Mary Magdalene in the Apocryphal Gospels
Editor’s Note: Dan Brown has compelled and intrigued readers with The Da Vinci Code, a spell-binding book about secret knowledge carried down from the time of Christ–and raised questions about who Mary Magdalene really was. In Part 1 , “Decoding DaVinci, Who Was Mary Magdalene?”, scripture and early Christian writings were explored for clues to her identity and today we finish the exploration.
Some of the apocryphal New Testament, non-canonical gospels provide intriguing bits of information about Mary Magdalene that may or may not be historical. There are literally dozens of these apocryphal gospels, each attributed to an important New Testament figure such as one of the apostles, a member of Christ’s family, or even to Mary Magdalene herself. These kind of texts began to appear in the late 1800’s and the mid 1900’s. In 1896, for instance, the so-called Berlin codex was unearthed in Egypt. It was a papyrus book found in the desert that was taken to Berlin, where it sat until it was finally completely translated in the 1950s. Few people paid attention to it until the 1970’s, when, for reasons that we will discuss in later, it suddenly became very interesting to a new generation of scholars of early Christianity. A more famous group apocryphal documents was found at a place called Nag Hammadi in 1945.
While these documents bear titles such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, we must not assume because these documents bear their names that Thomas, Philip, and Mary were actually the authors. Nevertheless, several of these extrabiblical gospels provide interesting and intriguing details about postapostolic Christianity, and perhaps even about Christianity in its earliest periods. These details include material about Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus.
One of the better known apocryphal gospels is the Gospel of Thomas. Thomas is not a narrative gospel like the Gospel of John, rather it is a collection of 114 logia or sayings of Jesus and the disciples that do not appear in any obvious chronological or topical order. Logion 114, the very last one in this collection, has Simon Peter saying to the disciples, “Let Miriam (Mary) go out from among us.” She is portrayed as being regularly present with the apostles, and Peter is bothered by this, growing rather harsh and saying, “Women are not worthy of the life,” referring, apparently, to Eternal Life. Indicating a special interest in Mary, Christ then replies “Look, I will lead her and guide her. She can have life through me.” The kind of Eternal Life that the Jesus of Thomas offers, however, is not the one with which we are familiar: “I will lead her and make her male. I will make her male in order to make her spirit resembling you males. For every woman who maketh herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This oddity suggests an interest in and a connection between Christ and Mary, but the so-called Gospel of Philip provides even more tantalizing details. Philip consists of 127 paragraphs or text units, which are longer than the logia or sayings of Thomas. Number 2 reads: “There were three women who kept company with the Lord at all times. Mary his mother, and his sister, and Magdalene, who is called his companion. His sister, his mother, and his companion were all called ‘Mary.'” The meaning of “companion” here is not explicit, but a later saying, 55b, clearly suggests an intimate relationship between Christ and Mary Magdalene: “The Savior loved Mary Magdalene more than all of the disciples, and kissed on her mouth often. And the other disciples said unto him, ‘why do you love her more than us?’ The Savior said to them, ‘why do I not love you, like her?'”
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene was found in the Berlin codex in the late 1890’s, before any of the Nag Hammadi documents. A fragmentary text, we only have a very small portion of the overall gospel. The surviving portions fall into two parts. The first part is a narrative in which the resurrected Christ, the Risen Lord, speaks with his disciples and teaches them. After he has finished teaching and has enjoined them to go out into the world, he suddenly disappears, and the disciples panic. “They were grieved and wept sore, saying ‘how shall we go to the heathen and preach the gospel, the king of the son of man. If he was not spared at all, but he was crucified, how shall we be spared?'” They fear to go out into the world and do not know what they will do without a present Christ to guide them, and at that moment Mary Magdalen steps forward to calm and reassure them. “So then arose Mary, saluted them all and spake to the brethren ‘Be not sorrowful, don’t be undecided, his grace will be with you all and will protect you. Let us rather praise the greatest. For he has made us ready, he’s made us men.'” The second part of this document, only portions of which survive, portrays Mary as she recounts an incredible vision that she has had. When she has finished, Peter grows angry, and Andrew does not believe Mary, answering, “‘Well brethren, tell me what you think about what she said. I don’t believe that the Savior said this. These aren’t the doctrines he taught us.’ And then Peter says, ‘did he speak privately, privily with a woman rather than and not openly? Are we supposed to listen to her? Did he mean to like us more than her?’ And she burst into tears. ‘Peter, how can you say that about me my brother Peter? Do you believe that I lie about the Savior?'”
