The Gospel of Mary (henceforth GMary) is one of the most unique of the Gnostic texts. It was likely influenced by the Gospel of Thomas and perhaps the Gospel of Philip. In a previous article on the Gospel of Thomas, I demonstrated that the Gnostics became enamored with Mary Magdalene (who this Gospel is likely named after) and set the stage for new writings that would elevate her. The purpose of this article is to give an overview of the surviving copies of the GMary.
The dating of this book is likely late second-century. The earliest witnesses of this text would seem to validate this timeframe. There are three total manuscripts of the GMary. The two oldest are Greek fragments (Papyrus Oxyrhynchus L 3525 and Papyrus Rylands 463) dating to the early third-century. There is also a fifth-century Coptic manuscript (Berlin Codex 8502) that is the most complete of the three. Like many of the Gnostic Gospels, they alter and change meaning and emphasis from the original words of Jesus to fit their presuppositional framework.
The GMary places emphasis on soul travel throughout the narrative. Mary is given the highest respect and honor, and apparently, greater enlightenment from Jesus. Sadly, we are missing six manuscript pages at the beginning of the document, and four manuscript pages in the middle, and we are left with two separate sections. This Gospel is not cited or mentioned by any of the Church Fathers, and it is not listed in any of the discussions or lists of canonical books.
In the first section, Mary reminds the disciples that Jesus “prepared us and made us into men.” It also begins in the middle of a scene, making it unclear as to what preceded these instructions. Karen King believes the references to the Savior’s death and the commissioning scene later in the narrative indicates that the setting in the first section of the text is a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus.1
This makes the GMary unique to many of the other non-canonical accounts. Most of those works focus on the ministry and teachings of Jesus. There is a possibility that the Gospel of Peter contained a post-resurrection account; however, the manuscript broke off just as the Apostles went out to sea to go fishing (see my article and translation ).
In the second section, Mary integrates a more developed statement of “put on the perfect man” in comparison to “prepared us and made us into men.” What do these statements actually mean? It is likely referring to a form of Valentinian Gnosticism, with the notion of the bridal chamber, which involved marriage to one’s heavenly counterpart.
The Gospel of Philip speaks to this concept more so than Mary. The teaching goes as such: the faithful will experience a union with their angel in the Pleroma (the spiritual universe as the abode of God). Some have called this Bridal-Chamber Christianity. Both sections emphasize abandoning the concepts of sin and judgment and asserting that all things will dissolve into their root.
The contents of the GMary can be placed into four separate categories. I will be using Chris Tuckett’s template for each category.2
(1) 7:1-9:4. This section starts after Jesus responds to the disciples’ questions (cf. 7:1-8:). Peter was interested in the subject of “the sin of the world.” Jesus responds with a rather bizarre answer. He said, “Sin doesn’t exist, but you’re the ones who make sin when you act in accordance with the nature of adultery, which is called sin.” This is a common understanding of the Gnostic belief system. Jesus is promoting a life of abstinence and a life void of all sensual pleasures. Keep in mind, Gnostics believe that all physical matter is inherently evil.
Jesus continued his statement by saying, “that’s why you get sick and die…” Jesus is connecting sickness and death to people following human passions. Jesus is ultimately saying that the pursuit of sensual pleasure is truly the only thing that can be categorized as sin. This section ends with Jesus sending his disciples out to preach the kingdom of the “Son of Humanity.”
(2) 9:5-10:10. In this section, the disciples were distraught by these teachings of Jesus, and Mary comes to their aid with interpretations of Jesus’ secret sayings. It is in this section that Peter acknowledged Jesus’ favoritism toward Mary. He said, “Sister, we know the Savior loved you more than all other women.” Mary admits that Jesus did share information with her that he had hidden from them. She continues by telling them that she had visions of Jesus and that he interpreted them for her.
(3) 10:11-17:7. Mary claims that in her vision, she had “seen the Lord.” One could assume this was a part of her encounter with Jesus, as described in John 20:18. Most of this section is lost, and it leaves scholars with assumptions as to what was discussed beforehand. It appears there are four powers of wrath that question the soul and its allowance or prevention of passing. The power of Darkness is missing in the narrative, along with the beginning portion of the power of Desire. The reading begins with a discussion about the soul ascending (likely Jesus’ soul) out of the body, which is under the power of Desire. The third is the power of Ignorance. This power took on seven forms:
The first is of Darkness;
The second, Desire;
The third, Ignorance;
The fourth, Zeal for Death;
The fifth, the Kingdom of the Flesh;
The sixth, the Foolish ‘Wisdom’ of Flesh;
The seventh, the ‘Wisdom’ of Anger.
