Gospel of Mary

Icon of Mary Magdalene.

The Gospel of Mary is an ancient Christian text rediscovered by scholars at the turn of the nineteenth century (c. 1896). Reconstructed from fragments of several different ancient papyrus, this text presents a non-canonical version of Mary Magdalene's unique relationship with Jesus. It suggests that Mary had a much more powerful role in the early church than is currently accepted in mainstream churches. It further suggests that Mary, not the Apostle Peter, was Jesus' closest disciple and it hints at a power struggle between Mary and Peter that followed Jesus' death, which Peter eventually won, giving rise to the Petrine Christianity that dominates the Roman Catholic Church today. The Gospel of Mary, however, was excluded from the biblical canon and is not considered to be a valid scripture, despite its use in the ancient church.

Contents

Discovery

Two Greek fragments of the Gospel of Mary were discovered (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus L 3525 and Papyrus Rylands 463) at the turn of the nineteenth century. Theologian Karen King suggests that the original gospel was written sometime in the middle of the second century.[1] Esther De Boer argues, however, that it could have been written earlier.[2] The two fragments, dated from the third-century, were published respectively in 1938 and 1983, and the Coptic translation was published in 1955 by Walter Till.

Contents

The most complete text of the Gospel of Mary is contained in Berolinensis 8502, but even so, it is missing six manuscript pages at the beginning of the document and four manuscript pages in the middle. As such, the narrative begins in the middle of a scene, leaving the setting and circumstances unclear. Scholar Karen King believes, however, that references to the death of the Savior and the commissioning scene later in the narrative indicate the setting in the first section of the text is a post-resurrection appearance of the Savior. [3] As the narrative opens, the Savior is engaged in dialogue with his disciples, answering their questions on the nature of matter and the nature of sin. At the end of the discussion, the Savior departs leaving the disciples distraught and anxious. According to the story, Mary speaks up with words of comfort and encouragement. Then Peter asks Mary to share with them any special teaching she received from the Savior, “Peter said to Mary, ‘Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember - which you know (but) we do not, nor have we heard them.’”[4] Mary responds to Peter’s request by recounting a conversation she had with the Savior about visions.

"(Mary) said, ‘I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, ‘Lord, I saw you today in a vision.’ He answered and said to me: “Blessed are you, that you did not waver at the sight of me. For where the mind is, there is the treasure.’ I said to him, ‘So now, Lord, does a person who sees a vision see it [through] the soul [or] through the spirit?’[5]

In the conversation, the Savior teaches that the inner self is composed of soul, spirit, and mind, and visions are seen and understood in the mind. Then the text breaks off and the next four pages are missing. When the narrative resumes, Mary is no longer recalling her discussion with the Savior. She is instead recounting the revelation given to her in her vision. The revelation describes an ascent of a soul, which as it passes on its way to its final rest, engages in dialogue with four powers that try to stop it.

Her vision does not meet with universal approval:

"But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, 'Say what you think concerning what she said. For I do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are of other ideas.'"[6]

"Peter also opposed her in regard to these matters and asked them about the Savior. 'Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?'"[7]

However Levi defends Mary and quells Peter's attack on her. In the text, Peter appears to be offended by the discovery that Jesus selected Mary above the other disciples to interpret his teachings.

Interpretation

The Gospel of Mary is often interpreted as a Gnostic text. The text follows a format similar to other known Gnostic dialogues,[8] which contain a revelation discourse framed by narrative elements. The dialogues are generally concerned with the idea of the Savior as reminder to human beings of their bond with God and true identity, as well as the realization of the believer that redemption consists of the return to God and liberty from matter after death. The Gospel of Mary contains two of these discourses (7.1-9.4 and 10.10-17.7) including addresses to New Testament characters (Peter, Mary, Andrew and Levi) and an explanation of sin as adultery(encouragement toward an ascetic lifestyle) which also suit a Gnostic interpretation. Scholars also note that the fifth-century Coptic version of the Gospel of Mary is part of the Berlin Codex along with the Apocryphon of John and the Sophia of Jesus Christ which are typically viewed as Gnostic texts. However, while many scholars take for granted the Gnostic character of the Gospel of Mary, the key belief of Gnosticism centered around the creation myth and the Demiurge that would suggest an extreme dualism the creation is not present in the portions currently retrieved[9].

