Note: This article was originally posted November 25, 2005.
Anne has switched the topic of her writing career from vampires to Christ. Remember seventy years ago, novelist Fulton Oursler, turning from agnosticism to devout faith and writing The Greatest Story Ever Told. Today, it’s Anne’s debut. With as much passion that Mel Gibson delivered in his movie production on Christ, Anne is exhibiting the same about-turn-face dedication to writing about the Savior. In her latest novel, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt , Anne invites, “This is a book I offer to all Christians—to the fundamentalists, to the Roman Catholics, to the most liberal Christians in the hope that my embrace of more conservative doctrines will have some coherence for them in the here and now of the book.” It was an invitation I couldn’t resist. After reading her book, here is my review of the delightful and the distasteful, with the intent that sometime these words from an Idahoan might cross the computer screen in her room so that her heart might consider.
First, Anne states, “Every novel I’ve ever written since 1974 involved historical research. It’s been my delight that no matter how many supernatural elements were involved in the story, and no matter how imaginative the plot and characters, the background would be thoroughly historically accurate. And over the years, I’ve become known for that accuracy.” I appreciate her fervor for historical accuracy that demands intensive, arduous scrutiny. She sincerely desires to place Jesus in cultural context . Anne reflects Josephus in the descriptions of Rome, Herod the Great, Jewish rebellions under Athronges and Judas bar Ezekias, and the glorious Jewish temple. It inspired me to dig out my historical tools to absorb the stories afresh of Herod the Great—burning Jewish rabbis , building magnificent monuments, murdering family members, and cursing his own torturous disease. The Jewish massacre under Archelaus was vivid as well. The author does a fine job balancing blame on the wanton actions of Jewish zealots in their thievery and their needless burning alongside the Herodian evil. And then she correlates zealots experiencing the wrath of government, those who lawfully bear the sword, when Sabinus, the procurator of the Romans crucifies two thousand.The colorful descriptions of the Jewish characters and their culture  were enchanting: the interlocking cohesiveness of a Jewish clan extending beyond immediate family, the conversations and manners between Jewish men and women, the activities of Sabbath and synagogue worship, and the questions over ceremonial law. At one point in chapter 11, Joseph and the other men in the family were unclean for killing a potential rapist, drunkenly charging into their camp. They performed necessary procedures according the law, but the author ends the chapter with provocative questions. “But could they ever be clean of such a thing? How to wash away the blood of a man, and what you do with the money he had, the money he stole, the money soaked in blood?”
I chuckled over the puzzlements of ceremonial law interpretation that must have been hotly debated during Jesus’ time. Chapter 15 provides family discussion on what makes water in a family mikvah actually “living water.” Does the “tiny drain in the bottom of the mikvah” make it a stream? Chapter 21 delves even a little deeper with this conversation:
“We bathe often in the stream, don’t we?” Cleopas asked. “And as for the mikvah, it has a tiny hole in the very bottom, so the water continues to move always. And when the rain filled the cistern, it was the living water. It’s living water. So be it.”
“But Rabbi Jacimus says that’s not good enough,” said James. “Why does he say this?”
“It is good enough,” said Joseph, “but he’s a Pharisee and Pharisees are careful. You have to understand: they think that if they take great care with each part of life, they’ll be safer from transgressing the Law.”
“But they can’t say that our milkvah is not pure,” said my uncle Alphaeus. “The women use the mikvah—.”
“Look,” said Joseph. “See two paths on a mountain ridge. One is close to the edge, the other is farther away. The one farther away is safer. That is the path of the Pharisee—to be farther from the edge of the cliff, farther from falling off the cliff and into sin, and so Rabbi Jacimus believes in his customs.”
“But they aren’t Laws,” said my uncle Alphaeus. “Pharisees say all these things are Laws.”
“The Rabbi Sherebiah said that it was the Law,” said James timidly. “That Moses was given Laws that weren’t written down, and these were passed down through the sages.”
Joseph shrugged. “We do the best we can do. And now the rains have come. And the mikvah? It’s full of freshwater!”He threw up his hands as he said this and he smiled, and we all laughed at it, but we weren’t laughing at the Rabbi. We were laughing as we always laughed at thing we talked about for which there seemed no one answer.
