Letting Mary Magdalene Speak
Tradition is not fixed. Newly-discovered texts like the Gospel of Mary let us hear other voices in an ancient Christian debate.
BY: Karen King
In anarticle about recent interest in Mary Magdalene
, Kenneth Woodward writes “the news is not what is being said about her, but the new context in which she is being placed--and who is doing the placing and why.” As he points out, scholars have agreed at least since the 1960s that she was not a prostitute. Likewise, the speculation that Mary and Jesus were married is hardly new. “The real news,” he says, is found in the work of “ideologically committed feminist scholarship”—a statement I heartily agree with.
The rest of his article, however, is more an expression of Woodward’s distaste for feminism than a review or even a critique of that scholarship. Readers may want to evaluate for themselves examples of the best work in rhetorical criticism and feminist scholarship on Mary of Magdala, such as Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s classic work, In Memory of Her, and Jane Schaberg’s recent book, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene.
Part of the recent excitement about Mary Magdalene has to do with discoveries of previously unknown early Christian writings from Egypt, like the Gospel of Mary, the Dialogue of the Savior, and the Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Mary is found in a fifth-century C.E. papyrus book that came onto the Cairo antiquities market in 1896. It was purchased by a German scholar and taken to Berlin, where it was first published in 1955. In 1945, two Egyptian peasants made an astonishing discovery while digging for fertilizer at the foot of the Jabel al-Tarif, a cliff near the town of Nag Hammadi in Middle Egypt. They uncovered a sealed clay jar containing a hoard of papyrus manuscripts. Known as the Nag Hammadi Codices, these fourth-century C.E. papyrus books included a wealth of ancient Christian literature, a total of 46 different works in all, almost all of which were previously unknown. These and other original writings are offering new perspectives on Christian beginnings. They show that early Christianity was much more diverse than we had ever imagined.
Early Christians intensely debated such basic issues as the content and meaning of Jesus’ teachings, the nature of salvation, the value of prophetic authority, the roles of women and slaves, and competing visions of ideal community. After all, these first Christians had no New Testament, no Nicene Creed or Apostles Creed, no commonly established church order or chain of authority, no church buildings, and indeed no single understanding of Jesus. All of the elements we might consider essential to define Christianity did not yet exist. Far from being starting points, the Nicene Creed and the New Testament were the end products of these debates and disputes. They represent the distillation of experience and experimentation—and not a small amount of strife and struggle.
One consequence of these struggles is that the winners were able to write the history of this period from their perspective. The viewpoints of the losers were largely lost since their ideas survived only in documents denouncing them. Until now. The recent discoveries provide a wealth of primary works that illustrate the plural character of early Christianity and offer alternative voices. They also help us to understand the winners better because their ideas and practices were shaped in the crucible of these early Christian debates. The Nicene Creed, for example, was never intended to be the full statement of Christian faith—after all, it does not ask Christians to affirm anything in the teachings of Jesus even though they were of fundamental importance to faith and practice. Instead every article of the Creed was formulated as a hedge against views that were considered to be wrong.
To take the new texts seriously as historical documents does not mean considering them to be theologically authoritative for contemporary believers. That determination has to be made—as it always has been—by communities of faith.
Meanwhile, placing the figure of Mary Magdalene in this new context helps us understand how the erroneous portrait of her as a prostitute could have been invented and how it could have flourished in the West for well over a millennium without any evidence to support it. Several of the newly-discovered works portray her as a favored disciple of Jesus and apostle after the resurrection. In the Gospel of Mary, for example, she calms the other disciples when they are afraid and gives them special teaching that Jesus had conveyed to her alone. The text states that Jesus knew her completely and loved her more than the others. It also draws upon a tradition of Peter in conflict with Mary, a topic handled with great sophistication by Anne Brock in her new book, Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority.