Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591
A first century Roman tells the story of the wonder-worker Jesus, born to Mary, a temple virgin and an “Heiress of Michal” (King David’s wife). In ancient times, according to Simon, the High Priest, title to the land passed down from mother to youngest daughter by ultimogeniture. Thus David unified Israel by marrying the heiresses of the twelve tribes, and pharaohs of Egypt married their sisters. Therefore, Simon, in order to assure the claim to the throne of Prince Antipater, over his treacherous brothers, secretly marries Antipater to Mary. To protect the pregnant Mary from the dangerous intrigue of the unstable King Herod and his ambitious family, Simon announces her betrothal to Joseph, a kind and pious old man, instructing him to retain a small part of the bride price, without which the contract is not yet legal. Joseph assumes the role of protector, but after Herod murders his own son and seeks the child reportedly born in Bethlehem, Joseph pays the rest of the bride price to Simon and flees with Mary and the child Jesus into Egypt.
This novel creates a new legend of Jesus, his birth, ministry, and death, using much of Graves’s knowledge, intuition, and speculation about Hebrew and pagan mythology, especially the cult of the Great Goddess. Here the goddess is Jesus’ most important adversary. According to Clement of Alexandria, quoting from The Gospel according to the Egyptians (on the flyleaf), the Savior said, “I have come to destroy the works of the Female.”
The novel has three sections, each containing unorthodox reinterpretations of the biblical story. The second section, for example, includes a ritual marriage to the second Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, though Jesus refuses to consummate the marriage. It also involves his strange relationship to Mary the Hairdresser, Queen of the Harlots. She is High Priestess of the love goddess, but Jesus exorcises her of the seven deadly sins.
The third section concerns the events leading to Jesus’ death. Because he has refused his wife’s right, under Jewish law, to a child, maintaining the celibacy he adopted among the Essenes, he feels obligated, in response to her plea, to bring her brother Lazarus back from the dead. This occult power demanded that a life be forfeited for the life regained. Unwilling to cause another’s death, he accepts the forfeit of his own life. He decides to adopt the role of the Suffering Servant, prophesied by Isaiah, who takes upon himself the sins of the people. Such a person must be struck down by one close to him. Judas Iscariot is the unlucky disciple chosen for that role. Judas betrays him to the Romans, however, thinking that it will prevent Jesus from thus arranging his own death. Surely they would not execute him, since Jesus had no revolutionary political aspirations and spoke eloquently of a spiritual kingdom, not a secular one. Judas does not anticipate the terrible miscarriage of justice that occurs when Jesus refuses to defend himself before Pilate. In despair, Judas hangs himself in an attempt to ransom the life of Jesus.
Jesus is mourned at the cross by the three Marys, the implied representatives of the Triple Goddess who loved him: Mary the mother, Mary the bride, and Mary the Hairdresser, who is the layer-out (in death) of the sacred hero. Mary the Hairdresser says to Shelom the midwife, “His fault was this: that he tried to force the hour of doom by declaring war upon the Female. But the Female abides and cannot be hastened.”
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