Part II: Mary Magdalene in the history of Christianity and Contemporary Culture Series 2 – 4

Portrait of Mary Magdalene in New Testament (N.T.)

Mary Magdalene was mentioned by name only in fourteen verses in the New Testament, and she is mentioned in Luke 8:2-3 as one of the women who “ministered to Jesus of their substance”. The same passage also refers briefly to an act of exorcism performed on her on an occasion when Jesus cast out seven demons. Mary Magdalene with the other women accompanied Jesus on his last journey to Jerusalem (Matthew 27:55; Mark 15:41; Luke 23:55) and were witnesses to the Crucifixion. Mary remained there until the body was taken down and laid in a tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea. In the early dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene, and Mary, the mother of James (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:2), came to the sepulcher with sweet spices to anoint Jesus’ body and found the sepulcher empty (Matthew 28:1-8). Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were mandated to go and tell the other disciples (Matt 28:7). Mary Magdalene was the first to see the risen Jesus (John 20:17), and at Jesus’ command, she was sent to the other apostles; this gave her the epithet of “apostle to the apostles.”


Portrait of Mary Magdalene in Non-Canonical Literature 

In the late nineteenth century, fragments of an extra-canonical gospel written in the name of Mary Magdalene were found. The discovery of an incomplete Coptic manuscript was followed in the early twentieth century by the recovery of additional portions of the text in Greek. Scholars generally date its composition to the second century. The Gospel portrays Mary as the recipient of a vision of Christ in which she is praised for her fidelity, knowledge, and deep understanding of Jesus’ teachings. Peter appears as an adversary, attacking Mary whenever she explains her vision. Peter wondered whether Jesus did “speak with a woman without our knowledge and not openly.”

The Gospel of Thomas, also a second-century text, depicts Peter’s attempt to discredit any authority Mary possesses among the disciples. A declaration attributed to Peter says, Let Mary leave us because women are not worthy of life.” The risen Jesus refuted Peter’s dismissal, replying, Look, I shall lead her to make her male so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. Every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”

A large corpus of Gnostic literature was found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 and was published in the 1970s. The texts include several extra-canonical manuscripts concerning Mary Magdalene, notably the third-century Pistis Sophia, the Gospel of Philip, and the Dialogue of the Savior. The Sophia of Jesus Christ was dated to the early fourth century, although some scholars argue that it exhibits features suggesting an earlier date of composition. These writings aroused new interest in Mary’s relationship with Jesus and her authority among early Christians. They indicate a wide diversity of teaching during the formative years of the new religious movement. Mary is depicted in the Gnostic works as having a particularly intimate relationship with Jesus. She is praised as worthy of receiving private teaching from Jesus Christ and presented as a Christian community leader.

The Gospel of Philip portrays Mary as the one whom Jesus loved more than the other disciples and as one whom he kissed frequently. As Paul’s epistles witness, kissing as a greeting and sign of affection was common among early Christians. Though some ungodly scholars and twentieth-century commentators have interpreted it that way, Jesus’ kiss did not and could never have implied a sexual relationship. In the Gnostic texts, Peter consistently opposed Mary’s authority. As a result, some scholars suggest that the Gnostic writings reveal a struggle within the early church between a faction that recognizes Mary as a model for women’s authority and leadership and a Petrine group that opposes women’s authority. Other scholars interpret Peter representing the emerging orthodox position, while Mary stands for the Gnostic view.

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