New York, NY: The charge that the Jews are responsible for the scourging and crucifixion of Christ has been at the root of anti-Semitism from the early years of Christianity to the present day. True, Pope Benedict XVI recently declared that the Jewish people were not responsible for deicide — only their leaders were. A similar declaration was also made by the Vatican almost half a century ago, although without any effect, since in the Good Friday liturgy, hundreds of millions of churchgoers continue to hear that the Jews forced Pilate to release Barabbas, the robber, and crucify Jesus instead. Without presenting an alternative account of the events that led to the crucifixion, the original incriminating story would continue to provide rich soil for anti-Semitism. László Bitó stands up against this scourge by presenting a fascinatingly brilliant reinterpretation of that fateful Passover almost 2000 years ago. Bito’s book, The Gospel of Anonymous: Absolving All Men of the Most Hideous Crime of Deicide, published by iUniverse, has been praised by important religious leaders: Rev. Chloe Breyer, the director of the Interfaith Center of New York, wrote: “Bitó’s book is a delightful read and imaginative corrective to the real threat of modern anti-Semitism.” Professor Bruce Chilton, the Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College, writing about the “lethal disputes between church and synagogue,” concluded: “[This is a] sympathetic projection into the personalities and motivations of the people involved … and the result is a richly rewarding reappraisal.”

In his thoughtful and far-reaching retelling of the story, Bitó presents Barabbas as a childhood friend of Jesus who had taught that “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13) and was ready to offer himself to free his friend from Pilate’s dungeon. This Jesus, in Bito’s ingenious apocryphal gospel, saved hundreds of lives after Judas reported to him that in the absence of Barabbas, the leader of the zealots, the ferocious sicarii were planning to lead the zealots into an armed insurrection against Roman rule. With arms hidden under their cloaks, they were to enter Jerusalem, mingling with the thousands of pilgrims arriving for the High Holidays. But they would be massacred to the last man, together with many of the festive innocents, for his spies had reported the plot to Pilate, who was ready to send his own men, also with concealed weapons, into the crowds. Judas helped Jesus to free Barabbas at his own peril and he never betrayed the Master. In Bitó’s account, Jesus did say aloud during the Passover supper that the one he offers food to will betray him, but did so only to annoy Pilate’s omnipresent ears, who could hear his words, but could not see who received the offer. The faithful Judas was hanged by the sicarii when they learned of his role in the freeing of Barabbas, who did prevent the insurrection.

László Bitó retired from Columbia University in 1997 as Emeritus Professor of Ocular Physiology. This was after his research had led to the introduction of a new drug to forestall the development of tunnel vision in glaucoma, saving the eyesight of millions. Returning to his native Hungary, he stood up against spiritual blindness and become best known for his highly praised Biblical novels: reinterpretations taking into consideration human emotions and aspirations that are not mentioned in the original parables and, in the process, presenting a more humane godhead.

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LASZLO BITO IS a veritable polymath. He is a world-renowned scientist, recipient of many international prizes, among them the Proctor Medal, the highest award given for eye research (primarily for his path-breaking work in the treatment of glaucoma). Recently, having chosen an early retirement from Columbia University, where he was Professor of Ocular Physiology, Bito returned to the dreams of his youth and began to write fiction.

In his first novels, appearing in his native Hungarian, Bito addressed contemporary issues, focusing on life in Hungary during the first half of the twentieth century. After the defeat of the 1956 revolution, Bito (b. 1934) immigrated to the United States, where he completed his education and embarked on his scientific career. With latent autobiographical material in the text, Bito has created a body of novels that cannot be considered the work of a literary gentleman or the by-products of leisure hours. Building on the European narrative tradition of past centuries, Bito’s fiction is thought-provoking, well structured, and, above all, an entertaining read.

His latest endeavors are more controversial, but no less remarkable: Bito decided to become God’s ghostwriter and reinterpret some pivotal scenes from the Bible in the form of a trilogy. He has completed two volumes and is working on the third. The first, Abraham und Isaak, is the piece under review here. It has been so far published in Hungarian, English, German, Russian (appearing concurrently in Moscow and Minsk), and Slovak. French, Spanish, and Romanian translations are in progress. The same applies to the second volume, “The Teachings of Isaac,” which is soon to appear in a number of translations. In the first two books, Bito is rethinking the philosophical and ethical ideas of Judaism and is preparing the path for his third book, a new vision of Jesus. Each volume is enjoyable as a separate entity. The trilogy is planned to encompass Bito’s concept of man’s role in creating his God, ancestors, prophets, and heroes.

In Abraham und Isaak, a novel with many characters, Abraham shares God’s message with his people. While according to Jewish tenets, God at the last moment orders Abraham to spare his son’s life (as opposed to the Christian God who permits the crucifixion of Jesus), in Bito’s text, Omaan, Sarah’s steward, is the one who stops Abraham’s hand. This episode can be freely interpreted by the reader: Omaan too could be simply God’s instrument, or, as a different option, man is a free agent; he alone will decide how he lives, dies, or kills. Thus, God is an instrument of man.

The core of the epic is constituted by the Judean patriarch’s relation to his wives and his sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and their relationship with one another. Therefore, this interpretation of the Bible is not a celebration of divine revelation, but a record of human life and fantasy. Lively scenes of imagined plots on the biblical sites do not call for verifying their historicity. Bito wants the reader to consider the ethical message embedded in the text.

The second volume, “The Teachings of Isaac,” is structured as a dialogue between Isaac and Esau, his firstborn. Here Esau is taught to accept a God who is no more powerful than he himself. The author is still working on the final volume, tentatively called “Isaac of Nazareth,” which is conceived as an inner monologue of a lonely Jesus who recognizes the fact that his ultimate truth cannot be shared with anyone. The conclusions of the trilogy do not lead to religious or cultural nihilism, but instead steer the reader toward an open-ended, personal exploration and understanding of the fundamental values of Judaism and Christianity.

People of science have frequently excelled in fiction (Chekhov, Cronin, and Maugham, to mention but a few), while the stories of the Bible have consistently challenged the talents of writers, among them such giants as Thomas Mann. Jesus too has had a very large press, from J. E. Renan to Thomas Cahill’s recently published, excellent Desire of the Everlasting Hills. Laszlo Bito is surely in good company, and the reader who has enjoyed Abraham und Isaak is in for more quality treats, as the next parts of the trilogy are made available.

Abraham and Isaac is available in German, French, Russian, Romanian, Slovakian and Hungarian.

This review is also available on The Free Library.