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Biblical Affirmations of Woman –

Feminine Imagery of God—Biblical & Post Biblical Periods, also Positive Christian tradition

by Leonard Swidler, from Biblical Affirmations of Woman

publ. by The Westminster Press, 1979, pp. 45-71 & pp. 198-214

Republished here with the necessary permission

§36. Lady Wisdom Praised in Poetry

The deuterocanonical biblical book Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus, was written in Hebrew around 190 B.C.E. Only about two thirds of the text is available in Hebrew; the whole of it is in the Greek Septuagint.

As in Proverbs, Job, and Baruch, the sage Ben Sira sings the praises of the feminine Sophia, or Hokmah, who is personified, being created by God before all the rest of creation. Only to God is Lady Wisdom known, and to those he favors. Here she is everlasting, but created, separate from God.

All Wisdom is from the Lord,
and . . . is his own for ever.
The sand of the sea and the raindrops
and the days of eternity, who can assess them?
The height of the sky and the breadth of the earth
and the depth of the abyss, and Wisdom who can probe them?
Before all other things Wisdom was created
shrewd understanding is everlasting.
Wisdom’s source is the word of God in the heavens;
her ways are the etemal laws.
For whom has the root of Wisdom ever been uncovered?
Her resourceful ways, who knows them?
To whom has the Knowledge of Wisdom been manifested?
And who has understood the abundance of h« ways?
One only is wise, terrible indeed seated on his throne, the Lord.
The Lord himself has created her, looked on her and assessed her,
and poured her out on all his works
to be with all humanity as his gift,
and he conveyed her to those who love him. (Ben Sira 1:1–10)

§37. Lady Wisdom Is God in Creation

Here Ben Sira surpasses his earlier praise of divine Lady Wsdom, making her not only created from eternity, a feminine person separate from God, but also the very presence of God to creation. In one instance Lady Wisdom identifies herself with the spirit (ruach, also of feminine gender in Hebrew; see §41) of God hovering over creation in Gen 1:2. The image here, and elsewhere, of the spirit or breath of God coming forth from God’s mouth was picked up in later Jewish and Christian writing. In Christianity the development went partially to the Word of God, thence to Jesus as the Word incarnate, and partially to the Holy Spirit. The image of the pillar of cloud here is one of God’s presence among men and women (cf. Ex 13:21–22); Hokmah, Sophia, places herself therein. Feminine Wisdom again is God’s presence in creation from eternity to eternity. She partakes of the divine; this and her separate personhood led later to divine trinities and quaternities in Judaism (see Patai, Hebrew Goddess) and a divine trinity in Christianity (see pp. 57ff.).

Wisdom speaks her own praises,
in the midst of her people she glories in herself.
She opens her mouth in the assembly of the Most High
she glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One;
“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and I covered the earth like mist.
I had my tent in the heights
and my throne in a pillar of cloud.
Alone I encircled the vault of the sky,
and I walked on the bottom of the deeps.
Over the waves of the sea and over the whole earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway.
Among all these I searched for rest
and looked to see in whose territory I might pitch camp.
Then the creator of all things instructed me
and he who created me fixed a place for my tent.
He said, ‘Pitch your tent in Jacob,
make Israel your inheritance.’
From eternity, in the beginning, he created me,
and for etemity I shall remain.
I ministered before him in the holy tabernacle
and thus was I established on Zion.” (Ben Sira 24:1-10. Cf. also 1:11-28;
4:11-19; 6:18-37; 14:20-27; 15:1-10; and 51:13-30,
where Sophia is praised and sought after by humanity as a virtue.)

§38. Lady Wisdom the Feminine Divinity

The author of the deuterocanonical Book of Wisdom (also called “The Wisdom of Solomon”) was a Jew of the first century B.C.E. from Alexandria ; he wrote in Greek. The divinization of the feminine Wisdom in the Jewish biblical tradition here reaches its high point. There is no talk of Sophia being created by God. The closest thing to that notion is in Wisdom 7: 15, where God is said to be the guide “of ” Sophia (the ancient Arabic translation renders this as the guide “to” Sophia, however), but that does not really limit the powerful divinizing statements. Sophia is said to possess omnipotence (7:23, 27), omnipresence (7:24), immutability (7:27), sanctity (7:22)—all clearly exclusive divine characteristics. Moreover, she participated in creation (7:12, 21), and is at present the sustainer and ruler of the world (8:1). Still further, Sophia is described as a breath of the power of God, a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty (7:25). Sophia here is clearly the ancient Goddess rediviva!

All that is hidden, all that is plain, I have come to know
instructed by Wisdom who designed them all.
For within her is a spirit intelligent, holy,
unique, manifold, subtle,
active, incisive, unsullied,
lucid, invulnerable, benevolent, sharp,
irresistible, beneficent, loving to humanity,
steadfast, dependable, unperturbed,
almighty, all-surveying,
penetrating all intelligent, pure
and most subtle spirits;
for Wisdom is quicker to move than any motion;
she is so pure, she pervades and permeates all things.
She is a breath of the power of God,
pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty;
hence nothing impure can find a way into her.
She is a reflection of the eternal light
untarnished mirror of God’s active power
image of his goodness.
Although alone, she can do all;
herself unchanging, she makes all things new.
In each generation she passes into holy souls
she makes them friends of God and prophets;
for God loves only those who live with Wisdom.
She is indeed more splendid than the sun
she outshines all the constellations
compared with light, she takes first place
for light must yield to night,
but over Wisdom evil can never triumph.
She deploys her strength from one end of the earth to the other,
ordering all things for good. (Wisdom 7:21-8:1)

§39. Lady Wisdom a Divine Consort

Although, as we have seen, in the ancient world there were many theologies that spoke of consort Goddesses and Gods, wife and husband divinities, such notions were vigorously opposed and eventually normally excluded in the Hebraic tradition, at least after the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E. Here, however, in this Jewish deuterocanonical biblical Book of Wisdom, the sacred writer speaks of Sophia “living with (symbiōsin) God and the Lord of All has loved her” (Wisdom 8:3), using the same word, symbiōsis, for living together as he does elsewhere in the same chapter in the sense of marital connubium: “Therefore I determined to take her to live with (symbiōsin) me” (8:9). “It is therefore clear that Wisdom here was regarded as God’s wife” (Patai, Hebrew Goddess, p. 139). The renowned first-century Jewish thinker Philo stated straight out that God is the husband of Sophia (Philo, On the Cherubim XIV.49; Loeb Classical Library, Philo, Vol. 2, p. 39). As a reinforcement of this clear statement in Wisdom 8:3, the sage adds the prayer, “Grant me Sophia, consort (paredron; literally, ”the one sitting beside”] of your throne; . . . send her forth from your throne of glory to help me” (9:4, 10). If more were needed, the Wisdom writer adds that Sophia was “an initiate in the mysteries of God’s knowledge, making choice of the works he is to do; . . . where is there a greater than Sophia; . . . she who knows your works, she who was present when you made the world; . . . she knows and understands everything” (8:4, 6; 9:9, 11).

Her (Sophie’s) living with God (symbiōsin) lends
lustre to her noble birth,
since the Lord of All has loved her.
Yes, she is an initiate in the mysteries of God’s knowledge,
making choice of the works he is to do.
If in this life wealth be a desirable possession,
what is more wealthy than Wisdom whose work iseverywhere?
Or if it be the intellect that is at work,
where is there a greater than Wisdom, designer of all?
“God of our ancestors,
grant me Wisdom, consort of your throne.
With you is Wisdom, she who knows your works,
she who was present when you made the world
she understands what is pleasing in Your eyes
and what agrees with your commandments.
Despatch her from the holy heavens
send her forth from your throne of glory
to help me and to toil with me
and teach me what is pleasing to you
since she knows and understands everything.” (Wisdom 8 3-6; 9:1, 4, 9-10)

§46 Feminine Divine Wisdom in the New Testament

Twice it is recorded in the Gospels that Jesus spoke of feminine divine Wisdom.
“For John came, neither eating nor drinking, and they say . . . The Son of Man came, eating and drinking, and they say . . . Yet Wisdom (Sophia) has been proved right by her actions.” (Mt 11 18-19)
“And that is why the Wisdom (Sophia) of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles.’” (Lk 11:49)


It should be apparent that the religion of the ancient Hebrews depicted the divine in feminine as well as masculine imagery. Two pressures were exerted on this androgynous imagery with the passage of the centuries: one was to transcend all sexual and other material descriptions in favor of God as spirit; the other was to suppress the feminine imagery in favor of a totally masculine one. As long as the first tendency was kept in balance, that is, did not make the human perception of God anemic and ineffective, it was in the direction of “progress,” i.e., it further “humanized” and “divinized” humanity. The second tendency, however, was simply reactionary, dehumanizing and dedivinizing humanity by splitting it into oppressor and oppressed groups. Still, the oppressive pressure did not entirely submerge the feminine image of the divine in the Hebrew Bible; the above material traces the outline of its persistence.

There are two other terms of the Hebrew Bible which are feminine in grammatical gender and which ought also to be noted here. They are ruach, spirit; and torah, teaching, Law, or commandment (the latter will be treated below in §45 with the postbiblical Jewish material). Of course not every Hebrew word with a feminine gender reflected feminine thought imagery. But both of these terms are very closely connected with the biblical talk about God; they do in fact at times become personifications of aspects of God; as such, in later biblical texts they take on some of the qualitities of a feminine divine or quasi-divine personification; and, finally, both provide a source forfeminine divine or quasi-divine personifications in post-Hebrew Bible Jewish and Christian traditions.

§41. The (Feminine) Spirit of God Hypostatized

In many instances the spirit of God is described as separate trom God, a distinct substance or hypostasis; at times the term “holy spirit” of God is used thus. A few examples spread over the whole biblical period will suffice here:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…. And God’s spirit hovered over the water. (Gen 1:1–2)

Yahweh said, “My spirit must not for ever be disgraced in humanity.” (Gen 6:3)

Raising his eyes Balaam saw Israel, encamped by tribes; the spirit of God came on him. (Num 24:2)

The spirit of God has made me. (Job 33:4)

Do not deprive me of your holy spirit. (Ps 51:11)

When you send forth your spirit, they are created. (Ps 104:30)

Where could I go to escape your spirit? (Ps 139:7)

Since you are my God may your good spirit guide me. (Ps 143:10)

[Yahweh] said, “Truly they are my people.” . . . But they rebelled, they grieved his holy spirit…. Where is he who endowed him with his holy spirit? (Is 63:8, 10, 11)
The spirit of Yahweh then entered me, and made me stand up, and spoke to me. (Ezek 3 24)

Elisha was filled with his holy spirit. (Ben Sira 48:12, following the fifth century A.D. Alexandrinus manuscript, which adds the word “holy,” hagiou. )

Clearly the term “spirit” is used with a variety of meanings in these several sample passages. The spirit is that aspect of God which relates to creation, particularly humanity, by which God enters into a human being, and through which a human being comes into contact with God—becomes holy through God’s holy spirit. Of course, all through this Hebrew writing the divine spirit, Ruach, is feminine in gender, with the adjectives and verbs following in form.

