During our busy "boomer" generation, biblical scholarship has increased by quantum leaps, thanks to major discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls and scientific breakthroughs like carbon dating and DNA analysis. And while we may not know much more than we ever did about the inner lives of a vast sea of human beings who collectively built this great scriptural narrative of Judaeo-Christian faith, there is much more raw data around today for scholars to argue over and the rest of us to imagine with.
Mary Rourke, former fashion-writer turned theology student (earning a second-career Divinity degree from Yale, no less!), was inspired by the kind of biblical details scholars barely have time for in our present information-clogged age. She did what most of us do when tiny details pique our curiosity --- she asked herself questions, and she imagined like crazy. But she also went a big step further and gave those imaginative musings feet.
The result is her engaging and poignant first novel, TWO WOMEN OF GALILEE, a wholly fictional but knowledge-based account of the all-but-accidental relationship between the widowed Mary, mother of Jesus, and her distant cousin Joanna --- Mary, well known at the beginning and end of Jesus' life but hardly considered in between, and Joanna, whose branch of the family had "gone over" to the Romans and become well off in middle management circles at mad Herod's court. An unlikely pairing, if you go only by the "givens" of the Gospel accounts.
At first glance, the novelist's pickings might seem as sparse as a field harvested right to the corners --- a practice frowned on by Hebrew tradition, as it left too little for widows and orphans to glean for survival. But Rourke daringly took up her concentrated theological education and stirred into it a contemporary woman's questions and passions, with a result that is sometimes tentative and a little awkward, but for the far greater part movingly thoughtful and perceptive.
She does not try to give Mary or Joanna any form of imposed Middle Eastern or historical "accent," either in thought or word, but cuts right to the meat of a story about a typical (though undocumented) encounter between Jesus and one of the untold numbers healed by his touch. For Joanna, her miraculous healing is no happily-ever-after tale, but is instead the starting point of a challenging spiritual and emotional pilgrimage that draws her from the pampered life of a Roman colonial socialite into the uncertain but fulfilling role of female disciple.
It's no surprise that a story involving the mother of Jesus and her female companions should end up at the foot of the cross, but Rourke's engaging glimpse into shadowy places barely mentioned by the Bible's male recorders makes for a credible and honestly fresh look at this pivotal period in early Christian history. TWO WOMEN OF GALILEE has been beautifully timed to accompany both seekers and those of long-held faith through the just-begun journey of Lent.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on March 1, 2006