If a new subgenre could be coined for John Kolchak‘s book, Next Year in Jerusalem, “grim gospel” would be more than satisfactory. Set somewhere in the arid wastelands between Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ and Gore Vidal’s Julian, Kolchak weaves a Hobbesian Palestine where the life of a man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutal, and short, especially in terms of faith and law. This work is more of a recasting of significant gospel narratives within the Roman and Jewish pressures of the time than a deeper retelling of Jesus’ life. In doing so, the perennial questions of our relations to truth, power, faith, memory, and time are upended afresh and anew.
Kolchak serves up a lurid, intense work of pulp that flips the Synoptics on their heads to bang readers out of their comfortable encounters with the Gospel in order to humanize and isolate. As stories of Jesus go, this one refreshingly dismisses the pieties and conventions of Jesus as an enlightened man to any degree. What is left is a poor bastard (literally), who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, without any sort of Pythonesque comic relief for himself or the reader. The revelation that there is no deus ex machina in this story is not a spoiler, here.
Kolchak works hard to create a chthonic, sweaty world where Roman and Jew despise and fight one another with an urgency that could easily be found in the West Bank today. And within this world, Jesus is refused his assumed place at center stage. Working against and along with each other are the lives and thoughts of Pontius Pilate, a sullen prefect of Judaea, Yeshua Bar-Yosif, our epileptic and itinerant preacher, and Yeshua Bar-Abbas, a merciless leader of the insurgent Sicarii, fashioned here as an ultra-Zionist sort of ISIS. Their personal trajectories plod in the desert heat until they all finally cross together one absurd day.
To the reader whose experience of the “biblical” world is limited to pietistic readings of the New Testament, there can be much surprise here, but is, in fact, quite familiar to NT scholars and students. Kolchak does nice work as he mines and refashions Origen’s account of Celsus’ claim that Jesus was a Roman soldier’s bastard, as well as Josephus’ Antiquities for competing messiahs roving the towns at the time, like Theudas and The Egyptian. And in almost each plot point of this novel, there is a Bultmannian demythologization that goes so far as to destabilize the kerygmas, the kernels, of the message that the gospel authors sought to convey. This is until we see the purposes of mythologization in action.
While a vivid work of institutional and revolutionary power and struggle, the characters spend much time fretting to themselves, revealing overwhelming and deep-seated existential anxieties about purpose and act. Memory and time are characters, themselves, and Kolchak often and clumsily tips his hand, trying too hard in his attempts to convey their importance in, among other ways, his deliberate nods to Proust and his madeleines. He wants us to wonder “the fight for freedom and control, how will it all be remembered and memorialized?”
There are also odd missteps along the long trip to Golgotha. Another round of copyedits and an editor’s insights couldn’t have hurt. References to the Holocaust, madeleines, iced beer, shooting fish in a barrel, and various other stylistic anachronisms upset the narrative in such a way and to such an extent that I can only fathom that it must be deliberate in order to knock the reader off kilter. What I first took as simple clumsiness can only be a device to jar the reader out of their comfortable immersion in the story and to connect it with their own lives, as homiletic use of the biblical stories seeks to do.
Yet, for all the impressive research that Kolchak has done to fashion such a rich world in the ancient Levant, he sometimes outfoxes himself in his own cleverness. One instance is his using modern Greek, instead of ancient koine, in a scene that focuses on the importance of meaningful language and vocabulary. Another is Maryam the Magdalene taming and civilizing the wild Enkidu that is Yeshua. Sex does have its own powers of revelation, but the identities and roles of the novel’s women are two-dimensional at best, serving primarily as vessels and accessories for male achievement.
There are wonderful subtle inversions and exchanges that will satisfy the artful reader of the gospel narratives. Kolchak writes as an insider, thoroughly familiar with the gospel material when he splays out time-honored pericopes for autopsy. There are a number of episodes and character twists that impressed me with his creativity. And even within the standard biblical treatment here, there is much to dwell theologically on the inconsistent and panentheistic theodicy of Kolchak’s Yeshua and the aesthetic foundations of the Kingdom of God. At times, Yeshua almost appears to be predicting Spinoza, another philosophical Jew who poked at biblical criticism. If Yeshua’s theology doesn’t seem to work as he describes it, it demonstrates that systematic theology does not happen on the fly.
For me, what is remarkable throughout are the kinds of absences I did not expect Kolchak to leave out. As radical as this work seems to be, it still develops within the traditional and conventional gospel canon. One of the unspoken challenges of writing a story about Jesus is that we forget that we start with four. And when writers begin to pick, choose, and synthesize the four gospels to create their own, they flatten out the variable richness and important inconsistencies of the textual material. The most famous of these early “harmonies” is Tatian’s Diatesseron, shoving square pegs into round holes some time in the second century. It’s less about what Kolchak leaves out and more about what he does not put in. There is no reference to Jesus’ childhood from either canonical or non-canonical gospels, like the Protoevangelium of James. And there is nothing from the Nag Hammadi, not even the Gospel of Thomas. Instead, he is creating a very explicit, problematized persona of Jesus well-grounded within the very Jewish framework of Matthew’s gospel.
But Kolchak, himself, seems in many ways to be attempting to deal with Jesus. Everyone who encounters Jesus in this novel has to deal with Yeshua and this frustrates everyone – and most frustratingly, Yeshua has to deal with himself. This is, of course, one of the main struggles both within and out of Christianity: the problematic and quixotic identities and roles of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s stressful to and for everyone involved, including Kolchak and Kolchak’s reader such that the process of living with the stress paradoxically becomes a catharsis, in itself. Through suffering, we become ourselves.
Kolchak weaves a good story and he is quite skilled at fashioning realistic dialogue such that it does have a kind of movie-script tone. In fact, in one crucial scene, David Bowie’s Pilate shone brightly and darkly as only he could inspire. Yet, along with the gore and the shouting invective obscenities and the randomness of life there comes a message and hope that writes across two thousand years of telling strange and disparate stories about people in the backwater of a young empire in a very, very old and contested land. And that is why this work is still a gospel in its own right, even as grim as it is and as it should be. It is also why Next Year in Jerusalem is worth reading especially during the all too timely season of Lent.