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Post title because I’m celebrating survival tonight, and because the restaurant in the photos above was built for the crew of Survivor: Guatemala back in 2005 when the season was filmed at Yaxha. Another excellent meal.

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And here we go with chapter 4 of De-Coding Mary Magdalene. This chapter covers the earliest stages of patristic thinking about the saint. It’s shorter.

I hope what you notice that one of the things I try to do here (and in everything I write along this line, as well) is to help the reader understand not only Mary Magdalene herself, but broader (to use a big word) epistemological matters as well. How to read the Bible. How to understand early Church History. It’s one thing to throw factoids at people. It’s important in the long run, however, to open them up to the greater issues of, not just what to know, but how to know – especially about religious matters – in a culture in which they are told, repeatedly, that all knowledge, especially about religion, is fundamentally uncertain, relative, and ideological.

For previous chapters:

Chapter one: Introducing Mary Magdalene in the Bible

Chapter two: Mary Magdalene at the Resurrection

Chapter three: Mary Magdalene in Gnostic writings

As I have said before, feel free to use this material in any way you wish, even copying them for parish discussion groups. The full pdf is available here. 

While Gnostic writers were — or perhaps weren’t – – writing about Mary Magdalene, favored student of the Gnostic Jesus, orthodox Christian writers had a few things to say as well during those early centuries of Christianity.
She didn’t dominate the scene, but a few thinkers found her an intriguing figure, helpful in understanding the nature of faith and redemption. She’s represented in art from the period as well, most often in her role as “myrrhophore” — one of the women bringing oils and spice to Jesus’ tomb.

It’s that theme that we see most frequently: Mary Magdalene as faithful disciple and witness to the empty tomb, and then, digging a little deeper, Mary as the New Eve and Mary as the Church, symbolized with power and passion in the Old Testament Song of Songs.

Those who think that the Gnostics were more appreciative of Mary Magdalene than were orthodox Christians who were perhaps busy demonizing her might be in for a surprise. Many early Church Fathers had no problem identifying Mary Magdalene in quite exalted terms: “Apostle to the Apostles” and “Equal-to-the-Apostles,” titles which may be now neglected in the West, but which remain her primary identification in Eastern Christianity to this day.

‘Come, My Beloved’

It might be helpful, before getting to Mary herself, to set the scene. When we talk about the “early Church” and the “early Church Fathers” and their writings, what exactly do we mean?

For the purposes of this chapter, “early Church” means Christianity up to the late sixth century, at which point we start creeping into the early Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages, as they are quite unfairly called.

During this period, Christianity spread throughout the Middle East, into Africa, far into Europe, and even into India. The time began, of course, with most of that area (with the exception of India) as part of the Roman Empire, where Christianity was illegal. By the time the sixth century rolled around, the old Roman Empire had collapsed, new kingdoms and empires had taken shape, and Christianity was not only legal in all of them, but was the established religion in most as well, a situation that would last until the rise of Islam in the eighth century.

By the end of the first century, a basic church structure of presbyters (priests) and bishops was beginning to evolve (we can even see this in the New Testament: for example, in the First Letter of Paul to Timothy). The religious landscape was not the same as it is today: there were no seminaries, no universities, and of course, no publishing houses or religious newspapers. But there were theologians, spiritual writers, and bishops, who wrote and preached. Many of their works have survived and are available in English — even on the Internet — today.

Most commonly, the texts that we can read that give us an idea of what these Christians were thinking and how they believed and practiced their faith are:

  • Defenses of Christianity against skeptics and heretics.
  • Commentaries on Scripture.
  • Catechetical instructions.
  • And not coming from individuals but from church communities were liturgies and,beginning in the fourth century,
  • decrees from gatherings of bishops.

So you see, although there is much we don’t know, a great deal of evidence has survived that gives us an excellent picture of Christian life in its first five centuries of life. It is not as mysterious and ambiguous as some claim. Christian thinkers were seeking to deepen their understanding of the Gospel, in the context of a culture that was extremely hostile to them, as well as intellectually and religiously diverse.

There’s a good reason people still read the writings of these early Church Fathers. Their situation was not that different from ours. They were dealing honestly and tenaciously with the most fundamental aspects of Christian faith, and they were trying to make them understandable to a world that, while skeptical, was obviously deeply in need of Christ. Two thousand years is a long time — but not long enough for human nature and humanity’s need for Christ to change.

