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A New Mary Magdalen

FROM THE DETRITUS OF ANCIENT GNOSTICISM

By Anne Barbeau Gardiner | November 2002
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She is author, most recently, of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden's The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press).

There is currently an explosion of Mary Magdalen studies, with a load of books either just published or about to be published on the topic. Why this vogue? I attended a recent feminist conference June 7-9, at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan to find out. It was entitled “Mary Magdalen, Prophet and Apostle in the Miriamic Tradition,” the first offering of the new interreligious Center for Religious Inquiry. About 80 persons came, some of them biblical scholars fluent in ancient tongues, others ordinary people interested in Scripture. This second group was in for a shock. The speakers drew mostly on what they called “non-canonical” or “extra-canonical” texts. No mention was made till later that these works were by Gnostics, who were denounced by ancient Jews and Christians.

A grandmother from New Jersey was at the conference. Early on, she whispered that she’d never heard of the “non-canonical” works being cited. When I said they were mostly Gnostic, she asked what the word meant. Then when she heard that Gnostics believed Jesus had saved us not by His Cross and Resurrection, but by leaving secret knowledge, she wanted to know what that knowledge was about. She laughed aloud on hearing that it was a series of passwords needed after death to pass certain portals and reach the Light. She didn’t need it, she said with a touching simplicity of faith: She knew Jesus would meet her at that time.

The first speaker, Antti Marjanen, from the University of Helsinki, author of The Woman Jesus Loved, spoke of how, in the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, Jesus was said to have loved Mary Magdalen more than the other disciples. Was she His lover, he asked, or just His “most perceptive” disciple? Marjanen’s answer was the latter. He then discussed the Gnostic Gospel of Philip in the Coptic version. In this Gospel, Mary Magdalen is Jesus’ “companion,” and the one He “kisses on the mouth” (but the next day, Stephen Shoemaker observed that the identity of “Mary” in this and other Gnostic texts remains “ambiguous”; she could be Mary of Nazareth). Marjanen explained that “kissing” is a metaphor in this text for transferring spiritual powers, as in the Gnostic Second Apocalypse of James, where secret knowledge is passed on by a kiss. He also defined the beloved in such texts as the one with “deeper understanding” who is able to act as “mediator” to others. In the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, Jesus gives Mary Magdalen a secret revelation for the Apostles. When she brings them the secret, Peter disbelieves her, but Levi, as the Apostle Matthew was referred to throughout the conference, defends her authority because she is the “most beloved.”

At this point Marjanen touched on the major theme of the conference, and I grasped the reason for this vogue in Mary Magdalen studies. The feminists claim that Mary Magdalen was a prophet who received from Jesus a revelation denied to the Twelve and so had a spiritual authority equal to or superior to Peter’s and the other Apostles’. Her conflict with Peter in the Gospel of Mary is supposed to reflect a controversy over female spiritual authority in the early Church. Levi’s defending her against Peter is alleged to reveal that some male dissenters back then recognized the right of women with “spiritual qualifications” to exercise leadership.

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