Hal Duncan’s Testament is a reworking of the Gospel story from the New Testament of the Bible; in the book Duncan takes the original text, remixes it and intercuts it with his own additions that put a new spin and interpretation on the story, creating a weird SF narrative that uses the Bible’s own words to criticise the history and teachings of the Christian church, offering up a Testament that is “anarchist, socialist, atheist, revolutionary”.
To aid with this reinterpretation, the author deliberately removes familiar words and terms from the text, eliminating two thousand years of baggage while cleaving to the basic meaning of the original language: the “son of man” becomes the “everyman”; Heaven is “Aeternity”, God is “the Worker”, “the Sublime”. The words Pharisee and Samaritan are avoided; “demons” are often called instead “fouled inspirations”. It’s clear that Duncan doesn’t want you bringing with you all the assumptions and loaded meanings learned from the Church’s teachings of the Bible. Jesus himself is called Joshua – a name much closer to his actual one than the word we use, which has been translated and altered through Greek, and Latin, and English.
The most radical reworking of this otherwise familiar story is in the narrator, unnamed at first, who is referred to variously as “the Judean”, “the student that Joshua loved”, and eventually “Eleazar”, “Eli”. This character, anonymous at first, turns out to be an amalgamation of several – he is Judas, who is also Lazarus, the brother of Mary Magdalene; ultimately he is the Messenger who appears at Joshua’s tomb, and even, perhaps, the risen Joshua himself. It is in this character’s narrative addendums to the Biblical text – addressed to a “lover of the Sublime”, as the Gospel of Luke is addressed to “Theophilus” – where the science fictional elements lie; the story eschews any fixed sense of time and place, offering a Gospel narrative that takes place throughout the two thousand years of church history, in a Roman Empire that never ended, a history where the church became the Empire Joshua opposed. Roman soldiers appear with swords and armour, or with assault rifles and jackboots. Pontius Pilate is a Roman governor, a Nazi officer, a talk show host. Testament provides us with a Joshua who sees Aeternity, sees everything that will be done in his name, and offers the narrator, the student he loves, that same sight, the vision of his work continuing – and continuing to be necessary – across the millennia that separate then from now, existing in all times at once. Or it gives us a madman closed up in a modern flat, cutting up Bible verses and adding his delusions to create his new Testament for a new age.
It’s a work I suspect would take a deeper knowledge of the Bible to fully appreciate; a familiarity with original texts, the history of its translations, and with the Apocrypha (particularly, it seems, the Gospel of Thomas). I’m not familiar enough with the text to see all the places where Hal Duncan has made changes, excisions, and insertions; I’ve read the New Testament perhaps once or twice, idly, without a lot of interest. The writing in the Bible can be rather dry, and that’s a flaw which gets carried over to Testament, relying as it does on many passages from that text. I got rather sick of parables at one point. Where the book becomes interesting is in the places where the narrator’s insertions force significant reinterpretations of the Biblical text, a recontextualising that sometimes entirely transforms the meaning of something Joshua says or does. The novel is perhaps strongest in the final few sections, where the narrative becomes more personal and focused through the story of Eleazar’s resurrection, the last supper, the betrayal, and Joshua’s trial and crucifixion.
I found this a difficult book to read, to be honest, and it took me a lot longer to get through than most novels do. Much of that was due to the aforementioned dryness of the Bible’s text. But despite the difficulty, I found it a very fascinating study of the way the Bible’s source text can be interpreted and reinterpreted to find something between the lines that’s far more radical and interesting than the official narrative.