Thursday, 10 August 2017

Mary the Magdalene Watchtower of the Flock IRINA KUZMINSKY

Alexander Ivanov, 'The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene' (1836) 

Irina Kuzminsky presented this paper on Mary Magdalene to the Spiritual Reading Group in the Carmelite Library on Tuesday the 18th of July. The numbered quotes are the readings found in the texts section of this blog, following this article.

Legends, facts and traditions

Who was Mary Magdalene? Everything about her seems controversial. The closest companion of Jesus, a foremost disciple and leader of the community? Or the 'woman who perfumed her flesh in forbidden acts' (this from Pope Gregory's 33rd Homily written in 591 AD), to put it bluntly, a whore? The 'woman who knew the All' (this from Dialogue of the Saviour) or a reformed prostitute? Apostle to the apostles (apostola apostolorum), or a woman who talked too much and never let the men get a word in (this from Pistis Sophia)? And we can even add wife or lover to this list, and founder of a dynasty (‘Holy Blood Holy Grail’ - source of much of ‘The Da Vinci Code’)? In fact there are not many figures in history who have been more misused and misinterpreted than she was. And yet, she refuses to go away.

Mary Magdalene - so many strands come together in her. Women's spiritual authority and right to teach and be equal members of the community; the conflict between Semitic and Hellenic early Christian traditions; apostolic succession and priestly mediation versus individual enlightenment and direct vision. In a time when so much is in flux could she show us a way forward?

And what does 'the Magdalene' mean? Did she really come from a town called Magdala - Mary of Magdala - or was it a title given to her by Jesus?

I grew up in the Russian Orthodox faith in which Mary Magdalene was revered as one of the myrrh-bearing women and as "ravnoapostolnaya" - which translates as "equal to the apostles". She was first to proclaim the Resurrection, first messenger sent to the apostles themselves and therefore to the world. She was not equated with the sinful woman of Luke 7, nor with Mary of Bethany, as was common in the West. Essentially, Pope Gregory's 591 AD Homily was not officially accepted by the Eastern Church.

I remember a wonderful gold clad icon of her, haloed as the myrrh-bearer at the empty tomb, and of course the beautiful painting by Ivanov (1836). An example of hymns to her give a flavour of how she was perceived:

1. Kontakion I and II

Rather a contrast to Gregory the Great! Here are some extracts from that Homily just so that we know where that story of the prostitute came from:

2. Pope Gregory

But, as this quote from the Gospel of Philip nicely puts it, "A pearl thrown into the mud does not lose its value" and this was true and remains true of the Magdalene, despite everything we have managed to throw at her.

3. Philip

Another point of difference between East and West is that the Eastern tradition states that Mary Magdalene went to Ephesus with John the Evangelist and worked together with him there, dying and being buried there. The strong tradition of her going to Provence does not exist in the Eastern church. We do not really know where she ended up. Was it Ephesus, or perhaps Egypt where she figures prominently in non-canonical texts, or Provence after all in a cave (giving rise to the fight to claim possession of her very lucrative relics)? We just don't know and probably never will. A nice touch is that the supposed cave of Mary Magdalene at Sainte-Baume inspired Petrarch to a new vision of woman and to Platonic love in his sonnets to Laura.

Orthodoxy has its own stories about her. A rather nice one which hasn't really made it into the Western tradition is that she was at a banquet with Tiberius, then Caesar, telling him about the Resurrection. Tiberius scoffed at her, saying it was no more possible for the egg she was holding to turn red than for a man to rise from the dead - upon which the egg, of course, promptly turned red. Hence the icons of Mary Magdalene holding a red egg - and the tradition of painting eggs at Easter.

It was a bit of a shock to me that Mary Magdalene had been seen as a reformed prostitute in the West, not to forget the many great paintings depicting her in that manner. During the Renaissance the emaciated depictions of her penitence from the Middle Ages gave way to images of a sensual semi-naked beautiful woman, hair loose and clothes in seductive disarray. Seductive images of her in the Renaissance and the Baroque abound. Apart from inspiring me to a poem - "The Magdalens"

4. The Magdalens

This also spurred me on to try and discover more about her - not least, why was there such a concerted effort made to silence her and blacken her reputation? Clearly preeminent in her own time she was later marginalized and suppressed. Not completely of course, as the archetypal power of her image continued to shine through, as it does even now, challenging us to uncover the full scope of her archetypal dimension. But the role she was allotted for so long fed all too well into the whole impossible virgin mother/whore dichotomy which does not leave real flesh and blood women with too many options. We've got an unattainable ideal on the one hand, and the usual 'sinner you are responsible for all the ills of the world' - Eve or Pandora - on the other, so you'd better keep as quiet and as invisible as possible.

