I recently moved back in with my in-laws to finish up the last year of my graduate degree, and a move typically also results in a new ward. After a few shared gospel doctrine classes and post-block discussions, I struck up a friendship with an insightful and well-read brother. We have many of the same literary interests, especially regarding faith: Mormon history and doctrine, Christian literature, and philosophy. My friend, Dan, lent me a copy of The Five Books of Jesus that he had recently finished and highly recommended, and I gladly accepted. He commented that his favorite aspect of the book was the character development of the apostles, particularly Peter and Judas.
This book is beautiful. Goldberg’s prose is poetry. It takes you out of the interpretive ruts that Mormons (and Christians in general) get into when reading the New Testament, and returns the setting to its Eastern Jewish roots. This is a re-telling of life of Jesus of Nazareth. Like Rob Gardener’s choral masterpiece The Lamb of God, it makes the Christian story personal by viewing the narrative through the eyes of the disciples.
The book seems to follow mostly the gospel of Matthew. The story picks up at the baptism of Jesus by John, excluding the story of his birth, and it leaves out the the details after his resurrection– details that Luke adds in (and Luke makes a short appearance at the end here too). Many scenes from the Bible are re-imagined, while staying true to the original text of the Bible. This is done through inclusion of context: culture, ritual, and history with which Goldberg must be very familiar. Goldberg’s author blurb on the cover says “Goldberg’s family is Jewish on one side, Sikh on the other, and Mormon in the middle.” The author adds a lot to a familiar story. Growing up Mormon, my default narrative of Christ’s life was built from The Living Scriptures videos and Simon Dewey paintings. While these also add to my worship, I am grateful to artists who help break the familiar and help me rediscover the majesty and awe of the gospel.
Take, for example, his re-telling of the institution of the sacrament. When Mormons read this story (at least speaking for myself), we immediately contextualize it with regards to the familiar weekly ritual that takes place in every Mormon chapel. Some may even imagine that Jesus used the same sacrament prayers we have today from the Doctrine and Covenants, but the true story was just lost in translation during the apostasy. Goldberg reminds us that Jesus instituted the sacrament in context of the Passover, and we get glimpse of what it was like to spend Passover night in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.
Christ’s parables are also reinterpreted with context, with beautiful doctrinal implications that a modern reader may not pick up on by themselves while reading the scriptures. I like how the story of the talents brings out the difference between a living, daring faith, and a cautious faith that eventually shrivels and dies. Pardon the long quote:
This one is about a talented merchant who’s already made more money than an ordinary man can make in five lifetimes. One day, with very little warning, the merchant is called away to a far country and doesn’t know when he’ll be able to come back. He calls three of his most devoted servants together and entrusts them with most of his wealth: the first servant is given twice his own weight in silver, the second his weight in silver, and the third half his weight in silver. He gives them use of his name and house in his absence, and he tells them to remember him and to prepare for his return.
The first and second servants immediately go to work, investing carefully, trading on their master’s behalf. As time passes, they throw themselves into their labors with a growing abandon– after all, each new contract is another chance to hear people speak their absent master’s name. Some of their ventures fail, and it devastates them. Most succeed, and the value and scale of their operations grow.
Though the third servant has been no less devoted to the master, he’s more cautious than the other two. He worries that if he invests in a certain kind of good, its price may fall before he can sell it. He worries than if he buys a farm, there won’t be enough rain, and that if he buys a fishing boat it might sink in the storm. He doesn’t want to disappoint his master, or for men to speak ill of his master on his account, so he stops speaking of, or acting for, his master at all. Before long, he begins to worry that thieves might come for the money– so one night, when he’s sure no one is watching, he buries it deep in the ground.
Having buried the treasure, he returns to his life of routine struggles. He cleans the master’s house, though it’s used so little these days there’s not much to worry about. He cooks meals, though often only for himself since the master, and usually also his fellow-servants, are gone. Still, the rhythms comfort him. Gradually, they surpass his memory of devotion and he stops thinking of his master’s eventual return. It proves more enticing just to survive than to wait, and his memory begins to blur until it seems as if at any moment he may forget the man he once waited for.
Trees the first servant planted mature; grapes the second servant trampled develop into old wine. Then one spring while the breeze pours color into the waiting blossoms, their master returns.
Only the truly faithful, says Jesus, will be able to understand how the first two servants felt when they again saw their master’s face. Only the truly faithful will understand how their hearts beat as they ran to greet him, how right the tears of long-delayed reunion felt on their cheeks.
And only the truly faithful will be ready for the question their master asked: what have you done in my name?
The first two show him their ledgers, explain how they’ve each doubled what they were given, and now it’s their master who cries tears of joy. “Well done, my servants!” he says, and then he tells them of his own incredible success, beyond anything they could have imagined. The three of them laugh together, and the master says, “I left you with a few things; I’ve returned with many things. Then you were my servants; be rulers now in the house of your Lord!”
In the next room, the third servant waits. The voice he once knew so well sounds rough and weathered to him. When the master comes looking for him, his face seems like a stranger’s.
What about you? says the master. What have you done in my name?
I knew you were strict, says the third servant. I knew you reap rewards of work that wasn’t your own, and I was afraid you’d expect more from me than I can give. So I buried the silver in the ground. I’ll go dig it up for you now and return it: to tell the truth, it will be a great relief to have it out of my hands.
“Well said,” says the master, “your hands are worthless! If you felt I was too strict, why did you accept the silver when I left? If you knew I reap the rewards of work that wasn’t my own, why didn’t you take the money to lenders at a bank for interest?”
The servant doesn’t answer. He’d forgotten the devotion that once made him afraid to disappoint his master.
And in his silence, the master can tell his servant’s devotion is gone. “I don’t want to reap the rewards of others’ work,” says the master, “but I thought you were my own. If you no longer are, leave the silver and take your freedom. You no longer belong to my house.”
So the servant leaves a free man, released from the ties that once brought him great joy. That very night, he was out of the master’s house into the darkness, and he never comes back.
I don’t want to spoil anything for would-be readers, but I will give a heads-up that there is a neat twist on the betrayal of Judas. Judas’s betrayal fascinates Mormons and Christians. You are bound to get some comment on the eternal state of Judas in a Sunday School lesson. I also recall Holden Caulfield’s opinion of Judas in Catcher in the Rye (“I think any one of the Disciples would’ve sent him to Hell and all—and fast, too—but I’ll bet anything Jesus didn’t do it.“). And other sources, such as the Gnostic gospel of Judas, posit that Judas didn’t really betray Judas, but was carrying out Christ’s bidding. The interpretation here is more subtle than that, but it involves the immediacy many of the disciples felt for the coming Messiah and deliverance from foreign oppressors– another element that many modern readers may be aware of, but isn’t present enough to register when reading the gospels.
I’d recommend adding this one to your list, especially if you have been feeling a bit blase about your scripture reading recently.