“And the companion of the S[avior . . .] Mary Magdalene [ . . . loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [often] on her [ . . . ]” (GPhilip 63:34). (missing words in the Gospel of Philip)
By kissing Magdalene, regardless the missing words, whether in the mouth or in the hands, in a responsible translation, the historical Jesus:
1) transfers his spiritual knowledge and authority as "breath" in her "Mind" to spread and conduct in the early Gnostic communities in the Turkey, Greece, Judea an North Africa the new Gospel.
2) yet the "flesh" of this new word is a intuitive gnosis "through" the spirit and the Eye. Magdalene becomes "pregnant" of it by this "seeing-through". He ignites her "Mind" as a mirror and also inaugurates a new imaginary feminine iconography as a negative theology, as formulated by John Scot Erigena (9th century): "We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.".
3) This knowledge is a also a dialectical one, pure negativity, referring itself always to a "third" term as mediation, recognizing that at the very heart of this "seeing through" is inherently a contradiction. How can the finite know the infinite? We cannot speak about God with just affirmations. Rather, there must be affirmation and negation, thesis and antithesis, the dogmatic and the critical. "I am the Spirit (of the Earth) that always denies! (Faust’s Mephistopheles)
The rest of the history is male chauvinism and, above all, 2000 years of anti-antisemitism.
"The Gospel of Mary
The Gospel of Mary survives incomplete, having been discovered at Akhmim in Upper Egypt in 1896.The codex, which also contained the Apocryphon of John, the Sophia of Jesus Christ and a shortened version of the Act of Peter, was subsequently moved to Berlin, where it became known as the Berlin Codex. The Gospel of Mary falls into two distinct parts (indeed, they may have originally been two separate texts), with the first part showing the risen Christ teaching the disciples about the nature of sin. He tells the disciples that sin is not an ethical problem, but a cosmological one: sin came into being as a result of the improper mixing of the spiritual and material. He then instructs them to go and preach the gospel, reminding them not to be led astray by false teachers and to heed the gnosis that they already have: ‘The Son of Man is within you. Follow him!’(118) In a typically Gnostic fashion, Jesus also tells them to ‘not establish laws. so that you will not be bound by them’. (119) He then departs, leaving the disciples confused and upset, as they realise the dangers of preaching the gospel: ‘If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?’(120)
This leads us into the second part of the gospel, in which Mary is portrayed as the woman whom Jesus loved more than other women and who was privy to secret knowledge. She encourages the disciples, seemingly taking over as leader of the group and reminding them that ‘he prepared us and made us truly human’, which ‘turned their hearts to the good’. (121)! Peter then asks Mary to tell them ‘the words of the saviour that you remember, which you know and we do not’, clearly showing that Mary is the one disciple whom Jesus entrusted with special teachings.
Mary then recounts a vision in which she encounters Jesus, who blesses her and tells her, ‘where the mind is, there is the treasure’, (122) words that give a decidedly Gnostic twist on Matthew 6:21 (‘For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’). Several pages are missing from the gospel at this point, and it picks up again with what is presumably a later stage of Mary’s vision, in which the soul is portrayed as ascending, having shaken off the shackles of the body and earthly existence:
What binds me is slain, what surrounds me is destroyed, my desire is gone, ignorance is dead. In a world I was freed through another world, and in an image I was freed through a heavenly image.This is the fetter of forgetfulness that exists in the world of time. From now on I shall rest, through time, age, and aeon, in silence.’ (123)
As soon as Mary finishes recounting her vision, the disciples start to argue amongst themselves. Andrew and Peter, in particular, can’t believe that Mary’s vision represents Jesus’ teaching, their chauvinism being quite pronounced:
Peter also opposed her about all this. He asked the others about the saviour, ‘Did he really speak to a woman secretly, without our knowledge, and not openly? Are we to turn and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?’(124)
Levi is the only disciple who comes to Mary ’s defence, arguing that if Jesus chose Mary, then Peter has no right to reject her. The argument fizzles out and the disciples go out to preach, although, as Karen L. King notes, ‘the reader must wonder what kind of good news such proud and ignorant men will announce’. (125) As the Gospel of Mary shows, it is only Mary (and perhaps Levi) who have understood Jesus’ teaching. Not only that, but the text ‘affirms that her leadership of the other disciples is based upon superior spiritual understanding, the Gospel of Mary unreservedly supports the leadership of spiritually advanced women’. (126)
The Gnostic Feminine
The Gospel of Mary is not the only Gnostic text to champion the position and wisdom of women within the Gnostic community. Several Nag Hammadi tracts are voiced for women, or have female protagonists. One of the most striking examples is a text known as Thunder: Perfect Mind.The speaker is a woman who, while possibly not Sophia herself, has something of the youngest aeon about her:
I was sent out from the power
and have come to you who study me
and am found by you who seek me. (127)
Possibly influenced by Jewish and Egyptian wisdom literature, the poem is a relevation discourse full of startling statements, many of them paradoxical:
I am the first and the last.