It actually took from 591, the date of Gregory the Great's homily, till 1969 for the Catholic Church to make the admission they had got it wrong about Mary Magdalene. In 1969 the text for her feast day, July 22, was altered under Pope Paul VI from Luke 7 (the sinner anointing Jesus) to John 20 (the meeting between Mary and the resurrected Christ in the garden). She was also demoted to a saint from apostle to the apostles, so it was only a partial vindication, that is until recently, when Pope Francis gave her full due again. However, all this did not seem to impact on the popular perception of Mary Magdalene much, if ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ are anything to go by.

As an interesting aside, in 1517 Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples rejected Gregory's Homily asserting the Gospels' authority ahead of it. He was accused of heresy and had to go into exile. That same year Luther published his grievances against the church. It was one of those sliding door moments - what if ...

Is it possible that the resurgence of Mary Magdalene into consciousness and the hidden other tradition of Christian origins she represents may offer us a way forward, particularly at a time when many traditional institutions in our societies are breaking down? Because there has been a huge resurgence of Mary Magdalene into mass consciousness. And yes, even ‘The Da Vinci Code’ has its role in this. Who says God does not work in mysterious ways? Some of this resurgence concerns things scholars have long known, while some of the new stories pinned on her are no less suspect in their own way than some of the old ones. She is everything from a priestess of Isis, initiator into sacred hidden mysteries, wife of Jesus and founder of a bloodline, and much more besides. For me pretty much all of our interpretations, recent and not so recent, remain shallow. They seek to limit her true spiritual stature and contain her as a woman in what ultimately becomes a limiting and limited role.

So - what if Mary Magdalene was indeed the favourite disciple of Jesus, an important leader in the apostolic community engaging in apostolic work, and Jesus' close if not closest companion? And what if he did name her 'the Magdalene' because she was to be in a sense his successor and the Watchtower of the Flock? What sorts of roles does that open up for us as women of the faith? And what possibilities for Christianity at a time when we are going from an institutionalized society to a more individual one?

Mary Magdalene is at the heart of the Christian story, bearing the message of the Resurrection. She could also be at the heart of the rediscovery of the Hebrew and Oriental traditions of Christianity, reconciling East and West, Jews and Hellenes, the church of Peter and Paul and John with the church of James, Thomas and Philip. We would do well to remember that the roots of Christianity are Hebrew, thus Oriental. Jesus' wisdom teachings and parables fit into this Oriental stream which is rich in metaphor and paradox, while the Western Greek stream is rich in logic and rational argument. Reconciling these streams could help give us a vision for the future, the vision of a Christianity which could be, and this without disparaging or losing our own tradition and heritage. It could be a case of not either/or but both/and. But to accomplish this we need to go back first if we are to go forward, and Mary Magdalene could become our guide in this.

Magdala or 'the Magdalene'

Let's start with the rather vexed question of Magdala - why is she called the Magdalene. For most of us, the answer is simple - she came from the town of Magdala, hence Magdalene. End of story. Except, it isn't.

We know how the repentant prostitute story came about thanks to Pope Gregory the Great's Thirty-Third Homily several centuries later in 591 AD. The Magdala connection came about in a somewhat similar manner.

In actual fact the town of Magdala was not around at the time of Jesus and Mary. Reliable early Greek sources such as the Codex Vaticanus, Eusebius, and Jerome, writing in the early fourth century all mention a place called Magadan (cf Matt 15:39) (deriving from the Aramaic 'precious ware' 'magad'), not Magdala (which derives from the Aramaic 'magdal' or Hebrew 'migdal' meaning tower). Orthodox bibles actually still say Magadan not Magdala, unlike for instance the King James Bible. Only in the fifth century did a Byzantine copyist alter Magadan to Magdala which opened up other opportunities, especially since the site was on the pilgrim route to Nazareth and Tiberias. Magadan itself had actually been destroyed by an earthquake in 363.

