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.