What if there had been a woman who was a bishop in the earliest parts of Christian history? What would her life have been like? And, if we found out about her now, what would that entail? These are the questions raised by John I. Rigoli and Diane Cummings in their historical fiction novel, The Mystery of Julia Episcopa.
The Mystery of Julia Episcopa has two primary storylines: the first, set in modern times, follows Valentina Vella and Erika Simone, two archaeologists who come across a tantalizing discovery. The second plot follows Julia Episcopa’s life in the first century as she encounters Christianity and navigates her household life.
The story of Valentina and Erika starts off with a bang: the discovery of a document case that had some intentional damage done to remove the evidence that it was from Julia Episcopa, the last syllable indicating the person involved was a woman. It’s found at the Vatican during the tenure of a pope who is working to make reforms to the Roman Catholic church. These scholars have been, in part, charged with seeing whether there is any evidence of women in leadership in the earliest periods of the church. Their discovery launches them on a quest to attempt to find more information about Julia’s life and position in the church. To that end, readers are taken on an archaeological quest enlisting a few other experts as Valentina and Erika work against the clock and church leaders who are less interested in finding women in leadership than in suppressing them. It’s got the makings of a thriller, and at its best, it delivers the goods.
It’s difficult as a non-expert to assess how accurate the representation of Julia’s life is historically. As a reader, however, these sections delving into her life are among the strongest in the novel. Julia is a complex character with a difficult life, despite being born into wealth in the Roman world. No small amount of reflection on household dynamics and paterfamilias is built into this part of the story. But the concepts the author’s put forward in these sections never overtake the character of Julia and her own tale. It’s a spellbinding story, and strong enough to stand upon its own.
These two stories intertwine as Valentina and Erika come closer and closer to discovering the truth of Julia even as they try to hide the massive significance of their discovery from church authorities who are determined to prevent women from having authoritative roles in the church. Forced to conceal their findings for fear of losing funding in retribution due to others not liking the implications of their discovery, they continue on, using whatever resources they can find and their wit to keep the investigation going. It leads to some surprising discoveries.
One difficulty with the novel is twofold: things happen either too easily or with too much difficulty. For example, when Valentina and Erika decide to try to track down Julia’s tomb, they are convinced they’ll be able to find it. They simply enlist another expert and go to find it. However, archaeological finds, to my knowledge, don’t work that way. Picking a name and then going to try to find that specific person’s tomb from 2000 years ago is not how such finds usually happen. Though there are some pointers to help locate the tomb, the sheer confidence of Valentina and Erika that they can easily find the tomb made it difficult to suspend disbelief. On the flip side, when discoveries are made that include languages like Greek, at least one of our two main characters is unable to read it. It does not seem possible that anyone could become a renowned classical scholar and work with archaeological finds in the ancient world around the Mediterranean and not know a language like Greek.
The novel stumbles a bit in the last third. The following includes major spoilers. The archaeological expedition manages to discover Julia Episcopa’s tomb. Rigoli and Cummings here start to introduce a number of fantastic discoveries all at once. Not only do they find the tomb and therefore strong evidence of a woman who was a bishop in the early church, but they also find her mostly intact diary. The discovery of the tomb alone pushes on plausibility a bit, but adding in ancient texts starts to stretch credulity. Then, however, it truly starts to hit home how much is being packed into this novel at the end. They also find ensconced there a letter revealing the origins of a strong hierarchy for the papacy. If that’s not enough, they also find the Holy Grail! Then, at the end, additional events twist and turn so rapidly it’s hard to keep up. It’s a clear set up for a second novel, but by the end I was left wondering if I thought the whole thing was plausible enough to dive in to the next volume. I will, of course, because the premise alone was enough to sell me into the next book, but I was disappointed by this stumble towards the end.
All of that aside, The Mystery of Julia Episcopa is a refreshing read. More and more real world evidence turns up showing that women did have a much stronger role in the church than has been known for some time. This historical fiction novel, despite some flaws, delivers a compelling tale that lets readers wonder what it might have been like–and what it could be like–if huge discoveries to that end turn up.
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