A graphic novel by Chester Brown Subtitle: “Prostitution And Religious Obedience In The Bible”
I recommend this book with reservations.
Some of you who are Christians shouldn’t read it; not because it has naughty pictures in it, but because you aren’t spiritually capable of processing Brown’s interpretation of the Bible.
You will rant and rave and condemn his book and his ideas but gain no benefit from them.
And by “benefit” I don’t mean you will change your mind and accept what he says, but that you won’t take his perspective to look at the source material with fresh eyes.
Because frankly, that’s the most important thing about this book: Its ability to get us to step out of our traditional mindsets and look at the text anew.
We may opt to say, “Hmm, interesting, but I’m not convinced” and return to our original point of view, but we will at least now have the ability to evaluate that belief in comparison with another, far more different interpretation.
And that can only strengthen our belief in the long run.
Conversely, some of you who are skeptics shouldn’t read it either because you lack the perspective and context to grasp the points Brown makes.
You’ll gleefully shout, “Aha! Mary was a hooker! I knew it!” and decide there is no reason to look any further into the teachings of Christ because it’s all bogus.
That’s not what Brown is saying.
So after the jump I’ll analyze what Brown’s point is.
I will say here that Brown’s style is aptly suited for this book, just cartoony enough to make the stories and characters accessible to all readers, realistic enough to forestall unintentional comedy. Brown has chosen to approach his versions of the stories mostly from a plain text reading (i.e., what does a story itself tell, not “Is this story factual?”) although he does look at some stories in the context of extra-Biblical knowledge of the cultures involved.
As Brown has chosen a plain text approach, I will offer my critique of his book based on a plain text reading as well. If you’re not capable of reading what follows with an open mind, here is a hopefully amusing post to keep you entertained.
Chester Brown, who identifies as a Christian in his notes, is a long time comics pro who has created such works as Ed The Happy Clown (1989), the acclaimed historical graphic novel Louis Riel (2003), and more recently his reflections on his patronage of prostitutes in Paying For It (2011).
The tension of being both a follower of the teachings of Christ and a regular john are apparent in his work and his conclusions.
He can and should be praised for treating his prostitute characters as human beings with their own intrinsic worth and personal dignity.
But while an argument can be made for acknowledging the courage and independence of prostitutes among ancient Middle Eastern cultures, standing up to and existing in the face of a hypocritical patriarchy that both desired and hated them, it’s hard to rationalize a Christian celebration of prostitution as a business in today’s society.
Brown’s point of view leads to some interesting interpretations of traditional Bible stories; every story told in Mary Weeps Over The Feet Of Jesus is based pretty solidly on scripture although like any artist he filters it through his own personal understanding.
He starts the book with the story of Cain and Abel (not a tale of prostitution, as Brown himself notes). Brown brings a few key points to the foreground that normally get glossed over in standard Sunday school interpretations:
- First, when God expels Adam and Eve from Eden, He commands them to till the soil, to eat herbs and bread; He does not mention eating meat.
- Second, despite Cain doing what God instructed (i.e., raising crops), God blesses Abel for his offering of meat that he had killed.
Brown’s interpretation of this story is that God is filtered through his reading of Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy Of Hebrew Scripture, to whit: “God cherises and admires those who defy the decree of history, and who dare to better things for themselves.”
One can acknowledge Brown makes an argument for this being the case (particularly in light of Christ’s parables of The Prodigal Son, The Talents, and The Shrewd Servant, the latter not being among the stories he illustrates) without necessarily agreeing with his (or Hazony’s) conclusions. The great thematic mystery of the story of Cain and Abel is exactly why did God favor the one over the other?
Now, the standard interpretation is that Abel brought the best of his firstborn animals as a sacrifice, while Cain just gave God some leftover vegetables he had laying around.
But it’s also fair to ask if those who passed the story along to Moses (to cite the traditional transmission of data attributed to the Bible) didn’t leave out some motive that proved problematic as time went by.
