The New Testament Gospels are themselves surprises writ large, but they also contain within their pages traces of other surprising stories. These were anecdotes that were obviously known to the evangelists but were either familiar enough to the earliest audiences of the Gospels or so inconsequential to the master narrative that they required no elaboration. Such for example is the unexplained presence among the disciples of a young man clad only in a sheet at Jesus’ nighttime arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. “And when they grabbed him, he dropped the sheet and ran away naked” (Mk. 14:51-52}. Matthew and Luke, possibly as puzzled as we are, both omitted it. Then there is the anecdote in Mk.15:21 of a bystander along Jesus’ route to his crucifixion –this time named, Simon from Cyrene–who is pulled from the crowd and made to carry the condemned’s cross for a spell. This is another curious piece of information –a family tradition perhaps– but Mark also knows, and thinks it important to tell us, the very Greco-Roman names of Simon’s two sons, Alexander and Rufus (Mk. 15:21).
But what may be the most interesting untold story, at least in its implications, is Mark’s brief and rather offhand anecdote at 1: 29-31 of his Gospel describing how, on a visit to the home of the Apostle Peter –at that point known only by his original name, Simon bar Jonah –, Jesus cured the latter’s mother in law of a fever and how she got up from her bed and fed them. Who knew that Peter had a wife? Paul apparently did. Though the Gospels give no indication that Peter or any of the other disciples was married, Paul points out, in defense of his own prerogatives, that “the other apostles and brothers of the Lord and Cephas [Peter]” are allowed “to take along a believing wife….” on their missionary travels ((1 Cor. 9:5).
St. Peter married! And with a mother in law!
The Apostle at Home
“What? Fish again?”
She was a small erect woman in her fifties, but her grey hair and lined face gave her the appearance of someone older.
“What do you expect, woman?” he said from the table in the middle of the room. ”I’m a fisherman. If you want steak go up on the Golan and rustle one of the Syrian cattle.”
“No need to take that tone with me. And not only is it always fish; it’s always the same fish.”
“It’s the only fish in the sea,” he said without turning and looking at the woman scaling fish by the fire. “Am I supposed to invent a new species? Where’s Zippi?”
“I don’t know. Down by the shore, I think.”
“Yes,” said the other man who had just entered the large and neatly kept room. The fireplace, cooking utensils and food storage bins were at one short wall, and against the opposite wall were open cupboards for clothes and bedding. Five slender bedsteads were stood up against the long wall facing the door.
“Rachel’s there too. Something going on. Maybe there’s a peddler. Jewelry maybe or Dead Sea mud for the ladies.”
“That would be nice, Andrew,” the woman said as she laid five fish on a grill. “Maybe she’ll bring back a jar for me. I could use some.”
Simon looked up at his younger brother and smiled.
“You hung up all the nets?”
“Yes,” Andrew said. “Good catch today. Luckier than the Zebedees for a change.”
Simon grunted what seemed to be assent.
“Maybe they’re just better fisherman,”
the woman said, turning the fish. “That John is a nice looking boy.”
Simon and Andrew exchanged glances. John Zebedee was the subject of much discussion on the fishing boats of the Sea of Galilee
Rachel and Zipporah burst into the house breathless with excitement.
“What a great afternoon!” Zipporah exclaimed.
“Down by the shore. There was this man,” Rachel chimed in.
“That can wait,” Simon said. “Zippi, your mother is grilling us some delicious fish for supper, so get the bread and the onions. Rachel, draw us some fresh water from the well.”
The girls –Zipporah was twenty-two, Rachel twenty— did as they were bid. They set the wooden trestle table with plates and cups
Simon moved to the head of the table.
“This table has seen better days,” he said. “Maybe it’s time to have a new one made. I’ll see if I can find a carpenter.”
They took their places at the table. Abishag, after she put the platter of fish on the table, seated herself at her accustomed place at the foot, facing her son in law.
“May the Almighty bless this food,” Simon said with lowered voice.
“Amen,” the others said.
“And may He soon send us some meat,” Abishag added.
“Alright, Zippi,” Simon said, “what was happening at the shore that got you so excited?”
“This man,” Zipporah began.
“Did you buy anything?” her mother demanded.
“No, he was not selling anything.”
“Everybody’s selling something, dear.”
