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What is the Gospel of Mary?

“The only known Gospel that is named after a woman.” (de Boer, listening to beloved disciple p1)

“Few people today are acquainted with the Gospel of Mary. Written early in the second century CE, it disappeared for over fifteen hundred years until a single fragmentary copy in Coptic translation came to light in the late nineteenth century…. Fewer than nine pages of the ancient papyrus survive, which means that about half the Gospel of Mary is lost to us, perhaps forever.”    (King p3)

“It is amazing that something so tiny could pack such a punch…. The gospel delivers powerful new revelations on the nature of Jesus’s teachings, the qualifications for apostleship, Mary Magdalene’s clear pre-eminence among the disciples, and the process at work in the early church that would eventually lead to her marginalization.” (Bourgeault p43)

“The Gospel of Mary…provide(s) an intriguing glimpse into the kind of Christianity lost for almost fifteen hundred years. This astonishingly brief narrative presents a radical interpretation of Jesus’ teachings as a path to spiritual knowledge.” (King p3-4)

 

What’s the message of The Gospel of Mary?

“Mary’s Gospel invites us to grow into the authentic people that we were intended to be, to live up to the image of the “authentic person” who dwells in us.”   (Mattison, p37)

“The Mary Magdalene of the Gospel of Mary …. does not just set an example. She does not just bear witness to her own humanity, but to the humanity of all. Christ’s loving concern and his redemptive power can be found in everyone. The human mind with new life breathed into it by him can again be the real ‘pilot of the soul’, the ‘Human Being’ in people. Christ makes clear which powers are behind suffering and confusion: Darkness, Desire, Ignorance and Wrath. He proves these Powers to be powerless. Thus the way upwards can really be taken.”   (de Boer, Myth, p124)

“This work is …. a narrative that provides an example of the kind of transformation that happens when one fully engages in a relationship with the Savior and comes to understand his teachings, teachings that may involve actual contemplative practices related to an examination of conscience and meditation on one’s eventual death.”       (Saxon p. 151)

“Apostleship does not lie in having been near Jesus, taught or studied with him, or attended the Last Supper. It lies in the inner integration which allows that person to live in continuous communion with the Master in the imaginal meeting ground through the power of a pure heart, so that ‘Thy kingdom come’ is in fact a living reality.”  (Bourgeualt p68)

 

Is The Gospel of Mary an authentic Christian text?

“These Gospels don’t represent a threat to historic Christianity (for better or for worse), but rather a deeper and broader appreciation of what Christianity has to offer. It is in that spirit that Mary’s Gospel is considered here: not as a challenge to Christian faith per se (the author of this Gospel clearly did not see it that way), but as a Christian challenge to overcome the fear and distractions that keep us bound and drag us down in life, an invitation to follow Jesus and find the spiritual rest that releases us from the domination of the world around us. It’s an invitation open to everyone, inside and outside the church, both those who are happy to recite the creeds and those who are so discouraged with institutional religion that they find it difficult to set foot in a church.”  (Mattison, p8-9)

 

“The Gospel of Mary suggests that the story of the gospel is unfinished. Christian doctrine and practice are not fixed dogmas that one can only accept or reject; rather Christians are required to step into the story and work together to shape the meaning of the gospel in their own time.”    (King p189)

 

 

Why was The Gospel of Mary not included in the New Testament?

This question can be considered in the context of the adoption and development of Christianity as the official state religion of the Roman Empire from the 4th century CE. Elaine Pagels, writing in The Gnostic Gospels, suggests that the development of early Church doctrine was based on political expedience as much as on religious or philosophical thinking. Debates about creed and canon, writes Pagels, “bear social and political implications that are crucial to the development of Christianity as an institutional religion. In its simplest terms, ideas which bear implications contrary to that development come to be seen as “heresy”; ideas which implicitly support it become “orthodox”. By investigating these texts…. we can see how politics and religion coincide in the development of Christianity.” ( Pagels , p xxxvi)

It is easy to see how themes in the Gospel of Mary, such as speaking truth to power, the rejection of excessive rules and regulations, or the promotion of women’s equality, would have been politically unpopular within the official state religion of Rome. Nonetheless, there is no evidence that the gospel was ever condemned. In the early third century, the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea gave a list of books which were deemed heretical,  and significantly the text is not included on this list

The rivalry we read of in the Gospel, the sense of Peter being jealous and challenging Mary’s position, is found in other non-canonical texts too, and points to rivalries between different traditions and lineages, different interpretations or different groups of followers in the early churches. There is clear evidence that as the authority of Peter and his followers was growing in strength and power over the first few centuries, so at the same time the lineage and tradition of Mary was being surreptitiously eroded and reduced. Even the canonical gospels of the New Testament show clear signs of having been edited and altered in ways which increase the status of Peter, and substantially remove authority and importance from Mary. By AD 591, Pope Gregory, successor to the apostolic male line of Peter’s authority, reinvents Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute, and effectively dismisses and silences her tradition as first apostle and closest disciple.

 

Interesting to note that we never see a direct confrontation, and unlike other texts her gospel is never declared heretical. Instead, her position is gradually wormed away at and eroded, her tradition is side-lined. Her gospel is excluded from the canon of the New Testament, and goes from wide circulation through the ancient world for over four hundred years to being lost and forgotten for one and a half thousand years.

 

The first copy we have, which only gives us half of the original text, re-surfaced in Egypt in 1896. Even then it wasn’t until the 50s that the first translations began to be made publicly available. The Vatican has at last admitted that mistakes were made, that the characterisation of Mary Magdalene as a penitent prostitute has never been scripturally based, and the time has come to reinstate her position as apostle to the apostles. Maybe now in the 21st century, as the powers of patriarchy and authority loosen their grip, are we at last ready to read this, the only known gospel attributed to a woman? Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

 

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