What might have been a perfectly sensible reason to illiterate nomadic tribes might not stand the light of rational examination in a more enlightened culture.
So perhaps we have been deliberately handed a story where we can fill in the blank motivation for God to reflect the contemporary concerns of our culture -- whenever, wherever, whoever that might be.
Brown starting his book with a defiance of expectations is appropriate to his remaining stories.
Tamar is one of the raciest stories in the Bible. When her husband dies, as per the custom of that time Tamar expects her brother-in-law Onan to impregnate her so her husband’s bloodline will continue. Onan doesn’t want his father Judah’s property divided with Tamar’s kid, so he performs coitus interruptus (not masturbation as the common misconception goes). God kills Onan, and Tamar demands Judah have his youngest son impregnate her.
Judah stalls her, sending her home to her family until his youngest son is old enough.
Years pass. Tamar disguises herself as a common prostitute and seduces Judah, letting him pledge payment by leaving his staff with her. Judah can’t find the hooker he boffed (Brown comes up with a plausible reason why he wouldn’t recognize her) and writes the experience off.
Months pass and Judah learns Tamar is pregnant. This is good news for him because he can now demand her death as an adulteress and keep all the money in the family.
Of course, Tamar whips out the staff at the trial, Judah is exposed as a dirty old man and a hypocrite, and the story has (for Tamar, at least) a happy ending.
Jump ahead a few centuries to the story of Rahab. Rahab is a for-realsies prostitute, plying her trade in Jericho. Recognizing the superior military might of the Israelites, she hides two of their spies in exchange for a promise she and her family will be spared in the ensuing massacre. Spoiler: They’re spared.
Brown takes the bare bones of the story and pads it out with a 15th century BC police story in which the local Jericho town guards come looking for the spies, searching Rahab’s home but not finding them. She helps them escape and as a reward is treated with honor and respect by the Israelite conquerors, one of whom goes so far as to marry her.
Next stop: Ruth.
The story of Ruth in the Bible has one of the most beautiful proclamations of love in literature:
“Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me.”
=sniff= Small wonder that passage is read at countless weddings around the world. Too bad it’s the widow Ruth talking about her feelings for her mother-in-law.
Here’s the tl;dnr version: Naomi and her husband came to Moab to escape a famine in Israel. They had two sons who married two Moabite gals, Ruth and Orpah. All the males die, leaving three widows without children. Naomi opts to return to Israel, tells her daughters-in-law to stay and marry Moabite men. Orpah does so, but Ruth accompanies her mother-in-law back to her home.
Enter Boaz, a distant cousin of Naomi.
The standard Hollywood / Sunday school version of the story is straight out of a romance novel: Tall, dark, brooding Boaz -- who for some secret / tragic reason has never married -- stirs Ruth’s heart and, with Naomi’s urging, she goes to him at night for some chaste cuddling. The next day they make sure there are no other relatives of Naomi who wish to claim Ruth as their wife (see Tamar above) and, when no one else presses a claim, they get married and live happily ever after.
Brown, presumably from his years of experience with sex workers, depicts a more realistic view of events that adheres much more closely to the actual Biblical text: Boaz isn’t married because he’s fat and unattractive. Naomi tells Ruth to seduce Boaz and get him to marry her so that the two women won’t starve to death. The potential rival kinsman claimant quickly refuses to have anything to do with that filthy unclean cursed by God (ptui!) Moabite skank.
Ruth and Boaz get married. Do they live happily ever after? Well, they have children and they don’t starve, and Naomi is taken care of, and who knows, maybe even in Brown’s version Ruth eventually develops a fondness of Boaz that doesn’t require her to steel herself before he mounts her.
‘Cuz otherwise it certainly looks like low grade quid-pro-quo prostitution from a Century 21 AD viewpoint.