§42. Feminine Divine Spirit and Wisdom Identified

While the spirit of God is hypostatized in these and other passages, this orginally probably was only a literary device to focus on the divine elationship to creation, especially humanity. However, with the Book of Wisdom the Spirit comes close to being something more than a mere metaphor, just as does Wisdom, with which it is at times likened and even identified.

No, Wisdom will never make its way into a crafty soul; . . . the holy spirit of Wisdom [some versions say: instruction] shuns deceit…. For Wisdom is Spirit, loving to humanity (philanthrpōn gar pneuma sophia)…. The Spirit of the Lord, indeed, fills the whole world, holds all things together and knows every sound uttered. (Wisdom 1:4–7)

All that is hidden, all that is plain, I have come to know, instructed by Wisdom who designed them all. For in her is Spirit, intelligent, holy unique (Estin gar en autē pneuma noeron hagion)…. (Wisdom 7 21–225

As for your intention, who could have learnt it, had you not granted Wisdom and sent your Holy Spirit from above? (Wisdom 9:17)

Feminine Imagery of God – Postbiblical Period


§43. Even Qumran

At about the same time as the Book of Wisdom, that is, thc first century B.C.E., one of the members of the Jewish sect at Qumran near the Dead Sea (which tended to be very negative toward women and sex) wrote a prayer that addressed God both as father and as mother, thus continuing the same ancient tradition discussed above in 17; it is also a natural concomitant of the imagery of Wisdom as a divine consort as expressed in the Wisdom literature:

My father does not concern himself with me
and in comparison with you my mother has left me,
but you are father of all thy faithful
and you rejoiced at those like a loving mother at her infant
and like a nurse you cherish in your bosom all your creatures.
(IQH ix. 35f.)

§44. Yahweh and Sophia: Divine Consorts

Philo was an extraordinary Jewish thinker from Alexandria in Egypt. He lived before and during the first half of the first century of the Common Era, which made him a contemporary of Hillel, Jesus of Nazareth, Paul of Tarsus, and Johanan Ben Zachai. Alexandria of Philo’s day contained an extremely prosperous Jewish community, quite possibly the largest in the world, for the city was very large and was perhaps 40 percent Jewish. Philo had been to Jerusalem and knew the biblical tradition well, but wrote in Greek. Hence when he wrote of the Hebrew Elohim he used the Greek word for God, Theos. In Philo the tradition of Lady Wisdom, Hokmah, Sophia in Greek, very much continues the ancient Goddess line that was reflected in the Hebrew Bible and reached an acme in the Book of Wisdom, analyzed just above. Philo clearly speaks of Sophia (sometimes with synonyms like Knowledge, Gnosis) as God’s wife. The process of creation is represented in the following passage symbolically but quite unequivocally as procreation.

The Architect who made this universe was at the same time the Father of what was thus born, whilst its mother was the Knowledge possessed by its Maker. With His Knowledge (gnōsís) God (theos) had union, not as humans have it, and begot created things. And Knowledge, having received the divine seed, when her travail was consummated, bore the only beloved son who is apprehended by the senses, the world which we see. Thus in the pages of one of the inspired company, Wisdom (sophia) is represented as speaking of herself after this manner: “God obtained me first of all his works and founded me before the ages.” [Prov 8:22) True, for it was necessary that all that came to the birth of creation should be younger than the Mother and Nurse of the All…. I suggest then, that the Father of the schools, with its regular course or round of instruction . . . The Husband of Wisdom drops the seed of happiness for the race of mortals into good and virgin soil. (Philo, On Drunkenness, VIII.80 and IX.33; Loeb Classical Library, Philo, Vol. 3, pp. 333-335; On the Cherubim, XIV.49; Loeb Classical Library, Philo, Vol.2, p. 39)

§45. Torah, Daughter of Yahweh

a. Feminine Wisdom and Torah Identifed

Torah, Hebrew for “teaching,” or “Law,” as it is most often translated, is not only feminine in gender, but as it takes on the character in the Jewish tradition of a quasi-divine personification it a]so projects a feminine personality into the divine family. Particularly after the sixth-century B.C.E. return of the Jewish remnant from exile the study and living of the Torah became ever more prominent in Jewish life. The longest psalm in the Bible, Ps 119, is devoted entirely to the praise of the Torah, which is identified with God’s Word (dabar). Perhaps the earliest personification of the feminine Torah occurred in Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus (190 B.C.E.), who sang at length the praises of feminine divine Wisdom, Hokmah, and then expressly identified her with Torah.

Wisdom speaks her own praises,
in the midst of her people she glories in herself.
She opens her mouth in the assembly of the Most High
she glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One
“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, . . .
From eternity, in the beginning, he created me.” . . .
All this is no other than the book of the covenant of the Most
High God
the Law [Torah] that Moses enjoined on us.”
(Ben Sira 24:1–3, 9, 23)

b. Feminine Wisdom and Torah Identified by Rabbis

The rabbis continued and intensified this identification of the feminine quasi-divine Torah with the feminine divine Hokmah.

R. Hoseia the Elder [c. 225 C.E.] began his lecture with Proverbs 8:30: “I (Hokmah equals Torah) was with him, a skilled worker [female], a delight day by day. The Torah says: I am the instrument of God…. Likewise God looked at the Torah [as a blueprint] and thus made the world. And the Torah spoke Genesis 1:1: ”Through the First One [the rabbi here understands the first word of Genesis, bereshit, to mean “through the First One,” rather than the usual “in the beginning”] God created the heavens and the earth,” and the “First One” is none other than the Torah, as it says in Proverbs 8:22: “Yahweh made me (Hokmah equals Torah) as the First One of his works.” (Genesis Rabbah 1)

R. Simeon b. Laquish [c. 250 C.E.] said: “By 200 years the Torah preceeded the creation of the world, that is the meaning of Proverbs 8:30: 1 (Hokmah equals Torah) was with him a skilled worker [female], a delight day by day.” (Genesis Rabbah 8(6a); for other citations, see Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch, Vol. 2, pp. 353ff.; Munich: 1922-1928)

c. Feminine Torah Pre-Existent

It was not only in identifying the feminine Torah with Hokmah that the rabbis spoke of Torah’s numinous pre-creation character. The following are a few other such examples.

Seven things were made before the world was made, namely, the Torah, repentance, the garden of Eden, Gehenna, the throne of glory, the Holy, and the name of the Messiah. (Talmud bPesachim 54a)

She [Torah] lay on God’s lap while God sat on the throne of glory. (Midrash Psalm 90, 3, 12 [Buber 196a)

God said to Israe]: “Before I made this world I prepared the Torah.” (Exodus Rabbah 30 [89d]; for further citations, see Strack and Billerbeck, Vol. 2, pp. 335ff., and Vol. 3, pp. 435ff.)

d. Torah God ‘s Daughter

The rabbis developed the feminine personification of Torah further than by identifying her with the feminine divine Hokmah and combining the feminine gender of the word with the literary hypostatization of it. They also had God speak of Torah as his daughter, again giving her a divine character.

Whoever recites a verse of the Song of Songs and (thereby) makes it into a sort of (secular) song . . . brings illness into the world: then the Torah puts on sackcloth and goes before God and says before him: “Lord of the world, your children have made me a zither like the pagans play on!” He answers her: “My daughter, if they only eat and drink with what shall they concem themselves?” (Talmud bSanhedrin 101a)

“God said, . . . My daughter, that is, the Torah.” (Leviticus Rabbah 20[120a])

They said to him, “Perhaps tomorrow you will allow your Shekinah (see below for a discussion of this feminine divine ”personification”] to dwell with those below!” God answered them [his angels): “My Torah I grant to those below but I dwell here with those above. I send my daughter for her marriage contract into another land so she along with her spouse may be honored on account of her beauty and charm, for she is the daughter of a king and she will be honored; but I will dwell with you, with those above.” (Midrash Song of Songs 8, 11[133b]; for further citations, see Strack and Billerbeck, Vol 2, pp. 355ff.)

Thus, beginning at least two hundred years before the Common Era, there was a movement in the Hebraic-Judaic tradition to personify the feminine Torah and give her a quasi-divine or divine character, which movement intensified on into the rabbinic period during the Common, or Christian, Era.

§46 The Shekinah, Rabbis, and a Feminine Divinity

Shekinah is a feminine Hebrew word for “dwelling,” and refers to God’s dwelling or presence in the world. It was first used in the Targums (translations or paraphrases of the Bible from around the first century C.E.) to avoid referring to God directly, out of reverence. It also appeared frequently in the early rabbinic writings, but did not take on the quality of the feminine dimension of God until the Middle Ages in the writings of the Jewish mystics, the Kabbalists. The foremost scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem, writes

In all the numerous references to the Shekhimah in the Talmud and Midrashim; . . there is no hint that it represents a feminine element in God. . . . Nowhere is there a dualism with the Shekhinah, as the feminine, opposed to the “Holy One, praise be to Him,” as the masculine element in God. (Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 225; Schocken Books, 1941)

Nevertheless, there were some rabbinic references to the mother like qualities of God in the early rabbinic materials. For example, Shemuel bar Nahman, a rabbi of the late third and early fourth century C.E., quoted Ps 103:13 and Is 66:13 (see above), and thenwent beyond them with a statement he put in God’s mouth.

It is the wont of the father to have mercy, “Like as a father has compassion upon them that fear Him”; and it is the wont of the mother to comfort, “as one whom his mother comforts, so will I comfort you.” God said: “I shall do as both father and mother.” (Midrash Pesiqta Rabbah 139a)

§47. The Feminine God in Jewish Mysticism

Although the feminine dimension of God does not become pronounced in Jewish mysticism until the Middle Ages, and hence is beyond the chronological scope of this book, because the trajectory of the feminine in the divine began before the Hebrew tradition, continued through the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha, and Philo, and then faded from view, only to reappear in the medieval Kabbala, a very few examples from the Kabbala will be provided. But first a word about the importance of the Shekinah as the feminine element in God from Gershom Scholem.

The introduction of this idea was one of the most important and lasting innovations of Kabbalism. The fact that it obtained recognition in spite of the obvious difficulty of reconciling it with the conception of the absolute Unity of God, and that no other element of Kabbalism won such a deep degree of popular approval, is proof that it responded to a deep-seated religious need. (Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 225)

a. God the Mother and Father

There are many passages in kabbalistic writings, particularly the most celebrated of them, the thirteenth-century Zohar, in which the feminine and masculine dimensions of God are expressed most explicitly. The language sounds very much like that of the ancient Gods and Goddesses, of Proverbs, Hokmah, the developed Sophia language of the Book of Wisdom and Philo, and that of the Christian Gnostics, to be discussed below. However, doubtless, as with the Christian belief in a Trinity, the Jewish kabbalistic teachings about the Mother (other terms are also used) and the Father in God also presumes monotheism. What is of note here is that the female and the male dimensions are both seen as essential elements in divinity.

