Libraries are filled with tomes on the life of Jesus Christ—whether literary, historical, political, or mystical. Rooted firmly in the Jewish tradition of midrash, that prayerful story-telling that seeks to open the Word of God to deeper understanding, Christ the Lord is technically a work of speculative theology posing as historical fiction. As with all her writing, Rice has done her research; she spent more than three years examining New Testament scholarship of every political and theological stripe. The result is an eye-opening encounter with first century Judea and the family life that Jesus might have lived.
If we think of the Gospels as trilogy, part one is Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem while the third part begins with Jesus’ baptism and ends with the resurrection. The middle section centers on a single story of Jesus in the Temple, lost for three days while his parents searched for him. For the rest of those in between years, the Gospels remains silent, saying simply that Jesus grew in grace and wisdom. Christ the Lord imagines a year in Jesus’ life from the time the holy family leaves Egypt and returns to Nazareth until that fateful trip Jerusalem and Jesus’ three days in the Temple.
Jesus bar Joseph, Yeshua as he is called in Aramaic, is seven years old, living in Alexandria, Egypt, surrounded by an extended family that includes his father Joseph (who Jesus knows is not his father), his mother Mary, his step-brother James (from Joseph’s first, dead wife), his uncles Cleopas, Alphaeus, and Simon (brothers of Mary and Joseph), their wives, and a gaggle of cousins. Like most Jews living in a Roman city as cosmopolitan as Alexandria, the young Jesus speaks Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. He studies the Torah with a learned teacher in the morning, and he helps in the family trade, carpentry, in the afternoons.
Joseph, as head of this large clan, announces that it is time for the family to return home, saying, “We go home because it is our home, and because it is the Lord’s land. And because Herod is dead.” Over the next year, Jesus unravels the mystery that surrounds his own birth in Bethlehem, a mystery about which he is forbidden to ask. Uncle Cleopas tells the boy about the angel that appeared to Mary when she was betrothed to Joseph. From his brother James, Jesus learns of the appearance of shepherds and magi in Bethlehem who bow before the manger proclaiming Jesus a king. Finally, it is a Rabbi at the Temple in Jerusalem who informs Jesus of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents.
While learning of his past, the young Jesus experiences a severe loneliness brought on by his encounter with the miraculous. In one instance, he prays for snow and wakes to find the hillside covered in the white fluffiness, while at other times he cures the sick. Jesus’ isolation is further increased by a dream encounter with a winged being who tells him, “Your cause is lost, I know it’s lost, it’s lost every day and every hour, you know it is. You think your little miracles will help these people? I tell you, chaos rules. And I am its Prince.” Unable, or at least unwilling, to tell anyone about the dream, Jesus sinks further into seclusion finally turning to God with the words, “Lord, tell me who I am. Tell me what I am to do.”
In all of this, the child Jesus is completely believable. Rice’s prose is both economic and effusive. She wastes not a single word, yet her style draws the reader into a world hitherto unknown in all its luxuriant reality. Whether the description of blood sacrifice in the Temple or a dying man singing the Psalms in the Jordan River or a mother telling her kith and kin what is to happen to her child when she dies, Rice places the reader in the scene, making you a participant. This is not just good writing, but it draws on Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual practice of Biblical contemplation.
In imagining the hidden life of Jesus, Anne Rice uses her gift for character development, so finely tuned after three decades of writing, to create portraits of the people who would have had the greatest influence on the young Jesus. Joseph, who disappears from the Gospels before Jesus begins his ministry, is portrayed as a rock of faith. He is an ethical man who follows the Law and he trusts in God when angels speak to him. When the local Pharisee, Rabbi Jacimus, gives a hard lesson on living water and the purification rituals, Joseph helps his boys understand the ways of the Pharisees. “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.” Is it any wonder that the adult Jesus would accuse the Pharisees of laying undue burdens on God’s people?
Anne Rice set for herself a challenge that few, if any, in the last two thousand years have met. “The true challenge was to take the Jesus of the Gospels…and try to get inside him and imagine what he felt.” She has done just that. Christ the Lord is a gift—to the Church, to believers and non-believers alike. Everyone who wishes to know more about Jesus should read this book. Everyone who wants to know about first century Israel should read this book. Everyone who enjoys a good story should read this book. In short, everyone should read Christ the Lord—Out of Egypt.