A slender book, at eighty-one pages, but one that makes a big impact. Its subject: the final reflections of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she nears the end of her life and contends with two men who pester her “for foolish anecdotes, or sharp, simple patterns in the story of what happened to us all.” Mary wants to tell only the truth (“I will tell them what I can, but no more than that”), but she is well aware that one of the men—who was with her when Jesus was crucified—has “written of things that neither he saw nor I saw.”
That is, he’s creating the myth of Jesus, the party line on which a new religion, a new and radical worldview, will be based. Mary can tell that this man doesn’t really believe what he says and writes, but he knows how powerful it can be. Even before Jesus’s death, she had noticed a “set of hierarchies” among her son’s followers: “men who spoke and were listened to…or who sat at the top of the table.”
Whereas The Testament of Mary is offered as a more accurate account of her son, who had been making a commotion, “whipping up the hysteria of the crowds” with wild talk (which Mary could not bear to hear, because his voice was “all false”). Mary’s account made me think, for the first time, about how agonizing it would be to witness the torture and execution of one’s child: not just causing sorrow—the emotion we associate with Mary—but also raw pain and fear.
The book presents some of the miracles, such as the raising of Lazarus and the making of wine at Cana, in a different (and plausible) light. In many ways, this book readily reminded me of Paul, Howard Brenton’s the play about the apostle, which also re-imagines the Jesus myth and casts aspersions on the motives of early church founders.
I don’t know if I’m any more convinced by Mary’s version of the story, finally, than I am of the original. She has her own reasons for wanting to persuade us. One small detail stands out: when Mary recalls the time, during Jesus’s preaching, when she was trying to keep a low profile, she says “this great disturbance in the world made its way like creeping mist…in the two or three rooms I inhabited.” This woman of modest means can’t remember whether her home had two or three rooms? Not sure if Tóibín included that small misstep deliberately, or accidentally, but it made me question Mary’s story, too. As we should question all stories—told by mere mortals—about gods and saviors.