The Hidden Gospels - Part 2: Gospel of Mary

20/04/09 | Posted by MattPage

If a gospel is all about good news then it appears that the Gospel of Mary is barely a gospel at all. There’s no sacrificial death, in fact, there are not even any ideas on how to make the world a better place, at least, not in the parts of the book we have.

image
 Still from Mary (2005) which dramatises scenes from the Gospel of Mary

I say “the parts of the book we have” because the first thing that strikes me as I begin reading this gospel, is that half of it is missing. We only have one copy of this text, which until 1896CE was thought utterly lost, and pages 1-6 and 11-14 are all missing. Who knows what lies in those missing pages.

The material that is left falls into three parts. The remains of chapter 4 feature Jesus, in what is possibly meant to be his final, great, commission, giving the disciples some words of wisdom. Some of these are very familiar to readers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John: “Those who seek him will find him” (4:36); “Go then and preach the gospel” (4:37) and “He who has ears to hear let him hear” which is actually spoken twice (4:24 & 32). But other sayings sound quite unfamiliar: “All nature, all formations, all creatures exist in and with one another, and they will be resolved again into their own roots” (4:22) sounds more Buddhist than Christian, and nature features again in 4:31: “if you are discouraged, be encouraged in the presence of the different forms of nature”.

The second part of the gospel is even more unusual. With Jesus “departed” the disciples are “grieved” (5:1). “How shall we go to the Gentiles and preach the gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of Man? If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?” (5:1). Now, normally at this point, you would expect Peter or John to stand up and say something heroic, but instead it’s Mary that takes the lead and speaks to offer the group comfort and hope. “Do not weep …his grace will be entirely with you and will protect you” (5:2).

Peter then admits that Jesus “loved” her “more than the rest” of them, and asks Mary to fill them in on that which had previously been hidden from them (5:5-6). Mary reveals the details of a conversation she had with Jesus about a vision she had, but before she can really get going we come to the second set of missing pages.

When we return, four pages later, Mary is still going strong. Her message is very different to the New Testament now, with lots of talk about the soul overcoming variety of “powers” (8:10+). That said, it’s easy to exaggerate the difference between what we read here and what we might read in one of the four biblical gospels. After all Matthew has a story about paying tax with a coin from a fish’s mouth, and both he and Mark show Jesus cursing a fig tree.

The final section of the book returns to the relationship between Mary and the remaining disciples; only now things seem to have soured between them. Andrew flat out denies that Jesus has voiced such “strange ideas” (9:2). Peter questions whether Jesus would really have spoken “privately with a woman” and not with them (9:4). In the end, though Levi (the other name for Matthew) leaps to Mary’s defence calling Peter “hot tempered” and suggesting that they should all “put on the perfect Man” and not lay “down any other rule or other law beyond what the Saviour said” (9:9). The gospel concludes with all Jesus’ followers going out “to proclaim and to preach” (9:10)

It’s this last section that perhaps best indicates why this extra gospel was written. The consensus of opinion seems to date The Gospel of Mary 30-100 years after the New Testament gospels. By this time, Peter was long dead and seen as a figurehead for the mainstream church. The way he and his brother Andrew are portrayed suggests that the author of this gospel is from a group that has splintered off from the main church. In contrast, Mary’s claim to have had special revelation, superior to that of the other disciples, suggests that this group saw their gospel as superior to everyone else’s. If that was the case, then it goes some way to explaining why the book remained hidden for so long: it never really captured the attention of the majority of the church to become popular. And laws banning new rules may have meant that the group was simply not flexible enough to survive for hundreds of years. So whilst some people think that books such as Mary were burnt and hacked out of existence, the truth is perhaps rather more mundane.

Yet the book’s rediscovery is relevant for us today. During his time on Earth, Jesus broke many of the taboos surrounding women, whether it was letting his mother Mary nudge him into performing his first public miracle, letting Mary of Bethany sit at his feet and her his teaching, or letting Mary Magdalene be the first person to testify to his resurrection. One of the interesting things about The Gospel of Mary is that we’re not told which Mary it is actually about. Perhaps this was deliberate. In an age that is finally recognising men and women as equals, The Gospel of Mary reminds us that strong female leaders were, in fact, present amongst the early followers of Jesus.

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Your comments

Good points well made. We often overlook the important part played by women in the New Testament. However one of the often overlooked aspects of Gnostism (where many of these extra-canonical writings so often come from - including the Gospel of Mary) is its very bad view of women. In the Gospel of Thomas for instance Jesus is quoted (obviously he never did say this) that women don’t get to heaven so Mary’s soul will need to be made into a man’s (my very broad paraphrase). I’m so glad the Christian view won the day!

#1. By JesusCourse on April 28, 2009

I’m confused by your generalizing and unsupported statement “it’s very bad view of women” regarding “gnosticism” . My personal research regarding the various currents in the emerging church, although certainly non exhaustive and only as objective as my fallibility will allow, would suggest the opposite, that women were equal with men in the greater number of so called “gnostic” sects and were, yet more significantly, often community leaders and active deliverers of the word.This is in stark contrast with Hebrew tradition that woman should not speak in public and most certainly not with authority which would dishonour her (male) head (the tradition is unfortunately perpertuated by Paul among others).

#2. By Jesuseequeuse on May 01, 2009

Indeed, the last verse (114) of Thomas says:
“Simon Peter said to them, “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.”
Jesus said, “Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit,resembling you males; for every female who makes heself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Research has suggested that in early Christianity ‘women whose spirituality was beyond question were described as honorary males’. Recent research has also suggested that Mary Magdalene my well have been the ‘disciple Jesus loved’ and source of the Gospel of John ( in disguise of ‘maleness’ , as a woman she was not entitled to speak with authority; the author(s) of John would have chosen not to provoke suspicion in citing a woman as ” him I want to remain until I return”;-) .

#3. By Jesuseequeuse on May 01, 2009

In this context, the - oh too partially preserved-Gospel of Mary would seem to be a reminder from a community still retaining insider knowledge of the real identity of this key source.

It’s a complex issue and simplistic answers are, in my view, unlikely
to be the right ones.

I’m glad to see that for you the “Christian view which won the day” includes women getting to heaven.Things were a bit more ambiguous back in the times of witch burning. They called that christian too.
Consantine and too many predecessors and successors to cite, almost certainly made more decisions than God did about what made it down to us, through the filter of hebrew,greek and roman anti-female tradition (no disrespect here but I do not believe it is the way of God to interfere with the way we interpret or do with the truths He has spoken, our free will).

#4. By Jesuseequeuse on May 01, 2009

But I’m sure we can agree on the most imortant point I have to make: I am convinced that despite the ambiant tradition, Jesus not only considered women as equal to men but, in the case of Mary, for example, Sometimes more equipped than the male disciples to inherit the Kingdom. In my view this is what is meant in Thomas.

#5. By Jesuseequeuse on May 01, 2009

How did Jesus know about that part of Bhagava Gita where there are many challenges as one tries to overcome the different modes - passion, ignorance… and how one can transcend the mind… choose the mode of goodness oer the mode of passion and ignorance… the words are different… but the message and essance is similar. As the writer said, it sounded more Buddhist than Christian. Buddhism came out of the Hinduisn.

#6. By Magdalena on April 27, 2010

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