These early Christian writers viewed the literal truth of Scripture — in which they firmly believed, by the way — as a starting point. From that factual level, they routinely set off exploring nuance, making connections, and discovering useful analogies and allegories. Patristic writing is extremely rich in that way.

So for them, Mary Magdalene was more than a woman at a tomb, just as Jesus had been more than a man on a cross. In Jesus, all of history is redeemed and all of creation is reconciled to God.

Into this richness step ordinary men and women like you and me, people like Peter, Levi, John, and Mary. As they live and move in Jesus’ shadow, listening and responding to him, they, too, become more. Their actions evoke other figures’ responses to God’s out-stretched hand. Their doubt, faith, sin, and redemption become more than just their own, as we look at them and see echoes of our own lives and, in fact, of the whole human story.

So, for example, when some of these writers meditated on Mary Magdalene, they saw her responding to the Good News of redemption and eternal life — in a garden. It recalled another scene, at the beginning of salvation history, also in a garden in which a woman and a man disobeyed God, and humanity fell. And so, for some, Mary Magdalene became a sort of New Eve, long before the title had attached itself to the Virgin Mary.

For example, St. Cyril of Alexandria, who lived in the fifth century, said that because of Mary Magdalene’s witness at the empty tomb, all women were forgiven of Eve’s sin (Haskins, p. 89). St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, and St. Gregory of Nyssa also made the connection:

“She is the first witness of the resurrection, that she might set straight again by her faith in the resurrection, what was turned over by her transgression.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa,Against Eunomius3.10.16, quoted in The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament, by Jane Schaberg [Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002], p. 87).

The image of a woman grieving and waiting in a garden evoked another image for Christians: that of the great love poem in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Song of Songs (also known as the Canticle of Canticles or Song of Solomon).

The third-century Christian writer Hippolytus made a great deal of this in his own commentary on the Old Testament book. He brings in not only Mary Magdalene but also the other women reported at the tomb in the various Gospels, and sometimes in confusing ways. The female image, rooted in specific figures, becomes more generally symbolic but, with Mary Magdalene as one of them, echoes the deep desire of the bride in the Old Testament book, her desire for her beloved, as they seek Jesus at the tomb:

“ ‘By night, I sought him whom my soul loveth’: See how this is fulfilled in Martha and Mary. In their figure, zealous Synagogue sought the dead Christ. . . . For she teaches us and tells us: By night I sought him whom my soul loveth.” (Hippolytus,third century, quoted in Haskins, p. 61)

Finally, writers during this period cited Mary Magdalene for her witness at the tomb and sharing the Good News with the apostles. Hippolytus, who was also a bishop, referred to her as “Apostle to the Apostles.” Other Church Fathers also praised Mary for her role as a witness, some holding that through her example, all women are honored and, in a sense, redeemed.

A fourth-century Eastern poet named Ephrem used this image, although, confusingly to us, he conflates Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the following (as we saw in the last chapter, this was a characteristic of Syrian Christianity in this period):

“At the beginning of his coming to

earth A virgin was first to receive him, 

And at his raising up from the grave

To a woman he showed his resurrection.

In his beginning and in his fulfillment

The name of his mother cries out and is present.

Mary received him by conception

And saw an angel at his grave.”

(Quoted in Haskins, p. 90)

 

In this early period of Christian reflection, theological and spiritual writers worked in a relatively simple garden. Scripture — both Hebrew and Christian Testaments — was their primary source. Their sense of who Mary Magdalene was and of her importance for Christians was derived completely from that. She was historically significant because she was the first to see the empty tomb and the Risen Christ. Her role evoked other women in other gardens, and another layer of reflection was woven, celebrating Mary Magdalene as a New Eve or as representing the Church as the expectant bride seeking her bridegroom, Christ — but all because of what the Christian tradition had testified about her role in the events of the Resurrection.

The story of Mary Magdalene obviously does not end here, for at this point — the fifth and early sixth centuries — some images, quite familiar to us today, have not yet appeared. What of the penitent Magdalene? The prostitute? The evangelizer of the French?

Where these came from we shall soon see, as we enter the Middle Ages, a period of intense creativity and legend-building, in which the evidence of Scripture was revered, but popularly viewed as only the beginning to far more interesting tales.

 

Questions for Reflection

  1. Why did early Christian thinkers refer to Mary Magdalene as the “New Eve?”
  2. Why did they connect Mary Magdalene to the Song of Songs?
  3. What do you think of this approach to interpreting Scripture? Do you find it helpful or not?

