The Gospel of Mary by Philip Freeman is the third book in the Sister Deirdre series, where a young Irish nun finds herself the guardian of a mysterious manuscript claiming to be the lost gospel of Mary and realizes that church authorities are willing to kill to get their hands on it.
I held the end of the fragile scroll in front of the flickering light.
“What does it say?”
“I don’t know yet. It’s not in Greek or Roman letters. It looks like Hebrew—no, Aramaic.”
“Yes, it was the language of Syria and Palestine centuries ago. Father Ailbe taught it to me when I was younger. It was spoken by the Jews and others when the Romans ruled there.”
“Okay, but what does it say?”
“I’m working on it. Give me a moment.”
The writing was so faint that it was hard to make out the letters. But after a minute my eyes adjusted to the low light and the writing style of the scribe. At last I could read the first line.
“No … it can’t be.”
“What? What does it say, Deirdre?”
I took a deep breath, then translated it for Dari:
These are the words of Miryam, mother of Yeshua of Nazareth, the one they call the Christ.
Sister Deirdre is an Irish nun living in Kildare, well versed in many languages. When a dying, desperate nun collapses at her feet and begs her to protect an ancient scroll—“They will be coming.”—the young woman discovers that she holds what claims to be the words of the Holy Mary.
Joined by her friend Dari, Deirdre flees her safe monastery and sets off across Ireland, hoping to stay a step ahead of the pursuing Church long enough to translate the text and decide whether it’s genuine or a malicious hoax.
The nuns’ journey takes them from royal courts to remote wilds and mysterious Druid enclaves. All the while, their harrowing journey—pursued by men willing to kill to obtain the scroll—is interspersed with Mary’s own story. The story of a heartbroken mother who lived in a violent time and lost everyone she loved.
Does Deirdre truly hold a lost gospel of Mary? Will she and Dari finish translating it before the Church kills them, as it has so many other female caretakers over the centuries?
“…In all the centuries it has been in existence, the Church at Rome has been trying to find it and destroy it.”
“But why?” asked Dari.
“My child,” answered Sister Anna, “the leaders of the Church fear it because they don’t know what it says. Power is always threatened by the unknown. … They say that from the beginning, the women of our faith who guarded this gospel swore to give their lives to protect it from enemies outside and within the Church—and many did. From the time it was written, the Church leaders in Alexandria and Rome sought to track down this document and burn it, along with any women who dared to stand in their way. The priests and officials the Church commissioned to find it thought of themselves as good Christians. They believed they were doing the work of God—the most dangerous kind of men. They chased it for years through the deserts of Egypt and then at last to a convent in the heart of Rome itself where the holy women who had protected it gave their lives rather than reveal where they had sent it…”
The Gospel of Mary is the third Sister Deirdre adventure. At less than 200 pages, it moves at a crackling pace and is surprisingly packed with excitement, emotion, and colorful characters.
Deirdre, our heroine narrator, is both an educated woman of the Christian faith and a Druid bard, balancing between the traditional beliefs of her country and the new religion brought from the east. Her education as a nun allows her to translate the ancient scroll, while her background as a bard allows her to travel freely across Ireland in search of shelter in unexpected places. As a young woman and former mother herself, she feels drawn to Mary’s sorrowful story yet remains skeptical throughout the translation.
Mary herself is the second protagonist; this is as much her story as Deirdre’s. Philip Freeman does a fine job of crafting a realistic, simple portrait of someone who has become a sacred figure over the centuries—it reminds us she was once a mere woman. The historical details of the Biblical Middle East ring true, and while Mary’s son does perform miracles during her narration, Mary herself is incredibly relatable, never coming across as larger than life or mystical.
Freeman moves things along without hesitation, rarely indulging in detailed descriptions or flowery language. The Gospel of Mary is a straightforward story told in simple, unvarnished language. This makes for a quick and easy read but does mean it lacks texture or depth.
We know the official from the Church pursuing Deirdre and Dari with his hired thugs is dangerous; we see them kill more than once and threaten the women with a dire fate if they don’t hand over the scroll. But there’s a decided lack of tension, and the danger always seems rather detached—Freeman never builds up to the dramatics. Things simply happen without warning, which may be more realistic but makes for a less thrilling adventure.
The Gospel of Mary’s strength definitely lies in the titular half of the plot. Mary’s pain and resignation are tangible, and her ultimate message is a powerful one:
[The women] were the ones who established the meeting places, usually in their own homes, for followers of my son in their cities. They gave bread to the hungry, shelter to widows and prostitutes, and hope to anyone who came to them. They organized everything—women usually do. They often led the services in which women and men stood together as equals before the Almighty. When the men in their cities were too frightened to oppose the Romans, these women stood firm.
Some paid for their faith with their lives, but without them the teachings of my son would never have taken root in those distant places. That is the story everyone seems to have forgotten, Rebekah. It was women like your mother who made possible the ministry of my son while he was still alive and it was women more than men who spread his teachings across the world.
If the day ever comes when someone tries to tell you otherwise, tell them they are fools and liars.
This is as much a mother’s—and woman’s—story as it is a historical and religious adventure. Freeman does a very impressive job considering he is neither.
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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.