The Gospel of Mary

© 2005 Dr. Barbara Thiering (June, 2005)

The theological excitement aroused by the Nag Hammadi gospels was soon extended to the Gospel of Mary, which was taken up with enthusiasm by American feminists. This gospel presents Mary Magdalene, not only as the one loved most by Jesus but as a teacher in her own right, giving gnostic truths said to have been taught her by Jesus. From the assumption of the centrality of Jesus, a derived religious cult of Mary Magdalene developed, its main emphasis the injustices done to women by churchmen. The cult helped inspire Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, so is known and debated worldwide at the present time.

The Gospel of Mary is published with the Nag Hammadi Library, although it was not included in the codices found in the jar at Nag Hammadi. The reason is that a group of Coptic documents was already known, in a 5th century Coptic codex now called the Berlin Gnostic Papyrus. That codex included the Apocryphon of John, which was also found in the NHL (codex II, III and IV); and also the Sophia of Jesus Christ (Codex III) . It was therefore presumed that the Gospel of Mary belonged to the same corpus of literature. It has material in common with the Gospel of Philip, found in NHL Codex II. It seems safe to presume that it was simply accidental that it was not found with NHL.

There was an earlier Greek text, consisting of only a single fragmentary leaf, copied early 3rd century (P.Rylands III 463). The same debate on dating applies to the Gospel of Mary as to the Gospel of Philip. The official view, assuming gnosticism to be a later development, puts it in the second century AD. But that assumption has to be challenged (See 'dating' in "The Gospel of Philip" in this section on this site). Once the actual history of Mary Magdalene and Jesus is understood (See "The Marriage of Jesus" in The Pesher Technique section on this site), its composition may be placed in the 1st century, contemporary with the Gospel of Philip. It comes from early Christian gnostic circles, close to the Magians, to which Jesus himself at first belonged, then later parted from them.

The first section of the Gospel of Mary contains sayings of Jesus, presented as being in the company of Peter and those with him. Peter asks, "What is the sin of the world?" Jesus, called the Savior, replies, "There is no sin, but it is you who make sin when you do the things that are like the nature of adultery, which is called sin. That is why the Good came into your midst, to the essence of every nature, in order to restore it to its root....He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

After more teachings, the text goes on, "When he had said this, he departed." The disciples were grieved, expressing fear about their work of mission to Gentiles. "If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?"Mary then appeared and exhorted them to courage. Her words included "He has prepared us and made us into men."

Peter then said to Mary, "Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember, which you know but we do not, nor have we heard them." Mary replied "What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you."

In the second part, (4 pages of which are missing), Mary passed on to them sayings that Jesus had given her, and they discussed them. The extant passages concern the types of sin, of which there are seven. When she had finished her teaching, Andrew said he did not believe that the Savior had said these things, and Peter said, 'Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge and not openly?...Did he prefer her to us?" Levi, after accusing Peter of being hot-tempered, defended Mary's truthfulness, and said, "Surely the Savior knows her very well, that is why he loved her more than us."

All of this literature can be understood very well as historical fact, presented in the language of piety that was used in missionary teaching. Jesus and Mary Magdalene were husband and wife, in a dynastic marriage such as is described by Josephus for the Essenes (JW 2, 160-161). It meant that the husband was away for much of the time, in monastic seclusion, while the wife continued to live outside in the world, meeting with her husband at intervals of years simply for the purpose of having further children. Jesus was a head of mission to Gentiles, in a proselytising mission that had been established well before his time. When Gentiles were admitted they were baptised, going through a depth of water with their baptiser holding them. As they were uncircumcised, they were "unclean", so a "holy" Jewish male celibate could not come close to them (JW 2, 150). But a woman, being uncircumcised, was their legal equal. She was the one who baptised Gentiles. Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus was the head of the order of such missionary women.

The Gospel of Mary shows that while living single outside she was actively engaged in teaching and leadership, and, since she was the head of Gentiles next after Jesus, she was superior in status to Peter, who also was a missionary to Gentiles. (As a married man, he also was "unclean", from the viewpoint of celibates.) She gave the teaching, authorised by Jesus and those like him, that Gentiles wanted to hear - a form of gnosticism very much influenced by Hellenism. The better educated missionaries understood and accepted the Hellenistic attitude to the ministry of women, illustrated in Acts 6:1. Peter and Paul, however, especially the ex-Hebrew Paul, did not like it. Paul wrote "I do not allow a woman to teach or have authority over men" (1 Timothy 2:12). Peter and Paul won in Rome - and still do!

What was basically an organisational necessity was clothed in the gnostic gospels with the mystical language that gnostics delighted in, illustrating their belief that what was earthly was at the same time heavenly. It is the mystical language that has survived, lending itself to a cult of Mary Magdalene that continues the cult of Mary the Mother.

It seems to me - to offer what is simply my opinion - that we have moved beyond the necessity for human-centred cults. It may be the effect of this newly recognised history that we find such language spiritually limiting. It is all part of a rich past, but we stand on the brink of a future that has to take far more into account. We haven't got there yet - perhaps we never will - but, as human beings always do, we can find a greater freedom by not being bound excessively by the past.