Gross, Dick - Jesus, Judas and Mordy Ben Reuben

  (09 March 08)

Jesus, Judas and Mordy Ben Reuben



Nigel Sinnot reviews Jesus, Judas and Mordy Ben Reuben: Three Good Jewish Boys in Jerusalem by Dick Gross (Tablet Books 2005).

 (Reviewed December 2006)  

This is certainly not your usual novel, and I could hardly recommend it as a ‘safe’ birthday present for Cardinal Pell or the Reverend Fred Nile. In essence it is an irreverent, fictionalised but thoughtful and well-informed Jewish ‘take’ on the old story of Jesus’s ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem and its sequels, as seen mainly through the eyes of Mordechai Ben Reuben, Sadducee, dove seller at the temple in Jerusalem and part-time priest.

Mordy is a short, balding, sweaty man who is emotionally immature and socially gauche, with a loud voice and an often foul tongue which are added liabilities to his irritable temperament and short temper. He is unhappily married to Miriam (Mary of Bethany) who is suffering from chronic post-partum depression. Despite being in the lower social echelons of the Jerusalem priesthood, he is of a sceptical disposition, but this is hardly regarded as a redeeming feature in the eyes of his wife, who has a fatal weakness for the promises and prophecies of charismatic, eloquent, would-be messiahs.

Jesus is depicted as a manic-depressive Galilean evangelist, more given to claims or delusions of divinity and grandeur than to the exercise of caution in the Judaea of two thousand years ago, where political dissent soon attracts the attention of the ruthless, cruel Romans, and religious ‘stirring’ is monitored by spies who report to the Machiavellian high priest, Joseph Caiaphas. Jesus is surrounded by a cheer squad of loyal disciples, but his campaign manager and treasurer is the cautious and careful Judas.

Dick Gross takes a lot of trouble to give us an idea of what life was like in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, and he employs the deliberate anachronism of regular snippets of Yiddish to add to the Jewish flavour of the narrative. This works well, but occasionally jarring and unintended anachronisms creep in, such as “I know I sound like a broken record”, “beetroot, cactus and other foodstuffs” (cacti are New World plants) and “after Mark had put quill to paper” (he would have used reed pens), but not often enough to spoil the well-researched narrative. The story also covers Mordy’s relations with his long-suffering friends Jake (Jacob Ben Yeoman) and Ruth (brother and sister).

Mordy forms the opinion that Jesus’s views about death, the afterlife and the end of the world are “deeply damaging to humanity” as they “exalt death as a gift” (p. 212); and in the epilogue the author suggests that “It is to the detriment of his people that the Gospel According to Mordy never made it as the fifth book of the New Testament, to serve as an antidote to the rest” (p. 338).

I found this book more and more absorbing as I read it, especially the last two chapters and the epilogue.

Dick Gross is a former mayor of Port Phillip (Melbourne), and the author of several books including Godless Gospel: A modern guide to meaning and morality. He has been working on another book called St Paul, St Peter and Mordy Ben Reuben: Three Good Jewish Boys in a Flap Over Foreskins.  


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