Inspired by Dan Brown, new revisionist books rethink some Biblical icons
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Not your grandma’s Jezebel
Inspired by Dan Brown, new revisionist books rethink some Biblical icons
Two thousand years of Christianity have embedded its sacred scriptures in the Western world’s cultural DNA, as much in non-believers as in the faithful. After the 16th century, when Biblical translations acted as the very engine of national languages, the King James Bible of 1611 became the English-speaking world’s basic primer, the book from which people learned to read and think, a storehouse of stories and characters that was our major source of images, metaphors and collected wisdom. Not that we’ve always agreed on the exact meaning of Scripture, of course, or else there wouldn’t be so many hundreds of Christian denominations. There have been times when what seemed to outsiders minor differences of theology have set Inquisitorial fires burning and entire armies marching.
But disputes over the words of Jesus or St. Paul aside, the Bible’s stories were always accepted as written. Even when Biblical fiction-novels, plays and films rooted in Scripture’s rich human drama, its tales of love and self-sacrifice, murder and lust—became a force in popular culture more than a century ago withBenHur (1880) and Quo Vadis (1895), they rarely rocked any doctrinal boats. For centuries we knew what was meant by the heroism of a Samson or the kiss of a Judas, that a magdalen was a reformed prostitute and a jezebel—think Bette Davis in the 1938 film of that name—a decidedly unreformed painted woman.
Today, not so much. Four years after Dan Brown’s mega-selling Da Vinci Code first popularized the notion that Mary Magdalene was no fallen woman—that was a deliberate slur, crafted by misogynist churchmen—but the wife of Jesus and mother of his child, writers of Biblical fiction and even popular history are revamping a host of familiar figures and stories. New books again tackle Mary
Magdalene—even if some present her more as exuberant temple whore than respectable matron—as well as that other perennial favourite, Judas. Lesser lights have also inspired writers: there’s Samson as a quasi-fascist killer, and Jezebel, the Bible’s ultimate bad girl, who emerges as an icon of tolerance, destroyed by ranting religious fundamentalists.
Judas has always invoked sympathy among unorthodox writers, for whom he is as much scapegoat as villain. In New Zealander C. K. Stead’s forthcoming novel, My Name Was Judas, the ultimate traitor, now aged 70 and in comfortable retirement by the seashore, offers his “true” agnostic account of his old pal Jesus’s quixotic ministry four decades earlier, complete with skeptical explanations for all miracles. Even that seems mild compared to the volte-face of the recently discov-
ered second-century Gospel of Judas, which portrays Judas as Christ’s one true disciple.
Last October, Samson, one of the greatest heroes of the Jewish scriptures, the man who slew a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of an ass, whose name modern Israel has given to various elite combat units, appeared in American David Maine’s novel, The Book of Samson, as part drunken, lecherous lout, and part God-crazed murderer. Israeli writer David Grossman’s take on Samson, Lion’s Honey, also sees him as a kind of infantile force of nature, and it too offers parallels to the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian struggle. The Palestinians, after all, derive their name from the Philistines, and Samson, who pulled down a temple on himself and 3,000 of his enemies, was “the first suicide killer.”
New depictions ofjudas and Samson, however, pale beside what has happened on the other side of the gender divide. What centuries of (male) theological quibbling failed to do, two generations of feminist research and writing has accomplished: a radical reinterpretation of many of the women of the Bible. Dan Brown’s Madonna-like vision of the Magdalene is not the only one popular with her devotees, who are legion. Some prefer her as a sacred (and sexual) priestess-meaning they happily agree that the fulminating preachers had their facts straight about how Mary earned her living, but failed to appreciate the spiritual value of a sex-trade career dedicated to the divine.
Take, for instance, the highly popular Passion of Mary Magdalen (2006), the first volume of The Maeve Chronicles by Elizabeth Cunningham. In this firstperson retelling, Mary, or Maeve as she was named by her eight Celtic warriorwitch mothers, is a priestess-prostitute at the Temple of Isis Magdalen, “the hottest holy whorehouse in the Galilee.” The first seven pages mention incest, rape, the Good Samaritan, and the man the Druids call Esus, whom she had met in Britain and had to save from a Druidic sacrifice at the hands of the witches. By the end of the novel, Cunningham’s revisionism puts Stead’s to shame. The miracles are still there, but rather than explained away as trickery, it’s Maeve the witch who performs them, not Jesus. It’s a delirious read; as one enthusiastic Maryophile reviewer put it, out of the 148 Mag-
• dalene books she’d read, “this is one I would want to write.” But it’s probably not the text for anyone wondering if there’s anything factual backing the new images of the Magdalene.
