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Michele Connolly, Disorderly Women and the Order of God: An Australian Feminist Reading of the Gospel of Mark

reviewed by Sue Emeleus

Not only does this book have an unusual title, it is a most unusual commentary.

Mark, in Palestine, under the Imperial power of Rome wrote about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Connolly, a Sister of St Joseph, lecturing at the Catholic Institute in Strathfield, says 'the foundation of my own nation and the founding events of my religious tradition took place within an imperial-colonial relationship' (p. 2). She thus wanted to construct a specifically post-colonial feminist lens with which to read the Gospel of Mark for the way it evaluates human beings on the basis of their gender. She produced such a lens by studying two foundational 'events' of Australian history, both of which relate strongly to Australia's experience of the British Empire. In both narratives the characters are evaluated on account of their gender. The two events studied are:

(a) The foundation of the colony of Sydney by convicts, particularly female convicts condemned to transportation to the unexplored continent, and

(b) The participation of the new Nation of Australia as a former colony of Great Britain, on the side of Great Britain, in World War I, The Anzac Legend by C.E.W. Bean and other documents of the same time.

These two events are the subjects of chapters 2 and 3. Connolly studied religious feminism in USA in the late 1990s and found that much of the religious feminism she found in Australia was directly imported from USA. She was really searching for a feminism that emerged out of the history and concerns of Australia. I found these two historical chapters quite riveting.

book cover

Published by T&T Clark, London, 2018.

In chapter 4, titled 'The Gospel of Mark, a Christian Narrative of the First Century CE', Connolly suggests that the Gospel is written in contrapuntal style where there are two melodies playing at the same time. The main melody concerns Jesus' public ministry, his journey to Jerusalem and the passion narrative. In the first twelve chapters he teaches, heals, exorcises, argues, feeds and converses with his disciples who accompany him. The second melody narrates the interruptions by women along the way. In the first twelve chapters the women are described in familial terms such as mother and daughter, rather than by name. They are usually isolated, marginalised, denigrated and silent. The woman with the haemorrhage speaks to herself, and only the Syrophoenician woman in chapter 7 converses with Jesus in direct speech. Nor do the women usually speak to each other, except for Herodius and her daughter who plan the beheading of John the Baptist.

Mark 7–12 contain only two stories about women. Jesus is intensely preparing his male disciples to assume responsibility. Jesus observes the widow in the Temple at the end of chapter 12. Connolly suggests that the first twelve chapters are framed by widow stories, of Peter's mother-in-law in chapter 1 and the poor widow in chapter 12. Chapter 13 contains Jesus' apocalyptic homily that predicts the end of the Temple, of the city of Jerusalem and of the entire world.

The passion narrative is contained in Mark chapters 14–16. Connolly suggests that the women mentioned in the passion narrative have functional roles, rather than familial ones. Each story is told very movingly. Suddenly in Mark 15:41, we learn that from the time when Jesus was in Galilee, all the way to Jerusalem they and many other women followed him and served him. Connolly asks why this is not mentioned in the chapters where no women were mentioned (p. 174); why weren't their services mentioned? In chapter 15 they are seen as the only ones who have not abandoned him. But even though they are now named, they still have no voice. For this reason and for several others, Connolly suggests that it is Mark's description which is disordered, not the women (p. 177).

In the final section of Connolly's commentary she points out that during his passion Jesus is isolated, marginalised, denigrated and silent. When the Gospel of Mark depicts Jesus subject to this onslaught of disordered evil, the recognised characteristics of his demeanour are those the Gospel of Mark has constructed as female (p. 170).