“You think you know how this story is going to end, but you don’t.” – Biff
Lamb is the story of Jesus (Joshua bar Joseph in the original Hebrew) as told by his childhood friend and traveling companion, Levi bar Alphaeus who is called Biff. Biff and his gospel are missing from the New Testament for reasons made clear near the end of the book. Levi is resurrected 2000 years after Joshua’s death and given the gift of tongues so that he can write his account.
Lamb is absurdly and sophmorically funny, thoughtful, philosophical, and towards the end, heart breaking. As an agnostic from Texas, Jesus has never been my friend. I like Biff’s Jesus. He’s a real person who grows and evolves, has a sense of humor, and occasionally punches his best friend. He knows that he’s the Messiah, but struggles with what that means and has no idea how to save his people. Joshua is frustrated by God’s silence and mourns for the things he will not have or experience. Biff also knows Joshua is the Messiah, but is pretty certain that he is incapable of taking care of himself. When the time comes for Joshua to go out into the world and learn how to be the Messiah, Biff gives up his dream of being the village idiot and/or marrying Mary Magdalene (or Joshua’s mother if something happens to Joseph) to go along and keep Josh safe. Imagine if Buffy had been written entirely from Zander’s point of view, or Harry Potter from Ron Weasley’s point of view. Biff is not the special one, but he is interesting in his own right and profoundly loyal. He makes fun of Joshua and keeps him tethered to the earth. Joshua is faith and spirituality. Biff is practicality and stratagems.
Joshua and Biff’s travels are firmly embedded in their historical context. The Jews are desperate for a Messiah to overthrow Roman rule. The rejection of Joshua’s belief that overthrowing Rome is unimportant is understandable when you see what life is like for Jews under Roman rule. Scholars have pointed out the many ways in which Christianity is similar to other contemporary religions. Joshua and Biff learn from followers of Lao Tzu, the Buddha, and from a Hindu yogi. The teachings that Joshua brings home are a product of his experiences and of the teachings of many religions. Lamb also explains why Jews eat Chinese at Christmas, so not all of the historical context is philosophical or deep.
There is a scene early in the book that foreshadows the end. Biff and Joshua have traveled with their families to Jerusalem for Passover. For the first time they are helping the men carry the sacrificial lambs to the temple for slaughter. Biff feels the lamb’s breath and heartbeat and becomes overwhelmed. He runs out of the temple with the lamb in his arms. Joshua comforts him and takes the lamb to be sacrificed. Joshua may be the special one, but there is a beauty to Biff’s mundane earthiness.
I laughed almost to the end, where my heart was ripped out, beaten, and then lovingly placed back into my chest.