Review of The Betrayal: The Lost Life of Jesus by Kathleen O'Neal Gear
The Betrayal: The Lost Life of Jesus
by Kathleen O'Neal Gear
The historicity of Jesus Christ is one of the most controversial and interesting subjects of Christian scholarship. I am also particularly interested in the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E. and its curation of what would eventually become the New Testament. The Betrayal offers a fictional perspective on both, drawing on accumulated evidence to present an historical interpretation of the life and death of Jesus and the shaping of Christianity three centuries later. While its presentation of Jesus and the Church in such a stark, scholarly light is thought-provoking, it's to the detriment of the story, a fatal flaw in any work of fiction.
When it comes to historical fiction, it's easy for the author to claim that his or her research makes the book historically accurate. Bolstering those claims with notes, endnotes, and a bibliography exponentially increases the credibility of one's book--and I don't know about other readers, but I don't care enough to look into the research behind my fiction. Still, I do prefer accuracy, and it certainly helps in this case that the authors are archaeologists. Ultimately, it does not matter whether or not the Gears' depiction of the historical Jesus is accurate (after all, we'll never know). Instead, what matters is that their scenario presents a realistic alternative to the contradictory Biblical testimony. At this, I believe they succeed.
Of the two time periods in which The Betrayal takes place, I far prefer the later one. It concerns three monks--Barnabas, Zarathan, and Cyrus--and a washerwoman from their monastery--Kalay--who flee the monastery after the other monks are murdered. They're protecting books that the Council of Nicea has declared heretical, and Barnabas has an ulterior desire to locate a treasure known only as "the Pearl." We get a standard evasion/treasure quest plot with a wise old man (Barnabas), a soldier with a dark past (Cyrus), a whiny youngster (Zarathan), and a hauntingly beautiful yet capable woman (Kalay). I enjoyed these characters immensely, particularly Zarathan and Kalay. I wanted to kill Zarathan, and Kalay was just deliciously capable. Unfortunately, Barnabas and Cyrus were more two-dimensional, as were the villains.
The earlier time period, set around the time of Jesus' crucifixion, interested me less. Maybe it was the way it was narrated, but the events seemed dry, and I never really empathized with any of the characters or their dilemmas. Still, the Gears debunk a lot of the common stories associated with the crucifixion--Judas, Barrabas, etc.--and the resurrection.
In one respect, Dan Brown trumps the Gears: he can write. The Da Vinci Code may have been of questionable historical accuracy, but at least it had a compelling story. While I liked The Betrayal's characterization, its plot left much to be desired, particularly the resolution. There's very little drama, most of it suspense created as we watch the pursuers close on our protagonists. Toward the end, as our protagonists try to locate the ambigiously-identified Pearl, we get treated to an increasingly esoteric conversation as to the meaning of various Hebrew words translated into Latin--oh joy. The Name of the Rose this is not.
I praise The Betrayal for portraying a historical, human Jesus while simultaneously preserving his faith. This is not an anti-Christian or anti-Christianity novel. Rather, it expresses a possibility--the aim of any good work of fiction. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in Biblical scholarship, with the caveat that it's a little dry and slightly crispy. A little steak sauce will go nicely.