King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 19, 20, 21, 22

“What do you make of all this?” said Shef to Solomon as they paused to allow pens to be resharpened and throats to be moistened.

Solomon plucked at his beard, one eye on Elazar, the pupil and spy of Moishe, who blamed Solomon still for unleashing the Christians’ fury on their city.

“It is badly told. That makes it the more interesting.”

“Why so?”

“I have read my own holy books, the Torah of the Jews. I have read the Christian gospels also. And I have read the Koran of the followers of Mohammed. All are different. All tell us things their authors perhaps did not mean to.”

Shef said nothing, let Solomon get round to the unspoken question.

“The Koran is said to be the word of God put into the mouth of Mohammed. It seems to me to be the work of a great poet, and a man of inspiration. Nevertheless it tells us nothing that might not be known by—say, a well-traveled merchant of Arabia, who longed above all for religious zeal and an end to the hair-splitting of the Greeks.”

“It is the work of a man, not a God, you mean,” said Svandis, with a triumphant look at Shef.

“The gospels?” Shef prompted.

Solomon smiled. “They are, to say the least, confused. Even the Christians have noticed that they contradict each other in detail, and adduce this as proof that they must be true: either true in some spiritual sense about which, in the end, there can be no argument for there is no proof, or true as different accounts of the same event may still all be true. It is clear to me that all were written many years after the story they claim to tell, and by men who knew the holy books of the Jews in great detail. You cannot tell what happened from what the writers wanted to have happened. And yet…” He paused, with a glance at Elazar.

“And yet I have to say that they contain a kind of truth, if a human truth. All seem to tell the story of an uncomfortable man, a preacher who would not say what they asked him to. He would not condemn adultery. He would not allow divorce. He told people to pay their taxes. He liked Gentiles, even Romans. His hearers were trying to twist what he said even as he was saying it. It is an odd story, and odd stories are the likelier to be true.”

“You have said nothing about your own holy books,” remarked Shef again. Solomon looked at Elazar again. They were talking in the Anglo-Norse of the foreigners, which Elazar surely could not follow. Yet he was suspicious, ears ready for anything he might understand. He would have to put this carefully.

Solomon bowed respectfully. “The holy books of my faith are the word of God, and I say nothing against that. Yet it is an odd thing that sometimes God uses two words. For instance in the account of our forefather Adam and his wife Eve”—he used, as far as he could, the English pronunciations of the names—”the name of God is sometimes one thing and sometimes another. It is as if—as if, I say—there were a writer who said, so to speak, metod for God, as you sometimes do, and another who preferred to say dryhten. As if the two words testified to two writers with different versions of one story.”

“What would that mean?” said Thorvin.

Solomon shrugged politely. “It is a difficult text.”

“You said that all these holy books contain things their authors did not mean to say,” Shef pressed on, “and I understand what you mean. Now what does this one, this one that we have here, tell us that its author did not mean to say?”

“In my opinion,” said Solomon, “this is the work of someone who has been through great pain and grief and so cannot think of anything else. You have perhaps met men like that.”

Shef thought of his former follower, the gelded berserk Cuthred, and nodded.

“You cannot expect such men to tell a clear story. They are mad, and the author of this text was in a sense mad. But it may be that he was mad because he saw clearly.”

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