Pilgrimage had become a popular thing to do since Constantine's adoption of Christianity as the state religion and Helena's discovery of the true Cross. Many pilgrims went to the historical places of the Holy Land, writing the equivalent of postcards home. And of course everybody wanted the kudos of visiting places where Biblical characters had lived. So when early in the sixth century (530 AD) a pilgrim named Theodosius came upon what had been Magadan he wanted it to be an important place and declared he had come to Magdala (which sounded like Magdalene) 'where the lady Mary was born' - 'Magdala, ubi domna Maria nata est'. By the ninth century they had discovered the house of Mary Magdalene enclosed by a church built by the Empress Helena, who certainly had been to Jerusalem and founded a lot of churches in the fourth century, but this just as certainly wasn't one of them. In the eighth century an Anglo-Saxon nun, Hugeburc, mentions a pilgrim church in Magdala where Mary had been freed of her demons. The legend stuck - the only problem being that Magdala wasn't around at the time of Mary Magdalene, Magadan was. So we need to look elsewhere.

We know that Jesus liked to give nicknames or titles to His followers (Mark 3:16-17) that would define their essence, what they were really about. Thus Simon became Cephas or Peter, the 'Rock', the Zebedees were Boanerges, the 'sons of Thunder', Thomas was Didymos the Twin ... and Mary was 'the Magdalene', the Tower, as derived from 'migdal' or Migdal-Eder, the Watchtower of the Flock. Even Jerome, writing in the early 4th century and not known for his particularly enlightened attitudes towards women, makes no mention of Magdala as a place or of Mary Magdalene as a sinner. To quote, he writes of "Mary of Magdala called 'of the Tower' because of her earnestness and ardent faith" who "was privileged to see the risen Christ first, even before the apostles."

Actually in the Greek texts of the gospels her name sounds more like a title - she is 'Mary called Magdalene' Luke 8:1-3, or 'the Magdalene Mary', or in Matthew, Mark and John 'Mary the Magdalene'.

Migdal in the Bible always appeared paired with another word, such as Migdal-Eder, most notably in Micah 4:8. The Migdal-Eder is the Tower of the Flock. So Mary the Magdalene is simply Mary the Tower, or Mary the Watchtower of the Flock. By extension, she was the Beacon, the Lighthouse, the Guide. It makes sense - Jesus spoke of Himself as the Good Shepherd, and shepherds of large flocks had wooden watchtowers built from which to look out over their flock and protect it.  There was a big one just outside Jerusalem. In Micah the Lord comes as a shepherd Messiah from Bethlehem who is then made a King who brings salvation. For anyone steeped in Biblical study and lore the watchtower was an easy association to make, as obvious as Peter's rock. Mary the Watchtower, lighthouse, beacon helps the Good Shepherd to protect His flock and illuminates the people as a visionary.

And to return to Magadan, it actually also had a large tower over the harbour which would have acted as a beacon or a lighthouse for the fishermen.


So now we have Mary as Watchtower, Lighthouse, Beacon, Light-bearer, Lightbringer. What else do we know about her? That she had independent means (women weren't allowed to inherit according to Jewish law but people, especially in the Jewish Hellenized elite, got around that by giving their sisters, daughters and other relatives 'gifts', plus they could access dowries or a bride-price), that she most likely hence belonged to the Jewish elite, (incidentally Jesus Himself was a rabbi who moved in elite circles - Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were members of the ruling council or Sanhedrin), that she was a close follower of Jesus who travelled through the countryside with him supporting his mission, that she had seven demons expelled from her, that she was there throughout the week of the Passion, from the entry into Jerusalem to the Crucifixion where she was one of the few who stood firm while others fled, that she went to anoint His body on the third day (incidentally you had to be a close relative to do that, usually a wife, as it was such an intimate thing to do), that she was (in three accounts) first witness of the empty tomb and of the Resurrection, apostle to the apostles, charged to tell the others - clearly not a minor character. She is there in all the critical defining moments of Jesus' life and ministry, fearlessly supporting Him all the way. (See Luke 8:1-3, Matt 27:56, Mark 15:40, John 20:1, Matt 27:61, Mark 15:47)

Seven demons

As for the demons made so much of by Pope Gregory, the expulsion of demons usually refers in the gospels to the healing of physical and mental illnesses and infirmities, such as deafness, epilepsy, paralysis, palsy, blindness, and dumbness. John the Baptist was accused of having a devil because he did not drink wine or eat bread. The number seven usually refers in the Bible (also in Egypt and Babylon) to completion or wholeness, so Mary's physical and mental healing would have been complete, making her the most aware and most open and receptive to the Kingdom. In my work on Mary Magdalene I linked the seven demons to the seven chakras or psychic/spiritual  centres of the body which Jesus chose to purify in Mary Magdalene (akin to purifying the subconscious), and making her a pure vessel for the hearing and the preaching of His Word.

