The Testament of Mary, A Review

When in Paris, and circumstances allow it, there is usually a visit to the Shakespeare & Company bookstore across the Seine River from the Notre Dame Cathedral. What I buy there is some book I have not seen before, and I pay the price, which is high, and get it stamped to show it came from Shakespeare & Co.

One of the two books purchased there for this trip is Colm Tόibίn’s The Testament of Mary (Penguin Books, 2013).

Why? In part because I loved the reviewers’ choices of words to describe this book on the front and back covers: “beautiful”, “daring”, “touching”, “moving”, “terrifying”, “searing”, “stunning,” “beguiling”, “deeply intelligent”, “dark”, “brilliantly half-glimpsed political thriller”, “lyrical”, “evocative”, “fearsomely strange, deeply thoughtful, subtly disturbing”, “monumental”, “powerful, “poignant”, tender”, “soul-rending”.

How could I possibly NOT buy a book that evokes such superlatives from prominent book reviewers? So I did buy it, and I did read it. And I did like it for its language and style, but took exception at several points while going through those points and then saw it was an essential part of the overall story. It was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, and short-listed for it, in 2013.

But would I use ANY of the superlatives I just listed to describe my reaction to this book? No, they would not have come to mind. But that does not mean I did not agree with some of them. “Moving”, “evocative,” deeply thoughtful,” poignant”, and “tender” did fit at several times. But what do those words really mean, in my particular case?

I found the story touching, moving and evocative, words closely related in meaning, because I did react to the story line, internally. I found the story of the mother’s reaction to witnessing her son’s crucifixion repulsive, yet quite necessary for the story to make sense.

What I found objectionable is the resemblance of the story to a Medieval Passion Play. But I was relieved by one important difference in this modern variation. In this passion-play the Jews and Romans share the blame. The author stepped away somewhat from the scriptural case for the crucifixion being the will of the Jews imposed on the Romans. This is suggested to have been the appearance, but that appearance was an act, a sham. The killing of Jesus was a predetermined outcome agreed to by both parties. Tόibίn hints gently but unmistakably through the perceptions of Mary, his mother, that Jesus was gaining a crowd of ne’er do wells as followers, and this rabble, enthused by claimed miracles, and proclaiming the advent of a new world order, would likely be perceived as a threat to the existing order. That was quite well done on Tόibίn’s part: one actually feels Mary’s unease around Jesus’ followers.

A week later found me walking up a hill along the path of the Cross in Lourdes, France. The 14 Stations of the Cross are depicted in wondrously lifelike detail using life-sized sculptured figures. Note in the following four photos the attitude of the two Jews in the first photo and just one thereafter, apparently loudly demanding Jesus’ torture and death, with the Romans holding them back and acting like professional soldiers reluctantly doing what the locals want done.

That is the crux of the basic Medieval Passion Play and the reason for the riots that led to the deaths of many Jews after a population had its blood boiled at seeing the Christ-killers portrayed in this way. Avenging the very cruel death of their God was an undertone in the incredible violence against Jews, from before the Middle Ages right through the Third Reich on an organized basis, and even today on more individual bases.

The stations of the cross at Lourdes always balance the mean Jew with a number of good Jews who are obviously on Jesus' side.  In the typical Passion Play, that was not apparent.  I suppose those who were on Jesus' side were considered Christians like the audience.  Tόibίn’s book makes it quite clear this was not the case, especially for Jesus' mother who is not buying any of the hype about her boy.  She seems to believe that Jesus made a grave mistake using some sort of magic to resurrect Lazarus, calling all sorts of unwelcome attention to himself.

Why does even just reading the Christian scriptures create animosity against the Jews and not the equally culpable Romans whose puppets these particular Jews were? Because Christianity was trying to survive in the Roman Empire? Because when these books were written or edited Christianity was trying to distance itself from its mother religion, which was strongly disliked within the Empire? Yes on both counts. History was rewritten for those strategic political purposes and called scripture. It is as crass as that in my opinion. And in the opinion of others too, as you can see in the book Christ’s Ventriloquist by Eric Zuesse, which I reviewed, and agreed with, some years ago.

But let us get back to Tόibίn’s book and that list of superlative words used by his reviewers. It was deeply thoughtful and poignant in taking a unique view of Mary as a person—contrary to conventional assumption—who was not converted to the new religion. The talk about Jesus as a unique Son of God, rather than as her and her husband’s son, seemed to be outrageous nonsense to her. She is a devoted Jewish woman who took comfort in the rituals and practices of her religion.

Of course if Zuesse’s analysis is correct, the modern Christian notion of a unique son of God and a virgin birth came much later than during Jesus’ lifetime. But that is not a criticism of Tόibίn, who follows the scriptural account, but slightly adjusts it on matters where it is silent, such as Mary’s feelings and impressions, and matters where it is simply wrong, such as the surprising extent to which the scriptural account goes to make sure Romans are not blamed for killing God incarnate..

The book is tender in its portrayal of an old woman’s bewilderment at this turn of events: her son is said to be someone and something she knows he is not, and his death is described to her in terms that attempt to make tragedy into triumph, and this actually, and credibly, angers her.

At first, Jesus’ followers hustle Mary to safety since they know she is to be rounded up as part of the group close to Christ. After some time, largely to keep her from contradicting the story now being floated about to bolster the new religion taught in the name of her son, she is taken care of, supported, but hidden away. Repeatedly she is interviewed, but her interviewers gain little from her account that supports their new religion and she is frankly told that a different version of her actions is being circulated among the believers in the new religion.

She notices a shift in the attitudes and behaviors of Jesus’ followers, from zealots to managers in a sense, and doesn’t like any of them but is dependent on them for her food and shelter. She is kept isolated from Jews and the new religion’s adherents, and goes to a local temple with her pagan servant-girl provided by her Christian handlers to find spiritual solace in her final days.

She is sported away from Israel by ship, with Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, but Tόibίn sends Mary home after a time. Tόibίn did not fall for the romantic fantasy believed in strongly by some of Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene who is moved by Jesus’ closest followers to what is now southern France to preserve her life and the life of the child she will son bear, Jesus’ child.

Tόibίn may or may not assume that the Mary called the Magdalene is the Mary that is the sister of Martha, which is what some modern scholars also assume. Tόibίn does not fly off into this fantasy realm—a fantasy that may be fact—but there is no way to know. He simply has Mary return to Israel and become lost to history.

So does Tόibίn’s book deserve all of those superlative words I cited at the start? Some I agree do apply, as noted. But it all depends on your point of view. If you are a true-believer in some version of Christianity you will find it dark and disturbing and maybe even terrifying. If you are a non-believer you may find it a rather plausible account of what may have happened inside the heart and mind of a mother whose grown son ignored her advice and numerous pleas to stop talking and hide and thereby save himself. Because he did not listen to his mother, he was very publicly and very cruelly executed.

The reasons for his execution did not make any sense to her, the story told after his execution by his followers also did not make any sense to her. Tόibίn ‘s take on Mary is quite plausible, really.

 Go to Lourdes Visit in 2013

Christ’s Ventriloquist by Eric Zuesse, a review

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