The Abbot of the Monastery of Pantanassa had provided me with a copy of the novel The Deposition by James Cowan and suggested that it be reviewed for PHRONEMA. I was a little reluctant at first but agreed politely out of respect, thinking that it may be boring, inappropriate or not have a high standard. I was wrong.
This is one of the best books that I have ever reviewed professionally. It is more than a novel because it confronts the reader theologically and personally with the historical Jesus.
It took the occasion of a long train journey to read the novel. Despite the distraction from the conversations of the fellow passangers I became immersed immediately in the text and the gentle flow of the words mesmerised my attention. On my return I ploughed through the remaining chapters sitting by my garden window that basks in the winter sun; I was unable to leave the book unfinished despite the call of other duties.
James Cowan portrayed the search of Gamaliel for the truth about Jesus of Nazareth. Gamaliel was a member of the Sanhedrin that condemned Christ and passed him to Pontius Pilate for execution. He had not agreed with the decision of the council and his conscience was bothering him. The novel represents the experience of Gamaliel and the transformation that he underwent in formulating a deposition.
In doing so, Cowan took me on another journey that led me to relive the meaning of the key episodes in the New Testament. I came face to face with St Peter, St Andrew, the resurrected Lazarus, the doubtful St Thomas, St James the Son of Zebedee (Boanerges). I visited the empty tomb of Jesus. It was impossible for the reader not to become anxious when Caiaphas became suspicious and confronted Gamaliel. Caiaphas warned Gamaliel not to meddle in or overturn the decision of the Sanhedrin but Gamaliel persisted in his quest.
For Gamaliel, the attraction of Christianity lay in the overwhelming coherence and truth of its message. It is immediately apparent in the purity of the Christian believer. Nowhere is this more evident than in the encounter between Gamaliel and the young shepherd boy in the manger at Betlehem. Mary Magdalena also showed him the transformation that comes about through the encounter with the living Christ. Gamaliel encounters the same shepherd again on the Mount of Olives, where he utters one of many insights: ‘I knew, as I was only just beginning to comprehend, how a man was the sum of his inward actions, not of the way others may perceive him.’
Each encounter forces Gamaliel to revise his ideas and to challenge his monolithic belief in the law and the God of the Old Testament. But it is not only Gamaliel who is being challenged; the reader is also drawn along and forced to encounter the reality of the living Son of God.
At each step and with each meeting the tension increases. Gamaliel meets with Lady Claudia Procula, wife of Pontius Pilate, and someone who was greatly touched by the message of Jesus. All this becomes too much for the conscientious and God-fearing Gamaliel, especially after St John the Son of Zebedee explained to him the reality of the light in the metamorphosis of Mount Tabor.
On the morning of the meeting of the Sanhedrin and after the conclusion of the main business, Caiaphas challenges Gamaliel. He rises to the occasion and in the ensuing debate he established the validity of questioning the Sanhedrin’s decision. It is a remarkable speech and dialogue worth re-reading. It seems as if he was inspires by the Holy Spirit to say that Jesus adds to the Jewish tradition but also replaces it with love, showing the way for all who believe. He goes unchallenged, congratulated by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and in this way gains the right to make his deposition.
On his way back from the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel recognised St John the Son of Zebedee and accompanying him was the Theotokos whom he thoughts might have come to bestow her blessing upon him: ‘Now I knew I had entered eternity on the wings of an act of Grace – her gift, surely come to an old man who may have faltered for a time, but who had now fully assumed his normal stance. Jesus of Nazareth, I told myself in me you have found one of your staunchest advocates. I will write this deposition and so justify my faith in you’ (p.215).
Cowan’s Gamaliel is consistent with the Gamaliel in the Acts of Apostles as a Pharisee and a doctor of the law. We can read about him defending St Peter and the other Apostles; while the council wanted to slay them, he arose and advised them otherwise, stating: ‘Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God. And to him they agreed…’ (Acts 5:38-40). We read about him as the teacher of St Paul. But Cowan offers a personal Gamaliel; it is the potential Gamaliel within each of us.
This is a novel of great scholarship from an erudite author. It is as true as is physically possible to bear witness in a historical novel to momentous events such as the virgin birth, the exile to Egypt, the miracles of Christ, the Metamorphosis, the crucifixion and the Resurrection. One travels through the life of Christ with Gamaliel. And all this by reference to and explanations of history, the Jewish traditions, classical scholarship (Latin and Greek) with which the author seems so familiar.
But it is more than a novel. To those who love the New Testament it will be amazing inspiration as they relieve these events. To those who believe in Christ, it will be a challenge to the depth of their belief and a marvellous opportunity for them to ‘rekindle the gift of God that is within you’ (2Timothy, 1:6).
I am grateful for the suggestion to review it for PHRONEMA. I might add that my train journey to have lunch with an elderly sister of an aunt coincidentally took me just two stops past the picturesque Cowan on the Hawkesbury River. This journey and the opportunity to read this work of James Cowan are worthwhile for every Orthodox reader and I hope that many others will pass through both Cowans as I did.
James A. Athanasou
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College