“Let her finish,” Simon said, “You get to prattle the day long. Let your daughter have her say for a change.”
Zipporah, who had long since learned to ignore the ill-tempered back and forth between her husband and her mother, went on. “The man was sitting alone in one of the fishing boats drawn up on the shore. There were maybe ten people standing and listening to what he was saying, The Zebedees were there.”
“Of course,” Abishag said.
Simon and Andrew exchanged another look.
“And what was he saying?” Andrew asked.
It was hard to hear him at first.”
“He was speaking very softly,” Rachel added.
“But it was something about a kingdom.”
“Another political rabble-rouser,” Abishag said. ”Haven’t we had enough trouble already? The Romans are sure to go through our houses again.”
“No, I don’t think it was political,” Rachel said. “It was all about the Kingdom of God.”
Abishag emitted a loud theatrical sigh and rolled her eyes heavenward.
“And that it was drawing near and so we should all change our lives,” Zipporah added.
“I’m not so sure that wasn’t political, Rachel,” Andrew said. “What do you think, Simon?”
“I don’t know. We would have to hear more. But it’s dangerous talk. Did he say anything else, Zippi?”
“He’s not that religious charlatan down at the Jordan is he?” Abishag asked and answered. “You know, the one who washes people in the river.”
“I doubt that,” Simon said. “John the Immerser never comes up here. He wasn’t wearing skins, was he Zippi?”
“Oh, John the Immerser is it?“ Abishag sneered. “Better John the Trouble Maker. You wait and see, the Romans will take care of him.”
“No, just regular clothes,” Zipporah answered.
“Why don’t these shouters leave us alone,” Abishag said, closing the discussion, “and let the world end in peace.”
It was evening. Andrew entered first, wet and bent with fatigue. He sat heavily down at the table.
“Wine,” he said. “Where’s Rachel?”
“Out milking the goat,” Zipporah said. She looked toward her mother by the fire, waited an instant, then rose from her sewing and fetched wine and a cup.
Simon now came in.
“Another cup,” he said.
The two men drank deeply of the wine.
Abishag rose from her place and approached the table.
“Simon,” she began quietly. “I’ve been thinking.”
“What now, woman?” Simon said without looking up.
“It’s been five years since you married Zipporah and we moved here from Beth Saida and two, or is it three, since Andrew took a wife.”
“No, I moved here from Beth Saida,” Simon said, still looking into his wine, “and you followed along.”
“Remember who you’re talking to, sir,” she said.
Andrew, who had come in behind Simon, attempted to stifle a smile.
“Anyway, I think we have outgrown this house. Five people in this space is too many.”
“Five people and a goat. Don’t forget Bathsheba.” Andrew said.
“Ah, yes, Bathsheba,” Simon said. “I too have been thinking, woman. You crave meat. We all crave meat. Why not take the knife to that stinking goat? If ever there was an animal yearning for the spit, it’s that four-legged bleater.”
“How dare you speak of that! That darling animal is the source of milk for this family.”
“Dairy for meat? That’s a trade I’d make any day,” Simon laughed.
“And now that Rachel is pregnant…”
“Get on with it, woman, and then start preparing supper.”
“I though surely, with the two of you now fishing with hirelings, we can afford to find something bigger.”
“Are you proposing that you will now start mending nets?” Simon said. “Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Don’t be impertinent,” she said. “I have a friend who is moving to Tiberias by the Sea…”
“Tiberias by the Sea? You don’t mean Rakkoth by any chance?” Simon scoffed.
“There are some nice houses there,” she continued. “and hot baths. We could live like civilized people.”
“You mean you could live like one of the shrimp-eaters instead of like a daughter of Israel,” Simon said heatedly. “And hot baths, is it? This from a woman who has not so much as dipped her toe in a mikveh since her wedding night in the reign of King Jeroboam.”
“Well, look who has suddenly become Torah-happy, you who fishes on Shabbos.”
“Not anymore,” Simon growled. “I was wrong. May the Almighty forgive me.”
“Pharisees got you by the neck, have they?” she smiled. “What next, son in law, phylacteries?”
“Don’t push me, woman, or you’ll be living not in Tiberias and not even in my house but with the ladies out in the dust of the square.”
The Lady is Cured (Mk. 1:29-31)
“Get up woman. We have a guest.”
Abishag was lying on one of the trestle beds. She turned her head slowly toward the door.
