Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Book Review: The Silent Years by Alan W.C. Green

It's not a terribly new or original thing to attempt to envision what Jesus' life was like before he began his public ministry. Before describing this 1- to 3-year period where he begins teaching, healing, and scandalizing the establishment leading to his death, the Gospels only provide a few fantastic infancy accounts and one episode as a 12-year-old during a visit to Jerusalem. The rest is left up to imaginative questioning: How did he discover his identity or his sense of call? What was life like for him growing up?

As mentioned, trying to answer questions like these is not a new idea. Dating back to the first few centuries of the church, there are non-canonical accounts of Jesus as a boy such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which feature Jesus discovering and using his powers in selfish and reckless ways like an X-Men Origins story. In more modern times, popular authors such as Anne Rice have made their own attempts at such storytelling, and Mel Gibson added a few imagined scenes of Jesus' life in his movie Passion of the Christ, including Jesus' apparent inventing of the table.

It is natural curiosity that may draw us to these sorts of stories, Christian or no. Whether one is seeking more to reconstruct the world in which Jesus grew up and what would have been typical for him or whether one is looking for more of an origin story for Jesus' mission and sense of self; to fill in the many blanks left by the Bible, the list of attempts to do so is a fairly long one, some taking their task more seriously than others.

Now, we can add The Silent Years by Alan W.C. Green to that list, and I doubt that it's what a lot of people would expect. Green tells his story from the perspective of Jesus' uncle, a devoted Pharisee named Benaiah bar Jabez, who is given the task of instructing Jesus in the ways of the Torah when he is fairly young, and is a mentor and companion for Jesus for most of the narrative.

Green sets the tone for how this story is going to be presented early on. When Mary discovers that she is pregnant and she and Joseph hash out what they're going to do in response, the supernatural or fantastic is largely absent. Mary tells of God's messenger visiting her, but she claims she still doesn't really know how she became pregnant. There are no choirs of angels or strange stars or scenes from "Away in a Manger." Instead, there are two frightened, confused people trying to figure out what happened and how to respond as best they can. Green does not seem interested in a simple re-presentation of Gospel accounts or writing a devotional guide. Instead, it becomes clear early on that his story is going to be much more earthy, grounded in the culture of first-century Galilee.

That's not to say that Green's story doesn't include accounts from the Gospels. But he tells them in a way that removes the spectacular. Jesus' meeting John the Baptist in the wilderness, for instance, is presented as a chance encounter where Jesus isn't even aware that John is his cousin at first, and where Jesus' baptism is a low-key moment where any revelation that occurs takes place within Jesus rather than in a big public way. Likewise, as Jesus immediately wanders into the wilderness, he is not confronted by some personification of evil but instead wrestles with internal temptations and visions of power. There are elements of the miraculous, but even they are rather quietly presented. As such, Green seems to want to preserve Jesus' peculiar identity and actions, but removing much of the mythic in the process.

In much the same way, Jesus' self-understanding is presented as a gradual time of discovery, first while studying under his Pharisee uncle--some may be surprised given the antagonism between Jesus and the Pharisees in the Gospels, but it has been postulated by many that they actually would have agreed on a lot of things--and later by striking out on his own and experiencing the needs of the culture around him. Jesus' sense of identity is grounded fairly early in the "servant songs" of Isaiah, and much of Green's account is of Jesus figuring out how best to serve others within the context of his understanding of the Torah. This is a very Jewish Jesus, as one should expect, with great respect for his tradition but also adapting it to what he sees around him.

The Silent Years is as accurate an imagining of the time and culture of Jesus' upbringing as one could hope for. Green has done well in presenting how Jesus might have been educated and the role he would have played in his family and community. As opposed to the stark and sudden ways that the Gospels begin Jesus' ministry, Green imagines his understanding of how Torah should be applied, his self-discovery, and his development of relationships such as those with Peter and Mary Magdalene to be gradual and organic. It took me a little time to get into the narrative and characters, which seemed to be a little stiff in the early going, but as things developed I found myself more and more engaged in what Green was doing. This would be a great book to discuss in a small group format, and thought-provoking regardless.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)