“A woman, in those days, did not count. So even after we were married, people continued to say that John lived alone in the wilderness…” – The Wife of John the Baptist
When I began my research for a novel about John the Baptist, I expected to find a wild man dressed in camel hair robes, eating locusts and honey in the desert. The enigmatic and mysterious man I found was quite different. The man I found was charismatic, passionate, popular and brave.
Although John spent part of his eventful life alone in the rough wilderness, he was often surrounded by thirty to seventy disciples, some of whom wanted him to lead them in an all out war against Rome. Roman-occupied Judea was a crossroads filled with colorful people from far-flung corners of the world and many traveled great distances just to hear John speak. The Judea of John the Baptist was the kind of rich, turbulent environment where innovative thought and cultural movements are often born.
“In the marketplaces there were Phoenician traders from the sea coast, jewelers from Jerusalem, fine pottery merchants from Greece, and even magicians from Egypt. The crowds moved through the market like a noisy, flowing, human mosaic and they created a rich, spawning ground, the cultural river that was Judea.” – The Wife of John the Baptist
John’s ideas were groundbreaking. But preaching a new way of thought to the downtrodden poor in Roman-occupied Judea was a treasonous act of rebellion and he was in constant danger for his life. It was a time of great cruelty and bloodshed where the Romans massacred groups of people they found along the Jordan, branding them cults and zealot revolutionaries. Through his courage, John the Baptist altered human history and changed our way of thinking forever.
“The real heartbeat of our community was John when he emerged alone from the wilderness, and stood on a rise by the banks of the Jordan. He faced Jerusalem and delivered a simple message. His powerful, sonorous voice carried through the dry air of the valley up to the very gates of the City of Salt. ‘Even war with Rome will not give us the freedom we seek. Purify your own souls by right action, and where the soul has gone the body will follow. All good souls are free.’” – The Wife of John the Baptist
The more I learned about John, the more intrigued I became. Because John the Baptist was a charismatic, passionate man, I became convinced that he must have had love in his life. So my research took a unique turn, I began to search for his wife.
I spent the next few months begging librarians in far away cities to loan me books that no one had checked out since the last century, and that arrived smelling of mildew and neglect. I spoke with history professors, experts on religion, rabbis and Christian ministers. What I found was that there was a strong likelihood that John was married, though there was no definitive proof either way.
One elderly theologian put it best, “John the Baptist was probably married. A thirty-year-old man of the rabbi class would have been expected to marry so that a wife could keep him out of trouble! The cultural expectation placed on him to marry would have been very great. Besides the practice of celibacy in the priesthood didn’t come about until long after John was dead.”
So I began sorting through the bare historical facts and limited details of John’s life and filling in the blanks with ‘the imagination of the possible’. In the end, the real reason I gave John the Baptist a wife was out of love and respect for the man he was. It was also out of the belief that he deserved a helpmate to stand with him through his short, dangerous and tumultuous life. From the standpoint of a fiction writer, his wife became a character to bear witness and tell his tragic tale. Who better to describe John than the wife who loved and understood him.
“The first time I saw John, I noticed that he was taller than most men, like a king with unruly black hair and a beard. He had the dark, sculpted body of a slave and a poor man’s gray robe, but he wasn’t at work in the marketplace. He was watching goods being unloaded for the market, just as we were. He was a stranger yet he spoke with people easily, as if he had met them before and was getting reacquainted. He had large hands, yet he never gestured when he spoke like other men did. What surprised us most was that he had the beautiful, dark eyes of a wild girl. He never noticed us, even though we stared at him for a long time. I knew I should not be looking at him, but he was very handsome so I covered my face with my veil and continued to stare. When he moved away from the crowds, he picked up a bundle and a staff, both common symbols of an itinerant philosopher, a follower of the Greek tradition. And on that first day I mistook him for a poor philosopher.”
The novel I intended to write turned out very differently. Instead The Wife of John the Baptist became an intimate portrayal of a marriage. The Wife of John the Baptist is a tribute to the timeless and unshakable love that triumphs when all else is lost.