It is a story that some 2.2 billion Christians around the world, as well as a fairly large number of people from other faiths, are familiar with. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish preacher and religious leader who rose to fame for spreading what was at the time seen as radical ideas, arrested by Jewish authorities and sentenced to death by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. Three days after his supposed death, his body goes missing, and it is believed he has ascended to Heaven. Thereafter, the opposite of what Pilate had hoped to happen, happened. Instead of quelling the Christian movement, the crucifixion and Ascension of Jesus prompted a massive movement, and eventually, Rome fell, but Christ's legacy lives on, even today.
What if we looked at those events the way we do certain religious movements taking place in the world today? What if the people who called the shots back in the time of Christ had the tools and technology that the modern world has at its disposal? Award-winning author Richard Beard goes there in latest novel Acts of the Assassins, published last year.
The novel takes the event of the Ascension, when Christ's body is discovered missing, and treats it as a criminal case. Cassius Marcellus Gallio, Speculator for counter-insurgency at the CCU (possibly the equivalent of the CIA or Interpol in our world), is in deep trouble because the disappearance happened on his watch. His theory is that Jesus is alive, either because he somehow survived the crucifixion and was smuggled out by his apostles (referred to only as his “disciples” in this book), or had switched places with a loyal disciple at the last moment, thereby faking his death. The idea is hotly contested, and when the body isn't found, Gallio loses his job.
Several years later, Judas, the double agent is dead, killed in a most violent fashion, and it slowly becomes apparent that someone is picking off the twelve apostles one by one, in increasingly gruesome ways. Gallio is pulled out of retirement and put on the case.
The story takes place in a curious novelistic space, where the past and present exist simultaneously, to startling effect. The lens adheres tightly to Gallio at all times, and details about the world at large are vague. Do other religions exist in this world? How much time has passed? We never know for sure. We get a sense that somehow Rome has remained the reigning superpower, that gladiator sports still exist in their old form, but the churches and denominations that in reality came centuries after the events of the Crucifixion, are already being built. Even though the story takes us through the Middle East and parts of Europe, there are no mentions of mosques and synagogues, so real-world politics don't really figure in this narrative.
Choosing to frame a sacred legend in a profane context is a bold move, but perhaps the nature of the founding of Christianity, with multiple viewpoints and narratives about essentially the same story, allows for this kind of exploration, which would perhaps be impossible to do with another religion. Beard's mastery over the text is such that, while the premise is darkly funny – Judas as a double agent, Paul is a motivational speaker, Jesus himself is viewed by the protagonists as the villain – it is somehow not irreverent. The characters ask the big questions, grapple with doubt, and as the story progresses, experience some kind of epiphany, in ways that are familiar with anyone, irrespective of religion, or lack thereof. The politics presented in the novel put the real-world obsession with Islam and Islamophobia in perspective.
Comedic as it is, as thrilling as the plot twists are, this is a complex, multi-layered, contemplative read, and the ultimate result is the sense that when it comes to matters of faith, the “story” is always going to take a back seat to the truth in one's heart.
Sabrina Fatma Ahmad is Features Editor, Dhaka Tribune.