When Ernest Renan’s Vie de Jésus appeared in 1863, the idea that its subject could be seen simply as a subject – that he could have his life set out on the page like any old Levantine preacher; that the evangelists and the early Christian chroniclers could be parsed for prejudice and castigated for inconsistency as if they were the hack journalists of their day – was regarded as blasphemous in certain quarters. At very least, it was said, some sort of irreparable breach of decorum had taken place. The book was more or less responsible for inaugurating what one might call the Citizen Smith school of Christology: dozens of paintings and, later, books which emphasised the radical scruffiness of the first Christians, deploying a potent mixture of anthropological exactitude and gritty-realist schmaltz to do so.
We could say The Childhood of Jesus is merely the latest instalment in this tradition. But in fact it belongs to a small subset of it: its title creates expectations that its plot and characters wilfully disregard. Despite being set in an unnamed Latin American port city where presumably you