The Secret Doctrine of Being Beautiful

Monday, January 31, 2005

The Mystery of Mary Magdalene

And who Mary Magdalene is. That’s because the Gnostic picture of Mary departs—in some ways, dramatically—from the historical and biblical image of perhaps the most significant female follower of Jesus.
“If you read the New Testament you see that every one of the writings is attributed to a man,” Pagels pointed out. “In the New Testament there are the women and the ‘disciples.’ You know that the women aren’t the disciples, and the disciples aren’t the women.
“Suddenly you find in the [Gnostic] Gospel of Thomas that six disciples are named: Matthew and Thomas, James and Peter, Mary Magdalene and Salome.” (Pagels is quick to make the distinction between this Salome, identified in the Gospel of Luke as one of the women who followed Jesus, and the Salome who danced for the head of John the Baptist.)
“Here, explicitly, Mary Magdalene is Jesus’ disciple. In the Gospel of Thomas and also the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, she is seen as an evangelist and a teacher, somebody who is gifted with revelations and teachings from Jesus which are very powerful and which enable her to be a spiritual inspiration to others.”
Pagels believes it’s that perception of Mary Magdalene that the early church adhered to. The Gnostic writings—which were widely circulated among Christians throughout the Mediterranean—depict her as something of a mystic who had visions and was privy to some of Jesus’ most esoteric teachings. It’s clear from the Gospel of Mary Magdalene that her supposedly intimate relationship with Jesus, however the word “intimate” is interpreted, did not sit well with all of the disciples.
“She speaks to the other disciples about Jesus and what she’s seen, and Peter says, ‘I don’t believe the Lord said these things. These are certainly strange ideas.’ And she says, ‘Well, do you think I made them up? Do you think I’m lying about the Lord?’ ” Pagels says, paraphrasing a section involving Peter and Andrew toward the end of the gospel. “That debate probably reflects what happened in early Christian communities.”
Like Levi, who rose to Mary’s defense in response to Peter’s challenge, some Gnostic and early Christian writers apparently took a far more favorable view of Jesus’ female friend, but by the third century, her influence had been greatly diminished by those church fathers who were determined to relegate women to a lesser status (perhaps unintentionally affirming a sentiment attributed to Peter in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “Mary should leave us. Females are not worthy of life.”) Although women were openly functioning as priests and teachers and enjoyed a higher acceptance in the church than elsewhere in society, female leaders were branded as heretics by some of the more powerful church leaders, such as the second-century Irenaeus.
It was in the Middle Ages that Mary Magdalene’s association with prostitution became solidified, when a church leader—without any clear evidence to support his theory—identified her as the “immoral woman” referred to in Luke 7:38. The identification remains today among some Christian groups. Pagels believes that labeling Mary a prostitute was a means of dealing with the problem of women in church leadership. “They countered with, ‘No, she wasn’t a disciple and an evangelist and an intimate companion of the Lord, she was a prostitute.’ It was a way of not only slandering women but also attacking their presumption in claiming to take roles that one particular father of the church said were masculine functions,” Pagels said.
Over the centuries, the church did little to correct the image of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, all the while reinforcing her image as a repentant sinner. That, to Pagels, raises questions not only about the church’s authority but also about its view of sexuality. “If Mary Magdalene wasn’t a prostitute,” she asks, “what else was the church not telling us?”
An equally important question is one that Ann Braude picks up on: What did all this mean for women throughout church history—and history in general?

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