Missing Stories of Jesus
If history knows anything about Jesus, then that knowledge comes, in great part, from the canonical gospels. Jesus also appears in a few other places within the Bible’s New Testament, but nowhere else is an “official” version of Jesus’s story told. Early Jesus followers wrote many non-canonical gospels, in an attempt to answer questions about Jesus’s life not found anywhere else, such as what Jesus’s childhood was like. Yet, this tradition of trying to answer questions about Jesus which had no “official” answer continued well past the early Jesus followers, and into present day. The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín, is an example of this, as it explores Jesus’s story through his mother, Mary. The Testament of Mary shares many similarities with another text, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, by Jose Saramago, as both seek to utilize and criticize gospel narratives, while simultaneously attempting to create a more complete portrait of Jesus by exploring things like Jesus’s childhood and his relationship to his parents.
Tóibín and Saramago both incorporate large amounts of narrative from the canonical gospels, implying that certain elements of the Jesus story are essential to it. Although each and every incorporation of Jesus canonical narrative is significant in its own right, it may be useful to see the overlap of incorporated stories between the two texts. An example of this is the wedding at Cana. Both stories include the line, “Woman, what have I to do with thee (you)?” (Tóibín, 36; Saramago, 291). While the use of this specific translation is significant, the mere fact that both texts use the scene is the most important aspect at the moment. The wedding at Cana includes Jesus interacting with his mother, as well as a Jesus miracle, and perhaps this is why both authors felt the need to include it. Both texts also include Lazurus—interestingly, both texts portray the resurrection of Lazurus as a bad thing—perhaps because that is another one of Jesus’s miracles, and one of his more astounding ones at that. Both texts also include the crucifixion, which may be the most essential narrative plot point in the Jesus story, as it is the climax, so to speak, and Mary is often depicted as being present. Tóibín seems to lean on the version of the crucifixion as presented in the Gospel of John, where it reads, “Then [Jesus] bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 18: 30). Tóibín writes, “something had happened to weaken [Jesus]. He seemed beaten down, almost resigned” (Tóibín, 55). However, Saramago draws his inspiration from the crucifixion as presented in the Gospel of Luke, as he subverts the line, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke: 23: 34), by changing it to, “Men, forgive Him, for He knows not what He has done” (Saramago, 377). Again, Saramago is trying to make a point with this change in dialogue, but the important aspect at present is that both texts utilize the crucifixion. Many other canonical gospel stories appear within the two texts, but that these three specific stories appear so explicitly in both texts implies that they are essential parts of the Jesus story that people want to address and know more about.
Besides including scenes from the canonical gospels, both stories also include scenes and ideas from the non-canonical gospels, mainly concerning Jesus’s childhood. Many people who are familiar with the four gospels of the New Testament realize that there is a distinct lack of information on Jesus’s childhood. This void has been seized upon and filled by many writers and storytellers since the writing of the canonical Gospels, including by both Saramago and Tóibín. However, a much earlier example of this is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, written by early Christians and circulated in the second century. In that Gospel, Jesus, “Made some soft mud and fashioned twelve sparrows from it” (Thomas 2: 2). In The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Jesus performs a miracle for a man, not insignificantly named Thomas, where he makes birds from mud. In Saramago’s version, Jesus is not a child when he performs this miracle, but the allusion is there nonetheless.
More Missing Stories
Both Saramago and Tóibín also explore Jesus’s childhood in their own ways as well. Tóibín explores Jesus’s childhood through his mother Mary’s memory. Mary thinks, “He (Jesus) was so far from the child I remembered or the young boy who seemed happiest in the morning when I came to him and spoke to him as the day began. He was beautiful then and delicate and awash with needs” (Tóibín, 37). Mary later describes Jesus as, “[A] man filled with power, a power that seemed to have no memory of years before, when he needed my breast for milk, my hand to help steady him as learned to walk, or my voice to soothe him to sleep” (Tóibín, 41). These quotes may not reveal anywhere near a complete picture of Jesus’s childhood as imagined by Tóibín, but it still shows a desire to reveal more than the four canonical gospels, and it serves as a comparison to Saramago’s imagining of young Jesus. Both Tóibín and Saramago portray Jesus as having grown apart from his mother, but if Saramago ever imagined Jesus being close to his mother, as Tóibín implies, then Saramago leaves this out, and instead focuses more on the growing apart. Saramago writes, “Father, Father, why have You forsaken me, because that was how the poor boy felt, forsaken, lost in the infinite solitude of another wilderness, without father, mother, brothers, or sisters, and already following a path of death” (Saramago, 153). This quote shows how Jesus has quickly grown to feel apart from his father (for not attempting to warn people about the slaughter of the innocents) and his mother (whom Jesus considers just as guilty as Joseph). Later, Saramago writes, “[S]uch is youth, selfish and thoughtless, and there is nothing to suggest that Jesus was different from other boys his age” (183). Here, Saramago provides a characterization of a young Jesus, continuing the theme of writers trying to fill in the gaps of Jesus’s story.