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I’m out of blogging range at the moment, so enjoy this repeat from Mary Magdalene Week 2016…

Continuing with my “reprinting” of De-Coding Mary Magdalene.  This is a long chapter that lays out the claims of and arguments against the gnostic writings that some claim present Mary Magdalene as the special companion of Jesus and the leader of the real Christian movement, suppressed by the patriarchal Peter and his ilk.

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:

Celebrating Mary Magdalene and her message which is so powerful for us at this time… and embracing the Magdalene within each and everyone of us and our story.

 

Find out how Mary the Mother and Mary Magdalene were part of an ancient Lineage of the Sacred Mystery Schools of Isis in Egypt. They were the Keepers of the Lineage of Light. Honoring the feminine was the deepest truth of the secret teachings of the Holy Grail. Discover why the Celtic Lineage of Feminine power holds a key to the healing of modern society. Revered as the sacred keepers of the mystical knowledge of the stars these women were the anointed ones who kept the frequencies of light alive in the darkest of times. Mary Magdalene’s in sacred partnership with Christ embodied the union of both sexual and spiritual beauty. Healing the split between sexual and spiritual power is a key for women of all cultures in these dark times.

Pope Francis has just aknowleged her as one of the beloved Apostles and although many of us have known this for many many years it is a direct call to honor the feminine throughout the world.

Pope declares Mary Magdalene the Apostle to the Apostles – this is huge!!!

The 2016 Feast Day of Mary Magdalene is now an internationally celebrated landmark occasion of the highest order because of the Pope. This paves the way for a major shift in consciousness regarding the state of women in the world. The Pope has taken a powerful stand. We celebrate and aligned with his decision to lift the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene and place her – on par with that of the other Apostles. …

Please join us and help spread the word of this incredible celebration that will prayerfully uplift the consciousness so all can see and feel the deep worthiness of women and deeply appreciate the men who join us in this sacred honoring. Who are we honoring— YOU— the sacred holy one as is expressed and danced and known in a greater and deeper truth. For who is Mary Magdalene in all of these different archetypes if not aspects of ourselves – aspects which we now elevate to the highest state.

Okay.

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 9781879181038_p0_v2_s118x184and 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.

Secret Knowledge

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 516ywedgjtl-_sx321_bo1204203200_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.

 

Know Nothing

 

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.

 

Ancient Words

 

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.

518hvfnbhsl-_ac_ul320_sr210320_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

  1. What was Gnosticism? Do you see traces of Gnostic thinking in the world today?
  2. How do some try to use Gnostic writings in regard to Mary Magdalene? What are the flaws to their approach?
  3. What do the Gnostic writings tell us about the Mary Magdalene of history?

 

 

 

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Benedict4

He’s in The Loyola Kids Book of Saints under “Saints are people who teach us new ways to pray.” Here are some excerpts – click on images to get a fuller view.

BenedictI

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— 1 —

This is life right now:

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I am just not a fan of this stage of life: living with a new driver. He’s careful and is doing well, but nonetheless: it’s nerve-racking.

But it’s a stage of life that’s very good for the prayer life, so there’s that.

— 2 —

The image above is downloaded from Instagram Stories – you can only see it on a phone, though, not on the browser. I do use Instagram Stories and like it – mostly putting up odd or interesting things I see over the course of the day. I’m assuming that I’ll be able to use my phone in Guatemala, so there will be lots of Instagram action once we get there in a couple of weeks.

— 3 —

Work: I had devotionals in Living Faith twice this week, but you won’t see me there again until August. I’m currently waiting on a contract for the fall’s writing project, and mulling over smaller projects to publish independently.

Reminders: Look for The Loyola Kids Book of Bible Stories to be published in a couple of months.

The feast of St. Mary Magdalene is coming up in a couple of weeks (July 22) – get up to speed on all things MM with the free download of the book I wrote on her, now out of print, but available as a free pdf here.

— 4 —

Made this – it’s a chimichurri sauce, probably very familiar to many of you. It’s a simple IMG_20170706_163631South American condiment – most recipes center on parsley, oregano, red pepper, garlic, vinegar and olive oil, while some add cilantro and/or some type of citrus and onion. I had it last week at a restaurant and liked it so much I wanted to try it at home. I guess it turned out well, and was far better when the flavors melded with the steak than just testing it straight up.