The men had come into the house, Simon, Andrew, the two Zebedees and the fifth, a stranger to Abishag. There appeared to be others gathered outside the door.
“Where’s Zipporah and Rachel?” Simon demanded.
“They’ve gone to the village to get an ointment for my head,” Abishag’s voice was barely audible.
“Never mind that. Get up. Didn’t you hear what I said, we are honored by a guest.”
Simon grasped the hand of his mother in law and attempted to raise her from the bed. “Get up, woman!”
“Leave me be,” she groaned and pulled back her hand. “I’m not feeling well.”
“Wait, Simon,” the stranger said. “Let me try.”
“Who are you?” Abishag wanted to know.
“This is Jesus of Nazareth,” Simon said.
Jesus sat down on the side of the bed and took Abishag’s hand gently in his own.
“Not feeling well, dear?” he said.
“Not really,” she said, now more calmly. “Terrible headache.”
He touched her forehead.
“Yes, slight fever. Nothing very serious.”
“Are you a physician?” she asked.
“In a way, yes,” he said. “And I can tell that what is troubling you is not your head but your impetuous son in law.”
“He is not a good man,” she said, brightening, and now sitting up.
“That is true,” Jesus said. “Only God is good.”
There was an audible gasp in the room.
“You said the name of the Almighty!” she exclaimed.
“I know,” he said calmly, “and now that you’re feeling better,” taking her by the hand and raising her gently from the bed, “why don’t you get up and make us something to eat?”
“Fish OK?” she said, heading for the grill.
“Fish is fine,” Jesus said, “with maybe some fried onions on the side.”
They took their places around the table. Simon seated Jesus at the head and then sat down at his right, Andrew on his left, with James and John Zebedee below them. The two girls, who had now returned, seated themselves on cushions near the doorway –they would eat afterwards—but Abishag, when she had finished serving, sat as usual at the foot, though now directly facing Jesus.
The talk was general, mostly about fishing, the roads in Galilee, the publicani tax collectors. Then, at a pause in the conversation, this from the foot of the table.
“Jesus. What kind of name is that? It doesn’t sound Jewish.”
“Woman, hold your tongue,” Simon said angrily. “You do not know who you’re speaking to.”
“It’s alright, Simon,” Jesus said, and then, turning to Abishag, “It is somewhat odd. Some men came out of Sepphoris, pious Greek-speaking Israelites all. They had heard the word and they believed, may God reward them…”
Again, a small stirring in the company and among those listening at the door at the forbidden pronunciation of the Sacred Name.
“…and it pleased them thenceforward to address me, they and their fellow Hellenists, in their own tongue, as Kyrios Jesus Christos or, as we would say, ‘Lord Yeshua Messiah.’ And somehow the fashion stuck.”
“So your real name is Yeshua?”
“Yeshua bar Miryam.”
“Bar Miryam? What, you have no father?”
“That is a very long story,” Jesus said. “Perhaps Simon will tell it to you one day.”
“And are you the Messiah?” she insisted.
“Hush!” Simon cried. “Is there no end to your insolence?”
Jesus merely smiled, then turned to Andrew. “I am told that your spouse is expecting your first child. What will you name it?”
“If it is a boy…” Andrew began.
“It will be a boy,” Jesus said.
“From your mouth to the Almighty’s ear,” Andrew said.
Jesus smiled upon his disciple.
“We thought we’d call him Judas.”
“Ah,” said Kyrios Jesus Christos.
A Wedding in Cana (Jn. 2:1-10)
“Find something to wear, girls, we’re going to a wedding!”
“Oh, please, Simon, who? Who is getting married?” Zipporah said excitedly.
“And where? Where are we off to?” Rachel asked.
“And when?” said Abishag from behind him. “How much time will I have to prepare?”
Simon turned to his mother in law. “You will have all the time in the world since you will be staying here in Capernaum taking care that no one steals your goat.”
“Menachem and Debbi next door will be happy to watch over Bathsheba. And, for your benefit, where my daughter goes, I go.”
Simon never really imagined that he’d be able to leave his mother in law at home while he and Andrew took their wives to a wedding in another town. He turned back to the girls.
“I don’t know whose wedding it is. All I know is that it’s in Cana up the road and Jesus invited us to accompany him there.”
“It wouldn’t be Jesus’ own wedding, would it, Simon?” Abishag offered snidely.
