A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother

By Lesley Hazleton

Bloomsbury. 246 pp. $24.95

At the beginning of the past century, theologian and medical doctor Albert Schweitzer gave Jesus scholarship its own metaphor to rival Plato's cave: the wishing well. While they sifted the historical data for clues into the life of the Christ, he explained, most scholars may as well have been peering down a long dark well. Looking back down the narrow tunnel chiseled out by modern historical methods, they believed they had caught a glimpse of some primitive Jesus, unencumbered by dogma or dressed up with the trappings of faith, but they probably saw only their own reflections. The results of any quest for the real Jesus were so influenced by the assumptions of the inquirers that these men of science were creating their own designer Jesuses.

As with Jesus, so with his remarkable mother. Lesley Hazleton makes explicit in the last sentence of "Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother" what she assumes throughout. To her, the mother of the Christ is a Whitmanesque Everywoman: "we are all her." Nor is Whitman a bad referent here; Hazleton's scattershot portrait of Mary -- whom she stubbornly and quirkily insists on calling "Maryam" -- does indeed contain multitudes.

Hazleton's Maryam gave aid and comfort to the bandit resistance fighters who opposed the Roman occupation of Galilee. She "kept vigil with them" publicly, as they hung on crosses. Privately, this poor shepherd girl led wounded fighters to the safety of the Arbel caves. Why? Because "it would never have occurred to her to do anything less." This, after all, was "the resistance of her time," and, like Palestinian women of the past decade who took part in the intifada, Maryam would have abhorred the injustice of the brutal Pax Romana.

Maryam was also part of a line of "wise women." She was a midwife and amateur herbalist who might have been burned at the stake as a witch were she transplanted to Salem, Mass., in the 17th century. In matters religious, she practiced a folk piety that paid lip service to Judaism but mixed it with polytheism and Gnosticism, with a special emphasis on the Isis cult. As regards sexual mores, Maryam was, well, an abortionist.

In one of Hazleton's more bizarre flights, she paints Maryam the midwife and herbalist as an early dispenser of a natural RU-486. The mother of Jesus was "as expert in contraception and abortion as she was in midwifery," and we "would do her far greater honor by recognizing this . . . than by ignoring or denying it." In fact, this Maryam, whom some wag might label the Planned Parenthood Mary, presents us with the perfect resolution to the problem of abortion. She could have aborted the child, true, but she "chose pregnancy and birth. She was, in modern terms, both pro-life and pro-choice."

Regarding Jesus's paternity, Hazleton hedges. She says that the father couldn't have been the Almighty, except insofar as He, She or It is involved in all procreation. The idea of a virgin giving birth strikes the author not as a fact to be grappled with but as a poetic way of saying that there was something special about Jesus's birth and life. So who was it? Joseph would be one candidate, but Hazleton doubts that he existed. Other possibilities include rapacious temple priests, Roman soldiers or unnamed local shepherds. She strongly suspects rape, which leads to some fascinating sermonizing.

The image of Mary being raped, Hazleton explains, "is not completely negative." It "could be a far more powerful symbol than the conventional one of her as inviolate, because one thing is clear: If she was indeed raped, she refused to be victimized by it. She refused to feel shame." She decided to have the child and raise him as her own (with the help of Joseph, if he existed): "the son of Mary." Not to put too fine a point on it, but the preceding was something this reviewer had never encountered before: a self-professed feminist celebrating a rape victim for carrying the child to term. I was honestly shocked, but it wasn't any more shocking than much of the rest of this volume. Far from a "flesh-and-blood biography," this poorly arranged collection cuts back and forth from stories of modern Palestine to the author's speculations about what might have happened in the life of a poorly documented Jewish peasant of the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D. Hazleton honestly doesn't realize that the image at the bottom of the well is her own reflection staring back at her.