PETER RHODES explores a fascinating new book.
IT is 30 years after the Crucifixion. In a sunny village in Roman-occupied southern France a woman is dying. In this quiet corner of the Roman Empire, no-one knows much about her. She says nothing about her former life in rebellious, far-off Judah.
She is Mariam, the younger sister of a charismatic Jewish preacher called Yeshûa or, as we know him, Jesus. As she recalls her life in Judah, she has wonderful memories of Yeshûa’s ministry and terrible nightmares of his betrayal, torture and death.
This is the starting point in The Testament of Mariam, a fascinating new book by historian and author Ann Swinfen. As Christmas approaches, with all its folksy, joyful images, the book is a timely reminder of the harsh realities, and the daily humiliations, of the Roman occupation of First Century Israel. You can almost smell the dust and blood.
Ann grew up in Wolverhampton and attended the town’s High School for Girls. She edited the school magazine and won a state scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford. Now living near Dundee, she writes with passion and the book, her fourth, is shot through with brilliant description and scholarship. The opening scene, the execution of one of Jesus’ brothers, Ya‘aqôb, by Roman guards is painfully vivid. After the Resurrection, Ann Swinfen describes not only the sights but the smell. The empty tomb reeks of cinnamon and honey.
There are wonderful moments when you recognise the narrative leading into a well-known Bible story. But this is not some lightweight fantasy. Ann Swinfen knows her subject. A classics scholar, she has read every fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Although St Matthew’s gospel names Jesus’ brothers as James, Joses, Simon, and Judas, his sisters are not identified. Mariam is Swinfen’s creation, the central character in a story which tells of Jesus’ ministry from the point of view of a sister who becomes a disciple.
“From the outset, several of Jesus’ followers were women,” says the author. “This was an extraordinary thing in a patriarchal society.”
What’s more, she says, the women were stronger characters. “When Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane, the men all ran away, but the women followed him to the crucifixion. In the very early church, women were equal with men, and even acted as leaders, but church fathers soon put a stop to that.”
What inspired this book?
“I realised that whoever or whatever Jesus was, he must have been a very remarkable man. I wondered what it would have been like to be the sister of such a man, to have grown up with him in a northern peasant village, far away from the seat of power, and under Roman occupation.”
She believes Jesus spent time with the Essenes, a fiercely religious Jewish sect devoted to poverty and abstinence.
Says Ann: “The Essenes understood mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and the cure of mental illness by hypnotism. This links interestingly with many of Jesus’ actions as a famous healer.”
Historians may challenge Ann Swinfen’s book and some Christians may condemn it.
She says: “It is a novel, not a history. It is not even intended to be a religious book. It is simply a story of remarkable people.”
Express and Star, 10 December 2009