Mainstream Christianity has many views of Mary Magdalene. She is a penitent sinner, a redeemed prostitute, the first witness to the Resurrection, the messenger to the Apostles, and a source of erotic inspiration for artists throughout history. Mary Magdalene is a complex, misunderstood, and marginalized figure in Orthodoxy, a symbol for the plight of females within the Christian religion.
But in Gnosticism her role is clearly defined—Mary Magdalene is not only the main Apostle to the living Christ but a Gnostic leader for the ages.
This declaration is perhaps ironic since Gnostics have a tendency to continually re-interpret and re-evaluate Biblical characters to suit their spiritual explorations. But there’s something about Mary.
One of the most thorough expositions on the Gnostic Mary Magdalene comes from Jane Schaberg’s The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene. Schaberg lists nine characteristics that define the consort of Jesus Christ, as she is known in Gnostic and Apocryphal texts:
1) Mary is Prominent. The Magdalene is a main protagonist whenever she appears. In The Dialogue of the Savior, Mary is considered a “sister,” an equal to those entrusted with spreading the light of Gnosis. In The Gospel of Philip, she is one who “always walks with the Lord,” a privilege only enjoyed by Enoch and Noah in the entire Bible. Mary replaces the two Patriarchs of the Old Testament as a favorite of the Divine in the new dispensation. In The Pistis Sophia, Mary is the most outstanding student of Jesus, the chief questionnaire who gives the most insightful answers.
2) Mary Thrives in a World of Androcentric Language and Patriarchal Rules. A perfect example is found in The Gospel of Thomas, Saying #114:
‘Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.”
Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.”
This may appear like a misogynistic interaction between Jesus and Simon Peter. Yet the passage is a classic belief that an enlightened individual comprises both male and female aspects. This is evident because the word used for male in Greek is anthropos, which has the context of a complete, fulfilled human being. Mary Magdalene will be given the godly form of Plato’s Hermaphrodite or the image of God in Genesis that man enjoyed before being split into genders.
In The Acts of Philip, Mary outwits her oppressive culture by dressing up as a man in order to teach and baptize the faithful. This scripture places Mary as the actual sister of the Apostle Philip (another favorite hero of the Gnostics); and in the end her courage and faith are stronger than her sibling’s.
3) Mary is Bold in Her Speech. Schaberg writes that Mary has been given a voice that is “powerful, insistent, and courageous (p. 141).” In Gnostic narratives, she is almost always confident in dialogue, speech, or teaching. Mary’s conviction is never in doubt.
In The Pistis Sophia, Jesus tells her, “speak open and do not fear.” For her insights and wisdom, Jesus tells her, “Mary, thou blessed one, who I will complete in all the mysteries.”
In The Dialogue with The Savior, Mary comes out and tells Jesus, “I want to understand all things, just as they are!”
In The Didascalia Apostolorum, Mary laughs during the Last Supper. When she is scolded by the Apostle John, she shoots back:
I did not really laugh, only I remembered the words of our Lord and I exulted; for ye know that he told us before, when he was teaching: the weak shall be saved through the strong.
4) Mary is seen as a leader. Jesus often grants her authority and often Mary takes authority onto herself. In The Sophia of Jesus Christ, the Savior tells all the disciples, including Mary, that “I have given you authority over all things as Sons of Light.”
In The First Apocalypse of James, Mary is one of the four women that serves “as a model for how James is supposed to go about his own mission.” The text further says that Mary has“become strong by a perception that which is in them (the other female disciples).”
In The Pistis Sophia, Jesus says:
But Mary Magdalene and John the virgin will surpass all my disciples and all men who shall receive mysteries in the Ineffable, they will be on my right hand and on my left.
5) Mary is a Visionary. She possesses the powers of prophecy and sight into the astral worlds. In The Gospel of Mary, after comforting the Apostles because of the departure of Christ, she tells them, “What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you.”
In The Great Question of Mary, Jesus allows her to see an erotic but very symbolical vision that reveals she is the new, improved Eve. In The Pistis Sophia, Mary both experiences and interprets mystical visions.
6) Mary is praised for her superior understanding. In The Dialogue with The Savior, Mary is described as “the woman who understood completely.”
In several Gnostic accounts like The Pistis Sophia or The Manichaean Psalm Book, she is continuously praised by Jesus for her perception.
In The Acts of Philip, her brother Philip tells her, “I know that you are good and courageous soul and blessed among women.”
7) Mary is Identified as the Intimate Companion of Jesus. The Gospel of Philip declares that Jesus “loved her more than the other disciples.” Although this passage has been used as evidence of a carnal relationship between Jesus and Mary, the Gnostic interpretation would see them as two twin beings that were spiritually actualized. Schaberg explains that Mary “is loved by the Savior because in contrast to the other disciples she is not blind, but sees the light (P. 150).”
The Gospel of Philip also identifies her as the “companion” of The Lord, a title that is not used for any other character in Gnostic works.
In The Gospel of Mary, Peter tells Mary that Jesus “loved you more than the rest of the women.” Schaberg states that, in essence, just as Mary has been proclaimed the restored Eve, Jesus is the restored Adam; and both share in a state of wholeness before the fall (P. 154).
The Manichaean Psalm Book says that Mary “is the spirit of wisdom” and “chosen by the Son.”
8) Mary is Opposed by and in Open Conflict with One or More of the Disciples. This is an obvious symbolism between Gnosticism and Orthodoxy, as already revealed by the remarks of Peter in The Gospel of Thomas, saying #114 (quoted above).
In Gnostic narratives, Peter often symbolizes Orthodox Christianity and intolerance in general. In The Acts of Philip, Peter is “the man who fled from all places where there is a woman.” In The Acts of Peter, the first Pope paralyzes his own daughter in order for her to remain a virgin.
The Pistis Sophia has Peter opposing Mary three times. In one passage he says, “We are not able to suffer this woman who takes the opportunity from us.” Peter also adds, “My Lord, let the women cease to question, that we may also question.” Mary later tells Jesus, “I am afraid of Peter, for he threatens me and hates our race (the Gnostics).”
Although Jesus mediates in most of these gospels, The Gospel of Mary contains a scene where Peter and his brother Andrew bully her for being a woman and the preferred of Christ. Schaberg explains that the Apostles dislike her because Mary is “the knower, the one who understands, the one who is sensual and wise, sensitive and emotional (P. 162).”
9) Mary is defended. The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Thomas and The Pistis Sophiahave Jesus defending Mary Magdalene.
In The Gospel of Mary, the Apostle Levi (representing moderate Christianity) stands up for her honor against Peter and Andrew.
In The Manichaean Psalm Book, Jesus coaches his companion on how to modify her message when she is scorned. In The Epistula Apostorum, Jesus personally goes with Mary after his resurrection to scold Peter, who does not believe the Savior would have risen before a female first.
Beyond all titles and attributes, the Gnostic gospels reveal Mary Magdalene as someone who truly cultivated Gnosis (divine knowledge/self-knowledge/knowledge of all realities). And above all titles and attributes, Mary and Jesus are not only the new Adam and Eve but the lower incarnations of the Cosmic Christ and Holy Sophia. They are joint heroes in the Gnostic epic, as well as the two pieces of the puzzle in finding spiritual liberation despite the fundamentalist forces around them.
Mary Magdalene, in both the Bible and art, is certainly a captivating figure. But this Mary is simply a small fraction of a figure that is truly both a religious and inspirational cosmic force.
There’s certainly something about Mary. And that is the pathway to Gnosis.