In a way this is old news, for much of this moment seems to have passed beyond ten or so years ago when, thanks to The Da Vinci Code and other books, “Magdala Christianity” was all the rage in some quarters. It’s still around though. Do a search for “Mary Magdalene” “July 22” “celebration” and you’ll come up with plenty of nuggets:
In addition to the continuing celebrations of Mary Magdalene as a goddess-figure, something else on the horizon is Dan Brown’s puzzling release of The Da Vinci Code in a “young adult” version – as if the original were too erudite and layered for the kids. Anyway, I don’t know if this new edition will interest anyone, but just in case it does and you meet someone who has JUST DISCOVERED this amazing truth about the “real” Mary Magdalene…here you go.
So on to chapter 3….
Over the past twenty years, interest in Mary Magdalene has exploded. Books, websites, seminars, and celebrations of her feast day on July 22 have multiplied, as many in the West, particularly women, look to her for inspiration.
Ironically, though, much of this interest in this great Christian saint is being fueled by texts other than the Christian Scriptures. The popular websites devoted to Mary Magdalene refer to her as “The Woman Who Knew All” (www.magdalene.org). One of the more popular treatments of Mary Magdalene, The Woman with theAlabaster Jar: Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail, by Margaret Starbird, emphasizes Mary as “Bride and Beloved” of Jesus. And, of course, there’s The Da Vinci Code, the mega-selling novel that has brought these depictions of Mary Magdalene to a mass audience. Brown’s novel brings it all together in one convenient package: Mary Magdalene was the spouse of Jesus, bore his child, and was the person he really wanted to lead his movement. This movement, of course, was about nothing the New Testament suggests it is, but was rather a wisdom movement dedicated to help humanity reunite the masculine and feminine principles of reality.
So in this context, Mary Magdalene was the “real” Holy Grail, since she was the vessel that carried Jesus’ child and his teaching. But she’s more: she’s a “goddess” — a mythical figure through whom the divine can be encountered.
It’s all very confusing. It’s also ironic, given the constant modern criticism that the claims of traditional Christianity are suspect because they can’t be “proven,” or because the texts upon which its claims are based are too ancient to be trusted. The modern devotion that so many seem to have to this figure of Mary is actually based, in part, on far less trustworthy sources and has no relation to the Mary we meet in Scripture.
So where does it start? Of course, much of this revisioning is rooted completely in the present, in a mishmash of conspiracy theories, false history, and wishful thinking that we will address in the last chapter. But the truth is that Mary Magdalene wouldn’t be the subject of interest from many of her contemporary fans outside traditional Christianity if it weren’t for some other ancient texts: the writings produced by Gnostic Christian heresies.
Here’s the short version. From about the second through the fifth centuries, a movement that we now call “Gnosticism” was popular in many areas around the Mediterranean basin. “Gnosticism” is a word derived from the Greek word gnosis, which means“knowledge.” Although there were various Gnostic teachers and movements over the centuries, most of them shared a few common characteristics, succinctly described by Father Richard Hogan in his book Dissent from the Creed: Heresies Past and Present (Our Sunday Visitor, 2001):
“Gnostics claimed a special knowledge,a gnosis. Included in this special gnosis was an understanding that there was God Who created the spiritual world and a lesser anti-god who was responsible for the material (evil) world. Gnosticism represents a belief in dualism.There is a good and an evil. Evil is material and physical. Good is spiritual and divine.
“According to the Gnostics, a disaster at the beginning of the world had imprisoned a divine ‘spark’ in human beings, i.e., in the evil world of material Creation.This divine element had lost the memory of heaven, its true home. Salvation consisted in knowing that this ‘spark’ existed and liberating it from the human body.” (Hogan, p. 43)
The creation myths of Gnosticism that describe this imprisonment are quite complex and intricate. Just as intricate were the Gnostic visions of what salvation was about. The emphasis, naturally, was on knowledge, rather than faith, life, or love. The way to salvation involved knowing the truth about human origins and then knowing the way to progress, both in this life and the next, through the various layers of reality that were imprisoning that sacred spark.
Early Gnosticism, which predates Christianity, drew from many sources, including Platonic philosophy and Egyptian mythology. Christian Gnosticism used the Gospels and other Christian traditions, eliminating elements that were not consistent with Gnostic thinking. So, for example, Gnostic Christian teachers taught that Jesus was not really human — since the material world is evil. Valentinus, who lived around the year 150 in Rome, taught an extraordinarily complex story of Jesus being the product of the yearnings of Sophia — the personification of wisdom. Historian David Christie-Murray describes it in the following way:
“Christ,who brings the revelation of gnosis (self-consciousness), clothed himself with Jesus at baptism and saves all spiritual mankind through his resurrection,but had only a spiritual body. Men can now become aware of their spiritual selves through him and return to their heavenly origin. When every spiritual being has received gnosis and becomes aware of the divinity within himself, the world-process will end. Christ and Sophia, after waiting at the entrance of the Pleroma [the center of spir-itual, divine life] for spiritual Man, will enter the bridal chamber to achieve their union,followed by the Gnostics and their higher selves, their guardian angels.” (A History of Heresy[Oxford UniversityPress, 1989], p. 29)
This is just one example, but Gnostic Christianity is really simply a variation on this theme: Creation is evil. Jesus was not fully human. He did not suffer or die. Redemption cannot, of course, be achieved through such a means, for it involves the material body, which is sinful anyway. Salvation is not available to all, but only those with special knowledge. This way of thinking infiltrated many other systems of the time, including Christianity.
Those who tried to merge Gnostic thinking with Christianity produced writings, some of which survive, mostly in the context of quotations in the works of Christian writers arguing against them. In the late nineteenth century, some Gnostic Christian texts, not seen before, were discovered, and even more in the mid-twentieth century. The discovery of these texts caused a stir among some who believed that, more than giving an insight into a Christian heresy, these texts opened a world to what they believed could be the real story of Christianity that was concealed by orthodox Christian leaders.
Consequently, over the past century or so, these Gnostic texts have been rediscovered and reinterpreted. Some have taken their existence as proof that there was a whole other, and long-hidden, response to Jesus’ ministry, one with roots as ancient as those we see in the Gospels, and just as legitimate. The modern re-visioning of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ bride, as the special recipient of his wisdom, and as the foundress of an alternative mode of Christianity owes much to the fascination with these Gnostic writings.
Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your point of view — what we actually know of the history of early Christianity just can’t back up these exalted claims for Mary Magdalene or even of any substantive link between Jesus’ ministry and Gnostic Christianity and Gnostic writings.
The simplest way to put it is this: Gnostic Christian texts tell us a lot about Gnostic Christian heresies in the second through the fifth centuries. They tell us nothing about the historical figures of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Peter, or the origins of Christianity in the first century.
So what follows is that these Gnostic texts tell us nothing substantive about the real Mary Magdalene, either, and that all those who use them in that way are engaging in, at best, misguided efforts, and, at worst, deceitful misuses of historical materials.
But it continues, nonetheless, and for a reason: this technique of suggesting that the Gnostic Christian texts reveal secret truths about early Christianity and who Jesus “really” was and what he “really” taught serves to undercut not only the New Testament but also the Church that produced it and is formed by it.
As I’ve done talk radio shows discussing this matter, I’ve heard it again and again: “All of these works were written so long after the events they describe — they’re all equally dependable and undependable. What version of Jesus you choose doesn’t matter, for there’s no way to know the truth, anyway.”
That’s just not true. Early Christianity was an enormously complex movement, about which we cannot claim to know everything.
But we do know — and any serious scholar will affirm — that Jesus did not teach Gnostic platitudes and did not marry Mary Magdalene, who then embarked on a life of teaching Gnostic platitudes of her own and emanating divine energy.
It just didn’t happen.
But because these Gnostic texts are so important in so many contemporary treatments of Mary Magdalene, we definitely need to look at them and understand what they’re really about.
It’s somewhat challenging to describe Gnosticism because it wasn’t an organized movement, a religion, or even a homogeneous philosophical school. Perhaps the best way to describe it would be to compare it to the self-help movement of our day. For some reason, in the last part of the twentieth century, this notion of the importance of self-esteem took hold in our culture and infiltrated almost every aspect of life, including religion.Two hundred years ago, Christian thinkers and preachers of any denomination would have been appalled at the suggestion that a goal of Christian faith is to help the believer feel better about herself or help her overcome insecurities and self-doubts. On the contrary, despite their differences, Chris-tians and Protestants alike would have described the goal of the Christian life as believing rightly and shaping your life in a way that meet’s God’s standards and spares one an eternity in hell.
Gnosticism was, of course, more complex and cosmic than this. But it’s a decent example to start with, for, like the self-esteem movement, Gnosticism wasn’t confined to groups that identified themselves explicitly as “Gnostic” and separate from other religions. It infiltrated and impacted almost everything it rubbed against, including Judaism and Christianity.
You can see the problems. Gnosticism wasn’t a minor movement. In most major cities of the Roman Empire during these centuries, Gnosticism and even Gnostic Christianity thrived. Most of our knowledge of Gnostic Christianity comes from its Christian opponents, great theologians like St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and St. Clement of Alexandria, who all wrote against Valentinus, for exam-ple, and quoted copiously from his writings in doing so.
But independent copies of some Gnostic Christian texts do exist, and it’s these texts that form the basis of the modern, non-Christian devotion to Mary Magdalene.
In the nineteenth century, several discoveries broadened scholarly comprehension, and eventually popular understanding, of Gnosticism. An ancient work of the Christian Hippolytus, Refutationof All Heresies, lost for centuries, was discovered in 1842 in a Greek monastery. This work, of course, quoted many heretics, including Gnostics. More important to many was the rediscovery (in the British Museum) and then translation of Pistis Sophia (into English in 1896), a probably third-century work in which Mary Mag-dalene — and Mary, the mother of Jesus, by the way — figure prominently in dialogue with Christ. Snippets of other Gnostic texts existed, but the real revolution in this area came in 1945 with the discovery in Egypt of the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of Coptic texts, bound in leather, and dating from the late fourth and early fifth centuries, that included many Gnostic works (as well as a partial copy of Plato’s Republic). Hidden in jars and stored in caves, it is thought that the library belonged to a Gnostic Christian monastery.
The Nag Hammadi collection contains fifty texts in thirteen codices (a form of book), three of which — the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Dialogue of the Savior — are of interest to those intrigued with Mary Magdalene. Other Gnostic texts believed to mention Mary Magdalene, and found outside the Nag Hammadi library, are the Gospel of Mary and the Pistis Sophia. These texts emerged from different periods and reflect different strands of Gnosticism. All are discussions between Jesus and various other figures, mostly about the nature of the soul, the after-life, and the end of time. Let’s take a brief look at how each of them treats the figure called “Mary.”
Pistis Sophia (third century)
This work consists of extensive dialogues between Jesus, who has been on earth teaching for eleven years since the Crucifixion, and others, including women. Mary, his mother, takes an enormous role, and several times a “Mary,” not explicitly identified as either his mother or anyone else, including Mary of Magdala, is mentioned and praised for her understanding, and is even the subject of envy by other disciples.
The Gospel of Philip (third century)
This work is made up of dialogues and sayings of Jesus in conversation with his disciples. It mentions the Magdalene, “who was called his companion,” along with “Mary his mother and her sister,” as three who “always walked with the Lord.” The passage, quite provocative to some, ends with the sentence, “His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.”
This work also contains the passage describing Jesus as kissing Mary Magdalene often and the rest of the disciples disapproving,asking, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” Jesus’ answer is obscure, but implies that she is more enlightened than they are. Those who see this kiss bestowed by Jesus as an expression of a unique companionate relationship are missing the point in a big way. In Gnosticism, the kiss is symbolic. As one scholar points out: “The Logos lives in those whom he has kissed, hence the disciples’ jealousy, for they are not yet worthy of the kiss” (Jorunn Jacob-sen Buckley, quoted in The Making of the Magdalen: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages, by Katherine Ludwig Jansen [Princeton University Press, 2000], p. 27).
The Gospel of Thomas (third century)
This, the most well-known of all the Gnostic writings, is a collection of sayings, many of which are also found in the canonical Gospels, but with a heavy dose of the androgynous themes that contemporary readers find so appealing. A “Mary” is mentioned once (the other female character is a “Salome”), as Peter asks Jesus to make her leave. Jesus, in a passage that is not often quoted by modern fans of this gospel, says, “I myself will lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The Gospel of Mary (third century)
This is another dialogue, this time beginning with Jesus but ending with a “Mary,” who is identified as the one Jesus loved “more than the rest of the women” and as the primary teacher, in a rather subtle competition, it seems, with Peter.
