Mary Magdalene is a towering yet enigmatic figure in historical Gnosticism, from the Nag Hammadi texts to the folklore of the Cathars, from the polemics of the church fathers to the theology of modern Gnostic churches. Far beyond the orthodox version of a penitent sinner or soft porn projection for medieval artists, the Gnostics presented Mary Magdalene as a spiritual visionary, a religious leader, and perhaps the main disciple of Christ. The Gnostic Gospel Dialogue of Savior even proclaims her as the “woman who understood completely.”
There’s something about Mary, and according to the Gnostics that “something” was that she had the Gnosis.
Mary Magdalene’s Gnosis is displayed in full in the Gospel of Mary. Contrary to popular belief, the Gospel of Mary is not found in the Nag Hammadi library (although most versions include it). A more complete version of this gospel can be found in the Berlin Codex, originally discovered in the late 19th century in Upper Egypt. Within its well-preserved pages, Mary Magdalene shares a mystic vision with the other disciples regarding the heavenly realms. She is portrayed as a leader, comforting and guiding the apostles after the ostensible death of Jesus, even if her role is challenged by Simon Peter (a popular Gnostic cipher for Orthodoxy).
Some scholars like Karen King contend the Gospel of Mary does not originate from any Gnostic school of thought but originating from a Platonic corner of early Christianity. Others, like April DeConick, see the text as a Valentinian work. Most scholars do agree it’s heavily tinged with Stoic philosophy. As far as the dating goes, most academics place it in the middle to late 2nd century.
Sadly, much of the beginning and middle are missing from the Gospel of Mary. Yet deconstruction and filling those dark niches of any censorship is a Classic Gnostic aspect, and Robert Price does exactly this in his book, The Pre-Nicene New Testament. In less poetic terms, Bob adeptly reconstructs the Gospel of Mary, drawing from the theologies and literary devices of Middle Platonic Gnostic Christians such as the Valentinians and Sethians. He rebuilds the text by taking the natural trajectory of two prevalent Gnostic myths:
- The ascension of the disembodied soul through the heavenly realms guarded by angelic or demonic gatekeepers.
- The mysteries imparted to the awakened by a hierophant or Gnostic Revealer.
Bob explains that the Gnostic concept of providing an astral map of extraterrestrial domains has its origins in:
Babylonian astrology and Mithraism, but it was no doubt made real by the visions of ascetics who, alone in their desert cells, strove mightily against the demons of temptation. We read of such warfare in ‘The Life of Saint Anthony,’ for example. If one faces demonic opposition already in the visionary ascent before death, it is reasonable to assume an externalized version would await the ascending soul afterward. The lore of Merkabah mystics tells us so, too, where visionaries recounted assaults by angels as they sought the throne room of God on high.
Bob synopsizes Mary Magdalene’s as:
A symbolic figurehead for Gnostic and other sects who claimed her as their authorization. She clearly takes the place of the divine consort who resurrects the dying god in various salvation myths, the Christian version of Cybele, Isis, Ishtar, and Anath. But she may represent an early historic apostolic figure, as well. In any case, we must assume her place was important enough that even her enemies could not simply omit her from their own gospels, though they were happy to denounce her as a demoniac and whore, making her little more than Celsus had: an untrustworthy, ‘hysterical female’ whose recorded teaching no one ought to credit.
It’s time to give Mary Magdalene credit because there’s just something about her. No better place to start and end that with her gospel.
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
(Translation and commentary kindly granted by Robert M. Price. His reconstruction is presented in italics)
1 On the third day after his suffering the Savior appeared to his disciples, who were all gathered at the Mount of Olives. 2 And when he had quieted their doubts he began to teach them as follows: “My brothers and sisters, long have I wished to make known to you the deeper truths which you must know if your souls are to find salvation, but till now your ears were prevented from hearing them. 3 For your hearts were one with that world unto which I have just now died and from which I have been forever raised. 4 And your minds have been raised with me, so that they are now able to comprehend what you could not abide hearing before. 5 I have wrested you from the grasp of the Archon of this world, that you may hear the words a disciple ought to hear from his teacher and a mortal ought to hear from his God.”