6. Seven Mansions

The Anointing

That Mary Magdalene was a woman from the elite is also indirectly attested by the lists of women in the gospels where she is often placed first, even ahead of Johanna, who was the wife of Chuza, the steward of Herod Antipas, and hence of very high status. Also there is a link between Mary Magdalene and Nicodemus who brings the oils for her to use at Jesus' burial, let alone the oils she uses in the anointing of Jesus which would have cost the equivalent of a year's wages for a labourer at the time.

Which brings us to the whole question of the anointing. It is rather ironic that such an important act in the whole Christian drama, which Jesus Himself said would be forever remembered and recounted 'in memory of her', who did the anointing should have been written up in such a confusing manner.

7. Mark

We have four accounts of what reads essentially as the same event - the anointing of Jesus. It is clearly extremely important - priests and kings were anointed and 'messiah' actually means 'anointed one'. So the anointing is important and the anointer is too. It would not be incorrect to say that the anointer imparts the Holy Spirit through her act thereby conferring kingship or priesthood. Now, in two versions, despite Jesus' clear recorded words that this will be told 'in memory of her', she is nameless. In John she is said to be Mary of Bethany, a dear friend, and in Luke she is the nameless sinner who gave rise to the whole prostitute story.  So instead of being remembered forever and honoured for her act, it is sunk in a confusing mire, with in every case the identity of the woman written out of the story - she is nameless, or there under a different name, or there in the guise of a prostitute. Yet Mary Magdalene is the obvious choice - her presence is all over the story. It is she who comes to anoint Jesus in His tomb, so who else would be anointing Him, as Jesus says, in preparation for His burial?

8. In Memory of Her

It is interesting that it is Luke who tries to blacken her name - his is the only account of an anointing by a prostitute (Luke 7) which he follows up by introducing Mary Magdalene in Luke 8 as the woman with seven demons having gone out of her, almost inviting the reader to draw their own associations. At the crucifixion all the evangelists name Mary Magdalene apart from Luke. Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles which brings Paul into the story as a major player - the major player actually as two thirds of Acts is really about him, although he never actually met Jesus. Mary Magdalene, who did and who was there all the time, is entirely absent in Acts. For whatever reason, Luke does not want her there, and he does want to diminish or eliminate her role. You have to wonder why she was so much of a threat. Paul likewise excludes her from the list of those who saw the risen Christ in 1 Cor 15:3-8. Maybe she was just too independent and outspoken, a visionary, a seer, a leader. Or maybe, to jump ahead, it was not just that she was a woman (though that was clearly a problem), but that there were two opposing camps: on one side the aspiration to direct inspiration and experience of the Divine, on the other, apostolic succession, hierarchy and priestly mediation. Could it be that Mary Magdalene's direct experience subtly undermines the need for a church hierarchy and for mediation of the experience of the living Christ through the priesthood? For her herself the empty tomb was already enough, that and an absolute faith in the Kingdom of God.

The Garden

The last time Mary Magdalene appears in canonical texts is in the garden scene of the Resurrection uttering her ecstatic cry, Rabbouni! One of the Manichaean Psalms of Heracleides (II 187) is really an extension of the famous Resurrection scene in the garden with Mary being entrusted to find the disciples and tell them the good news:

9 & 10. John; Manichaean Psalm

Another one of these psalms (194.19) proclaims her to be 'the spirit of wisdom', while 192.21-22 states: "Mary is one who casts a net in an effort to catch the other eleven who were lost". As an interesting aside, Salome and Arsinoe are also mentioned in the psalms, as is Martha, who is called Mary's sister.

