Two Women of Galilee
Two Women of Galilee tells the story of Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion from the standpoint of a female observer, that of Joanna, one of the few women mentioned in the Gospels. Little is known about Joanna – she is only mentioned in scripture twice, and briefly – so most of this book definitely falls under the category of historical fiction, but it’s clear that Rourke did her research and what she presents isn’t outside of the realm of impossible. And she does present it in an interesting way.
Joanna was the wife of Chuza, Herod Antipas’s chief steward. She is Jewish, but her husband is not, and, in fact, Joanna comes from a Rome-friendly family of Hellenized Jews so she knows little about her ancestral customs or religion. Though from a privileged background, she has suffered from consumption since early adolescence. When she hears of a healer from Galilee who performs miracles, she is persuaded to try and seek him out. She plans to approach his mother, Mary, and when she does so, she finds that Mary isn’t a stranger; they are cousins. Joanna is drawn to Jesus for what he can do for her, but Mary draws her in a different way. Mary has a peace and strength about her even in moments of terrible anxiety. Joanna wants to know what it is that Mary has and how it relates to what Jesus preaches. But in becoming a follower of Jesus, however discreet, Joanna puts her husband’s position and her own safety into jeopardy. For Jesus has as many enemies as disciples, and perhaps more.
Rourke’s story centers around the two women, Joanna and Mary. Jesus makes few appearances. But, of course, the greater story is Jesus’ and this is what both women are reacting to – Jesus’ destiny. In the beginning of the story, Joanna is somewhat of a frivolous court wife. Her illness and resultant suffering give her perhaps more depth, but ultimately she lives through her husband. She has no children. As she becomes more and more involved with Mary and Jesus, she begins to wonder what gives their lives meaning and how she can incorporate it into her life. She has several very spiritual moments that she feels are attempting to guide her into a new life. So she begins to add prayer to her daily life and to learn more about her heritage.
Much of the story’s details rang true to me. Rourke’s depiction of everyday life at this time and how various opposing groups – Hebrews, Hellenized Jews, Romans, and other absorbed populations – interacted with each other seemed based on solid research. This is the era leading up the Great Jewish Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. That kind of violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum and Rourke addresses some of these tensions. Even though her details are fictional, Rourke’s speculation of how Mary’s life was affected by Jesus’ ministry and popularity interested me. The New Testament has so few details about Jesus’ mother that even fictional details help to round her out as a character.
One detail did seem somewhat off, however, and that has to do with Joanna’s attempts to practice her newly found faith. Joanna is a Jew and, while not brought up observant, she seems more ignorant of Judaism’s traditions than a woman only one generation away from observance and living in a Jewish state would be. Also, Jesus’ audience was solidly Jewish and he was very familiar with the scriptures and respected them. For this reason the earliest gentile converts to Christianity automatically assumed that they must convert to Judaism as well. But Joanna doesn’t do this. She doesn’t decide to keep kosher or begin monthly trips to the mikvah. She doesn’t go to the synagogue. She just starts to pray sometimes and occasionally fast when the situation really requires of it. In this she seems more like a modern religionist – picking and choosing what seems right to her.
Two Women of Galilee begins rather slowly but picks up the pace as it goes along and Passion Week nears. The ending is rather abrupt, leaving the reader with a very brief, summed up account of the last years of both Mary and Joanna. Still, as biblical narratives involving women are few and far between, I can recommend this to readers curious about this time period and how it would have felt to be a female disciple of Jesus.