I wrote my Masters thesis on rewriting female characters from Greek mythology (Christa Wolf’s Cassandra) so was interested in reading Leslie Cannold’s fictional construction of Jesus’ sister. I saw the documentary that Cannold saw which inspired her to explore the idea of Jesus having a sister, and imagining what it was like to live as a women at the time of Jesus. It was a documentary about the historical Jesus, which mentioned that he probably had brothers and sisters, but to record the names of the sisters would be akin to recording the names of one’s sheep. She did her research on the politics, geography, religious practices, society, food, implements, dwellings, agriculture, and tribal interactions of the time. The result is worth reading. Cannold did the better job, given she states her inspiration and aims like Wolf did. The Book of Rachael: A Novel is the greater success and more enjoyable read.
I’ve also been reading a lot about the historical Jesus, and I’ve been watching the BBC documentary on the historiocity of the bible. I find it fascinating that the existence of one man two thousand years ago changed the history of the world, to the extent that our calendar is based around him. It is a rather peculiar phenomenon, and the story of the growth of Christianity is one which has had many twists and turns in history. The religion could have died out at many different points, but didn’t.
I’m aware that there are many people who take the bible literally, and see the hand of God in its compilation. The stories would have been oral stories which were told in order to explain the mysteries of life or provide comfort to ancient people. The rituals were a type of law used to control people. The stories have been transcribed and translated. The books of the bible have been selected and compiled. And, of course, the church itself has fractured and changed according to time and place, society and politics, and continues to do so.
There is historical evidence for aspects of Greek mythology: the golden fleece, the falling of Troy. Ancient Greek mythologies were told in many ways by many writers. The same characters appear in different versions of stories, much like the stories of Jesus being told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Many stories of Greek mythology have not survived,. Many were probably burnt at the library of Alexandria, or simply lost. It is thought that gospels were also lost, or left behind, based on decisions we will ever know the thinking behind.
The story Leslie Cannold tells reminds us that Jesus existed in a specific time and place. That there was a specific geopolitical context. That Jesus stood up to injustice, offered hope to the downtrodden and embraced those who were outcast. He was compassionate to women. Christianity offered an alternative to the harsh laws of Judaism. Much about the new religion was attractive. The need for community and ritual is everpresent in human history and hasn’t left us yet.
She also reminds us of a time when women had no rights. In Jerusalem today there are still ultra-orthodox Jews who demand that women be excluded from the public sphere. Although gender segregation is outlawed, it is done informally, with women sitting at the back of the bus, using separate entrances and waiting rooms from men, being unable to speak at funerals, and women are not to sing or dance in mixed groups.
While men are trying to silence women and keep them out of public life, the women are protesting by singing and dancing. Other women are trying to write women back into historical stories, and the world keeps turning.