I am the honoured and the scorned.
I am the whore and the holy.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter [...]
I am a silence incomprehensible
and an idea remembered often.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
and word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name. (128)
Despite being something of an enigma among the Nag Hammadi texts — we do not know when or where it was written, nor by whom — it presents a powerful woman to the reader, ‘an early instance of complete female empowerment, without apology or compromise’. (129) Elaine Pagels has suggested that works like Thunder: Perfect Mind reflect the fact that women enjoyed far greater status in Gnosticism than in orthodox Christianity:
Our evidence, then, clearly indicates a correlation between religious theory and social practice. Among such gnostic groups as the Valentinians, women were considered equal to men; some were revered as prophets; others acted as teachers, travelling evangelists, healers, priests, perhaps even bishops. (130)
Another Nag Hammadi text, the Exegesis on the Soul, depicts the soul as feminine (‘she even has a womb’) and recounts her descent into the world of matter after becoming separated from her father in the Pleroma. She inhabits a female body, where she is abused by a series of lovers and becomes a prostitute. Finally abandoned by the men who have defiled her, she becomes ‘a poor desolate widow, helpless’. All of the children she has borne by her lovers are ‘mute, blind and sickly. They are disturbed.’131 (The soul’s descent recalls the cosmology of Simon Magus, which saw the Ennoia descending into matter, where she ultimately became a prostitute, with Simon finding her wisdom in his own mystic consort, Helen.)
The text then breaks off from its narrative to cite the prophets Jeremiah, Hosea and Ezekiel on the subject of the prostitution of the soul, followed by St Paul from Ephesians: ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the world rulers of this darkness and the spirits of evil’. (132)
The father, sensing the soul’s distress and desire for repentance, turns her womb inwards — it was originally outside of her — which has the effect of baptising and cleansing her. The father also sends the soul’s brother down to her in order that she may be renewed in the mysteries of the bridal chamber. ‘This marriage is not like a carnal marriage’, the text tells us. ‘In this marriage once they join they become a single life.’ (133) The soul forgets her former partners and regains her true nature:
The soul stirred. Her divine nature and her rejuvenation came from her father so she might return to where she was before. This is resurrection from the dead. This is ransom from captivity. This is the ascent to heaven. (134)
The text then urges the reader to repent through prayer, not by using our physical voices,
but with the spirit, which is inside and comes from the depths, sighing, repenting for the life we led, confessing sins, recognising the deception we were in as shallow; perceiving the empty zeal; weeping over how we lived in darkness and in the wave; mourning for what we were so that he might pity us; hating ourselves for what we still are. (135)
In a classic example of a Gnostic writer supporting their argument through whatever sources they had access to, the Exegesis on the Soul finishes with quotes from Homer, showing Odysseus stranded on Calypso’s island, longing to return home, and Helen lamenting being deceived by Aphrodite.
What does the Exegesis tell us about ‘prostitution of the soul’? Like many Gnostic texts, it employs allegory, poetry and myth to convey its message. The prostituted soul could be likened to a person who has been led astray by various promises, or a spiritual seeker who latches onto the latest fads, desperate for liberation and happiness. A person, therefore, who ignores the latent gnosis within them.
Arguably more important than Thunder: Perfect Mind is a text known as Pistis Sophia (the title means ‘faith-wisdom’). It was the most significant text to have surfaced prior to the Nag Hammadi discovery, having been found in Upper Egypt in 1784 by a British doctor named Askew. The British Museum bought it in 1795, whereafter it became known as the Askew Codex. (136) (A simpler, shorter version of the Pistis was later found at Nag Hammadi.)
