Fiction & non-fiction in harmony

When Pocket book-club read The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman I knew how it would end and I knew which book I had to re-read next.

A few years ago I read Zealot: The Life an Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. Aslan describes himself as having come from a family of lukewarm Muslims and exuberant atheists. At the age of 16, he found Jesus. However, the more he probed the Bible to arm himself against the doubts of unbelievers, the greater his discomfort at the errors and contradictions in the bible. He angrily discarded Jesus.

Zealot is the result of Aslan’s rediscovery, through academic exploration, the life of Jesus the man. He places him in the turbulent world and times Jesus lived in and describes the brutality of the Roman occupation that he defied.

Aslan claims Jesus was one of many men – a zealous revolutionary set on getting rid of the Romans – and that Jesus was crucified for the crime of sedition.

I do not subscribe to any religion. I respect other people’s right to have a faith but I am an atheist. This book helped me understand how Christianity happened.

As these extraordinary men and women, many of them immersed in Greek philosophy and Hellenistic thought, began to reinterpret Jesus’s message … they gradually transformed Jesus from a revolutionary zealot to a Romanized demigod, from a man who tried and failed to free the Jews from Roman oppression to a celestial being wholly uninterested in any earthly matter.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus by Reza Aslan

But, while I understood Aslan’s book on an intellectual level, there was one particular aspect I could not grasp.

Aslan writes that at no point do Jesus’s enemies deny his miracles. He described the world as steeped in magic and Jesus as one of a number of diviners and dream interpreters, magicians and medicine men wandering Judea. Nor was Jesus the only exorcist. All illness was viewed as a manifestation of divine judgement and demonic possession and Jesus can be viewed as one of many professionals considered able to heal the afflicted.

As it turned out, I needed a fiction book to deepen my understanding.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman gives first century Palestine texture, smells, and people. The Dovekeepers brought to life the apocalyptic fervour, the Sicarii, the devoted Essenes, and the horror of Masada at the end of The Dovekeepers that I knew was coming.

Through the eyes and voice of the four women in the book, I understand what Aslan meant, how magic was integral to everyday life in 70 CE. The women are surrounded by the world’s magic and they do not question it. It brings them sustenance, it heals them, it helps them make decisions and it is integral to the celebrations and their grief. The world and magic are the same.

Surely this is why women did not often write down their knowledge, to make certain it couldn’t be found out and used against them. We told each other our magical recipes, just as we confided the best ways to make a cake of figs, a broth of bones, a stew of apples and honey that would be sweeter than any other. We did not discuss our methods or make our talents public, yet other women knew. The truth was written upon us, as they say, men’s sins are written on their bones so that when they die their wicked deeds can be read as if written upon parchment.

The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman

The brutality of the Romans, the disruption to Jewish society and life, the damage to temples and the final awful conclusion following the siege of Masada come to life with sights, sounds and tastes.

Speaking of tastes, it is a pleasure for our book club to read a book so full of delicious food. It inspires us. You know what we did! Figs, olives, almonds, etc etc

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