[Two Women of Galilee (MIRA Books, 2006) by Mary Rourke will be available
in bookstores on Feb. 28. Rourke covered VOTF in 2002 for the Los Angeles Times
and is the author of Amazing Grace in America. Two Women of Galilee is her
In the place along the Mediterranean that stretched from Idumea and Judea
in the south to Syria in the north and west across the Dead Sea and the Sea
of Galilee, the death of Herod the Great around 4 B.C. set off a dispute among
his three sons for the kingdom. Augustus Caesar, emperor of the Roman Empire,
divided the land among them, giving none a royal title. One son received half
the territory comprising Judea, Idumeia and Samaria; Judea included both Bethlehem
and Jerusalem. Another son received Galilee and Perea, which included Nazareth,
Cana, and Magdala. The third son was given the last patch, just across the
Sea of Galilee. Into this mix, comes the light-handed but scholarly fiction
of Mary Rourke in her story of Two Women of Galilee. It is set mostly in Sepphoris
and Tiberias in Galilee while under Herod Antipas; he was the second of the
heirs, the “fox” of Luke’s gospel, and husband of Herodias
who asked her husband for the head of John the Baptist and, through her daughter
Salome, got it.
The two women of the book’s title are Joanna, wife of Chuza, Head Steward
for Herod Antipas, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. The women were cousins but
had been separated decades earlier by the clash of cultures that divided Roman
Jews from religious Jews. The growing public ministry of Jesus and Joanna’s
weakening consumptive condition brought the two women together in Rourke’s
story that begins just before Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem for Passover and
concludes after His death. In the interim, Rourke delivers a clear view of
the hazardous life within what might have seemed an impregnable world of power
and riches. For all players in the house of Herod Antipas, there was plenty
of intrigue, mayhem, and unspeakable cruelty to go around. The story is told
in Joanna’s voice – young and wise, frightened and courageous – but
above all, a convert to the man she called “my healer.” And heal
Joanna, Jesus did.
We know little of Joanna, if Scripture is our only guide. We know from Luke
and elsewhere in Scripture that Joanna was wealthy enough to be a provider
for Jesus and His followers; that she was among the women who accompanied “the
Magdalene” Mary, when the women went to the tomb where Jesus was buried
and found it empty; and that more than other small “players” around
the time of Jesus’ ministry and death, Joanna earned very little text.
The latter is often recognized as a function of the scandal Joanna was thought
to represent – did she leave her husband to follow Jesus and was therefore “disappeared”?
Was Chuza already dead when she began to sojourn with Jesus and His disciples?
Rourke’s story moves in one direction on this question but, in the end,
while it makes for fine reading, it is hardly the point. What Rourke gives
readers in this book is an informed understanding of that time and its day-to-day
realities for one woman believer of considerable means, but there’s something
Just as the Gospels wrap metaphor and memory around a message, Rourke continues
the “good news” in the same tradition. We see again that prophets
are not popular. It was no small risk in Herod’s world even to ask a
question about this one man whose healings seemed to threaten so many in power,
whose speeches advanced such notions as one among equals, and whose challenge
often included a retreat from hard-earned gains. We get a little closer to
the measure of what it took to believe in Jesus and we are driven to ask what
our own belief demands two-thousand years later.
As our Church faces up to and fumbles through the current crisis, it is hard
for many faithful Catholics to establish passage that feels both safe and right.
(Consider the fate of many a contemporary theologian.) Rourke’s book
might suggest that some things haven’t changed much for followers of
Jesus – being called today is pretty much the same challenge it was in
the time of Herod. Jesus was always difficult; even his family had their ups
and downs with him.
Readers may find it impossible to read the story of Two Women of Galilee without
becoming, for a while, one of them. But if you can’t manage quite such
a leap of imagination, try choosing any one of the other characters and ask,
What would I do? Not a bad exercise for Lent and excellent “gos-pel” reading.