The Testament of Mary, Luke and Toibin: 16 December

A question for any Dads: What was your first child wearing when being taken home from hospital? No idea? You are in good company. Last year and this I have asked this question in church and been met with blank looks.

A question for any Mums: What was your first child wearing when being taken home from hospital? You probably remember not only the type of clothes but also the colour. Some in church remembered the exact nightie, from the days before babygros.

Some things are men things and some things are women things. That’s how it has always been.

What was Jesus wearing just after he was born? You know. Strips of cloth, swaddling bands. This is a woman’s detail.

Was it a woman recording Jesus’ baby clothes? No. It was Luke, a first century doctor turned biographer of Jesus. Why is a man writing a woman’s thing?

There are more. ‘The baby leapt in my womb.’ What man would think that a significant detail? A woman, who knows just what that feels like, would remember and want to pass it on. ‘Mary pondered all these things and treasured them in her heart.’ How did Luke know? Why would Luke think it important to record what is going in in a woman’s heart? This isn’t a regular habit of his.

Could it be that we have a woman’s point of view as recorded by a man? Could it be that the woman was Mary?

Historians tell us that Luke finished his Gospel biography in about 75AD. It is possible that, in his research in the preceding years, Luke talked with Mary. It is very possible that he talked to another woman who had heard all about Jesus’ birth from Mary herself. Luke tells us that he has checked everything out as much as he can from eyewitnesses. Early Christian tradition says that Luke cared for Mary.

The alternative is that Luke made up the story to show how important Jesus was. This is the view of Colm Toibin, author of The Testament of Mary, shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Toibin has Mary writing about how troubled she is that her son’s terrible friends are making him out to be more than he was, as they started doing when he was alive. Toibin changes many details in the Bible to suit his version. Small details are different, such as Jesus calling for the jars at the wedding in Cana to be filled in public in front of him. Medium details are different, such as Lazarus being at that wedding, so that it was late in Jesus’ ministry not before the beginning. Big details are not preserved either, such as Mary running away from the cross before Jesus had died, starting an amoral Bonnie and Clyde life on the run. Toibin’s Mary did not hold her son’s dead body, did not see him into his borrowed tomb, did not go a couple of days later to anoint the body…

Toibin holds back from writing that his Mary thinks the Christmas story made up. She goes along with Luke’s version, without saying that this is because it is true or because it is not worth the effort of challenging. Toibin doesn’t want to spoil his or anyone else’s Christmas.

Many people, more theologians than writers of fiction, have said that Luke’s birth narrative must be one of the things he, or others, made up to show how important Jesus was. Other religions of the time had stories somewhat similar. Some details are less than 100% accurate. The clincher, for these mostly male writers, is that women simply cannot become pregnant without a man.

Why would Luke make up the shepherds? They serve no useful purpose in his story. An angel has already explained that Jesus is Saviour and Son of God. The shepherds walk in and walk out, never to be mentioned again. All that we know about the shepherds we know from the point of view of the people by the manger. They tell what brought them there, and that is where Luke begins. They are last heard walking away from the manger singing their heads off. Either Luke is relaying what he has heard from someone who was there, or this is a miraculously sophisticated literary technique for a 1st century man who was not trained as a story-teller or writer.

Asserting that Luke made it up begs a number of questions. There is evidence, on the other hand, that Luke has recorded for us what Mary, or someone close to Mary, told him. The real Testament and Testimony of Mary was probably written by Luke, not by Colm Toibin. The virgin birth is still absolutely unique, like Jesus’ resurrection. Is it logical to say that God, the Creator, cannot do unique things? Even if it makes men feel a bit redundant.

Both views have rational arguments in their favour. As usual with God, He leaves half a fingerprint on what He does. It’s up to us where we choose to look.

Roger Harper

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