Never does the inclination of the Father and the Mother toward each other cease. They always go out together and dwell together. They never separate and never leave each other. They are together in complete union. . . . The Father and the Mother, since they are found in union all the time are never hidden or separated from each other, are called “Companions.” . . . And they find complete satisfaction in complete union. (Zohar 1.162a-b; III.77b-78a)

b. A Jewish Divine Quaternity: Female and Male

Also, many are the kabbalistic passages that speak not only of the Mother and Father God, but also the Son and Daughter (sometimes called Matronit) God. Let one suffice here; it is connected with the Tetragrammaton, the four consonants in God’s Hebrew name: YHWH.

The Supernal H [i.e., the Mother) became pregnant as a result of all the love and fondling—since the Y never leaves her—and she brought forth the W [the Son], whereupon she stood up and suckled him. And when the W emerged, his female mate [the Daughter, represented by the second H in thc Tetragrammaton] emerged with him. (Zohar 111.77b)

c. Union with the Feminine Divinity

The goal of mysticism is the union of the human with the divine. Since in the Jewish mystical tradition the Divinity, insofar as it relates to creation, is known as the female Shekinah, it is with her that the Jewish mystic strives for union. This of course simply continues the ancient Hebrew tradition of Hokmah being God vis-à-vis creation, with whom union was avidly sought by human beings. In one instance in the Zohar this union of a human being (Moses—he was the only case) with the Shekinah was described as having taken place in terms of sexual intercourse (analogous to the “coming upon” Mary the mother of Jesus by the Holy Spirit in Lk 1:35 and Mt 1:20).

The Matronit* . . . became mated (isdavga) with Moses. Moses had intercourse (shimesh) while he was in the body of the moon.* (Zohar 1.21b22a)

*[The Matronit is here a synonym for Shekinah, the moon is a symbol of the Shekinah.]

d. The Shekinah and a Female Messiah

In the seventeenth century one offshoot of Jewish mysticism, Sabbatianism, developed a trinitarian notion of God, including the Shekinah, who had a corresponding female Messiah.

The object of religion, the goal of our prayers, can only be “the God of Israel” and its unity or union with his Shekhinah. From this originaldualism some Sabbatians developed a Trinity of the unknown God, the God of Israel and the Shekhinah, and it did not take long for the idea to develop that the completion of Salvation is dependent upon the appearance of a Messiah for each of these three aspects of Trinity, with a female Messiah for the last! (Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 320)

e. Kabbala Nevertheless Fundamentally Masculine

Despite the projection of a feminine dimension in the Divinity by Jewish mysticism, two counterpuntal elements should be noted: one, the female represents not the tender but the stern; two, like most of the rest of Judaism, Kabbalism is by and for men.

It is of the essence of Kabbalistic symbolism that woman represents not as one might be tempted to expect, the quality of tenderness but that of stern judgment…. Both historically and metaphysically it is a masculine doctrine made for men and by men. The long history of Jewish mysticism shows no trace of feminine influence. There have been no women Kabbalists, Rabia of early Islamic mysticism, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Juliana of Norwich, Theresa de Jesus, and the many other feminine representatives of Christian mysticism have no counterparts in the history of Kabbalism. (Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 36)


Because the Book of Wisdom was written originally in Greek (most likely by a Jew of Alexandria in the first century B.C.E.), the word used for Wisdom is sophia, which, like the Hebrew hokmah, is feminine in gender and imagery. As noted above, the Hebrew word for Spirit of God, ruach, is also feminine. However, the Greek word for Spirit, pneuma, is not feminine, but neuter. Nevertheless, in the Book of Wisdom the two, Wisdom and Spirit, are identified. Because the tradition of Wisdom as feminine was so strong, plus the fact that Spirit is also feminine in Hebrew, though neuter in Greek, the identification of the Spirit of God with Lady Wisdom has at times in the Christian tradition led to the imaging of the Holy Spirit as feminine. A few examples follow.

§48. Holy Spirit the Mother of Jesus—I

In the second-century Coptic-language apocryphal Epistle of James (see below, pp. 66f., for a brief discussion of apocryphal and Gnostic Christian writings), the Holy Spirit is cast in the image of the parent of Jesus; since elsewhere in the epistle God the Father is referred to as Jesus’ father, presumably the Holy Spirit is meant to be Jesus’ mother. The risen Christ says to James and the other disciples:

You are chosen, you are like the Son of the Holy Spirit. (Vigiliae Christiane volume 8 1954, p.12)

§49. Holy Spirit the Mother of Jesus—II

Another motherly image of the Holy Spirit is found in the apocryphal Gospel to the Hebrews, written around A.D. 15O.

And it came to pass when the Lord (Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River,) came up out of the water, the whole fount of the Holy Spirit descended upon him and rested on him and said to him: My son . . . thou art my first-begotten Son that reignest for ever. (Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, eds.; New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1, pp. 163-164; Westminster Press,1963)

§50. Holy Spirit the Mother of Jesus—III

If there be any doubt that the Holy Spirit was depicted in the Gospel to the Hebrews as Jesus’ mother, the following quotation will lay it to rest.

Even so did my mother, the Holy Spirit, take me by one of my hairs and carry me away onto the great mountain Thabor. (Ibid., p. 164)

§51. The Holy Spirit Is a Woman—I

In the third-century Gnostic Christian apocryphal Giospel of Philip the Holy Spirit of God is at one place assumed to be a woman, as is clear from the quotation below referring to the Matthean and Lukan claims of the virginal conception of Jesus.

Some said, “Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit.” They are in error. They do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever conceive by a woman? Mary is the virgin…. (Gospel of Philip, The Nag Hammadi Library tr. by James M. Robinson et al., p. 134; Harper & Row, 1977)

§52. The Holy Spirit Is a Woman—II

The Acts of Thomas, an early third-century Gnostic Christian apocryphal writing, contains several lengthy prayers and one brief one, which address or refer to the Holy Spirit in feminine imagery. The three lengthy prayers are all epicleses, that is, prayers calling on the Holy Spirit to descend upon the liturgical matter, usually the bread and wine used in the celebration of the Eucharist. The first orthodox text of one is from Hippolytus in the early third century, contemporaneous with the Acts of Thomas. In the latter, two of the epicleses are invocations of the Holy Spirit at a Eucharist, but one is connected with Confirmation, which is also customary in orthodox Catholic Christianity. The connections between the feminine Wisdom, the Mother (Mater Magna, the Goddess), love, the Eucharist, the dove (symbol of the Goddess, and of the Holy Spirit, discussed in 55), and the Holy Spirit are all obvious.

“O Jesus Christ, . . . we glorify and praise thee and thine invisible Father and thy Holy Spirit and the Mother of all creation.” (Acts of Thomas, Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, eds., New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 2, p. 465; Westminster Press, 1966)

And the apostle took the oil and pouring it on their heads anointed and chrismed them, and began to say:
Come, holy name of Christ that is above every name
Come, power of the Most High and perfect compassion
Come, thou highest gift;
Come compassionate mother
Come fellowship of the male
Come, thou (fem.) that cost reveal the hidden mysteries
Come, mother of the seven houses, that thy rest may be in the eighth house;
Come, elder of the five members, understanding, thought, prudence, consideration, reasoning,
Communicate with these young men!
Come, Holy Spirit, and purify their reins and their heart
And give them the added seal in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. (Ibid., pp. 456-457)

And spreading a linen cloth, he set upon it the bread of blessing. And the apostle stood beside it and said: “Jesus, who hast made us worthy to partake of the Eucharist of thy holy body and blood, behold we make bold to approach thy Eucharist, and to call upon thy holy name; come thou and have fellowship with us!” And he began to say:
Come, gift of the Most High;
Come, perfect compassion;
Come, fellowship of the male
Come, Holy Spirit;
Come, thou that dost know the mysteries of the Chosen
Come, thou that hast part in all the combats of the noble Athlete,
Come, treasure of glory
Come, darling of the compassion of the Most High;
Come, silence
That dost reveal the great deeds of the whole greatness
And make the ineffable manifest;
Holy Dove
That bearest the twin young;
Come, hidden Mother;
Come, thou that art manifest in thy deeds and dost furnish joy
And rest for al1 that are joined with thee;
Come and partake with us in this Eucharist
Which we celebrate in thy name,
And in the love-feast
In which we are gathered together at thy call.
And when he had said this he marked the Cross upon the brad and broke it, and began to distribute. And first he gave to the woman, saying “Let this be to thee for forgiveness of sins and eternal transgressions!” And after her he gave also to all the others who had received the seal. (Ibid., pp 470-471.)

And when they were baptized and clothed, he set bread upon the table and blessed it and said: “Bread of life, those who eat of which remain incorruptible; bread which fills hungry souls with its blessing . . . we name over thee the name of the mother of the ineffable mystery of the hidden dominions and powers, we name over thee the name of Jesus ” (Ibid., p. 512)

§53. The Deaconess a Type of the Holy Spirit

In the third–century A.D. orthodox Christian document written in Syriac (a Semitic language, derived from the earlier Aramaic), theDidascalia, the imagery moves in the other direction. There a woman, a deaconess, is likened to the Holy Spirit.

And the deaconess shall be honored by you as a type of the Holy Spirit. (Didascalia 11.26.4)

§54. The Holy Spirit, Mother of Humanity

The tradition continued in the Syriac-speaking area (“spirit” also has the feminine gender in Syriac, as in Hebrew), as in the writings of the fourth-century orthodox Christian father Aphraates.

A man who is yet unmarried loves and honors God his father and the Holy Spirit his mother. (Aphraates, Homily XV111.10—on Genesis 2:24)

§55. The Dove, Symbol of the Holy Spirit and the “Great Mother”.

The dove appears many times in the Hebrew Bible, but its most pervasive symbolic meaning is “love,” as is amply exemplified, especially in the Song of Songs. In Christian tradition it is also immediately connected with the Holy Spirit, for all four Gospels, in speaking of the baptism of Jesus, say that “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily shape, like a dove” (Lk 3:22; cf. Mt 316; Mk 1.10, Jn 1:3 3). Of course, in Christian tradition the Holy Spirit is also said to be the spirit of love, so that the two currents of meaning flow together. But it is also particularly interesting to note that the dove is also a very ancient symbol for the Goddess of Love, which of course fits perfectly well with the Hebrew Bible symbol of love and the Christian carry–over of the feminine Wisdom traditions to the Holy Spirit, who is also the Spirit of Love, and thus also the Christian continuance of the Goddess of Love, the Mater Magna, the “Great Mother.”

However since the most ancient times the dove is the holy animal not only of the Cyprian Aphrodite, but also of almost all the Goddesses of Fertility and Love of the Near East. Already in neolithic times the “Great Mother who was venerated in Crete was represented with dove and lily. The Greek word for dove, peristera, means ·”bird of Istar,” the Assyrian–Babylonian Goddess of Love, but also of the Underworld and Death. Istar had many names: Astarte (Ashtoreth) and Hathor, Inanna and Nut, Cybele and Isis and many others. However, as also with the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus the dove was always holy to them. Often they themselves appeared winged, like a great dove brooding over the world, as in Knossos and Mycenae, in Sicily and Carthage, on the Euphrates and on Cyprus and even in India. Doves were culticly protected great towers were built for them in which they could nest; they were called columbaria (columba is the Latin word for dove). Columbaria, dove houses, were also known in ancient Rome however, as grave chambers with niches for urns.

