Joanne Otto

Author

Category: Writing

Why write about a Pharisee?

As I illustrated in a recent blog, not all Pharisees were sanctimonious hypocrites, and some even provided vital support to Jesus and his followers. So it’s not really surprising that from the moment my Daughter of Jerusalem Pharisee, Eleazar ben Judah, began presenting himself to my creative imagination, I found him lovable and admirable. To me he represented all that is noble and good in the Jewish roots from which Christianity sprang.

My Model Pharisee

At first, of course, he didn’t yet have a name. In fact, I even considered identifying him as the Bible character he most resembles: Gamaliel, the fair-minded Sanhedrin member who urged the Jewish council to let the early Christians alone as they spread their gospel. (See Acts 5:34-39.) Research, however, later revealed that Gamaliel had a son, and, for the purposes of the plot, the Pharisee in my novella could not. His relationship with his daughter Mara is central to the plot, and if a Pharisee had a son, it is unlikely that he would ever have broken with tradition so far as to teach his daughter the Hebrew Scriptures. So Gamaliel had to be sacrificed to be faithful to the historic record, and this led me at last to my fictitious friend Eleazar.

A Remarkable Father-Daughter Relationship

From the very start, Eleazar‘s relationship with his daughter Mara was what drew me to him. I could picture a conservative, dignified doctor of the law in affectionate dialogue with a spunky misfit of a young woman. By teaching Mara the Scriptures, Eleazar has rendered her unsuited to the position she’s expected to occupy in their culture. He has also unknowingly set the stage for her deep appreciation of Jesus (Yeshua) from the moment she first hears him teach. As you can see, these two characters made a deep initial impression on me. The question was: Now what?

What happens next?

Decades of my life intervened before their full story evolved, but this father-daughter duo simply would not leave me alone. Their story had to be told. Questions had to be resolved. How would this devoutly Jewish father react to his daughter’s avid interest in the teachings of a young rabbi from Nazareth? Would he go so far as to actively oppose her interest? Or would he share that interest? Or something in between? I suppose I had to wait for Eleazar to tell me himself.

Eventually he opened up to me.  I listened intently, for instance, as he patiently explained to his daughter why the Pharisees opposed Yeshua— both the surface reason and the deeper one. I watched Eleazar cautiously shepherd Mara to the Temple to hear Yeshua teach. And I wept as he regretfully shared with his heartbroken daughter the details of the crucifixion— an execution initiated by the very council on which he sat!

Rewards of the writing

Birthing the character of this Pharisee was one of the most instructive and rewarding experiences of my life. It helped me to better understand how Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries would have viewed him and why. And it enabled me to cherish even more deeply the as yet undiscovered gift that Jesus was bringing to them.

So, as I’m sure you can tell, I am grateful I got to write about this Pharisee. He was definitely one of the good ones. If you haven’t gotten to know him yet, I hope you will. And if you have, I would love to hear what message he has communicated to you.

Bringing the Past into the Present

A friend recently asked me why I chose to write my book, “Daughter of Jerusalem,” in the present tense even though its story takes place nearly two thousand years ago. My short answer is: to make it come alive.

Can’t you almost hear a friend telling a story about something that happened yesterday or last week and using exactly the same technique? (“So I run up to him and ask him what the heck he thinks he’s doing.”) That friend knows instinctively that the present tense invests a now concluded incident with the aliveness of this very moment.

I first tried using it for story-writing when it was suggested at a writer’s workshop I attended about 20 years ago. I could see that it made my story sing, and I’ve used it on occasion ever since. That’s not to say it’s appropriate in all situations, but if you like writing stories, it’s definitely worth a try. Let me know if you have success with it.

Writing a Story About Jesus

Picking up on last week’s observations re biblical fiction, I can think of no more challenging or more thrilling subject for an author to build a story on than the life of Jesus. The challenge, of course, is in doing him justice–catching even a glimpse of what made him who he was and presenting it in a way that rings true for today’s readers. In attempting this, I had to see Jesus through the eyes of my fictional characters, especially Mara. I found myself asking: What sort of scriptural teaching has she heard up to this point, and how would Jesus’ teaching have been different? What would draw her to him? How would her one-on-one encounter with him be initiated in an age when women’s interactions with men were so restricted? The answer that came to that third question was straight from the Jesus I knew from Scripture: he’d have known she wanted to speak with him. And the moment of this realization was nothing short of soul-stirring. It was insights like this one that made “Daughter of Jerusalem” the most thrilling writing project I’ve ever undertaken.

Biblical Fiction

Why would someone who loves the Bible want to use it as a springboard for a novel? Wouldn’t that tend to trivialize it? I asked myself this question years ago after reading a fine biography of Paul. Why, after writing this factual history of his life, did Henrietta Buckmaster want to rewrite his story in her novel “And Walk in Love”?

After reading it, however, I began to understand. Her research and scriptural study had given her intriguing insights into Paul’s life and character. I think she wanted to take them even further–to envision what it would have meant to actually walk his walk. For this she needed to extend herself beyond the boundaries of historical scholarship and plunge into the deeper waters of the creative imagination. But this plunge of hers has value for Bible readers primarily because she was already well acquainted with the world Paul inhabited and the ideas that shaped his interaction with it. Far from trivializing the Bible, fiction–when rooted in fact–can bring it to life for its readers and allow them vivid glimpses into the Bible’s inhabitants and their world.

Creative?

A creative person—that’s what you have to be to write a book, right? All I can say is: it hasn’t worked for me.The more responsible I feel for being creative and coming up with ideas, the less success I have as a writer. Or anything else for that matter.

But in those quiet moments of listening to an inner voice that I’m convinced belongs to the true Creator, ideas can occur that are beyond my imagining. That’s when I know I’m on holy ground, and the results sometimes amaze me.

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