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Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Gospel of Mary

Sometime in the late 6th-century a misconception about certain passages in scripture came to be seen as an entrenched truth. What happened seems simple enough: Pope Gregory I, known as Gregory the Great, made a confused assumption that in Luke’s gospel the [1]unnamed ‘repentant sinner’ who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears was Mary Magdalene. Exactly why the pope might have thought this is unclear, as there is no indication whatever in the gospel that connects the woman in the story with Mary Magdalene. But things did not stop there.

Mary Magdalene. The image of Mary in the gospel which bears her name is of a woman of great dignity, leadership, personal courage and deep spiritual insight: a view of the Magdalene as remote from her misguided portrayal down the centuries as is possible.
Mary the sister of Martha, the ‘woman with the alabaster jar’ who anoints Jesus’ feet as related in [2]Luke's and John’s gospel, was also assumed by the pope to be Mary Magdalene, although Luke’s retelling of Jesus’ visit to the house of these two sisters in the town of Bethany makes it clear that the woman referred to is Martha’s sister, and not Mary Magdalene. Even given the possible misattribution caused by two women having the same name (Mary was then one of the most frequently-encountered of women’s names) it is the gospels themselves which clear up any possible confusion about the separate identities of these three women: the unnamed ‘repentant sinner’, Mary the sister of Martha, and Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene, as envisaged in the 15th-century by Rogier van der Weyden: a Magdalene holding the alabaster jar of ointment but nevertheless very much of the artist’s own time, and set in a landscape of rolling Flemish hills. What our own age might miss, but what would have been apparent to the artist’s audience, is that the elaborate dress with its embroidered red sleeves, and the hair flowing loosely over her shoulders, would have been clear signals that this Magdalene was portrayed as a high-class prostitute.
And yet Pope Gregory decided that these different women actually were one and the same. These passages in Luke’s and John’s gospels, according to the pope, all describe Mary Magdalene. So why is it that such an obvious misreading of the gospels has survived for fourteen long centuries? Contemporary scholarship now recognizes the pope’s error, but the image of Mary Magdalene as the repentant sinner who washed the feet of Jesus still endures in the popular imagination.

Why does the Church of Rome not correct such an obvious fallacy by a previous pope in some sort of official edict? Perhaps because countermanding this mistake would undermine the dogma of papal infallibility? Or alternatively, perhaps because it has been expedient for the Church to perpetuate, and in doing so, to exploit, such a female stereotype? I’ll leave you to decide. What is the case is that the image of Mary Magdalene as a redeemed whore has been the subject of countless depictions in art and popular culture ever since. Images are powerful things. They influence the way we think about something, even if we might not be aware that they are doing so. Mary Magdalene, as the woman who holds the alabaster jar which contains the precious [3]ointment used to anoint the feet of Jesus, also has been a much-portrayed figure in art – all on account of Pope Gregory’s mistaken assumption.

The penitent Magdalene, by Paul Jacques Aimé Boudry. By the 19th-century portrayals of the Magdalene had descended into mawkish picture-postcard sentiment, and the unfounded legend that she had spent her last years as a [4]naked recluse was seized upon by such artists as an excuse to portray some pseudo-classical nudity disguised as lofty religious ideals.
Where there can be no doubt is when Luke actually mentions Mary Magdalene by name, as being the woman from whom Jesus casts out ‘seven devils’. Luke specifies her as being ‘Mary called Magdalene’. But what does this curious verse mean? Was Mary possessed in some way? Did Jesus perform a kind of exorcism? It is a passage from Luke’s gospel which has caused much speculation. To find an answer, and also to reach beyond Pope Gregory’s misunderstandings, we need to push back even further in time, to three centuries before that particular pope went astray in his assumptions.

This fragment in Greek of the Gospel of Mary was discovered along with many other texts in an ancient refuse dump near Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. It gives an indication as to how much painstaking restoration work has been necessary to make these texts live again after so many centuries of obscurity.
We have three surviving fragmentary copies of the text known as the Gospel of Mary, all of them from Egypt. One discovered near the town of Akhmim is from the 5th-century and written in Coptic, and the other two from the 3rd-century and written in Greek were discovered in an ancient refuse dump at Oxyrhynchus – a valuable archaeological site which also has yielded some of the poetry of Sappho. It is perhaps an irony of history that both the writings of Mary and Sappho have been discovered in the same location. In a man’s world Sappho was widely regarded as the [5]greatest poet of her age, and history confirms her identity. The Gospel of Mary is the only known gospel to be attributed to a woman. Unlike the verses of Sappho, we cannot know who wrote it, any more than we can ascertain who really wrote the four canonical gospels. What we can say is that its unknown author wrote from a viewpoint that is so sympathetic to a woman’s perspective, so insightful, that it could indeed have been written by a woman, which would have been entirely feasible in an early Christian Gnostic community.