11. Bearing Witness

Mary Magdalene in the non-canonical texts

But then there are the non-canonical texts in which she appears - all very varied but agreeing on one thing: Mary Magdalene's remarkable prominence amongst the disciples and her intimate closeness to Jesus.

Now, some have interpreted this closeness as a sexual or marital relationship. Personally I would have no problem with that - after all many Jewish scholars say that Jesus would have had to have been married to be a rabbi and to be allowed to preach in a synagogue. But for me this kind of limiting of her role remains speculation - and still misses the point. A close companionship and relationship does not have to be sexual to be important and real and, for me, what is crucial is to accord Mary Magdalene the fullness of her true spiritual stature. That, and also to rediscover the vision which she shared with Jesus. The fact that Jesus was able to have that kind of real relationship with a woman attests to His perfect humanity in which male and female, masculine and feminine, are not at war, do not fear each other, but are perfectly balanced. Surely that is the perfect humanity, and the wholeness He calls us to still. And out of that wholeness a true relationship can arise like the one modelled by Mary Magdalene and Jesus. A relationship which can encompass emotional, intellectual and spiritual planes. There is a wedding, a marriage of masculine and feminine here, and a reconciliation with the feminine which we all need to emulate if we are to become Anthropos - truly human.

12. A quote from Thomas I rather like, while Philip gives us an intimation of what might be meant by true companionship, a 'sacred embrace'.

Like it or not there is something missing from the Christian story. It is the Sacred Feminine which incorporates Eros, the place where masculine and feminine meet as intimate and equal partners. But it isn't really missing, for Mary Magdalene is there at the centre of the Christian mystery and she has it in spades.

So, what are these non-canonical texts in which she appears? There will only be time to give a very brief overview of them, a few snippets to give us a flavour. The main ones are the Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Philip, Dialogue of the Saviour, Pistis Sophia, First Apocalypse of James, and the Sophia of Jesus Christ.

All were discovered in Egypt and most of them prominently feature Mary Magdalene as a, if not the leading disciple, pointing to her possible presence in Egypt. Christianity was traditionally brought to Egypt by Mark and thrived there in an inclusive eclectic environment. 1 Peter 5:13 mentions a church in 'Babylon' which was apparently located in what is now southern Cairo. Mention is made of a woman who is there as well who is so well known she does not get named "She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, salutes you, and so does Mark my son." Could this refer to Mary Magdalene? It is an intriguing possibility. And of course all the Nag Hammadi texts as well as the Gospel of Mary were found in Egypt.

So let us turn briefly to these texts which testify to the diversity of early Christianity and could provide some of the East-West balance we need - as well as letting some more of the original energy of Jesus' teachings through.

First of all, Mary Magdalene always has an important role in them as one of Jesus' most intimate disciples. She does not always have the leading central role but is often one of an important group of disciples (Sophia of Jesus Christ, Gospel of Thomas, Dialogue of the Saviour, Pistis Sophia IV, First Apocalypse of James). In the Gospel of Mary and Pistis Sophia I-III she is central. Most of these texts are dialogues - revelation dialogues - though Thomas is a collection of Jesus' sayings and parables. The Gospel of Philip differs from them also because here Mary Magdalene is placed in a historical role as the favourite disciple and companion of the living Jesus and is said to be the only one who truly understands His teaching and His nature while He is alive. Her level of spiritual maturity is reached by the other disciples only later.

Mary Magdalene is also often identified with Sophia as Wisdom or Lightbringer in the texts. It's actually incorrect to lump all the so-called Gnostic texts together as they were quite varied - some had a strictly dualist view rejecting the world as an evil creation which needs to be overcome by the soul which has to escape the clutches of matter and the world. This was actually originally a Hellenistic philosophy which prized celibacy and childlessness as a way of escaping the clutches of matter and ending the separation from God (it had a big influence on Christianity via Paul). Others saw gnosis as the apprehension of the kingdom of God here and now - the Kingdom is at hand, in the words of Jesus, and all of us carry the divine spark within us and are sons and daughters of God. There were other groupings as well - for instance, spiritual journeys were big in Egypt, the Egyptian Book of the Dead being such a journey of the soul after death and its rebirth into the afterlife. Thus there were, unsurprisingly, gnostic guides for the soul on reaching the light and avoiding temptations, dangers and darkness. Gnosis itself is a Greek word for knowledge, direct knowledge, which also came to be associated with hidden wisdom or mysterion. In the end, the ultimate aim of gnosis was - and this will sound familiar in the 21st century - individual enlightenment. And Mary Magdalene, in her role as seer and visionary, was associated with that goal.