Another thing missing from the early gospels is the presence of Joseph in Jesus’s life. He appears early on as Mary’s husband, but is essentially absent from the rest of the narrative. Interestingly enough, both Saramago and Tóibín reconcile Joseph’s absence by killing him within their stories, although no mention is made of Joseph’s death in the canonical gospels. Tóibín does not go into detail concerning Joseph’s death, but makes it clear that he is dead when he writes that Joseph is, “[A] man who will not return, whose body is dust” (Tóibín, 14). Although the end result is still that the reader hears very little about Joseph, Tóibín at least includes a reason for this. Saramago includes much more detail about Joseph. Saramago fleshes Joseph out as a character, saying, “Joseph is one of the most honest and pious men of Nazareth, assiduous in attending the synagogue and prompt in carrying out his duties, and while he may not be endowed with any special powers of eloquence, he can argue and make astute observations” (Saramago, 14). Along with this characterization, which is expanded on beyond that single quote throughout the early parts of the novel, Saramago is also explicit about Joseph’s death by crucifixion. What is important is not the details of the crucifixion, but the idea that Joseph’s disappearance from the story of Jesus leads writers to question what happened to him. In these cases, both Tóibín and Saramago decided to kill Joseph within their narratives.
Both Saramago and Tóibín also explore another idea, which is whether the gospels are even accurate. This line of inquiry from Saramago is no surprise, since he is an atheist offering a critique of the church, but it is slightly more surprising coming from Tóibín, who is a self-proclaimed Catholic. In modern times, it is widely acknowledged that the Gospels, which contradict each other in places, cannot be entirely historically accurate. Even where they do not contradict, there are questions of validity. The question concerning the Gospels is not whether they are accurate, but whether anything at all in them is accurate, and how can anyone be sure what that accurate content is? As Paula Fredriksen points out in From Jesus to Christ, “In brief, though the oral transmission of traditions about Jesus allows us to assume some relation between what the gospels report and what might actually have happened, it also requires that we acknowledge an inevitable—often incalculable—degree of distortion in those traditions as well” (Fredriksen, 5). Saramago and Tóibín both clearly touch upon this idea of “distortion.”
Saramago narrates at one point, “These were the words the woman thought she heard, and so they are recorded here, at the risk of once more offending verisimilitude, but, then, we can always blame the unreliable testimony of a senile old woman” (Saramago, 183). Saramago here clearly points to how even if the Gospels were based on well-intentioned testimony, testimony can be as unreliable as the memory of the person giving it. For the wedding at Cana, where Jesus questions what he has to do with his mother, Saramago writes, “In time these words will be rephrased and interpreted in different ways to make them sound less brutal, some have even tried to change their meaning completely” (Saramago, 291). Both Saramago and Tóibín actually include the same translation of the quote, “Woman, what have I to do with thee (you)?” (Tóibín, 36; Saramago, 291), which is interesting because, as Saramago alluded to, there are softer translations of the quote, such as, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” (John 2: 4). Saramago seems to use that specific translation to make the point that quotes become altered over time, and therefore nothing in the Gospels necessarily has any validity. Tóibín may use that translation because it fits his portrayal of Jesus better than other translations.
Is it Necessary to Have a More Complete Portrayal of Jesus?
As for Tóibín on this idea of “distortion” in the gospels, he includes a few references as well. At one point, Mary thinks, “It struck me on hearing something each of them said that neither of them had actually been there. Later, when I found Miriam alone, I asked her if she had personally been in the crowd that day and she smiled and said no, but she had heard all the details from several who had witnessed it all” (Tóibín, 29). This quote is particularly relevant since historians now know that the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’s death, by people who did not actually witness the events they describe. In this sense, the Gospel writers are like Miriam: they were not there, but probably heard things from other people. Later, Mary says, “I missed the next moment as someone had pushed me to the side and there was too much talking around us but Mary (Martha’s sister, not Jesus’s mother) heard it and she told me what it was” (Tóibín, 52). This, again, just refers to the notion that Gospels are not firsthand accounts, and it is just noteworthy that both authors draw attention to this.
Both The Testament of Mary and The Gospel According to Jesus Christ function in the same way that some of the earliest gospels did. They are attempts to portray Jesus according to the author’s vision. Both Saramago and Tóibín portray a Jesus who had grown apart from his mother by choice, and his father by death. Saramago does this mostly from Jesus’s perspective, and Tóibín does this entirely from Mary’s. However, both authors do more than simply portray Jesus; rather, these authors reconstruct the Gospels and offer pieces of missing narrative. They seek to answer questions such as: What was Jesus’s childhood like? And, what were Jesus’s parents like? At the same time, the authors critique the historical accuracy of the Gospels. Overall, the effect is that the authors try to create a more complete and comprehensive portrait of Jesus. They recreate Jesus’s life and try to address the issue of what it would mean if some of these stories were true. Ultimately, both may come to different answers, and use a different technique in their approach, but they share common questions modern thinkers share about Jesus, and try, as many before them have, to offer a portrait of Christ.
Ehrman, Bart, ed. "The Infancy Gospel of Thomas." Non-Canonical Gospels. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 58-62. Web. 17 Sept. 2014.
Fredriksen, Paula. "The Nature of the Documents." From Jesus to Christ. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988. 3-8. Print.
"The New Testament." New Revised Standard Bible. N.p.: American Bible Society, 1989. N. pag. Print.
Saramago, José. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Trans. Giovanni Pontiero. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994. Print.
Tóibín, Colm. The Testament of Mary. New York: Scribner, 2012. Kindle.