Mary Magdalene

The following is another excerpt from a paper I wrote defending Mary Magdalene as a prototype for women in Christian ministry. This was a fairly long paper, more of which I might get around to posting later. I greatly enjoyed the paper and have a new respect for the historical figure of Mary Magdalene. I tried to approach the paper not as a Christian but rather as a historian seeking to understand the historical role of women in ministry, specifically using Mary Magdalene to achieve that end.

The second premise to my argument is that Mary Magdalene plays a very significant role in Gnostic literature, which, though perhaps not canonical, cannot be completely disregarded because it shows how the character of Mary was understood and developed after the ascension of Christ. There will be a considerable number of evangelical Christians that will balk at this premise simply because I am appealing to extra-canonical texts to argue something significant to Christ’s mission and the Church. This reaction is not justifiable. For example, many church-attending evangelical Christians might claim that with reasonable certainty the Apostle Peter was crucified upside down because he did not want to die in the same fashion as Christ. This claim is based on a story recorded in the Gospel of Peter, which is an extra-canonical gospel that was not accepted into the New Testament. Hopefully this brief illustration depicts the double standard sometimes employed in contemporary evangelicalism in regard to extra-canonical texts. Added to this, scholars recognize that making a blanket statement claiming that anything Gnostic cannot be Christian is irrelevant to my argument.

Very seldom can one make a sweeping statement regarding anything as being entirely wrong or entirely right, and Gnostic Literature is no different. I am using Gnostic Literature as a historical witness to how some second-century Christians remembered the first century world. As such, their testimony is important for reconstructing the historical record. Hence their orthodoxy, or lack thereof, is irrelevant to their value in providing a historical record about how late-first and second century Jesus followers may have remembered Mary.

Mary Magdalene plays a much larger role in Gnostic literature than she does in the New Testament. To begin the attempt to unpack all Mary is in these texts, I want to start with a quote from Jane Schaberg. Schaberg describes what she calls her “profile” of Mary Magdalene:

(1) Mary is prominent among the followers of Jesus; (2) she exists as a

character, as a memory, in a textual world of androcentric language and

patriarchal ideology; (3) she speaks boldly; (4) she plays a leadership role

vis-à-vis the male disciples; (5) she is a visionary; (6) she is praised for

her superior understanding; (7) she is identified as the intimate companion

of Jesus; (8) she is opposed by or in open conflict with one or more of the

male disciples; (9) she is defended.

In studying the Gnostic literature in as much detail as space will permit, I hope to demonstrate Schaberg’s claims. Due to time and space, my main focus in this examination will be on the Gospel of Mary, a Gnostic gospel attributed to Mary Magdalene. However I will also briefly take into account other Gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, Pistis Sophia, and some others.

Now we begin with the Gospel of Thomas and also the Gospel of Philip as we continue the examination of Mary in Gnostic Literature. The Gospel of Thomas is believed by some to have been written late second century and by others to have been written late first century.

The Gospel of Philip is believed to have been written at about 250 CE.

Both are considered Gnostic literature, but many people might be surprised at how familiar the Gospel of Thomas seems in light of what is recorded in the four Gospels of the New Testament canon. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of one hundred and fourteen sayings of Jesus. Many of these sayings seem to directly quote Matthew, Mark, or Luke. The Gospel of Thomas includes well known sayings of Jesus such as, “It is impossible for a servant to serve two masters” (47); and “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar but give to God what belongs to God” (100).

The Gospel of Thomas supports the picture of Mary having an essential role in Christ’s earthly mission and in the Early Church as well.  Mary Magdalene can be found in a couple of places in the Gospel of Thomas—first in logion 21, where Mary asks Jesus, “Whom are your disciples like?” The nature of Mary’s question is not so important as that she asks a question. This, added to her mention in logion 114, where Peter requests that “Mary leave us,” shows that the Thomas Christians remembered Mary as having been, at the very least, part of the inner circle of disciples in the Early Church and as one that was remembered as vocal and in contention with Peter.

Scholars also notice and point out that, in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus “often addresses questions to her; she is more spiritual than the others.”

From this it is easy to establish that Mary is “indeed a member of the group—a community or a leadership echelon-.”

The Gospel of Philip adds to the shaping of Mary’s identity. This text states, “There were three that always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and his sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each called Mary.”

The claim to have “always walked with the Lord” is not a claim that could be made about any of the other disciples, at least as they are recorded in the New Testament. This is a significant statement about Mary. Nor does there seem to be any motive for the author to be lying. It rather makes sense that Jesus’ mother and sister would have left everything to follow him from beginning to end. Why not Mary Magdalene? The author goes even further though, singling Mary out as the companion of Jesus. If Mary was indeed known as the “companion of Jesus,” then the thesis of this paper would be nearly uncontested. But this is not the only time the Gospel of Philip mentions Mary. In fact the next time the Gospel of Philip mentions Mary, the depiction carries even more weight.

As for the Wisdom who is called “the barren,” she is the mother of the angels.

And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more

than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on the mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, “Why do you

love her more than all of us?”

This is admittedly a difficult passage to make sense of. Indeed some have come to think, partially due to this passage, that Mary was sexually involved with Jesus and may have perhaps conceived a child with him. The view that Mary and Jesus were married has been advanced primarily though the book and movie series, The Da Vinci Code. Bart Ehrman composed a book in response to some of the theories championed by “The Da Vinci Code” and specifically addressed the claim that Mary and Jesus were married. The simple fact is that no such evidence exists.

