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Mary Magdalen in Gnostic Tradition

Mary Magdalen in Gnostic Tradition

In some Gnostic sects, emphasis was laid on the feminine in religion. In Gnostic myths Mary Magdalen was portrayed as a key figure among Jesus’ disciples. She helped to highlight various aspects of this feminine mystery. I present here only a short outline of Mary’s role.

The use of feminine imagery to describe God

One group of gnostic sources claims to have received a secret tradition from Jesus through James and through Mary Magdalene. Part of the revelation seems to have implied belief that God is both male and female. They did not understand this is a crude sense. The divine was thought of as consisting, in one part, of the Ineffable, the Depth, the Primal Father; and in the other, of Grace, Silence, the Womb and Mother of All. Members of this group prayed to both the divine Father and Mother: ‘From Thee, Father, and through Thee, Mother, the two immortal names, Parents of the divine being, and thou, dweller in heaven, humanity, of the mighty name . ..’

Hippolytus (170-236 AD), Refutationis Omnium Haeresium 5.6.

Women disciples were seen as having an intimate relationship to Christ

The figure of Mary Magdalen foreshadows the prominent spiritual leadership given by women in some Gnostic communities.

* “. . . the companion of the [Savior is] Mary Magdalene. [But Christ loved] her more than [all] the disciples and used to kiss her [often] on her [mouth]. The rest of [the disaples were offended by it . . .. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you as [I love her?]”

Gospel of Philip 63.32 - 64.5; Nag Hammadi Library p. 138.

* The Dialogue of the Savior not only includes Mary Magdalene as one of three disciples chosen to receive special teaching but also praises her above the other two, Thomas and Matthew: ‘... she spoke as a woman who knew the All’.

Dialogue of the Saviour 139.12-13; Nag Hammadi Library, p. 235

Women at times assumed ministries and leadership roles equal to that of men

Bishop Irenaeus (ca. 140 - 203 AD) noted that women especially were attracted to Gnostic groups. ‘Even in our own district of the Rhone valley,’ he said, the gnostic teacher Marcus had attracted ‘many foolish women’ from his own congregation, including the wife of one of Irenaeus’ own deacons. Professing himself to be at a loss to account for the attraction that Marcus’ group held, he offered only one explanation: that Marcus himself was a diabolically clever seducer, a magician who compounded special aphrodisiacs to ‘deceive, victimize, and defile’ his prey. Whether his accusations have any factual basis no one knows. But when he describes Marcus’ techniques of seduction, Irenaeus indicates that he is speaking metaphorically. For, he says, Marcus ‘addresses them in such seductive words’ as his prayers to Grace, ‘She who is before all things ‘, and to Wisdom and Silence, the feminine element of the divine being. Second, he says, Marcus seduced women ‘by telling them to prophesy’ - which they were strictly forbidden to do in the orthodox church. When he initiated a woman, Marcus concluded the initiation prayer with the words ‘Behold, Grace has come upon you; open your mouth, and prophesy.’ Then, as the bishop indignantly describes it, Marcus’ ‘deluded victim ... impudently.utters some nonsense’, and ‘henceforth considers herself to be a prophet!’ Worst of all, from Irenaeus’ viewpoint, Marcus invited women to act as priests in celebrating the eucharist with him: he ‘hands the cups to women’ . to offer up the eucharistic prayer, and to pronounce the words of consecration.

Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, Book I, ch. 13, § 1 - 7; Hippolytus, Refutationis Omnium Haeresium, 6.35

Anoher gnostic leader, Marcion, appointed women on an equal basis with men as priests and bishops. The gnostic teacher Marcellina traveled to Rome to represent the Carpocratian group, which claimed to have received secret teaching from Mary, Salome, and Martha. The Montanists, a radical prophetic circle, honored two women, Prisca and Maximilla, as founders of the movement. Among such gnostic groups as the Valentinians, women were considered equal to men; some were revered as prophets; others acted as teachers, traveling evangelists, healers, priests, perhaps even bishops. It is more than likely that Mary Magdalen was hailed as a model for such feminine ministers.

Women leaders often challenged male priests and bishops

Other secret texts use the figure of Mary Magdalene to suggest that women’s activity challenged the male leaders of their communities who regarded Peter as their spokesman.

* The Gospel of Mary relates that when the disciples, disheartened and terrified after the crucifixion, asked Mary to encourage them by telling them what the Lord had told her secretly, she agrees, and teaches them until Peter, furious, asks, ‘Did he really speak privately with a woman, (and) not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?’ Distressed at his rage, Mary replies, ‘My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?’ Levi breaks in at this point to mediate the dispute: ‘Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you, indeed, to reject her? Surely the Lord knew her very well. That is why he loved her more than us.’ Then the others agree to accept Mary’s teaching, and, encouraged by her words, go out to preach.

Gospel of Mary 17.18 - 18.15.

* Another argument between Peter and Mary occurs in’ Pistis Sophia (‘Faith Wisdom’). Peter complains that Mary is dominating the conversation with Jesus and displacing the rightful priority of Peter and his brother apostles. He urges Jesus to silence her and is quickly rebuked. Later, however, Mary admits to Jesus that she hardly dares speak to him freely because, in her words, ‘Peter makes me hesitate; I am afraid of him, because he hates the female race.80 Jesus replies that whoever the Spirit inspires is divinely ordained to speak whether man or woman.

Pistis Sophia 36.71.

In some gnostic texts, ‘femaleness’ stood for ‘sexuality’.

The respect for the ‘feminine dimension’ in some Gnostic sects conflicted with the general gnostic distrust of the material, of ‘body’. Spirit suggested the sexlessness of the Greek neuter term for spirit, pneuma. This may explain some strange utterances.

* In the Dialogue of the Savior, Mary Magdalene praised as ‘the woman who knew the All’, stands among the three disciples who receive Jesus’ commands: she, along with Judas and Matthew, rejects the ‘works of femaleness’ - that is, apparently, the activities of intercourse and procreation.

Dialogue of the Saviour, 139.12-13; Nag Hammadi Library 235.

* “ Simon Peter said to them [the disciples]: ‘Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of Life.’ Jesus said, ‘I myself shall lead her, in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.’

Gospel of Thomas 51.19 - 26; in Nag Hammadi Library p. 130.

Read: Elaine Pagels, ‘God the Father/ God the Mother’, in The Gnostic Gospels, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1985, pp. 71 - 88; James M. Robinson (ed), The Nag Hammadi Library Harper & Row, San Francisco 1988, pp. 252-527; Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures, SCM, London 1987.

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