A Review of
Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus:
Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible
Hardback: Drawn & Quarterly, 2016.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Jon M. Sweeney
I can’t imagine how this graphic novel of biblical stories is going to sell a lot of copies. Sex and violence are common in this genre, but not so much serious biblical criticism, and pages 173-270 here are all afterword, notes, and bibliography, in which author/artist Chester Brown recounts (in the same tiny, hand-drawn type of the comics themselves) his indebtedness to scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Yoram Hazony, and makes learned references to works as ideologically divergent as Strong’s Concordance and Lynn Bauman’s translation of The Gospel of Thomas. Chester Brown is what one might call an independent scholar. He says he was led to this subject because of a passion for sex-workers’ rights.
Brown is a Canadian by birth. He grew up in Quebec and now lives in Toronto. He’s 55 years old and has been writing comics since Ed the Happy Clown in the early ‘80s. After that strange work, which garnered him a sort of underground following, he began writing autobiographical comics, and that’s continued to this day. I wrote a bit about this trend (not about Brown, but others) in one of my recent review articles in America magazine.
I say that I can’t imagine this book will sell. On the other hand, maybe it will because Brown’s last work in comics was Paying For It (2011), which included this line on the front cover, “a comic-strip memoir about being a john,” and was a book that passionately advocated for decriminalizing prostitution. His primary argument, then, was that sex and romantic love ought to be, and usually are, separate. The notorious (he loves that adjective) R. Crumb wrote the introduction. It was a bestseller in this genre, and was generally regarded as the most important book in comics published that year. The New York Times praised it. It had at least half as many pages of notes as does Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus.
I don’t want to tell you all that Brown writes in his hundred pages of notes. You should explore them yourself. But please don’t read them first, before the stories. I’ll mention only three points he makes, which he says underpin all the stories: “Cain & Abel,” “Tamar,” “Rahab,” “Ruth,” “Bathsheba,” “Mary, the Mother of Jesus,” “[The Parable of] The Talents,” “Mary of Bethany,” “Matthew,” and “The Prodigal Son.” Brown believes, and uses scholarship to argue, that Mary the mother of Jesus was likely a prostitute. He also argues, “Jesus accepted that harlotry benefited society and that women like his mother had a legitimate place in The Kingdom of Heaven.” And, Chester Brown identifies as a Christian.
I’ll say only a few words about the stories themselves. First, it is unclear why he includes an account of Cain & Abel in the book, so I’m going to move right past it. Then, anyone familiar with the Hebrew scriptures (or the opening of the Gospel of Matthew) knows that Tamar and Rahab naturally fit when talking about sexuality, particularly prostitution, in the Bible. Certain details in Brown’s tellings diverge from the most common interpretations. For example, he has Tamar being accused of prostitution with many men, not simply with Judah, her father-in-law.
Other remarks: I found the vulnerability of Boaz, in “Ruth,” touching, especially in the panels when he is naked. Brown makes some strange decisions about angels in “Mary, the Mother of Jesus.” And, it is worth noting that the sex he draws in “Tamar,” “Ruth,” and “Bathsheba,” is always perfunctory. I think that’s part of his point.
The only really inventive story is the one simply titled, “Matthew.” It is not so much a retelling of the Gospel as it is a fiction designed to explain why the gospel writer opened his account with a genealogy of Jesus that included Tamar and Rahab.
Chester Brown would have done well to include the story of Esther, as well, from a book in the Hebrew Bible that is usually sentimentalized by Christians, and just as often, satirized by Jews. Each year on the holiday of Purim (which I just celebrated with my rabbi wife), Jewish congregations reread together, sometimes raucously, the Megillah (or “scroll”) of Esther. They remember the Persian king who was dissed by his wife when he asked her to come into his drunken men’s only party wearing only her crown, and she refused. He retaliated by deciding to violate all women, one at a time, essentially raping them, one night each, in his royal bed. Esther apparently wins him over with her many gifts (wink wink), and Esther’s uncle, Mordechai, is often seen to be not so much her “uncle,” as her pimp.
The purpose of reading the Megillah on Purim is not to poke fun at the Bible for trying to be holy when it really is not. The purpose – and my purpose in bringing Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus to your attention – is this, and it’s simple: The Bible is full of sex, and most of it is unchaste. We should be willing to confront it and try to understand it. These stories, no matter how you interpret them, are part of who we are as human beings. Sentimentalizing them does us no good.
Jon M. Sweeney is a writer, editor, and critic. His books include Inventing Hell, The Pope Who Quit, and just published, The Enthusiast: How the Best Friend of Francis of Assisi Almost Destroyed What He Started. He lives in Vermont.