Like the Gospel of Mary, Pistis Sophia takes place after the res-urrection and features Mary Magdalene in a prominent role. The text tells us that Jesus has remained on Earth for 11 years after the crucifixion to instruct the disciples, who believe that they have progressed far along the path of gnosis during this time, announcing,
‘Blessed are we before all men who are on the earth, because the Saviour hath revealed this unto us, and we have received the Fullness and the total completion.’ (137)
The disciples are, however, very much mistaken in their belief that they have received ‘the total completion’ (ch 2). Light descends over Jesus and he is taken up into heaven, which causes the disciples ‘exceedingly great agitation’ (ch 4). Upon Jesus’ return, he informs them that ‘I have gone to the regions out of which I had come forth’, (ch 6) and promises to tell them everything ‘from the beginning of the Truth unto its completion’.
The lengthy narrative Jesus relates concerns his journey ‘upwards and inwards’ and of his receiving a garment of light. He travels throughout the heavenly spheres, revealing the existence of the First Mystery — the true God — to the rulers of the spheres and their attendant angels. When he reaches the twelfth sphere, he encounters ‘Adamas, the Great Tyrant’, who tries to resist the light and, along with his minions, fights against it. Jesus cripples them all by taking a third of their power from them, and they ‘were dashed down in the aeons and became as the inhabitants of the earth, dead and without breath of life’ (ch 15).
It is at this point in Jesus’ discourse that Mary Magdalene asks to speak. Jesus’ reply clearly shows the esteem in which he holds her:
And Jesus, the compassionate, answered and said unto Mary: ‘Mary, thou blessed one, whom I will perfect in all mysteries of those of the height, discourse in openness, thou, whose heart is raised to the kingdom of heaven more than all thy brethren.’ (138)
Mary interprets Jesus’ narrative, describing how Isaiah prophesied what he has told them, then she begins to ask Jesus various questions; the only male disciple to quiz Jesus is Philip, who has been busy writing down Jesus’ words. It is not so much the details of Mary’s questions that are important here, rather the fact that she is taking the lead in asking Jesus to explain himself better, which suggests that she is actively assimilating Jesus’ teaching, more so than the other, male, disciples (excepting Philip, possibly).
Jesus continues his discourse, revealing to the disciples that he encountered Pistis Sophia ‘grieving and mourning, because she had not been admitted into the thirteenth aeon, her higher region’ (ch 29). Pistis Sophia had originally been in the thirteenth aeon or sphere, but her longing for the First Mystery — the true God — had led her to neglect her aeonic duties. She is then tricked out of the thirteenth aeon by a rival, named Arrogant, who, together with other aeons, project their own light downwards. Pistis Sophia mistakes this light for the light of the First Mystery, heads towards it and becomes entrapped in the world of chaos and matter. She encounters Ialdabaoth, who strips her of her remaining power.
Pistis Sophia begins to sing hymns of repentance:
‘Now, therefore, O Light of Truth, thou knowest that I have done this [descending from her aeon] in my innocence, thinking that the lion-faced light-power [Ialdabaoth] belonged to thee; and the sin which I have done is open before thee.
Suffer me no more to lack, O Lord, for I have had faith in thy light from the beginning; O Lord, O Light of the powers, suffer me no more to lack my light.
For because of thy inducement and for the sake of thy light am I fallen into this oppression, and shame hath covered me.
And because of the illusion of thy light, I am become a stranger to my brethren, the invisibles, and to the great emanations of Barbelo.’
Mary is once again allowed to interpret the story of Pistis Sophia, telling the disciples that what they have just heard was prophesied in Psalm 68. Jesus commends her interpretation and continues with a description of Pistis Sophia’s second repentance. Once Jesus has finished speaking, Peter, clearly agitated by Mary’s engagement with, and understanding of, the teaching, complains that ‘We will not endure this woman, for she taketh the opportunity from us and hath let none of us speak, but she discourseth many times’ (ch 36). Jesus lets Peter give his interpretation of the second repentance, while Martha is allowed to speak about the third repentance (there are thirteen in all). John interprets the fourth, at which point Philip complains that no one else is writing anything down; Jesus tells him that he has not finished his discourse yet, but also reminds Thomas and Matthew that they too have scribal duties.
