Friday, August 7, 2015

John Neeleman's "Logos": Book Review

Extrapolating the accounts of the Jewish War by Josephus with what we know of Saul-turned-Paul, the tension between his mission to the Gentiles with the Hebrew-centered Christian cult of James, the brother of Jesus, the ministry of the man born as Yeshua himself, and the influences of Philo of Alexandria, the Sicarii rebels against Rome, and the Essenes, as well as imperial machinations, this novel takes on a complicated situation. Perhaps gleaning hints how a pre-synoptic ur-gospel [called Q if not here but by German critics 160 years ago] came to be imagined and composed, John Neeleman presents his reconstruction in a sprawling tale. He makes a clever case for his bold theory of origins.

Jacob ben Aaron rises up in the higher ranks of those centered around Temple ritual in Jerusalem. Starting around the year we know as 46 when he was born, this focuses on the great revolt which for a time drove back the Romans who sought to crush Palestinian resistance. Frustrated by Hebrew intransigence, the rulers who collaborate with Rome make a convincing argument for capitulation, so as to keep a limited form of autonomy. But radicals take the lead and spark insurgency, hating Rome. Jacob learns to carry this revenge himself after sufferings hit home. To avoid spoilers, let's say that he is affected deeply and, caught up in the revolt, he survives partially driven by his own desire to fight back. He wanders from the fallen Temple around Roman territory. This allows Neeleman to introduce him and us to the teachings of the Essenes, the thoughts of the Persian Magi, the ideas of the desert Ishmaelites, and the philosophy of the Hellenized Hebrews who studied in Alexandria. All these, with a hint of Egyptian myth, build upon Jacob's childhood preparation in the Torah and the classics alike.

Neelemen cleverly creates a protagonist eager for knowledge of both great systems, sacred and profane, Greek and Hebrew, and by taking them in, he can integrate them, while remaining somewhat doubtful about the power of his traditional beliefs. At one low point, the theodicy he challenges "all seemed contradictory and an extended rationalization for failure." The "same formula," as he is told by one mentor of many, repeats the story of a nobleman anointed before being cast into the wilderness, only to overcome deprivation to be revealed "as the savior of humankind and the bearer of a word and bringer of a new and better age." This realization enables him to be open to syncretic patterns, as Jacob watches the Christian sect grow, and witnesses when Rome tries to come to terms with this restive message of liberation from outmoded ways. Jacob is well-placed to take advantage. 

"Logos is order. Logos is balance, measure for measure. Wisdom is understanding the Logos." Jacob hears this translated from lofty concepts to clever realpolitik by one well placed to put this into effect. The demand is that while "the will to power, desire, money, sex" may all be "stigmatized" as passions unbecoming the new world order, the fulfillment will entice many into the embrace of "good news."

Neelemen lines up many personages, and while their conversations as in such accounts may imitate the didacticism and erudite tone of the classic and ancient tellers in his own prose, this stately pace does blend with the feel of an antiquated chronicle. The expository content, as many doctrines, disputes, and dissidents have their lengthy say--often with citing Scripture as readily as does Jacob the epics--slows modern expectations. But judiciously dramatized battle scenes, frank but honest sexual encounters, and a determination to endure make Jacob's journeys worthwhile, especially after he must leave his hometown of Jerusalem. This mixes a coming-of-age saga with an novel of ideas, too. To sum up, if you wish an expansive but thoughtful examination of how Christianity might have evolved in its earliest days, as one man in the flesh became the creator of the word as Logos, it's here.
(Amazon US 3-10-15)

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