Nick Tosches has always done his best to stir things up and look at things from a different angle. Whether searching for the last opium den; recounting the lives of Jewish crooks, discredited boxers, old country singers and drunk crooners, he's always on the look-out for incongruities, between what is, what was and what might be. Under Tiberius, though it was hardly reviewed when it first appeared, might well be Tosches's best novel. It could even be the novel Tosches was born to write. In any case, it's certainly his most transgressive. This from someone who has already investigated organised religion and the artifacts and riches it has in its possession: in In the Hand of Dante, a Dante manuscript, and, in Power on Earth, God's banker Michele Swindon. Tosches seems to be fighting a one-man war against the hypocrisy, if not the dangers of religion. Under Tiberius once again finds him scouring through the Vatican library. And what he discovers is something far more subversive than anything converted in his previous books, and even darker than his last novel, the blood-lusting, sometimes self-indulgent, Me and the Devil.
Darker and more subversive because Tosches's latest focuses on Jesus, here portrayed not as the Son of God, but as a wandering scam artist. It's a life depicted by his spin-doctor, Gaius Fulvius Falconius, the former speech writer for the increasingly unstable Tiberius, and recently cast-out from the latter's inner-circle. Falconius's text, a letter written to his grand-son, is found by someone called Nick Tosches in the bowels of the Vatican library. The letter recounts Falconius finding a shabby Judean street thief named Jesus, whom he turns into a wandering demagogue. Together they move from place to place convincing anyone who will listen the former-street thief is the messiah, with Falconius teaching his acolyte to say whatever the people want him to say and, in doing so, they collect money to build a new temple, though the dosh is really being collected so that Jesus and Falconiius can start a new life in Rome.
Not only an appropriate book to appear at a time when evangelicals are thrusting their tendrils into the body politic, but appropriate given Tosches's track record, as well as the relatively recent publication of Reza Aslan's Zealot, a historical account of Jesus, and a book that Tosches's seems to echo. I have no idea if Tosches might have read Aslan's book- my bet is that he had- nevertheless it's as though he decided to use Aslan's book as a starting-off point, extrapolating on it as only he is able to to do. As Aslan maintains, we know but two historical facts about Jesus: he was a Jew and he was crucified. But Tosches, the hardboiled fabulator, is saying something more controversial, that Jesus, was a charismatic con-man came to believe in the hype and rhetoric fed to him by his spin-doctor. Naturally there are discrepancies between the two books For instance, Aslan claims, in accordance with the historical record, that Pilate was nothing more than a hardline anti-semite, while, for Tosches, he is a reasonable man with little, if any, control over Jesus's fate. Of course, one book is fiction, the other fact, even though it, Aslan's, relies for evidence no the gospels which he had already criticised for being fiction and after the fact. Neither is there a crucifixion scene in Tosches's book, nor hint of resurrection. After all, Jesus is only human. To the point that Tosches goes to some length to describe his sexual proclivities. Clearly this is not your usual divine Son of Man. Nevertheless, the basic story is here, as are most of the main characters. So we get the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes and Lord's Prayer, as well as cryptic parables, claims about bread and wine being flesh and blood and raising Lazarus. Meanwhile, most, if not all, of Jesus's miracles are mere scams or conjurer's tricks. The dead man is revived having only slipped into a coma having ingested poison. A lame man is paid off to feign recovery. A drunk is convinced he has demons that must be cast out. At the wedding feast in Cana, Jesus deploys a trick amphora to dupe the guests. Though running against expectations- i.e., if one is a Christian- the book's final pages which cover Jesus's trial for sedition are, nevertheless, quite moving.
As Falconius says, people hear only what they crave to hear, particularly in troubled times. For Tosches, the essential question is whether religion leads to violence, or does violence lead to religion? Did humanity invent God simply to deal with the concept of good and evil? As Tosches put in an NPR interview:
"A lot of my books have been [about] the question of did man invent the concept, the dichotomy of good and evil before he invented the gods? Or did he invent the gods first and then pronounce good and evil through them? [I] wanted to push people to...look at the fact that the idea of God has never been a force for good in this world, but only for evil. And it's only been born out of weakness and resulted in bloodshed, mayhem, lies, theft." He goes on to say, "If there is a God...the greatest gift he instilled in every human being is delusion. And that is what hope is, that we who do not have a cup of coffee today, will have one tomorrow. So it basically drives us forward."
Torches's story has been told many times, from an assortment of angles, on the screen as well as the page. There's Kazantzakis, Burgess, Silverberg, Scorsese, Monty Python, etc.. But I can't recall anyone telling it quite like this. Perhaps the closest might be J.G. Eccarius's scandalous The Last Days of Christ the Vampire from some thirty years ago. But Under Tiberius is only about religion in the sense that it is about mob hysteria, delusion and mass psychosis. As Falconius, in the end, say this to his grand-son, "[We] are...nothing more than finite being who seek to understand infinity; and this understanding shall never be ours." Adding, "All gods are phantoms, figments of the minds of men...Trust no man, and trust no god. For, as all men have their birth in mortal flesh, so all gods have their birth in the minds of mortal men, and that source is never anything else than a marsh of disease and ill. Know that every prophet is a false prophet."