And if the debates by Pharisees over interpretation of ceremonial law are a full kettle, the author explodes the lid with John the Baptist heading to a life among the Essenes, for as Anne describes, “Essenes kept themselves apart in a life more strict even than Pharisees.” Likewise, I enjoyed the author’s description of Nazareth, Jesus’ house that “needed plaster everywhere,” the beautiful scenes in nature, all the connections with Sepphoris , and the possibilities of what a “carpenter” is able to do in “silver, wood, and stone.”
Overall, the author achieved the purpose of opening up the first century world for the reader.
Second, I acknowledge Anne Rice’s dismay over the hostility of New Testament critics. She correctly reports,
“Many of these scholars, scholars who apparently devoted their life to New Testament scholarship, disliked Jesus Christ. Some pitied him as a hopeless failure. Others sneered at him, and some felt an outright contempt. This came between the lines of the books. This emerged in the personality of the texts … in general scholars don’t spend their lives in the company of historical figures whom they openly despise … But there are New Testament scholars who detest and despise Jesus Christ.”
For helpful illumination, II Peter 2 categorizes them well. And that Anne distinguishes herself from Paula Frederikson  with belief in the historicity of the gospels and the divinity of Christ is a good step. But now not trying to be ostentatious, may I ask the author, how much is there fundamentally different between Pope Joseph Ratzinger , President Gordon Hinckley, and the Reverend Billy Graham on their belief about the gospels and Christ? Would not all three look to Jesus as “the ultimate supernatural hero, the ultimate outsider, and the ultimate immortal”? Who is wrong? Or are they all right? Does not Christos Kyrios of the gospels communicate a more demanding, pure, exclusive message than the inclusivity expressed by any of these three?
In the story plot, Anne unabashedly unfolds the perpetual virginity of Mary.  Mel Gibson said he was surprised that more evangelicals didn’t protest his movie’s emphasis upon Mary. I am not. Most evangelicals honor Catholicism’s doctrinal agenda with no public critique. Apparently, in most Christian circles, argument that distrusts evangelical/catholic unity is offensive and discouraged. But I just can’t ignore the heart issues of Anne’s Catholic conjecture. As Luther had to visit Rome, so did I. And since then, my troubled disturbance over the ECT phenomena in America has only intensified. Concerning Anne’s defense of Mary’s perpetual virginity, though it may be argued as uplifting, spiritual, and pure, I believe the reasoning does more to foster the unwholesome, prideful, and lustful aspects in Catholicism. The notion that “He [Joseph] never touches her [Mary] because he does believe” is absurd.
Second, her communicating Jesus in first person bugs me. Certainly, Paul does mention that when we speak, it ought to be in such a fashion that people are hearing directly from Christ (I Cor. 5:20). The distortion occurs whenever we portray the Living Word off kilter from the written Word. I do not understand why Anne willfully altered the age of Jesus’ boyhood event at the temple. Should not the writing of Christ in a novel strive to be faithful in every way to Scripture? Does any scholarly evidence pointing to the age of eight for Christ in the temple absolutely trump the simple, scriptural notation of age twelve? Perhaps it is the author’s suggested date for the birth of Jesus that has produced a bizarre sequence through the whole book.
Third, all the stories of Jesus’ hidden years are speculative. To convincingly fill in the gaps concerning the mind of Christ outside of what is revealed in specific, scriptural revelation is to put oneself on par with the three Persons of the Trinity.
To specify over what is hidden is foolish.  Sure, we have questions. Who were Jesus’ friends? Who were His teachers? Did He get sick? Did He have nightmares? How did His brother James treat Him growing up? What kind of house did He live in? How did He react to the story surrounding His birth? When did He become conscious of His divinity? Anne answers all these questions. But as people have been trying to satisfy our curiosity over the hidden life of Christ for almost two thousand years with spurious legends, where have they just once quenched the true thirst of a regenerated heart?
This is my biggest complaint. I am extremely disappointed Anne Rice is creating a “Christ the Lord” with the addition of human, erring thinking. She is wrong about the Apocrypha  by deciding thus: “Ultimately I chose to embrace this material, to enclose it within the canonical framework as best I could. I felt there was a deep truth in it,  and I wanted to preserve that truth as it spoke to me.” I would plead for her to reconsider. Her hugging of the extra-biblical showcases a “Christ” on the national stage performing contorted gymnastics.
