JESUS AND ST. PETER are traveling in Spain. They come on a farmer whose cart has tipped over, and the man is praying, admitting his error and counting his blessings:

St. Peter is impressed.

"What a healthy, humble attitude," he said to the Lord. "Let's give him a hand, and get all his goods back in his wagon."

Jesus looked straight ahead.

"Keep walking," he said.

"But Lord," said St. Peter.

Hush," said Jesus.

They find another farmer with a smashed wagon, but this one is cursing. Peter wants to pass on, but Jesus insists they stop. The farmer reviles them, and Jesus punches him out. But Jesus then raises the cart, repairs it, and sends it on its way. Peter knows Jesus is not being a neighbor, as the Good Samaritan was, and is not turning the other cheek. He keeps trying to find the answer -- maybe it's "A decent man's curse is better than a shifty man's prayer." Maybe it is, but Jesus isn't saying. He keeps walking down the road. And that's how St. Peter got bald.

All this, needless to say, is not in the New Testament, or in the most gnostic gospels, or Henecke's New Testament Apochrypha, though this last has similar stuff. The source is a Basque folk story, and the current teller is Romulus Linney, an American who has delightedly done the selecting and reworking into a relaxed but never slangy current English.

There are nine tales in this short volume. St. Peter wanting eternal summer, St. Peter believing Jesus saying that everyone in Cornwall has a tail, and St. Peter trying to straighten out the licentious sex lives of a Texas town I found thin, jokes that aren't very good no matter who they're told about. The rest are fine, as is the whole ides of reclaiming these efforts of the folk to bring Jesus into their worlds.

Not surprisingly, their origin is Catholic and mostly Mediterranean, warm places where the religion of the priest was, even if kindly, impersonal and official. Protestants, presumably, both know their Bible better and take it more solemnly. When Peter first sees Jesus, he is sitting, staring, "sifting sand through one hand." "Of course the Lord was there for his own reasons, thinking thoughts not always cheerful, since life is hard on everyone, especially, with that painful cross waiting him there at the end."

Imagine Hans Christian Andersen writing that. No, what Linney and his sources know is that Jesus had to fight flies and sit on stones and eat mediocre food; mostly his divinity is expressed either as a distance or a magic. In this tale, Peter introduces himself, and says, "I understand you perform miracles." Jesus answers: "It's hot." Peter wants Jesus to teach him how to cure his daughter, who cannot walk. "Oh-oh," says John; "Ambition," James adds. After they sort it all out, Jesus says, of course, "Follow me." Peter is promised nothing, and he never does learn how to cure his daughter, whom he seldom sees since he's always off following Jesus. The truth simply, is that Jesus likes Peter: "He's liked the way Peter rushed into things, got uncertain, and blushed with doubt." With Peter around, things are always happening, and "Peter was able to make him forget awhile his sorrows on earth."

The not-very-good stories in this book are really just adapted local tall tales. The best take a Jesus we know in one way and, without changing all that much, show him another way, no less mysterious, but funnier, more piquant, not a teacher or a believer in teaching, but someone given the odd, lonely task of being Word made Flesh, Lord on earth.

For some reason, Linny calls Jesus Tales a novel. It isn't. As is proper with any folk tales, read them aloud, one a day. The dialouge is often just wonderful, and most Americans, especially most Protestants, have never read anything like them.