Mary Wept Over The Feet of Jesus

Every so often a book comes along at just the right time, and this little work by Chester Brown is one of them, though, in this case, it's not for the reasons books are usually helpful. Let me say at the outset that while I admire this book, and found it intriguing, I do not agree with it's fundamental premise.

I saw this on a colleague's bookshelf and got myself a copy. It's a beautifully produced little thing; wonderfully laid out with a high quality binding and lovely paper it's one of those books which gives aesthetic pleasure just from handling it. The book itself is composed of a brief graphic novel and end notes, but that isn't really accurate. The graphic novel is actually a series of short renditions of various Biblical narratives, each self contained, but contributing to a greater narrative structure, which is Brown's particular interpretation of the genealogy of Jesus presented in Matthew's Gospel. The drawing is beautiful, and the small panels are well arranged in the 173 pages of this first section of the book. The second part of the book is the 100 page long end notes section, which contains yet another small graphic chapter (the Book of Job), and which is a treatise on the role of prostitution on the Bible. This part of the book is seemingly hand written by Brown, and its layout is aesthetically delightful. But its content matter? Well.... that's another story.

Brown's starting point is the fact that Matthew's record of Jesus' whakapapa in Mtt.1:1ff contains the names of 4 women, Rahab, Tamar, Bathsheba (who is in fact not named, other than as "the wife of Uriah") and Ruth. These are all, says Brown, women with an unusual sexual history, who each takes initiatives and makes decisions in sexual matters which are either unambiguously, or are tantamount to, prostitution. From this, and other textual "evidences", he extrapolates that Mary the mother of Jesus was a prostitute, and that Jesus' reputation for consorting with prostitutes arises not from a more general comfort in the company of sinners but from an approval of prostitution as an institution. He argues that attitudes to prostitution were a topic of debate in the first century church with a "Jesus faction" (my words, not his) approving and a "Paul faction" disapproving.

On the face of it, this would be just one more wacky theory dredging up from the outer reaches of Biblical criticism, were it not that Brown argues his case so cogently and so well. Well enough, anyway, for me to put considerable energy into following up on his sources and here is the first thing for which I am grateful to Chester Brown. He caused me to carefully reread  the opening chapters of Matthew, to purchase and read a book by John Dominic Crossan, to read again some sections of Eusebius, and to read some Talmudic commentaries on the book of Genesis, each of which was in itself an enriching, enjoyable and enlightening experience.

But although Brown argues well, though I do not agree with him on some crucial matters. For example, in a matter important, though not central, to Brown's case, Eusebius refers to an otherwise unknown variant of the parable of the talents deriving from a long lost Aramaic or Hebrew gospel which may or may not have been the precursor of the Gospel of Matthew (the jury of informed Biblical scholars is out on that one). This reference is picked up by John Dominic Crossan in The Power of Parable who uses it as an illustration of the way parables are constructed. Chester Brown quotes this material in such a way to imply that both Eusebius and Crossan agree with Brown's own idea of how that early parable was framed. Which they do not.

Brown asks a great question: exactly why are four women included in Jesus' geneaolgy, and why is it those four? But I can't follow him into the answer he gives. My research didn't stop with Eusebius and Crossan and the Talmud. I also looked at Brown's other works, at least in review, and it is here that I had the great Aha Moment for which I am most grateful. Chester Brown is certainly an unconventional sort of bloke. He's a Libertarian, and in his earlier works he has given an account of his adolescent addiction to Playboy magazine and then to a lengthy history of consorting with prostitutes. I guess those aren't too rare as character traits, but his openness about them certainly is. And more uniquely, he argues for the superiority of prostitution as an inter personal arrangement over all this messy business with falling in love, and building a multi-faceted, committed, mutually dependent relationship of equals with somebody. He identifies as a Christian and a social activist. Chester Brown, when he approaches the Bible and interprets it,  does what we all do: he brings all this complex personal stuff and reads there what he needs to read, forming a theory of the Bible's meaning which reflects his own pathology as much as it does the words of scripture. His view into reality extends as far and only as far as he is able to see. Which is not very far.

As is the case for all of us, of course. When we do our exegesis our own personal limits are usually invisible to ourselves, though not so to anybody else.  I am grateful that this example of us forming our theory of the world in our own image is so unambiguous and it came to me just when I needed it. My own take on the women in the first few verses of Matthew, incidentally, is that they are not there because they are all exemplars of a particular sexuality but because each knew how to love. They were all, further, outsiders; they each  show the diversity already present in the ancestry of Jesus, and the openness of God's grace. They challenge the ethnic and gender chertainties of first Century Palestine, and thus bear witness to the message of John the Baptist and, later, of Jesus: metanoiete, think again. In other words, whatever you have used to put your view of the world together is insufficient and will ultimately fail you; you will need to abandon it if you want to be present to the one who IS.