— 5 —

Getting ready:

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I really don’t know if stuffing our system with probiotics in this form, or in yogurt or whatever form actually helps, but better safe than sorry, I suppose. We’ve been to Mexico twice and been very careful and had no problems, but still – we are going to be in Guatemala for a week with very specific travel goals, and I would hate for any of it to be derailed by GI issues. Also ordered super-strong insect repellent, so there’s that.

— 6 —

Thinking education: This is an excellent article in City Journal about “Vocational Ed, Reborn.” 

If you, like me, have a 16-year old child who is facing a near-future of all day in the classroom, following a curriculum that meets his needs and interests about half the time, and who would much rather be spending that other half working, making money and honing those types of skills, this article might give you hope, if not for your own kid’s situation, at least in general.

There is hope, too. I have a relative who just graduated from high school – except he hadn’t taken but one class in the actual high school since he was a sophomore. The program in which he was involved (in a public high school) was oriented towards medical career-training. It was intensive academic work at the high school for two years, and then transferring over to the local community college for the rest of the time. Result: by age 17, a high school diploma, an AA degree, qualified to be an EMT (or close) and a young person who is highly employable and ready to move on to a higher level of education.

What irritates me (and this is addressed in the article) is that this path is often envisioned as one for students from “lower” socio-economic groups and with “less academic potential” – which is nonsense. More educational choices for more students is what we need  – the model of Sit in a classroom for 4 years and build a high school resume so you can become part of an institution that wants you to feel that it’s a privilege for you to go into debt just to be a part of them…that model needs to be disrupted. It’s hopeful to see the small ways in which this is happening.

— 7 —

There was a big gathering of Catholics in Orlando this past weekend, organized by the USCCB, emphasis on evangelization and mission. Folks were fired up, and that’s great. But I still can’t wrap my head around the concept of having a gathering like this on a holiday weekend – the thing didn’t actually even end until the day of July 4. I’m guessing that the bishop’s group wanted it to coincide with the Fortnight for Freedom push, and to leave people revved up for that? I suppose, although that strikes me as cynical and manipulative. But still – it says something important and sad that Catholic leadership believes it’s a good thing to invite people to take holiday time at the height of summer away from their families to come instead to talk about churchy things with other churchy people.

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A better place.

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— 1 —

This is a very link-ish quick takes. I’m writing other things, thinking about other things, so I’m just going to toss out links to recent reads and listens.

But first, let me bring a bit of sunshine to your day, via a wallpaper mural in the basement of a home in which an estate sale was held last week:

 

 

What would you say? Late 70’s?

— 2 —

Planned Parenthood’s Brutal Century – a good synopsis of the deeply embedded anti-human eugenics presumptions of not only Planned Parenthood but so much of “enlightened” American intellectual culture of the late 19th through mid-20th century.

 

 

— 3 —

You have perhaps heard the story of little Charlie Gard, born with a rare and fatal genetic disease. 

Charlie Gard suffers from a very rare genetic condition, and is now living in Great Ormond Street Hospital with the help of a ventilator. When doctors there determined that they could not save his life, the hospital made a decision to remove the ventilator. His parents objected, and raised enough funds to transport the child to the US for experimental treatment. But their right to find treatment for their child was rejected in a series of court decisions. This week the European Court of Human Rights, the parents’ last hope for relief, ruled that the experimental treatment offered “no prospects of success” and the baby was “being exposed to continued pain, suffering, and distress.”

The court affirmed the hospital’s right to remove life support. “Our parental rights have been stripped away,” protested Chris Gard, the child’s father. The parents reported that Great Ormond Street Hospital had refused their request to have Charlie brought home for his last night, or to allow him to die peacefully in a hospice.

The English bishops and the Pontifical Academy for Life have issued statements on the case. Neither statements addresses the issue of state power over medical decisions. 

The injustice is that Charlie will die when the hospital administration wants, and where the hospital administration wants. His parents have been deprived of their right to supervise his case. They could not take him the US for experimental treatment. They could not take him home, to die in peace. As one of our readers observed, Charlie was essentially kidnapped, so that the authorities would be sure that he died on schedule.

Two tepid statements, from the local bishops’ conference and from the Vatican, might have been appropriate if the discussion had centered on the decision to turn off the ventilator. But they missed the essential point of the controversy entirely. The state—the hospital, the courts—had seized the power to preside over a child’s death, regardless of the parents’ wishes. Sadly, the Catholic hierarchy did not protest.

