The gnostic Gospel of Mary has long been the subject of controversy, even as to which of the several Marys who feature in Jesus’s life was its author. It is generally assumed to have been Mary Magdalene, not least because it depicts her regular adversary, St Peter, refusing to credit a woman’s testimony.
In Names of the Women, Jeet Thayil challenges Peter, along with 2,000 years of church tradition, by placing Mary Magdalene and 14 other women at the very heart of the gospel story. His intention to retell pivotal incidents from a female perspective is evident from the opening words ‘Mary, write,’ which are repeated in various forms throughout the book.
The women’s stories are related in short, discrete chapters and clear, almost clinical prose. Those of the Virgin Mary and the Magdalene herself are the most familiar, although approached from an unusual angle. The Virgin is depicted as a young girl, consecrated to the Temple before being won in a marriage lottery by Joseph. The Magdalene is not the conventional penitent prostitute (for which there is no biblical foundation) but, rather, a well-to-do woman whom Jesus cures of depression.
Some of the women, such as Herodias and Salome, outvying each other in barbarism, and Martha and Mary, fulfilling their proverbial roles, have long outgrown their biblical origins. Of particular interest are the women whose stories Thayil fleshes out from the merest hints in the gospel narratives: Aquila and Bilhah, two of the high priest’s servants, who witness Peter’s denial of Christ; and Junia, the widow who places her mite in the Temple treasury.
With Mary Magdalene restored to respectability, there’s a vacancy for the role of the fallen woman, which Thayil allots to Ariamma, a Canaanite brought to Galilee by her Jewish husband and reduced to prostitution when he falls ill. Her poverty, self-disgust and foreignness give added poignancy to one of Christ’s most resonant apophthegms, as he charges the crowd who are lynching her: ‘He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.’
The most original and thought-provoking of the stories are those of Jesus’s two half-sisters. Unlike their brothers, they remain anonymous in the gospels. Thayil not only names them — Assia and Lydia — but endows them with rich back-stories. Both are deeply hurt by Jesus’s renunciation of his birth family in favour of his chosen family, the disciples. Assia survives by selling fake relics of his childhood at the gate of Jerusalem, but Lydia goes mad and is locked up, smearing the walls of the room with her menstrual blood. Jesus is not on hand to cast out her demons.
Thayil, best known for his loose-knit trilogy of novels set in Mumbai, here draws on his Syrian Christian heritage to rework the gospel stories with imagination and integrity. At times he takes his feminist mission too far, as when Aquila claims that Jesus said not only ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into heaven’, but ‘It is easier for a woman to enter heaven than for a man’, which is simply to substitute one form of exclusivity for another. But, overall, this is a bold and beguiling addition to the canon of New Testament fiction.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10