We find the same pattern in the feminist redefinition of Mary Magdalene. Here the narrative framework functions like this: the early movement led by Jesus was egalitarian and gender-inclusive (though some second-generation Jewish feminists now reject this on the grounds that it makes Jesus an exception among Jewish men of his day and so is anti-Semitic). Among the women who follow Jesus, Mary of Magdala is the most prominent: she is mentioned more often (12 times) than any other woman but the mother of Jesus. The most important mention is in John 20:11-18, where the resurrected Jesus appears to Mary alone and commissions her to relay the news to his (male) apostles. Hence her traditional title: "apostle to the apostles."

Now, it should be clear to any reader of the New Testament that the women who followed Jesus often acted more like disciples than did some of Jesus' chosen Twelve. For example, the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) have only women at the foot of the cross. (The Gospel of John adds John, the beloved disciple.)

But a small cadre of feminist scholars--especially those tutored and credentialed at Harvard Divinity School--go much further. Their headline-making claim is that in the early church there was a party of Magdalene and a party of Peter--again, men versus women, as in the case of Miriam--and that the party of Peter not only won, but also proceeded to expunge the evidence and memory of the Magdalene faction from the New Testament and to tarnish the reputation of Magdalene to boot. A sermon preached by Pope Gregory in 591 is frequently cited on the latter point, as if he had invented an anti-woman tradition and sealed it with (retroactive) infallibility. Blaming a pope fits the feminist agenda here, injecting an anti-hierarchical, indeed, anti-papal note. In short, patriarchy is again the culprit.

But there is a difference between the two Marys--Miriam and the Magdalene. To make their case, Mary Magdalene's feminist defenders have switched to a different deck of cards. Just as a feminist hermeneutics of suspicion--biblical scholarship based on suspicion of male authorship--dictates that the text of the New Testament, being the work of males, must be distrusted for that very reason, so a feminist hermeneutics of retrieval--in this case, retrieving the suppressed evidence of the party of Mary Magdalene--must go to other sources. These sources are the various texts that did not make it into the New Testament as it was fixed in the 4th century. And the very fact of this exclusion by male church hierarchs makes the extra texts all the more authoritative for scholars whose aim is showing that patriarchy suppressed female leadership in the church. Among these texts, The Gospel of Mary is paramount; it reads as if the author had obtained a DD degree from Harvard Divinity School.


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.

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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