In her latest book, "Christ the Lord," novelist Anne Rice turns awayfrom the doomed souls of her best-selling tales about vampires and witchesin favor of a first-person account of the 7-year-old Jesus.
"I was sitting in church talking to (God) about it and I finallyrealized there was no holding back anymore," said Rice, 64, who returned tothe Catholic Church in 1998 after a 30-year absence.
"I just said, 'From now on it's all going to be for you.' And the book Ifelt I had to write was the life of Christ. ...When my faith was given backto me by God, redemption became a part of the world in which I lived. And Iwasn't going to write any more books where that wasn't the case. You do nothave to be transgressive in order to achieve great art."
With a distinct emphasis on the devout Jewishness of Jesus and hisextended family, the novel -- due out Nov. 1 with a first print run of500,000 copies -- depicts their first year in Nazareth after leaving Egyptfollowing the death of King Herod. (The Gospel of Matthew reports thatJesus, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt shortly after his birth to escape adeath sentence by Herod).
Rice meticulously recounts the daily life of Jews in Galilee against thebackdrop of Roman occupation, detailing purification rites, Sabbath study,construction work in the nearby city of Sepphoris, and trips to the Templein Jerusalem for feasts and animal sacrifices.
"The pious picture of the holy family in a little carpentry shop on ahill, that's not accurate," Rice said in her first interview about the book,speaking from her new home in San Diego, where she moved five months beforeHurricane Katrina devastated her hometown of New Orleans. "The challenge wasto get some fictional verisimilitude there, to really present this as avibrant society in which people are working and living together."
Rice devoted much of the two and a half years she spent on the noveldelving into research, from ancient Jewish philosophers and historians likePhilo and Josephus, to contemporary historical Jesus studies. At times, whatshe found disturbed her, as she explains in an author's note following thenovel.
"Some of the people in New Testament scholarship don't hide their biasat all. They're just out to prove Jesus wasn't God, but of course that'simpossible to prove," she said, taking issue as well with what she called"trends" and "fads," such as theories that Jesus was a politicalrevolutionary, or married.
Rice also critiques the widespread dating of the Gospels to betweenabout 60 and 90 AD, and the theory that they appeared decades apart.Instead, she believes they were produced around the same time, and allbefore Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. She declined toname any scholars she found fault with, either in an interview or in herafterword.
Some biblical experts aren't sure why Rice is taking issue withconventional scholarship.
"She seems to be attacking some kind of liberal, PC bogeyman," said AdamBecker, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at New YorkUniversity. "But the majority of historical Jesus scholars are Christian andaffiliated with the church in some way. She criticizes fashionable notions,yet she's basically saying it's fashionable to be a Christian."
That seminal event in childhood is certain to influence Jesus in Rice'splanned subsequent volumes."At the birth of Jesus the biggest story you would have heard -- I can'tprove it was ever mentioned but I can't imagine it wasn't -- was about theday the Romans came," said John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus ofreligious studies at DePaul University and the author of "The HistoricalJesus." "I would have no problem with someone saying that the constitutivechallenge for Jesus growing up in that period was 'OK, what about God, whatabout Rome, what about violence, what about resistance?"'