Biblical novels, notably The Red Tent, can be very good. This one’s only so-so, but it does have a reasonable stab at setting the nativity story in the historical context of the struggles faced by the people of Judaea and Galilee under the control of both the Romans and the religious courts. It’s easy to forget that the nativity story’s set only 70 years or so before the outbreak of the war that culminated in the mass suicide at Masada, because no-one ever really talks about the two things as part of the same history. It also includes some interesting Tudor-esque suggestions about Herod’s fears of being overthrown by either the line of the Maccabees or the line of King David. However, the author’s unwillingness to choose between a Red Tent-type novel presented as historical fiction and a religious story with angels and divine messages means that the book doesn’t really work that well as a whole.
The story follows an Orthodox tradition that Joseph was a middle-aged widower with several children when he met Mary, and is told from the viewpoint of James, his youngest son. I understand that all the details of Joseph’s family as given in the book – his children, his brother and sister-in-law, the name of his first wife – come from the same tradition. He’s shown as being a reasonably well-to-do man, rather than a “humble” carpenter.
I’m hardly an expert on the Bible, but I don’t know that it actually says anything about Joseph not being well-to-do. Is the “humble” idea some sort of English thing from the Peasants’ Revolt and “When Adam delved and Eve span”, or am I overthinking this? And the idea that Joseph was a fair bit older than Mary makes sense, because he disappears from the story fairly early on – although I suppose he could just have died young. Anyway, whatever, this is the picture we get.
Archaeologists agree that Nazareth, as it is now, was only a two bit village at the time, and the book shows Joseph and his family being based in Sepphoris, a now-ruined city nearby, but also owning and farming some land at Nazareth. It suggests that Herod wanted to force all the builders/craftsmen in the area to leave their homes, close to harvest time, and go and work on constructing his new city at what’s now Tiberias. Tiberias is – thank you, Wikipedia – supposed to have been founded quarter of a century later, but, OK, I suppose people must have been working on it beforehand. I’m not sure how well this idea works, but it does get across the point that everyone in the area was very vulnerable at the time – you couldn’t really argue with either the Romans or the religious authorities, and just had to try to keep your head down.
Unfortunately for Joseph, in the story of this book, he not only caught the eye of Romans looking for workers but also caught the eye of the religious authorities, who were looking for a husband for Mary. And this is where the author gets himself all tangled up.
By this point, around a thousand years have passed since the time of King David. The Bible is a historian’s nightmare and it’s well nigh impossible to be sure who did or didn’t really exist, or when, but it’s generally accepted that the reign of David was around a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. However, according to all the sources, there were still people whose line could be traced back to David, and Joseph – so the New Testament says – was one of them. And Mary was, according to the book, considered special because she was descended from Aaron, brother of Moses (I think that’s quite a common tradition?) and had been dedicated to the Temple from birth by her parents.
This would make any child of theirs a double threat to Herod. Think Katherine Grey and Edward Seymour, or Arbella Stuart and William Seymour! This idea works really well, and would explain quite logically why Herod might have had it in for Joseph and Mary. Herod was only king because he’d sucked up to the Romans. He’d replaced the Maccabee dynasty. Yes, all right, all right, it’s officially called the Hasmonean dynasty, but (the nickname) Maccabee works better. You don’t get football teams called Hasmoneans, do you? He’d married a Maccabee princess, but she wasn’t his first wife or the mother of his heir. Meanwhile, most people still regard the descendants of King David as the rightful heirs.
The nativity story totally contradicts itself on this bit. The “king” has to be descended from King David. Joseph is descended from King David. Therefore Jesus has to be descended from Joseph. Let’s not go there, because people can get very offended if you start questioning religious texts, but, as a historical novel, this seemed at this point to be working really well – it was all very plausible.
It was also very interesting, with descriptions of life at the time, of the harsh punishments meted out by the religious courts, of the issues of Roman occupation, and of James and Joseph journeying to Jerusalem and their time there. The idea was that Joseph had agreed to marry Mary – who was very young, and came across as being rather a brat – in exchange for the religious authorities using their influence with the Romans to get him out of having to work at Tiberias.
However, it then all goes a bit awry, because the author presumably couldn’t bear to abandon the religious story, and brought in angels and miracles. He couldn’t bear to leave Bethlehem out of it either, even though historians can’t find any evidence to support the census story and it’s likely that Jesus was actually born in the Nazareth area and the stable/Bethlehem stuff was “created” to provide a link to Royal David’s City. He doesn’t go with the census story, and instead, having included angels – although he doesn’t actually show angels appearing in Nazareth, instead saying that they’d appeared “offstage”, whilst Mary was staying with her cousin Elizabeth – and insisted that it’s a miraculous virgin birth, says that they decide to leave Nazareth to get away from the gossip, the scandal, and, above all, fears of punishment by the religious courts.
No stable as such. Instead, the birth takes place in a watch tower. On the Day of Atonement. Well, it couldn’t have been December, or shepherds wouldn’t have been watching their flocks by night – and the idea is that they originally went to Jerusalem but the reason everywhere was full up was because there were loads of pilgrims there. That makes sense, I suppose. And then three astrologers sent by Herod turn up, everyone keeps going on about miracles and messiahs, and they head off to Egypt.
So it’s a strange mixture of actual, practical history, Orthodox tradition relating to the life of Joseph, and a religious-miracle element which the author evidently couldn’t bear to be without. I’m not knocking religious-miracle stories, if that’s what people are into, but I don’t think that trying to work them into a historical novel really works very well. It would have been much better to have stuck with the idea of Herod being after Joseph and Mary because he was worried about the threat from a scion of the rightful ruling dynasty.
It might be worth a read, if only for people to remind themselves of the historical context. As I said, no-one ever really relates the nativity story to the issues of Roman rule in Judaea and Galilee. The Christian stories move on to Rome and Ephesus and don’t cover the destruction of the Second Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Siege of Masada, and the Jewish stories don’t do Jesus, so you don’t get them together. But trying to combine a historical story and a religious-miracle story can get a bit muddled.