Introduction to “Secrets of Mary Magdalene”*


By Elaine Pagels


Who was she, that elusive--and fascinating--woman in the circle around Jesus of Nazareth? For nearly two thousand years, Mary Magdalene has lived in the imagination of Christians as a seductive prostitute; in our own time, contemporary fiction pictures her as Jesus' lover and wife, mother of his children. Yet the earliest sources that tell of Mary Magdalene--both within the New Testament and outside of it--do not describe either of these sexualized roles, suggesting that the woman herself, and how we have come to see her, is more complex than most of us ever imagined. Was she, then, one of Jesus' followers, whose wealth helped support him, as the earliest New Testament gospel, the Gospel of Mark, says? A madwoman who had been possessed by seven devils, as Luke says? Or Jesus' closest disciple, the one he loved more than any other, as the Gospel of Mary Magdalene tells us? Or, in the words of the Dialogue of the Savior, “the woman who understood all things”?

When we investigate the earliest available records, we find all of these conflicting images, and more. What we discover, too, is that which answer we find depends on where we look. What is probably the earliest story comes from the New Testament Gospel of Mark, written about forty years after Jesus' death. Mark tells us that while Roman soldiers were crucifying Jesus Mary Magdalene stood among a group of women watching the execution, grieving, although the male disciples had fled in fear for their lives. Standing with Salome and another woman named Mary (the mother of James and Joseph), Mary Magdalene continued her vigil until Jesus finally died; later, along with her companions, she saw his body carefully wrapped in strips of linen, entombed, and sealed into a cave cut out of rock.

Mark explains that Mary, Salome, and “the other Mary” were among those who “followed Jesus and provided for him”--probably meals and a place to stay, perhaps money for necessities--when he was in Galilee. The morning after Sabbath, the women carne to offer their teacher the final service, bringing aromatic spices to complete his burial. But Mark's account ends on a note of confusion and shock: finding the tomb open, the body gone, the women, hearing that Jesus “is not here; he has risen,” run away, shaking with terror, “for trembling and astonishment carne upon them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were terrified.” Matthew, who wrote his version with Mark's account before him, repeats the same story but changes the troubling ending. Mary and her companions did leave the tomb quickly, he says, but did so “with fear and great joy.” And instead of intending to say nothing, they immediately run “to tell his disciples.” Then, while they were on the way, the risen Jesus himself appeared before them, and spoke to them.

Luke, like Matthew, has Mark's story before him, but has something different in mind when he revises Mark. To make clear to the reader that women--any woman, much less Mary--could not be among Jesus' disciples, Luke initially leaves out Mark's comment that Mary, Salome, and the other Mary “followed Jesus” (since saying this could be understood to place them among the disciples). Then Luke deliberately contrasts “the twelve” --the men whom he says Jesus named as disciples--with those he calls "the women," whom he classifies among the needy, sick, and crazed members of the crowds that pressed themselves upon Jesus and his disciples. Thus, Luke, unlike Mark, says that Mary carne to Jesus driven by demonic spirits, and as only one among “some women who had been healed from evil spirits and from illnesses.” Luke identifies these women as "Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna....and Susanna, and many others," who, he concedes, “provided for (Jesus and his disciples) from their resources.”

When Luke tells the story of Jesus' crucifixion and death, he changes three passages in which Mark had named Mary Magdalene, leaving her nameless in each of these three stories, standing among an anonymous group he calls “the women.” Only after the anonymous women testify about what they saw to “the eleven” (the inner circle that Luke had called “the twelve” until Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, had left them) does Luke name three women. For at this point, apparently, their witness matters to validate their testimony and he now names the three that he sees as the most prominent: Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, and Joanna. Although Luke, like John, sometimes speaks positively about “the women”, we may wonder why, at other times, he denigrates Mary and downplays her role.

Now, thanks to the recent discovery of other ancient gospels--gospels not included in the New Testament, which remained virtually unknown for nearly two thousand years until their recent discovery--we may be able to understand what Luke had in mind. For these other gospels, found translated into Coptic in Egypt, originally had been written earlier, in Greek, like the New Testament gospels. Scholars debate when they were written, but generally agree that most of them come from the first two centuries of the Christian movement. What we find in these discoveries is surprising: every one of the recently discovered sources that mention Mary Magdalene--sources that include the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, the Wisdom of Faith, and the Dialogue of the Savior--unanimously picture Mary as one of Jesus' most trusted disciples. Some even revere her as his foremost disciple, Jesus' closest confidant, since he found her capable of understanding his deepest secrets. We can see that Luke apparently did not want to acknowledge that some of those he had simply called “the women” previously were actually regarded as disciples themselves. Although in this introduction we cannot discuss these remarkable texts in detail, let us briefly look at each of these gospels in turn.

First, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene pictures Mary taking a leading role among the disciples. Finding the male disciples terrified to preach the gospel after Jesus' death since they feared that they, too, would be arrested and killed, Mary stands up to speak and encourages them, “turning their hearts to the good.” When Peter, acknowledging that “the Lord loved you more than other women,” asks Mary to “tell us what he told you” secretly, Mary agrees. When she finishes, Peter, furious, asks, “Did he really speak privately with a woman, and not openly to us? Are we supposed to turn around and all listen to her? Did he love her more than us?” Distressed at his rage, Mary replies, "My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?" Levi breaks in at this point to mediate the dispute: “Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the women like (our) enemies. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the Lord knew her very well; that is why he loved her more than us.” The Gospel of Mary ends as the others agree to accept Mary's teaching, and the disciples, including Mary, go forth to proclaim the gospel.

Like the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Thomas pictures Mary as one of Jesus' disciples. Strikingly, it names only six disciples, not twelve, and two of these are women--Mary Magdalene and Salome. Yet like the dispute between Peter and Mary in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, several passages in the Gospel of Thomas indicate that at the time it was written, probably around 90-100 C. E., the question of whether women could be disciples already had triggered explosive controversy. In saying 61, for example, Salome asks Jesus to tell her who he is: “Who are you, man, that you have come up on my couch, and eaten from my table?” Jesus answers, “I come from what is undivided;” that is, from the divine, which transcends gender. He thereby rejects what her question implies--that his identity involves primarily his being male, as hers does being female. Salome instantly understanding what he means, recognizes that the same is true for her. Thus she immediately answers, “I am your disciple.”

Here, too, however, as in the Gospel of Mary, Peter challenges and opposes the presence of women among the disciples. According to saying 114 in The Gospel of Thomas, Peter says to Jesus, “Tell Mary to leave us, for women are not worthy of (spiritual) life.” But instead of dismissing Mary, as Peter insists, Jesus rebukes Peter, and declares, “I will make Mary a living spirit,” so that she--or any woman--may become as capable of spiritual life as any man would have been in first century Jewish tradition .

We find yet another account of an argument in which Peter challenges Mary's right to speak among the disciples in the dialogue called Wisdom of Faith. Here, after Mary asks Jesus several questions, Peter breaks in, complaining to Jesus that Mary is talking too much and so displacing the rightful priority of Peter and his brother disciples. Yet, here too, just as in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Thomas, Peter's attempt to silence Mary earns him a quick rebuke, this time from Jesus himself. Later, however, Mary admits to Jesus that she hardly dares to speak with him freely, because, she says, “Peter makes me hesitate; I am afraid of him, because he hates the female race.” Jesus replies that whoever the Spirit inspires is divinely ordained to speak, whether man or woman.

This theme of conflict between Mary and Peter that we find in so many sources--conflict involving Peter's refusal to acknowledge Mary as a disciple, much less as a leader among the disciples--may well reflect what people knew and told about actual conflict between the two. We know, too, that since women often identified with Mary Magdalene, certain people in the movement told such stories about her--or against her--as a way of arguing about whether--or how--women could participate in their circles.

Note, for example, that the very writers who picture Peter as the disciple whom Jesus acknowledges as being their primary leader--namely, the authors of the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke--are the same ones who picture Mary as no disciple at all, but simply as one of “the women,” or, worse, in the case of Luke, someone who had been demon-possessed. What makes their accounts important historically, of course, is that these are three of the gospels that carne to be included in the canon of the New Testament--often invoked, even now, to “prove” that women cannot hold positions of authority within Christian churches.

Let us note, too, how this works in reverse: every one of the sources that reveres Mary as a leader among the apostles were excluded from the New Testament canon. When these texts came to be excluded--among them the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, Wisdom of Faith, and the Dialogue of the Savior--many Christians excluded as well the conviction that women could--and should--participate in leading the churches.