Here is one concluding request, I ask of Anne Rice. As she meticulously studies in the days ahead about Christ in the gospels in preparation for future novels, I would implore her to pour over the pristine, clear, sequential, logical gospel of Christ in the book of Romans , written by the chief bond-slave of Christ. The Holy writ in Romans, inwardly changed Augustine in an ancient age, freed Luther in the Middle Ages, changed me in the modern age, and is able to chart the course for Anne and others in a postmodern era.
Thinking of heart issues.
1. An interesting tool is Jesus in Context, edited by Darrell Bock and Gregory Herrick (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005).
2. Judas and Matthias. The Jewish scholar, Alfred Edersheim, provides careful detail in his book, The Life and Times of Jesus The Messiah (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993). This is the new updated edition of the classic work, complete and unabridged in one volume. I also have the four volumes set, The Life of the Lord Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1958 edition complete and unabridged from the 1872 edition published by T. & T. Clark) by John Peter Lange. I highly recommend this set as well to Anne Rice for further detailed study.
3. In jest, I am curious how Anne discovered the meaning of “to cover his feet” by Cleopas. I bet on discovery she thought that expression to be as humorous as I did. And as the author recounted the story of Jonah, I laughed. Scripture is witty, the best I have ever read.
4. Josephus called Zippori “the center of Galilee.” The Roman and Byzantine remains at Zippori National Park are outstanding! Next time I visit Israel, I need to plan an hour for just walking from Nazareth to Sepphoris. Modern day Nazareth is drab, dingy, noisy, and busy. Cars are honking everywhere. The modern churches in Nazareth distract from envisioning any first century culture. Before Anne travels to Israel, she needs to view Ray Vander Laan’s video series, That The World May Know.
5. In her book, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), Paula writes, “Nor does Jesus seem to have urged that he was the Messiah, though in some special, utterly unprecedented, and previously unknown way. Such a message would have had to make sense to his contemporaries, or he would not have followers; but, as later Christian tradition a half century or more after his death shows, the evangelists were struggling to articulate such a concept themselves. Had any such tradition already existed, they would gladly have availed themselves of it. Instead, they must work hard to make their (respective) cases” (p. 249). James M. Robinson is no better. He supports Paula’s contention, “Christians all too often simply venerate the ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ as the ‘Son of God’ and let it go at that. But Jesus himself made no claim to lofty titles or even to divinity. Indeed, to him, a devout Jew, claiming to be God would have seemed blasphemous! He claimed ‘only’ that God spoke and acted through him” in The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005).
6. I assume Anne’s vision of Christ is in line with Pope Joseph Ratzinger: The Jesus of the Gospels “is quite different, demanding, bold. The Jesus who makes everything OK for everyone is a phantom, a dream, not a real figure. But it is precisely in this way that he answers the deepest questions of our existence, which—whatever we want to or not—keeps us on the look-out for God, for a gratification that is limitless, for the infinite. We must again set out on the way to this real Jesus.” On the Way to Jesus Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004). Yet I also believe Anne would fit herself under the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” of the Second Vatican Council: “Those also can attain to everlasting life who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or His church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, but who strive to live a good life, thanks to His grace. Whatever goodness or truth is found among them is looked upon by the church as a preparation for the gospel.”
7. What are we to do with James, Joses, Juda, Simon and the sisters (Mark 6:3)? In his book, Answering a Fundamentalist (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 1990), Albert Nevins argues, “Some have suggested that they were children of Joseph by an earlier marriage and they were half-brothers and half-sisters of Jesus. There is no indication of this in Scripture. Although the perpetual virginity of Joseph has never been defined by the Church, it is Church tradition that he was always a virgin. The Church’s explanation has always been that James and the others were cousins of Jesus” (p. 102). Taking the middle ground, Anne connects James with a previous marriage but associates the other siblings as cousins. It is worth reading the conservative scholar, R.C.H. Lenski who reasons against a vow of perpetual virginity and Mariolatry in Luke 1:34. But then pick up the argument with William Hendricksen who tangles with Lenski on the implications of “firstborn” in Luke 2:7.
