God’s Story

I discovered God – in the Jan Mark sense – in January 1994 when she casually dropped into a letter:

‘After the present bulk of writing is out of the way I have to settle down to God – the novel. (As opposed to God – the mini-series.) Did I tell you about God – the novel? It’s not really any such thing, but Walker (all of it) and I have decided to provide a text based not just on Bible Stories, old hat, that; but Bible stories about Himself. I think it needs an atheist to do God justice. Theists have too one-sided a view of him. He changes considerably during the course of the Old Testament, beginning as a stern parent (‘I told you not to eat it …’) and ending up, if you follow the story through to the NT, as a fond parent sending his son out into the world, through a series of increasingly bizarre manifestations. Really, when one reads the prophets, one wonders what some of those guys were on, my dear!

‘However, we shall not mock – even the Job episode, out of which God comes looking distinctly reprehensible. Taking a bet from the Devil, just for starters … No, it will be done straight, so we’ll probably end up offending everybody.’

God’s Story was published in 1997, by Walker Books UK – a stunning hardback, as beautiful as any gift book, with gorgeous illustrations by David Parkins, who has written about his many collaborations with Jan for this website here.

The blurb explains:

‘Drawing on The Midrash Rabbah, a collection of lively explanatory texts compiled by rabbis over a thousand years ago, [Jan Mark] brings to life the great episodes and characters of the Old Testament.’

Jan wrote a long article for Signal magazine about the book, where she reflected on the source material for the book, excerpts of which I’ve reproduced below.

‘What I wanted to make clear to any who read [the book] was that this was not ‘my’ version but an account which drew exclusively on existing sources – albeit unfamiliar ones – so that anyone querying a particular gloss could be directed to the original; to which end I spent the best part of a year in the Oriental Studies section of the Bodleian Library studying the Midrash Rabbah. Like ballet dancing, the pain should never show. To produce a text of around fifteen thousand words I had to read several millions. This is an opportunity to share the pain, which was not in the reading but in the reduction.’

‘At primary school we did scripture. At secondary level this gave place to Religious Instruction, which it indubitably was, although it might more accurately have been termed Anglican indoctrination. Its translation into the more liberal Religious Education happened when I was looking the other way. Under the median regime it was obvious, even then, that while the Old Testament boasted the best stories and the naughty bits, for which we assiduously foraged, it was only a proem for the really important part, the Christian end, which, theological considerations notwithstanding, came down to us as a repetitious account of clashes between two opposing team, Jesus-and-the-Disciples and the Pharisees-and-the-Sadducees with their second eleven, the Chief-Priests-and-the-Scribes.

‘With hindsight, the set-up resembled Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch: Jesus and the Disciples are peacefully walking through a cornfield/vineyard/orchard/back street, when out of the bushes leap bearded men in tea towels yelling, “No one expects the Pharisees and the Sadducees! Our chief weapon is surprise. Surprise and ruthless efficiency …” There follows a vigorous dispute, which Jesus invariably wins because he is given all the best lines. The alternative scenario was thus: Jesus and the Disciples are walking on the Sabbath through a cornfield/vineyard/ orchard/back street, when a Disciple, probably John the toady, tugs his sleeve, hissing, “Here come the Pharisees and the Sadducees,” at which point they all start breaking the Sabbath like mad or go off and have lunch with publicans and sinners, thus provoking another exchange of sophistries. Jesus comes across as an inveterate coat-tailer, which was probably not the intention.

‘Read alongside Abraham Cohen’s Everyman’s Talmud and other commentaries, the midrashim became a revelatory adventure. The revelatory aspect was twofold. On the one hand it was intrinsic; the purpose of a midrash after all being to explain. On the other hand, the comedy-sketch antics of the Pharisees and Sadducees (and the Chief Priests and Scribes) were destroyed at a stroke.’

‘After reading the Midrash Rabbah the arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees appear in a very different light. They are debates between scholars, but the spin doctors – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – have been at work. Everyone else’s contributions have been written out, only the words of Jesus remain; instead of a series of informed discussions we are left with a series of put-downs. In the midrashim no one has to have the last word, no one has to win.’

All illustrations (c) David Parkins, 1997.