These documents, then, portray a Mary that had an intimate, even a physically intimate, relationship with Jesus Christ, a Mary who received visions and presumed to teach and lead the apostles themselves. But what I have just done by quoting these passages has broken several basic rules of scholarship. As intriguing as these passages are, reading them in isolation without any context does not allow us to evaluate their reliability. Some of these very passages appear in The Da Vinci Code with as little or less background than I have provided here. We need not be critical of Dan Brown for this, because he was writing a novel, not a scholarly article on the New Testament Apocrypha, but when we study these documents or seek to use them as historical evidence, we must follow a sound methodology. We do that first by establishing the provenance of a text: When was this text written? Who wrote it? For whom was it written? What is its theme or purpose? What are its biases? What are its objectives? Was the author reliably recording historical information, or did he perhaps manipulate it for his own ends?
Considering briefly the backgrounds of these texts puts the evidence they provide in a very different light. For instance, The Gospel of Thomas which made the unusual statement that Christ can make a woman male so that she can be saved, was found in Nag Hammadi. The manuscript that we have seems to been have been written around 400, although the text upon which it is based is considerably older. Conservative scholars think that is was probably originated in Syria in the Greek language in the second century, around A.D. 150. This is early but at least 60 years after the last gospel, presumably John, appeared in its final form. About half of the logia or sayings of Christ in Thomas seem quite familiar, paralleling the kind of sayings that show up repeatedly in Matthew and Luke. The rest, however, do not seem to represent traditional Christianity. For instance, some of them say that Jesus, when he was resurrected, set aside human form. He did not have a physical body, and he could only be recognized only by the elect. The kingdom was not coming in a big winding up scene, but the Second Coming had happened already, although the present Christ could only be seen by the elect.
These logia are very Gnostic. Gnosticism, an alternative strand of post apostolic Christianity, developed over time. Even in its earliest forms, it seemed to stress the idea that knowledge, particularly gnosis or secret knowledge alone rather than the Atonement, was what saved the individual. Proto-gnostics show up early in the New Testament: many of Paul’s writings seem to be combating this very kind of false doctrine. Gnosticism also emphasized the spiritual rather than the physical. Perhaps influenced by Greek Platonic thought, spirit was considered good whereas the physical was considered corrupt. Spirits have been trapped in physical bodies, and as a result different Gnostics went to two extremes in regard to moral behavior. Some were Libertines, meaning they did whatever they wanted because this physical body and what we did with it did not matter-one is saved by knowledge anyway, so one could indulge in all kinds of conduct. Others went to the other extreme-since the body was bad, these Gnostics did not want anything to do with it, so they become extremely aesthetic. Some of these Gnostic texts describe our bodies as living corpses. One form of Gnosticism, the Marconite heresy, tried to explain this duality of the spiritual and physical worlds with a peculiar view of creation. Because the God of the Old Testament seemed so different from the New Testament God, he must have been a different god. He was the Demiurge, a sort of half-god who did not really know what he was doing. He created a flawed physical world that trapped the spirits of men in physical bodies. He then gave Israel an impossible law and then demanded justice. Christ descended to provide men with the knowledge of their true identity so that they could escape their physical prisons and the tyranny of the Law and the Demiurge.
This is, of course, an oversimplification of the beliefs held by the many different groups that we call Gnostics, but it illustrates how wary many Latter-day Saints and most other Christians should be about accepting the teachings of Gnostic texts as representing gospel truth. Accordingly, if the Gnostics distorted some fundamental Christian teachings, should they be considered reliable in matters of history-particularly their depiction of a historical figure such as Mary Magdalene?
Looking at the provenance of the Gospels of Philip and Mary Magdalene, we find that they, too, are quite Gnostic. The Gospel of Phillip is dated anywhere between the mid-150s and as late as the late-300s. The longer sayings or paragraphs that constitute the gospel were put together in an anthology of questions and answers on theological matters-for instance, a question on the sacrament is posed that the Risen Lord then answers. In most of them, the Savior is portrayed as the bridegroom of a fallen deity, Sophia or Wisdom, who had become trapped in this wicked physical world that the Demiurge had created. Christ came to save Sophia and then takes her to the bridle chamber in a spiritual journey that is related to the disciples so that they will learn how they too can pass the various demigods and angels that stand as guardians or oppose them in their way. In this sense it is more typically Gnostic than the Gospel of Thomas-it focuses on conveying the secret knowledge that allows the initiate to ascend through the spheres, passing the guardians. This, then, is the text that provides the most specific references to a personal relationship between Christ and Mary Magdalene, relating that she was his constant companion and that their relationship was physical and intimate.
Likewise the Gospel of Mary, written probably between 180 and 250 A.D. according to conservative scholars, contains large sections between Mary’s claim that she had received a special revelation for the apostles and Peter’s becoming angry with her that readers of Dan Brown do not know about. Reading “Mary’s” account of her vision, we find that it is a typical Gnostic exploration of the soul and its journey through spiritual realms-how the soul migrates through planetary spheres and has conversations with hostile powers as well as with friendly guardians.
