The best fiction with Jesus as a character

Jonathan Trigell Author Of The Tongues of Men or Angels
By Jonathan Trigell

Who am I?

I’m the author of five extremely different novels: Boy A (which was made into an award-winning film), Cham, Genus, The Tongues of Men or Angels, and Under Country. They share almost nothing in subject or setting. Ranging from first-century Judaea to a future London. From ski resort workers in France to young offender prisons in Britain. My latest work - Under Country - is about the 1984 Miners’ Strike and its still lingering scars in the North East pit villages. Yet, I suppose, if there were a unifying theme between them, it would be that each, in its own way, is influenced by and fascinated with Christianity.

I wrote...

The Tongues of Men or Angels

By Jonathan Trigell,

Book cover of The Tongues of Men or Angels

What is my book about?

The Tongues of Men or Angels was my first ever hardback and the hardest book I’ve ever written. The research alone almost killed me, quite literally a couple of times in the Middle East. But in some ways, it is the novel that I’m most proud of, because it is my own committed ‘truth’ about the birth of a religion. The Mail on Sunday put it better than I could:

“This daring novel tells the story of Jesus and his followers in the years leading up to and following the Crucifixion. Trigell's interpretation of the origins of Christianity, particularly the factional struggle between the disciple Cephas (Peter) and the convert Saul (Paul), will spark controversy, but there's no denying the raw power of the writing.”

The books I picked & why

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By Jim Crace,

Book cover of Quarantine

Why this book?

Written long before quarantines became so fashionable, Jesus in Jim Crace’s novel is an almost peripheral player, because set during Christ’s forty days in the wilderness six other people share in the inhospitable desert caves, miracles, and hallucinations. Each character has their own troubles and trials; their own battles with demons to resolve; which they hope isolation and fasting will accomplish. And for each, in ingenious ways, it does… I am a big fan of Crace’s style, rhythm, and invention, and this is one of his finest works.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

By Philip Pullman,

Book cover of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Why this book?

Pullman sets out – and achieves, with his usual aplomb – to subvert the stories of Jesus, indeed to divide them: his Jesus and his Christ are two entirely separate figures. Pullman uses a deliberate echo of Biblical style, to show how the Bible stories are first and foremost just that: stories. To show how history became myth and then myth became faith. How the very hypocrisies that Jesus himself pointed out people mouthing religious observances, without the accompanying good deeds – became an almost fundamental structure of the established church. 

The Master and Margarita

By Mikhail Bulgakov, Richard Pevear (translator), Larissa Volokhonsky (translator)

Book cover of The Master and Margarita

Why this book?

A masterpiece about a masterpiece. A story within the story which itself becomes the story. An allegory of Russian persecution, written by a Ukrainian, which, quite evidently, feels more important than ever, right now. A literary fiction about literary fiction. About the fears and rejection that all writers face, magnified a thousand times, under Soviet oppression. A talking tomcat, the devil, and petty adversaries who frequently get their comeuppance in fantastical, fairy-tale ways, which make the embedded narrative about Pontius Pilate and Jesus probably the most material aspect of a magical, mad journey. 

The Testament of Mary

By Colm Toibin,

Book cover of The Testament of Mary

Why this book?

With characteristic charm, Toibin’s book is almost perversely historically inaccurate, as if he is enjoying teasing the reader: I seem to remember Jesus being sent to his room at one point, like a teenager in suburbia, when Judaean houses of the period were of a single piece; a burial scene feels very much like a burial in a peat soiled Ireland, no Judaean deserts here. And yet the book achieves its own honesty because, as Keats said: “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.”

The Liars' Gospel

By Naomi Alderman,

Book cover of The Liars' Gospel

Why this book?

Naomi was raised as an Orthodox Jew. I can’t remember whether she told me herself, or I read it somewhere, but she once said that she struggled to see how people who weren’t steeped in the Judaic tradition could even understand the Christian Bible. There is something in this: The ‘New Testament’ rests upon and relies upon Judaism for all of its authority. And yet it is simultaneously incredibly antisemitic. It’s a paradox that Christian scholars and theologians have struggled with for millennia, frequently with devastating and bloody consequences. I read The Liars’ Gospel as Naomi’s quite beautiful attempt to examine and unravel this paradox.

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