The dove is the only symbol for the Holy Spirit that is permitted by the Church. Thus the figure of the dove in the cupolas or over the high altars of Diessen, Dietramszell, Ettal, Ottobeuren, Vierzehnheiligen, Weingarten and the Wieskirche also point to the “Great Mother” just as much as do the fact that the cathedrals of Hagia Sophia in Consbntinople, Kiev, and many other Orthodox cities are consecrated to heavenly Wisdom, which is presented in feminine form. (Gerd-Klaus Kaltenbrunner, “Ist der Heilige Geist weiblich?” Una Sancta, 1977, pp. 275ff.)

§56. Feminíne Holy Spirit in Church Art

Let a single visible example indicate that this Christian tradition of depicting the Holy Spirit as feminine continued on into the Middle Ages even in the West. There is a small twelfth-century Catholic church in the tiny village of Urschalling near Prien am Chiemsee, southeast of Munich, which has a fourteenth-century fresco depicting the Holy Trinity. It has three human forms for the upper half of the body and the lower half wrapped in a single cloak so that there would appear to be one body below. One of the upper figures is an old man with a white beard, one is a young man with a dark beard, and in the middle is a woman— Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

§57. The Gifts of the Holy Spirit

In Christian theology the identification of the feminine Hebraic spirit, ruach, with the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is reflected in the association of the words of Is 11:1–2 with the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: counsel, piety, fortitude, fear of the Lord, knowledge, understanding, wisdom (see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.11.69).

But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse
and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
The spirit of thc LORD shall rest upon him
a spirit of wisdom and of understanding
A spirit of counsel and of strength
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD. (IS 11.1–2, the Septuagint and Vulgate translations add “piety,” making seven “gifts” of the Spirit.)

§58. The Wisdom and the Word of God Paralleled

It should also be noted that in the Christian tradition the texts concerning the feminine Wisdom in the Hebraic–Judaic tradition are at times associated with the feminine Spirit, as discussed, and also at times with the Word or Logos (masculine in Greek) of God, which in the Gospel of John is identified with both God and Jesus as the Word incarnate. Already in the pre-Christian period a near-identification of Word and Wisdom is made (in Hebraic–Judaic poetry a statement is balanced with the same thought in synonymous terms):

God of our ancestors, Lord of mercy,
who by your Word (Logos) have made all things,
and in your Wisdom (Sophie) fitted humanity to rule . . . (Wisdom 9:1-2)

§59. Wisdom, the Goddess Isis, the Word of God, and Jesus Paralleled

Paul speaks of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, and then identifies Christ with feminine Wisdom: “We are preaching a crucified Christ . . . who is . . . the Wisdom (Sophia) of God” (1 Cor 1:24–25). In the deutero-Pauline epistle to the Colossians there is a primitive Christian hymn (Col 1:15-20) which speaks of Jesus in terms very like those of the feminine Wisdom of God, e.g., he was with God when all things were created, and through him they were created. In John’s Gospel, Jesus also speaks of himself (Jn 6:35) in language that is likewise very much akin to that of feminine Divine Wisdom, i.e., Jesus, like Wisdom, invites all to come and eat and drink from him (cf. Prov 9:1-6 and Ben Sira 24:19-22). The like is also true of the Prologue of John’s Gospel where the Word, Logos, similarly to Hokmah-Sophia, was said to be from the beginning with God, indeed, was God, through whom all things were created, enlightening all humanity. The parallel of John’s Logos hymn to Hokmah-Sophia is so striking that scholars such as Rudolf Bultmann have suggested the hymn was originally a Sophia hymn and “Logos” was substituted by the author of the Prologue (see Gerhard Kittel, Theologischcs Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament, Vol. 4, p. 136; Stuttgart, 1942).

The Catholic scholar Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza carried the analysis a step further when she concluded that not only was Jesus identified with the Logos, Word of God, and substituted in place of feminine Sophia in the several New Testament Christological hymns, but because the source of Sophia was the goddess Isis (see p.36) Jesus Christ also paralleled or assimilated many of the traits of Isis.

Isis virtually took the place of all the other gods and goddesses and she claimed that their names and functions were only names and various titles and functions of her own. Like Isis, Jesus Christ is in the hymn Phil 2: 6-11 given a name which is “above all names.” . . . Furthermore as Isis’s true name is “Isis the Queen” (kyria, sometimes kyrios), so the true name of Jesus Christ is lord (kyrios)…. Just as the Jewish–Hellenistic wisdom speculation appropriated elements from the Isis myth and cult, so too does the Christian proclamation of the cosmic lordship of Jesus Christ borrow its language and categories from the Hellenistic religions, perhaps from the Isis myth and cult. In this milieu where the hymns and aretologies of Isis are found, the Christian community conceives hymns in praise of Jesus Christ as the preexistent one who appeared on earth and is now exalted and enthroned as lord of the whole cosmos. (Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Wisdom Mythology and the Christological Hymns of the New Testament,” in Robert L. Wilken, ed. Aspects of Wisdom in Judaism and Early Christianity, pp. 351.; University of Notre Dame Press, 1975)

§60. Sophia Christology

In analyzing the Gospel of Matthew, James M. Robinson found that already in the Q materials (putative preMatthew and Luke sayings of Jesus—see below, pp. 251ff.) and in the way Matthew used them one finds a Sophia Christology, an identification of the feminine Sophia and Jesus. This Sophia Christology continued on into the post-Apostolic Writings (post-New Testament) Christian tradition.

The thanksgiving that in Q culminated in the identification of Jesus with Sophia follows immediately in Matthew, who appends further wisdom mate­rial which, like the culmination of that Q section, is applicable to Jesus only because he is Sophia incarnate (11:28-70):

Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. I Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

These concepts, familiar in wisdom literature, are also applied to the Torah [see §45], and hence point to another trait of Matthew’s Sophia christology. Judaism had already identified Sophia with the Torah, by affirming that Sophia, so often rejected by men and having no permanent abode on earth, had come to reside in the Torah (Ecclus. 24). It would fit well with Matthean theology in general to see in the Jewish concept of the “incarnation” of Sophia in the Torah an analogy for carrying through the identification of Sophia with Jesus.

Matthew’s Sophia christology is also apparent in his editing of a second wisdom section of Q. The Q saying that began (Luke 11:49): “Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles'” is edited by Matthew (23:34): “Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes.” It is not enough to say Matthew simply eliminated the reference to Sophia. Rather one must recognize that he identifies Sophia [ with Jesus, by attributing to Jesus not only a saying previously attributed to Sophia but by attributing to Jesus the content of the saying, namely, Sophia’s role as the heavenly personage who throughout history has sent the prophets and other spokesmen. It is to himself as preexistent Sophia that he infers in saying a few verses later (Matt. 23:37): “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. …”

By this time, i.e., the first half of the second century c.e., the identification of Jesus as Sophia had become widespread. In Justin (Dialogue 100.4) one reads that Jesus “is also called Sophia … in the words of the prophets.” (James NIL Robinson, “Jesus as Sophos and Sophia: Wisdom Tradition and the Gospels,” in Wilken, Aspects of Wisdom in Judaism and Early Christianity pp.10-12)

Origen (A.D. 185-254) continued the Sophia Christology tradition when, after discussing a number of titles given to Jesus by the Gos­pels, he concluded that Wisdom was the most ancient and appropri­ate one.

Thus if we collect the titles of Jesus, the question arises which of them were conferred on him late, and would never have assumed such importance if the saints had begun and had also persevered in blessedness. Perhaps Wisdom would be the only remaining one …… (Origen, Commentary on John 1.109-113)

§61. Feminine Wisdom, Feminine Holy Spirit, Sometimes Feminine Word of God

Thus, the feminine divine Wisdom of the Hebraic-Judaic tradition bifurcated in the Christian tradition, partly retaining the usual Hebraic association with the feminine divine Spirit (Ruach) by identification with the Holy Spirit (at times also feminine in Christian tradition), and partly shifting to the rare Judaic association with the masculine Word, Logos, of God. The results were, then, that in Christian tradition one person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is identifed with the feminine divine Wisdom and is at times described in feminine imagery, and a second person of the Trinity, the Word, is also identifed with the feminine divine Wisdom, but is only rarely described in feminine imagery, as in the following examples.

a. Anselm of Canterbury

The great eleventh-century Western Christian theologian Anselm of Canterbury composed the following prayer:

But thou also Jesus, good Lord, art thou not also Mother? Art thou not Mother who art like a hen [see §118] which gathers her chicks under her wings? Truly, Lord, thou art also other. For what others have labored with and brought forth, they have received from thee. Thou first, for their sake and for those they bring forth, in labor went dead, and by dying hast brought forth…. Thou, therefore, soul, dead of thyself, run under the wings of Jesus thy Mother and bewail under her feathers thy afflictions. Beg that she heal thy wounds, and that healed, she may restore thee to life. Mother Christ who gatherest thy chicks under thy wings this dead chick of thine puts himself under thy wing. (Anselm, “Oratio al sanctum Paulum,” J. P. Migne Patrologia Latina, Vol. 158, cols. 981f.)

b. Dame Julian of Norwich

The fourteenth-century English mystic Dame Julian of Norwich wrote the following about “Our tender Mother Jesus”:

And thus is Jesus our true Mother in kind [nature] of our first making, and he is our true Mother in grace by his taking of our made kind. All the fair working and all the sweet kindly offices of most dear Motherhood are appropriated to the second Person. (Dame Julian of Norwich, The Revelations of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich, tr. by James Walsh, Ch. 59, London: Burns & Oates, 1961)

c. Gregory Palamas
The fourteenth-century Greek Orthodox mystic-theologian Greg­ory Palamas wrote in the same vein:

Christ… nurses us from his own breast, as a mother, filled with tender­ness, does with her babies. (Gregory Palamas, quoted in George H. Tavard, Woman in Christian Tradition, p. 158; University of Notre Dame Press, 1973)

§62. An Androgynous God in Catholic Christianity
Very early the term ‘‘catholic” came to be used by many Christians to refer to those who had established themselves as orthodox. Among such “orthodox” Christians there was at least one Christian father, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.—he was listed as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church until the seventeenth century), who wrote of God in androgynous terms. He links essentially God’s Fatherhood with Motherhood, love and creation, and speaks of the Father’s womb (kolpon) which “brought forth” (exēgēsato) the only-begotten (monogenē) Son, not of Mother or of Father but of God (Huios Theo), underlining both androgyny and unity.

For what is more essential to God than the mystery of love?
Look then into the womb (kolpon) of the Father,
Which alone has brought forth the only-begotten Son of God.
God is love,
And for love of us has become woman (ethēlynthē).*
The ineffable being of the Father has out of compassion with us become mother.
By loving the Father has become woman (Agapēsas ho Patēr ethēlynthē). (Clement of Alexandria, “Quis Dives Salvetur,” J. P. Migne, Patrologia Graeca, Vol. 9, col. 641)
*[As corrected in Migne; from thēlynō, “to become woman.”]