1 And Peter grew bold and asked, “Lord, tell us concerning the Father. Who is he? And why did he send you?” 2 And Jesus answered, “Simon, you are blessed, for you do not suppose you know that which must be a mystery to all flesh. 3 For my Father is not the maker of the world of matter which you see around you, a world that is filled with death and despair, 4 but which, seeing with the fever of the flesh and its desire, mortals deem full of every delight and comfort and so waste their lives in pursuit of illusions. 5 No, all these things only enslave mankind to the material creator. 6 My Father is exalted high above this one, whence he is called the Most High God. 7 For no one speaks of anything as ‘the highest,’ unless there be others below it.
1 “And you mortals are partly his creations, in that he has fashioned the body from unclean foulness. 2 But your souls he has stolen from the Light-World of my Father. 3 With them he has imparted to your flesh bodies an appearance of life, which is but a shadow of the life you knew in the Pleroma of the Most High. 4 Here you abide in ignorance, never knowing either your origin or your destiny. 5 And for lack of that knowledge you perish and are reborn into new bodies time and again, so long as the way out be hidden from you. 6 And that is why the Father sent me into the world, in the likeness of your flesh, that I might make known these truths to you.”
1 Andreas asked, “O Savior, what shall we then make of the things you said to the multitude, which differ not so very greatly from what they have heard from their scribes?” 2 And the Savior answered, “Let them be, O Andreas. Some of them may yet discover that they harbor the spark of Light within them, and then they will seek what I tell you now. 3 Others cannot, but my Father loves them, and he has bidden me to impart to them such wisdom as they can grasp to mitigate the harshness of him who created this world and gave the commandments to the Legislator. 4 You will find nothing false in them, and yet they are mute as to the salvation of your spirits.”
1 Levi asked the Savior, “My Lord, what then of the sufferings you endured, and the death you died?” 2 And the Savior answered, “I suffered and I did not suffer. I died and I died not. 3 For all the designs of the evil Archons wrought was to free me of the shameful clothing of matter I had assumed for the sake of my sojourn in this world. 4 For long and long I bade you keep my identity secret, but the demon Powers knew, and finally they had me crucified. 5 But they did not suspect they would be the very cause of my deliverance. 6 And the reason I suffered these indignities was for the sake of those without true spirits, 7 that, being lifted up, I might draw them away from the Creator and bring them within the hearing of the News of me that you will proclaim. 8 Many of them shall be called, though few chosen.”
1 Salome asked him, “What shall be the end of all things, and will only a few be saved?” 2 The Savior told her, “O mother of Jacob and John, your curiosity is as great as that of Sophia who desired to peer behind the veil of the Pleroma! 3 Amen, I tell you: the News of the Kingdom of Light will be preached throughout this sublunar world, 4 and in the world below, and those who hear will escape the wheel of death and birth when they die. 5 Their souls shall ascend and, if they are wise, they shall pass by the Rulers of the heavenly spheres. 6 And once the full number of the elect shall be thus redeemed, all who shelter within their makeup the divine Light of my Father, the matter that imprisoned them will fall back into the state of virgin clay with no likeness impressed upon it. 7 Finally all the creation of the Creator will return to lifelessness.”
1 Simon Peter asked, “Then matter will be destroyed, or not?” 2 The Savior replied, “All natures, all forms, all creatures exist both within and alongside each other, and they will finally be reduced down to their individual roots. 3 For the nature of matter is reduced to those of its particular nature. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” 4 Peter said to him, “Having explained all things to us, tell us this, too: What is the original sin of the world?” 5 The Savior answered, “There is no sin per se; rather, it is you yourselves who make a thing sinful when you perform the acts that partake of adulteration, which alone is properly termed ‘sin.’ 7 That is why the Good came among you, to purify every nature, in order to restore it to its original state.” 8 Then he went on, saying, “This is the reason you [grow ill] and die, for the spirit ever seeks escape from admixture with the body of death of the one who is not yet enlightened. [He who] understands, let him understand. 9 [Matter gave birth to] a passion without equal, which emerged from an abomination against nature. From this arose a trembling throughout the whole body. 10 That is why I once said to you: ‘Be of good cheer!’ 11 and if you should grow disheartened take heart, surrounded by the various forms of being. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
1 When the Blessed One had thus spoken, he saluted them all, saying, “Peace to you! Receive my peace in your hearts. 2 Watch out that no one lead you astray, saying, ‘Lo, here!’ or ‘Lo, there!’ For the Son of Man is within you! Follow in his path! Whoever seeks him will find him. 3 So go from here and proclaim the News of the Kingdom. 4 See that you stipulate no rules beyond those I ordained for you, and do not promulgate a law code like the Legislator did so that you will avoid being tied in knots with it.” 5 After saying these words, he left them. But they mourned the loss of him. 6 They collapsed in tears, asking, “How are we supposed to go to the nations and proclaim the News of the kingship of the Son of Man? 7 If they had no mercy on him, they will hardly spare us!”