To pick up an earlier theme, maybe the real problem with Mary Magdalene was that she represented vision and a direct path to the divine, while formal religion represented priestly mediation and hierarchy, with Peter as the Rock of the Church. Implicitly she could be seen to stand against church hierarchy, the apostolic succession, and the need for priests to be mediators between Christ, God, and the people. And not only was she a visionary but she had the authority of one who had actually walked with Jesus. It seems that there was a need for the established church to control Mary Magdalene who simply knew too much owing to her closeness to Jesus. She stood for vision, inspiration - the very opposite of dogma, rules and hierarchy. Could this have been the real reason behind the push to silence her and demean her? Celsus had already denounced Mary Magdalene as a 'hysterical woman' (that old chestnut) in the 170s AD for preaching the Resurrection - and a woman's witness was not worth anything legally anyway. And Mary Magdalene's 'enemies' within the Christian movement essentially did the same.

In the Gnostic texts however she is praised as the 'woman who knew (or understood) the all', and as 'inheritor of the light'. It is she who truly understands Jesus' message, is his foremost disciple and, and here we come to the controversial bit, is described in the Gospel of Philip as his 'koinonos' - the Greek word for companion, which can also mean partner, one who shares, spouse, consort or wife.

Gospel of Philip

The Gospel of Philip probably dates to the early 2nd century. This is the one which contains the lines which could be interpreted to mean that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife, but that is only a could. What she is for sure in the text is the favourite disciple, the companion who walks beside Him throughout His ministry, and the only one who fully understands His message and His teachings.

13. Philip

This is quite a remarkable passage which clearly illustrates a special and close relationship. And of course, the kiss has given rise to a lot of speculation and commentary. However, it does not necessarily imply a sexual relationship. The kiss was considered a holy act, an exchange of breath and energy (cf the 'holy kiss' in Romans 16:16), conveying spiritual power and nourishment. So the kiss could well be seen as a passing on of spiritual empowerment.

14. Philip

The other disciples envy Mary but eventually understand, following the Resurrection when they attain the same level of spiritual maturity she already possesses.

So yes, Mary Magdalene is the beloved disciple but this does not have to imply a sexual relationship, in fact there is no direct evidence for that. Her status is derived from her own spiritual level of understanding of Jesus' message, her visionary qualities, her strength and composure in adversity, her steadfastness and courage, her faith in the goodness of God and in the Kingdom to come. The wording of Philip is also interesting here: Mary was his mother, his sister, his companion. This could just be wordplay but could also imply that we are seeing here something well beyond the role of wife as it was then seen - this is an all-encompassing relationship, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual.

As Marvin Meyer well puts it in the opening sentence to his book, the "Gospels of Mary" - "Of all the disciples of Jesus, none seems to have been as independent, strong, and close to Jesus as Mary Magdalene."

Gospel of Mary

Of all the texts the Gospel of Mary is one of the most interesting, not just because it is the only gospel attributed to a woman. It is dated to between the late first century or early 2nd, some saying 180 at the latest. It could have been written in her name by a community that recognized her authority, but there was nothing unusual in that among the sacred texts of the time (including the evangelists). Unfortunately over half of it is missing, very unfortunately as what we have is extremely interesting.

At the beginning - the manuscript starts midstream - we find Jesus speaking of the nature of matter or creation the destiny of which is to be dissolved back into its root, and then of the nature of sin. He then gives the disciples the greeting of peace, telling them "Be careful that no one leads you astray by saying, 'Look here' or 'Look there'. The child of humanity is within you. Follow that." He tells them to go out and preach the good news, adding, tellingly, not to create new rules or laws apart from those which He gave lest they be bound by their own rules.

When He departs we find the disciples fearful and doubting, afraid they will suffer the same fate as Him, whereupon Mary takes charge in no uncertain manner, comforting them and giving them heart.

15. Mary

Mary is presented here as the spiritually strong leader who can impart calmness and composure to the others, the comforter and instructor who has greater understanding and who, as the text says, 'turns their hearts towards the good'. Her superior status is simply a result of Jesus' trust and confidence in her and her own spiritual maturity. She is clearly the visionary and leader and inspiration for others, for her ability to live her understanding of Jesus' teachings and impart it to others.