Catholic Hierarchs yesterday: An individual’s and family’s right to make decisions regarding freedom, justice and a living supersedes a State’s civil arrangements and legal borders.

Catholic Hierarchs today: A State’s civil arrangements supersedes a family’s authority to make decisions regarding the life of its members. 

I mean, I thought bridges were better than walls, and we’re not supposed to erect walls to keep people from exercising their freedom.

Pick one, guys. Pick one.

Another commentary:

John Paul II was well aware of the ways in which governments can steal the legitimate authority of parents and families: in “Familiaris Consortio” he affirmed that “the church openly and strongly defends the rights of the family against the intolerable usurpations of society and the state.” One would imagine that one such “intolerable usurpation” would be a government denying two parents the right to try to save their baby boy’s life. And one would imagine that an institution entitled “the Pontifical Academy for Life” would recognize that.

 

 

— 4 —

On a more cheerful note, our local new source, the Birmingham News, has given good coverage this week to Catholic matters: the ordination of two priests last Saturday, and the celebration of the Mass in the Extraordinary Form last night in honor of the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Here’s the story of one of the new priests.

And the other.

And the Mass. 

You can view the list of music from the Mass here (it’s a pdf – scroll down for 6/29) at the part of the parish website where orders of worship eventually get posted. 

 

— 5 —

I found this interesting – Does God want you to spend $300,000 for College? …in which a NYTimes reporter asks Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins about the moral implications of high tuition. In my opinion, he’s not tough enough on Jenkins. The question has implications, not just for Catholic higher education, but Catholic education at all levels.

 

— 6 —

Related, by the same author in the same article series on faith and money: The Monk Who Left the Monastery to Fix Retirement Plans. 

So has Mr. Lynam concluded that his former colleagues need him more than his former students? Not exactly. “I’m not irreplaceable in the classroom,” he said. “But I did not see another company serving teachers in the way that I can serve them. It’s not that one form of service is higher or lower.”

It is a very different role, though — one he describes as being a “suffering prevention specialist.” His professional conversations now feel a lot like confession, he said, with people sharing stories of unpaid debts, betrayals and sure things that were far from it. He listens, and then he must hold the mirror up to those who may not want to see the truth.

“Perhaps one of the cardinal sins that I see the most, though it’s not a popular one to talk about, is sloth,” he said. “Some people are afraid but also a little lazy, and they don’t really want to do the hard work of facing their mistakes or lack of organization and knowledge on these subjects and take responsibility.”

— 7 —

This week’s In Our Time listen – in between all the rain – was on Pushkin’s poem, Eugene Onegin.  

Well, that’s it. That’s all I have left, folks!

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The first Harry Potter novel was published twenty years ago today in the UK – June 26, 1997.  Some thoughts:

  • I’ve read most of them – I don’t think I ever actually read the last one, or if I did, I just skimmed it.
  • I read them to keep up with the cultural zeitgeist, because I had a daughter who was mad for them, and for work – I wrote about them here and there, mostly for OSV.
  • I always admired Rowling’s imaginative powers, but it became clear, as the series progressed, that the editors stepped away, in deference, I assumed, to her great popularity. The books kept getting longer and longer, with no good reason. As time went on, I found them very skimmable.
  • They’re not “great literature” by any means. The writing is flat and declarative, but you know what? She created a world, and that’s admirable and engaging.
  • I addressed the religious objections to the series at various times over the years, but never understood them. I am usually able to empathize with other points of view – it’s something that actually functions as an obstacle in my writing life, especially of opinion pieces. But I’ll admit that the religiously-based objectors to Harry Potter who saw it as a harbinger of the occult and Satanic among the young lost me.
  • But if someone didn’t want their kids reading them? I’m not going to argue with that and tell other families what to do. This time.
  • On the other hand…I was not up for embedding the Harry Potter novels in some sort of alt-canon for purposes of youth ministry and religious education. Yes, lessons can be learned, and there’s clearly an thematic element of self-sacrifice that’s central to the worldview of the novels, but putting the books at the center of religious ed lessons and sermons  is idiotic. It is possible to walk a line, balancing attention to themes that evoke a Christian ethos, without forgetting that …it’s just a kid’s book. Let’s immerse kids in Scripture and the lives of the saints, first of all. That’s priority #1.
  • Many years ago, I wrote on the series for OSV. Here’s that article. I think it holds up – it was before the fifth book came out, and I think was published in 2000. I wrote it as a “Should I let my kids read Harry Potter?” kind of piece, answering potential questions. In reading it I can see I was actually more empathetic than I remembered! Good for me!
  • (Forgive the boring formatting – it was just at the old site, and I don’t want to bother to do anything new to make it prettier.)
  • JK Rowling on Twitter is insufferable. Truly unbearable.
  • This is an interesting article on “Harry Potter and the Millenial Mind.”  It addresses, in a much deeper way, albeit a more specifically judgmental way, what I brought up in my recent post on #ReadADifferentBook.
  • To me, the Harry Potter novels were about what so much of magic-centered youth literature is about: the magic is a metaphor for the human power and potentiality. As children and young people, we slowly discover that we are not just a mass of feelings and impulses, but that we have power. Not just the proverbial and boring “gifts and talents,” either, but simply, the power to live and breathe in the world in an intentional way that impacts others.