The Dialogue of the Savior, another ancient text discovered with these alternate gospels, claims to recount a dialogue between the risen Jesus and three disciples he chooses to receive special revelation--Matthew, Thomas, and Mary. Yet here, after each of the three engage in dialogue with Jesus, the Dialogue singles out Mary to receive the highest praise: “'This she spoke as the woman who understood all things.” Finally, before turning to the fascinating studies that are found in this book, let us look at one of the most fascinating sources of all--the Gospel of Philip. This gospel shows how many early Christians saw Mary Magdalene as Jesus' constant companion. Certain contemporary readers have taken this literally to mean that she was Jesus' lover and wife. It is true that the Gospel of Philip pictures her as Jesus' most intimate companion, and that the Greek term (syzygos, companion) can suggest sexual intimacy. Plus, like the other sources we have looked at, the Gospel of Philip attests to a rivalry between Mary Magdalene and the male disciples:

The companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. (But Christ loved) her more than (all) the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her (mouth). The rest of the disciples were offended by this. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you as much as I love her?”

This statement, in which the Gospel of Philip pictures Mary as Jesus' companion, and perhaps even his partner, helped inspire one of Dan Brown's most controversial plot points in The Da Vinci Code. For the purposes of his fiction Brown tends to take these suggestions literally. But had he gone on to read the rest of the Gospel of Philip, he would have seen that its author sees Mary Magdalene as a powerful spiritual presence; as one who manifests the divine as it appears in feminine form--above all as divine Wisdom, and the Holy Spirit.

When Israel's prophets and poets spoke of the divine spirit and wisdom, they recognized the feminine gender of Hebrew terms. The Biblical Book of Proverbs speaks of wisdom as a feminine spiritual presence who shared with God the work of creation:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work...before the beginning of the earth; when there were no deep waters, I was brought forth....before the mountains had been shaped, I was there... when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world, and delighting in the human race.

So the Gospel of Philip sees Mary as divine wisdom-hokhmah, in Hebrew, sophia, in Greek, both feminine terms--manifest in the world. Jewish mystical tradition often speaks of God's presence in the world not only as wisdom, but also as shehkina, as his presence. Over a thousand years after the Gospel of Philip was written, kabbalistic tradition, using the language of mystics throughout the world, would celebrate this feminine aspect of God as his divine bride.

Simultaneously, the Gospel of Philip celebrates Mary Magdalene as manifesting the divine spirit, which this gospel calls the “virgin who came down” from heaven. When Christians spoke of Jesus “born from a virgin,” this author agrees--but refuses to take it literally. So some people, he says, take this literally to mean that Jesus' mother became pregnant apart from any man, apart from sexual intercourse. But this, he says, is the “faith of fools” who fail to comprehend spiritual matters (although, as we note, it can be seen in the birth narratives offered in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke). Instead, continues the Gospel of Philip, Jesus was born physically, just as all humans, as the son of biological parents. The difference, says the author of this gospel, that he was also “born again” in baptism--born spiritually to become the son of the Father above, and of the heavenly Mother, the Holy Spirit.

Many other texts discovered with Philip echo the same language. The Gospel of Truth, too, declares that grace restores us to our spiritual source, bringing us “into the Father, into the Mother, Jesus of the infinite sweetness.” The Secret Book of John tells how the disciple John, grieving after Jesus' crucifixion, went out into the desert, filled with doubt and fear until suddenly “The whole creation shook, and 1 saw...an unearthly light, and in the light, three forms.” As John watched, amazed, he heard the voice of Jesus coming forth from the light, speaking to him: “John, John, why do you doubt, and why are you afraid? I am the one who is with you always; I am the Father; I am the Mother; and I am the Son." Startling as this may be at first glance, who else would we expect to find with the Father and the Son if not the divine Mother, the Holy Spirit? But this early formulation of the trinity apparently reflects the Hebrew term for spirit, Ruah, as a feminine being--a connotation lost when spirit was translated into the New Testament's language, Greek, in which the word becomes neuter.

Even this quick sketch suggests the wide range of characterizations and wealth of meanings the early Christians associated with Mary Magdalene, many of which the essays in this book explore and amplify. From the first century through our own time, poets, artists, and mystics have loved to celebrate this remarkable woman “who understood all things.” Now, through the research presented here, and through discussions now engaged, we may discover new aspects of Mary Magdalene--and, in the process, of ourselves.


Princeton, NJ

May, 2006

*This is Elaine Pagels' introduction to the book “Secrets of Mary Magdalene: The Untold Story of History's Most Misunderstood Woman,” edited by Dan  Burstein and Arne J. de Keijzer, published by CDS Books in association with Squibnocket Partners, copyright 2006. Permission to republish in Southern Cross Review was kindly granted by them. It may not be copied further without their permission.

For more information, see www.SecretsOfMaryMagdalene.com