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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.


  1. Thank you for this David.
    I always appreciate your wisdom and your opinions, which you pass on through the beauty of your art and words.


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