Feminist Hermeneutical Imagination in The Book of Longings (@theTable: “FSR Summer Book Club”)
By Christy Cobb.
In the past year, the fragment called the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” has received a resurgence of attention in popular media, after the journalist Ariel Saber published the book Veritas which outlines the discovery of the papyrus as well as the complicated path that ultimately revealed this fragment as a forgery. Yet Veritas is not the only best-selling book that was inspired by the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. It was also this fragment of papyrus that inspired Sue Monk Kidd to write her recently published novel, The Book of Longings, which is a fictionalized but historically grounded story of Ana, a woman who lived in the first-century and who married Jesus. Set in 16-17 CE in the wealthy Sepphoris, a town in the region of Galilee, the novel opens with this quote:
“I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. I called him Beloved and he, laughing, called me Little Thunder.”
The nickname “Little Thunder” is from the poetic text of The Thunder: Perfect Mind, a Coptic text discovered at Nag Hammadi. It is an insightful portrayal of Ana’s character; she is full of life and feisty passion, even as her family and societal pressure try to contain that thunder. Ana is educated, literate in both Hebrew and Greek. She received her training from her reluctant father, who was the head scribe and advisor for Herod Antipas but who had no son to teach. As Ana reads and studies the stories from the Hebrew scriptures, she longs to know more about the women in these texts. Her longing drives her to write. Ana writes the stories of biblical women on parchments and scrolls. She becomes a “chronicler of lost stories” (5). She writes the untold stories of women such as Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah; in doing so, finds refuge in her writing.
This is all before she meets Jesus, who she eventually marries after the man she was engaged to (at her parents’ bidding) dies. As a young unmarried widow, her prospects for marriage seem slim, yet Jesus asks for her hand in marriage. Ana’s longing to write does not dissipate after she becomes the wife of Jesus. For a time, she does not write but after an especially traumatic event, Yaltha, Ana’s aunt, breaks a pot and brings her the shards to use as paper (184). Although other members of their family disapprove, Jesus affirms his wife’s longing to write, even traveling to bring her “stone potsherds” upon which to continue her writing (193).
This is not a book about Jesus, however. Instead, Kidd has effectively de-centered Jesus and moves the focus of this gospel-story to the women.1 Ana, Jesus’ wife, is the main character, but other women play significant roles, too, such as Mary, Jesus’ mother, Ana’s best friend Tabitha, and even Mary and Martha. For instance, in the Book of Longings, Jesus’ well-known saying “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:38 and Luke 6:29) is first placed in the mouth of Mary who tells her son not to react when other children teased him (151). In this way, Kidd expands upon the influence that women had upon Jesus’ life and teaching.
But Ana’s aunt, Yaltha, is perhaps the most interesting character in the female tapestry Kidd has woven. An educated single woman, she moves to Sepphoris from Alexandria to live with Ana’s family. Yaltha even tells her niece stories about “Jewish women who led synagogues” (It seems Kidd has read Brooten).2 It is Yaltha who gifts Ana with an incantation bowl and teaches her how to use it. The women in Kidd’s novel are multifaceted and complex characters. Ana, Tabitha, and Yaltha each have their own longings born out of their battles with trauma, violence, and religion. In the end, they find peace in the community of the Therapeutae.
As Kidd notes in an interview, Ana is on a type of feminist quest for her own voice and for the voices of the lost stories of the women in her religious texts. Before writing this book, Kidd took 14 months to do research, reading a number of academic books and traveling to museums where she examined material culture such as writing and cooking tools, which she incorporated into her book. Details such as these drop the reader into the world of first-century Judaism, the historical context for the gospels. Yet the novel pushes the androcentric nature of this historical and social context to the periphery in order to center the lives and experiences of women. In this way, the Book of Longings is a novelistic example of feminist biblical interpretation and imagination as described by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in Wisdom Ways: “A hermeneutics of imagination retells biblical stories, re-shapes religious vision, and celebrates those who have brought about change.”3 In my view, Kidd’s novel exemplifies feminist hermeneutics through this imaginative retelling of the stories of women around Jesus.
Kidd braids together strands from the canonical gospels, apocryphal texts, and material culture in her creation of Ana’s story. This intertextual weaving creates a fictional story that feels authentic, even as it plays with the intersections of canonical and apocryphal literature. To me, the strongest aspect of The Book of Longings is the way it remains centered on women, rather historical or fictional, who were active within the Jesus story, which is so often male-centered. In this way, it overlaps with the recently published academic book by James McGrath, What Jesus Learned from Women.
Even though the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragment provided the inspiration for Kidd’s novel, The Book of Longings is not a book about the controversial idea that Jesus could have had a wife. It’s not really even a book about Jesus. Instead, Kidd’s novel is about the longings of Jewish women living in the first century—biblical women brought to life through feminist hermeneutical imagination.
Dr. Christy Cobb is Assistant Professor of Religion at Wingate University. A voracious reader of fiction, she regularly assigns novels to her students in the area of biblical studies as well as gender and sexuality in religion. Christy is the author of Slavery, Gender, Truth, and Power in Luke-Acts and Other Ancient Narratives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and is currently co-editing a book entitled Sex, Violence, and Early Christian Texts which is forthcoming from Lexington Books.
Next: Yasmine Singh, Intersectionality in Majumdar’s A Burning: Class, Gender, and Religion
- De-centering male figures is a feminist project within biblical studies. See Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Paul and the Politics of Interpretation,” in Paul and Politics, ed. Richard A. Horsely (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000), 40–57. Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre and Laura S. Nasrallah, “Beyond the Heroic Paul: Toward a Feminist and Decolonizing Approach to the Letters of Paul,” in The Colonized Apostle: Paul Through Postcolonial Eyes, ed. Christopher Stanley, Paul in Critical Contexts (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 162–74.
- Bernadette Brooten, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue: Inscriptional Evidence and Background Issues (Chicago, 1982). Also, see Parks’ article for the ways this important book has been continuously ignored in biblical scholarship: Sara Parks, “”The Brooten Phenomenon”: Moving Women from the Margins in Second-Temple and New Testament Scholarship,” Bible and Critical Theory 15, no. 1 (2019).
- Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001) 259.