Because it was only late in the fourth century that the canon of the New Testament was finally fixed as we now have it, many of the writings that are now called apocryphal were for centuries widely accepted and used by Christian churches. Hence, it would be anachro­nistic to exclude all of them from consideration in matters concerning early Christianity. Still, caution must be exercised in their use, for usually, to a much greater extent than most of the canonical New Testament writings, most of the apocryphal New Testament writings have very little historical basis—the childhood stories about Jesus, for example, are largely legendary fiction. However, these apocryphal writings are first-class sources for informing us about what many early Christians thought and believed and how they lived: e.g., the ex­tremely anti-sex attitudes of the apocryphal Acts of various apostles— which far exceed any sexual asceticism of the New Testament.

Much, though by no means all, of the Christian writing of these early centuries came under the influence of the broad cultural move­ment called Gnosticism. Gnosticism, as its name indicated (gnōsis —knowledge), taught that salvation was to be attained by means of a secret knowledge lying below the surface of texts, symbols, and events. Thus, in the third-century Gnostic Gospel of Philip it is written: “People do not perceive what is correct but they perceive what is incorrect, unless they have come to know what is correct.” (Nag Hammadi Library, p. 133.)

Further, Gnosticism tended to be strongly dualistic in its concep­tion of reality (all reality is ultimately made up of two elements: matter, which is evil, and spirit, which is good). In line with that conception it also tended to be very ascetical and anti-sex. But that did not ipso facto mean it was totally anti-woman, as will be seen below when the various apocryphal Acts of apostles are discussed (see §314). Also, partly because of its dualism the masculine and feminine elements were sometimes projected into its conceptualizations of the divinity. Of course there were also other causes of such male-female conceptualizations (e.g., the God and Goddess traditions), and simi­larly, not every feminine-masculine description of the divinity was necessarily a reflection of Gnosticism. With such cautions in mind we can proceed.

§63. The Triune Thought of God

The Trimorphic Protennoia (the “Three-Form First Thought”) is a late second-century Christian (or Christianized) Gnostic tractate about God that in some respects resembles the Hebraic-Judaic tradi­tions about Wisdom (Hokmah-Sophia). Paradoxically the First Thought, Protennoia, is at once (1) “The first bom of all who exist” and also (2) the one who “exists before the All”; in fact, (3) she “is” the All. The first is reminiscent of Ben Sira 24:9: “From eternity, in the beginning, he created me [Hokmah], and for eternity I shall remain.” The second is similar to Prov 8:23: “From everlasting I (Hokmah] was firmly set, from the beginning, before earth came into being.” The third is like, but goes beyond, Wisdom 7:25-26: “She [Sophia] is a breath of the power of God, pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty . . . image of his goodness.” In this “going beyond,” it is analogous to John’s utilizing of the Hokmah-Sophia theme and substituting in it the Logos in a way that also continues and “goes beyond” the previous Wisdom tradition (see §59): “In the beginning was the Word [Logos]: The Word was with God and the Word was God…. The Word was the true light that enlightens every human being [anthrōpon]; and he was coming into the world (Jn 1:1, 9). In the Trimorphic Protennoia, however, the divine ”comes the second time in the likeness of a female.”

I am Protennoia, the Thought that dwells in the Light. I am the movement that dwells in the All, she in whom the All takes its stand, the first-born among those who came to be, she who exists before the All. She (Protennoia) is called by three names, although she exists alone, since she is perfect. I am invisible within the Thought of the Invisible One. I am revealed in the immeasurable, ineffable things. I am intangible dwelling in the intangible. I move in every creature…. I am the Invisible One within the All. It is I who counsel those who are hidden, since I know the All that exists in it I am numberless beyond everyone. I am immeasurable, ineffable, yet when ever I wish, I shall reveal myself. I am the movement of the All. I exist before the All, and I am the All, since I exist before everyone.

I am a single one (fem.) since I am undefiled. I am the Mother of the Voice [which is another name for the Father!] speaking in many ways completing the All. It is in me that knowledge dwells, the knowledge of things everlasting. It is l who speak within every creature and I was known by the All. It is l who lift up the Sound [another name for the Mother] of the Voice to the ears of those who have known me, that is, the Sons of Light.

Now l have come the second time in the likeness of a female and have spoken with them. (Trimorphic Protennoia, Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 461, 462, 466).

§64. Mother, Father, Son God—I

In the same Gnostic Christian document, the Trimorphic Protennoia, God is also described as having three dimensions, Mother, Father, and Son. However, there is a certain unclarity because of a language difficulty. The document was originally composed in Greek and was subsequently translated into Coptic (Egyptian). Unfortunately the Greek is lost and the Coptic is obviously not always a precise rendering of the original, leaving us with certain unclarities. Nevertheless, it is sure that the divinity was conceived of as threefold, as Mother, Father, and Son, although it is not clear whether or which, the Father or the Mother, is prior. But perhaps such ambiguity is deliberate. In any case, the feminine, maternal dimension is there at the heart of divinity, as well as the masculine and paternal. The ancient Goddess not only in the form of Wisdom, Knowledge, or Thought (Sophia, Athena) but also as the Mater Magna is present here.

Now the Voice that originated from my Thought exists as three permanences: The Father, the Mother, the Son…. He [the Son] gave Aeons for the Father of all Aeons, who is I, the Thought of the Father, for Protennoia, that is, Barbelo [a name often given to the feminine dimension in these Gnostic documents], the perfect Glory and the immeasurable Invisible One who is hidden. I am the Image of the Invisible Spirit and it is through me that the All took shape, and I am the Mother as well as the Light which she appointed as Virgin, she who is celled Meirothea [which means “maiden Goddess”], the intangible Womb….

Then the Perfect Son revealed himself to his Aeons…. And they gave glory, saying, “He is! He is! The Son of God! The Son of God! It is he who is’ (Trimorphic Protennoia, Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 463-64)

In the somewhat earlier (before A.D. 185) Gnostic Christian Apocryphon of John the three-form divinity, Father, Mother, Son, is also found. Here, however, the term “spirit” is not feminine but is connected with the Father. The feminine dimension is referred to as Mother, Pronoia (that is, “first thought”), and Barbelo (which may mean “intense radiation”). The Son is also called the Autogenes (“self-generated”) and the Christ. Here the Father definitely appears to be prior to the Mother, though she seems to be a perfect image of him and the “womb of everything.”

I am the one who is with you forever. I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Son…. He said to me [John], “The Monad is a monarchy with nothing above it. It is he who exists as God and Father of everything, the invisible one who is above everything, who is imperishability, existing as pure light which no eye can behold.

He is the invisible Spirit…. This is the first power which was before all of them and which came forth from his mind, that is the Pronoia of the All. Her light is the likeness of the light, the perfect power which is the image of the invisible, virginal Spirit who is perfect. The first power, the glory, Barbelo, the perfect glory in the aeons, the glory of the revelation, she glorified the virginal Spirit and praised him, because thanks to him she had come forth. This is the first thought, his image, she became the womb of everything for she is prior to them all. (Apocryphon of John, Nag Hammadi Library, pp. 99-101)

A third Gnostic Christian document, the Coptic writing called the Gospel of the Egyptians, apparently written somewhat after the above-cited Apocryphon of John, also speaks of a triune God, Father, Mother, and Son. Here the term “Father” does double duty. First it is the great silent unknown Father which is the source of the three powers, the Mother, Son, and Father [the Father being an active force, in this usage]. It should also be noted that in this second sense the Father is also referred to as androgynous (for other examples of androgyny in God, see §517 and 66). Likewise interesting is the fact that, notwithstanding her “coming forth from the Father,” the Mother is also said to have “originated from herself.”

Three powers came forth from him; they are the Father, the Mother, and the Son, from the living silence, what came forth from the incorruptible Father. These came forth from the silence of the unknown Father…. The first ogdoad . . . the androgynous Father. The second ogdoad-power, the Mother, the virginal Barbelon…. The third ogdoad-power, the Son of the silent silence, and the crown of the silent silence, and the glory of the Father and the virtue of the Mother. (Gospel of the Egyptians, Nag Hammadi Library, p. 196) .

§65 Mother, Father, Son God—II
Though Gnosticism was vigorously attacked by catholic Christianity and most of the Gnostic writings were burned, along with as many of the apocryphal writings as could be confiscated, the idea of Motherhood in a triune God either persisted or reappeared in medieval Western Christianity (as also in medieval Judaism, i.e., the Kabbala —see §46). The fourteenth–century English mystic mentioned above, Dame Julian of Norwich, spoke of the properties of Fatherhood, Motherhood, and Lordship (the latter, because it is connected to “Our Lord Jesus,” is the equivalent of the Son) in the Trinity. There is here obviously no subordination of Motherhood to the other properties of God.

I beheld the working of all the blessed Trinity. In which beholding I saw and understood these three properties: the property of Fatherhood, and the property of Motherhood, and the Property of the Lordship—in one God . . . I saw and understood that the high might of the Trinity is our Father and the deep wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, and the great love of the Trinity is out Lord. (Dame Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love of Julian of Norwich, tr. by James Walsh, Ch. 58)

66. The Mother-Father God Once Again
Above in §22 the likelihood of the female and male aspects of the divinity being reflected in the ancient Hebrew names for God (Eloah El, Elohim was discussed, and in §43 a quotation from the Dead Sea Scrolls was cited as perhaps a further echo of this divine “androgyny.” This is of course besides all of the evidence exhibited above showing
that the divine in the Judeo-Christian tradition was conceived of in feminine as well as masculine terms; but it was usually rather clearly either feminine or masculine, rather than both at the same time. Even most of the Gnostic Christian material quoted in the pages just above speaks of the Mother and the Father in the divine separately. However, there are other statements from this Gnostic and apocryphal Christian material which refer to the divine as “syzygetic” (paired), “Mother–Father,” etc., beginning with the above–cited (64) Coptic Gospel of the Egyptians reference to “the androgynous Father.”

Then he said to me, “The Mother-Father who is rich in mercy, thc holy
Spirit in every way, the One who is merciful . . .” (Apocryphon of John, Nag Hammadi Library, p. 114).

I am the Voice (synonym for the Father] that appeared through my Thought, for I am ‘ He who is syzygetic,” since I am called “the Thought of the Invisible One.” Since I am called “the Unchanging Sound [synonym for the Mother],” I am called “She who is syzygetic., . . . I am androgynous. I am both Mother and Father since I [make love] with myself. I [make love] with myself and with those who love me, and it is through me alone that the All stands firm I am the Womb that gives shape to the All by giving birth to the Light that shines in splendor. I am the Aeon to come. I am the fulfillment of the All, that is, Meirothea, the glory of the Mother. (Trimorphic Protennoia, Hag Hammadi Library, pp. 465-467)

Another second-century Gnostic Christian document, also originally written in Greek but this time available only in a Syriac translation, the Odes of Solomon, also speaks of the divinity in androgynous terms. However, they are different from those previously cited. First the Odes speak not of Father, Mother, and Son, but of the customery Christian Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Second, the androgyny appears when the Father is said to have milk-filled breasts!