1 Then Mary rose to her feet, saluted them all, and spoke to her brothers: “Stop your weeping! 2 Do not mourn or waver, for his favor will accompany you to protect you. 3 No, instead, let us extol his greatness, seeing that he has trained us and transformed us into men.” [Thomas 114] 4 When Mary said this, she moved their hearts to repentance, and they commenced to discuss what the Savior had said.
1 Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we are aware of how the Savior loved you more than any other woman. 2 Tell us the things the Savior said that you remember, the things you know but that we do not, that we have never heard.” 3 Mary answered them, saying, “What is hidden from you, I will surely disclose to you.” 4 And she commenced to speak to them these words: “I,” she said, “even I, beheld the Lord in a vision, and I said to him, ‘Lord, I behold you today in a vision!’ 5 He answered and said to me, ‘Blessed are you for not quailing at the sight of me! For where the mind is, there, too, will be the treasure.’ 6 I answered him, ‘Lord, how does the visionary see the vision: with the soul, or with the spirit?’ 7 The Savior answered, saying, ‘It is not with the soul that one sees, nor yet through the spirit, but by the mind which [lies] between the two. This is [what] sees the vision, and it is that by which I am speaking with you now, O Mary.’
1 “And I asked him, ‘O Lord, we know that you will leave us to ascend to the realm of Light whence you first came. 2 And it is there we wish to join you, that we may no longer be orphans in this world. But we know not the way where you are about to go. 3 Do not hasten to depart, O Savior, without revealing the unseen path to the Father that every soul must tread if it would leave behind the unwholesome mixing with matter in the day the flesh loosens its grip.’ 4 And the Savior said to me, ‘O Mary, I shall show you the way that you must go, so that in the day when your brothers ask you of these things, you will know that which you and they alike must needs know for the attainment of true salvation, 5 and that we may be rejoined in the House of Light on high, whence all the souls of the elect first came. 6 ‘First, know this: the way is simple, but not unbarred. It winds through the seven heavenly spheres, and each of these is jealously watched by its guardian and toll-collector, ever vigilant to receive his due. 7 When I myself descended from the Pleromatic Light, I disguised myself, donning the likeness and nature of each Archon and of his realm, so that I passed freely among the denizens thereof. 8 And I changed vesture again and again with each world I passed through, like the actor who changes vesture with every new scene. 9 Presently, as you know, I shall return whence I came, and I must strip off each outer layer, even seven bodies each of a different substance, leaving each robe hanging limp in the hands of the Archon ruling each sphere. 10 You and your brothers will not be able so easily to evade the craft of the Archons. 11 But though they are vigilant, it is no great thing to outwit them, provided one knows which words will overcome them.’
1 “And withal, he showed me in my vision the soul of the Redeemed, the one knowing of his origin and destiny. 2 That soul arose as a spark from a campfire into the cold night. 3 Having sloughed off the smothering body of gross flesh, it continued to rise until at length the soul came to the first of the Powers, even him who is named Darkness, who spoke thus to him: ‘Proceed no farther, transgressor!’ 4 And the soul answered, ‘Why? In what have I sinned against you?’ 5 And Darkness replied, ‘In that my kingdom is a kingdom of darkness, and no one who lights the torch of knowledge is permitted here! 6 Now let us extinguish your painful light, that all may return to the peaceful sleep of ignorance.’ 7 And that soul answered, ‘No, O Darkness, but those who sleep your sleep do so only because they are first ignorant of your guile! 7 But of this the Savior has warned me!’ And thus did it elude the Power of Darkness, rejoicing to be free from another nature, that of worldly ignorance.
