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. Although details of the discovery itself are obscure, we do know that the fifth century manuscript in which it was inscribed was purchased in Cairo by Carl Reinhardt and brought to Berlin in 1896. Two additional fragments in Greek have come to light in the twentieth century. Yet still no complete copy of the Gospel of Mary is known. Fewer than eight pages of the ancient papyrus text survive, which means that about half of the Gospel of Mary is lost to us, perhaps forever.
Yet these scant pages provide an intriguing glimpse into a kind of Christianity lost for almost fifteen hundred years. This astonishingly brief narrative presents a radical interpretation of Jesus’ teachings as a path to inner spiritual knowledge; it rejects his suffering and death as the path to eternal life; it exposes the erroneous view that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute for what it is—a piece of theological fiction; it presents the most straightforward and convincing argument in any early Christian writing for the legitimacy of women’s leadership; it offers a sharp critique of illegitimate power and a utopian vision of spiritual perfection; it challenges our rather romantic views about the harmony and unanimity of the first Christians; and it asks us to rethink the basis for church authority. All written in the name of a woman.
The story of the Gospel of Mary is a simple one. Since the first six pages are lost, the gospel opens in the middle of a scene portraying a discussion between the Savior and his disciples set after the resurrection. The Savior is answering their questions about the end of the material world and the nature of sin. He teaches them that at present all things, whether material or spiritual, are interwoven with each other. In the end, that will not be so. Each nature will return to its own root, its own original state and destiny. But meanwhile, the nature of sin is tied to the nature of life in this mixed world. People sin because they do not recognize their own spiritual nature and, instead, love the lower nature that deceives them and leads to disease and death. Salvation is achieved by discovering within oneself the true spiritual nature of humanity and overcoming the deceptive entrapments of the bodily passions and the world. The Savior concludes this teaching with a warning against those who would delude the disciples into following some heroic leader or a set of rules and laws. Instead they are to seek the child of true Humanity within themselves and gain inward peace. After commissioning them to go forth and preach the gospel, the Savior departs.
But the disciples do not go out joyfully to preach the gospel; instead controversy erupts. All the disciples except Mary have failed to comprehend the Savior’s teaching. Rather than seek peace within, they are distraught, frightened that if they follow his commission to preach the gospel, they might share his agonizing fate. Mary steps in and comforts them and, at Peter’s request, relates teaching unknown to them that she had received from the Savior in a vision. The Savior had explained to her the nature of prophecy and the rise of the soul to its final rest, describing how to win the battle against the wicked, illegitimate Powers that seek to keep the soul entrapped in the world and ignorant of its true spiritual nature.
But as she finishes her account, two of the disciples quite unexpectedly challenge her. Andrew objects that her teaching is strange and he refuses to believe that it came from the Savior. Peter goes further, denying that Jesus would ever have given this kind of advanced teaching to a woman, or that Jesus could possibly have preferred her to them. Apparently when he asked her to speak, Peter had not expected such elevated teaching, and now he questions her character, implying that she has lied about having received special teaching in order to increase her stature among the disciples. Severely taken aback, Mary begins to cry at Peter’s accusation. Levi comes quickly to her defense, pointing out to Peter that he is a notorious hothead and now he is treating Mary as though she were the enemy. We should be ashamed of ourselves, he admonishes them all; instead of arguing among ourselves, we should go out and preach the gospel as the Savior commanded us.
The Gospel Of Mary was written when Christianity, still in its nascent stages, was made up of communities widely dispersed around the Eastern Mediterranean, communities which were often relatively isolated from one other and probably each small enough to meet in someone’s home without attracting too much notice. Although writings appeared early—especially letters addressing the concerns of local churches, collections containing Jesus’ sayings, and narratives interpreting his death and resurrection—oral practices dominated the lives of early Christians. Preaching, teaching, and rituals of table fellowship and baptism were the core of the Christian experience. What written documents they had served at most as supplemental guides to preach- ing and practice. Nor can we assume that the various churches all possessed the same documents; after all, these are the people who wrote the first Christian literature. Christoph Markschies suggests that we have lost 85% of Christian literature from the first two centuries—and that includes only the literature we know about. Surely there must be even more, for the discovery of texts like the Gospel of Mary came as a complete surprise. We have to be careful that we don’t suppose it is possible to reconstruct the whole of early Christian history and practice out of the few surviving texts that remain. Our picture will always be partial—not only because so much is lost, but because early Christian practices were so little tied to durable writing.
Papyrus Berolinensis 8502.1
(Pages 1-6 are missing.)
The Nature Of Matter
“…Will matter then be utterly destroyed or not?”
The Savior replied, “Every nature, every modeled form, every creature, exists in and with each other. They will dissolve again into their own proper root. For the nature of matter is dissolved into what belongs to its nature. Anyone with two ears able to hear should listen!”
