Home Culture Books & Authors Recreating Jerusalem as it was 2,000 years ago

Recreating Jerusalem as it was 2,000 years ago

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The Gospel According to Lazarus by Richard Zimler (Peter Owen Publishers, 2019)

Toward the end of this remarkable book, the narrator Lazarus describes the process of writing it to his grandson, Yaphiel, the person to whom the work is addressed.

“The words and sentences grew and multiplied, and to give them the honest and useful form that all living things deserve, I was obliged to rewrite them myriad times in my mind before giving them the permanence of ink, until what you now have in your hands became a great deal more than a compendium of disparate recollections, though what it is exactly I cannot say.”

Let the reader say.

The Gospel According to Lazarus is a stunning, intense, thought-provoking, often very moving recreation of the violent revolutionary period of the Roman conquest of Judaea in the days preceding the execution of Jesus by Pontius Pilate.

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Anyone familiar with Zimler’s writing will know that few authors can as skillfully surround the reader with the very sounds, sights, smells and textures of the historical moment and place in which the story is situated. Zimler is an award-winning master of historical fiction. The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon and Hunting Midnight are but two examples of his celebrated works that attest to his commanding ability. Indeed The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon received the 1998 Herodotus Award for best historical novel.

As the title suggests, the story is a highly personalized memoir written by Lazarus in the twilight of his life. For the sake of the historical record and for the sake of fulfilling compelling obligations tugging at his heart and his conscience, Lazarus writes a chronicle about his exceptional friend, Jesus, and about their unique relationship. Thus, some 30 years after Jesus was killed in Jerusalem and Lazarus fled Zion, he pens this memory-laden scroll from the safety of his life in Rodos (Rhodes).

Zimler imagines who Lazarus may have been. His many complexities of character and the harrowing situations in which he finds himself are the refracting prism through which Zimler shines bold, courageous light on the history of that time, his understanding of the teachings and legacy of Jesus of Nazareth, and upon a cascade of universal themes that have marked human existence ever since the first stylus brought ink to papyrus.

Zimler’s scholarly studies in comparative religion help establish a sense of authenticity to the cultural and political atmospherics of the time. He infuses Gospel with exacting detail from numerous sources in early antiquity with Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew references. We read of the streets of Jerusalem and the various people who may have walked them some 2,000 years ago.

Zimler identifies the characters by their Hebrew names. Thus, Jesus is called Yeshua ben Yosef. Lazarus is Eliezer ben Natan. Zimler does this, as he explained to an interviewer, because he wanted “to give Jesus back his Jewish life and his Jewish identity.” There is never any doubt about Yeshua’s religious or ethnic identity in the story. As depicted by Zimler, his struggles with both the priests and with the Roman authorities are the result of his devotion to his Jewish faith.

Zimler uses iconic incidents from the New Testament as his contextual background for the story. The book begins with Lazarus’ revival to the world of the living. His astonishing resurrection, however, is a rose encased by many thorns as Lazarus desperately struggles with the deeply vexing consequences – personal and communal – of Yeshua’s miraculous feat. This multi-faceted struggle is ongoing; for the reader, it is the key to unlocking the many mysteries and narrative twists that are confronted throughout the story.

Gospel combines the best literary tools of suspense with insights of history, theology, psychology, archeology and classics. Zimler also incorporates abundant citations from the Hebrew Bible and the daily prayer book. Whether as part of conversations, unvoiced private speculations or public pronouncements, their inclusion creates a pronounced respect for sacred text and for matters that might loosely be termed “of the soul.”

Zimler’s writing is insightful. His sentences often resound with perceptions that are as relevant to modern life as they were in 33 CE. For example, during the course of their clandestine struggle against the unjust rulers, one of Lazarus’ confederates says to him, “The despots of our world fear men who insist on telling their own stories. They want to control the words we speak and write. But we must not let them.”

In anticipating the Sabbath, he rhapsodizes: “Soon after we set off again, I recall that the Gate of Sabbath will open today at sundown. My sisters and I shall then join hands with our children and with Grandfather Shimon and… we shall board our ark and continue our pilgrimage to the centre of God’s creation as we always have. What I most love about the Sabbath are the sacred prayers we speak, which are soft and honeyed in my mouth, as though created by God to feed the first man and woman and all their children.”

Or, when Lazarus is explaining to his grandson the human chain joining one generation to the next, he says: “Can you grasp what I am telling you, Yaphiel? You and I are connected to the men and women who lived a thousand years before us, as well as those who will be born a thousand years into our future.”

Despite its title, Gospel is not about religion. Rather, Gospel is a thrilling human drama whose principle characters act in the way most people act today and have acted since the days of Genesis, namely, with intrigue, betrayal, villainy, self-sacrifice, heroism and kindness.

At its core, The Gospel According to Lazarus is a reflection on a grand scale into the inevitable truths of each and every human life by a very talented writer and meditative thinker. 

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