Testament is a gorgeously written re-telling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth — not the story of the divine Son of God, but of a compelling and complex human being in first-century Galilee. The story is told in four parts from the perspective of four different characters — Judas Iscariot, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and an extra-Biblical character of the author’s own invention, Simon of Gergesa. Each of these characters had a very different relationship with Jesus and, as with the four Gospels, the four different stories reveal different facets of Jesus’ character, not always agreeing with each other but adding up to an intriguing whole.
Testament is not Biblical fiction for the faint of heart — by which I mean it’s not for those devout believers who don’t like seeing the Biblical text questioned or challenged. It’s somewhat in the vein of The Red Tent in the sense of subverting the “official” story, only this is even more challenging than The Red Tent because it touches on the story at the heart of the Christian faith — the life of Jesus, and even more specifically His death and resurrection.
Ricci’s Jesus is not a divine Jesus; he is a human being, the son not of God but of an illicit encounter between a Jewish girl and a Roman soldier. He is an brilliant but enigmatic teacher; a gifted healer rather than a supernatural miracle-worker. He is a good man but not a perfect one, and the legacy he leaves behind is confusing at best. Ricci credits the work of the Jesus Seminar in his Acknowledgements, and that’s no surprise to anyone who’s followed the “historical Jesus” debates. This is John Dominic Crossan’s Jesus, Marcus Borg’s Jesus, brought to life in a vivid and compelling story. This is a fully human Jesus, a product not only of Galilee but of his family’s early years in Egypt, which Ricci sets in cosmopolitan Alexandria and continues until Jesus’ early teens. Ricci’s Jesus is primarily a product of the Greco-Roman world and only incidentally Jewish, though he does worship the God of Israel: he stands outside the Jewish religious system and has more in common with the Cynic philosophers than with the Jewish prophets.
Read purely as a work of historical fiction, Testament is a wonderful story, brilliantly portrayed. I had some quibbles with the last section, that told from the point of view of the fictional Simon — I understand why this Gentile character’s perspective was included, but I thought shifting to the view of an outsider weakened the impact of the story’s end, and I didn’t fully understand the purpose of another fictional character, a con man named Jerubal, who is introduced in this section. In general I thought Ricci’s story was strongest when he used the characters and incidents included in the canonical gospels and put his own “spin” on them, rather than when inventing his own fictional characters and incidents. But this is one quibble with a marvellous literary work.
Read as the fictional outworking of a particular theological stance, the book was thought-provoking. Not every Christian is comfortable with the story of a Jesus who was not born of a virgin, did not walk on water and did not appear to his followers after he died. But for theological conservatives like me, the book may help to answer the question of what people see in the man Jesus even if they don’t believe in the divine Son of God — why many people who don’t accept all the baggage of Christian theology still find the character of Jesus attractive, compelling and challenging 2000 years later. And even for those of us who do believe Jesus was divine, it’s fascinating to speculate on what He was like as a human being. This novel opens up layers of possibility and invites us into the world in which Jesus — whoever we believe Him to be — lived and taught.