STRANGER THAN FICTION: The Gospel According to Marcellus
by Marshall Motz
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A novel offers a religious-political-erotic romp through first-century West Asia—and a primer on the story of Christian origins.
It is often assumed that Christianity was born with Jesus—and that the church emerged fully formed on that first Easter. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the first few centuries after Christ’s death played host to a fierce battle among competing interpretations of the Jesus movement. Motz’s (The Cosmic Lady Was Right, 2009) head-spinning tale is set smack dab in the middle of all this Sturm und Drang, and it follows the exploits of Marcellus, a kind of test case for the many flavors of early Christianity. He flirts with Mithraism in his youth, becomes initially attached to the proto-Roman Catholic Bishop Ignatius, but finds himself also drawn to the Gnostic sects flourishing at the time. If you don’t know what all these words mean, that’s fine: read Motz’s book, which is, among other things, a religious studies textbook masquerading as a sexy novel (“Marcellus is philosophizing again. It’s what every person in the world wants most: one gigantic mind-blowing orgasm, the ultimate thrill”). Suffice it to say that Marcellus’ story is both an engaging yarn and an alluring glimpse at what might have been had the wars over the meaning of Jesus turned out differently. From one angle, this book is historical fiction; the author strives to give life and color to the ancient world. But in doing so, he takes some license, and there are anachronisms and modernisms. These are intentional: Motz says he is seeking a “higher species of authenticity.” Readers should forgive the author such grandiloquence because his project largely succeeds. As for the religious studies aspect, Motz says that those who want to know more should “Google it, see for yourself.” Sure. But first read G.R.S. Mead. Then peruse Elaine Pagels, Marvin Meyer, and Karen King. Academic work on early Christianity is progressing at a dizzying pace, and perhaps the only flaw of Motz’s novel is that it doesn’t come with a bibliography.