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  • Writer's pictureElaine Kelly

Q&A: Why Write a Historical Biblical Fiction?

Updated: May 13

In short: I write to show that Jesus empowered women.

1. Where did you get the idea to write historical fiction about women in the first century?

I have always been interested in exploring the women of the Bible and during the pandemic, I had a chance to read, listen to, and explore more articles, podcasts, and research on the women of the Bible. I found models of strong women of faith, but many of them had either been forgotten or intentionally hidden or slandered. I have noticed through the years how girls and women are devalued in our culture, workplaces and churches. I have three daughters and have made an effort to empower them, build their self-esteem, encourage them to explore ideas, make their own choices, and develop their voices and their gifts. Once I had researched the women who interacted with Jesus, I thought other people, especially women, would be interested in getting to know these women who were eyewitnesses, patrons, disciples and apostles.

2. What motivated you to write this novel?

The United Nations had declared a Decade for Women from 1975 to 1985, and it looked like changes would address women’s rights, pay equity, and gender violence. Girls were told we could be anything we wanted to be. Women used their gifts in churches and more denominations were beginning to ordain women. My own mother frequently was a leader and speaker at events for Christian men and women and she was involved in supervising women interns as they prepared for ordination. In the 80s and early 90s, Canada, the UK, and India had their first woman prime minister. When I was a student in Western University’s business program, women were a minority but there was a cultural and societal trend towards equal rights and representation regardless of gender. As I prepared to retire after thirty years in the financial industry, I discovered that while I had been looking the other way, women’s rights had actually been moving backwards. As I looked for the source of reverse, I found that many of the new restrictions on women seemed to be coming from the Christian church. I felt betrayed – I am a Christian and had grown up thinking the Bible taught equality and yet the church was becoming an increasingly strong voice against equality. An urgency was placed on my heart to write about how Jesus endorsed equality, taught women as disciples, hired them as his financial advisors and commissioned women to go out and speak.

3. Why put these ideas in historical fiction?

Theologians, scholars, and academics have already written many books outlining how Jesus lifted up women and explaining how the Bible can be interpreted to promote equality. This is important in changing our thinking, but I believe stories and characters are the keys to changing our actions. Jesus used stories in his teaching: fictional stories that reveal true ideas. I see biblical fiction as a parable. I enjoy putting complex ideas into plain language and I believe historical fiction connects to our emotions and makes concepts more accessible. A story impacts the heart, which can change people’s behaviour in ways that intellectual knowledge cannot. We saw this with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a fiction that dramatically showed the problems of slavery. While theologians and politicians used intellect to argue about slavery, this novel used storytelling and emotion to motivate the public toward abolition. In my financial career, we learned that facts tell, and stories sell. People could think about products, concepts, and strategies, but did not usually take action until they felt in their hearts that a financial idea would give them peace of mind or a feeling of security or some other benefit. I believe historical fiction can change people’s minds about gender equality.

4. What first got you started in reading biblical fiction?

This question is explored further in my podcast interview on Regency History.

Likely the one that got me started on biblical fiction Michal, by Jill Eileen Smith. I was struggling with infertility at the time and was depressed that some Bible passages connect this physical ailment with sin or disobedience. I was affirmed to see Michal not being sinful and weak and punished with infertility for being immoral. Instead, the novel shows Michal is brave when she hides a statue under blankets to help David escape; strong when she is at her father King Saul's mercy after David flees; wise when she counsels David to show respect before God and the Ark; faithful even when David moves on to other wives. It makes you wonder how many women have been portrayed as sinful and weak when they were really strong, positive models of faith.

5. What are the main themes that you explore in the book?

I explore how the Bible empowers all people to follow their call and use their gifts, regardless of gender. Mary’s song of praise prophesies that Jesus will lift up the lowly and pull down the powerful. The church today has done just the reverse, platforming the powerful, silencing the lowly and separating people based on gender or race. Patriarchal ideas promote women being there to be used, to serve men, to be silent and submit to mistreatment. Authoritarian hierarchies of control have borne the fruit of harm and abuse. My novel puts readers in the sandals of the women, experiencing and overcoming inequality, abuse, and racism.

6. Why did you choose to develop these particular women of the Bible?

My novel shows twelve women who acted as disciples and learned from him. They seemed to be chosen, called, equipped and sent out as apostles. In thinking of women who interacted with Jesus, many people can only spontaneously think of Jesus’s mother Mary, and Mary Magdalene. I include 35 women of the Gospels in my novel, and focus on 12: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mara of Clopas, Salome the mother of James and John, Perpetua the wife of Peter, Mariamne the sister of Philip, Veronica who is healed of bleeding, Photini the woman at the well, the patrons Joanna, Susannah, Mary Magdalene, and the sisters Mary and Martha. My novel follows the character arcs of two women, and I tell the story from their viewpoints: Mara of Clopas, who is traumatized by abuse, and Joanna, who is hiding her mixed heritage due to racism.

7. Which character do you relate to the most?

This is one of the questions asked me on The Local Churchology Podcast.

Probably Mara – she is the character who is most deeply developed and there are some things about me that you can see in her. Like her, I sometimes listen to the negative and ignore the positive. It takes some effort for Mara to learn to take a compliment and believe in herself. Like many readers, Mara is filled with doubt about whether God sees them, chooses them, or loves them.

8. When researching, what stood out about how women were viewed in the first century?

I came into the research thinking women were second-class in the first century. I learned that they actually had some rights: the right to own property or business in certain situations, the right to inherit in the absence of a male relative, the right to have no male guardian if they had three or more children, and the right separate or divorce in certain situations. My research showed where Jesus talks about marriage and divorce in Matthew 19, it wasn’t really about limiting divorce to situations with unfaithfulness but more about calling men to be accountable to uphold their vows to love their wives. I spent quite a bit of time examining the sermon on the mount and how turning the other cheek has been used to keep women in abusive situations. I read about women survivors who shared their journeys about how God wants us to seek