Oxyrhynchus and Akhmim: the two discovery sites of the three copies which we have of the Gospel of Mary.
In this gospel it is Mary who rallies the fearful and demoralized disciples after Jesus takes leave of them following his last resurrection appearance. It is Mary who then is forced to defend herself in the face of accusations by Peter that, being the disciple whom Jesus loved the most, Jesus told her things to which only she was privy. And it is the disciple Levi who comes to her defence against the ‘wrathful’ and hot-headed Peter. But other passages in the text describe Mary’s deep understanding of the visions of the mind, the perceptions of the spirit, and the ascent of the soul. It is Mary who offers this profound wisdom to the other disciples (who notably are addressed by her as her ‘brothers and sisters’, making it clear that [6]female disciples also were present, and therefore also were among this inner circle of followers). Reading this text as a whole, it is difficult to avoid the impression that Peter reacts out of mere jealous pique and bruised male ego.

Magdala (Migdal), the birthplace of the Magdalene, was in Galilee, and Bethany, the location of the house of the sisters Martha and Mary, was to the south in Judea. Between these two lay Samaria, which needed to be traversed when making journeys to Jerusalem for the Jewish feast days.
And what of those ‘seven devils’? It is ironic that it is a non-canonical text which supplies us with the answer to the identity of these ‘devils’ which otherwise would be left unexplained. Ascending through the various levels or ‘powers’, Mary describes the soul as encountering the power which has “…seven forms. The first form is darkness; the second is desire; the third is ignorance; the fourth is zeal for death; the fifth is the kingdom of the flesh; the sixth is the foolish wisdom of the flesh; the seventh is the wisdom of the wrathful person. These are the seven powers of Wrath.” Jesus’ action towards Mary can now be seen for what it truly is: not some trivial and all-too-literal exorcism, but an indoctrination into the inner mysteries, which Mary in her turn masters. It is known that Luke drew upon older texts for some of his material, and the ‘seven devils’ episode would seem to be a scrambled version of these older mysteries whose true meaning was lost on Luke, remembering that the Gospel of Mary would itself have been copied from older texts. 

These texts were in circulation before the Bible as we know it existed. There were no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ texts as orthodoxy later labelled them. And the Gospel of Mary was of course written long before Pope Gregory muddied the waters with his misconceptions. Being closer to the source, it offers us perhaps a more authentic Mary: a Mary who is indeed a wise and profound teacher, and even the closest to Jesus and most deserving of his disciples. This Mary is a very long way indeed from the redeemed whore perpetuated by the Church, and the time for her overdue and deserved reinstatement is now.

[1] See Luke 7:36-50 for the passage about the unnamed ‘sinner’ who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, then wipes them with her hair before anointing them with ointment from an ‘alabaster box’.

[2] See Luke 10:38-42 for the passage in which Jesus is received in the house of Martha and Mary, and John 11:1-2 for a further mention of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.

[3] The ointment was probably spikenard, one of the costliest of all the spices.

[4] This legend seems to have arisen out of more confusion with yet another Mary: Mary of Egypt, who did indeed spend her life living as a repentant naked hermit in the desert around the Jordan. Please see my post Mary of Egypt: A Heart in the Wilderness.

[5] No less a person than Plato even described Sappho as ‘the tenth muse’. To read more about Sappho and the remarkable ways in which her works have been rescued from obscurity, please see my post Sappho.

[6] Among its other themes, the book below tackles the question of the Vatican’s total refusal to admit that women (therefore also Mary) were among the disciples, quoting a letter by Pope John Paul II to the then Archbishop of Canterbury that the pope was “firmly opposed to this development.” Well, of course he was. The entrenched sexist policies of the Church of Rome must be held to, even if this means flying in the face both of what scripture itself says and what is now accepted scholarship. The pope ends his letter by stating that he views it “as a break with tradition of a kind we have no competence to authorise.” But if the pope himself has no competence to authorise it, then who in the Vatican does?

Susan Haskins: Mary Magdalen: Myth and Metaphor. Harcourt Brace and Company for Harper Collins, 1993. This title gives a detailed overview of the many ways in which our image and perceptions of Mary have changed over the centuries. 

Complete translations of both the Coptic and Greek versions of the Gospel of Mary, introduced and translated by Karen L. King, together with comprehensive annotations, can be found in The Nag Hammadi Scriptures, edited by Marvin Meyer. Harper Collins, 2008. This gospel is also available separately as: The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, by Karen L. King. Polebridge Press, 2003.

