By Patrick W. Andersen
When any author contemplates writing a book recounting a biblical story, the first question always seems to be, “Why? This story has been told thousands of times and shown in countless movies. Why spend so much time and energy telling it again?”
I agree with that sentiment entirely. That’s why I don’t tell the same story again.
Acts of the Women, my new novel, tells of the birth of Christianity from a perspective that has been intentionally downplayed or ignored for two millennia. Men gave flowery speeches and wrote history books extolling their own noble deeds. But I’ve long suspected that women did most of the work.
A careful reading of the New Testament finds subtle, almost-hidden hints about this truth. The most obvious example is Mary Magdalene, the beloved disciple who was the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection. It was she who reported to the male disciples that Jesus was alive, and they disbelieved her until they saw him themselves. Church leaders (male) later decreed that Mary was a prostitute, though there is absolutely no proof of that anywhere in the Bible. And yes, I called her “the beloved disciple.” That phrase has always been applied to the author of the Gospel According to John, simply because that author seemed to claim the title to himself. But the accounts of the crucifixion indicate that the male disciples were hiding for their own safety during the crucifixion. Maybe a few watched from a distance, but none of them were near enough to hear anything Jesus might have uttered as he neared death. The gospels, which are Christianity’s only accounts of the crucifixion, say that women stood at the foot of the cross, not men. Even John only names three witnesses: Mary, Jesus’ mother; Mary, the wife of Clopas; and Mary Magdalene. Three women, no men.
Elsewhere in the New Testament, we find mention of Joanna, who knew Jesus and provided support for his ministry. She is described only as the wife of Chuza, the chief steward for Herod Antipas. I introduced these characters and their relationship in my previous novel, Second Born, and Joanna plays a significant role in Acts of the Women.
And what of Susanna, who is only identified in the New Testament as one of the women from Galilee who provided support for Jesus’ ministry. The apocryphal Gospel of James claimed that the mother of Mary (mother of Jesus) was named Anna. As this latter name seems to be the foundation for Joanna and Susanna, these two could have been sisters whose names paid tribute to their mother’s mother. And if both were daughters of Mary and sisters of Jesus, that would explain how they could travel with him and provide support without creating a scandal. Luke also says an elderly prophetess named Anna was at the temple when Jesus was brought there as a baby; this might be an allusion to Mary’s mother, to whom later legends attributed great things.
Paul gives recognition to Priscilla as one of his chief partners in ministry. I will say more about Paul in a future post; here I will merely point out that his personality was quite abrasive, as evidenced both in Acts of the Apostles and his own epistles. It doesn’t require too great a leap to assume that someone with a more congenial persona served as his manager.
Finally, though she is not mentioned in the Bible, there is the European legend of the Black Madonna. I will not say too much of her here. But I will point out that in Luke’s genealogy for Jesus, he is descended from David through Nathan, a son born to Bathsheba and thus a brother to Solomon. Matthew says Jesus was descended through Solomon. In either case, Bathsheba was the link. Various interpretations link her origins to either southern Arabia or Ethiopia. In my books, she and many of her descendants were dark-skinned, among them Jesus and his brother Judas (nicknamed Thomas, the Twin). If Thomas fathered a daughter, there is a good possibility her complexion would be black.
And just a small note here about Thomas. While ancient writings attributed to him have surfaced in Egypt, legends also say Thomas founded seven churches in southern India starting in the year 52. If that is correct, then the Indian practice of Christianity had its foundation in one of the disciples who actually knew and worked with the man Jesus. The European church, on the other hand, took its teachings from Paul, who did not know Jesus and vehemently rejected the apostles who had known him in the flesh. But back to Thomas: after the crucifixion, did he go south to Egypt and then west to Europe, or did he travel east and south to India? Or both? Acts of the Women offers a new take on Thomas the Twin.