AJC Bookshelf: What if Jesus had a wife?

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Two new books imagine Jesus was married.

What if Jesus had a wife?

It’s a provocative question. After all, chastity has been a guiding principle of the Christian faith since the beginning, starting with the virgin birth. Not to mention it’s one of the defining tenets of the Catholic priesthood.

But there are two new books coming out soon that imagine Jesus walking down the proverbial aisle.

First up is "The Book of Longings" (Penguin Random House, $28), a historical novel by Georgia native Sue Monk Kidd.

A master of literary women’s fiction, Kidd always strikes a chord with her strong, feisty female protagonists, and “The Book of Longings” is no different. At its center is Ana, daughter of the head scribe to Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee. Unlike other women of her era, Ana can read and write, and she has a burning desire to tell stories and make her voice heard.

Author Sue Monk Kidd. Contributed.
Author Sue Monk Kidd. Contributed.

The day she learns that her parents plan to marry her off to an unpleasant older man, Ana spies Jesus in the yarn stall at the neighborhood market and is immediately smitten. Like all good romances, their stars are crossed at first, and they have many challenges to overcome before they can unite. On one occasion, Jesus comes to Ana’s rescue, prompting an iconic teachable moment when he tells an angry crowd: “Let the one who is without sin cast the next stone.”

Their romance follows a traditional trajectory. They accidentally-on-purpose run into each other in public places. They chastely flirt. They give each other nicknames. She is “Little Thunder”; he is “Beloved.” Their wedding is a simple affair. Kidd wisely veers clear of wedding night details, writing simply, “I knew my husband, and he knew me.”

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Writing a fictional account about Jesus having a wife takes a lot of guts, and Kidd is uniquely qualified for the job. For one she’s got publishing cred to spare. Her book “The Secret Life of Bees,” a girl’s coming-of-age story set in South Carolina in the 1960s, spent 100-plus weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, sold more than 6 million copies and was turned into a major motion picture starring Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah and Jennifer Hudson. With that kind of clout, publishers are going to let her do pretty much whatever she wants.

But before that, Kidd got her start writing spiritual essays and meditations for Guideposts magazine, and she wrote nonfiction books about spirituality, including “The Dance of the Dissident Daughter,” about her journey from a conventionally religious person to someone who embraces a feminine spiritual theology. Writing about religion and spirituality is firmly in her wheelhouse.

Like all of Kidd’s books, there is a strong feminist thread running through “The Book of Longings.” It is significant that the stories Ana wants to tell are about the women who appear as footnotes in the Torah. “The invisibility and silencing of women were real things,” Kidd told the AP last fall when asked what prompted her to write the book. “In the scriptures, women rarely have speaking parts, and they aren’t mentioned nearly as often as men.”

That inspired Kidd to pose the question: How might history have been altered if Jesus had a wife?

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It will be interesting to see how “The Book of Longings” is received when it comes out April 21. For the record, it is written with reverence and strives for historical accuracy. And it is clear about its intentions as a work of fiction. Religious implications aside, it is an engaging story about a young woman defying the odds to make her voice heard, a story that remains relevant today.

When it comes to speculation about whether Jesus had a romantic life, the name Mary Magdalene often arises. Dan Brown's bestselling novel "The Da Vinci Code" was based on the premise that the two were married. Brown's book shares a lot in common with "Veritas" (Penguin Random House, $29.95), the nonfiction story about a hoax penned by journalist Ariel Sabar, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

“Veritas” by Ariel Sabar. Contributed by Penguin Random House
“Veritas” by Ariel Sabar. Contributed by Penguin Random House

In 2012, a Harvard Divinity School professor named Karen King claimed to have come into possession of an ancient piece of writing in which Jesus referred to Mary Magdalene as his wife. When King presented it at a conference in Rome, she was met with astonishment and skepticism by scholars who hotly debated its legitimacy. Much attention was paid to the authenticity of the papyri, which carbon dating proved was ancient, and the ink, which used a recipe that could have been reproduced in modern times.

But Sabar was interested in the object’s mysterious provenance. He set out to learn where it came from for a 2016 article in The Atlantic, which became the basis of his book that comes out Aug. 11. The quest takes him to Berlin and Florida and introduces a colorful cast of characters, including a German pornographer living on the Gulf Coast.

Author Ariel Sabar. Contributed.
Author Ariel Sabar. Contributed.

It’s interesting to note that King focused much of her scholarly career on non-canonical texts that cast Mary Magdalene as a disciple to Jesus, a concept disavowed by the Christian patriarchy, which marginalizes her role in history. Sabar suggests King’s feminist bent made her susceptible to falling for the hoax.

“The Book of Longings” and “Veritas” couldn’t be more different, but they share something in common. They both cast a light on women who may have figured prominently in Christianity’s origins but whose roles were diminished and whose voices were muted in the telling. Both books underscore what’s lost when one group — be it one gender, race or religion — gets to write the history for all.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.