Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord to Become a Film

In Fall 2008 moviegoers will be able to see a film adaptation of Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt (read the press release HERE). I read the book soon after its release and made some notes on its use of Christian Apocrypha. This is as good a time as any to share those notes. 

The book tells the story of the Holy Family’s return from Egypt to their hometown of Nazareth. The story is told from Jesus’ perspective, but as an adult reflecting on his childhood. It opens with a seven-year-old Jesus in Alexandria, surrounded by his family, which includes Mary and her brother Cleopas, Joseph and his brothers Alphaeus and Simon, Jesus’ aunts Salome, Esther and Mary, Jesus’ cousins Little Joses, Judas, Little Symeon and Salome, and big brother James, the child of Joseph from a previous marriage (recalling the explanation for the brothers of Jesus given in the Protoevangelium of James).

Joseph and his brothers are employed in Egypt as carpenters. After Joseph completes a project for Philo, the famous teacher meets Jesus, who he calls “the most promising scholar he has ever seen” (p. 14). But things go wrong for the family when Jesus curses a boy, Eleazer, in the marketplace. The miracle echoes Infancy Thomas ch. 4, though in the gospel Jesus is five, not seven, and in Nazareth, not Egypt. Infancy Thomas is employed again when James recalls having seen Jesus make birds from clay on the Sabbath (Infancy Thomas ch. 2-3) and perhaps in the description of Jesus’ and James’ teacher, who teaches the boys Greek (Infancy Thomas 6 and 14). Breaking from the gospel, Rice’s Jesus revives the boy and is confused about the origins of his powers; indeed the curse was accidental in Rice’s book.

As the family journey home, the young Jesus takes up a journey of discovery as he tries to learn the mysteries of his birth and infancy. The family seeks to insulate him from the horrors of the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, and to keep a low profile to avoid other attempts on the boy’s life. As they head toward Nazareth, the family finds themselves part of several key events in first-century Judean history, including the riot in the Temple instigated by Archelaus, and the rebuilding of Sepphoris after the rebellion of Judas the Galilean. They also encounter some significant figures, many of whom are related to Jesus, including Elizabeth and John the Baptist (who here is revealed to be on his way to join the Essenes), Zebedee (who is married to Mary’s cousin, Mary Alexander), and Caiaphas (an uncle of Jesus).

As Jesus learns more about his origins, he learns also details about Mary’s life, details derived from the Protoevangelium of James. Mary is said to have been born in Sepphoris to her parents Joachim (a scribe) and Anna. Cleopas says of Mary: “A virgin child, a child in the service of the Temple of Jerusalem, to weave the great veil, with the other chosen ones, and then home under our eyes” (p. 46) (PJ ch. 10). As in Prot. Jas. a woman named Salome serves as midwife at Jesus’ birth, though Rice’s Salome is Mary’s sister and there is no gynecological exam (PJ ch. 19-20). And this birth takes place in a cave (PJ 18:1). Prot. Jas. also provides details about John the Baptist’s life. Elizabeth tells the story of the death of Zechariah (PJ ch. 23-24), at which time she and the child hid in the mountains (PJ ch. 22), though these mountains are said to be near the Essenes who helped the two fugitives by providing them with food.

In an appendix (“Author’s Notes”) Rice reveals the inspiration and intentions behind the book. She discusses her Catholic upbringing and long-standing interest in the origins of Christianity. In 2002 she came to a realization: “I wanted to write the life of Jesus Christ. I had known that years ago. But now I was ready. I was ready to do violence to my career. I wanted to write the book in the first person. Nothing else mattered. I consecrated the book to Christ” (p. 309). So Rice went to work on research. She was surprised at the variety: “I had no idea I was entering a field of research where no-one agreed on anything” (p. 310). She began with the skeptics but found that their arguments “lacked coherence,” “were not elegant”, “were full of conjecture”, and “absurd conclusions were reached on the basis of little or no data at all” (p. 313). She cautions that these scholars “detest and despise Jesus Christ” (p. 315) and the reader should beware. She preferred conservative scholars such as Martin Hengel, Richard Bauckham, and N. T. Wright; she also found appealing the arguments of John A. T. Robinson on dating the gospels.

On the use of Christian Apocrypha, Rice says that she sought to write about the Jesus of the Gospels but was fascinated also by the apocrypha. “Ultimately,” she writes, “I chose to embrace this material, to enclose it within the canonical framework as best I could. I felt there was a deep truth in it, and I wanted to preserve that truth as it spoke to me. Of course that is an assumption. But I made it. And perhaps in assuming that Jesus did manifest supernatural powers at an early age I am somehow being true to the Council  of Chalcedon, that Jesus was God and man at all times” (p. 320).

Rice’s book is striking for its use of the CA despite the author’s Catholic background and appeal to conservative scholarship. Likely, neither fellow Catholics nor the scholars she values would think highly of her book. For CA scholars the book illustrates some of the motives behind the creation of the CA. First, Rice felt the need to appeal to the infancy gospels in order to fill gaps left by the canonical texts, a need felt also by the gospels’ authors. And Rice invented some stories of her own. Second, Rice expanded the canonical Jesus story out of piety (a motive often ascribed also to the infancy gospel writers), not to intentionally mislead believers nor to introduce heretical Christology. Rice, like other modern apocrypha creators (Mel Gibson anyone?), seems oblivious to the fact that she has created an apocryphon, i.e., that she has altered and expanded the canonical Jesus story by drawing upon old traditions and creating new ones. Perhaps the infancy gospel writers felt the same. Also Rice’s selectivity with the infancy gospels recalls the practice of copyists of the texts who certainly valued the gospels but transformed them to be less objectionable—for example, earlier forms of Infancy Thomas did not have Jesus revive those he cursed, nor did they have the beneficent miracles of chs. 10, 17 and 18.

Christ the Lord is not a sophisticated, nor a challenging treatment of the Life of Jesus. The film, if and when it is completed, will serve us best as a classroom tool to show contemporary use of apocryphal traditions. It may also stimulate discussion of the CA in popular forums. Until then, we can occupy ourselves with Rice's secondvoluyme in the life of Jesus: Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana, to be released in March 2008.

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