New College, University of Edinburgh

Tóibín Reviewed (PT. 3)

Colm Tóibín , The Testament of Mary

I’ve been asked to look at this book from the perspective of a historical Jesus scholar. And I’m very happy to do so: I’m a firm believer that historical fiction can sometimes shed light on the past – when our sources are as fragmented as the gospels we’re all in the realm of imagination and conjecture, whether we acknowledge it or not. What makes the difference is simply how well we know the first century context and therefore how plausible our reconstruction appears to others. Now it’s clear that Colm Tóibín does not aspire to be a historical Jesus scholar – he hasn’t waded through Josephus and there are a number of glaring anachronisms (Mary has shoes, and bills to pay) though I suspect that Tóibín wouldn’t be too concerned by these. More importantly, he’s someone who knows the Christian story well and the short novella is an imaginative retelling of some of the events found in John’s gospel. He may not be a Hilary Mantel when it comes to historical accuracy, but a number of aspects of the book will give historical Jesus scholars pause for thought. I’m thinking here of the poetic sensitivity that he brings to his portrait of Mary (her embarrassment at her son and sense of revulsion at the group of misfits, fools and malcontents that surround him – a view that would fit well with Mark 3), and the gritty realism that he brings to Herodian Galilee (the prevalence of ‘spies, informers and middlemen’, a world where trust is in short supply and powerful men call the shots in pursuit of their own gain – all coloured no doubt by his Irish Republican upbringing), not to mention the horror of the raising of Lazarus (reluctantly brought back from the dead only to howl in a darkened room, frightening the neighbours – the most striking part of the book for me).


But what I want to focus on in this short review is the profound disconnect between historical events and the way in which the story was eventually told in John’s gospel. This of course is crucial to historical Jesus work: if we can’t trust the sources, what hope is there? The theme of “testament” is central to the novella, and forms part of its title. Twenty years after the crucifixion and nearing death, Mary is desperate to give her testament, her own version of events in defiant contrast to what is already becoming the dominant narrative. Throughout the novel there is a growing distance between “what really happened” (what Mary saw) and the way the story is being told. Even early on, Miriam’s account of the raising of Lazarus, for example, bears little resemblance to Mary’s recollection of what happened; Mary points that out, stressing that Miriam hadn’t been there, unlike Mary who was standing at the grave watching the whole freak-show, but her friend blithely tells her that her beautiful, more theological account is also derived from eyewitnesses.


A large part of the tension in the book comes from the interaction between Mary and two “visitors.” It’s clear that Mary detests them; in her eyes they are insolent and menacing, pretending to protect her, but in reality keeping her imprisoned like jailers. They want her to “remember” things – Jesus’ miraculous conception, tales from his childhood, simple stories and anecdotes – but Mary, afraid, distrustful and traumatised by all has happened, remembers only confusion, and resolutely refuses to say anything that isn’t true. The more sympathetic of the visitors is clearly John the Evangelist (the other, irritable and dismissive, is apparently Paul, though he plays only a small role in the drama). John is writing an account of Jesus, but refuses to read it to the illiterate Mary. She, however, suspects the worst: “I know that he has written of things that neither he saw nor I saw” she says, “I know that he has also given shape to what I lived through and he witnessed, and that he has made sure that these words will matter, that they will be listened to.” John’s ambition is astounding: he and the other visitor want to present Jesus as the Son of God, to claim that his death was all part of his divine Father’s plan, and that it saved the world from sin and darkness. But Mary will have none of it. It matters to her that the truth – her testament, what really happened – is spoken at least once.


And that truth is deeply shameful: what has tormented Mary all these years is not only a grief so intolerable that she cannot bear to say her son’s name, but the recollection that she abandoned him at the end. She surprised herself by how controlled she was while he was on the cross, but when she thought her own life was in danger the thought occurred to her that “the pain was his and not mine,” and she ran, along with John and another Mary, without a plan, living like outcasts, seeking only to save their skins. In time, Mary dreamt of an alternate ending, one in which she washed the dead body of her son, cradled him in her arms, and oversaw his burial. She knows that this is the version that will be told, simply because it must have happened this way. How could a mother abandon her dying son? Dreams and wishful thinking play a prominent role in the novel; in fact, it’s a shared dream, in which the grieving women imagine that Jesus is alive again that re-energises John. Now he has a glow about him, and a determination to write the story that will change the world.


