The Gospel of Philip

By Mary Jane Chaignot

This Gospel is attributed to Philip primarily because he is the only named Apostle. Nothing in the text explicitly states that he wrote this book, but scholars are quick to point out that none of the canonical Gospels explicitly name their authors, either. This gospel was probably written between 150 to 300 CE. The Apostle Philip purportedly died around 80 CE, making it unlikely that he was the actual writer. On the other hand, many of these books had a long oral tradition before they were written down, and no one can be certain that Philip was not the author of these teachings.

The book is very difficult to understand primarily because it is neither a narrative nor a simple sayings collection. It is comprised of mythical reflections that might have been parts of larger documents, whether these were sermons, lessons, or theological treatises. Because of this, there is no context for understanding these reflections.

Still, some points are easy to discern. The writer is clear that there is a major difference between those who understand and those who don't, those who are mature and those who are not, those who have insider knowledge and those who don't. Those who "don't" are called Hebrews and those who "do" are called Gnostics or Gentiles. At stake in these categories are traditional claims relating to the virgin birth, Jesus' resurrection, and various other factual points. According to the Gnostics, these events certainly have symbolic value, but they aren't necessarily historical.

Perhaps this book is most famous for its views on marriage and for suggesting that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. Scholars point out that this idea is not specifically stated, but several translators have described Mary Magdalene as Jesus' lover. One notable passage states, "Jesus loved Mary Magdalene more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on [….]." It's not all that much of a stretch to insert the word "mouth" in the hole that exists in the papyrus at that point. Though this does not prove they were married, it suggests that Jesus and Mary had a unique relationship.

It helps to know how Gnostics as well as the Hebrew people thought about kissing. That it occurred on the mouth was essential for their understanding. The mouth was the source and outlet for breath; so kissing on the mouth united the breath of each party. The breaths joined and fused together, becoming one. The Hebrew word kiss means to breathe together, to share the same breath. Since the word for breath is the same as the word for Spirit, one would essentially be saying that those who kiss are borne together by the same Spirit.

It also says in the Gospel that "man and woman unite in the bridal chamber, and those who have known this sacred embrace will never be separated." That brings us to the concept of the bridal chamber. There are 26 references in this book to the "bridal chamber." Sadly, there is no specific definition of the term. In fact, in several instances, both the bridal chamber and marriage are referred to as a mystery. And this might be one of those times where someone had to be a full-fledged member to even understand how the language was being used. Scholars are still working on that. Some have asked, was there an actual "bridal chamber" ritual? And if so, what was it for and what did it look like?

Irenaeus, writing in the second century, surely thought there was a ritual. He claimed that "they" [followers of this tradition] prepared a bridal chamber, and then performed a mystic rite with initiates. In some sense, this was like a "spiritual marriage." It was clear, however, that the ritual of the bridal chamber was superior to all of the other sacraments. Some scholars have likened the five sacraments to the structure of the temple. As one moves through them individually, it is like a person moving through the courtyards of the temple. Each successive courtyard is closer to the divine presence. If there is any validity to this, then it is significant that the bridal chamber is mentioned last on the list, and is most frequently likened to the "holy of holies," the most sacred place to which only the designated priest had access. If this describes a spiritual journey, then, according to the Gospel of Philip, the journey begins with baptism and culminates in the bridal chamber. The purpose of this journey would result in the transformation of the person, who would then receive the light needed to enter eternity.

All this suggests that the journey involving the bridal chamber relates only to the individual. Yet, this gospel also claims that the problems brought upon humanity by Adam and Eve are rectified in the bridal chamber. The union of man and woman is the holy of holies. God is present at that moment. His Spirit, his breath is united with them. Unlike some who think the union of man and woman is the most carnal of acts, this gospel celebrates it. The presence of the Holy Spirit results in the birth of more beings capable of knowing and worshipping the true God. What could be more Godlike than that? Because this might be a bit avant-garde for biblical scholarship, some commentators argue this is all in reference to a spiritual venue, and they resist the notion that Philip might be referring to actual sexual relations between couples. No doubt, more study in this area is required.

Since there is no continuity between the pericopes in this gospel, it would be a serious disservice to pick out a statement here or there and claim it was representative of the gospel as a whole. In isolation, such statements can be very misleading. Suffice it to say that people were inspired by these texts for centuries. Perhaps the larger issue is how modern-day thinkers engage with these Gnostic texts, because this is now one of several gospels that have been described as part of a "Gnostic" collection. It is a phrase that is bantered around a lot, and, for the most part, scholars are less and less sure what it actually means. Things were different in the first century. At that time, Gnosticism was a segment of the early Church. Its proponents claimed not only to believe in Christ and his message, but also to have had special knowledge relating to the divine. They believed that the truths of existence were knowable, and that, in fact, knowing these truths was the goal of all humanity. It was a knowing that wasn't rational or logical, but rather a knowing that grew out of experience. They didn't dwell on dogma nor did they have a coherent theology. They truly believed that revelation was a dynamic process. Theirs wasn't a totally unique position in the ancient world, but they were assuredly and happily pursuing it – believing in the power of individual revelation and knowledge.

Gnosticism was borne out of the idea that within every person is something uncreated. This uncreated "spark" was the individual's authentic reality – call it consciousness, intelligence or inspiration. This was not a part of their fleshly body; it was not tainted by sin. Rather, it was of God; man, obviously, was not God, yet there was something Godlike within him. To the extent that someone really understood this, he/she was free. This thinking led to an understanding of a duality of Gods. One God made the physical body, the material world, and everything in it. Obviously, this was described as a "lesser" god; some wouldn't even call this creator by the name "god." Others claimed this was the Old Testament God, the one who stood over against the spiritual God. It was this spiritual God who created man's essence; this one was the real "God." This is the God that we have come to know through the teachings and revelation of Jesus Christ. This is the God that is accessible to us at the deepest level. This is the God that we are striving to know, and to the extent that we can know ourselves, we will know this God. This is the essence of Gnosis.

And why should we study these texts? For one thing, they help us to know our origins. The Christianity that we know now is primarily institutional and doctrinal. For all the good that it has done and is doing, Christianity, at best, has had a checkered history. To go back in time, to the beginning, is to find ourselves in "a space of freedom, without dogmatism, a space of awe before the event that was manifested in the person, the deeds, and the words of the Teacher from Galilee. ….human beings are defined above all, not by their reason, but by their capacity of imagination. Imagination is at the deepest root of what it means to be human….When this faculty of imagination is not kept alive, there is no more story to be told…It is up to humans to give things meaning…The Gospel of Philip affords us an opportunity for reflection, imagination, and meditation regarding certain aspects of Christianity that are sometimes hidden." (Leloup, Jean-Yves. The Gospel of Philip. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions. 2003. pp. 13-14) Surely, such reflection is a noble work.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha