The Fascinations of Gnosticism, Part IV: The Gospel According toMary

The Fascinations of Gnosticism, Part IV: The Gospel According toMary September 4, 2012

A copy of this document had been in a library since late in the nineteenth century, but its significance was not realized until it also turned up as one of the Nag Hammadi documents. If I were writing this as a scholarly paper, it would be overwhelmed with footnotes, but I’m keeping this readable. If you are interested in all this, please see the research by Elaine Pagels and other current women scholars.

What follows is from its ending.

[I know enough about Coptic to improve the translations I’ve seen. However, I highly recommend the following two studies: and (the latter includes excerpts from a wonderful new translation of the Gospel of Phillip).]

“Be of good courage. If you feel discouraged, be encouraged before the various forms of nature. He who can hear should understand.”

When the Blessed One had said this, he greeted them all, saying, “Peace be with you. Receive my peace for yourselves. Beware that no one leads you astray by saying, ‘Lo here!’ or ‘Lo there!’ For the Son of Man is within you. Follow after him. Those who seek him will find him. Go and preach the good news of the kingdom.1 Do not lay down any laws beyond what I established for you, and do not give a law like the lawgiver, lest you be constrained by it.”

When he had said this, he vanished. But they were grieved and wept strongly, saying, “How shall we go to the gentiles to preach the good news of the kingdom1 of the Son of Man? If they2 did not spare him, how will they spare us?”

Then Mary stood up, greeted them all, and said to her brothers,3 “Do not weep or grieve or be irresolute, for his grace will be entirely with you and will protect you. Instead, let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us into men.”

When Mary had said this, she turned their hearts to what is good, and they began to discuss what he had said.

Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the other women.4 Tell us the words of the Savior that you remember, that [only] you know, but that we have neither known nor heard.”

Mary answered, “I will tell you what has been hidden from you . . . “

[Unfortunately, much of what follows next is so incomplete, fragmentary, or simply missing that it makes little sense, at least to me. Much of it also appears to be a later overlay from the speculative wing of Gnosticism, as opposed to what I think was the original Jewish form. But it does pick up toward the end of page 16.]

“The soul answered, ‘What binds me has been slain. What surrounds me has been overcome. My desire has been fulfilled, and ignorance has died. In a world I was released from a world, in a type from a heavenly type, and from the transient fetters of oblivion. From now on I will attain to the rest of time, of the season, of the age, in silence.’”5

Mary stopped speaking, since it was this much that the Savior had told her.

Andrew now said to the brothers, “Say whatever you like about what she has said, but I do not believe the Savior said any of this, for these are strange teachings.”

Peter asked, “Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge and not openly? Are we to turn about and listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?”6

Mary wept and said, “My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think I thought all this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?”

Then Levi said to Peter, “Peter, you have always been short-tempered. You are contending against this woman as an adversary. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us. Instead, let us be ashamed, put on the perfect man, and acquire him for ourselves, as he commanded us to do, and preach the good news, not laying down any other rule or law beyond what the Savior said.”

When [Levi had this, they all agreed] and went forth to proclaim and to preach.

The Gospel According to Mary



1. The word “kingdom” in Greek could also be translated as “Queen”—and everyone then knew who the Queen of Heaven was.

2. Note that “they” refers to “Gentiles,” that is, to the Romans. So this document is more Jewish than the canonical gospels; it does not acquiesce to the anti-Semitism that blamed the Jewish people for Jesus’ execution.

3. Here “brothers” may not necessarily be just a formality. As Jeffrey Buetz has argued, Jesus’ brothers were obviously among his first followers; Mark’s agenda of denigrating the original circle of family and friends is obvious, once one looks at it. Further, if Mary and Jesus were married, then James was her brother-in-law and very likely her second husband, to fulfill that commandment.

4. The implication here is that Jesus did love the other women also. So maybe it’s a good compromise to think that he and Mary were married.

5. This passage is clearly the end of an initiation ritual.


The other documents hint at Mary’s importance. The Gospel of Mary makes it unmistakable. If you look at the themes common to this document and the Gospels of Thomas and Philip, you can see many important connections:

1. The concept that Jesus taught his women students to be dominant, not submissive, and equal to the men students in their rights and duties. This turns up in other documents as well, e.g., in the Dialogue of the Savior.

2. The concept that Mary had knowledge different from and in some ways more important that of the men, and therefore had authority to teach and lead them.

3. The concept of the Bridal Chamber (the Greek term also means “the Temple of the Mysteries”), which I have not emphasized in my samples, but which turns up in a great many of these writings and is thoroughly discussed in the Gospel of Philip. Conservative Christians are never going to believe this, but the concept is clearly of what Wiccans call “the Great Rite,” that is, Sacred Sexuality. Could Jesus possibly have taught that? I now believe that he did, and that it was Mary who taught it to the community that she founded in Alexandria (I’ll come back to that). That’s what the passage I hypothetically reverted from Irenaeus’ hostile description was obviously about.

There is a great deal of scholarly discussion of details about the Gnostics and Mary going on, but I can summarize the major points, quite oversimplified.

1. The first edition of the Gospel According to John may have said a great deal more about Mary. It may have identified her as the Beloved Disciple (the one whom Jesus loved more than the other students—that’s what “disciple” meant). It may have said that the wedding at Cana was that of Jesus and Mary, as the Gnostics believed. It may have had her, not Martha, make the confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah at Lazarus’ tomb; and it may have said that Jesus then conferred the Rabbinic power of interpreting the will of Heaven on her, as MT says he did to Peter. It may have said that she was the only student who saw him again after the Romans had murdered him. It may have argued that Mary, as Jesus’ wife and most important student, was his true successor, not Peter.  If so, that would require a total rewriting of Christian history and theology.

2. Both Origen and Hippolytus state that he Naasene sect in Alexandria (and I think that’s a scribal corruption of “Nazarene”) derived their apostolic authority from her and James, Jesus’ brother and thus possibly her brother-in-law, not from any of the “Twelve,” unless James was one of them. The passage says that they had a great mass of documents that Mariamne received from James. I’ve seen some claim that this “Mariamne” was an otherwise unknown male priest. (I will refrain from sarcasm.) “Mariamne” was a standard form of the name usually translated as “Mary.”

3. All the action was in Alexandria. The legend of the Holy Maries of the Sea says that Mary and her famiv cvly fled to Alexandria before sailing to Gaul; that could very well be an historical fact. If Mary did teach an egalitarian, pro-sexual version of the Good News, that would explain the origin of the Carpocratians, the Marcosians, and so on. I think the Church Father’s tactic of labeling groups after their supposed founders was propaganda that disguised the fact that these “Gnostics” (and it was only the Alexandrians who were originally called that) constituted a large and fairly homogeneous movement, despite their proliferation of speculative theologies. For Clement of Alexandria, “Gnostic” was not a dirty word. He took great pains to argue that the Christians of his particular flavor were the “true Gnostics.”

The traditional conservative attitude toward Mary’s prominence in these writings is to assert that these Gnostics just made that up. But why would they? Women had no religious (or any other) authority in that misogynistic civilization. Unless she had been important from the very beginning of the movement, no one would ever have later claimed any authority for her.

Obviously, the implications of all this are still being worked out. I’ll have more to say later. But remember, the history of modern religious scholarship is still the history happening right now of beating the conservatives on their heads with facts, and of their fighting back against having to retreat, step by step.



Browse Our Archives