(Essay 2) Mary Magdalene: The Gnostic Mary Magdalene by Joanna Kujawa

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It was only years later, while living in Melbourne and no longer connected to the Catholic Church, that I found my way back to the Gnostic Gospels. Surely I had heard something about the Gnostics when studying at the Pontifical Institute in Toronto? They had always interested me — the controversial and mysterious early Christian dissenters who thought they could interpret the gospels without the Church’s help. The Church persecuted them slowly and efficiently throughout the centuries and burned them as heretics.

When Steve and Martin invited me to follow them to Jerusalem as a chronicler of their adventures, they asked me to read The Urantia Book, a modern-day Gnostic text. I liked parts of it, especially the chapters describing Yeshua’s earthly life. There was one problem though — I found the descriptions of the spiritual universe too strange for my taste. Which was an odd reaction, because the esoteric visions of the universe (and its many layers inhabited by celestial beings of all kinds) had always been an integral part of most Gnostic texts. For me there was an ongoing problem with every inspired spiritual text:

How do you reconcile the profound insights present in these texts with half-mad visions of far-away galaxies? Although The Urantia Book made interesting points about Yeshua’s life, it didn’t explain much about Mary Magdalene’s past before she met Yeshua. In the book she is called Miriam of Magdala, a woman with a questionable past who joins other women following Yeshua on his mission. The ‘questionable past’ suggests some wickedness in Mary Magdalene’s conduct before she met Yeshua. No details are given.

I am more interested in the traditional Gnostic Gospels written soon after Yeshua’s death and forbidden by the synods of the Church. The Synod of Nicea in the fourth century allowed only four gospels to be chosen for the Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Other gospels were considered too controversial for the sensibilities of the bishops and church rulers. These gospels included the Gnostic Gospels, among them my favourites: the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Philip.

Despite long centuries of repression, the Gnostic Gospels were unearthed one by one. The first of these was the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. It was found at the end of the nineteenth century in Egypt, then acquired by the National Museum of Berlin, and has been lovingly transcribed line-by-line, translated and popularised by the French scholar, Jean-Yves Leloup (2002). This gospel’s earliest sections are as old as the so-called canonical gospels of the Bible.

The most controversial lines of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene deal with the jealousy of the apostles at Yeshua’s sharing of his teachings with her: ‘How is it possible that the Teacher talked in this manner to this woman, about secrets of which we ourselves are ignorant? Must we change our customs and listen to this woman? Did he really choose her, and prefer her to us?’(17:9-20).

According to Leloup, the anger of the apostles had nothing to do with Yeshua’s personal relationship with Mary Magdalene. They were angry because he considered Mary Magdalene worthy of giving her ‘his most subtle teachings’ (2002, p.7). In doing this, Yeshua not only went against the traditional belief that women were unworthy of learning, but also let it be known that he treated her as equal to them. Despite her past, her transformation was complete.

But what sort of transformation was it? Surely not one which asked her to sacrifice sexuality for wisdom? I would hate to think she lost her sensual appeal after gaining wisdom and spiritual growth. I see her as she was presented in the Gospel of Philip in her resplendent sensuality, or, as Leloup says, ‘in the lively power of her sexuality’ (2002, p. 7). The Gospel of Philip notes (59:9): ‘Lord loved Mary more than other disciples, and often used to kiss her on her mouth.’ I rather like the story of Yeshua kissing her – against all rules, against all proprieties.

This is how I see it: the morning sun reflecting brightly on the white stones of the synagogue in Capernaum; Yeshua’s disciples standing around him, together with a curious crowd and some followers; and he just kisses her. He kisses her as she is standing in front of him in the glory of her beauty and the sensuality of her past.

(End of the Essay.)

Meet Mago Contributor Joanna Kujawa.