big summer read: gospel, testimony or testament?

This summer, the York St John Literature programme invited students and staff to read and respond to Colm Tóibín’s 2012 novella The Testament of Mary, a study of the mother of Jesus of Nazareth as she comes to terms with her son’s crucifixion at hands of the Roman Empire. In today’s post, Adam asks: Why is it called a ‘Testament’ anyway?


By Dr Adam James Smith

Much as Margaret Atwood’s 2008 novella The Penelopiad relished the opportunity to give voice to a woman too often left silent despite her centrality to both her myth of original and subsequent literary culture, Colm Tóibín clearly delights in offering centre stage to a woman without whom there would be no New Testament. Defined and iconicized as the Mother of Christ, Mary is most often understood through her maternal relationship to the son of God, rather than as an individual in her own right.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope is the wife of the epic poem’s titular hero, Odysseus, who, after spending ten years fighting at the Battle of Troy spends another ten years getting home. Meanwhile, Penelope must remain faithful whilst her husband is away, fending off potential suitors and finding inventive ways to trick her existing family (who are keen for her to remarry) into letting her remain an apparent widow. For much of the poem her primary narrative function is to provide motivation for Odysseus: she is the reason he fights on and does not give up (although, he does have no choice but to sleep with a witch at one point…). She is first and foremost a symbol of connubial fidelity. She is gifted little else in the way of characterisation. Atwood’s novel sets out to not only rehabilitate Penelope’s character but to embellish it character also. Tóibín’s subject is arguably in greater need of a voice. At least Penelope had the words to actively avoid remarriage and the wits to trick potential suitors; Mary’s maternal function is entirely passive. Even the act of conception itself does not constitute an actual act.

Testament of Mary

Apparently taking place after Christ’s ascension, Tóibín’s novella separates Mary from her son whilst also casting her as the text’s first person narrator. This is not only how Mary sounds, this is how she thinks. This is what it must be like, Tóibín encourages us to wonder, to be defined primarily as the Mother of Jesus. This is Mary’s full account.

 Except it isn’t. This is her Testament.

As a reader, this struck me as somewhat odd. Functionally, as I was reading the text, it occurred to me that it was more like a Gospel.

There are four Gospels in the King James Bible, each offering an account of Jesus’ life and teaching. They are, of course, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded use of the word ‘Gospel’ in English saw it denote a “revelation from heaven”, which alludes to the Bible’s status as a sacred text.

That Tóibín might intend for his account to be read as a Gospel is far from outlandish, given that there are many more ‘Gospels’ that those of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These four are considered by many to be the only authentic gospels, they are the ‘canonical’ accounts. However, there are many, many more, which are usually referred to as ‘apocrypha’ or ‘pseudepigrapha.’

Speaking very broadly, these canonical accounts are sometimes referred to as the Synoptic Gospels, but there are also Gnostic Gospels (featuring accounts from such figures as Thomas and Judus), Jewish-Christian Gospels and the Infancy Gospels, not to mention a myriad of others which have proven less easy to categorise.

Significantly, one of the Gnostic Gospels is named the ‘Gospel of Mary.’ It was discovered in 1896 inside a 5th-century papyrus codex, where it was written in Sahidic Coptic. However, there is contention among scholars over both the date that the Gospel was committed to papyrus (either the 5th-century, the 2th century or the time of Christ) and the true identity of the titular Mary. Some argue it is Mary the mother of Jesus, others that it in Mary Magdalene (the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection).

Intriguingly, Tóibín conflates the two, giving us a Mother of Christ fiercely interrogated over her knowledge of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. But Tóibín hasn’t written the Gospel of Mary, he’s written her Testament.

The word ‘Testament’ has a very obvious biblical resonance, bringing to our minds both the Old and New Testaments. But Tóibín isn’t completing a trilogy here. For one, his Testament is considerably shorter than the first two, and for another, it is set broadly within the events of the New Testament. This isn’t a threequel, it is a video-game tie in at best.

But this does prompt another question, one which as a non-specialist I’m struggling to answer (but keen to learn more about). Why are they called Testaments in the first place?

 The Oxford English Dictionary offers three definitions for the word ‘Testament’:

  1. “A formal declaration, usually in writing, of a person’s wishes as to the disposal of his property after his death; a will.”
  1. “Testamentary estate; personal as distinct from real property.”
  1. “The writing by which a person nominates an executor to administer his personal or movable estate after his decease. This writing is styled, in the decree of the Court granting confirmation.”

The first sense we are familiar with. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘last will and testament.’ The second is intriguing. Your ‘testamentary estate’ is that which you leave behind which is not technically property, or by extension, a physical asset. It’s the copyright to that novel you’re writing, perhaps, or maybe your Netflix subscription.

Tóibín’s novella does have a  Momento mori quality. The future isn’t looking good for Mary (we know this not only because Tóibín scores the text with a slow building sense of ominous foreboding, but because from our privileged place in the twenty-first century we have lived that future). There’s a very attractive reading of this novella in which Tóibín allows his imagined Mary the space to put the record straight before her physical death and historic erasure. But even that’s more a testimony than a Testament. It is Mary bearing witness, leaving us a documentary record.

The third definition of ‘Testament’ is most fascinating and perhaps most applicable. Your testament is a written ‘decree.’ It is a non-verbal speech act. It gains power when spoken. The reading of the testament aloud makes something happen, just as a wedding is authorized by the utterance of the words “I do.” The redistribution of the assets of the deceased is not legally authorized until the Will is read.

It is the reading that gives the words weight.

The Bible is not the book, it is the ‘Testament.’ It is the reading of the words. This should perhaps come as no surprise, given that the first act recorded in the King James Bible is a speech act: “And God said, let there be light: And there was light.”

There is, of course, no single Bible. There are many. And each cannot exist without a complex negotiation of oral and textual history, translation, historical compromise and polemic bias. The 1611 King James ‘Authorized version’ has been disseminated more widely than any other Bible in the world, and this is quite overtly a translation of the Hebrew, Greek and Latin versions that preceded it. It is also impossible to fully dislodge that particular edition from the very specific literary moment in which it was committed to print. What is more, as we’ve already seen in the above discussion of Apocryphal Gospels, what actually constitutes the Bible is far from cast in stone. Rather than being a rock of ages in a sea of flux, the history of biblical interpretation is one of profound and continuous transformation and reinvention.

For centuries, the Bible has attracted the sustained attention of readers, painters, philosophers, poets, playwrights, musicians (not to mention religious practitioners) because it is always new. It has the capacity to speak to every subsequent generation because it is not a book, it is an entity conjured by every reader.

The Bible is not a text, it is a Testament. It gains power when it is read, when readers engage with it, when it is expressed and articulated.

Mary’s Testament is not the testimony within this novella’s pages, it is the experience of reading this testimony, reconstituting Mary before us, here in the twenty-first century.