At first blush, this is a striking model of gospel origins. John the Evangelist is not heir to a body of pre-synoptic traditions which he feels obliged to incorporate into his account; nor does he interrogate eyewitnesses in the hope of establishing what really happened. Instead, he is a highly creative author with an original and innovative message, ready to adapt traditions and even invent material in pursuit of his theological aims. But should we really be surprised by this? Isn’t it only what redaction critics have taught us for decades? If you think, as I do, that John knew Mark’s account, then we are clearly in a world where the same story could be told in many and varied ways (perhaps deliberately so). And isn’t this only what we’d expect of an ancient biographer, for whom historical accuracy rarely stood in the way of a more appealing account of a philosopher’s life. We need only think of the differing portraits of Socrates put forward by his students. What was important, was to craft a particular portrait of a life, to draw out its meaning and to provide a model for disciples. Even as careful an author as Plutarch frequently reshapes whole episodes to fit with his purposes, moves stories to a different context, transfers events to a different person, creates details, or conflates several events into one. Christopher Pelling asks: “What did Plutarch think he was doing when he rewrote his source-material in this way? Would he have freely admitted that he was sacrificing the truth? Or would he have felt that he was reconstructing reality, arriving intuitively at a picture which simply must have been true? It is probably a little of both.”[1] Death in particular demanded to be rewritten: Cicero maintained that historians had a right when describing death to “adorn it rhetorically and tragically” (Brut 11.42). Good people deserved good deaths, and death-bed scenes and last words were particularly open to creative handling. And lest we feel too smug about our own ability to convey the truth it’s worth listening to the words of Hilary Spurling, biographer of Henri Matisse (amongst others) who notes that ‘in order to convey . . . factual material, the biographer will generally and I think inevitably, be forced to stoop to fiction . . . Any reconstruction which is not to be purely external, and therefore superficial, must be quite largely made up.’ [2]


Turning back to the gospels, it’s well known that Mark makes no mention of Mary’s presence at the cross; he attempts to redeem the shameful nature of the cross in a number of ways – by underscoring Jesus’ knowledge of what lay before him, his calm obedience to the Father, noting the portents after his death and describing his burial – but having the family in attendance isn’t one of his strategies (not surprisingly, perhaps, given what seems to be their resistance in chapter 3). It is, of course, impossible to know whether Mary was at the cross, though most historians I suspect would tend to trust the Markan portait. At all events, we have two conflicting accounts here: was Mary there, or was she not? Do the differing accounts simply reflect the confused nature of events, or deliberate theological strategies? And does it really matter which one is “historically true’?


The reason Tóibín’s reconstruction shocks, it seems to me, is because he lays so much emphasis on the flip-side of creativity. New Testament scholars talk rather positively about “creativity” as a good thing, bringing out the deeper meaning of events, but that, I suppose, is because most NT scholars are in broad agreement with the theological outlook of the evangelists. The dark underside of creativity is clearly that things are made up, that they didn’t happen in that way. Assuming Mark is correct, how would Mary have felt if she’d read John’s account? Perhaps not far from Tóibín ’s reconstruction.


The Testament of Mary nicely illustrates a further point about tradition, one that social memory theorists have stressed. And that’s that we don’t have to wait for decades for creativity to emerge. The exchange between Mary and Miriam over the raising of Lazarus shows that people see what they want to see, and the broader framework within which you see something has a profound effect upon the way that you interpret your memory of that event. The eyewitnesses known to Miriam were predisposed to interpret Lazarus’ return as the work of God; Mary, in contrast, was always going to see it as something horrific.


In the end, what strikes me as most anachronistic in this story is Mary herself. All that matters to her is historical accuracy, that “what happened” should be told. No doubt there were some in antiquity who prized journalistic reporting, but I suspect that Mary articulates a rather modern view that equates “truth” with facts and things that “happened.” Most historical Jesus scholars are rightly wary of John’s highly theological and symbolic narrative, much of it may not have happened and so can’t be used in any reconstruction of the man from Galilee. But for most believers, that doesn’t make it untrue.


Written by Prof. Helen Bond University of Edinburgh



[1] Pelling, Antony, p. 35.

[2] Hilary Spurling, ‘Neither Morbid nor Ordinary,’ in E. Homberger and J. Charmley, Troubled Face, pp. 113-22, here p. 116.

  • CSCO Team,
  • 7th November 2017

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