1 “After a time that soul passed into the sphere of the Archon of Desire, that which causes the natures to mix and which seeks to awaken in the fleeing soul a fondness for those false delights it left behind on earth, so that it might return there. 2 And Desire himself was there in an instant, speaking to it, saying, ‘Who are you? And whence come you’ 3 And the soul said, ‘I am of the seed of the Living Father and do not belong to this world. 4 Hinder me not, as I seek but to return to the place whence I first came!’ Thus he spoke to it. 5 And Desire said to that soul, ‘I never saw you descending, but now I behold you ascending! What makes you lie? You are mine!’ 6 The soul replied, saying, ‘I saw you, but you did not see me, or notice me. You saw nothing but my vesture, and you did not know me.’ 7 When it had said these words, it fled away in great joy. [Whence did Gnostics derive the notion that they must battle evil Archons and angels on their way to heaven? It was an old piece of eschatology stemming from Babylonian astrology and Mithraism, but it was no doubt made real by the hallucinatory visions of ascetics who, alone in their desert cells, strove mightily against the demons, who represented temptation. We read of such warfare in The Life of Saint Anthony, for example. If one faces such demonic opposition already in the visionary ascent before death, it is reasonable to assume an externalized version awaits the ascending soul afterward. The lore of Merkabah mystics tells us so, too, where visionaries recounted assaults by angels as they sought the throne room of God on high. See Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (NY: Schocken Books, 1973), pp. 50, 51-52.]
8 “Next it encountered the third Power, which is named Ignorance. It interrogated the soul, and it said, ‘And where do you think you are going? 9 Do you deserve to enter heaven? In the chains of wickedness you are captive! You, a prisoner, dare not judge me!’ 10 And the soul replied, ‘And who are you to judge me so? I have not condemned you! In truth, I was chained to the flesh, though now I am free. 11 I was not recognized. But I have come to recognize that the All is being deconstructed, both the earthly elements and the heavenly ones.’
12 “When the soul had triumphed over the third Power, it ascended and beheld the fourth Power, which assumed seven likenesses. 13 The first of the likenesses is Darkness, the second Desire, the third Ignorance; the fourth is the Terror of Death; the fifth is the Reign of the Flesh; the sixth is the deluded ‘wisdom’ of the flesh; the seventh is the vengeance of Wisdom. 14 These are the Seven Wrathful [Powers]. They question the soul: ‘Whence come you, murderer? Where are you headed, space-traveler?’ 15 For its part, the soul answered, saying, ‘What held me captive has indeed been killed, and what enveloped me has been defeated, and my desire has been extinguished, and ignorance has expired. 16 In the midst of a [world] I was set free from a world and, freed from a pattern of death, I received deliverance from a heavenly prototype, deliverance from the chain of oblivion which passes away. 17 Henceforward I shall win my way to that repose where no one speaks of time, of season, of age.'”
1 After these words, Mary was quiet. [Appropriately Mary has fallen silent with the mention of eternal Silence.] She had reached the end of what the Savior had said to her. [Why did the Savior leave her wondering about the last three Powers? He didn’t, since the fourth implicitly contains all seven, and he is dealt with handily.] 2 But Andreas spoke up, saying to the brothers, “Make what you will of what she has said. 3 I, for one, do not believe the Savior said this. For indeed these doctrines are full of bizarre notions!” 4 Peter answered and said the same thing. He challenged them about the Savior: “Did he really speak with a woman without us knowing it? [John 4:27] And in secret? 5 Are we now supposed to change direction and all be taught by her? Did he prefer her to us?” 6 At this Mary cried and said to Peter, “My brother Peter, what is it you suppose? Do you think I made this up in my imagination? Are you accusing me of lying about the Savior?” 7 Levi answered, saying to Peter, “Peter, you have always been a hot-head. Now I am watching you fight against the women as if they were our enemies. 8 But if the Savior himself made her worthy, [Thomas 114] who are you, really, to dismiss her? 9 Surely the Savior knows her quite well. After all, he loved her more than us! [Gospel of Philip 63:33-37; 64:1-5a] 10 Instead, we ought to be ashamed of ourselves and don the perfect manhood and secure him for ourselves, [I.e., the Son of Man within, as in 8:15-16.] 11 as he ordered us, and proclaim the News, promulgating no other rule or law in addition to what the Savior himself said.” [That, of course, is just the issue here: should Mary’s surprising revelations be considered part and parcel of the authentic deposit of the Savior’s teaching, to which no addition need be made? Or does it represent subsequent teaching someone is trying to smuggle in under the wire? Peter and Andreas think the latter, reflecting the Catholic/Orthodox dismissal of Gnostic revelations as “dangerous supplements” that would supplant what they pretend to complete.] 12 When Levi said this, they all mustered their courage and they commenced to 2 go out to proclaim and [to] announce the News.
The Gospel according to Mary