“No, it would not,” with growing irritation.
“I didn’t think so. And will his mother be there?”
“I don’t know. Probably.”
“That will be interesting,” Abishag said, brightening. “Now you’ll never keep me here.”
Cana was a far lesser place than Capernaum, but the wedding took place in what was quite clearly the most impressive residence in the village, a five room house of golden Jerusalem stone –the bride’s father, it was whispered among the thirty or forty guests, owned extensive fields of olive trees— and it was in its hall that the wedding was celebrated.
The bride was lovely, the groom handsome, but the center of attraction was the holy man from Nazareth. He sat modestly and quietly at table, apparently unaware of the room of eyes fastened upon him. On his left hand sat Simon, on his right, John Zebedee. Next to John was Mother Miryam; on Peter’s left was Andrew, then the two girls and finally Abishag, at what was thought to be a safe distance from both Jesus and his mother
Before the guests were plates of hummus, others of olives, pickles and small peppers. Pita bread sat in heaps and there were jugs of wine that were refilled before they could be completely emptied.
“He must be very well off, the father, I mean. And she must have been the catch of the whole countryside. Do you know anything about them?” Abishag asked the stranger on her left. He stared at her a moment and then abruptly turned away and toward the woman on his other side with whom he began, much to her surprise, an animated conversation
Abishag soon commanded the two girls to move and seated herself next to Andrew.
“Who is that woman three seats down from Miryam, next to, what’s his name, Nathanael, you know, the one who made the disparaging remark about Nazareth. I guess all is forgiven.
Anyway, who’s the woman, the one with enough kohl on her eyes to write her name on a wall, if it isn’t already there?”
“I see you’ve been enjoying the wine,” Andrew said.
“It’s a wedding, you sad fisherman, brother of another sad fisherman. You’re supposed to enjoy the wine. But the woman. Who’s that woman?”
“That’s Miryam of Magdala. Why are you so interested?”
“I’ve been thinking of young Zebedee, who has been fawning over your Jesus since he arrived. I think it might be good for him, and for Jesus, whatever he’s up to, if pretty John got himself married. Is that Magdali woman married? What am I thinking? Of course she isn’t. A quiet wedding with John would do the impossible and make an honest woman of her and, even better, an honest man of John. Don’t you think?”
“I think you should stop drinking immediately,” Andrew said. “Here, have a pickle.”
But it didn’t stop Andrew from thinking about it, nor Simon, when his brother told him about it. Maybe not so crazy after all, he thought. But it would never pass muster with Jesus who had lately taken to calling John his “beloved disciple.”
Abishag did stop drinking, not because Andrew said to but because she had another project in mind and it required a clear head. She kept her eyes steadfastly right, past Andrew, past Simon and Jesus, John and Miryam to the place to Miryam’s right. Who was it Thomas? Crazy Simon the Zealot? No matter. Sooner or later he would have to go outside to the privy…Ah, there he goes!
In a matter of seconds Abishag had seated herself next to Miryam.
“Shalom, Bat Joachim. We haven’t met. I’m Abishag bat Uriah, Simon bar Jonah’s mother in law.”
The two woman examined each other in that rapid, detailed and consequential way in which each had been trained.
“Simon is a good man,” Miryam began. “If anyone will inherit the Kingdom, it will be Bar Jonah.”
“He is a good man,” Abishag agreed, “but short-tempered at times and, you know how men are, there’s the occasional rudeness or incivility. Surely your own husband has his little flaws.”
There it was: Jesus’ father was on the table.
“I’m afraid not,” Miryam said. There was now a certain icy edge around the words. “Joseph was a saint.”
Abishag, a fisherman herself, caught the “was” she had been trolling for.
“And Jesus, another saint, everybody says so, is he your and Joseph’s only child?”
But not quite.
Instead of answering, Miryam turned away from Abishag, leaned across John and said to Jesus, “Have you noticed, they have run out of wine.”
“Yes, I saw. But it’s no business of ours, is it, mother?”
No, it wasn’t, except it was, as Miryam was well aware. She called over the waiter and whispered, “Tell the staff to do whatever my son says,” squeezing a bag of denarii into his hand. “It may sound strange, but just do it.”
“What was that about,” Abishag wanted to know. “Did you send them out to buy more wine in Jesus’ name?”