Mary Magdalene, by Rogier van der Weyden, is in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The Oxyrhynchus fragment is from the Oxyrhynchus website. My imagined portrait of Mary Magdalene which heads this post is intended to express the Magdalene as she is portrayed in the Gospel of Mary. The maps have been created for this post by the © David Bergen Studio.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Jesus in India

Even the staunchest Christian has to concede that what scripture tells us about the life of Jesus hardly amounts to a comprehensive biography. For any details at all we rely almost solely upon the four gospels. These collectively (and at times conflictingly) inform us of his birth, his early childhood (but even this only partially), and his ministry, which effectively took place over the last two years of his life. All texts are strangely silent about what happened in between – a hiatus of almost twenty years.

Did Jesus once walk in the shadow of the mountains of the Hindu Kush, perhaps to seek new forms for the Spirit that were then unknown in his native Galilee?
In other words: most of Jesus’ life, and what he did during those many years, is a total unknown. Why are all the gospels so strangely silent about those intervening years? Or perhaps more to the point: why is this stark fact so summarily brushed aside within Christianity itself? It is as if this yawning void of non-information is considered to be a minor inconvenience in our knowledge of the Saviour: something perfunctorily acknowledged before swiftly moving on to more familiar events. Jesus, the young boy encountered in Luke’s gospel going [1]‘about his Father’s business’ in the temple, a few verses later emerges as the adult Jesus being baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan. It is as if a biographer of the Duke of Wellington were to describe his early boyhood in a brief introductory chapter – and then begin the next chapter by describing his victory against Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo.

This timeline graphically illustrates how little is known about the life of Jesus. The gospels collectively describe only the light areas on the line; the rest of the intervening years are a total unknown. Conflicting dates make the exact span of Jesus’ life uncertain, although it is usually taken to be 32-33 years with a 5-year margin.
So whether or not we care to address this issue of Jesus’ missing years, whether we choose to sweep it under the carpet as being ‘unimportant’ or ‘not the point’, the issue is still there. And the existence of the issue leaves us free to speculate upon what he might have done, and where he might have been. He might, of course, simply have spent those years in Galilee as an itinerant sage and healer, perhaps performing local exorcisms (‘casting out devils’, to use the scriptural phrase), or just keeping a low profile in preparation for the momentous final years of his life. Or perhaps he journeyed farther afield, even as far as India.

Seeking an answer to whether the footsteps of Jesus ever were imprinted in Indian soil must begin with the question: how feasible would the journey itself have been? Just how do-able was it at the time to get from Galilee to the distant Hindu Kush? It seems a long way, but startlingly, the answer is: entirely possible, even plausible. If we follow the trade routes of the time, we ourselves can plot a likely route on the map. The Silk Road had principal connecting points in the port city of Antioch and in Damascus. From Damascus the Silk Road then went eastward via Palmyra to Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia, where two alternative routes presented themselves. Either by a river and sea voyage, first down the Euphrates and then by sea to Hormuz in Persia, or farther south to the Indian port of Barbaricon. Either option would have allowed for a direct connection inland to northern India along principal known trade routes.

Following the Silk Road and other major trade routes, either overland or by land and sea, would have made a journey from Galilee to India entirely feasible.
The second alternative would have been overland, journeying east from Ctesiphon along the Silk Road to Bactra northwest of the Hindu Kush, then southeast through the Khyber Pass to [2]Taxila in the foothills. These alternatives all followed time-tested trade routes. Join a caravan, and off you go. After all, Alexander the Great trod the same route in his conquests of three centuries before, and we know that Alexander at any rate left his own footprints in Taxila. So for Jesus the journey itself was entirely feasible, and would have needed no arduous trailblazing as such. The next question should be: can we detect any signs of such a sojourn accounting for his [3]missing years, both in his teachings, which thereafter presumably would have been Eastern-influenced, and in [4]India itself? Again the answer, startling perhaps for some, could be: yes.

The mountains of the Hindu Kush. Mountains have always exhorted us to reach out for the Divine. Often they have been seen as the dwelling places of gods and spirits, and for many, treading their snowy fastness feels like walking on sacred ground.
For those long unaccounted-for years, Jesus simply vanishes from the record. If at least part of that time was spent in India, then we would expect his own ministry to be informed by [5]Buddhist influence. It has been [6]suggested that Jesus’ lifestyle resembled that of a Cynic philosopher. Cynicism (not to be confused with our own contemporary use of the term) was a Greek school of philosophy, a lifestyle, which urged its adherents to live a simple life, to wear simple garments and not pay heed to worldly possessions, and peaceably to live in harmony with their surroundings. Galilee and regions northward were subject to Hellenist influence (Paul’s first language was Greek), and Jesus actually urges his apostles to embrace such a [7]lifestyle.

