The Gospels of Luke and Matthew portray a very different picture of Mary in comparison to Colm Toíbín’s novella The Testament of Mary. In the gospels, Mary is the “ideal” woman, always pious and obedient to God’s word. However, in The Testament of Mary, she has completely changed and seemingly abandoned her faith. These discrepancies in her image result from the narratives occurring at different times in Mary’s life, ranging from the annunciation to the crucifixion. However, the passage of time between these texts and the trials that Mary faces is a significant factor for shaping her image, and the differences in her portrayal are a byproduct of the way Mary has had to adapt and manage her life.
The Gospel of Luke is about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary and telling her that she will give birth to the son the God. Initially Mary is surprised at the news, but she willingly accepts her role to be the mother of the savior. Luke emphasized the importance of Mary in God’s plan of salvation, and his description of her is an example of the conscious, active faith that humanity strives to achieve. Mary says to the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). Mary is the perfect example of discipleship, the way she embraces God’s unexpected plan for her life is a model of promise. Her obedience is a message, stating that those who act like her will be worthy followers of God. Her devotion to her faith is witnessed in her exchange with her friend Elizabeth. She says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he who is might has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:46-49). However, Mary’s joy at the angels news might also be a reflection of her innocence and naivety about the task she is about to undertake.
The Gospel of Matthew is consistent with Mary’s portrayal in the Gospel of Luke, but it provides much less information about her. In fact, not much attention is given to Mary at all, even though she gives birth to Jesus, son of God. The focus of the text revolves around Joseph. Matthew describes Mary’s devout obedience in a different way. She is the “ideal” woman. She never speaks or complains. Additionally, she represents both “perfect” states of womanhood at the same time by being both a virgin and a mother. Matthew has built up her role model image from Luke’s narrative into an ideal woman that is impossible for any other woman to achieve. She has gone from a humble woman to an extraordinary woman on a pedestal on display before all of humanity.
Interestingly, Mary never speaks in this Gospel. Therefore, it is impossible to know what she thinks about her pregnancy, her marriage to Joseph, or giving birth to her son. Futhermore, Joseph doubts Mary after marrying her and making the discovery that she is pregnant. He originally thinks that she has been with another man. It is not until God appears to Joseph in a dream and explains her miraculous pregnancy to him that he is able to accept Mary as his wife. Joseph’s initial doubt raises some important questions. It is likely that Mary tried to explain her situation before his dream, but whatever she said to him was not convincing enough. If she is supposed to embody the image of a perfect woman, why would Joseph need divine intervention in order to stay with her? It is possible that Mary’s initial naïve joy has faded and been replaced with fear and doubt about what lies in store for her. Perhaps she wonders if the child she is carrying really is the son of God and fears for her reputation once he is born if he does not display himself as a divine being to others. The lack of information about Mary’s perspective at this point presents a large gap in her persona. She has undergone many changes since the angel’s announcement, and it would be normal human behavior for her persona to have evolved in response.
The Testament of Mary portrays a very different version of Mary in comparison to her biblical image. This story tells of Mary’s experience during the capture and crucifixion of her son as she relays it for two men to write down. She has morphed from the perfect Christian saint into a grieving mother who is angry at the world and the heavens for the extraneous amount of paint and suffering that has consumer her life. The joy she once found in her faith has perished with her son, and Mary seems to turn her back on God because she is unable to see the purpose in her son’s sacrifice. This is evident by her comment at the end, “I can tell you now, when you say he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it” (Toíbín 86). When she is described by Luke, it is clear that Mary believes God to be a loving and benevolent being who has graced her life with his son. However, she cannot she why she brought him into the world if only to endure such a cruel fate. She cannot justify an act of violence as an act of salvation. Furthermore, the only comfort she finds comes from the goddess Artemis instead. When she first sees a statue of Artemis, she feels a great feeling of calm engulf her. Mary feels like she can identify more with the goddess because Artemis has also endured an enormous amount of suffering. She even goes so far as to buy a small version of the statue so she can “whisper to it in the night if I needed to” (Toíbín 10). In addition to her anger and grief, Mary is now portrayed as a flawed woman instead of the perfect maternal figure of before. She abandoned her son during his sacrifice because she did not want to see him taken down from the cross, washed, and buried. She felt completely helpless during the crucifixion, saying, “I did not cry out or run to rescue him because it would have made no difference” (Toíbín 67). Therefore, she abandons her son and flees to safety as fear and the feeling of abandonment completely consume her. The way she runs away during the crucifixion is symbolic of the way she turns her back on God. However, in Mary’s eyes, she probably feels that God has turned his back on her by allowing such suffering to come to her and her son.
These different portrayals of Mary all show her at very different points in her life. The Gospel of Luke gives the most information out of all the Gospels about Mary. It is one of the few places where she speaks and shares her insights. However, it is unknown exactly how old Mary is when the angel visits her, but very likely that she is in her early teenage years. It is impossible for Mary to have a complete understanding of the immensity of the task God had for her. Her overwhelming passion and love for God that she expresses to Elizabeth is proof of her innocence, she does not understand the suffering she will endure later. In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary’s silence in the text suggests that she may already be starting to face hardships when no one is willing to believe her story as her pregnancy begins to show. Mary is burdened with the knowledge of the child’s identity, which must make it painful for her to be regarded with shame as an unfaithful woman within her community. There is so little written about Mary’s life after the crucifixion of her son, and no one can know the entirety of her beliefs and actions since her insights are rarely provided in the bible. Her portrayal in The Testament of Mary is a very plausible outcome of everything she has suffered through since the angels visit. In order for her to have withstood all of her trials thus far, Mary must be a woman of great self-control. She clings to her faith, to the belief that her son is salvation. However, when Jesus is crucified by sinners, it seems to Mary that evil has won. Acts of treachery and violence claimed her holy son, painting a revolting picture of evil destroying a creation of perfect love and virtue. Thus, while differences do exist between various accounts of Mary, they still describe the same woman, but offer a glimpse of how the trails God’s plan affected her life.
Tóibín, Colm. The Testament of Mary. Penguin, 2013.