The soul went through all of these trials intended to prevent entrance, but the soul answered all the questions successfully and finally reached its destiny of repose in silence. The primary interpretation of this suggested by Karen King is that both the content and the text’s structure will lead the audience to an inward identity, power, and freedom of the true self. The soul will be set free from the powers of physical matter and the fear of death.3
(4) 17:7- end. Andrew challenges the authenticity of Mary’s vision. He stated that “the teachings seem like different ideas.” Peter validated his brother’s concern by saying, “He didn’t speak with a woman without our knowledge and not publicly with us, did he? Will we turn around and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” Peter was not willing to accept that Jesus would reveal such knowledge to a woman by leaving the men out in the dark. After all, they were his chosen Apostles. This would be important information for them to know.
Mary quickly defends herself and inquires if Peter and Andrew truly believe that she would lie and make this up. Before Peter can even answer, he is quickly rebuked by Levi (Matthew) for challenging her. It should be noted that Levi did not rebuke Andrew but singled out Peter. Levi quickly responds again, and this time accuses Peter of “always being angry.” He also accused Peter of treating her like she was the adversary. Levi apparently acknowledged a special bond that Mary had with Jesus that was beyond their own experience with him. He said this about her, “Surely the Savior knows her very well. That’s why he loved her more than us.”
This is an astonishing statement that cannot be validated by any of the canonical Gospels. It is indeed strange to Levi’s (Matthew’s) Gospel account. He only mentions Mary Magdalene three times, and each reference is connected with the other women who were at the tomb of Jesus (Matt. 27:56-28:1). In the GMary, Levi’s admonition to his friends was “we should be ashamed, clothe ourselves with perfect Humanity, acquire it for ourselves as he instructed us, and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said.”
The disciples appear to respond positively to his admonition. However, it should be noted that there is a textual variant between the Coptic and the Greek. The Coptic text states that “they started to go out to teach and to preach.” The Rylands fragment (Greek reading which is older) has “he started to go out…” This would almost indicate that Andrew and Peter were excluded in this endeavor.
Notable Scripture References
On two occasions, Jesus is stated as saying, “Anyone who has ears to hear, should hear.” This can be traced back to numerous New Testament references (Matt. 11:15; 13:9,43; Mark 4:9,23; Luke 8:8; 14:35; Rev. 2:7,11). Jesus also greets his disciples with the Johannine “Peace be with you.” The timing of this greeting is consistent with John 20:19-26. The instructions that followed are similar in that he sends them to preach his Gospel. The events that follow in the GMary are completely different in doctrine, but one could easily see the writer of the GMary using John’s setting as a template.
The following instructions was for them to not be deceived with false information about where the Son of Humanity is residing. He said, “Do not let anyone mislead you by saying, ‘Look over here!’ or ‘Look over there!’ Because the Son of Humanity exists within you.” This is a spinoff of Luke 17:21-24. The GMary was teaching that the Son of Humanity was within them. The Gospel of Luke was teaching that the kingdom of God was in the midst of them. Jesus taught that the place to find him, personally, would be like watching lightning flash from the sky. The GMary was conflating these two separate statements in Luke’s Gospel.
There are other allusions and references to the New Testament, but the expected Gnostic theology is integrated into the original words of Jesus. The GMary should be considered Gnostic in theology and heretical in nature. Mary Magdalene was dead long before this writing. Therefore, this book should be labeled pseudepigraphal due to its date and content. It fails in all four criteria of a canonical book. Here are the four criteria and reasons for its status:
Divine attributes of God– The teaching of what is evil is different from God’s original statements. This Gnostic text demonstrated the common teaching that all matter is evil. Scripture teaches that God places passion and desire into two categories: those practiced within his will and those outside of his will. There are contexts whereby God validates human passion and pleasure as good.
Traced to the Apostles– No record in history takes this document to an Apostolic source. The age of the book would be several years after the death of the Apostles.
Corporate reception of the Churches– It was not received or retransmitted by the churches. There is no mention of the book, and the fact there is an incomplete copy of the text demonstrates further that the churches did not corporately receive this account.
Intrinsic Reliability– The internal data seems to be inconsistent with itself in places. Peter’s relationship and view of Mary are entirely changed from the first section to the second. He recognized her as being loved more than all women in the first section. By the second section, he treated her with resentment and resistance.
By all accounts, this book should be rejected canonically as well as historically. There is always value to examining and studying works of history. Though many believers will not appreciate the theology in the GMary, they should still be aware of its teachings. These studies will help us further understand what types of doctrines the early Church stood against.
Dr. Stephen Boyce
1. Karen L. King, “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (ed.), Searching the Scriptures. Volume Two: A Feminist Commentary. (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 602
2. The Expository Times, Volume 118 Number 8, Pages 365–371
3. Karen L. King. 2003. The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the first woman apostle. (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press), 148
See translation of the Gospel of Mary https://www.gospels.net/mary/
See Coptic Interlinear https://www.academia.edu/11342209/The_Gospel_of_Mary_Coptic_English_Interlinear