“You have a great many questions,” Miryam said. “No wonder Simon is short tempered.” And she turned and engaged John in conversation
When it became clear that there would be no further talk with Miryam, Abishag returned to her place next to Andrew just as the waiter was filling the table jug with fresh wine.
“I thought they had run out,” Andrew said.
“Yes sir. They did run out,” the waiter said. “This is a new serving. Strange thing though…”
Andrew poured himself a cup of the new wine.
“Asherah be damned!” Andrew exclaimed. “This never came from Galilean grapes. This has to be wine from the Lebanon,” and turning to Simon, “Have you tried this?”
Simon poured and drank a cup of the new wine. He sat and thought for a moment, then turned to Jesus,
Jesus raised his hand to silence his disciple. Simon said no more.
“Don’t worry, Andrew, the story will soon out,” Abishag said with puffed up satisfaction. “Rather than have his host embarrassed, Jesus paid the caterer to bring in new wine, and an expensive wine at that.”
“And how do you know this?”
“I saw his mother give the money to the waiter.”
Simon, who was listening, said only, “You know nothing, woman. Nothing.”
The Touch (Mk. 4:24-34)
When Nathanael and others told him what had gone on between Abishag and Jesus’ mother at Cana, Simon angrily banished his mother in law from his home. Abishag had little choice but to move back to Beth Saida where she made a thin living cooking for a fish wholesaler and his family. It was there too that her uterine bleeding, which had been a mildly painful inconvenience for ten or more years, turned serious.
Abishag had kept her condition to herself, though she had gone in secret to a succession of physicians in search of a cure. At Beth Saida, however, she began to suffer what soon turned into morbid continuous hemorrhaging. Her health rapidly deteriorated, but far more painful was the social shunning she now had to endure. She was now what Leviticus calls an “oozer,” a woman in a permanent state of ritual impurity, And ritual impurity was thought to be contagious to persons with whom she might have come in contact and transferable even to objects she touched: the clothes she wore, the bench she sat upon. There was now no concealing her disease and there was no cure. Abishag bat Uriah was an outcast in Jewish society.
Jesus had spent time performing cures and exorcisms on the western, more heathenish side of the Sea of Galilee, and when he returned to the vicinity of Beth Saida he was immediately approached by one of the officials of the local synagogue who begged him to come and save his young daughter who was near death. Jesus sets off surrounded with what is by then a large crowd. And Abishag was among them.
As the story of the miraculous transformation of water into wine at the Cana wedding began to spread through the villages of Galilee, it eventually reached the ears of Abishag in Beth Saida. Can this be, she thought. Can Simon’s rabbi really perform wonders like Honi the Circle Maker? Her pain, shame and desperation overcame all doubts and carried her to the shore that day and, in all her uncleanness, into the throng that surrounded Jesus on his way to the synagogue.
“Wait,” Jesus said and stopped in his tracks. “Somebody touched me. Who touched my cloak?”
“What are you saying, Lord?” Nathanael asked. “There must be fifty people here, all pushing and shoving around you.”
Jesus turned and looked at the faces surrounding him. His glance fell on Abishag, who was filled with shame and straightway fell at his feet.”
“Unclean! Unclean!” a Pharisee shouted from the crowd.
“Quiet,” Jesus said and the crowd slowly fell silent. “It is not blood or food that renders us unclean,” he continued, “but the contents of the heart.” And turning again to Abishag prostrate at his feet, “Tell me, woman, is your heart pure?”
“Rabbi, you probably don’t recall,” she said, getting to her knees, “but I have always liked and admired you. So please, rid me of this affliction and I promise that from now on I will observe all the Torah laws to the letter.”
Jesus studied her briefly and then said, “Arise, woman. You are made whole. Your beliefs have been rewarded.”
Abishag immediately sensed that her hemorrhaging had stopped. She arose. “Thank you, rabbi,” she said, then, turning to the crowd, “See, Pharisees, I am now as clean as you, you hypocrites.” And she quickly made her way through the crowd and took the path to Beth Saida. That went better than I expected, she thought. I wonder how he does it.
A week later the hemorrhaging returned,
With that Abishag disappears from the Christian tradition. She goes unmentioned in the literature until the tenth century when a curious cult of “St. Abishag, mother of St. Peter” appears among the Balkan Bulgars.