Esther De Boer (2004), however, suggests that the Gospel of Mary should not be read as a Gnostic specific text, but that it is to be "interpreted in the light of a broader Christian context." She argues that the Gospel stems from a monistic view of creation rather than the dualistic one central to Gnostic theology and also that the Gospel’s views of both Nature and an opposite nature are more similar to Jewish, Christian, and Stoic beliefs. She suggests that the soul is not to be freed from Powers of Matter, but rather from the powers of the opposite nature. She also claims that the Gospel’s main purpose is to encourage fearful disciples to go out and preach the gospel[10].

Theologian Karen King considers the work to provide "… an intriguing glimpse into a kind of Christianity lost for almost fifteen hundred years," opining that it "…presents a radical interpretation of Jesus' teachings as a path to inner spiritual knowledge; it rejects his suffering and death as the path to eternal life; it exposes the erroneous view that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute for what it is—a piece of theological fiction; it presents the most straightforward and convincing argument in any early Christian writing for the legitimacy of women's leadership; it offers a sharp critique of illegitimate power and a utopian vision of spiritual perfection; it challenges our rather romantic views about the harmony and unanimity of the first Christians; and it asks us to rethink the basis for church authority."[11] King also sees evidence for tensions within second-century Christianity, reflected in "the confrontation of Mary with Peter, [which is] a scenario also found in The Gospel of Thomas[12], Pistis Sophia[13], and the Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians. Peter and Andrew represent orthodox positions which deny the validity of esoteric revelation and reject the authority of women to teach."[14] King concludes that “both the content and the text’s structure lead the reader inward toward the identity, power and freedom of the true self, the soul set free from the Powers of Matter and the fear of death.” “The Gospel of Mary is about inter-Christian controversies, the reliability of the disciples’ witness, the validity of teachings given to the disciples through post-resurrection revelation and vision, and the leadership of women”[15].

Controversy

Scholars do not agree which of the Marys in the New Testament is the central character of the Gospel of Mary. Arguments in favor of Mary Magdalene are based on her status as a known disciple of Jesus, the tradition of being the first witness of his Resurrection, and her appearance in other early Christian writings. She is mentioned as accompanying Jesus on his journeys (Luke 8:9) and is listed in the Gospel of Matthew as being present at his crucifixion (27:56). In the Gospel of John, she is recorded as the first witness of Jesus' resurrection (John 20:14-16).

In support of this view, the Gospel of Mary contains parallels with the Gospel of Thomas as noted by de Boer:

"[I]n the Gospel of Mary it is Peter who is opposed to Mary’s words, because she is a woman. Peter has the same role in the Gospel of Thomas and in Pistis Sophia. In Pistis Sophia the Mary concerned is identified as Mary Magdalene."[2] The final scene in the Gospel of Mary may also provide evidence that Mary is indeed Mary Magdalene. Levi, in his defense of Mary and her teaching, tells Peter "Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us."[16] In the Gospel of Philip, a similar statement is made about Mary Magdalene.[17]

Aida Spencer, however, reviewing De Boer for the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, notes: "In summary, Mary Magdalene [the title of a study by De Boer] is an interesting, insightful, and intriguing historical study. However, the reader who is not capable of analyzing theories and who may be susceptible to the idea of an open canon may confuse a pleasant, respectable style with a potentially misleading theory."[18]

King also argues in favor of naming Mary Magdalene as the central figure in the Gospel of Mary. She summarizes, “It was precisely the traditions of Mary as a woman, as an exemplary disciple, a witness to the ministry of Jesus, a visionary of the glorified Jesus, and someone traditionally in contest with Peter, that made her the only figure who could play all the roles required to convey the messages and meanings of the Gospel of Mary.”[19]

However, Stephen J. Shoemaker has argued in favor of this Mary being the Blessed Virgin Mary, rather than Mary Magdalene. This would comply with Jesus loving her more than the other disciples, being his greatest disciple, and also for her being the central figure of Christianity. Also, when Jesus says to her, "Blessed are you, that you did not waver at the sight of me," it is similar to when Elizabeth says to the Virgin Mary, "Blessed are you among women," and, "Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled," in the canonical gospel of Luke.