16. Apostola

As they discuss Jesus' words Peter asks Mary to share with them what Jesus told her privately, acknowledging that 'the saviour loved you more than any other woman'. Mary agrees and begins to recount her vision, which begins with Jesus praising her for not wavering when she saw him. There are two interesting points here - one concerns the mechanics of seeing visions, the other the reception of the visionary. Visions seem often to have been an acceptable way of communicating with other realms of reality and there are lots of visions in the Bible - Ezekiel, Elijah, Jacob's Ladder, Daniel, Isaiah, to name a few. Mary questions Jesus as to how one actually sees a vision and He begins to explain to her that it is not with the soul or the spirit that one sees, but with the mind ('nous'), or the 'eye of the heart' (the Hebrew version of 'nous'), which is the intermediary between the two. This is quite reminiscent of the Eastern religions in which the open third eye is an organ of deeper perception. And the text breaks off there.

The second point is Peter's (and Andrew's) reaction at the end - we can't believe this, she is talking rubbish. In fact this is one of the texts which records a clash between Mary and Peter. I think it is interesting to recall in this context that Paul never saw Jesus at all except in a vision. Which begs the question, why is one vision acceptable and another - which happens to be a woman's - not acceptable and to be doubted? I like another quote from the Gospel of Mary in this context (even if I do take it out of context!) - "why do you pass judgement on me though I have not passed judgement?"

The vision itself describes the soul's journey as it escapes and defeats the powers of Darkness, Desire, Ignorance, and Wrath which has seven forms, (this is strangely reminiscent of the seven demons which Mary overcomes), until it comes to rest in Silence (again much is missing). While this could be the metaphorical journey of the soul after death it can also be read as the journey to enlightenment while still in this body. The soul overcomes stuck energies, the 'false self' or one's inner demons in order to become 'Single' - inwardly still and composed as Mary herself is. However, and this is just a thought, the whole journey could also be an account of Christ's "Harrowing of Hell". But with so much of the text missing it is impossible to say this for sure, though it remains a possibility. When Mary concludes conflict erupts, with Andrew doubting her word, followed by Peter who is quite incensed by the idea of giving a woman spiritual authority –

17. Mary

"Did he really speak with a woman in private, without our knowledge? Should we all turn and listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?" Mary weeps at these words but Levi stands up for her. But we can still hear Peter's words reverberating down the ages. Are we supposed to listen to her? Don't tell me men and women are really equal!

This was of course one of the radical things about Jesus' teaching and ministry - there is a real sense of him not treating his male or female followers differently: they are all inheritors of the Kingdom, sons and daughters of God. We see him mixing with women without fear of 'pollution' and we see the twelve disciples and the circle of women (some sources say seven) all travelling together accompanying him.

Just to give a snapshot of what Mary Magdalene was up against - the position of women was very constricted with no formal education, no legal standing, in fact legally they were men's property, their testimony didn't count in court - basically they were inferior in all things. According to the historian Josephus their submission was required for their own good so that they could be directed and instructed by men. But Mary Magdalene and the other women do not come across as submissive, they are not under male authority, and they are freely travelling around the countryside following a charismatic rabbi. They are equals in his circle, not merely reduced to their gender and sexuality. This in itself tells us a lot about Jesus and his teaching. So, Mary Magdalene was clearly a figure who challenged patriarchal assumptions - was that also part of the reason that she was then made into a figure who confirmed them?

At the end of the Gospel of Mary the injunction is given to 'put on the perfect human being' and preach the good news while not making new rules or laws, so sense is shown to prevail.

There are indeed several clashes between Mary and Peter recorded in the non-canonical texts in which Peter objects to Mary because she is a woman. Interestingly, in the Gospel of Mary Peter begins by deferring to Mary but ends by expressing frustration at this woman who does not know her place. Yet the question, Levi's question, remains even now: "If the Saviour made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her?" And it applies not just to Mary, it applies to all women.

