“The Gospel OF Judas” by Simon Mawer
Micah Reader in June 2016 by Brenda Levenson
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Temple Micah.
Published in 2001, Simon Mawer’s “The Gospel of Judas” is the third novel of his our group discussed over the years. The writing is brilliant by “a master of words” as one of our readers called the author. It is about betrayals, religious belief and faith. It is filled with “irony and confusion” in which “nothing is absolute”.
The complexity of the plot and the number of characters, who appear at first to be unconnected to one another, present a challenge to the readers who are called upon to navigate through layers of history. Simon Mawer digs into the Hebrew Bible, ancient Palestine, early Christianity, and briefly World War II, leading us into a dizzying sarabande. Leo Newman, the main character, is a Catholic priest in Rome, also a biblical scholar and linguist. As the story travels from the present to the past, and vice-versa, we meet his mother, a single parent who is a piano teacher. Nothing is known of his father who is absent from the picture and about whom she is elusive.
At a party Leo attends, he meets Maddy Brewer, the attractive wife of a British diplomat whose sexual advances he attempts to sidestep. Eventually he yields to her charms and the two become lovers. During their affair he is called to Jerusalem where ancient parchments have just be unearthed and are written in Koine, the form of Greek spoken during the Hellenistic and Roman antiquity. Leo’s job will be to translate them. In the course of his work he comes across a revelation that threatens the edifice of Christianity. Mawer alludes to the fact that by then Leo has lost much of his religious faith, though he is still a member of the Catholic clergy. Faced with his devastating discovery he commits what one reader called “an act of faith,” but is it? Even more to the fact, who did what is an unanswered question.
Several of our readers thought that “the book reads at times like a good mystery” in which characters appear, disappear to reappear again like in an 18th century farce. What happens to his lover, Maddy, changes the course of Leo’s life. The role of Gretchen Huber and her German husband is perplexing, as is the presence of Francesco, the handsome Italian who gives her tennis lessons. Mawer is not only “a master of words” but also good at building suspense.
Mawer’s book abounds in metaphors, not least of which is his choice of names, as one reader pointed out. Maddy, short for Madeleine, is clearly Leo’s Magdalene. He, in turn reinvents himself as a “new man.” Biblical references throughout the novel open the door to the identity of Leo Newman, which we will not divulge here.
As is always the case when a book fails to receive unanimous acclaim, “The Gospel of Judas” provoked an animated debate about many aspects of the novel. The Jewish War to which the author refers was an object of interest. Fought by the Jews against the Romans, it ended with the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE and the dismemberment of the Jewish state. A discussion about the nature of faith and of truth versus myth elicited a parallel between some of the unreal elements that every religion contains. Is the belief of Jesus’s resurrection different from the claim that the Torah was divinely inspired, asked one reader? Factually not, but philosophically one could dispute the argument. The resurrection served to deify a man, while the Torah, no matter when and by whom it was written, sought to turn unruly tribes into a civilized nation by spelling out precepts and laws far ahead of their time as well as of countries that we have come to associate with culture, Babylon, Greece and Rome to name but a few.