen by a star, this Jesus is no common man. He is imbued with the mythical light afforded by the Gospels' backward glance.

"Testament," by Canadian author Nino Ricci, introduces us to a different, more earthly Jesus. Following in the footsteps of the best historical-fiction writers, Ricci re-imagines the life of Jesus, steeping his narrative in highly detailed, well-researched background. By weaving together a plausible tale based on fact, he illuminates Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human with foibles and idiosyncrasies who lived his life in a specific time and place. In a way that the New Testament accounts, employing their hagiographic tone, cannot accomplish, Ricci ("The Book of Saints") immerses readers in the visceral details, making the familiar account blossom anew and the story of Jesus tangible.

Ricci's Jesus is subject to fits of anger and depression, a man who turns his back on his family and often lives on the street. As the illegitimate son of a Roman legate, he is proscribed from entering the temple. Because of his own exclusion, he rallies for inclusion of all people in God's kingdom -- lepers, fallen women, tax collectors, insurrectionists, pagans. Many of the miracles attributed to the biblical Jesus are tales that have been exaggerated with each telling. Yet, the understated wonders he does perform -- urging people to open their eyes to the choices they have, to embrace religious faith without its exclusionary trappings -- stand out as more life-altering than the biblical miracles. "When will the kingdom come, people asked him, and he always replied, It's here. He said, Look at the trees, or the birds or the lake. Look at the wildflowers that come up in the spring.... Open your eyes and see."

The story is presented in four Gospel-like narratives as seen through the eyes of three personalities from the New Testament and one fictionalized follower.

There's Judas, who's portrayed as the only one of Jesus' followers able to keep pace with him intellectually and whose involvement in a liberation movement against the Roman occupation roots the story in its historical time and place.

Mary Magdalene is the unmarried daughter of one of Jesus' first supporters. Smitten by Jesus, her worldview and options as a woman are opened up by her association with him. "I thought of the girl I had been when Yeshua had first come, so coddled then and innocent, when now I had travelled half the roads of Galilee, and had respect, and saw things differently."

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the one character most unlike her biblical counterpart. She finds herself in a scandalous predicament after her father, trying to improve the family's fortunes by making an advantageous marriage for her, hands her over to the Roman legate who impregnates her and then skips out. Mary's father arranges her marriage to Joseph, a much older, cold-hearted man. This Mary is unable to move beyond the shame at bearing an illegitimate child. Her son grows more inscrutable to her by the day, and when, as an adult, he moves into the public eye, she envisions his downfall.

Simon of Gergesa is a pagan shepherd who's drawn to the itinerant preacher, and though not mentioned in the New Testament version, could easily have been one of Jesus' many followers. Simon brings into the picture a rapscallion, Jerubal, who makes tall tales of Jesus' actions, serving to explain how some of the biblical miracles (the overflowing catch of fish, for example) came to be attributed to Jesus.

In the way the best historical fiction re-imagines the past so that it can transcend the boundaries of facts and become animate, so does Ricci's wonderfully vibrant narrative. And by making Jesus seem more human than divine, his charisma and example carry a weight that is difficult to dismiss. There are blemishes: The four sections are quite lengthy and lack chapter breaks, making for long stretches of uninterrupted text, and the voices of the narrators are too similar in tone, offering no sense of individuality. Still, these flaws are minor in an otherwise rich tapestry delineating one man's version of the first-century story on which all Christianity is based.

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