In art and story, the Last Supper that Jesus ate with his disciples has traditionally been depicted as an all-male affair, a gathering of guys reclining and conversing around a table with their revered leader.
Even the women who appear in other Bible stories about Jesus and his disciples are seemingly absent from the Passover Seder that Christians recall and re-enact every year on Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday.
For author Tina Beattie, however, it's entirely possible that the guest list at the Last Supper included women and children.
“We don't hear that in the Bible, but I wonder if it wouldn't have been taken for granted,” she said in an interview. “I've never heard of a Jewish Passover that wasn't a family celebration.”
Dr. Beattie, 46, a teacher and lecturer in humanities and world religions who lives in Bristol, England, has let her imagination take flight in The Last Supper according to Martha and Mary (Crossroad Publishing), a meditation on what the women followers of Jesus of Nazareth might have seen at that final gathering.
She was inspired to write the story during a 1997 visit to Israel, where she was traveling with a Jewish women's study group.
“Although it was Christian Holy Week, I had a very strong sense of seeing it through Jewish eyes and a great awareness of how many different stories there are in that place,” she said.
To express her experience, Dr. Beattie initially wrote the story for herself. But when the publisher of her book, Rediscovering Mary, asked for another work from her, she showed him what she had been doing and got an enthusiastic response. “He said, `Keep going.' It wasn't something I planned. I think it was the images from my reading and study and personal reflection that had just built up in me.”
Dr. Beattie said her story was influenced by feminist biblical scholarship and theories of how rediscovering forgotten stories can read meaning into silence.
She also wrote, she said, out of the conviction that the kind of theology she studies and teaches academically - that based on gender issues, liberation theology, and cultural questions -- needs to be made accessible to people who are not academic theologians. “I work a great deal with women's groups and I have a great passion to take things out of textbooks and into life.”
Dr. Beattie chose as her narrators Martha and Mary, the sisters who lived at Bethany with Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, because they represent two dimensions of what it means to be a woman: the contemplative Mary and the domesticated Martha.
“Although it's easy to dismiss these as stereotypes, I really think a lot of us women in the 21st century do feel a conflict, a reality calling us to both things.”
Dr. Beattie characterizes Mary as wild, passionate, and tempestuous and Martha as motherly and nurturing.
A former Presbyterian who did her doctoral thesis on the symbolism of Eve and the Virgin Mary in the Catholic theological tradition, Dr. Beattie also incorporates her ideas about Mary, the mother of Christ, into her story. Her Mary is present at the Last Supper, sitting across the table from Mary of Bethany as they eat, and the latter describes her as “this peasant woman with the regal gaze. She looks at her son who sits beside me, and their eyes meet across the table. I do not understand the relationship between these two, this loving desire that is too subtle and too mysterious to name.”
Since her book was published just three weeks ago, Dr. Beattie said response to it has been good. She does not expect it to be welcomed by traditionalists who oppose, for example, the inclusion of women in foot-washing rituals on Holy Thursday.
On the other hand, she said some progressives have questioned why she has kept Christ celibate in a book about his relationships to women.
“It was never my intention to overturn the core beliefs of Christian tradition,” she said. “To me, it is more interesting if it doesn't just conform to our modern ideas about what Jesus should and shouldn't have done.”
Dr. Beattie said she thinks her book develops the acceptance Jesus seems to find among women in the gospel stories.
“ ... What I didn't want to do was to put across any particular polemical, bombastic message, but to balance the telling of the story so it becomes more human.”