A ‘Few’ Problems
These, then, are the basic texts that modern devotees of Mary Magdalene use to support their case that she was an important leader of early Christianity, and probably in an intimate relation-ship with Jesus — but even if not, that her wisdom was esteemed by him above the other male disciples, and that there was friction between Mary Magdalene and the male disciples. This friction, in the eyes of some, reflects a real, historical division in early Christianity between those who followed Mary as a teacher and those who followed Peter.
There are numerous problems with using these documents to support this view of Mary Magdalene. Let’s look at a few of them.
To begin with, this position assumes that the Gnostic texts reflect first-century events. The simple truth is, they do not. No scholars date any of the texts earlier than the second or third centuries. The view they present of Jesus, his teachings, and his ministry are radically different from what we read in the Gospels, which were all composed before the end of the first century. Scholars of all types consistently consider the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament to be the starting point for studying the history of early Christianity. They may disagree on what the texts mean, but none would suggest, for example, that the Gospel of Mary is of equal value with the canonical Gospels in determining what the early Jesus movement was all about.
No, the Gnostic texts “tell” us exactly what they should: namely, the ways that Gnostic Christian heretics took the basics of the Christian story and molded them to fit Gnostic thinking. Since some elements of Gnosticism were interested in questions of gender and androgyny, that concern is reflected in some texts, and in the roles played by female figures. They might reflect a greater role for women in some Gnostic sects, or they might even reflect a desire to demean the role of Peter, recognized as the chosen leader of orthodox Christianity.
But if you take the time to read these works yourself, you’ll see that they are radically different from the canonical Gospels in tone and content. (The Gnostic texts are not long, and all are available on the Internet. The Gospel of Mary, at least the fragment that we have today, is reproduced in full in Appendix B of this book.) The canonical Gospels, with all of their very human, flawed figures, are reflective of an attempt to present events accurately, through the prism of faith, certainly, but accurately nonetheless. The Gnostic writings are preachy, tendentious, obtuse, and . . . well . . . Gnostic in their concerns.
So the contemporary thinkers who suggest that a strand of “Magdalene Christianity” was born from Mary’s early leadership that was eventually suppressed by those loyal to Peter are basing their conclusions on the most tenuous of threads: that these Gnostic writings, written some two hundred years after the fact by Gnostics, reflect an ancient, hidden relationship between Mary and Jesus.
Let’s take this one step further. Who’s to say that the “Mary” mentioned in all of these writings is, each and every time, Mary Magdalene?
After all, there are only a couple of incidents — in the Gospelof Philip and Pistis Sophia — in which the Magdalene is specifically mentioned. The much-vaunted Gospel of Mary speaks only of a “Mary,” does not specify the Magdalene, and gives no identifying clues to tie her into the historical figure of Mary Magdalene, despite modern editions tacking “Magdalene” on to the title. Even the Gospel of Philip, which has been held up by many as evidence of a “companion” relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, is not as clear as it seems on who that Mary is. A close reading of the text indicates, a growing number of modern scholars suggest, that the female figure is a composite, mythical “Mary,” representing the feminine aspect of reality.
One of the features of some contemporary celebrations of Mary Magdalene is that the Gnostic writings indicate a tension between her and Peter and the other disciples, thereby implying a separate strand of “Magdalene Christianity.” Entire books have been written on this. That view, of course, is dependent on reading these Gnostic texts as if the Mary in conflict with the disciples is, in fact, Mary Magdalene. That’s by no means certain.
In the Pistis Sophia, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is described as being in conflict with the disciples. On a couple of other occasions, another Mary is described in the same way, and many assume this Mary is Mary Magdalene, although she is not explicitly identified in this way. However, some scholars — looking at the way this Mary is described, as “blessed among women” and “called blessed by all generations” — believe that a case could be made for identifying this Mary as Jesus’ mother. At the very least, it is not certain at all that she is Mary Magdalene, who does, in turn, play a prominent role in the dialogues in Book Two of the work.