Even here in the Gospel of Philip no such claim is made.

Ehrman also notes that Mary constantly was identified as “the Magdalene” rather than just the woman Jesus married. If she and Jesus were married, she would be identified as his woman, since many of the other women in the gospels are identified by their husbands.

Consider for example, John 19:25, where the other women with Mary are all identified by their relationship to someone else, most of the time a man. There seems to be no concrete evidence that Mary and Jesus were married. My purpose in this paper however, is not to decide whether or not Mary and Jesus were married, so no further space should be used on the topic. It will simply be accepted that the meaning of this passage in the Gospel of Philip is something other than about Mary and Jesus as husband and wife. Schaberg alludes to a possible metaphor here of Mary as the Church, the bride of Christ.

This is indeed possible; however, it is moving from the realm of actual evidence and more into the realm of speculation. No matter how one interprets this passage, there is one constant theme. That theme is the special status of Mary Magdalene with Jesus. Clearly the author of the Gospel of Philip is trying to demonstrate that the relationship Mary had with Jesus was a special and unique one.

The Gnostic text, Pistis Sophia, is simply too long to be examined in much detail. But briefly viewing its contents again reveals Mary as a prominent character. Indeed one might make the case that she is the most prominent disciple of Jesus in this text.

Some scholars have noted that some of the phrasing in Mary’s questions seems to imply that she understands and comprehends mysteries more completely than “her brothers” whom she is questioning on behalf of.

Again, Pistis Sophia remains consistent with the claim that Mary is a significant character in Gnostic literature.

In fact, it appears that she enjoys a much more significant role in Gnostic writings than she does in the New Testament canon, even given the strong role they assign to her there. Ironically, the Gnostic texts seem to offer a possible explanation for this. In short, they claim that the disciples were jealous of her. Often, the Apostle Peter, specifically, challenged her authority and her special standing. If the Gnostic writings are correct in their portrayal of Mary, than they not only assign her a much more significant role, they also articulate that there was tension between Mary and the other disciples. But Mary is not alone; she is defended by certain other, male, disciples. This theme can be clearly traced through not only the previous texts examined but also through the Gospel of Mary.

The Gospel of Mary is an ancient Greek text estimated to have been written some time in the second century.

It is a very short gospel and very fragmented; of the original pages, around half have actually been recovered.

In this text Mary Magdalene is depicted as the comforter of the Apostles in some ways, ministering to them and answering their questions. But clearly, this text, like the Gospel of Thomas, portrays Peter and Mary as adversaries. Esther De Boer offers a very interesting thought related to this point and also to the dating of the Gospel of Mary. She argues that the tension between Peter and Mary, specifically revolving around the fact that Mary is a woman, might lend special insight into dating the Gospel of Mary. One thing to notice is that this type of tension or conflict is not depicted in the New Testament.

De Boer theorizes that perhaps this text illustrates the tension that actually did exist prior to the writings of the New Testament, and that, by the time of the New Testament the debate had been resolved; Peter had won. As a result, De Boer adds, Mary Magdalene was largely discredited in the New Testament.

This is purely theory, but it is a plausible theory if only because it holds significant explanatory power and would also establish a very early date for the Gospel of Mary. Specifically the tension occurs in this text when Peter asks Mary to tell them (the Apostles) the words of the Savior, which she knows but were never told to the rest of the disciples. To this Mary begins to recount a vision she had of the Lord. Peter and Andrew are skeptical of her teachings and Peter openly questions her. At this, however Levi comes to Mary’s defense. Levi rebukes Peter, saying, “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?”

Levi goes on to state that the Savior “loved her more than us.”

This is remarkably like previous statements in Philip, just as the depiction of Peter in conflict with Mary is also consistent with other Gnostic literature. This proves the Gospel of Mary is consistent with other Gnostic Literature that characterizes Mary as a woman leader in the Early Church.

Another way that this text is consistent with Gnostic literature is by the stock depiction of one figure revealing knowledge to a select few. In this case Mary is the knower, and she is revealing this knowledge by way of recounting her vision to the other disciples. There is, however, something noticeably different in the Gospel of Mary compared to other Gnostic texts.

Here, Mary makes no statement of the secrecy of this knowledge as often occurs in other Gnostic writings.

This is an interesting observation and raises questions about how gnostic the Gospel of Mary actually is.  The significant point in the Gospel of Mary as well as the in the rest of the Gnostic Literature is that Mary Magdalene is clearly very significant to the life of the Early Church and that there was a considerable number of Christians in the years following Jesus’ death that understood her as a leader in the Church.

So how does Gnostic literature support the claim that Mary played an essential role in Jesus’ mission and the life of the Early Church? It does so by depicting her special standing among the disciples and in relationship to Jesus. It also preserves a memory among several independent sources that she was a premier apostle. Partially based on the Gospel of Mary and other Gnostic texts, some scholars even argue that perhaps the Beloved Disciple in the Fourth Gospel is actually Mary Magdalene.

However much historical credibility one decides to grant the Gnostic texts, it is impossible to deny that there is a consistent theme revealed in them, and that theme must have some basis in reality. It would be foolish to discredit the Gnostic writings completely and just as foolish to ignore what they say about the identity of Mary Magdalene. The ancient extra-canonical texts, often labeled as Gnostic, provide significant help in reconstructing the identity of Mary Magdalene and the significance of her role in early Christianity.


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