Christopher Moore. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. New York: William Morrow, 2002.
Attempts within popular culture to humanize Jesus Christ have been as varied as the many artworks depicting a laughing Jesus; South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s animated short featuring Jesus wrestling Santa Claus over the true meaning of Christmas; the hippie revolutionary of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar; Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ; and, of course, the horrifically tortured Messiah of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
All of these popular works capture some aspects of Christ’s humanity, whether it is his sense of humor, the ambivalence with regard to his mission on Earth, or the very real physical torments he suffered. Few of them, however, have managed to portray as complete, as realistic, as human a portrait of Jesus Christ as does Christopher Moore’s comic novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.
While the exploration of Christ’s humanity is the primary focus of the novel, a second theme, also vividly and compellingly pursued, is the strength of the women in Christ’s life. This review will focus on these two themes in particular.
The novel’s narrator is Jesus’ childhood best friend, whose given name of Levi is usually supplanted by the nickname Biff, the “slang word for a smack upside the head, something that my mother said I required at least daily from an early age” (9). Biff has been resurrected in the present day to write a new gospel that will fill in missing details about Jesus’ life. The relationship between Biff and the angel Raziel (a recurring character in Moore’s fiction) is a source of much humor.
Biff first met Jesus when the fellow six-year-old was entertaining his younger brother by resurrecting a dead lizard. James crushed the lizard with a rock, Jesus then popped the lizard in his mouth, brought it out alive, and the process repeated itself. Biff was entranced by the procedure: “I watched the lizard die three more times before I said, ‘I want to do that too.’ The Savior removed the lizard from his mouth and said, ‘Which part?’” (8)
We soon learn that the resurrected Biff is unaware of what happened at the end of Jesus’ time on earth. We do not know the circumstances, but we do know that he somehow dies prior to the crucifixion. The angel Raziel spends much of his time keeping Biff from learning anything about Christianity or modern religion in general, so as not to taint Biff’s new gospel. Raziel essentially keeps him a prisoner in their hotel room, where the angel says Biff is to stay until his gospel is complete.
Eventually, however, Biff discovers the Gideon Bible in a dresser drawer. He is only able to sneak glances at it from time to time in the bathroom. But, over the course of the novel, he is appalled to learn that all mention of him has been erased from the story; so too is he baffled by the Evangelists’ near-complete disregard for Jesus’ life prior to his thirtieth year. Biff sees his role as twofold: fill in the blanks of Jesus’ life, and fill in his own role altogether.
Moore, through Biff, quickly establishes the motif of the humanization of Jesus. Biff tells the reader that Jesus’ “name was Joshua. Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Yeshua, which is Joshua. Christ is not a last name. It’s the Greek for messiah, a Hebrew word meaning anointed” (8). Biff usually refers to him as “Josh.” Furthermore, in a particularly poignant scene when Joshua callously tells his father Joseph (depicted throughout the novel as a greatly respected man) not to count on living to an old age, the carpenter tells Biff, “You go with Joshua. He needs a friend to teach him to be human. Then I can teach him to be a man” (17).
In many ways, Joshua and Biff’s relationship is similar to that of a famous duo in literature. Biff often acts as Sancho Panza to Joshua’s Don Quixote. Although he is often the source of comic relief, Biff is forever looking out for Joshua, who frequently ignores everyday realities as well as the dangerous consequences of miraculous events that happen around him. When Joshua’s face appears on the flatbread baked throughout Nazarene in preparation for Passover (a violation of the prohibition of graven images), it is Biff who suggests that Mary cut her son’s hair to disguise him while Biff and Joshua’s brothers run through the town yelling that Moses’ face has appeared as a Passover miracle (19–20). When a giant cobra follows the ten-year-old Joshua home—his mother Mary calmly accepting the event as part of prophecy—it is Biff who tries to make Joshua aware of the dangers of keeping a poisonous snake as a pet (21–22).