Knowing the background of these texts, scholars take a variety of positions on their reliability. On the conservative end of the spectrum, scholars would claim that the contents of the apocryphal gospels are spurious, that the early Church Fathers were correct when they condemned them and proclaimed that they were written by heretics. From this perspective, one would assume that the Mary Magdalene who appears in these documents is largely a literary character, one whose actions and relationship with the Savior are fabricated to prove Gnostic points and which diverges widely from the historical figure. On the other end of the spectrum are revisionist scholars, who suspect that the beliefs in these documents represent a legitimate strain of Christianity, perhaps a more legitimate strain than that which is preserved in the canonical, scriptural texts. According to this view, “historical” Christianity and its bishops were opposed to the Gnostics and tried to suppress their texts because these documents proved that the “official” versions of Christianity were not correct. A moderate position is that these texts may contain some genuine traditions that Gnostic and other schismatic groups preserved which mainstream Christianity had lost. This is appealing to the LDS tradition because of understanding that plain and precious things have a tendency to slip out of the record when they are not being yanked out. Nevertheless great care must be exercised since much of the material might have been changed or “interpolated.” This is in line with D&C 91:1-2, in which Joseph Smith learned of the Old Testament Apocrypha that “there are many things contained therein that are true . . . there are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men.”
Consequently, whereas the New Testament canonical gospels neither affirm nor deny the proposition of a personal relationship between Christ and Mary, those apocryphal texts that are suggestive of such a relationship cannot be considered definitive. Perhaps they do preserve a tradition that might be genuine, such as that which noted that Mary, along with Christ’s mother and sister, was a frequent companion of Jesus, but some of the more sensationalistic suggestions could be exaggerations of fabrications.
The Spin of Scholarship
Before turning to the real significance that Mary Magdalene may have for Latter-day Saints, we should briefly consider how the figure of Mary has been treated in modern scholarship, since the positions of some scholars are the same as those used as the backdrop for The Da Vinci Code. Just as we need to understand the provenance-the origins and context-of an ancient text, so must we be aware of the background and agendas of modern scholarly treatments of these texts. The standard edition of The New Testament Apocrypha, begun by Wilhelm Schneemelcher, is a hefty, two-volume collection of the texts that one finds in most academic libraries. It contains translations of most of the texts with a thorough, generally objective discussion of their provenance. Rigorously academic, these volumes are rather daunting for the reader newly interested in the apocrypha. However, in the past couple of decades, a number of more accessible treatments have appeared. These are the kind readily available on Amazon.com-paperback, relatively inexpensive, written for an educated but non-professional audience, with attractive covers and engaging titles, these are the treatments of the Apocrypha that most people whose interest has been aroused by The Da Vinci Code will seek out. One does an Internet search for “Gospel of Mary” or “Mary Magdalene,” and a list of these books shows up. You click it, it comes in the mail, you anxiously read it, and you pay for it some other day. If one does not read these books carefully and critically, one can be convinced that certain positions are established fact.
I will mention briefly the works of two women whom I respect a great deal. They are both very accomplished scholars, are very well-trained, do good research, and write engagingly. One of them is a friend of our university. Elaine Pagels has a Ph.D. from Harvard and is the Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion of Princeton. She helped bring many of the New Testament Apocryphal Texts to the attention of a wider audience with her books Gnostic Gospels and Beyond Belief: Secret Gospel of Thomas. Another interesting book is the wonderful edition of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene by Karen L. King, a frighteningly bright woman, very smart. Dr. King is Wynn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard University. Their works are very good, but we all have biases, and when we write, we all have agendas or objectives.
Both of these wonderful scholars have a particular position in regard to historic Christianity and the possible validity of some of the Gnostic traditions as viable alternatives that might be more amenable to modern positions on gender, individual freedom, and church government. These positions affect how these scholars interpret the evidence and explain the texts. Taking the Gospel of Mary as our case study, let us recall that it was discovered in 1896 but was not formally translated until 1950. Even then, it did not really become the talk of scholarship until the 1970s, which was about the time that feminist Biblical scholarship came to the fore. Now the concerns of feminist scholarship are often interesting, but consider how it affected one particular edition, that of Karen King’s.
