The Book of Longings: A Novel (49 page)

“Ana,” she said. “Do you remember when you buried your scrolls in the cave to prevent your parents from burning them?”

I looked at her with curiosity. “I remember.”

“Well, you must do so again. I want you to make a copy of each of your codices and bury them on the hillside near the cliffs.” Her left hand possessed an occasional tremor and she’d become increasingly unsteady on her feet, but her mind, her glorious mind, had always been sound.

I frowned. “But why, Aunt? My work is safe here. No one is coming to burn it.”

Her voice sharpened. “Listen to me, Ana. You’ve dared much with your words. So much that a time will come when men will try to silence them. The hillside will keep your work safe.”

I simply stared at her, trying to make sense of her pronouncement. My face must have been ridden with doubt.

“You’re not listening,” she said. “Think what you’ve written!”

I scrolled through them in my head: stories of the matriarchs; the rape and maiming of Tabitha; the terrors men inflicted on women; the cruelties of Antipas; the braveries of Phasaelis; my marriage to Jesus; the death of Susanna; the exile of Yaltha; the enslavement of Diodora; the power of Sophia; the story of Isis;
Thunder: Perfect Mind
; and a plethora of other ideas about women that turned traditionally held beliefs upside down. And these were only a portion.

“I don’t understand—” I broke off, because I did understand. I just didn’t want to.

“Copies of your writings are gradually being dispersed,” she said. “They shed a beautiful light, but they will unsettle people and threaten their certainties. There’ll come a time—mark down my words, I foresee it—when men will try to destroy what you’ve written.”

I’d always been the one who had moments of prescience, not Yaltha. It seemed unlikely she’d divined a glimpse of the future and more likely she spoke from wisdom and prudence.

She smiled, but there was a firm, urgent quality about her. “Bury your writings, so one day they can be found again.”

“I promise, Aunt. I’ll make certain that day comes.”

•   •   •

sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.” I chant the last line of the prayer in my bowl, and together, Diodora, Tabitha, and I lower the jars onto their sides and place the codices inside, fifteen in each one.

Reaching into my pouch, I remove the mummy portrait I commissioned all those years ago as a gift for Jesus, meant to preserve my memory. The three of us stare at it a moment—my face painted on a piece of limewood board. I carried it all the way to Galilee to give him, but I was too late. I will always regret that lateness.

I fold the last remnant of Jesus’s cloak around the portrait and slip it into the jar, thinking with wonder how his memory is being preserved three decades after his death. The past few years, Lavi has brought bits of news to me from Alexandria about Jesus’s followers, who didn’t disappear when Jesus died, but grew in number. Lavi says small groups of them have even sprung up here in Egypt, meeting in homes, telling stories about Jesus, and imparting his parables and sayings. How I would like to hear the stories they tell.

“They speak of Jesus as having had no wife,” Lavi told me. That was a conundrum I puzzled over for months. Was it because I was absent when he traveled about Galilee during his ministry? Was it because women were so often invisible? Did they believe making him celibate rendered him more spiritual? I found no answers, only the sting of being erased.

We seal the lids with beeswax, and with a grand effort, lower the jars into the earth. On our knees, we rake the pebbly soil into the holes with our hands, filling them.
The codices are buried, Aunt. I’ve kept my promise.

We stand, brushing away the dust, catching our breath. And it comes to me that the echoes of my own life will likely die away in that way thunder does. But this life, what a shining thing—it is enough.

The sun slips from the sky and the dark gold light rises up. I gaze into the far distance and sing, “I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus of Nazareth. I am a

Author’s Note

It was an October morning in 2014 when the idea struck me to write a novel about the fictional wife of Jesus. Fifteen years earlier, I’d thought of writing such a novel, but it hadn’t seemed the right time, and honestly, I couldn’t muster quite enough audacity then to take it on. But that day in October, a decade and a half later, the idea resurfaced with a great deal of insistence. I made a weak effort to talk myself out of it. Centuries of tradition insisted Jesus was
married, and that position had long been codified into Christian belief and embedded in the collective mind. Why tamper with that? But it was really too late to dissuade myself. My imagination had been captured. I’d already begun to picture her. Within minutes she had a name—Ana.

I have a habit of propping signs on my desk. This one remained there throughout the four and a half years I researched and wrote the novel:

Everything is the proper stuff of fiction.


The aim of the novelist is not only to hold up a mirror to the world, but to imagine what’s possible.
The Book of Longings
reimagines the story
that Jesus was a single, celibate bachelor and imagines the possibility that at some point he had a wife. Of course, Christian New Testament Scripture does not say he was married, but neither does it say he was single. The Bible is silent on the matter. “If Jesus had a wife, it would be recorded in the Bible,” someone explained to me. But would it? The invisibility and silencing of women were real things. Compared to men in Jewish and Christian Scriptures, women rarely have speaking parts, and they are not mentioned nearly as often. If they are referenced, they’re often unnamed.

