The gospel of the beloved disciple is a retelling of the days of Jesus' ministry, but not after the fashion of the first books of the New Testament, nor in the vein of Kazantzakis and Mailer, and while it includes many incidents that are recorded in the Bible, recounts them from a vastly different perspective that portrays Jesus as a sensitive, powerful, and ultimately uncertain human and reluctant visionary and divorces him from the ineffable miraculousness that surrounds him in traditional Apostolic narrative. It's important to note, though, that Carse's intent is neither to discredit Jesus or take liberty with the substance of the Gospels; rather, he constructs a credible accounting of circumstances surrounding a human extraordinary only in his willingness to be used for a greater purposes than his own survival in a time when even that was not guaranteed.
Carse's narrative is remarkable in both its exposition and its substance. Nearly half of the book is taken up by the stories told -- mostly by Jesus, but occasionally by other rabbis -- that illustrate the more surprising and nonintuitive lessons and ramifications of the torah, and Jesus' rabbinical attitude towards torah quickly takes on a decidedly Eastern character; in fact, entire passages in the book could have the word torah replaced with the word zen and serve as valid Buddhist metaphysics; this dual-context nature to the narrative is exemplified in an exchange between Jesus and another rabbi:
...the rabbi raised his hand to silence them, then turned to Jesus. "We were talking about interpreting torah. Are you saying that agreement is not possible?"
"Whenever we agree on the meaning of torah," Jesus responded, "that agreement takes the place of torah."
In its substance, the book is surprising in its departure from the Apostolic portrayals of Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate. Throughout the book I was expecting, and judging Judas from the moment of his first appearance, on the basis of a betrayal that never materialized. Carse fingers Pilate as the source of Jesus' betrayal, and the dialogue that ensues between the two of them is easily the most powerful, inspired, and hard-hitting I have ever read. (crossvector, these two dudes know all about dangerous ideas.) An excerpt:
Pilate: "My judges think you are dangerous to the empire."
Jesus: "Any empire I threaten no soldier can defend."
Pilate: "You are a threat to the order of the empire."
Jesus: "The only danger I am to you is that I see what you see ... you see that the laws of the empire are empty. Because they answer not to justice but to power, you know that they are not laws at all.
Further distinguishing Carse's gospel is the fact that Jesus is never portrayed as, nor ever claims to be, either the Son of or even a representative of God. The Jesus of this book becomes the man the Christians would come to call the Messiah largely through a series of misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and enthusiastically incorrect conclusions drawn by his followers through the ordinary madness of crowds. At one point, one of his more excitable followers wakes up early to see Jesus drying his cloak in the first light of morning, which becomes the source of the Transfiguration; at another, his entourage, in their wanderings, meet Jesus' mother and siblings, whose anger with him they mistake for passion; their conclusions further bolster their belief in Jesus' divinity. Now, at this point, it's difficult to reconcile Carse's gospel with any other literal interpretation of Jesus' life; I don't claim to fully understand or appreciate the case Carse builds. But what is clear is that Carse is not attacking Jesus' divinity, but rather our perceptions of divinity itself. Carse's portrait of Jesus is one of passion, patience, wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and compassion; not necessarily characteristics that he claims Jesus was born with -- rather, he seems to come by them much more as a product of his followers' industrious belief in him -- but which he developed in great measure as a result of his efforts and his circumstances; and insofar as Jesus surrendered himself completely to a greater mission, holds this up as the greatest of spiritual accomplishments.
Regardless of your attitude towards Carse's approach, however, there is a great deal of wisdom in the divergent path Carse takes, and whether you agree with his portrayal or not, the reconsideration of Jesus' philosophies and the stories he tells server to reinforce any faith.