One significant element Brown adds to Ruth’s story is her extreme anxiety as she prepares to seduce Boaz, rightfully wondering what will happen if he rejects her or, worse still, exposes her intentions to others. Again, this probably reflects Brown’s own experience with prostitutes and what he may have gleaned from their stories.
It certainly makes the story ring true, and less like a Harlequin romance.
Bathsheba is next on deck. King David, Israel’s near-superhero king, spots Bathsheba, wife of Uriah (a solider in David’s army) taking a bath on her rooftop. King David asks who she is, has her brought up to the palace, boffs her, then gets notified a few weeks later that she’s pregnant.
Hey, no problem! David has Uriah sent back from the front to deliver a report on how the war is going, telling him to go home “and wash your feet” before returning to the front.
Uriah refuses, saying it would be disloyal to his fellow soldiers to have a good time with his wife while they’re in combat. David says okay, sends a secret message back to the front with Uriah telling the general in charge of the war to leave Uriah in an exposed position where he’ll get killed.
The general does, Uriah does, David does Bathsheba back in the palace to “comfort” then marry her, and everything ends happily…
…until BOOM! the prophet Nathan tricks David into convicting himself of adultery and murder.
Bathsheba is soooo notorious in Jewish history that when she’s mentioned in the New Testament, it’s only as “her that had been the wife of Urias” and everybody knew!
Brown uses the Annunciation of Mary to draw a link between the Old Testament women and the Mother of Christ.
He takes a break from relating stories found in the Bible and instead focuses on a story of his own creation about the Bible.
There are two genealogies of Christ offered in the New Testament, one in Matthew and one in Luke.
Only in Matthew are any women mentioned at all.
Pull back and look at that for a moment.
Ancient Hebrew / Israelite / Jewish culture was relentlessly patriarchal. Few women are mentioned in the Old Testament and almost none as favorably as the average male.
Almost uniformly they are predators, they are prey, or they are prostitutes.
Women were simply not that important to the male dominated culture other than as breeders. Nobody of that era would have expected any female mentioned in any genealogy, so why would Matthew draw such a clear link between Mary and four of the most notorious women in the Bible?
Here is Brown’s most provocative interpretation of scripture, and again it’s a position that he can make an argument for.
I’ll let Brown explain it in his own words from his end notes:
“The word…’virgin’ in English is ‘parthenos’ in MATTHEW’s Greek. [Author Jane] Schaberg notes that ‘parthenos’ is not a ‘clinically exact [term] necessarily meaning biological virgin.’
Brown goes on to ask:
“Why did Matthew use the prophecy from ISAIAH? Matthew had just given his genealogy in which he hinted Mary had been a prostitute. I think he was worried that the hint might be too readily understood, so he wanted to somehow distract the readers of his book away from musing about Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. He knows of a prophecy in ISAIAH that predicted a woman who was virginal (but not necessarily a virgin) would get pregnant (presumably through some sort of sexual contact with a man) and should give birth to a significant child. Matthew used ISAIAH’s prophecy to imply that Mary was a parthenos because he wanted to get the readers’ minds off of whorish implications in the genealogy.”
Brown’s thesis (and he notes it is not original with him) is as the gospel of Matthew was being written, there were rumors and stories about Jesus during his lifetime that implied a less than divine origin for him, and a less than virginal mother.
Faced with gossip that Mary had been raped by a Roman soldier (awful) or engaged in prostitution (even worse), Matthew and Luke attempted to both nod to that possibility, while providing more devout readers with a way of interpreting the scripture to understand it as a more supernatural occurrence.
That is the part that would doubtlessly drive a large number of my co-religionists over the edge.
To them, there cannot be a faith they can believe in unless Jesus is of purely divine origin.
But, as Brown points out, what if that is simply not important?
“God is not interested in morality, God is interested in love. The more we act towards others with love, the more our actions will seem moral. The problem with laws is that they compel morality in an unloving way.
