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Jesus with Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James

Knowing More
The Mystery of Mary Magdalene

One of a series of articles posted in 2004, also including
Exploring the Legacy of the Gnostics
Women in American Religious History
Discovering Lost Christianities

By Marcia Ford


Deposition from the Cross - The Palma Collection

At an event held at the Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity in Boston—and simulcast on the Internet—
Beyond Belief author Elaine Pagels joined Harvard Divinity professor Ann Braude and moderator Len Sweet, a professor at Drew University, in a lively discussion on “Women and Spirituality.” One name that came up repeatedly throughout the conversation was that of the woman known today as the “Apostle to the Apostles."

Of all the people associated with Gnostic history and literature, none has sparked the level of interest that one particular woman has—the biblical figure known as Mary Magdalene. Revered as a saint, maligned as a prostitute, imagined as the literal bride of Christ, Mary of Magdala stands apart as an enigmatic individual about whom little is actually known, despite centuries of scholarly scrutiny and wild conjecture.

All that most Western Christians know about her is what is presented in the Gospels, and even that information is in dispute. But there is some general agreement: She was a faithful disciple of Christ whom he had delivered from “evil spirits and infirmities.”


Along with several other women, she ministered to Jesus and witnessed his death on the cross. She was there when his body was placed in the tomb, when the stone was rolled away to reveal an empty chamber, when an angel announced that Jesus had risen from the dead—and when he made his first post-resurrection appearance to the living. She brought the news of his resurrection to the other disciples.

This is the point where the biblical story of Mary Magdalene starts to get a bit murky. Was she, as some have suggested, the “immoral woman” who moistened Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped his feet with her hair (Luke 7:38)? Or the woman with the alabaster cruse who anointed Jesus’ feet with costly oil at the home of Simon the leper in Mark 14? Or even Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus?

Enter the Gnostic writings and their take on Mary. For every new facet of her life and character that they reveal, more questions emerge. Those questions have kept Elaine Pagels busy for much of her academic life.

“What I found out when I got to this city,” Pagels says of her time at Harvard, where she holds a Ph.D., “was that my professors had file folders full of gospels that I had never heard about … gospels that had been discovered in upper Egypt about 50 years before and went back to the beginning of the Christian movement. They completely changed, transformed, and complicated our picture of what Christianity is.”

And who Mary Magdalene is. That’s because the Gnostic picture of Mary departs—in some ways, dramatically—from the historical and biblical image of perhaps the most significant female follower of Jesus.

“If you read the New Testament you see that every one of the writings is attributed to a man,” Pagels pointed out. “In the New Testament there are the women and the ‘disciples.’ You know that the women aren’t the disciples, and the disciples aren’t the women.

“Suddenly you find in the [Gnostic] Gospel of Thomas that six disciples are named: Matthew and Thomas, James and Peter, Mary Magdalene and Salome.” (Pagels is quick to make the distinction between this Salome, identified in the Gospel of Luke as one of the women who followed Jesus, and the Salome who danced for the head of John the Baptist.)

“Here, explicitly, Mary Magdalene is Jesus’ disciple. In the Gospel of Thomas and also the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, she is seen as an evangelist and a teacher, somebody who is gifted with revelations and teachings from Jesus which are very powerful and which enable her to be a spiritual inspiration to others.”

Pagels believes it’s that perception of Mary Magdalene that the early church adhered to. The Gnostic writings—which were widely circulated among Christians throughout the Mediterranean—depict her as something of a mystic who had visions and was privy to some of Jesus’ most esoteric teachings. It’s clear from the Gospel of Mary Magdalene that her supposedly intimate relationship with Jesus, however the word “intimate” is interpreted, did not sit well with all of the disciples.

Nag Hammadi Coptic“She speaks to the other disciples about Jesus and what she’s seen, and Peter says, ‘I don’t believe the Lord said these things. These are certainly strange ideas.’ And she says, ‘Well, do you think I made them up? Do you think I’m lying about the Lord?’ ” Pagels says, paraphrasing a section involving Peter and Andrew toward the end of the gospel. “That debate probably reflects what happened in early Christian communities.”