What do we do with that power?

We can use it for good. We can use if for evil. We have to learn how to use it. We make mistakes. Every interaction we have is a manifestation of this power – of just being a person, in the world.

It’s sort of magical.

  • My 25-year old daughter is of the Harry Potter generation – the generation that was the same age as the characters in the books or at least close enough (reading kids always read ahead of their chronological age). I remember one of them came out when we first moved to Fort Wayne. Our furniture was delayed, and she was only seven years old, but I took her to the Little Professor bookstore for the midnight release party. She got the book, and stayed up most of the night reading it on the sleeping bag spread out in her empty room.
  • She and her friends loved these books, identified with the characters, and dressed up like them on Halloween and when the movies came out. She’s read all of the books multiple times – it was her habit, than when a new volume in the series or a new movie came out, she would reread them all up to the point of that volume or movie.
  • I once asked her why the books appealed to her so strongly, and she said that it was two things.  First, it was the fact that Rowling had created a complete and all-encompassing world, and she found that endlessly fascinating.  Secondly, quite simply: “Friendship.”
  • I have never understood how anyone, in their occult-fearing fevers – could miss this. Kids didn’t love the Harry Potter world because they yearned to learn how to cast spells. They loved it – loved it – aside from enjoying and being intrigued by it – because of the friendship between Harry, Ron and Hermione and what it said to them about loyalty, love, community and responsibility.
  • When kids could imagine themselves in the Harry Potter universe, it’s not just because of cool, quirky magical elements, but because it would be a world in which there was danger, yes, and mystery, but at the core of that world they could see themselves, not alone anymore, not misunderstood or taken for granted, but with friends, learning important things and being brave, using their powers to do things that really matter.
  • For kids trapped in classrooms for twelve years learning mostly tedious things in tedious ways in schools that are hothouses of peer judgment, facing a life in which, they are told in subtle and not-subtle ways – what matters is what you look like and “achieve,” in which authentic community is so hard to find and nurture – that’s a vision that answers a very deep yearning, isn’t it?

My younger two sons, ages 16 and 12 now, have not been on the Harry Potter train to quite the extent as their sister was. For the reader of the two of them, the younger one, Rick Riordan fills that role in life, which is…a bit unfortunate because Rowling is a far better writer than Riordan is, and the Riordan books are actually more problematic to me than Rowling’s – the tone is just obnoxious and superficial. But he thinks they’re entertaining. And he’s also trying to read War and Peace, so I’ll let him have his snarky pagan deities.

I think the movies have played a part in their lesser interest – they saw the movies first, and so the books hold less interest for them. But they are intrigued and interested by the Harry Potter world, so to that end, followers of this blog know that we had two HP encounters over the past year:

First, at Universal Studios Florida last Thanksgiving (no, HP wasn’t the only reason we went – they wanted to go, they were heading to Florida relations for the holiday, and so it seemed like a convenient time to go. I was impressed by the HP stuff – reflected on here – but I will also admit to you that I spent some time thinking, with great satisfaction, I’m pretty sure this is the last time I am ever going to have to go to a theme park. In my whole life. Ever. 

(Meaning….my curiosity about the place was satisfied and they’re old enough now to do these things on their own…and would prefer it that way, of course.)

Then the Harry Potter studios in London, the experience of which really surprised me. I wrote about it here. It’s not just about this world. It’s about creativity in general and the power and goodness of imagination.

harry potter studio tour

 

 

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