Pictures of Jesus
Two new books attempt to bring Jesus’ world to life, with vastly different results.
By John D. Spalding
This review originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
Untold millions know the story of Holy Week—from Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his resurrection on Easter. And yet, since the dawn of Christianity, people have disagreed about the events of Jesus' last days and what they mean. Even the gospels vary in details and emphases. And as two new books demonstrate, how believers understand that story matters greatly to their faith.
In "The Last Week," biblical scholars Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan credit Mel Gibson for reinforcing a "much too narrow understanding of the 'passion' of Jesus." Embraced as a powerful evangelical tool by Christians the world over, "The Passion of the Christ" focused on Jesus' last 12 hours—his arrest, torture and execution—reducing the meaning of his life to his suffering (Latin, passio). Missing from the film, the authors insist, was Jesus' true "passion"—the Kingdom of God, for which he gave his life.
Based on their reading of Mark, the earliest gospel, Borg and Crossan attempt to set the record straight. The first Palm Sunday, they tell us, began not with one procession, but two. From the west, Roman soldiers thundered into the city on horseback and foot, bearing weapons and imperial banners. It was a grand military display, proclaiming the sovereignty of Caesar, the Son of God—as emperors were known.
Meanwhile, Jesus staged an "anti-triumphal" procession across town. From the Mount of Olives, he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, hailed as a king in what Borg and Crossan describe as "a deliberate lampoon of the conquering emperor." Thus, Jesus began a weeklong series of confrontations with the Roman domination system and its high-priestly Jewish collaborators, and Jesus knew, as Mark tells us, that this would lead to his death.
Borg and Crossan brilliantly chronicle the mounting tension that forced everyone in Jesus' path, so to speak, to pledge allegiance—either to Rome's way of power and oppression or to his way of love and equality. Jesus' call to faith demanded both personal and political transformations, and—then, as now—Jesus' followers often failed to grasp the cost of discipleship. After his arrest, the apostles scattered, failing "tragically but not irrevocably (except for Judas) to accept their destiny alongside Jesus." Thus, write Borg and Crossan, one of Mark's central themes: "His story of failed discipleship is his warning gift to all who ever hear or read this narrative."
Jesus' message alienated the rich, who were discouraged, no doubt, by metaphors involving camels and needle eyes. Yet Luke mentions at least one wealthy follower, Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod Antipas' chief steward. How did a woman of means come to "take up the cross"?
In her deeply pious first novel, "Two Women of Galilee," Los Angeles Times staff writer Mary Rourke imagines Joanna's life. Here is a woman whose family collaborates with the Romans and makes its fortune in trade. She lives in Sepphoris, "the jewel of Galilee," four miles and a world away from Nazareth. Joanna's concerns rarely go beyond her beloved roses, until her life is threatened by consumption.
She goes to Nazareth to seek Jesus, a healer she's heard much about. His mother, Mary, happens to be Joanna's cousin, whom she faintly recalls as a child; Mary's family disowned Joanna's after they sided with the Romans. On her first encounter with Jesus, Joanna retreats, fearing he might reject her or make her condition worse. Later she realizes Jesus "would have healed me that very day, I am certain. If only I had trusted him." As her faith builds, Joanna returns to Jesus and is indeed healed, drawing close to Mary (the other "woman of Galilee").
The supernatural suffuses Rourke's book but fails to explain with any complexity why Joanna turns to faith. Still a nonbeliever, for example, Joanna sneaks off to the temple in Jerusalem out of curiosity. Immediately, she feels "more at peace than I had been in some time." Then God calls out her name in a voice "huge and loud enough to shake the temple walls…." She asks Mary to interpret. "Perhaps the Holy One has plans for you," counsels her cousin.
Later in the novel, Joanna visits a pottery store advertising “miracle pitchers.” As Joanna clutches a jug, the proprietor explains that it was “just like” the one Jesus used to turn water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Whereas other writers might pen such a scene to comment on early attempts to commodify what some today call “Jesus junk,” Rourke seems to want to convey the thrill of beholding a sacred object: Joanna buys the pitcher.
Rourke succeeds most when she notes how worldly forces work in Joanna's faith. After Antipas has her husband killed, Joanna is shunned by the Jews and the Romans. "How well I now fit among the outcasts and outsiders who followed Jesus," she recalls. Still, this happens late in the story, long after Joanna has committed herself to Jesus, a tall, dark-eyed figure who, except for a few brief appearances and lines such as "All that I do comes from the Almighty One, whose works are true," never fully materializes in the novel.
For Rourke, the key to understanding Jesus' allure is his healing powers. In her book, they're also what got Jesus killed. "There is only one man in Galilee who rivals the greatness of the gods," says Herod Antipas, after learning of Joanna's healing. "And that man is me." Of course, the ancient world was full of wonder workers. To believe that Jesus received a state execution because he healed people might require the greatest faith of all.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was The Hand of Justice.
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