THE GOSPELS OF MARY
The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene,
the Companion of Jesus
Harper Collins Publishers
Paper, 122 pages, $12.95
In his introduction to the Gospels of Mary, Marvin Meyer first recounts what the New Testament tells us about Mary Magdalene that she came from the city of Magdala; that Jesus cast seven demons from her to restore her health; that she was an independent woman who, along with two other women, traveled with Jesus; that she was so loyal she remained with him at the crucifixion after the male disciples had fled for their lives; that she went to the tomb to embalm and mourn him; that she was the first to encounter him after the resurrection; and that she announced the resurrection to the male disciples.
In the Gnostic Gospels, excluded as heretical from the New Testament by the Catholic Church, Mary is portrayed is the disciple closest to Jesus. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus eats at her table and shares her couch. And in the Gospel of Philip, Jesus loves Mary more than the others, kisses her frequently, and she is referred to as his companion, partner, or consort. The sole trace of this in the New Testament is the reference in the Gospel of John to a mysterious beloved disciple, whom Meyer attributes to Mary.
As part of the schism in the early Christian Church which resulted in the Catholic adoption of the New Testament Gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, and the rejection and suppression of the Gnostic Gospels of Thomas, Philip, and Mary, the Catholic Church marginalized Mary, particularly in the 6th Century when Pope Gregory identified her as the prostitute in Luke. This, of course, stands in sharp contrast with the other Mary, Jesus mother, who was elevated to the status of giving birth as a virgin.
These two views of women one as the virgin mother, the other as a repentant prostitute, but a prostitute nonetheless were consistent with an effort to suppress the role of women as the church struggled to transform itself from a band of follows of Jesus to an organization which spread throughout the Roman Empire and, like the Empire itself, required a hierarchy of those with authority to control those below. Historically, such hierarchies are controlled by men, and men keep power for themselves by suppressing women. This is obviously true in the Muslim world yet today; and, as little as 100 years ago, under American common law, wives were considered chattel of their husbands. In Jesus time, it was far more radical for women to have a leadership role. And as Meyer explains, Peter refused to accept the teaching and leadership of Mary Magdalene and remained hostile toward her. In plain terms, he thought she didn t know her place. The same can be said of Pope Gregory, some 500 years later, who redefined her as a whore albeit a repentant one.
But since the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codexes in 1945, Mary Magdalene has been redefined again this time by a gospel bearing her name. Though the text is missing six pages in the beginning and four pages in the middle, the original text may date from the late first or second century. The Gospel of Mary itself is a dialogue in which Jesus discusses matters with his disciples. As with the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus basic teaching is that one should not look outward, but inward, and that the child of humanity will be found there rather than in a legalistic set of rules and regulations.
What Jesus has to say in the Gospel of Mary is much different than what we read in the New Testament. As to the interconnectedness of all things, a concept which seems quite Buddhist, he says:
All natures, all formed things, all creatures exist in and with each other, and they will dissolve into their own root. The nature of matter is dissolved into the root of its nature.
As to the nature of sin, what Jesus says is a contradiction of the later Christian doctrine of original sin:
There is no such thing as sin, but you create sin when you mingle as in adultery, and this is called sin.
According to the Gospel of Mary, she consoled the disciples after the crucifixion, and while doing so, Peter asked her to tell them what Jesus had taught her but not them. So she told them a vision she had experienced, in which Jesus had told her, For where the mind is, the treasure is. Peter openly doubted her word because he could not believe that Jesus would tell a woman something he would not tell the male disciples, and he refused to follow the teachings of a woman because she was a woman. Levi rebuked Peter, saying Jesus loved Mary more than any of them, and if Jesus thought her worthy, who were they to think otherwise?
Mary Magdalene also appears prominently in two other Nag Hammadi texts The Dialogue of the Savior, and Pistis Sophia. In both, Peter remains antagonistic, and Mary is revealed as the one who understood the teachings of Jesus better than the rest.
In The Dialogue of the Savior, Jesus is asked how the dead die and how the living live. He says: when what moves a person slips away, that person will be called dead, and when what is living leaves what is dead, it will be called alive.
When he is asked, what is the beginning of the way? He says: Love and goodness. If one of these had existed among the rulers, wickedness would never have come to be.
Mary s position as the primary disciple of Jesus is the antithesis of what Origen asserted later that same century. Origen declared: it is shameful for a woman to speak in the community. Whatever she says, even if she says admirable or holy things it comes out of the mouth of a woman.
This same misogynistic attitude can also be found within The Dialogue of the Savior, as when Jesus instructs the disciples to Pray in the place where there is no woman, and that the works of the female will be destroyed. These statements, taken at face value, do not support the contemporary view, as seen through the Gnostic Gospels, that Jesus advocated equality between men and women. One explanation, provided in an addendum written by Esther DeBoer, is that in antiquity a man symbolized reason while a woman symbolized perception through the senses, meaning women by nature are irrational and consumed by emotion. DeBoer points out that others have therefore argued that Mary Magdalene has transcended her inferior femaleness. This is consistent with the scene at the crucifixion, where Jesus, dying on the cross, says to his mother, referring to Mary Magdalene: Woman, look, our son, and, in turn, tells Mary Magdalene, Look, your mother.
This is not a view that will please those looking for equality of men and women in the teachings of Jesus. For this, most turn to the Gospel of Thomas and its reference for the need to make male and female into a single one, so that the male will not be male nor the female be female. (\
For an outlook more compatible with contemporary views, DeBoer refers to Jerome, writing in the 4th Century, who defended the equality of women by recognizing it was three women, including Jesus mother and Mary Magdalene, who alone stood with Jesus during the crucifixion, and it was Mary Magdalene alone who first saw the risen Christ. As DeBoer notes, Jerome s words are quite revolutionary, especially given his own apparent misogyny in other contexts.
However those in the ancient world, or we in the contemporary world, may view equality or inequality of men and women, it is important to recognize that Mary Magdalene had a prominent role as a disciple of Jesus. The subsequent suppression of women in the Christian church, to the extent only men could be priests because, incorrectly, only men were disciples of Jesus, unfortunately resulted in limiting the scope of Christianity from its original and true state. The family of humanity does not consist solely of men or solely of women, but of both men and women. As in a good marriage, the perspectives of both must be balanced, nurtured, and sustained.