A cup of milk was offered to me;
And I drank it in the sweetness of the delight of the Lord.
The Son is the cup.
And He who is milked is the Father
And He who milked Him is the Holy Spirit.
Because His breasts were full;
And it was not desirable that His milk should be spilt to no purpose.
And the Holy Spirit opened His [literally, Her] bosom
And mingled the milk of the two breasts of the Father
And gave the mixture to the world without their knowing:
And they who take it are in the fullness of the right hand.
(J. R. Harris and A. Mingana, eds., The Odes and Psalms of Solomon, Vol.2, pp. 298f.—19:1-5; London, 1920)

Positive Christian Tradition

VIII. Positive Elements in Christian Tradition

A.The apostolic Writings (New Testament)-The Gospels

§156. Jerusalem Women on the Via Dolorosa

Luke, again, is the only one of the Gospel writers who mentions the women of Jerusalem meeting Jesus as he was carrying his cross to the place of execution. He records that they mourned and cried for him. The Talmud notes that the noble women used to prepare a soothing drink for the condemned, but that is far different from what is described by Luke. These women clearly must have been devoted followers of Jesus who were overwhelmed with grief. They are a group distinct from the “large numbers of people” who followed Jesus; the Greek makes it clear that only the women were said to mourn and lament for Jesus. They obviously responded with a profound attachment to this Jesus who had taught them. Nowhere in any of the Gospels is there a similar report of a group of male followers of Jesus lamenting for him publicly or risking their limbs and lives by meeting and mourning for him in the open. Jesus’ response was typical in that he showed greater concern for them than for himself. Luke would have him speak with foreknowledge of the coming destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70); hence most scholars hold that these specific words were provided by the evangelist, though with a historical basis.

As they were leading him away they seized on a man, Simon from Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and made him shoulder the cross and carry it behind Jesus. Large numbers of people followed him, and of women too, who mourned and lamented for him. But Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep rather for yourselves and for your children. For the days will surely come when people will say, ‘Happy are those who are barren, the wombs that have never borne, the breasts that have never suckled!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us”; to the hills, ·Cover us’ For if men use the green wood like this, what will happen when it is dry?” Now with him they were also leading out two other criminals to be executed. (Lk 23 26–32)

§157. Only Women Remain by Jesus Through His Death

It should first be noted that there is no record of any women seeking the death of Jesus; all those in any way involved in promoting Jesus’ death are men. Such noninvolvement of women in the violent death of others was by no means a foregone conclusion in Jewish tradition: cf. Deborah., Jael, Esther, Judith, Salome.

On the positive side, the response of the women disciples to Jesus was extraordinary. He taught and fought for them and they responded by following him to his bitter end, even at risk to their own limb and life. All Jesus’ male disciples deserted him: “Then all the disciples deserted him and ran away” (Mt 26:56); “And they all deserted him and ran away” (Mk 14:49). Luke, almost certainly a later Gospel than Mark and perhaps also Matthew, says that “those who knew Jesus stood afar and watched the crucifixion. John, which is the latest of all the Gospels, places ”the disciple Jesus loved,” traditionally thought to be John the Apostle, below the cross with women. Many scholars believe that both Luke and John here contain unhistorical additions to the Mark and Matthew report. Following this historical judgment, and Mark and Matthew, we have to conclude that only the women stayed with Jesus in his moment of despair and humiliation.

(1) There were some women watching from a distance. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary who was the mother of James the younger and Joseph, and Salome. These used to follow him and minister to him when he was in Galilee. And there were many other women there who had come up to Jerusalem with him. (Mk 15:40–41)

(2) And many women were there, watching from a distance, the same women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and ministered to him. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons. (Mt 27:55–56)

(3) All those who knew him stood at a distance, so also did the women who had accompanied him from Galilee, and they saw all this happen. (Lk 23:49)

(4) Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother’s sister Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, this is your son.”, Then to the disciple he said, “This is your mother.” And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home. (Jn 19 25–27)

§158. Women Witness the Burial of Jesus

The women disciples of Jesus remained by him through his death and also his burial—when all was despair. All three of the Synoptic Gospels report the presence of the women at the burial of Jesus. Joseph of Arimathaea and, probably, Nicodemus were members of the Council which participated in the trial of Jesus. Hence they had the political weight to obtain Jesus’ body. Except for them, apparently only the womendisciples were present for the burial – faithful to the end.

(1) It was now evening, and since it was Preparation Day (that is, the vigil of the sabbath), there came Joseph of Arimathaea, a prominent member of the Council, who himself lived in the hope of seeing the reign of Cod, and he boldly went to Pilate and asked for the bodv of Jesus. Pilate, astonished that he should have died so soon, summoned the centurion and enquired if he was already dead. Having been assured of this by the centurion, he granted the corpse to Joseph who bought a shroud, took Jesus down from the cross wrapped him in the shroud and laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Joset were watching and took note of where he was laid. (MK 15:42-47)

(2) When it was evening, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, called Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate thereupon ordered it to be handed over. So Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean shroud and put it in his own new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a large stone across the entrance of the tomb and went away. Now Mary of Magdala and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulcnre. (Mt 27:57-61)

(3) Then a member of the council arrived, an upright and virtuous man named Joseph. He had not consented to what the others had planned and carried out. He came from Arimathaea, a Jewish town, and he lived in the hope of seeing the reign of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. He then took it down, wrapped it in a shroud and put him in a tomb which was hewn in stone in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day and the sabbath was imminent. Meanwhile the women who had come from Galilee with Jesus were following behind. . . . They returned and prepared spices and ointments. And on the sabbath day they rested, as the Law required. (Lk 23:50-56)

§159. Empty Tomb — I
Perhaps because the women disciples followed Jesus to his bitter ehd on the cross and his burial and came back to his grave after the Sabbath, they were privileged to be the first witnesses to the empty tomb and first appearances of the “resurrected one.” This last element doubtless helps explain the prominent place women held in the early Christian community. Though their testimony was then rejected by the male disciples (according to the Jewish custom of the time, which did not allow women to bear witness), all four evangelist record the women’s witness to the risen Jesus and/or the empty tomb as primary, obviously reflecting the consensuses of the different primitive Christian communities in the midst of which they wrote theirGospels. But because these traditions differed in the details of how the witnessing of the women took place, it will be helpful to look at each one.

§160. Empty Tomb — II

The account by Mark is probably the earliest, but somehow the original ending of the Gospel after Mk 16:8 probably has been lost and the story is incomplete, e.g., the women are silent after witnessing the empty tomb (see §182 for a discussion of this problem).
When the sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices with which to go and anoint him. And very early in the morning on the first day of the week they went to the tomb, just as the sun was rising.
They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” But when they looked thev could see that the stone—which was very big—had already been rolled back. On entering the tomb they saw a young man in a white robe seated on the right-hand side, and they were struck with amazement. But he said to them, “There is no need for alarm. You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified: he has risen, he is not here. See, here is the place where they laid him. But you must go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; it is there you will see him, just as he told you.’ ” And the women came out and ran away from the tomb because they were frightened out of their wits; and they said nothing to a soul, for they were afraid. (Mk 16:1-45)

§161. Empty Tomb — III

In Matthew’s account, perhaps the second oldest Gospel, the women are commissioned by an angel to give witness to the male disciples that Jesus had risen. Thus in a basic sense they were “apostles,” ones sent (apostoloi) to bear witness to the resurrection.

After the sabbath, and towards dawn on the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala and the other Mary went to visit the sepulchre. And all at once there was a violent earthquake, for the angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled away the stone and sat on it. His face was like lightning, his robe white as snow. The guards were so shaken, so frightened of him, that they were like dead men. But the angel spoke; and he said to the women, “There is no need for you to be afraid. 1 know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said he would. Come and see the place where he lay, then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has risen from the dead and now he is going pefore you to Galilee; it is there you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” Filled with awe and great joy the women came quickly away from the tomb and ran to tell the disciples. (Mt 28:1-8)

§162. Empty Tomb—IV

The third account, by Luke, not only describes the women reporting what they had seen and heard to the male disciples, but, in customary fashion, being disbelieved by them.

On the first day of the week, at the first sign of dawn, they went to the tomb with the spices they had prepared. They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, but on entering discovered that the body of the Lord Jesus was not there. As they stood there not knowing what to think two men in brilliant clothes suddenly appeared at their side. Terrified, the women lowered their eyes. But the two men said to them, “Why look among the dead for someone who is alive? He is not here, he has risen. Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee: that the Son of Man had to be handed over into the power of sinful men and be crucified, and rise again on the third day?” And they remembered his words.

When the women returned from the tomb they told all this to the Eleven and to all the others. The women were Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. The other women with them also told the apostles, but this story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them Peter, however, went running to the tomb. He bent down and saw the binding cloths but nothing else; he then went back home, amazed at what had happened. (Lk 24:1–12)

§163. Empty Tomb—V

John the Evangelist, writing considerably later than the other three Gospel writers, describes only Mary Magdalene’s visit to the tomb and her report to the male disciples. Though he does not say explicitly, as does Luke, that they disbelieved her, their actions would fit within that assumption.

It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been moved away from the tomb and came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple the one Jesus loved. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb,” she said, ‘ and we don’t know where they have put him.”

So Peter set out with the other disciple to go to the tomb. They ran together, but the other disciple, running faster than Peter, reached the tomb first, he bent down and saw the linen cloths lying on the ground, but did not go in. Simon Peter who was following now came Up, went right into the tomb, saw the linen cloths on the ground, and also the cloth that had been over his head, this was not with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple who had reached the tomb first also went in, he saw and he believed. Till this moment they had failed to understand the teaching of scripture, that he must rise from the dead. The disciples then went home again. (Jn 20:1–10)

§164. The Risen Jesus and Women – I

Three of the four Gospels report that the first appearance of the risen Jesus was to Mary Magdalene, or to a group of women disciples, in addition to the women’s being the first witnesses of the empty tomb and the speech and commission by an angel or angels to witness to the resurrection. Writing before any of the evangelists, Paul in I Cor 15:5–8 described five of the appearances of the risen Jesus, “that he appeared first to Cephas (Peter) and secondly to the Twelve.” Nowhere does Paul refer to Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene or the other women disciples. Could this be a reflection of the Jewish custom of disallowing the testimony of women, manifested by the Pharisee Paul and not yet counteracted by the women disciples through the oral traditions that fed three of the Gospel writers?

§165. The Risen Jesus and Women—II

In any case it is “the gospel truth” that the risen Jesus appeared first to a woman. The earliest Gospel, Mark, records the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene, but that whole final section (Mk 16:9–20) is universally held by scholars not to have been written by the author of the Gospel of Mark, but rather added later, perhaps in the second century. As it stands, the Gospel of Mark reports simply that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and also that the male disciples refused to believe her—which a woman might have expected.

Having risen in the morning on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary of Magdala from whom he had cast out seven devils. She then went to those who had been his companions, and who were mouming and in tears, and told them. But they did not believe her when they heard her say that he was alive and that she had seen him. (Mk 16:9–11)

§166. The Risen Jesus and Women—III

According to Matthew, Jesus appeared first to Mary Madgalene and “the other Mary.” He gives more concrete details and a commission by Jesus to “go and tell my brothers” about the resurrection; they, women, were being “sent” (apostellein) by Jesus to men, to the male disciples, to bear witness (despite women’s inability in Jewish law) to the resurrection—in a word, women were made “apostles” by Jesus.

