Maryam: An intelligent, imaginative look at Jesus' mother

By Wingate Packard

Special to The Seattle Times

Her name is said every day in prayer. She is the only woman whose name heads a chapter in the Quran. She is seen as a symbol of mediation between Christianity and Judaism and Islam. The year she gave birth is commemorated every time we mark a date.

Much theology is dedicated to explaining how the mother of Jesus ought to be understood, but little is known about who she was in the first century. Lesley Hazleton of Seattle has written "Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother" to discern that life. Hazleton begins by calling her Maryam, the name that the teenage Palestinian girl who bore the baby Jesus would have recognized as her own.

Look at the real Middle Eastern story, Hazleton urges. Maryam lived in Nazareth, had dark hair and dark skin, spoke Aramaic, the language of "all the peoples, tribes, and nations living under the far-flung rule of the eastern Roman Empire," and, according to the Roman Catholic Church, she was 13 when she gave birth to Jesus.

Those are the known "facts." Maryam left no writing and was not written about by her contemporaries. So what is a biographer to do? Hazleton's answer: "We have a wealth of knowledge about the societies, cultures, religions, and politics of the Middle East in the first centuries B.C. and A.D., all of it serving to open up our ideas of who Maryam was."

The anodyne, passive images of the official Mary are jarring when you read Hazleton's passages on the reality of her people: Roman imperial occupation, repression, torture and devastating taxation on peasants like Maryam and her clan. The author describes decades of local guerrilla resistance to King Herod, centered in Galilee. Maryam belonged to an oppressed, rebellious people, primed to rise up when Herod died in the year 4 B.C., the year of Jesus' birth.

Hazleton insists there is cause and effect, and connectedness between generations of ideas and people. Jesus didn't spring from nothing: The whole historical and personal context of his life gave rise to his teachings, and his mother must have had some influence. In brief fictional riffs, Hazleton imagines Maryam raised as a witness to Roman atrocity and as a healer. The author speculates that Maryam taught Jesus what she knew of healing, a natural way for such knowledge to be transmitted, at a time when faith healing already had a long tradition. Roman excesses would have produced a mother who nurtured his revolutionary teachings.

To discuss the possibility that Maryam became pregnant by rape, or more simply by Joseph, Hazleton recalls the stories of Greek gods impregnating humans with the aid of mortal men; the stories of Theseus, Hercules, Asculepius and Dionysus all describe conception when the hero's mother lay with a god and a human the same night. Accustomed to these myths, early Christians would have "expected" joint human and divine paternity for Jesus, as a way to rationalize their faith.

Many virgin goddesses of the ancient world were also fertility and healing goddesses. The notion of virginity suggested the "mystery of fertility." Hazleton sees this sense of Maryam's virginity as pervading the Mary worship that came about in the very temples where Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, had been worshipped for 2,500 years.

Hazleton posits a leadership role for Maryam in a women's spiritual community after Jesus' death, as she continued his teachings. The finding of the lost gnostic gospels about Jesus in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt show that for the first several hundred years after Jesus' life, many gospels were written, illustrating a variety of spiritual experiences in the revolutionary Jesus movement, writings that encouraged a "democratization of religion" and included prominent roles for women.

So how do we evaluate Hazleton's work? It is not quite biography but an intelligent, trenchant puzzling over the details of history and culture, as well as a reclamation project. Readers who protest that this approach is feminist and reactionary, too far-fetched and wild in its assumptions, might consider that both the establishment of the early Christian church and the destruction of nonconforming gospels were reactionary to popular spiritual movements of that time. Her fictional accounts run sometimes too seamlessly into historical facts, but Hazleton's historical grasp of the Middle East over 2,000 years and her willingness to imagine details of the life of a mortal woman-made-goddess make "Mary" a tremendous accomplishment.



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