This is one of the most moving novels I have read in a long time. Written originally in Yiddish by a faithful Jew, the book contains unusual first-person fictionalized accounts by three of Jesus' contemporaries: a Roman soldier, Judas Iscariot, and a young rabbinical student of the Pharisee Nicodemus. Here is a summary from Nextbook, A New Read on Jewish Culture:
Sholem Asch (translated by Maurice Samuel)In the end, the novel's only flaw, that it requires the reader to suspend disbelief in the transmigration of souls -- and in the process, misleads the reader into thinking that this might be a novel about unreliable narrators, which it isn't -- makes very little difference to the wealth of historical detail, the depth of religious insight that creates context and raises interesting questions about the motives of the various gospel figures, and the sheer beauty of the story.
Carroll & Graf, $15.95
This epic 1939 novel tells the story of Yeshua ben Joseph—also known as Jesus of Nazareth—through the dubious but compelling recollections of three of his alleged contemporaries. First, a notoriously fraudulent and anti-Semitic Polish historian relates his past life as one of Pontius Pilate's henchmen. He then shares a manuscript that he claims is the work of the infamous disciple Judah Ish-Kiriot. Finally, the historian's Jewish assistant records his own memories of a prior life on the fringes of Jesus' circle of believers.
The three accounts paint a vivid, anthropologically detailed picture of life in the Holy Land during Jesus' day, illuminating his most enigmatic sermons and contextualizing his controversial ministry to the poor and uneducated, whose ignorance of Judaism's complex purity laws prevented them from practicing their faith. Published at the height of Asch's fame, the novel won raves from the English-language press, but alienated his base of Yiddish readers.