The incident of the snake leads to the novel’s second striking theme: the presence of so many strong women. The first section of the book includes the enormously vibrant and appealing character Mary of Magdala, known as Maggie. We first encounter Maggie as Joshua and Biff are leading the snake back to the fields where they found it. Joshua accidentally knocks over Jakan, the son of a Pharisee. Jakan, a bully and lout, accuses Joshua of consorting with demons and has his friends grab hold of Joshua so Jakan can rub dung on his face. Maggie steps out of her house and mocks Jakan, walking up to the cobra and petting it. She asks Jakan if he really wants to appear the fool by going to the elders and claiming that a simple snake is a demon. Embarrassed, Jakan withdraws (25).
Biff, who soon falls in love with Maggie, knows that while she holds him in deep affection, she herself has fallen in love with Joshua. In describing Biff’s love for Maggie and her love for Joshua, Moore writes movingly:
I don’t know if now, having lived and died the life of a man, I can write about little-boy love, but remembering it now, it seems the cleanest pain I’ve known... At night I would lie awake, listening to my brothers’ breathing against the silence of the house, and in my mind’s eye I could see her eyes like blue fires in the dark. Exquisite torture. I wonder now if Joshua didn’t make her whole life like that. Maggie, she was the strongest of us all. (26)
The friendship between the three children grows, and Maggie joins with Biff in protecting Joshua as best they can as he strives to find meaning for his life.
Joshua’s struggle to find his calling in the world illuminates both his human and divine aspects. Joshua seeks always and in all ways to learn what his role is on earth. From questioning the Pharisees to discussions with Biff on topics as varied as mercy and lust, Joshua displays the keenest sense of curiosity. He is driven by a fundamental question: Is he the Messiah and, if so, what does that really mean? Eventually, Joshua meets with an ancient rabbi in Jerusalem who suggests he seek out the three Magi who visited him as a newborn. Joshua’s mother tells him that one of the Magi lived north of Antioch. So, in their thirteenth year, Joshua and Biff head for the East.
Scholars and theologians have commented on the similarities between Christ’s teachings and a variety of Eastern philosophical tenets. Moore takes this idea and runs with it. Joshua and Biff’s time with all three of the Magi is similar in form: Joshua studies deep philosophical topics, while Biff learns a variety of useful, often humorous skills (poisons, disguises, the Kama Sutra). Joshua learns much of what it means to be human, as well as what forms divinity can take. For example, Joshua’s time with the first magus, Balthasar, is spent studying Taoism—in particular the three jewels of compassion, moderation, and humility (153). Meanwhile Biff, ever practical, learns as much as possible to keep the pair safe and healthy on their travels.
The time spent with Balthasar also introduces a group of remarkably strong female characters. Balthasar lives with eight Chinese concubines. These women, in addition to keeping Balthasar’s house and taking turns sharing his bed, are highly educated and eminently independent women. They instruct Joshua and (especially) Biff in all manner of topics. It is difficult to describe the women in detail without giving away too much of the story. As is the case with most of the female characters in the novel, the Chinese concubines are admirable, likeable characters. In no way passive or victimized, these women are powerful operators with their own desires and agendas.
The last section of the novel covers Joshua and Biff’s return to Galilee and Joshua’s ministry. The gathering of the Apostles, the spread of Joshua’s message, and his trial all are illuminated by Moore’s moving yet funny prose. Maggie comes into her own in this section. She works closely with Biff to do anything in her power to save Joshua from the Pharisees, despite being married to one herself. While most readers will know how this novel must end, Moore creates a surprising yet satisfying climax.
A book review that gives away too much of the story is a cardinal sin. And, for brevity’s sake, it is impossible to discuss more than a small fraction of the novel’s multitude of outstanding scenes and dialog. Fans of Christopher Moore, if asked to recommend one of his books, almost invariably recommend Lamb first, for good reason. Moore’s fictional exploration of Jesus Christ’s life prior to his ministry is a humorous, moving, and thought-provoking novel.
Robert D. Vega is in charge of Reference Services at the Christopher Center for Library and Information Resources at Valparaiso University and teaches Library Instruction courses in a variety of fields at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.