Notes

  1. Karen L. King. 2003. The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the first woman apostle. (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press), 148.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Esther A. de Boer. 1980. The Gospel of Mary Listening to the Beloved Disciple. (Continuum International Publishing Group), 14-18.
  3. Karen L. King, "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (ed.), Searching the Scriptures. Volume Two: A Feminist Commentary. (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 602.
  4. The Gospel of Philip - The Nag Hammadi Library.gnosis.org. Retrieved September 17, 2008.
  5. The Gospel of Mary, From the Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson. sol.com. Retrieved September 17, 2008.
  6. Mary 9:2. gnosis.org. Retrieved September 17, 2008.
  7. Mary 9:4. gnosis.org. Retrieved September 17, 2008.
  8. e.g. "The Prayer of the Apostle Paul," "The Apocryphon of John," the "Nature of the Archons," the "Book of Thomas the Contender," the "Sophia of Jesus Christ," the "Dialogue of the Saviour," the "First Apocalypse of James," the "Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles," "Apocalypse of Peter," "Zostrianus," "Letter of Peter to Philip," and "Pistis Sophia"
  9. Esther A. De Boer. (2004) The Gospel of Mary: Beyond a Gnostic and a Biblican Mary Magdalene. (London: Continuum)
  10. De Boer, 2004
  11. King, 2003, 3
  12. Gospel of Thomas, log. 114.
  13. Pistis sophia, 1:36
  14. Lance S. Owens, MD,Introduction, Nag Hammadi library The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved September 17, 2008.
  15. De Boer, 2004, 56
  16. The Gospel of Mary. From the Nag Hammadi Library, James M. Robinson. sol. Retrieved September 17, 2008.
  17. The Gospel of Philip - The Nag Hammadi Library.The Gnostic Society Library. Retrieved September 17, 2008.
  18. Aida Besangon Spencer, Review: Mary Magdalene Beyond the Myth, in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 43 (2000). Retrieved September 17, 2008.
  19. Karen L. King, "Why All the Controversy? Mary in the Gospel of Mary." in Which Mary? The Marys of Early Christian Tradition, F. Stanley Jones, ed. (Brill, 2003), 74.

References

  • Bernhard, Andrew E. (2006) Other Early Christian Gospels: A Critical Edition of the Surviving Greek Manuscripts. London; New York: T & T Clark. ISBN 0567042049
  • de Boer, Esther A. (2004). The Gospel of Mary: Beyond a Gnostic and a Biblican Mary Magdalene. London: Continuum. ISBN 978-9870004837
  • de Boer, Esther A. (1980). The Gospel of Mary Listening to the Beloved Disciple. Continuum International Publishing Group.
  • de Boer, Esther. Mary Magdalene Beyond the Myth, Translated by John Bowden. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1997. ISBN 1563382121
  • Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schüssler, ed., Searching the Scriptures. Volume Two: A Feminist Commentary. New York: Crossroad, 1994. ISBN 0824514246
  • Jaroslav Pelikan. (1998). Mary Through the Centuries: Her Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300076615
  • King, Karen. (2003). The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press. ISBN 978-0944344583
  • King, Karen L. (2003) "Why All the Controversy? Mary in the Gospel of Mary." in F. Stanley Jones, ed. Which Mary? The Marys of Early Christian Tradition. Brill. ISBN 978-9004127081
  • Leloup, Jean-Yves. (2002). The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Inner Traditions. ISBN 978-0892819119
  • Mead, G. R. S. (translator) Pistis Sophia. reprint ed. London: BiblioBazaar, 2008. ISBN 143753080X
  • Mead, G. R. S. Pistis Sophia: The Gnostic Tradition of Mary Magdalene, Jesus, and His Disciples. reprint ed. Dover Publications, 2005. ISBN 0486440648
  • Meyer, Marvin. (2004) The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene the Companion of Jesus. New York: Harper Collins. ISBN 9780060834517
  • Robinson, James M., Editor, Nag Hammadi Library, Revised Ed. Harper & Row; 3rd ed., 1988. ISBN 0060669349

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