“I don’t think Jesus was against the law in the Torah. I would say he saw it as spiritually irrelevant: to observe it is fine, but don’t expect doing to so bring you closer to God. One can break it and still be close to God, as long as one has the right loving attitude toward life and other people.”
This is why Brown’s book is an important read for people who are serious about their Christianity and things of the spirit. Even if one does not accept the possibilities that Brown presents, the fact that he makes you think about them makes you re-examine those points of your faith both individually and in total.
Brown can be 100% wrong in his speculation and the message of Christ remains intact; he can be 100% right and two thousand years of tradition be wrong and yet the message still remains intact!
 Let the record show that for aesthetic reasons I personally find it distasteful to engage in either intimate relations or religion for profit; if you’re going to do either, do it for free. And I believe that while garden variety prostitution by and among freely consenting fully informed adults should not be criminalized, I also think communities should be allowed to decide if they wish to have any areas zoned for prostitution, same as they should be allowed to decide if they wish to have any areas zoned for industrial use. Further, while acknowledging others have the right and freedom to act in a manner they see fit so long as they do not cause harm to innocent third parties, I can and do also hold to personal ethical and moral standards that preclude my participation those activities.
 In the story of Genesis, God is the one who introduces death by killing animals to clothe Adam and Eve; contrary to what Biblically literal fundamentalists claim, the first humans are not responsible for death unless one wishes to cast God as the Ultimate Abusive Parent ™ who bellows “LOOK WHAT YOU MADE ME DO TO YOU!” at a recalcitrant child.
 A further variation on this standard interpretation is that Abel delivered a
blood sacrifice because God is a vengeful monster just and holy God who can only be appeased worshipped honorably by a scapegoat sincere ransom offering.
 Yeah, tell me about the ancient Israelites’ firm grasp on the intricacies of biology.
 No pun intended. But ya gotta admit that’s pretty good.
 You know, sometimes a staff is just a staff, okay?
 PLOT POINT! PLOT POINT!
 Other than the fact a millennia and a half later she’s still referred to as a notorious prostitute by Matthew…but we’ll get to that in a moment.
 PLOT POINT! PLOT POINT!
 Read jaundiced.
 PLOT POINT! PLOT POINT!
 And this is not to denigrate the doubtless millions of women who have had to make very calculating pragmatic choices in their lives in order to provide for themselves and their children. Not every marriage is based on romantic love, and who are we to judge a woman who will agree to be a man’s spouse with all attendant marital privileges if he honors his promise to take care of her and her family? Shut up and go peep under a bathroom stall.
 And no slam against Harlequin fans, because God doubtlessly knows some of you are remaining in just barely tolerable marriages for the sake of your families, and if a few hundred pages of harmless romantic fantasy makes it easier to endure your situation, go for it, sisters!
 “Ancient Middle Eastern cultural customs” explains a lot of stuff, so just roll with it.
 PLOT POINT! PLOT POINT!
 I am opting to leave off the story of Mary Of Bethany, even though the title of the book refers to it, as well as Brown’s examinations of the parables of The Talents and The Prodigal Son. I think certain specifics in Brown’s personal history may shade his viewing of these stories, but his version is worth reading if for no other reason than to see those old familiar stories in a brand new light. And I may come back at some point to his version of the story of Job, which serves as a coda of the entire book. Job is one of the most problematic stories in the Bible from a spiritual point of view, and while Brown’s approach is interesting, I think there’s another, simpler explanation that better explains both the material and its message.
 His own insofar as he created a fictional framework to discuss points others had made literally centuries ago.
 Deborah, the only known female judge of Israel, is the chief exception.
 Whoever that scribe might have actually been.
 I don’t. I find Brown’s research meticulous and his ideas fascinating, but I think there’s ample evidence to indicate something extraordinary in the history of human biology occurred with the birth of Christ. But as noted above, it doesn’t matter if Brown’s speculation is right, or if my speculation is right, or if there’s some third explanation that excludes both of our positions: The important thing is that the message remains the same regardless of which version is believed.