Caution: spoilers ahead.
You can write a book that reimagines the story of a beloved hero or heroine, that turns myths about them on their head, and yet provides deeper insights into their character. Then again, you can write a book that merely inverts everything that you know about such a character, turns their virtues into failings and teaches us nothing about them. “Testament of Mary” belongs in the latter category.
In TToM, Colm Toibin gives us a scant 81 pages that are long on Mary’s self-pitying reflections about her life, short on insights about her and Jesus, dismissive about Jesus’s mission and full of bizarre details and anachronisms. Toibin’s conceit is that Mary was traumatized by the crucifixion of her son. No doubt. But since there is no resurrection in his book, just followers claiming one, there is little to solace her grief and pain. She inhabits Ephesus, lonely among those who do not speak her language, enduring visits by her male keepers, and loitering around pagan temples. Mostly, she mopes and complains, knowing that her real and ordinary life is being transformed by those who want to make her son into something she knows he was not.
The Jesus that Mary describes in TToM is a miracle worker, to be sure. He raises the dead, changes water to wine and walks on water. But his mother is unimpressed. To her, Jesus is a pompous jerk who likes to talk, “his voice all false and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him.” He pals around with rabble – “a group of misfits, who were only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye. Men who were seen smiling to themselves, or who had grown old when they were still young.” His teaching are the late-night ramblings of fools. “When my son would insist on silence and begin to address them as though they were a crowd.” This Mary not only seems to hate what happened to Jesus, but seems to hate her son as well.
Unbelievebly, she prays to the many-breasted goddess Artemis, and has a silver idol of her in her living quarters. Her male guardians – it sounds like John and Luke – keep trying to foist their theological beliefs about Jesus on her. She will have none of it. In spite of her, they write a gospel about Jesus that is full of lies. She scoffs at their claims that by his death he saved the world. “When you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it.” Holy Mother of God, indeed!
With so much material on the market about the world of 1st century Israel, Toibin’s errors and anachronisms are unforgiveable. His homes have kitchens, at a time when food preparation was an outdoor activity. Lazarus is buried in the ground, not in a rock tomb. To Toibin, a caravanserai is a moving group of travelers, when in actuality it is a hostel for travelers. Bizarrely, he has Christ pushing and pulling his cross down the street in an hour-long procession to Golgotha. His trial of Jesus is pre-staged, with “everyone” knowing how it will play out days before the arrest. And the idea of Mary, a devout Jew, praying to an idol is just ludicrous. At the very least, it demands an explanation that never came.
Any interest in “The Testament of Mary” is a testament to the iconoclastic appetite of moderns to deal with the religion by rejecting everything about it. Christian stories are made tame and dismissable by claiming, without evidence or thought, that they are based on lies. There is no God, Jesus was just another misguided religious fanatic and the Church is only a place for pedophiles and pinheads. This I know, for Old Mary told us so.
Luckily, dealing with the Christian scriptures is not a binary exercise – you don’t have to accept them at face value or reject them wholesale. Mary can be an inspiring and even graced figure while allowing some poetic and symbolic latitude to the Bible’s and the Church’s otherworldly depiction of her. Toibin may see himself as adding to the conversation about Mary. But his book betrays a desire to discredit her, the son she bore and the Church that grew around his memory and continued presence in the lives of believers.