The Gospel of Mary

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The codex was probably written sometime in the fourth or fifth century. The original texts were undoubtedly written in Greek and probably date to the early second century. One would have expected with such a discovery that there would have been a rush to publish. Unfortunately, publication wouldn't occur until 1955. Some people said it was due to the two world wars. And, by that time, the Nag Hammadi cache had been found, which included two of the texts: The Apocryphon of John and the Sophia of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Mary, however, was not included. Several other fragments of this gospel have been discovered at the Oxyrhynchus site in Lower Egypt, but the codex has the most complete fragments. And it should be pointed out, that fragments are all that remain (to date). Pages 1-6 and 11-14 of the codex are missing. Scholars, however, are eager to point out that finding several corroborating fragments suggests that the Gospel of Mary was well known and had a wide circulation. Nonetheless, the reality is that over half of the Gospel is simply missing.

This is not to suggest, however, that the Gospel is unimportant. Indeed, it portrays a whole new understanding of Jesus' life. Its premise is that the disciple will discover his or her inner spiritual knowledge from Jesus' teachings, and that that is what leads to eternal life – not salvation through Jesus' death and resurrection. It also shows Mary as an active disciple, and perhaps even as Jesus' primary disciple.

Having said that, however, it is important to note that scholars don't know for certain exactly which Mary is being described. There are several to choose from. The most likely candidate is Mary Magdalene. She is known to have been one of Jesus' disciples. She was among the women who stayed at the cross, and is mentioned as one of the women who went to the tomb when the Sabbath had ended. She was also the first witness to Jesus' resurrection (John 20:14-16; Mark 16:9).

Other non-canonical writings also indicate that Mary Magdalene was the aforementioned disciple. The Gospel of Philip reiterates the final scene in the Gospel of Mary, and he has identified the woman as Mary Magdalene. In Pistis Sophia, she is also identified as Mary Magdalene. Yet, some scholars remain unconvinced.

The gospel itself begins on page 7 at chapter 4:21. The first 6 pages are missing, which included chapters 1-3. That means the setting and the circumstance are lost. We begin in the middle of a scene with the provoking question: "Will matter then be destroyed or not?" It appears to be a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples. Scholars assume this was a post-resurrection appearance and conversation. Peter appears to be the one asking questions. What follows is a discussion on the nature of matter and sin. Matter and spirit are intertwined at the moment, but eventually the material world will end. When Peter asked, "What is the sin of the world?," Jesus replied that there is no sin, other than adultery. People forego their spiritual natures and succumb to the passions of their bodies and the world. (Scholars think this might be an indication of the ascetic lifestyle of Jesus' followers.) Jesus' teachings conclude with the admonition: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

After saying these things, Jesus encouraged them to go out and preach the gospel of the Kingdom and not to lay down any rules beyond what he had appointed to them. They should "not give a law like a lawgiver lest they be constrained by it." Then he departed.

This did not go over well with the apostles. At the beginning of chapter 5, they are grieved, and they "wept greatly." They are very apprehensive and say that if they go out to preach, the authorities might do the same to them that they had done to Jesus. In short, they would be putting their own lives on the line.

This is where Mary steps in and assures them that Jesus will be with them, protecting them. "She turned their hearts to the good." Peter acknowledges that Jesus loved her more than other women, and he asks her to tell them the words of Jesus' that had been given only to her. Mary is only too happy to comply. She begins with the vision she had of the Lord. It begins with the question whether one sees the vision through the soul or the spirit. Jesus had answered that it was through the mind "and it is…."

Unfortunately, it is at this point that more pages are missing.

The text resumes at chapter 8:10 in the middle of her vision, which seems to be about a soul going through various levels on its way to eternity. It passes through seven forms: The first form involved darkness; the second was desire; the third was ignorance; the fourth is excitement of death; the fifth is the kingdom of the flesh; the sixth is the foolish wisdom of flesh; and the seventh is the wrathful wisdom. These are summarized as the seven powers of wrath.

In the vision, someone asks the soul whether it comes as a slayer of men or where it is going. The soul responds that it is no longer bound – desire has ended; ignorance has died. It has been released from the world and from "this time on I will attain to the rest of the time, of the season, of the aeon, in silence." At which point, Mary fell silent.

The apostle, Andrew, questioned whether the Lord had really said these things to her because the ideas seemed so strange. Peter agreed with him, adding that he doubted that the Lord would have spoken such things to "a woman" and not to them. The crux of his question is: "Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?" Even though he had asked her to share her revelation with them, he apparently did not expect such exalted teachings. No doubt he felt threatened by her leadership.

Needless to say, this was very upsetting to Mary. She asked whether he really believed that she was making it all up. Levi came to her defense and pointed out that Peter always had been "hot tempered." Now he was even contending against the woman, treating her like an adversary. But if Jesus really had spoken these things to her, did Peter want to be the one who would reject them. Obviously, the Lord had known her very well. "That is why he loved her more than us." They should all put on the "perfect man" and go out as he commanded, preaching the gospel and not laying down any other rule or law beyond what the Lord had said. Levi was convincing, and they all went off to preach.

While some scholars debate whether or not this is to be interpreted as a Gnostic text, others claim the biggest impact is found in the last paragraph. Mary claimed she had a private revelation from Jesus. Peter and Andrew had a hard time believing that. Levi assumes it's true because "Jesus loved her more than us." What would this mean for the early church?

Modern fiction has suggested that Mary and Jesus had a relationship, that they might even have been married with a child. Scholars doubt this because Mary is never referred to in the context of Jesus. She is known as Mary from Magdala. Jesus was from Nazareth. Had they been married, the tradition should have referred to her in some way as the wife of Jesus. This never happens, not even in any of the apocryphal writings.

But that does not end the controversy over Mary. By the second century (when this gospel was probably written down), women had already been relegated to a subservient position in the church. 1 Timothy was canonized and included the verses: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent…women will be saved through childbearing -- if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety" (2:12, 15). In the subsequent chapter, the definition and duties of a deacon are clearly directed only to the men. Peter was apparently not the only one having a hard time believing Jesus would have given such teachings to a woman instead of his male apostles.

Scholarship and controversy over the Gospel of Mary will continue. But, its existence puts forth a strong witness to the fact that women were early leaders in the church. And Mary might have been more influential than we could ever imagine. Her revelation is lost – for now. But, it totally rewrites the notion that all was harmonious and unanimous in the early church. There was great diversity of ideas; warnings against abuse of power; and a vision of the potential for spiritual perfection.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha