Life Of (Brian) Jesus, by Julian Doyle

Book review by Steve Bennett

It’s not often we review an alterative religious tract on the pages of Chortle. But comedy and faith often cross (no pun intended), given the hypocrisy and power of organised religion – and the fact some of its more hardcore adherents aren’t too good at taking a joke.

One of the most celebrated cases was, of course, Life Of Brian, banned in many countries and UK cities for its alleged blasphemy. And it turns out the film’s editor, Julian Doyle, is something of a heretic himself – and in this fascinating, well-researched and wide-ranging book he uses various episodes from the Python film to leap into eye-opening alternative interpretations of sacred texts, likely to offend fundamentalists of every denomination.

But if you accept that the gospels are a carefully selected collection of ‘on-message’ historical documents, compiled, edited and re-edited, sometimes clumsily, by those building power bases from religious belief, Life Of Jesus convincingly puts forward some fascinating new interpretations of long-accepted ‘facts’. In that sense, it’s like QI seeking a fatwa.

For starters, everything you think you know about the Jesus story is probably wrong, thanksto mistranslations, misinterpretations or doctoring of texts by the early Church. According to Doyle, Joseph was not a carpenter but a master of Masonic arts; the Messiah himself was a small baldie hunchback with a monobrow and a twin brother; and Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, but Lazarus’s sister, who married Jesus in the ‘water-into-wine’ wedding at Caanan.

Yes, it goes a bit Dan Brown in places – and sometimes the theories Doyle advances seem very far-fetched… but it’s not as if the Bible doesn’t contain the odd outlandish story of its own, is it?

‘You wouldn’t say that about other religions,’ is one cry sometimes heard from Christians under fire, as if that would somehow lessen any hurt. But Doyle doesn’t just go for the Christ crew– though that remains his primary target. He controversially suggests the Palestinians are the true Israelites , and that no one should be proud of being of the tribe of David, given its historic origins. Yet lest you think he’s hardly helping a delicate situation, he lays the blame for the bitter Middle East conflicts firmly at the door of the West, who despite the peace-seeking instincts of both the Palestinians and the Jewish people, stitched up the region in the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War.

In his introduction, Terry Jones calls Doyle a polymath, and it’s hard to disagree, given the range of disciplines, histories and religions he harvests for this impressively wide-ranging tract . Doyle makes all sort of intellectual connections to advance the most shocking possibilities, then steps back explain the reasoning – but is happy to point out where he’s made leaps of logic or a judgment call. After all, doubt is OK.

Nor is the book entirely confined to the big issues. The heavy dose of sacrilege comes with interesting insiders’ tales from the making of Life Of Brian, including the revelation of some exorcised scenes, which Python obsessives will lap up. Plus there is the odd tip about film editing, an art that is easily overlooked – if it’s done properly.

Doyle has picked up something from his Python links, and his writing bounces along with wit and a playfulness that the myriad of books on the origins of religion usually – and understandably – lack.

Stylistically, Life Of Jesus is rather similar to the opening of Richard Herring’s last stand-up show, Christ On A Bike, in which he offered a mischievous point-by-point deconstruction of the opening of Matthew’s gospel. Well, if you liked that, you’ll probably enjoy this… and Doyle even takes on the same topic at one point, but going further into the geneaology than the zany names to reveal some distinctly unsavoury characters in Jesus’s family tree.

Overall, Life Of Jesus is a read fascinating beyond belief.

  • Life Of Brian/Jesus, by Julian Doyle is published by Matador priced £9.95. Click here to order from Amazon for £6.97.

Published: 9 Jun 2011

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