A lake in Srinagar, Kashmir. Did these same contemplative reflections offer their silent mirror to Jesus two millennia ago? Places far from home often invite us to gain new insights. When we return from such sojourns we might view the familiar in unexpected ways, and discover our own native soil anew.
But Cynicism in its turn, however coincidentally, closely resembled the lifestyle of Buddhist monks. Such a monk as well lived a life of utter simplicity and devotion, depending for his or her existence on the charity of others. The precepts of Jesus to a way of non-violence, to loving your neighbour, to placing yourself in the service of others, which were revolutionary for and otherwise unknown to other teachings in Palestine, and which otherwise seem mysteriously to have emerged from a social milieu utterly foreign to them, were the very fabric of Buddhism. Buddha also healed the sick and fed multitudes with a few loaves of bread, not as magic tricks, but as manifestations of his divine Buddha nature. Were these ideas, so novel for the near East, imported from a farther East by Jesus himself? Did Jesus sojourn in a Buddhist monastery in the very shadow of the Hindu Kush? 

We are left to wonder. The ease of travelling the trade routes, and the quietly-spoken and deeply-human teachings of Jesus himself, so radically different for his social environment, makes such speculation at least plausible. As to any protests that Jesus never visited India because there is no firm proof that he did, the only reasoned response must be that there also is no proof that he did not.

[1] Luke 2: 41-49. In this passage relating the boy Jesus’ visit to the temple in Jerusalem, his age is given as twelve (Luke 2: 42). The following chapter mentions that Jesus is ‘about thirty years of age’ (Luke 3: 23). The few intervening verses between these two quotes concern themselves with John the Baptist. No mention whatever is made of Jesus’ activities or whereabouts in the intervening eighteen years of his life.

[2] The city of Taxila is now within the borders of present-day Pakistan.

[3] There is the further claim that Jesus was in India – but travelled (or perhaps returned) there after his presumed resurrection, living as a respected foreigner in the community as ‘Yuz Asouf’. This person lived into old age, and was buried in a tomb according to the Jewish tradition (that is: orientated east-west) in Srinagar, Kashmir (left): a tomb which still exists and can be visited. The clear implication is that Jesus did not die on the cross, but passed into coma before being taken down and was secretly revived in the tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea. Accepting this possibility means that the ‘resurrection’ in Christian terms never actually happened, which if true would undermine the very cornerstone of Christian belief. This heretical idea is too complex to be examined here, and will be covered in a future post.

[4] There are two further issues which I have chosen not to cover in the body of this post. The first is the claim by the 19th-century Russian adventurer Nicolas Notovitch (right) that he discovered a manuscript in a northern Indian monastery relating the deeds of a certain foreigner named as ‘Issu’ who healed others, which at face value seems to hint at evidence of Jesus’ presence in that monastery. But this story is too clouded by controversy and accusations of hoax to be included in a post in which I have concentrated only on ‘plausibles’. The second issue is the Hindu manuscript known as the Bhavishya Maha Purana, which mentions a Messiah-like individual named as Issa Masih, who had taught a doctrine of peace, and who had fled east from his homeland due to persecution. Being therefore post-resurrection, this also relates to my ‘resurrection’ point in note [3] above.

[5] Buddhism was founded some five hundred years before the time of Jesus.

[6] The idea that Jesus actually was a Cynic philosopher is mentioned (among others) by Paula Fredriksen in her book Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Professor Fredriksen points out that dressing in simple garb was one of the features of the Cynics. So if you tend to picture Jesus in a humble coarsely-woven garment, rather than in the tassel-fringed robes that were normal Jewish attire, then you are picturing him as a Cynic philosopher. But the hints are not in appearance alone. The at-times enigmatic and koan-like wisdom of Jesus, which is so in evidence in that source for the canonical gospels of the teachings of Jesus, the Gospel of Thomas, and which predates them, is also typical of the Cynic style of teaching – and also of Eastern mysticism.

[7] Mark 6: 7-9. “And he called unto him the twelve, and began to send them forth by two and two; and gave them power over unclean spirits; and commanded them that they should take nothing for their journey, save a staff only; no *scrip, no bread, no money in their purse: but be shod with sandals; and not put on two coats.” K.J.V. (*‘Scrip’: a bag.)

Paula Fredriksen: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999.
Hindu Kush mountains photo by Hindu Kush Adventure. Srinagar lake adapted from a photo by Singh Suninder Jeet. 'Jesus in the Hindu Kush' painting, Silk Road map and Life of Jesus timeline by Hawkwood for the ©David Bergen Studio.