(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Jesus Christ has been a compelling figure down through the ages, and not to Christians alone. Since the earliest documentation of his life to decades after his death, gaps and mysteries and differing interpretations abound. “Jesus novels,” as well as religious and historical studies, each reflect a slightly different man.

Nino Ricci’s Testament is suitably named. Four different narrators, each a character from the Gospels, give their own testimony about Jesus. Judas (Yihuda in the book) is a cautious terrorist/resistance fighter. Impressed and befriended by Jesus, he still cannot quite give up his ties to a movement which promises more direct action. Ultimately this leads to tragedy, though the cause-and-effect differs from the Gospel accounts. Mary Magdalene is shown here as a very young woman, totally devoted to Jesus. Her account covers most of the same events as Judas’s, but from a different perspective.

As a non-Jewish man who comes late to Jesus’s circle, Simon the Canaanite notices weird features of Jewish legalism that the other disciples take for granted. Simon’s account is the only one which follows Jesus’s career all the way to the crucifixion. This is exactly the right artistic choice; it connects the other stories and makes the novel’s ending incredibly powerful.

The most unusual narrative is that of Mary, Jesus’s mother. Ricci portrays their mother/son relationship as strained from childhood on. The boy Jesus comes across as one of those bright, self-directed children who simply cannot accept the confines of a conventional life. The picture painted here is radically at odds with the usual one of Mary as the self-sacrificing mother figure.

No miracles or supernatural events occur in the stories, and very little “God talk.” This is not a book for the fundamentalist Christian believer. More venturesome readers, whether Christian or secular, will find it fascinating. The novel carries readers into the world of ancient Palestine, and shows how even without “wonder works,” this unique man’s example and teaching managed to change history.