I was browsing through old posts and ran across this one from almost exactly seven years ago, a question about whether one of the non-canonical Gospels (the Gospel of Philip) really could be right that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a sexual relationship. I get asked about this still on occasion, and it’s on one of the more titillating topics of early Christian studies, so I thought I would repost it today.
I know that the “Gospel of Philip does not have much if any real historical veracity to it about Jesus’ life, but do the references about Jesus and Mary Magdalene being lovers and the holes in the papyrus ‘kissing’ verse (verses 32 and 55 in your “Lost Scriptures” book), help support the view that this most likely Gnostic Christian sect truly believed and taught that Jesus and Mary M were married?
Yes, this is one of those questions I get asked about on occasion. I have a reasonably full discussion of the relevant issues in my book Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene. In the book, I put the discussion in the context of – yes, you guessed it — Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, the one source many people turn to for the Gospel of Philip. (!) Here’s what I say there:
Some of the historical claims about the non-canonical Gospels in the Da Vinci Code have struck scholars as outrageous, or at least outrageously funny. The book claims, for example, that some of these Gospels were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls. That of course is completely wrong: the Dead Sea Scrolls do not contain any Gospels, or any Christian writings of any sort. They are Jewish texts, which never mention Jesus or any of his followers. And the novel claims that Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene is frequently reported in the Gospels that did not make it into the New Testament. On the contrary, not only is their marriage not reported frequently, it is never reported at all, in any surviving Gospel, canonical or non-canonical. I’ll have more to say about this in a later chapter. For now I want to consider the Gospel of Philip, which is the Da Vinci Code’s star witness for the case that Jesus and were husband and wife.
The Gospel of Philip is one of the most puzzling and convoluted writings discovered at Nag Hammadi. It consists of a number of sayings and reflections about the nature of reality and humans’ relationship to it, all within the context of a gnostic understanding of the world. The book is filled with hard-to-interpret parables, metaphorical statements, theological claims, analogies, exhortations, and so on, in what appears to be a random sequence. This is not an easy text to interpret. Many readers simply throw up their hands in despair. Just to give you a taste, consider one of its early statements:
A Gentile does not die, for he has never lived in order that he may die. He who has believed in the truth has found life, and this one is in danger of dying, for he is alive. Since Christ came the world has been created, the cities adorned, the dead carried out. When we were Hebrews we were orphans and had only our mother, but when we became Christians we had both father and mother. Those who sow in winter reap in summer. The winter is the world, the summer the other eternal realm…
And so it goes.
Despite its generally opaque quality, there are some fascinating statements made in the Gospel of Philip, and two of them involve Mary Magdalene. These are the two that come to be quoted in The Da Vinci Code. Unfortunately, both of them are problematic in ways that Brown, or at least his fictional characters, evidently don’t realize. The first involves one of the real historical howlers of the novel. This involves the passage of the Gospel of Philip where we are told:
There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.
One of the main characters in the Da Vinci Code, the historical sleuth and Holy Grail expert Leigh Teabing, quotes this saying and then points out that it shows that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, because, as he indicates, “As any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion in those days, literally meant spouse” (The Da Vinci Code, p. 246).
The problem (unbeknownst to Brown?) is that the Gospel of Philip was not written in Aramaic. It was written in the ancient Egyptian language Coptic. Moreover, when you look up the passage in the Coptic, the word used there is actually a loan-word from Greek, the word koinonos. And what does this word mean? It is not the Greek word for spouse. It normally means “associate,” or “companion.” Thus this passage from the Gospel of Philip tells us only that Mary was an associate of Jesus – the same information that we can glean from the canonical Gospels.
The other passage of relevance in the Gospel of Philip may appear more promising for showing an intimate relationship between Jesus and Mary. According to the Da Vinci Code (and in the view of many interpreters), the passage indicates that Jesus and Mary used to kiss one another frequently on the mouth. The problem with this particular passage, however, is the same one that we saw earlier with respect to The Dialogue of the Savior: the manuscript has worn out in places so that there are holes where the words used to be, making it hard to know exactly what the author wrote. The text reads as follows:
And the companion of the [gap in the manuscript] Mary Magdalene. [Gap in the manuscript] her more than [gap] the disciples [gap] kiss her [gap] on her [gap].
It looks at least that the passage must have indicated that Jesus loved Mary more than the others and used to kiss her on her — mouth? Some other body part? We’ll probably never know.
But if nothing else, this passage appears to show that this author remembered Mary as being particularly close and intimate with Jesus. It would be going too far, however, to think that he is portraying them as sexually intimate. That might be our own natural response: they are, after all, kissing. But here again, it is important to put the text in its own context. As it turns out, the Gospel of Philip, and other Christian Gnostic texts, mention kissing on other occasions. And it is clear from these other passages that whatever is going on, it is not some kind of divine foreplay. At an earlier point, for example, the Gospel of Philip says the following:
It is from being promised to the heavenly place that man receives nourishment. [Gap in the manuscript] him from the mouth. And had the word gone out from that place it would be nourished from the mouth and it would become perfect. For it is by a kiss that the perfect conceive and give birth. For this reason, we also kiss one another. We receive conception from the grace which is in one another.
As with other passages in the Gospel of Philip, it is difficult to understand what all of this means. What is reasonably clear is that a person reaches perfection through what issues forth from the mouth — that is, the words of knowledge that are delivered by an inspired teacher. It is this “perfect” issuance that leads people to experience the new birth, as they come to know the truth that brings liberation from their entrapment here as material beings. This notion was symbolically portrayed in the Christian ritual of the “kiss of peace,” which was practiced throughout the early church, just as many churches today have a moment during their worship services when people in the pews greet one another with a chaste kiss or handshake. By kissing another, you showed that it is through the mouth, and the truths it delivers, that one can find life. One thereby “conceives” and “gives birth.”
When Jesus kisses Mary, then, it is not a prelude to sex. It is a symbolic statement that she received the revelation of truth that he conveyed to his disciples. According to the Gospel of Philip, she understood this truth even better than the others. If this notion was widespread throughout Christian gnostic circles, it is no wonder that Peter and the others felt more than a tinge of jealousy towards her. She had usurped their place as the one most intimate with Jesus, not sexually but spiritually.