A Quite Contrary Mary

Like Jesus, Mary Magdalene is now the subject of a cultural makeover. What agenda do feminist scholars have in mind?

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As second-century documents, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip (in which Jesus and Mary kiss), and other apocryphal texts come much too late to provide any reliable historical information about Jesus, Peter, or Mary Magdalene. But they do suggest what some groups--traditionally considered Gnostics--understood about the story of Jesus and his followers. (They also provide evidence--if more evidence were needed--that the post-Reformation quest for a pure, original and orthodox Christianity is a quixotic hunt that, like the proverbial peeled onion, leaves the seeker with only the smell.)

Karen King, a professor at HDS Harvard Divinity School, argues that there is a relationship between the Gospel of Mary, which exalts the role of Mary Magdalene, and Paul's Letter to Timothy, which counsels women to be silent in church. Her argument is that both were produced about the same time, 125 CE, and taken together reflect a raging gender war in the early church. But she does this by taking certain liberties with the dating of these two texts. No one knows when either was written, but some scholars put Timothy in the 90s CE, and some scholars put the Gospel of Mary in the late--not early--second century. King maximizes the dates of both, like bookends with nothing in between, for her purposes. In short, the new Mary Magdalene is an old Gnostic.

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Even so, how credible is the assumption that the church’s rejection of Gnosticism in all its forms was essentially a gender war? In his rigorously balanced "Introduction to the New Testament," the late scholar Raymond E. Brown summarizes how the scriptures written by Christians were preserved and accepted--and what criteria were used. Among them were apostolic origin, real or putative, and conformity to the rule of faith. None of them involved gender. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that whole communities of Christians used the Gospel of Mary, or of Phillip, as authoritative texts. Yes, they were in circulation, but so are a number of books in my own library, several of them including the Gnostic gospels, but that does not make me a Gnostic. We do know, from the texts found at Nag Hammadi and other sources, that in the patristic period there were groups of Gnostics—some with hierarchies of their own—which comprised a kind of counter-church. Whether any of these groups saw themselves as belonging to a “party of Mary Magdalene” is not clear and to say more is to guess.

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