Filled with awe and great joy the women came quickly away from the tomb and ran to tell the disciples.

And there, coming to meet them, was Jesus. “Greetings,” he said. And the women came up to him, and falling down before him, clasped his feet. Then Jesus said to them,”Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers that they must leave for Galilee, they wll see me there.” (Mt 28:8-10)

§167. The Risen Jesus and Women — IV

John, the last Gospel writer, is the most detailed, and touching, in his description of Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene. She obvi ously had a deep affection for Jesus: he had cured her and she followed him throughout Galilee and down to Jerusalem, “ministering” (diēkonoun) to him; she stayed by him through his bitter death (which, according to some Gospel accounts, the male disciples did not do), attended his burial, returned to his tomb to mourn, “weeping”; when she recognized him she threw her arms around his feet and called him “rabbi,” teacher. Jesus reciprocated by appearing to her first of all; after addressing her as “woman,” a frequent form of address, he called her by her proper name, Mary; he commissioned her “to go to the brothers and tell them” of his resurrection, commissioning her as an “apostle to the apostles”—in that sense, the first of the apostles!”

Meanwhile Mary stayed outside near the tomb, weeping. Then, still weeping, she stooped to look inside, and saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head, the other at the feet. They said, “Woman, why are you weeping?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she replied, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” As she said this she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, though she did not recognize him. Jesus said, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” I Supposing him to be the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and remove him.” Jesus said, “Mary!” She knew him then and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbuni!” – which means Teacher. Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, because 1 have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to the brothers, and tell them: I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” So Mary of Magdala went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that he had said these things to her. (Jn 20:11-18)

§168. The Risen Jesus and Women — V

In the several evangelists’ accounts Jesus is depicted as one learned in the Law, and therefore obviously aware of the stricture against women serving as witnesses. Hence their describing his first appearing to and commissioning of women to bear witness to the most important event of hi s career cannot be understood as anything but deliberate; it was a dramatic linking of a very clear rejection of the second-class status of women with the center of Jesus’ gospel, his resurrection. The portrayal of Jesus’ effort to connect centrally these two points is so obvious that it is an overwhelming tribute to man’s intellectual myopia not to have discerned it effectively in two thousand years.

§169. The Risen Jesus and Women — VI: Apocryphal Writings

As mentioned above (pp. 66f.), apocryphal New Testament writings, especially the earlier ones, may well be the vehicles of certain historical traditions, though it may be difficult at times to discern the historically based element amid the legendary accretions. Further, they tell us something historical about what and how some Christians believed and lived at the time they were written. Hence, it is very interesting to find several apocryphal writings (running from perhaps the time of the writing of the canonical Gospels in the latter part of the first century to the third or fourth centuries) which continue both the traditions concerning the women followers of Jesus, still always including Mary Magdalene: that it was they who first found the empty tomb and they to whom Jesus first appeared, commissioning them to witness to the male disciples—to no avail, of course.

(1) The earliest of these apocryphal writings is the Gospel of Peter, composed anywhere from the latter part of the first century to the middle of the second century. It is strikingly like the three Synoptic Gospels, especially Mark’s first “ending,” where the women “fearfully fled the tomb” (Mk 16:8), suggesting that the apocryphal Gospel of Peter was written before the “long ending” of Mark (Mk 16:9-20) was composed—probably early in the second century. It should be noted that Mary Magdalene is especially named here a woman disciple of the Lord.

Early in the morning of the Lord’s day Mary Magdalene, a woman disciple of the Lord—for fear of the Jews, since (they) were inflamed with wrath, she had not done at the sepulchre of the Lord what women are wont to do for those beloved of them who die—took with her her women friends and came to the sepulchre where he was laid. And they feared lest the Jews should see them, and said, “Although we could not weep and lament on that day when he was crucified, let let us now do so at his sepulchre. But who will roll away for us the stone also that is set on the entrance to the sepulchre, that we may go in and sit beside him and do what is due? For the stone was great,— and we fear lest any one see us. And if we cannot do so, let us at least put down at the entrance what we bring for a memorial of him and let us weep and lament until we have again gone home.” So they went and found the sepulchre opened. And they came near, stooped down and saw there a young man sitting in the midst of the sepulchre, comely and clothed , with a bright shing robe, who said to them “Wherefore are ye come? Whom seek ye? Not him who was crucified? He is risen and gone. But if ye believe not, stoop this way and see the place where he lay, for he is not here. For he is risen and is gone thither whence he was sent.” The the women fled affrighted. (Gospel of Peter, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1, pp. 186-187)

(2) In the second apocryphal writing, the Letter of the Apostles, or Epistula Apostolorum, also written early in the second century, the women, including Mary Magdalene, were not only the first to go and find the empty tomb but also the first to see Jesus. Moreover, here at this very early period stress is placed not only the first to see the risen Jesus but also very heavily on the fact that they were sent to witness to the male disciples, who were so recalcitrant that Jesus sent a second woman, and finally went along with all of them to convince the male disciples of the resurrection.Was the expansion on this theme here both a reflection of the growing restrictions that women were experiencing in the church at that time and also a rebuke of those male leaders responsible for those restrctions?

He of whom we are witnesses we know as the one crucified in the days of Pontius Pilate and of the Prince Archeleus, who was crucified between two thieves and was taken down from the wood of the cross together with them and was buried in the place of the skull, to which three woman came, Sarah, Martha, and Mary Magdalene. They carried ointment to pour out upon his body, weeping and mourning over what had happened. And they approached the tomb and found the stone where it had been rolled away from the tomb, and they opened the door and did not find his body. And as they were moúrning and weeping, the Lord appeared to them and said to them, “Do not weep; I am he whom you seek. But let one of you go to your brothers and say ‘Come, our Master has risen from the dead.’ ”

And Mary came to us and told us. And we said to her, “What have we to do with you, O woman? He that is dead and buried, can he then live?’, And we did not believe her, that our Saviour had risen from the dead.

Then she went back to our Lord and said to him, “None of them believed me concerning your resurrection.” And he said to her, “Let another one of you go to them.” And Sarah came and gave us the same news, and we accused her of lying. And she returned to our Lord and spoke to him as Mary had.

Then the Lord said to Mary and to her sisters, “Let us go to them.” And he came and found us inside…. And … he said to us, ”Come, and do not be afraid. I am your teacher whom you, Peter, denied three times; and now do you deny again?” (Epistula Apostolorum, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1, pp. 195–196)

(3) The third document was written significantly later and was the product of a definitdy Gnostic Christian group, the followers of Mani (Manicheans); it was probably written in the third or fourth century. Only fragments are still extant, and the only portion of them dealing with the resurrection concerns Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene, apparently a development of the story at the end of the canonical Gospel of John. There are several points of special interest in it. For one thing, Mary Magdalene is specifically made “a messenger (angelos) for me to these wandering orphans (orphanos) ” meaning the eleven male disciples. Further, she is asked to do this as a service, a leitourgia to Jesus. Could there be a deliberate support here for women’s involvement in leadership roles in liturgy and an implicit rebuke for those church leaders who did not allow it?

Something similar may perhaps also be the case with the reference to Mary Magdalene’s being made a “messenger,” as far as women having a leadership role over men is concerned. The male disciples, spoken of as “wandering orphans,” are really put down as badly in need of the guidance of this woman. For the women, however, it is noted that they no doubt will meet stiff resistance from the men and that consequently they must develop all their “skill (technē) and advice until thou hast brought the sheep to the shepherd,” again placing the woman in a much superior, indeed, “pastoral,” position vis–à–vis the male disciples, who are suspected by Jesus of “having their wits gone.” Even Peter is placed under Mary Magdalene’s evangelistic (eu–angelios) tutelage.

“Mariam, Mariam, know me: do not touch me. Stem the tears of thy eyes and know me that I am thy master. Only touch me not, for I have not yet seen the face of my Father. Thy God was not stolen away, according to the thoughts of thy littleness, thy God did not die, rather he mastered death. I am not the gardener…. Cast this sadness away from thee and do this service (leitourgia): be a messenger (angelos) for me to these wandering orphans (orpianos). Make haste rejoicing, and go unto the Eleven. Thou shalt find them gathered together on the banks of the Jordan. The traitor persuaded them to be fishermen as they were at first and to lay down their nets with which they caught man unto life. Say to them: ‘Arise, let us go, it is your brother that calls you.’ If they scorn my brotherhood, say to them: ‘It is your Master.’ If they disregard my mastership, say to them: ‘it is your Lord.’ Use all skill (technē) and advice until thou hast brought the sheep to thc shepherd. If thou seest that their wits are gone, draw Simon Peter unto thee; say to him, ‘Remember what I uttered between thee and me . . . in the Mount of Olives: I have something to say, I have none to whom to say it.’ ” (Gospel of Mani, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1, pp. 353–354)

§170. Mary Magdalene

It should be noted that Mary Magdalene, that is, Mary from the town of Magdala, is named in all four of the canonical Gospels.

(There is no solid reason to identify her with the sinful woman of Lk 7:37–50 or Mary of Bethany.) In every instance (there are a total of twelve in the four Gospels) except Lk 8:2, the reference is in connection either with her being at the crucifixion and observing Jesus’ burial, or with her seeing the empty tomb and the risen Jesus—the former being mentioned as a preparation to recording the latter. Each time, Mary Magdalene is either named alone or is at the head of the list (with the exception of the special situation of Jn 19:25 where the focus is specifically on Jesus’ mother Mary). Moreover, all of the lists vary from evangelist to evangelist, no two lists ever being the same; however, Mary Magdalene is always listed. Scholars conclude that there was a strong and widespread tradition that Jesus appeared first of all to Mary Magdalene and that she therefore held a place of honor in the early Christian community—thereby explaining her appearance on all the lists of women in the Gospels, and in being first on all save one.

