Jim Cullen: Review of Colm Toibin's "The Testament of Mary" (Scribner, 2012)

tags: Colm Toibin, Gospel of John, synoptic gospels, The Testament of Mary



Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. His new book, Sensing the Past: Hollywood Stars and Historical Visions, was published last month by Oxford University Press. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

The book is billed as the testament of Mary, not the gospel of Mary. "Gospel" means "good news," but protagonist of this novella (adapted into a play that will come to Broadway next month) has little to offer in the way of glad tidings. For thousands of years, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth has come down to us as a woman who unquestionably accepted God's instruction that she be the instrument of a virgin birth, lived to see her son executed, and then vanished from the pages of history. But in Irishman Colm Toibin's version of her life, we see an anguished old Mary who finds more comfort from the solitude of a pagan temple than she does communing her son's associates, who are blithely constructing a myth in her midst.

The book opens with Mary in exile in the coastal Roman city of Ephesus, supported by followers of Jesus who somehow attend to her and query her, without ever really paying attention to her. She has never recovered from her son's crucifixion, which she describes as a curse "that pumped darkness through me at the same rate as it pumped blood." She lives listlessly, awaiting death, alternating happier memories of her intact family -- she angrily demands that her son's followers not sit in the chair of her forgotten husband Joseph -- with the unsettling period of Jesus's ministry and his eventual arrest and execution.

Mary's recollections correspond unevenly with the the accounts we have come to know as the synoptic gospels. The story of Lazarus precedes the wedding at Cana, which is typically considered the start of the Jesus's ministry. Unlike the Gospel of John, Mary does not ask Jesus to turn water into wine; here she's too anxious about the spies and informants that endanger her and her son. According to that same gospel, the dying Jesus addressed Mary by saying, "Behold your son" (and the apostles by saying, "behold your mother"). But in this version of the story, Mary and the apostles keep a safe distance, and, in a decision for which she can never forgive herself, Mary flees to save her own life rather than remain with the body of Jesus.

These scriptural discrepancies go to the heart of what Toibin is trying to do here, which is to demythologize Christianity -- here it may be no accident that his allusions rest on the Gospel of John, that most mystical scripture -- by showing its origins as a set of accounts that are not simply of questionable accuracy, but explicitly scorned by one who was there at the creation. "They want to make what happened live forever, they told me," she reports. "What is being written down, they say, will change the world." When Mary tells these evangelists she doesn't understand what they mean, they reply, "He was indeed the Son of God."

But for this Mary, Jesus was not the Christ. And the presumed future salvation of others brings her no comfort. "I was there," she replies. "I fled before it was all over, but if you want witnesses then I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say it was not worth it. It was not worth it." But these apostles don't care. One is reminded here of the Jesus of Nikos Kazantzakis's 1953 novel The Last Temptation of Christ, who meets a St. Paul who regards what Jesus himself thinks or knows as less important than an emerging world of believers for whom faith is more important than truth.

By this point, insistence -- the need? -- for the modern imagination to place God in a mortal frame has almost become a cliche that stretches across an ideological spectrum from Martin Scorsese (who made a film version of The Last Temptation of the Christ with Brooklynesque patois in 1988) to Mel Gibson (who directed the painfully graphic, and anti-Semitic, Passion of the Christ in 2004). This modern form of Arianism is meant to make Jesus more realistic, and thus believable. But it also makes him a little safe, sidestepping the question of divinity by making him more acceptable to a secular imagination. I understand that impulse. But I'm growing a little suspicious of it.

What Toibin is doing here, however, is a little different. He's not rounding the spiritual edges of Jesus with flesh and blood; instead, he's constructing a heretical Mary who challenges rather than accommodates. I gasped out loud (actually, what I said was "Jesus," taking the Lord's name in vain) when I got to the penultimate paragraph of this book. In a weird way, though, I find myself wondering if Toibin is, in his oblique way, more faithful than most in the way he portrays religious experience with an unsentimental toughness that eschews easy answers. (Actually, there's something supernaturally creepy in the way Mary experiences the resurrected Lazarus and the disconcerting glow of her son at the wedding.) The life and death of Jesus is a mysterious business. It's probably best to understand it as something you can never really understand.


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