A Letter of Mary

Tuesdays during the Twenty Weeks of Buzz are given over to a look at each of my twenty books, one each week, with some reflection or bit of information or background about it. This week, A Letter of Mary, published in 1997.

My background is theology, with degrees in Comparative Religion and in Old Testament. It is also Mary Russell’s interest.

So what would happen if a young, Jewish Oxford theological student were handed a document that would shake the foundations of Christianity—and, along the way, change the future of her entire life?

The compilers of what we call the New Testament had an untold number of documents to choose from: epistles, sermons, letters, and gospels (or “Good News”) all of which the early Christians had written, shared, copied, annotated, and passed around (or not—many ancient fragments are discovered within the bindings of later books.) In the second century (that is, a hundred years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth) various groups of Christians began to wrestle with just which of these documents were acceptable—defining the norm of what Christianity was—and which were either questionable or downright heretical. Many of the writings found by a couple of young goatherds in the caves of Qumran were of these questionable sort, used by a small group, rejected by the larger Christian community.

(There is a document termed the “Gospel of Mary,” of which the earliest extant fragments, from the third century, were found at Oxyrhynchus in northern Egypt—in excavations of an ancient garbage dump.)

All four Canonical gospels mention a woman named Mary, who appears to have been from the town of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee. Only Luke’s Gospel mentions her by name before the Resurrection, but all agree that it was she who witnessed the risen Christ, and she who took the news to the other apostles: Mary of Magdala was the apostle to the apostles.

Among all those fragile scraps of writing at loose in a troubled land, how many were lost? It is not a great leap of the imagination to envision a letter, written by the hand of the woman of Magdala and concerning of the charismatic rabbi whom she chose to follow, which was revered, preserved, and then quietly hidden away from later authorities.

One letter, that, were it to come to light, would cause a shiver down the spine of a Christianity that had chosen, in the two millennia since then, to turn towards the male apostles and overlook the female.

One letter, of Mary.

Sea of Galilee.


  1. Chris on February 2, 2010 at 1:35 am

    I need to go back and re-read the first three Russells. My memory is hazy, (hey, I’m getting old, and it’s more than ten years ago!) and they were my first attempt to read good fiction that wasn’t set in the modern day, so I was breaking my own set boundaries and I will own up – don’t hit me! – that I probably didn’t appreciate them fully at the time. Reading them, through necessity, out of order, would not have helped; from The Moor onwards, I was on track. I think, given the time and opportunity for some back-to-back re-reading, I will be able to not only read from a new perspective (older and wiser, maybe…?), but will have a much greater familiarity with backgrounds and characters.

    Anyhoo – that’s my tuppence ha’penny’s worth!


  2. Rachael on February 2, 2010 at 1:55 am

    I loved this book! (although i love all Mary’s books!) and I am currently re-reading all of them for about the fifteenth time. I have always wondered about the character Peter in the book. He’s only there for a short amount of time, he plays the piano at Westbury’s and helps distract some women who might recognise Russell when she’s undercover. I get the feeling while reading this section that I’m suppose to know who this is, as a historical figure or someone from the Holmes books but I can’t figure it out!! If anyone knows could they please enlighten me????

  3. Nancy W. on February 2, 2010 at 4:36 am

    Rachael, yes. That’s Lord Peter Wimsey, the detective/hero of Dorothy L. Sayers’ novels.

  4. Evan H. on February 2, 2010 at 7:46 am

    As someone fascinated by biblical studies (I’m about to head off to graduate school to do a masters degree in the subject) I loved this book particularly. The cameo appearance by “Peter” was great as well!

  5. Merrily on February 2, 2010 at 11:41 am

    And if you haven’t read the Lord Peter Wimsey books, I recommend them highly, especially the later ones in which Harriet Vane appears. I still think that “Gaudy Night” is one of the all-time great academic mysteries.
    I loved LETT, too; it’s one of the books (like MOOR) that, in my opinion, improves with each reading – not because it wasn’t wonderful to begin with, but because the reader picks up more lovely little nuances with each reading.

  6. strawberry curls on February 2, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, these trade edition covers are gorgeous!

    I seem to remember reading somewhere that you wrote this book before writing MREG, as a way of “seeing” Russell and Holmes as a married couple before writing how they found their way to the ultimate partnership. Am I correct in this recollection, Laurie? If so, what did you decided about the story in MREG based on LETT?


  7. Rachael on February 2, 2010 at 6:34 pm

    Thank you for your help and recommendations!!

  8. Cici on April 15, 2010 at 7:03 pm

    I loved this book. Like MREG, I read it twice, and the second time around I understoood it much better. It took me a little bit to figure out who Peter was (not yet having read Dorothy Sayers), but when I did, I thought it really was clever. How did Mary meet Peter, I wonder? I also liked how (in the edition I read, at least) each chapter started with a letter of the Greek alphabet.

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