Reviewed by Donna Meredith
With his third novel, The Gospel of the Twin, Ron Cooper delves into very different and far more controversial territory than his earlier fiction, Hume’s Fork and Purple Jesus. Those were satirical in tone, peopled with wacky characters.
In The Gospel of the Twin, Judas Didymos Thomas, now eighty years old, reflects on his own life and that of his twin Jesus. Though they were close, Thomas still finds his brother an enigma and ponders his true nature.
Both the Greek word “Didymos” and the Aramaic word “Thomas” mean “twin,” and texts written around the time of the Gospels claim to be written by this Thomas. A Gospel of Thomas, found in 1945, contains 114 purported sayings of Jesus. Cooper draws on these texts, as well as his extensive research in early Jewish and Christian history, to create a compelling and imaginative story of Jesus’s life.
Despite the deeply philosophical nature of the story, the novel is a thoroughly accessible, page-turning adventure marked by the same well-crafted prose of Cooper’s other works.
Witness Thomas’s words spoken when the twins visit the temple in Jerusalem for the first time and Jesus asserts that this is the last place God would be found: “I did not then understand what Jesus meant, and I am not sure that he himself did, but those words scratched my heart like an iron nail across a clay tile. The rest of the day, I walked softly and squinted into corners, peered through windows, and like a man who believes a thief lurks in his house, searched the holy place for a glimpse of God.” The perfect diction and apt metaphors result in exquisite poetry.
In Cooper’s telling, the twins’ early childhood is relatively ordinary. They play tricks on others as twins will. Joseph is gruff though capable of tenderness; Mary, frightened and superstitious; their cousin Judas, dedicated but belligerent; half-brother James, resentful and unaccepting of his family at times. The boys learn their father’s trade as stone cutter and carpenter, surpassing him in skill.
Even as a child, Jesus illustrates exceptional patience, occasional impudence toward elders, a propensity for cryptic comments, and a gift for ending quarrels. And sometimes, Thomas believes, his twin is “just too full of himself.”
In the novel, Jesus never refers to himself as the son of God, just as he doesn’t in three of the four accepted gospels of the bible. He does claim to “bring good news,” and though he doesn’t refer to himself as a prophet, he says that some elders “already treat him as one, for all prophets are rejected in their own homelands.” In Cooper’s hands, Jesus’s understanding of the role he might play slowly evolves, though even he might not fully comprehend its significance.
Restless under Roman rule, Joseph’s sons realize they can’t defeat the Roman army through physical battle, so they attack occupation in a different way. They leave home to “traverse the Galilee” where Jesus will tell anyone who will listen about the “empire of the Lord.” His philosophy is this: “The God that is our being is depth. God is in the thickness of every experience, in the fiber of the flesh, in the ground beneath our feet. God is that which makes possible touch, appearance, being with the things of the world. Crack open a stone, and God is there. Split a timber, and God is wedged in the grain.” He spreads the message, believing that “The Kingdom must awaken within before it spreads without.”
Numerous times, those close to Jesus are puzzled by the way he talks to crowds. Thomas suggests that Jesus speaks in parables because “people need stories, not arguments.”
A ragtag group of dedicated followers begin to accompany Jesus, including a joyful, singing Mary of Magdala, who loves Judas. Mary and Judas conspire to promote Jesus as a healer, a worker of miracles, which troubles Thomas. Judas says “they’ll listen to his sermons if that’s all he offers, but what they really want is magic.” To get the masses on their side, they need someone “more than human.” Thomas fears they are exploiting people and that the “true miracle” is the way Jesus makes people feel needed and gives them hope, the way he is “showing” them the Lord.
Cooper crafts several early events that foreshadow and might explain the betrayals that occur during the last days of Jesus’s life. Thomas tries to resolve the conflicting reports and rumors of how Jesus came to be arrested and crucified, but the truth appears to be unknowable, even among those closest to Jesus.
Because Thomas is a retrospective narrator, readers are sometimes treated to his philosophical musings and growth as he is exposed to many cultures. He spends years wandering in India, Byzantium, Ethiopia, and Greece, while he tries to make sense of what he’s witnessed. Often he is tormented by guilt, wondering what he could have done to prevent his brother’s death.
Cooper’s provocative interpretations are sure to anger some readers and intrigue others. Whether we accept this version of Jesus’s life or not, the novel challenges us to examine our beliefs and the meaning of our lives, a journey into the deep every mature adult must undertake. Even without the magic of miracles, the philosophies attributed to Jesus remain powerful and no less relevant today than in his lifetime.
The Gospel of the Twin, published by Bancroft Press in 2015, is a deeply thoughtful and thoroughly researched story, one worth a careful reading and time spent in reflection.
Born in the South Carolina Low Country, Ron Cooper received a BA in philosophy from the College of Charleston, an MA from the University of South Carolina, and a Ph.D. from Rutgers University. Cooper is a Professor of Humanities at the College of Central Florida in Ocala where he lives with his wife Sandra (also a CF faculty member) and their three children.
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