(1) And many women were there, watching from a distance, the same women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and ministered to him. Among them were Mary of Magda, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons. (Mt 27:55–56)

(2) So Joseph took the body wrapped it in a clean shroud and put it in his own new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a large stone across the entrance of the tomb and went away. Now Mary of Magdala and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre. (Mt 27:59–61)

(3) After the sabbath and towards dawn on the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala and the other Mary went to visit the sepulchre. (Mt 28:1)

(4) There were some women watching from a distance. Among them were Mary of Magdala, Mary who was the mother of James the younger and Joset, and Salome. These used to follow him and minister to him when he was in Galilee. (Mk 15:40–41)

(5) He granted the corpse to Joseph who bought a shroud, took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in the shroud and laid him in a tomb which; had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Josef were watching and took note of where he was laid. (Mk 15:45–47)

(6) When the sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices with which to go and anoint him. And very early in the morning on the first day of the week they went to the tomb, just as the sun was rising. (Mk 16:1–2)

(7) Having risen in the morning on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary of Magdala from whom he had cast out seven devils.(Mk.16:9)

(8) With him went the Twelve, as well as certain women who had been “rid of evil spirits and ailments: Mary surnamed the Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and several others who ministered to them out of their own resources. (Lk 8:1–3)

(9) When the women returned from the tomb they told all this to the Eleven and to all the others. The women were Mary of Magdala, Joanna and Mary thc mother of James The other women with them also told the apostles, but this story of theirs seemed pure nonsense, and they did not believe them. (Lk 24:9–11)

(10) Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother and his mother’s sister Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. Seeing his mother and the disciple he loved standing near her, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, this is your son.” Then to the disciple he said, “This is your mother.” And from that moment the disciple made a place for her in his home. (ln 19:25–27)

(11) It was very early on the first day of the week and still dark, when Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She … saw Jesus standing there…. Jesus said to her, . . . “Go to the brothers, and tell them . . .” So Mary of Magdala went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that he had said these things to her. (Jn 20:1,15,17,18)

§171. The Apostle to the Apostles

As a result of Mary Magdalene’s role as one sent (apostellein) by Jesus to witness to the male apostles, as recorded in the canonical gospel of John 20:17, she was the only woman besides Jesus’ mother on whose feast the Creed was recited in the Western Church (Josef Andreas Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite, p. 470, n. 55; Benziger Brothers, 1951). The term “apostle” in reference to Magdalene occurs often in the well–known ninth–century life of her by Rabanus Maurus: Jesus commissioned her an apostle to the apostles (apostola apostolorum)—cf. Migne, Patrologia Latina, Vol. 112, col. 1474B; she did not delay in carrying out the office of the apostolate to which she was commissioned (col.1475A); her fellow apostles were evangelized with the news of the resurrection of the Messiah (col.1475B); she was raised to the honor of the apostolate and was commissioned an evangelist (evangelisto) of the resurrection (colt 1479C). Even the acerbic Bernard of Clairvaux (twelfth century) refers to her as the “apostle to the apostles” (Migne, Patrologia Latina, Vol. 183, col. 1148).

Rabanus Maurus really simply carried on a tradition attested to many centuries earlier. Around the end of the second century or the beginning of the third, Hippolytus of Rome also commented on Jesus’ appearing first to Mary Magdalene, and the other women, and spoke of Mary Magdalene, and the other women—and symbolically Eve—as apostles and evangelists (proclaimers of the gospel, evangelium). The extant text is in a Slavonic translation, with variations in an Armenian translation:

Christ himself sent [Mary Magdalene], so that even women become the apostles of Christ and the deficiency of the first Eve’s disobedience was made evident by this justifying obedience. O wondrous adviser, Eve becomes an apostle! Already recognizing the cunning of the serpent, henceforth the tree of knowledge did not seduce her, but having accepted the tree of promise she partook of being judged worthy to be a part of Christ…. Now Eve is a helpmate through the Gospel Therefore too the women proclaimed the Gospel (from here on the Armenian translation has a few differences, see below]. But the basic fact was this, that Eve’s custom was to proclaim lies and not truth. What’s this?7 For us the women proclaim the resurrection as the Gospel. Then Christ appeared to them and said: Peace be with you. I have appeared to the women and have sent them to you as apostles.

[The differences in the Armenian translation are as follows:!

Therefore women too proclaimed the Gospel to the disciples. Therefore, however, they believed them mistaken…. What kind of a new thing is it for you, O women, to tell of the resurrection? But that they might not be judged mistaken again, but as speaking in truth, Christ appeared to them and said: Peace be with you. Wherewith he showed it as true: As I appeared to the women, sending them to you, I have desired to send them as apostles. (Hippolytus, in Die griechischen chnstlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte, 1,1, pp. 354f.; Berlin, 1897)

§172. Mary Magdalene in Gnostic Christian Literature

Besides the strong, positive tradition about Mary Magdalene in the canonical Gospels and the orthodox Christian writers quotes above and others, there is a similarly strong tradition about her among Gnostic Christians, already amply displayed above (169) in the third– or fourth–century Manichean document wherein Mary Magdalene is sent by Jesus as a messenger (angelos) to “evangelize” (euangelizein) the male disciples with all possible skill.

a. Mary Magdalene, Teacher of the Apostles

This tradition of Mary Magdalene’s superiority to the male disciples begins even earlier in the apocryphal Gospel named after her, the Gospel of Mary, probably a second–century Gnostic Christian document. In it, after Jesus commanded the disciples to go and preach the gospel and then left them, the men played the stereotypical female role—not knowing what to do and crying; whereas Mary played the stereotypical male role—confidently knowing what to do and encouraging the men. At first she succeeded admirably, but then, as she expounded her specialized knowledge from Jesus, jealousy was engendered among the male disciples, particularly Andrew and Peter, who attacked her thinking that she, a woman, might have better access to the truths of Christ than they, the men, did. Mary responded bluntly and was supported by another apostle, Levi, who rebuked Peter for being so hot–tempered and attacking Mary Magdalene. In the end they all went off to preach the gospel, so that Mary Magdalene prevailed.

But they were grieved and wept sore, saying: “How shall we go to the heathen and preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of man? If he was not spared at all, how shall we be spared7″

Then arose Mary, saluted them all, and spake to her brethren: “Weep not be not sorrowful, neither be ye undecided, for his grace will be with you all God will protect you. Let us rather praise his greatness, for he hath made us ready, and made us to be men.”

When Mary said this, she turned their mind to good, and they began to discuss the words of the [Saviour).

[Peter now says to Mary, “We know that the Saviour loved you above all other women.” He asks her to recount the revelations that she has received from the Savior, which he and the others have not heard. Mary tells how she saw the Lord in a vision and spoke with him. There follows a lengthy, complicated Gnostic conversation between Jesus and Mary.]

When Mary had said this, she was silent, so that (thus) the Saviour had spoken with her up to this point. But Andrew answered and said to the brethren: “Tell me, what think ye with regard to what she says? I at least do not believe that the Saviour said this. For certainly these doctrines have other meanings.” Peter in answer spoke with reference to things of this kind, and asked them about the Saviour: “Did he then speak privily with a woman rather than with us, and not openly? Shall we turn about and all hearken unto her? Has he preferred her over against us?”

Then Mary wept and said to Peter: “My brother Peter, what dost thou then believe? Dost thou believe that I imagined this myself in my heart, or that I would lie about the Saviour?” Levi answered (and) said to Peter ”Peter, thou hast ever been of a hasty temper. Now I see how thou dost exercise thyself against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Saviour hath made her worthy, who then art thou, that thou reject her? Certainly the Saviour knows her surely enough. Therefore did he love her more than us. Let us rather be ashamed, put on the perfect Man, [form ourselves (?)] as he charged us, and proclaim the Gospel, without requiring any further command or any further law beyond that which the Saviour said (Gr.: neither limiting nor legislating as the Saviour said).”

But when Levi had said this,] they set about going to preach and to proclaim (Gr.: When he had thus spoken Levi went away and began to preach). (Gospel of Mary, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. 1, pp. 341–344)

b. Mary Magdalene, Most Beloved Disciple

In the above citation Peter admits that “the Saviour loved [Mary Magdalene] above all other women.” He could not bring himself to say that Jesus loved Mary Magdalene more than him, but a little later Levi does make such an admission: “But if the Saviour hath made her worthy, who then art thou, that thou reject her? Certainly the Saviour knows her surely enough. Therefore did he love her more than us.” Earlier it was noted (see §152) that in the early third century Gnostic Christian document Pistis Sophia, Jesus said, “But Mary Magdalene and John, the maiden (parthenos), will surpass all my disciples and all men who shall receive mysteries.” Beyond these there is a further Gnostic Christian apocryphal Gospel, the third century Gospel of Philip, in which Mary Magdalene is said to be called the companion of Jesus and loved by Christ “more than all the disciples.” There is also a startling passage in which Christ is said to “kiss her often on the mouth.” In this Gnostic Christian document this action obviously has a spiritualized significance, but still, Mary Magdalene is the recipient of the most intimate favors (graces) of Christ.

There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary…. And 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 [disciples were offended] by it and [expressed disapproval]. 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 like her?” When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness. (Gospel of Philip, Nag Hammadi Library, pp135–136; italics added.)

c. Peter’s Jealousy of Mary Magdalene

In the canonical Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene, rather than Peter, is the one to whom the risen Christ first appears, just as it is Martha rather than Peter who declares Jesus to be the Son of God, giving in the Johannine Christian community a certain priority of Mary Magdalene and other women over Peter (see §180). This does not reflect anything negative toward Peter in the Johannine Christian community, but it does probably indicate a conscious stress on the importance of women, especially Mary Magdalene, rather than Peter, whose importance in the other Gospels was probably known to the final redactor of John. As will be discussed further below, it should also be recalled that there are several lengthy and important passages in John’s Gospel which focus on women, including Mary Magdalene’s first discovery of the empty tomb, her reporting of it to Peter and the others, and Jesus’ appearing to her alone and commissioning her to “go to the brothers, and tell them.” It was probably the next sentence (or the tradition behind the sentence) in John, which said, “So Mary of Magdala went and told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and that he had said these things to her” (Jn 20:18), that gave rise to the expanded report in the apocryphal Gospel of Mary about Mary Magdalene reporting her conversation with Jesus to Peter and the other disciples. Further, the Gospel of John would have been found very attractive by Gnostic Christians, for, like them, it stressed light and life and a very “spiritual” kind of theology—with many long and complicated discourses placed in the mouth of Jesus. Hence it is not surprising to find Gnostic Christians, like John’s Gospel, giving a prominence to Mary Magdalene and also speaking of Peter’s fits of jealousy toward her.

Besides the male disciples’ in general taking offense at Mary Magdalene’s favored position with Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Philip, cited just above, and the specific resentment voiced by Andrew and Peter in the above–cited Gospel of Mary, there is also the extremely vicious attack on women prophets attributed to Peter in the apocryphal Kerygmata Petrou (see 291). Further, Peter’s hostility toward women in general and Mary Magdalene in particular is referred to twice (chs. 36 and 72) in the early third century Gnostic Christian Pistis Sophia, and reaches a kind of climax in the statement attributed to him in the third–century Gnostic Christian Gospel of Thomas, wherein Peter wants to excommunicate Mary Magdalene, because she is a woman, but Jesus defends her (in a way peculiar to the later ascetic time). Again the question naturally arises: was this a protest on the part of some Christian women, and their male sympathizers, against what they saw to be the rising restriction of women and even misogynism exercised by church leaders, who prided themselves on their rootage in the apostles, the chief of whom was Peter, as over against the feminism of Jesus? The solution for many non–Gnostic as well as Gnostic Christian women (as will be discussed below, §314 and pp. 341ff.) was in becoming a man, a male (vir)—that is, celibate. However, the celibate Gnostic Christian women were less willing to accept subordination to the male hierarch than were the orthodox catholic women.

Simon Peter said to them: Let Mary go forth from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Behold, I shall lead her, that I may make her male, in order that she also may become a living spirit like you males. For every woman who makes herself male shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Gospel of Thomas, New Testament Apocrapha, Vol. 1, p. 522)