The Nature of Sin And The Good
Then Peter said to him, “You have been explaining every topic to us; tell us one other thing. What is the sin of the world?”
The Savior replied, “There is no such thing as sin; rather you yourselves are what produces sin when you act in accordance with the nature of adultery, which is called ‘sin.’ For this reason, the Good came among you, pursuing (the good) which belongs to every nature. It will set it within its root.”
Then he continued. He said, “This is why you get sick and die: because you love what deceives you. Anyone who thinks should consider (these matters)!
“Matter gave birth to a passion which has no Image because it derives from what is contrary to nature. A disturbing confusion then occurred in the whole body. That is why I told you, ‘Become content at heart, while also remaining discontent and disobedient; indeed become contented and agreeable (only) in the presence of that other image of nature.’ Anyone with two ears capable of hearing should listen!”
The Savior’s Farewell
When the Blessed One had said these things, he greeted them all. “Peace be with you!” he said. “Acquire my peace within yourselves!
“Be on your guard so that no one deceives you by saying, ‘Look over here!’ or ‘Look over there!’ For the child of true Humanity exists within you. Follow it! Those who search for it will find it.
“Go then, preach the good news about the Realm. Do not lay down any rule beyond what I determined for you, nor promulgate law like the lawgiver, or else you might be dominated by it.”
After he had said these things, he departed from them.
Mary Comforts The Other Disciples
But they were distressed and wept greatly. “How are we going to go out to the rest of the world to announce the good news about the Realm of the child of true Humanity?” they said. “If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?”
Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, addressing her brothers and sisters, “Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us true human beings.”
When Mary had said these things, she turned their heart toward the Good, and they began to debate about the words of the Savior.
Peter Asks Mary To Teach
Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than all other women. Tell us the words of the Savior that you remember, the things which you know that we don’t because we haven’t heard them.”
Mary responded, “I will teach you about what is hidden from you.” And she began to speak these words to them.
Vision And Mind
She said, “I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to him, ‘Lord, I saw you today in a vision.’”
“He answered me, ‘How wonderful you are for not wavering at seeing me! For where the mind is, there is the treasure.’
“I said to him, ‘So now, Lord, does a person who sees a vision see it with the soul or with the spirit?’
“The Savior answered, ‘A person does not see with the soul or with the spirit. Rather the mind, which exists between these two, sees the vision and that is what…’”
(Pages 11-14 are missing.)
The Ascent Of The Soul
“And Desire said, ‘I did not see you go down, yet now I see you go up. ‘So why do you lie since you belong to me?’
“The soul answered, ‘I saw you. You did not see me nor did you know me. You mis- took the garment I wore for my true self. And you did not recognize me.’
“After it had said these things, it left rejoicing greatly.
“Again, it came to the third Power, which is called ‘Ignorance.’ It examined the soul closely, saying, ‘Where are you going? You are bound by wickedness. Indeed you are bound! Do not judge!’
“And the soul said, ‘Why do you judge me, since I have not passed judgment? I have been bound, but I have not bound (anything). They did not recognize me, but I have recognized that the universe is to be dissolved, both the things of earth and those of heaven.’
“When the soul had brought the third Power to naught, it went upward and saw the fourth Power. It had 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 realm 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.
“They interrogated the soul, ‘Where are you coming from, human-killer, and where arc you going, space-conqueror?’
“The soul replied, saying, ‘What binds me has been slain, and what surrounds me has been destroyed, and my desire has been brought to an end, and ignorance has died. In a world, I was set loose from a world and in a type, from a type which is above, and from the chain of forgetfulness which exists in time. From this hour on, for the time of the due season of the aeon, I will receive rest in silence.’”
After Mary had said these things, she was silent, since it was up to this point that the Savior had spoken to her.
The Disciples’ Dispute Over Mary’s Teaching
Andrew responded, addressing the brothers and sisters, “Say what you will about the things she has said, but I do not believe that the savior said these things, for indeed these teachings are strange ideas.”
Peter responded, bringing up similar concerns. He questioned them about the Savior: “Did he, then, speak with a woman in private without our knowing about it? Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?”
Then Mary wept and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what are you imagining? Do you think that I have thought up these things by myself in my heart or that I am telling lies about the Savior?”
Levi answered, speaking to Peter, “Peter, you have always been a wrathful person. Now I see you contending against the woman like the Adversaries. For if the Savior made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her? Assuredly the Savior’s knowledge of her is completely reliable. That is why he loved her more than us.
“Rather we should be ashamed. We should clothe ourselves with the perfect Human, acquire it for ourselves as he commanded us, and announce the good news, not laying down any other rule or law that differs from what the Savior said.”
“After he had said these things, they started going out to teach and to preach.”
The Gospel according to Mary.
Karen L. King is a scholar of early Christianity and Gnosticism, and in 2009 was appointed the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, the first woman to hold this chair.
From The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, by Karen L. King, © Copyright 2003. Reprinted by permission of Polebridge Press.