WHAT was life really like in first-century Palestine for a Jew? How did the arrival of a new and exciting teacher, miracle-worker, and healer change daily life for those who followed? How did culture and religion shape the lives of those who lived at the time of Jesus?
Corinne Brixton uses the character of Martha to give a lively and vibrant picture of everyday life. From the Bible, we know that Jesus chided her for not taking the “good part” that her sister had chosen at the feet of Jesus. We read about what happened when her brother Lazarus died, and later of a meal given in Jesus’s honour at Bethany, at which Martha served and Mary anointed Jesus with perfumed nard. But that is all.
Brixton paints a much more detailed picture, creating a wider family for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, with cousins, uncles, aunts, and grandparents. Simon the Leper appears as a key character, with a wife and children; other residents of Bethany who are not mentioned in the Gospels are also given lives that intertwine with the three siblings.
The story begins in AD 6, the year given as the one in which Martha was born. As she grows up, she takes over the running of the household her mother dies after Lazarus’s birth. It ends in AD 33, the year the author chooses for the crucifixion and resurrection. Martha tells the story of the intervening years in her own somewhat breathless fashion, as the vehicle for the author’s primary stated aim, which is “not to re-tell stories from the Gospels, [but] it is to provide the reader with a cultural, historical and religious framework within which these stories might be better understood”.
I felt that this at times possibly gave Martha’s voice a slightly arti-ficial feel, as she crammed as much detail into accounts of events as she could, thus making the narrative subservient to the image of first-century life which was being created; but Brixton has certainly achieved her stated aim to bring the world of the New Testament alive for her readers.
The Revd Sarah Hillman is Priest-in-Charge of Puddletown, Tolpuddle, and Milborne with Dewlish, in Dorset.
Through Martha’s Eyes: One woman witnesses the greatest event in history
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