Her The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is a great book, particularly for people who have not read a lot of this kind of scholarship. The actual translated text of comprises only five pages of this book, which is all that has survived. After the translation, this edition provides some plates and facsimiles of the text so one can look at the Coptic and Greek fragments. It is very well done. The rest of the book is commentary. On page three, in the second sentence, King writes: “Few people today are acquainted with the Gospel of Mary, written in the early second century,” that would be about 110, 120? “It then disappeared for 1500 years,” she continues. At this point in her text, King does not explain how she arrived at that date for the gospel’s composition. That discussion is saved until page 183 and following. At that point she reviews the pros and cons of her early date and acknowledges that many conservative scholars do not think that The Gospel of Mary was written until AD 250, some 100-140 years after she thinks it was written. Why the down dating? Because if the Gospel of Mary was written in the 110’s, then it was written very near the time of the canonical gospels. For example, Mark may have been written in the 60s, Matthew and Luke in the 70s, John as late as the 80s and 90s’s, thus making this apocryphal gospel almost as early, and by implication, almost as reliable, as the canonical gospels. The reader of this book does not know that this early date is still debated, however, until after she or he has read almost all of King’s book and accepted the proposition that what the Gospel of Mary says about early Christianity, or Mary Magdalene, or the role of women in the church is correct.
As a result, it is often wise to read works with a differing point of view. For instance, in 2001 Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State, wrote Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost its Way. He felt that in view of the volume of what we can call “liberal scholarship” making its way into the reading public that he needed to take a stand. In his book he attempted to explain why some texts had been accepted by traditional Christianity and others had not. Directly addressing King’s work, he suggested that she was anxious to down-date the Gospel of Mary so it would have more validity. In what he calls “inverted fundamentalism,” he claims that the canonical gospels are increasingly questioned while more recently discovered, apocryphal texts are often accepted with less critical evaluation because they support the positions of the many current scholars. I raise these issues because if reading Brown’s novel has inspired you to explore some of the scholarship on these interesting texts, you need to be careful how quickly you accept everything you read.
Implications for Latter-day Saints
Although I do not presume to stake out an LDS position on what is, after all, simply a novel, our understanding of the evidence regarding Mary Magdalene should make us cautious at seeing The Da Vinci Code as anything but a fun and interesting read. Knowing that the portrait of Mary that serves as the backdrop of this mystery novel is not one confirmed by scripture or necessarily established by other ancient texts should make one cautious. Just because Brown quotes a few, short passages of real apocryphal texts does not mean that what those passages say is true.
This is important because the proposition of Mary Magdalene’s being married to Jesus that appears in the novel is appealing to many Latter-day Saints. Our understanding of the importance of eternal marriage and the importance of families might incline us towards this position. Yet while our theology allows the possibility of a married Christ, our scriptures and official doctrine do not teach this. True, some nineteenth century Church leaders considered the possibility, but opinions do not constitute the doctrines that we are directed to teach each other and take to the world. The official teaching of the Church is what appears in the standard works and is taught by the current apostles and prophets. On Christ’s personal life the scriptures are silent. If the Lord wanted us to concern ourselves with his personal life, he would have inspired his ancient apostles to write it in the New Testament scriptures or would direct his current apostles and prophets to speak more explicitly on the matter.
Instead, the problem is that many Latter-day Saints are attracted to this aspect of Brown’s book and thus fail to see the other propositions that he develops as an author. His character of Mary Magdalene is not only a consort, she becomes priestess in an Isis-type religion. More disturbingly to me, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ becomes a literary character as well, one that is different from the historical figure whom I know and worship. The storyline of The Da Vinci Code does not affirm the divinity of Jesus Christ, the salvific nature of his death, or the reality of the resurrection.
Back to John 20
What, then, is the importance of Mary Magdalene, both historically and particularly in the scriptural record? To do this, let us turn back to John 20 and his detailed portrait of Mary at the tomb. Remember that here we are confident that we have a reliable convergence of a historical figure and a literary character, that is to say, he took a real event and is using it to illustrate a greater truth in his gospel. John records that the historical Mary Magdalene was above all a preeminent personal witness of the resurrection. She was the first to see, and perhaps touch, the Risen Lord, newly victorious over death. She was directed to share that testimony with others. As a literary character, Mary further represents all disciples, particularly female disciples, each of whom can gain a sure witness of the reality of the Resurrection.
Remembering the historical and cultural context of Mary Magdalene’s day, one recalls that there was very little that a woman in that society could do without the approval or assistance of the men in her life. Mary had already demonstrated new independence in joining the following of Jesus, apparently alone, and using her means to support it. Then at the tomb, without the aid, support, or approval of any other man, Mary is able to gain that most important of all testimonies. This, I would suggest, is a powerful and empowering image for LDS women, indeed for all Christian women, today. It is also an image that is lost when one instead focuses on the sensationalistic, obsessing instead on what the personal relationship might have been between the historical Jesus and Mary while failing to see what is being taught by the characters of the Victorious Savior and a Loved and Loving Witness.
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