It could also be argued that in the first-century Jewish world of Galilee, marriage was so utterly normative, it more or less went without saying. Marriage was a man’s civic, family, and sacred duty. Typically undertaken at twenty (though sometimes up to age thirty), marriage was how he became an adult male and established himself within his community. His family expected him to marry and would have been shocked, perhaps even shamed, if he didn’t. His religion dictated that he “not abstain from having a wife.” Of course, it’s possible Jesus defied these imperatives. There is evidence that ascetic ideals were beginning to encroach into first-century Judaism. And, too, he could be something of a nonconformist at times. But I saw more reason to think that at the age of twenty, a decade before his ministry began, Jesus did not reject the religious and cultural ethic of his time and place.

Claims that Jesus was
married first began in the second century. They arose as Christianity absorbed ideas of asceticism and Greek dualism, which devalued the body and the physicality of the world in favor of the spirit. Closely identified with the body, women were also devalued, silenced, and marginalized, losing roles of leadership they’d possessed within first-century Christianity. Celibacy became a path to holiness. Virginity became one of Christianity’s higher virtues. Certain that the end-time would come soon, believers in the second century hotly debated if Christians should marry. Considering the accretion of
such views into the religion, it struck me as not particularly acceptable for Jesus to have been married.

Perceptions like these allowed me to move outside of traditional ecclesiastical boxes and begin to imagine the character of a married Jesus.

Of course, I don’t know whether Jesus was married or not. There are reasons, just as compelling, to support the belief he remained single. Unless some genuine ancient manuscript is discovered buried in a jar somewhere and it reveals that Jesus had a wife, we simply cannot know. Even then the matter would likely be irresolvable.

Yet from that first moment of inspiration to write this story, I felt the importance of
a married Jesus. Doing so provokes a fascinating question: How would the Western world be different if Jesus had married and his wife had been included in his story? There are only speculative answers, but it seems plausible that Christianity and the Western world would have had a somewhat different religious and cultural inheritance. Perhaps women would have found more egalitarianism. Perhaps the relationship between sexuality and sacredness would have been less fractured. Celibacy among the priesthood might not exist. I wondered what, if any, effect imagining the possibility of a married Jesus could have on these traditions. How does imagining new possibilities affect realities in the present?

•   •   •

aware that Jesus is a figure to whom millions of people are devoted and that his impact on the history of Western civilization is incomparable, affecting non-Christians and Christians both. Given that, it may be useful to comment on how I went about writing his character.

It was clear to me from the beginning that I would portray Jesus as fully human. I wanted the story to be about Jesus the man and not God the Son, who he would become. Early Christianity debated whether
Jesus was human or divine, a matter it settled in the fourth century at the Council of Nicaea and again at the Council of Chalcedon in the fifth century, when doctrines were adopted stating Jesus was fully human
fully divine. Nevertheless, his humanity diminished as he became more and more glorified. Writing from a novelist’s perspective and not a religious one, I was drawn to his humanity.

There’s no record of Jesus from the age of twelve until the age of thirty. His presence in the novel coincides in part with this unrecorded time period, with two notable exceptions: his baptism and his death. I invented the actions and words of Jesus during the unknown years the only way I could, through conjecture and reasonable extrapolation.

My portrayal of Jesus comes from my own interpretation of who he was based on my research of the historical Jesus and first-century Palestine, on scriptural accounts of his life and teachings, and on other commentaries about him. It was something of a wonder to discover that the human Jesus has so many different faces and that people, even historical Jesus scholars, tend to view him through the lens of their own needs and proclivities. For some he’s a political activist. For others, a miracle worker. He’s viewed as rabbi, social prophet, religious reformer, wisdom teacher, nonviolent revolutionary, philosopher, feminist, apocalyptic preacher, and on and on.

How would I fashion Jesus’s character? I envisioned him in his twenties as a thoroughly Jewish man living under Roman occupation, and as a husband working to support his family, but harboring an evolving pull inside to leave and begin a public ministry. I depicted him as a mamzer; that is, one who suffers some degree of ostracism—in Jesus’s case, because of his questioned paternity. I also visualized Jesus as an emerging social prophet and a rabbi whose dominant message was love and compassion and the coming of God’s kingdom, which initially he viewed as an eschatological event establishing God’s rule on earth, and ultimately as a state of being within the hearts and minds of people. I saw him as a
nonviolent political resister who takes on the role of Messiah, the promised Jewish deliverer. And central to the character I’ve drawn is Jesus’s empathy for the excluded, the poor, and outcasts of all kinds, as well as his uncommon intimacy with his God.

It feels important to point out that the character of Jesus in these pages provides a mere glimpse of the complexity and fullness of who he was, and that glimpse is based on my interpretation of him, which is woven into a fictional narrative.

•   •   •

but I’ve tried through extensive research to be true to its historical, cultural, political, and religious backdrop. There are instances, though, in which I veer from the record or from accepted tradition for narrative purposes. The more noteworthy incidences follow.