8. “It was natural that, where God was silent and curiosity was strong, the fancy of man should attempt to fill up the blank. Accordingly, in the early Church there appeared Apocryphal Gospels, pretending to give full details where the inspired Gospels were silent. They are particularly full of the sayings and doings of the childhood of Jesus. But they only show how unequal the human imagination was to such a theme, and bring out by the contrast of glitter and caricature the solidity and truthfulness of the Scripture narrative. They make Him a worker of frivolous and useless marvels, who moulded birds of clay and made them fly, changed His playmates into kids, and so forth. In short, they are compilations of worthless and often blasphemous fables.These grotesque failures warn us not to intrude with the suggestions of fancy into the hallowed enclosure. It is enough to know that He grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man. He was a real child and youth, and passed through all the stages of a natural development. Body and mind grew together, the one expanding to manly vigor and the other acquiring more and more knowledge and power. His opening character exhibited a grace that made everyone who saw it wonder and love its goodness and purity. But, though we are forbidden to let the fancy loose here, we are not prohibited, but, on the contrary, it is our duty, to make use of such authentic materials as are supplied by the manners and customs of the time, or by incidents of His later life which refer back to His earlier years, in order to connect the infancy with the period when the narrative of the Gospels again takes up the thread of biography. It is possible in this way to gain, at least in some degree, a true conception of what He was as a boy and a young man, and what were the influences amidst which His development proceeded through so many silent years.” James Stalker, Life of Jesus Christ (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1909).
9. Tobit 13: 11 – “A great light will shine to all the ends of the Earth, and many nations will come to you from afar, the people of all the Earth, to dwell near to the name of the Lord, bearing in their hands gifts for the King of Heaven … And they will call you The Chosen One through all ages forever.” Out of curiosity, how does Anne arrive at this translation rendering in her novel? I have checked the reference in the KJV 1611, The New English Bible, and The New Jerusalem Bible. Anne should have stripped away from her novel the threads sourced in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Will she include the apocrypha book, Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with Infancy) in later novels? Harold Bloom writes, “The popularity of the Gospel of Thomas among Christians is another indication that there is indeed ‘the American religion’: creedless, Orphic, enthusiastic, protognostic, post-Christian. Unlike the canonical gospels, that of Judas Thomas the Twin spares us the crucifixion, makes the resurrection unnecessary, and does not present us with a God named Jesus. No dogma could be founded upon this sequence (if it is a sequence) of apothegms. If you turn to the Gospel of Thomas, you encounter a Jesus who is unsponsored and free. No one could be burned or even scorned in the name of this Jesus, and no one has been hurt in any way, except for those bigots, high church and low, who may have glanced at so permanently surprising a work.” Taken from The Gospel of Thomas: A Guidebook for Spiritual Practice (Woodstock: Skylight Paths Publishing, 2004) by Ron Miller. Harold Bloom is described in II Peter 2. His Bible is Barnstone’s The Other Bible (New York: Harper Collins, 2005). And Ron has traced his spiritual journey from a Catholic exclusivist, to a traditional Catholic inclusivist, to a “newly emergent Thomas Believer” embracing pluralism.
10. The Latter-day Saint would sincerely testify to the accuracy of another Testament of Jesus Christ. What are criteria for canonical Scripture beyond what we feel?
11. Catholic Chantal Epie writes, “Sanctifying grace, with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our soul, is the pledge of our participation in the victory of Christ over death, a victory that will last for all eternity in Heaven. In order to reject the Church’s teaching on grace, it would logically be necessary to eliminate from Holy Scripture, the letter to the Romans as well as many passages from other letters.” Conservative Catholics as well as conservative Mormons would vehemently deny that justification occurs through good works alone without faith. But neither will they accept justification as faith alone without good works. It is by “grace alone” through “faith alone” in “Christ alone”. The sole phrase rejected by most American Catholics and Mormons is “faith alone” because of their confusion of righteousness obtained by imputation and righteousness obtained by impartation. Yet the historical, accurate, inspired book of Romans is clear and liberating for those caught in the big, broad swamp of “American Christianity.” The question is whether we cling to our traditions and reasoning or trust The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans. Anne recently wrote in her blog concerning intolerance to homosexuality, “We do not have to be slaves to traditions or customs.” I was once a slave, “dead in trespasses and sins”, but the gospel of Christ in Romans set me free, made me alive.
Todd Wood is pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Idaho Falls, Idaho. He received his B.A. in Missions, M.A. in Theology, and M.Div. from Bob Jones University. But more than anything he hungers for the A.I.G. degree affixed to Apelles (Rom. 16:10).