Jesus continues to instruct the disciples, with each of them being allowed to interpret Jesus’ words as they understand them. The rift between Mary and Peter, however, is made much more explicit later on. After being allowed to speak on several further occasions, Mary
came forwards and said: ‘My Lord, my mind is ever understanding, at every time to come forwards and set forth the solution of the words which she [Pistis Sophia] hath uttered; but I am afraid of Peter, because he threatened me and hateth our sex.’ (139)
Jesus defends her right to speak, no doubt within earshot of Peter,
‘Every one who shall be filled with the spirit of light to come forwards and set forth the solution of what I say, no one shall be able to prevent him.’(140)
Peter, put in his place, shuts up (141) and Mary becomes, in the latter half of the text, the main questioner and interpreter of Jesus’ words. Pistis Sophia is ultimately allowed to return to the thirteenth aeon, where she sings a song of praise to the First Mystery.
The second half of the text is taken up with further revelations, together with ethical instructions which the disciples are to preach once Jesus has returned to the light:
‘Renounce love of the world, that ye may be worthy of the mysteries of the light and be saved from the pitch- and fire-coats of the dog-faced one.’ (ch 102)
‘Renounce wickedness, that ye may be worthy of the mysteries of the light and be saved from the fire-seas of Ariel.’ (ch 102)
After giving a lengthy list of things to renounce, Jesus tells the disciples to encourage people to ‘Be calm, that ye may receive the mysteries of the Light and go on high into the Light-kingdom.’ Further exhortations follow, which bring together the orthodox and the Gnostic:
‘Say unto them: Be ye loving-unto-men... Be ye gentle... Minister unto the poor and the sick and distressed. Be ye loving-unto-God, that ye may receive the mysteries of the Light and go on high into the Light-kingdom.’ (142)
This is the nearest to orthodoxy that Pistis Sophia gets, as much of its length is occupied with cosmological writings and an exhaustive array of aeons, archons and mystical invocations. Later parts of the work deal with the afterlife states of the sinner and the reincarnational cycle that they must endure in order to be cleansed, with Jesus telling the disciples to urge people not to put off spiritual development for another lifetime, as the number of perfected souls could be reached at any moment. At this point, no more souls will be able to return to the Light-kingdom. This will be the end of time ‘and the mystery of the First Mystery is completed, for the sake of which the universe hath arisen, that is: I am that Mystery.’ (143)
118. The Gospel of Mary, The Nag Hammadi Library in English, p.525.
119. The Gospel of Mary, The Gnostic Bible, p.479.
120. The Gospel of Mary, The Nag Hammadi Library in English, p.525.
121. The Gospel of Mary, The Gnostic Bible, p.479.
122. The Gospel of Mary, The Gnostic Bible, p.479.
123. The Gospel of Mary, The Gnostic Bible, p.481.
124. The Gospel of Mary, The Gnostic Bible, p.481.
125. The Complete Gospels, p.357.
126. The Complete Gospels, p.358.
127. Thunder: Perfect Mind, The Gnostic Bible, p.226.
128. Thunder: Perfect Mind, The Gnostic Bible, pp.226—7.
129. Introduction to Thunder: Perfect Mind, The Gnostic Bible, p.225.
130. Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels.
131. The Exegesis on the Soul, The Gnostic Bible, p.407.
132. The Exegesis on the Soul, The Gnostic Bible, p.407. The quote from Paul is from Ephesians 6:12.
133. The Exegesis on the Soul, The Gnostic Bible, pp.409—10.
134. The Exegesis on the Soul, The Gnostic Bible, pp.410—11.
135. The Exegesis on the Soul, The Gnostic Bible, p.411.
136. The other books in the Askew Codex are Extracts from the Books of the Saviour and the Book of the Great Logos.
137. Pistis Sophia 2 (GRS Mead translation).
138. Pistis Sophia 17.
139. Pistis Sophia 72.
140. Pistis Sophia 72.
141. He does, however, lapse into his old ways and complains again that Mary is talking too much near the very end of Pistis Sophia, in Ch 148.
142. Pistis Sophia 102.
143. Pistis Sophia 125."Mary Magdalene : In the Gospel of Philip and Gospel of Mary
In: Sean Martin: The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics, Edinburgh, 2010, pp. 87-96.
In: Sean Martin: The Gnostics: The First Christian Heretics, Edinburgh, 2010, pp. 87-96.
I thank you specially, Dimittra Petrou, in Athens, for sending me those beautiful shots from your work on Byzantine art taken in a church in Euboea, dated from 15th c., where Mary Magdalene is depicted