OK, this is going to piss people off.
We’ve seen plenty of stories over the years that have retold “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” The life of Jesus Christ has been recast time and again, and with each retelling, the condemnation ranged from anywhere between annoyed murmuring to full-throated shouts. Remember when director Martin Scorsese had the nerve to suggest that Jesus struggled with the all-too-human traits of anxiety, depression and lust in the film The Last Temptation of Christ? Christians literally took to the streets in protest.
That’s nothing compared to what might be the reaction to Nick Tosches’ new novel, Under Tiberius (Little, Brown & Co., August 4, 2015).
Tosches himself becomes a character in the book and during a research project deep inside the bowels of the Vatican, he finds a first-century manuscript written by Gaius Fulvius Falconius, a speechwriter for Emperor Tiberius. The tome confirms the existence of Jesus Christ, but he’s not the Messiah we’ve come to know. In this story, he’s a shabby thief, found in the streets of Judea by Falconius, the PR man who had been cast out by the emperor.
Over the course of the novel, Falconius becomes Jesus’ spin doctor and the two of them set out to accumulate untold riches by convincing the masses that Jesus is the Messiah. “Miracles” are elaborate con jobs: the dead man Jesus resurrects was really only poisoned and the lame man he heals was in truth a beggar paid off in cash. (“People possessed by demons?” points out Kirkus Review. “Drunks.”) As Falconius and Jesus travel from Bethlehem to Nazareth, they accomplish more phony miracles, pick up apostles and lay the basis for what would become history’s greatest hoax.
So in a culture in which hard-line religious followers dig in their heels on every conceivable issue, this novel should go over well, shouldn’t it?
Not that Under Tiberius isn’t getting positive feedback. Library Journal called it “well-written and quite engrossing.” Publisher’s Weekly said the book “blows the doors off the historical novel with an unflinchingly blasphemous, mirthfully vulgar and ultimately brilliant story of Jesus . . . Tosches is taking aim at the way history, religion and political fantasy obscure the persistent realities of humanity. This novel succeeds where every neutered passion play-depiction of Jesus fails, simply by showing us a man.
Still, the book is guaranteed to generate controversy. Why write it in the first place? “One of the primary motivations in a lot of my thinking and a lot of my books,” Tosches said in an interview with NPR, “has been the question of, ‘Did man invent the concept, the dichotomy of good and evil before he invented the gods? Or did he invent the gods first and then pronounce good and evil through them?’
“I think I wanted to push people to actually look at the fact that the idea of God has never been a force for good in this world but only for evil,” Tosches said. “And it’s only been born out of weakness and resulted in bloodshed, mayhem, lies, theft.”
What about people who act selflessly, and perform acts of true goodness in the middle of the worst kinds of horror? “Those same good, human people would be behaving the same way without a god to tie it onto,” Tosches said.
Simply put, Under Tiberius isn’t your father’s mind-bending cup of blasphemous speculative historical fiction. Beyond Monty Python’s Life of Brian, beyond Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal (both of which are personal favorites of mine), Under Tiberius is bold, audacious, and not for the easily offended. Have faith, though—advance buzz on the book promises rewards for its readers. “Tosches can’t write a dull book,” says the Washington Post. “He sets his foot firmly on your throat from the start; he won’t let up, and you won’t want him to.”