Herod Antipas moved the capital of Galilee from Sepphoris to Tiberias somewhere around 18 to 20 CE. In the novel, this move didn’t take place until 23 CE. Sepphoris, a wealthy city of approximately thirty thousand, was a mere four miles from Nazareth, prompting many scholars to speculate that Jesus was exposed to a sophisticated, Hellenized, multilingual world. Scholars also conjecture that Jesus and his father, Joseph, both of whom were builders, may have found contract work in Sepphoris as Herod Antipas rebuilt the city during Jesus’s adolescent years. It’s unlikely, though, that he would have found work on the Roman theater, as portrayed in the novel. According to a number of archaeologists, the theater was constructed close to the end of the first century, decades after Jesus’s death. The mosaic of Ana’s face in Antipas’s palace was inspired by an actual mosaic found on the floor of an excavated mansion in Sepphoris. Known as Mona Lisa of the Galilee, it is an exquisite depiction of a woman’s face that dates to the third century.

Phasaelis, the first wife of Herod Antipas, was a Nabataean princess who covertly escaped back to her father in the Arabian kingdom of
Nabataea when she learned that Antipas planned to take Herodias as his wife. The exact year she fled is debated, but I’ve almost certainly predated it by several years.

Christian Scripture states that Jesus had four named brothers and multiple unnamed sisters; I could only make room in the story for two brothers and one sister. My representation of James is likely harsher than he deserves, though in New Testament Scripture it does appear there was some conflict between Jesus and his brothers during Jesus’s ministry. James later became a follower of Jesus after his brother’s death and the leader of the Jerusalem church.

In the Scriptures, Jesus appears at the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptist, then immediately goes off into the wilderness, after which he begins his ministry. I’ve imagined, however, that after his baptism and retreat into the wilderness, Jesus spent some months as one of John’s followers. While there’s no mention of this in Scripture, there are conjectures by some scholars that Jesus was likely one of John’s followers and was deeply influenced by him, a premise I adopted.

Mary of Bethany is the woman named in the New Testament Scripture as anointing Jesus’s feet with an expensive ointment shortly before his death, an event that elicited criticism from Judas. I took the liberty of having Ana’s friend Tabitha perform this act of anointing instead.

In the novel, Ana rushes to Jesus on the street when he falls beneath the weight of the crossbeam. This deviates from a long-held nonscriptural tradition that a woman named Veronica went to him and wiped his face when he fell.

The Gospels in the New Testament describe Jesus as arriving in Bethany and Jerusalem in Judea the week before his death. However, in order to accommodate the timeline of the story, I had them arrive a number of weeks before the crucifixion.

I’ve attempted to adhere to the biblical stories of Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, and burial, though not all of the occurrences in these stories
could be incorporated. The inclusion or absence of events depends on whether or not they are witnessed or discovered by Ana, the narrator. In the novel, Ana and a group of women walk with Jesus to his execution, remain there as he’s crucified, and then prepare him for burial. The Gospels give somewhat differing accounts of his death, but they all record the presence of a group of women at his crucifixion. Jesus’s mother and Mary Magdalene are listed among them. Salome, Jesus’s sister, and Mary of Bethany are not mentioned, but I inserted them in place of two other women who were. The scene in the novel in which the women walk with Jesus to his crucifixion is my invention.

The Therapeutae was not a figment of my imagination, but a real monastic-like community, near Lake Mareotis in Egypt, where Jewish philosophers devoted themselves to prayer and study and a sophisticated allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Thriving during the time period in the novel, the group is represented in these pages with a significant amount of factual detail. The forty-ninth-day vigils with their delirious all-night singing and dancing did indeed take place, the holy rooms in their small stone houses existed, as did female members and a devotion to Sophia, the feminine spirit of God. However, the Therapeutae’s practice of asceticism and solitude was far more prevalent and intense than I describe. In the story, I refer to their fasting and solitude, but I essentially reimagine the group as more interactive and body-friendly.

The Thunder: Perfect Mind
is an actual document written by an unknown author believed to be female and dated within the novel’s time frame. Its nine pages of papyrus were among the famous Nag Hammadi texts discovered in 1945 in a jar buried in the hills above the Nile in Egypt. In the novel,
Thunder: Perfect Mind
is authored by Ana, who composes it as a hymn to Sophia. The passages of it that are included in the novel are from the real poem. I’ve read and reread this poem for two decades, awed by its provocative, ambiguous, commanding, gender-bending voice. Imagining Ana creating it as her great opus simply made me happy.

•   •   •


dwells heavily on the figure of Jesus for obvious reasons, but the story in
The Book of Longings
belongs to Ana. She wandered into my imagination and I couldn’t ignore her.

I saw Ana not only as the wife of Jesus, but as a woman with her own quest—that of following her longings in pursuit of the largeness inside herself. I saw her, too, as a woman able to become not only Jesus’s wife, but his partner.

The day Ana appeared, I knew one thing about her besides her name. I knew that what she wanted most was a voice. If Jesus actually did have a wife, and history unfolded exactly the way it has, then she would be the most silenced woman in history and the woman most in need of a voice. I’ve tried to give her one.

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