The lost wisdom of the Magi: a Jewish girl from Babylon
People turn to historical fiction for various reasons. Some, like the fans of Regency romance or Downton Abbey, are attracted by the costume and décor. Some, such as the readers of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, like the revelations of political intrigue. This also gives a famous historic character, like Thomas Cromwell, some inner thoughts.
So what, I asked myself, as I embarked on reading The Lost ‘Wisdom of the Magi’, is the attraction of choosing a period and a culture so far removed from our own? It is set in the first century AD and the protagonist, Sophia, is a Jewish girl from Babylon.
The plot is broadly divided into five phases: Sophia’s life in Babylon in a family of well-settled Jews, her father being a keeper of manuscripts; her flight across the desert with Nabatean merchants; seven years with a strict Jewish sect; her allegiance to the zealots in the time of the Roman attacks on Jerusalem, and finally looking back in old age, from a female academy in Alexandria.
Historical basis of the novel
The source material for The Lost Wisdom of the Magi, as far as I could discern, is drawn first from the history of the Jews written by Flavius Josephus towards the end of the first century. By this time this prominent Jew of Pharisee background was a keen collaborator of the Romans. Second it relies on the Qumran texts discovered in 1947 in the caves around the Dead Sea.
The sect which collected and hid these ancient Hebrew manuscripts has been well described by Jewish scholar, Geza Vermes, in An Introduction to the Complete Dead Sea Scrolls.
Most of the Qumran scrolls are variant texts of the Hebrew Bible, which pre-date the Greek Septuagint on which Judaism depended in subsequent centuries. They have therefore been eagerly exegeted by recent Hebrew scholars. However, other Qumran texts contain the rules of the sect, calendars and astrology and magic spells. It is more this “Magi Wisdom” material that is utilised in this novel.
One of the thought-provoking aspects of the novel is that it shows how multicultural and multilingual life in imperial societies can be. The heroine studies with her father in a Babylonian library, having access to texts written in various Semitic languages. She is particularly struck by ancient “Chaldee” script written on a potsherd. She carries this with her as a talisman. Her quest for the Semitic “names of God” is one that both Islam and Judaism share even today.
The heroine enjoys her life with an Arab merchant caravan, before reaching her destination located somewhere in the countryside near the Dead Sea. This is Qumran, home of the sect, lightly disguised by another name. There the organisation has concentric circles of leaders, priest, initiates and the proselytised. These may be Jewish converts from the Greek speaking communities, or even slaves.
Indeed this is a multicultural world familiar to readers of the New Testament, with its stories of the various languages of Pentecost, and of Peter’s vision that released new Christians from observing Jewish dietary laws. Christianity takes no pride of place in this novel. It is just one of the Messianic sects among many, as depicted also in other books by Vermes.
Women’s place in the world
Where this novel wrenches historical material to fit modern preoccupations is in its treatment of women. Of course, feminist Biblical scholars in modern times have rehabilitated Mary Magdalene; they have pointed out that early Christian patriarchy had pushed the leadership of women in the early church into insignificance.
In this novel, not Mary, but rather the New Testament characters of Tabitha and Joanna are given more prominence. They are noted mainly for their organisation of food banks and clinics.
The heroine, Sophia, does not align with the Christians, but with the zealots. They are the true patriots who will fight to the last for the “new Jerusalem”. This consists of a vision of Jewish rule purified of corruption and collaboration with the Romans. Sophia’s most foul curses are upon the corrupt priests of the Temple, the collaborators and the rich who are more preoccupied with saving their properties than with the patriotic need to save Jerusalem.
An unusual marriage
As a contrast to this confusing conflict of sect against sect, religious fanaticism against corrupt power-seekers, there is the Greek slave, Athanasios, a scribe for a Jewish dealer in manuscripts. Although sceptical of religion, magic and prophecy, he ends up as the husband of Sophia, fighting alongside the zealots when the Romans lay siege to Jerusalem. So the ascetic devotee of Jewish rules and rites yields to the erotic embrace of the handsome but scarred slave, even in the midst of the war.
She thus breaks Jewish taboos of marrying outside the religion. Is this a touch of modern multiculturalism? Or does it actually reflect the multicultural Mediterranean world of the first century AD? It also crosses taboos of class: a free-born Jewish woman marrying a slave. Was this, one wonders, also the attraction of early Christianity? That its ekklesia (churches or assemblies) welcomed those who married out, or who were the half-in, half-out families of the Jewish Diaspora?
Fighting a lost cause
The later chapters of this novel describe in all gory detail the fighting between the Jewish defenders, and the Roman legions. As with similar accounts of the clash of imperial soldiers with resistant tribes (in the history of any Empire with surviving military accounts), the gist is that the impassioned patriots had no hope of victory against well-trained and armed imperial forces.
What is the Lost Wisdom of the Magi?
What exactly is the Lost Wisdom of the Magi? I was expecting maybe a lot of astrology, magic spells and use of herbs. There is some of that, especially in the first part of the book. But I found myself being more drawn to the political analysis underlying the plot. The vision of New Jerusalem was lost because the Jews could not unite, sect against sect, one leader against another.
That has a modern ring. How often have we had a vision, even a plan, for some project for the improvement of human society, only to find that it dissolves into power-struggles. Sophia’s view, in her final advice to her sisters of the Academy is:
“The interpretation of chesed – Love thy neighbour – is Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, even Romans. Do not fight each other; fight together against Satan and the Rich.”