Scholar Stephen J. Shoemaker summarizes this perspective:
In summary then, the Gnostic Mary’s identity is by no means a simple matter, nor is her identification with Mary of Magdala as certain as it is frequently asserted in modern scholarship. The particular spelling of the name Mary is in no way a reliable criterion distinguishing the two women, even though this is the most frequently advanced argument in favor of the Gnostic Mary’s identity with Mary of Magdala. If anything, the spellings Mariam and Mariamme appear to favor an identification with Mary of Nazareth, as I have demonstrated elsewhere. Likewise, the writings of the New Testament fail to resolve this problem, since they show both Marys to have equally been important figures in early Christian memory. Even the Magdalene’s role as apostola apostolorum in the fourth gospel does not tip the balance in her favor, since in early Christian Syria, where it seems most likely that the Gnostic Mary traditions first developed, it was believed that Christ first appeared to his mother, Mary of Nazareth, commissioning her with a revelation to deliver to his followers.
Moreover, despite frequent assertions to the contrary, there is significant evidence that early Christians occasionally imagined Mary of Nazareth in situations similar to those in which the Gnostic Mary is found: she converses with her risen son, expounds on the cosmic mysteries, and reveals her son’s secret teachings to the apostles, with whom she is occasionally seen to be in strife. Such is especially evident in the Pistis Sophia, a text whose interpretation has been tightly controlled by the last century’s interpretive dogmas. Both this text and the Gospel according to Philip make clear that the Gnostic Mary traditions do not have only a single Mary in view. Although many will no doubt continue to take refuge in the Gospel according to Philip’s description of Mary Magdalene as the Savior’s favorite, we should not forget that the New Testament identifies Mary of Nazareth as the ‘favored one,’ who has ‘found favor with God.’ (“Rethinking the ‘Gnostic Mary’: Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala in Early Christian Tradition,” Journal of Early Christian Stud-ies, 9:4, pp. 588-589)
Why take so much time to unpack this? Because it’s terrifically important in getting Mary Magdalene right. Many contemporary activists have adopted Mary Magdalene as a representative of an alternative vision of Christianity, based partly on wishful thinking, partly on her role in the canonical Gospels, but confirmed, in their minds, by the evidence of these Gnostic writings. In them, they see traces of an ancient tension, an ancient movement within the followers of Jesus that held up Mary Magdalene as a wisdom teacher, as the one Jesus designated as his successor.
Their vision sounds plausible to those unfamiliar with the original texts, or even to those who only read them in translation, interpreting them according to the assumptions of the promoters of “Magdalene Christianity.” But ancient texts are usually not as simple to interpret as we think or would like to think.
A careful, objective reading shows, quite simply, first, that the figure of Mary of Nazareth played an unquestionably important role in some Gnostic texts. Why hasn’t she been chosen and celebrated by modern interpreters as the special chosen one of Jesus? Second, while Mary Magdalene does appear in these texts, most of the evidence for “Magdalene Christianity” is derived from the presence of a “Mary” who is, in fact, not clearly identified as Mary Magdalene, and is probably either a mythical composite female figure or Mary of Nazareth. Most importantly, though, all of the figures in these Gnostic writings really function on a level of symbol more than historical reality. Scripture scholar John P. Meir sums up the case quite well:
“I do not think that the . . . Nag Hammadi codices (in particular the Gospel of Thomas) offer us reliable new information or authentic sayings that are independent of the NT [New Testa-ment].What we see in these later documents is rather the reac-tion to or reworking of NT writings by . . . gnostic Christians developing a mystic speculative system.” (A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus,Vol. 1 [Doubleday, 1991], p. 140)
As we will see throughout the rest of this book, Mary Magdalene is a great saint, and a woman worthy of our interest and honor. But there is simply no evidence that she was who her modern interpreters would like her to be. The Gnostic texts that they use to make the case tell us nothing about early Christianity in the first century, and the “hints” that some read in them, suggesting an ancient tradition being preserved about a leadership role for Mary Magdalene in competition with Peter, are by no means certainly about Mary Magdalene, and in some cases might even refer to Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Further, if you read the documents yourself, you will see how ambiguous they really are, how easily they lend themselves to selective reading, and even how, in parts, the Gnostic writings contradict what their modern proponents would have them say.
In short, when dealing with Mary Magdalene, Jesus, and the Gnostics, don’t trust the interpreters. Go right to the source.
Questions for Reflection
- What was Gnosticism? Do you see traces of Gnostic thinking in the world today?
- How do some try to use Gnostic writings in regard to Mary Magdalene? What are the flaws to their approach?
- What do the Gnostic writings tell us about the Mary Magdalene of history?