Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt
Anne Rice. Christ the Lord. Out of Egypt. New York, Toronto: Knopf, 2005. 322 pages. $25.95. ISBN 0-676-97768-5
Witches and vampiresï¿½those are the kinds of characters most readers associate with the name of Anne Rice. Since her first novel appeared in 1974, Rice has attracted a loyal and large following of readers. But these carefully researched tales are often darkï¿½full of demons and other unsavory characters. Who would have guessed that these twenty-one booksï¿½one of which was made into a successful Broadway playï¿½would culminate in a book about Jesus? Christ The Lord is her latest book, and a very sympathetic account of Jesus at that. She employs her considerable story-telling skills to present a year in Jesusï¿½ early life told by the boy himself. What did Jesus know about himself and when did he come to know it? How and when did he become aware of his ï¿½divine powers?ï¿½ How did he discover his ï¿½history,ï¿½ why his parents treated them the ways they did, and why James was jealous of him? Rice invites her readers to raise such questions in this very engaging novel.
In an ï¿½Authorï¿½s Noteï¿½ at the end, Anne Rice describes the genesis of this book. It began in 1998 with a conversion and return to the Catholic faith she had abandoned at age eighteen. Thereafter she embarked on an intense search into the question of Jesus, eventually ï¿½reading the Bible constantlyï¿½ and then devouring all the scholarly works of the prominent Jesus researchers. She started with the ï¿½skeptical criticsï¿½ presuming their arguments would be compelling, but she eventually found their solutions to the historical problems unconvincing and lacking coherence. More compelling and satisfying were writers such as J.A.T. Robinson (on the early dates for the NT documents), Richard Bauckham, Martin Hengel, Jacob Neusner, Luke Timothy Johnson, Raymond Brown, John Meier, Larry Hurtado, Craig Blomberg, and Craig Keener, just to cite a few that she mentions. She gives most credit to N.T. Wright (especially his The Resurrection of the Son of God) for crucial insights in shaping her understanding of Jesus and his place in the world into which he was born.
The novel takes the form of a first-person narrative told by Jesus when he was seven to eight years old. In other words, it portrays Jesus during a period we refer to as the ï¿½silent years.ï¿½ Of course the gospels provide some minimal data from which to draw some broad strokes. According to their accounts, Joseph married the pregnant virgin Mary while they resided in Nazareth in Galilee. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The family fled to Egypt when Jesus was an infant to escape the evil designs of Herod the Great. The family returned, not to Judea, but to Nazareth shortly after Herodï¿½s death. Mary and Joseph eventually had other children.
Rice novelizes one slice of Jesusï¿½ life within this minimal framework. She incorporates a wealth of research into Jewish life under Roman occupation during this period. While profiting from insights by both Protestant and Catholic scholars, she is constrained by the affirmations of her Catholic faith (e.g., Mary remains a virgin so others within Mary and Josephï¿½s household were cousins or siblingsï¿½no blood relatives of Jesus). Rice also draws upon some incidents from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and the Protevangelium of James, as well as other sources for other events to include during these biblically silent years: e.g., the revolt of Judas the Galilean and the sacking of Sepphoris. Since this is a novel, Rice feels free to revise the Gospelsï¿½ presentations of events and data while incorporating some of the fancifulness of the apocryphal stories. So Jesus does turn clay birds into real ones that fly away. In Riceï¿½s novel James is older than Jesusï¿½Josephï¿½s son of a prior marriage not Jesusï¿½ younger brotherï¿½in contrast to what the Gospels suggest. The family leaves Egypt when Jesus is seven, not immediately after Herodï¿½s death as the gospels report. Judasï¿½ revolt occurred when the holy family was returning to Palestine, not in AD 6, the more likely date. The sacking of Sepphoris surely occurred well after the time Rice locates it.
Interestingly Rice merely invents intriguing details that may be, though probably are not, historical: that the holy family resided in Alexandria; that Jesus studied with the famous Jew Philo; and that John the Baptist was sent by his mother to live with the Qumran covenanters. And then there are the speculative revelations that come to Jesus, sometimes almost accidentally, as when he wishes it would stop raining and it does, or he heals or harms by his words alone. Joseph and Mary know who he really isï¿½as do some of the other relatives whom Rice locates under Josephï¿½s roofï¿½but only gradually does Jesus learn pieces of his own story. Finally, Mary fills in all the remaining details for him.
Readers seeking historical accuracy will object to many incidents in the novel, and identify them as erroneous, unlikely, or perhaps merely fanciful speculation. Thatï¿½s fine; as many people have said about The Da Vinci Code, ï¿½itï¿½s only a novel.ï¿½ On the other hand, the book raises crucial historical and interesting theological questions that make it worth reading. First, itï¿½s a sympathetic account of Jesusï¿½unlike so many of the ï¿½Jesusesï¿½ created by scholars beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing to this day. Here is a Jesus who is supernatural and human, not a stripped-down peasant-teacher embellished by early church devotion.
Second, Christ the Lord invites us to consider what that creedal combinationï¿½fully God and fully manï¿½might have looked like in the boy Jesus, and how he came to reflect on his identity. Was he as emotional as Rice portrays him? Was he fearful as he learned of his powers? Did he ever consider misusing them? Did the devil tempt him in his dreams? Like other children, did he need the love and support of his parents? How did the reactions of his siblings affect him? Was he puzzled by their reactions? Did he only gradually come to understand his identity and mission? What role did his parents, cultural milieu, and religious commitments play in his emerging self-understanding? Rice helps us imagine what a truly human Jesus might be likeï¿½without the demythologizing impetus to diminish or deny his deity.
Third the book is worth reading because of its portrayal of Jewish life, culture, and religion within the Roman world. Riceï¿½s extensive research pays the readers rich dividends here in simply understanding Jesusï¿½ world. He is truly Jewish and lives in the Jewish world with all its cultural features prominently depicted. Religion occupies no private sphere; it is all-encompassing. Joseph even has a mikvah in his own house. We see Jesusï¿½ family celebrating all the Jewish festivals and rituals both within the family and in the community in Nazareth. At the same time, the Romans are truly bad guys, ruthless in their desire to control their subjects. The clashes between the occupied and the occupiers were often gruesome (think of the Nazis occupying France or the Americans in Iraq).
Anne Rice is simply a good writer: the narrative is engaging, the characters are well rounded and interesting, and the plot moves convincingly. Virtually everyone will enjoy the story, and it certainly gives us much to ponder about the miracle of the incarnation and as we worship the God who sent Christ the Lord into the world. And on another note, it is encouraging to read her account of her personal return to faith and her search for a Jesus to believe in.