Pistis Sophia
Mary Magdalene runs into problems several times with the male disciples in some (though not all) of the non-canonical texts, but on each occasion Jesus defends her and clearly states she is worthy to receive the teachings, to question, and to teach herself. In Pistis Sophia Peter is again frustrated with Mary Magdalene who clearly plays the leading role throughout most of the dialogue, asking the most questions, giving the best answers, a bit like the star pupil in a class. Jesus acknowledges her as spiritually superior to the other disciples, as one 'whose heart is set on heaven's kingdom more than all your brothers'.

18. Pistis Sophia

Peter cracks it eventually - "My master, we cannot endure this woman who gets in our way and does not let any of us speak, though she talks all the time."
Mary not surprisingly responds a little later that though she understands she can speak when the power of the spirit arises in her, she is "afraid of Peter, because he threatens me and hates our gender." Jesus responds that anyone filled with the spirit of light can come forward to interpret his words and that none shall be able to oppose them. He then praises Mary as a "pure spiritual woman" which is pretty high praise.

19. Pistis Sophia

Gospel of Thomas and others

The Gospel of Thomas includes a clash in the final logion 114 between Mary Magdalene and Peter in which Peter asks Jesus to tell Mary to leave them because women/females are unworthy of life. Jesus' response is that he will make Mary 'male' so that she too is a living spirit and that every female who makes herself male will enter heaven's kingdom. Apart from the fact that many scholars challenge this logion as a later addition it also demonstrates again that the clash between Mary and Peter is over her gender. It also demonstrates how deeply engrained Aristotelian male/female dualism was in the Hellenized world. 'To become male' was to become pure, spiritual, non-material, heavenly, imperishable, while 'being female' meant belonging to matter, being sensual, incomplete, material, perishable, earthly, not capable of transcendence. This was a very fixed cultural dichotomy, and one important current in the Greek and Roman world was the desire to 'destroy the works of femaleness'. However, logion 114 does give an affirmative answer to the implied question as to whether women should be allowed to be equal members of the community - if Jesus made them worthy who are we to dispute that, is the implied message.

The First Apocalypse of James which mentions Mary picks up on this theme but grudgingly admits that women, "powerless vessels", are "capable of becoming strong through the gnosis". Women could, surprise surprise, become strong and not powerless limited females!

However, there is no tension between the disciples and Mary Magdalene in the Dialogue of the Saviour (probably second century), a dialogue between Matthew, Judas Thomas, Mary Magdalene and Jesus in which Mary plays the leading role, even getting to say some things which are similar to the sayings attributed to Jesus in the gospels. All the disciples receive special teachings while Mary is praised by Jesus as "the woman who knows the all".

20. Dialogue of the Saviour

The Sophia of Jesus Christ features Mary alongside four other disciples (Philip, Matthew, Thomas, Bartholomew). They are all protagonists in the dialogue and preachers of the gospel, and there is no conflict between them.


The simple fact is that it would not be true to say that all orthodox texts are anti-women while the Gnostics accorded women more respect and gave them leadership positions. First of all, the Gnostics were a very varied group and it is not right to lump them together as we posthumously have done. Both canonical and non-canonical texts show evidence of misogyny and of concern with women's position. The true radical was Jesus. He was the one who treated women as equals, accorded them full respect, included them among his disciples, and imparted important teachings and revelations to them. His successors on both sides of the divide came up short in following his example to become 'truly human' - all apart, maybe, from Mary Magdalene. And, just perhaps, therein lies her true significance and the reason Jesus had selected her to be the Watchtower of the Flock.

Yet, such facts as we have point to an important role already - apostle to the apostles, first witness of the empty tomb and of the Resurrection, the anointer of the anointed one (Messiah), the one who has the courage, steadfastness and faith to be with Jesus throughout His Passion. And she was clearly an independent wealthy woman, probably Hellenized (Hellenized women had more independence, and wealth could give a woman independence even then), who had the means, alongside the other women, to support Jesus' mission and his followers.

That is the real point: that Mary Magdalene is there at the heart of the Christian mystery - at the death, burial and resurrection there are two people, Jesus and Mary throughout it all. Mary would have understood that final cry of Jesus on the cross - Eloi Eloi lama sabathani as being from Psalm 22 - all is accomplished in an absolute submission to God who is all Good - it was the ultimate Thy Will be done. (Interestingly in the earliest reductions of Mark which do not have verses 16:9-20 the empty tomb itself is enough for Mary Magdalene. It is empty like the Holy of Holies of the temple - empty but filled with the presence of God.)

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