Like Levi, who rose to Mary’s defense in response to Peter’s challenge, some Gnostic and early Christian writers apparently took a far more favorable view of Jesus’ female friend, but by the third century, her influence had been greatly diminished by those church fathers who were determined to relegate women to a lesser status (perhaps unintentionally affirming a sentiment attributed to Peter in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “Mary should leave us. Females are not worthy of life.”) Although women were openly functioning as priests and teachers and enjoyed a higher acceptance in the church than elsewhere in society, female leaders were branded as heretics by some of the more powerful church leaders, such as the second-century Irenaeus.

It was in the Middle Ages that Mary Magdalene’s association with prostitution became solidified, when a church leader—without any clear evidence to support his theory—identified her as the “immoral woman” referred to in Luke 7:38. The identification remains today among some Christian groups.

Pagels believes that labeling Mary a prostitute was a means of dealing with the problem of women in church leadership. “They countered with, ‘No, she wasn’t a disciple and an evangelist and an intimate companion of the Lord, she was a prostitute.’ It was a way of not only slandering women but also attacking their presumption in claiming to take roles that one particular father of the church said were masculine functions,” Pagels said.

Over the centuries, the church did little to correct the image of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, all the while reinforcing her image as a repentant sinner. That, to Pagels, raises questions not only about the church’s authority but also about its view of sexuality. “If Mary Magdalene wasn’t a prostitute,” she asks, “what else was the church not telling us?”

An equally important question is one that Ann Braude picks up on: What did all this mean for women throughout church history—and history in general?

“I think Mary Magdalene was probably not the first but a very important example of a long-term tradition. This has to do with the notion that women should remain silent, should remain at home, and if they do anything, they are threatening not only the religious order but every aspect of the social order,” Braude said. “In the 18th century the term ‘public woman’ referred to a prostitute. That is, if a woman operated in the public sphere there could only be one explanation for that. You can see what kind of an incentive this is for women to mind their manners and stay home and not make trouble and not do anything good either, not do anything at all.”

And that, of course, would include engaging in all manner of mystical practices, such as receiving direct revelation from God. A fragment of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene describes Mary’s vision of the soul’s ascent beyond the “powers,” including the powers of fear. “It (the soul) has to overcome the powers of fear and the powers that threaten it as it proceeds into a life beyond death,” Pagels said. “Those are the clues we have in this fragment. Who knows what was in the rest?”

Apparently Peter and Andrew did, and they were quick to question the validity of Mary’s revelation: “Say what you think about what she said,” Andrew says to his “brothers.” “I do not believe that the savior said this. These teachings are of strange ideas.”

Peter supports Andrew by asking the same group, “Did he really speak to a woman secretly, without our knowledge, and not openly? Are we to turn and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” 1

What this represents is an argument about the validity of revelation, Pagels says. “The issue is authority—who has the authority to speak, whose experience is valid, whose vision, whose intuition, whose revelation is genuine, and who says who has the right to say. That’s what this text is about. It’s about Mary receiving visions and revelations and speaking, and others challenging her right and her capacity, and that challenges the possibility of your intuition or hers or anyone’s [having validity].”

As Pagels and Braude so aptly emphasize, the “facts” about Mary Magdalene—her life, her teachings, her gospel, and her relationship to Jesus—may never be confirmed. But the suppression of her influence, as well as that of other early women leaders in the church, has had significant ramifications throughout history. So while others may view the Gnostic writings as curious relics of a long-lost culture, religious and women’s studies scholars will continue to examine them for what they represent in an historical context: Evidence of the widespread authority of women in the early Christian church.

1 The Gnostic Bible, Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, eds., p. 481. (Shambhala, 2003)

Images are used with permission of The Gnostic Society. For more information please see their website www.gnosis.org.

For more information contact: www.marybakereddylibrary.org

Marcia Ford (www.marciaford.com), author of Memoir of a Misfit and 11 additional books, is a journalist who has covered religion and spirituality for 30 years. You may contact her at misfit@marciaford.com.

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