Chester Brown said…
Kelvin, thank you for the nice things you say about my book and my ability to argue. I was a little distressed to be called dishonest in your review. In my opinion, it’s somewhat rude to toss out such an accusation without strong evidence. It seems to me that it should be possible for one to disagree with the biblical interpretations of others without accusing those others of dishonesty.

Anyway, my full response can be found here:
Kelvin Wright said…
Thank you for your long and careful reply, Chester. I am sorry that I am not able to respond on your own site, so I'll do it here. I missed your further analysis of the Crossan passage in the notes, so apologise for the accusation of dshonesty and withdraw it. I have amended my post accordingly. Nevertheless I do not find your version of the parable convincing and think you have produced it without any weight of evidence to support you.

Yes, Bathsheba is the granddaughter of Ahithophel, who, as you remember was a key player in the revolt of Absolom. While it is hard to fathom Ahithophel's motives for joining the revolt from this vantage point in history, and while he well have been motivated by the treatment of his grand daughter, he is seen from the perspective of Israel's history as a renegade. I think my categorisation of Bathsheba - the wife of a Gentile and the grand daughter of a traitor and a rape victim (which carried the same implications of disgrace as adulteress, as the story of the second Tamar testifies) - as an outsider still stands.

You describe the behaviour of Tamar and Ruth as "sexual misbehaviour" but surely this is anachronistic, as they were both acting in the spirit, if not in the exact letter of contemporary law. The requirements of Levirate marriage meant that the next of kin of their deceased husbands were required to further the husband's name by providing him with an heir through the widow. In Tamar's case this was refused her by Onan and Judah, so she took matters into her own hand (so to speak). Ruth, under the direction of Naomi did likewise when her race precluded Boaz, or the other unnamed kinsman, doing the duty which would have provided for Naomi and Ruth.

As to why some people were left out of the genealogy, who knows? Any answer to that can only be speculative but probably has as much to do as the figuring of certain people in the popular imagination of First Century Israel as anything else.

There is, incidentally, no evidence to identify the Rahab of the genealogy with the Rahab of the Jericho story. The spelling of the names differs in Matthew as opposed to the rest of the New Testament, and the chronology would be difficult if it were the same person.

Chester Brown said…
Kelvin, I genuinely appreciate that you’ve withdrawn the accusation of dishonesty — thank you.

I’ll deal first with the matter of whether Bathsheba was a rape victim and whether this could have contributed to a perception of her as an outsider. I think there were genuine historical figures behind the David stories, and that the historical David probably did rape Bathsheba. In my opinion, the author of Second Samuel, not wanting to present David as a rapist, but not wanting to openly lie about the episode, deliberately gave an ambiguous account. Compare that account to the one in Second Samuel of Amnon’s rape of Tamar, where there’s no ambiguity. I’m not aware of any ancient sources that interpret the David and Bathsheba story as an account of a rape. (I’m sure, Kelvin, that you know the ancient sources better than I do, so please correct me on this if I’m wrong.) By the time that Matthew was writing, David had been elevated in status and was regarded as one of the great figures of Jewish history. It was even less likely in that era that readers of Second Samuel would have seen David as a rapist. The question isn’t, was the real Bathsheba a rape victim, but how did Matthew view her — as a raped outsider or as a willful temptress? I think he would have regarded her as the latter.

Nevertheless, I do admit that the matter is debatable. I imagine that you think Matthew would have, as a Christian, had the insight to interpret the story as an account of a violated woman, even if the men around him didn’t have that insight. Or are you saying that Bathsheba would have commonly been seen as a rape victim by MOST readers of Second Samuel of the first century? That seems REALLY unlikely to me.

Your point about Tamar and Ruth acting in the spirit of the law would only be relevant if Matthew was interested in justifying Mary’s prostitution. Tamar had sex-for-pay, Ruth had pre-marital sex. Matthew was saying that what they did, Mary did. He wasn’t trying to justify Mary's actions, just acknowledge them in a hidden manner.

Regarding the spelling of Rahab: yes, Matthew does spell the name differently — as Rachab — but there doesn’t seem to be any other figure in the Hebrew Bible who Matthew could have been referring to and, given the positive attention given to Rahab elsewhere in the New Testament, it’s evident that Matthew must be writing about her. All of the biblical scholars seem to be in agreement on this. I’m not aware of any who seriously argue otherwise, although, again, I’m sure you know the literature better than I do — I would be curious to hear about any alternate theories. Why, given that Matthew names only four female ancestors for Jesus, would he have named someone who was completely unknown?

I hope that readers will note your tacit admission that your theory does not explain Naamah's absence from the genealogy, even though she was a foreigner — an outsider. And I hope those readers remember that my theory DOES explain that absence.