That would be Dutch feminist theologian Esther de Boer’s The Mary Magdalene Cover-Up, newly released in English translation. De Boer brings together every historical mention of Mary from the first to the sixth centuries, when Christian tradition about her became fixed. That was when the influential Pope Gregory I (590 to 604) mistakenly identified Mary as an unnamed prostitute also mentioned in the New Testament. (The Roman Catholic Church quietly corrected its teaching in 1969.)
Gregory’s slip turned out to be one of Christian cultural history’s more momentous errors. It was Mary’s titillating status as a fallen woman that caught medieval Europe’s imagination, resulting in hundreds of churches being dedicated to her (as well as colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge), and making her the only other woman of the New Testament to approach the Virgin Mary in popular devotion. Those of her devotees who rail about the patriarchal conspiracy to malign Mary should consider that, without Gregory’s mistake, there would have been no widespread cult of the Magdalene, and no modern feminist cult either.
De Boer’s sympathies are clear, but she’s a scrupulous historian as well, and concludes that the earliest images of Mary are both scanty and so bewilderingly contradictory that it’s impossible to confidently say much about her. Except this: she was clearly a very important follower of Jesus, more important than most of the male writers of the New Testament were willing to demonstrate, and a problem, by the mere fact of being a woman, for an emerging church in a male-dominated society. That, of course, makes her all the more protean in the hands of writers, and 148 books is surely only the beginning.
Nor is Mary Magdalene the only woman of the Bible to get an extreme makeover. In October, Scripture’s harlot queen will undergo rehabilitation with the release of Lesley Hazleton’s imaginative biography, Jezebel. She was the original painted hussy—even the use of “painted” as a pejorative reserved for overly
sexed women comes from the King James Bible’s description of Jezebel—who has, in novelist Tom Robbins’s phrase, “a room all her own; nay, an entire wing, in the Bitch Hall of Fame.” She has more words devoted to her than any other Biblical woman, Hazleton notes, “Eve and Mary included.”
In the two books of Kings, Jezebel is a Phoenician princess who marries King Ahab— yet another character whose name echoes through time-a ninth-century BCE ruler of Israel, the northern and more powerful of
the two Israelite kingdoms. She turns Ahab away from the God of his fathers, just as the Biblical writers always expect “strange” (that is, foreign) brides to do, and toward the worship of her god, Baal. She controls her besotted husband, and bends him to her schemes of Baal-worship and the murder of faithful Israelites. Eventually the prophet Elijah utters the terrifying threat/prophecy—Hazleton calls it a fatwa—that she will be cast down and dogs will eat her corpse. And so it came to pass, as Scripture likes to say: Jezebel is thrown from her palace window, and her body left in the street where dogs do eat it.
It’s surprisingly easy for Hazleton to poke massive holes in this account. The Biblical scribes’ xenophobic hostility virtually drips from the page, but they barely attempt to substantiate their accusations. Jezebel’s plots are so ham-fisted it’s impossible they should have succeeded, and her worst crimes, the ones that have made her name a synonym for feminine evil, are never detailed at all, but mentioned in a single charge of “whoredoms and witchcrafts,” hurled by a man who is about to commit regicide.
Where Hazleton’s book leaves mainstream biography behind, or, as one reviewer politely puts it, enters into the realm of “non-fiction magical realism,” is when she switches from hostile evidence to no evidence at all. Without much proof, Jezebel is portrayed as a sophisticated quasimodern woman fighting for a more humane culture than the Israelite jihadists around her. Elijah and his supporters, stand-ins for al-Qaeda, are very modern figures, and the entire tale is, in Hazleton’s words, “the foundation story of modern radical fundamentalism.” From Mary Magdalene the Celtic bawd to Jezebel the humanist, these aren’t the Bible stories our ancestors told. That they keep being written, even by authors who reject orthodoxy or religious authority of any kind, is a tribute to the endless inspiration of their source. We have always been, and continue to be, the people of that book. M
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