Gospel of Mary of Magdala
by Karen King
Polebridge Press, 2003
review by John Tintera
Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code rejuvenated public interest in several shadowy characters of history, especially Mary Magdalene. This, to be sure, has been a boon for the scholars who have been writing about and discussing Mary Magdalene for the last generation. One such scholar is Karen King of Harvard. King’s latest book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, offers wonderful insights into the nature and culture of early Christianity. (She does, however, stop short of offering theories about the sex life of the Messiah.) King’s work, with all the attention it’s deservedly getting, could have a transformative effect on the adventure we call church.
One reason the Indiana Jones movies are so popular is because each of them deals with the excitement and intrigue of finding a priceless treasure. In The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, King shares with her readers the thrill that comes from finding a real-life buried treasure. For the last twenty-five years, King has been studying a fragment of a Gospel that had been lost since the fifth century. Called the “The Gospel of Mary,” it is the first known Gospel attributed to a woman author. Moreover, this Gospel advocates that leaders be chosen without regard to gender. The existence of such unconventional ideas in Gospel writings has the potential to change the nature of the Church’s gender debate, and even enlarge our notion of what it means to be a Christian.
Certainly, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala is not your typical beach read. Like most scholarly books, it has voluminous end notes, follows closely argued points, and sometimes loses sight of its main character. Patient readers, however, will be rewarded with new understanding of how scholars are able to deduce facts about ancient texts, and as a sidelight, overhear some of the current controversies among biblical scholars.
One issue that stirs King’s passion is the misuse of the term “Gnostic.” While the word is simply the Greek term for knowledge or knowing, its use becomes pejorative when describing writings that are seen as deliberately unorthodox. King argues convincingly that in the early church there was a continuum stretching from those who held a strictly Judaic understanding of a believer’s obligations and a worldview that was more based on Greek thought. The position that emerged as orthodox lies somewhere between these two extremes. King shows that “The Gospel of Mary” was probably written for a Greek audience. Rather than being deliberately unorthodox, the author was fulfilling the mandate of Jesus to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In other words, it would be anachronistic to think of such a book as unorthodox because such distinctions did not exist in those days.
Ironically, the disappointing aspect of the book is the Gospel text itself. Out of a total 230 pages, the translation of “The Gospel of Mary” takes up six of these. Unfortunately, within the Gospel several complete chapters and parts of others have been lost. What’s worse is that the text leaves you scratching your head. Thankfully, King gives us a comprehensive interpretation of what she believes is going on in this mysterious Gospel. With her help, this Gospel can impact change in Christian practices—from praying to choosing leaders. King also gives us valuable information on who Mary Magdalene really was. Fans of The Da Vinci Code may be disappointed in some of King's findings (e.g. Mary wasn’t married to Jesus). But knowing the truth about this key disciple will help right a lot of wrongs done in Jesus' name through the centuries.
Read an excerpt
©2004 John Tintera
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