How are we to understand this story? It is at once reminiscent of the New Testament gospels and yet clearly different from them. The gospel's characters-the Savior, Mary, Peter, Andrew, and Levi-are familiar to those acquainted with the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So, too, is the theological language of gospel and kingdom, as well as such sayings of Jesus as "Those who seek will find" or "Anyone with two each should listen." And the New Testament gospels and Acts repeatedly mention the appearance of Jesus to his disciples after the resurrection.

Yet it is also clear that the story of the Gospel of Mary differs in significant respects. For example, after Jesus commissions the disciples they do not go out joyfully to preach the gospel, as they do in Matthew; instead they weep, fearing for their lives. Some of the teachings also seem shocking coming from Jesus, especially his assertion that there is no such thing as sin. Modern readers may well find themselves sympathizing with Andrew's assessment that "these teachings are strange ideas."

The Gospel of Mary was written when Christianity, still in its nascent stages, was made up of communities widely dispersed around the Eastern Meditaerranean, communities which were often relatively isolated from one another and probably each small enough to meet in someone's home without attracting too much notice. Although writings appeared early-especially letters addressing the concerns of local churches, collections containing Jesus' sayings, and narratives interpreting his death and resurrection-oral practices dominated the lives of early Christians. Preaching, teaching, and rituals of table fellowship and baptism were the core of the Christian experience. What written documents they had served at most as supplemental guides to preaching and practice. Nor can we assume that the various churches all possessed the same documents; after all, these are the people who wrote the first Christian literature. Christoph Markschies suggests that we have lost 85% of Christian literature from the first two centuries-and that includes only the literature we know about. Surely there must be even more, for the discovery of texts like the Gospel of Mary came as a complete surprise. We have to be careful that we don't suppose it is possible to reconstruct the whole of early Christian history and practice out of the few surviving texts that remain. Our picture will always be partial-not only because so much is lost, but because early Christian practices were so little tied to durable writing.

Partly as a consequence of their independent development and differing situations, these churches sometimes diverged widely in their perspectives on essential elements of Christian belief and practice. Such basic issues as the content and meaning of Jesus' teachings, the nature of salvation, the value of prophetic authority, and the roles of women and slaves came under intense debate. Early Christians proposed and experimented with competing visions of ideal community

It is important to remember, too, that 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 to be 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.

All early Christian literature bears traces of these controversies. The earliest surviving documents of Christianity, the letters of Paul, show that considerable differences of opinion existed about such issues as circumcision and the Jewish food laws or the relative value of spiritual gifts. These and other such contentious issues as whether the resurrection was physical or spiritual were stimulating theological conversations and causing rifts within and among Christian groups. By the time of the Gospel of Mary, these discussions were becoming increasingly nuanced and more polarized.

History, as we know, is told by the winners. In the case of early Christianity, this has meant that many voices in these debates were silenced through repression or neglect. The Gospel of Mary, along with other newly discovered works from the earlies Christian period, increases our knowledge of the enormous diversity and dynamic character of the processes by which Christianity was shaped.

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