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Lost Gospels That Are Still Lost 3: The Greater Questions of Mary

I have been discussing some of the Gospels that we know about because they are mentioned, or even quoted, by church fathers, but that no longer survive. Another, particularly intriguing, Gospel like this – one that I desperately wish we had, for reasons that will soon become clear — is known as “The Greater Questions of Mary” (i.e., of Mary Magdalene). My following comments on it are more or less lifted from my Introduction in the recent Apocryphal Gospels volume.

One of the “great questions” for scholars is whether such a book ever really did exist. It is mentioned only once in ancient literature, in a highly charged polemical context by Epiphanius of Salamis, a Christian heresy-hunter who was prone to exaggeration and fabrication, who was incautious at best in his attacks against heretical sects in his book the Panarion (= “Medicine Chest”; in it Epiphanius supplies the “antidotes” for the “snake-bites of heresy”).

The most notorious of the groups that Epiphanius attacks were known by a variety of names, including the “Phibionites.” According to Epiphanius — our sole source of knowledge about the group — these gnostic believers engaged in nocturnal sex rituals that involved indiscriminate sex, coitus interruptus, and the consumption of semen and menstrual blood, all in a bizarre act of Christian worship (a sacred eucharist). Really. Moreover, they allegedly possessed apostolic books that supported their outrageous rituals, including this one known as the “Greater Questions of Mary” (Panarion 26, 8).

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Lost Gospels That Are Still Lost 4: Q
Lost Gospels That Are Still Lost 2: The Gospel of Basilides



  1. Avatar
    toddfrederick  November 14, 2012


    I finished your book, Did Jesus Exist? The last chapter was an outstanding summary of who Jesus was and what he wanted. You have a new book coming out soon regarding forgeries. I am just starting James Tabor’s new book on Jesus and Paul. I read Barrie Wilson’s book on How Jesus became Christian, and am still reading through two of your other books as well as the fine blogs you post on this site such as the one above.


    What do we now do with all of this?

    Many of us have lived in our peaceful little worlds with the assurance that “esus Loves me (us) this I know For the Bible Tells Me So,” and suddenly (over the past two plus years for me) I find out that Jesus isn’t what I was told he was, Paul messed around with the early faith through celestial visions and conversations with the risen Spiritual Christ, that Mark is highly influenced by Pauline “Christianity”, that The Acts of The Apostles is a fraud and should be names The Acts of Paul, that Christianity was manipulated by the high and powerful in the expanding church, eventually promoting wars, persecutions, crusades, inquisitions, and a plethora of other horrible acts…
    ….and we are left high and dry trying to sort out what the Truth of the Faith really is, if there is even a Faith at all.

    All of the work you have done in research, and the same for your colleagues, is for naught….we will have the truth from what you explore and what you discover, but we will not have a Faith.

    I told my pastor that I don’t believe in fairy tales and that “All I know is that I don’t know” and I’m not even sure about God.

    So what are we to do? I honestly do not know if there is a God in the traditional sense, that the best any of us can do is live day-by-day doing the best for ourselves, for those among us who are suffering, and to do what we can to maintain our dying planet.

    It is good to know the truth (historically) of the origins of Christianity, but is a sorrow that it’s all a result of dishonesty and manipulation.

    I am ready to go back to my Buddhist practices, to live mindfully in the present moment, and to love my neighbor to the best of my ability, unless Christianity can change radically to meet the needs of humanity in this century.

    Any Thoughts on this?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 15, 2012

      Yup, I know. It can be very wrenching emotionally. At least it was for me. I discuss my views about all this in a few of my books. In the beginning of Misquoting Jesus I talk about how I came to realize that my fundamentalist views of the Bible couldn’t be right. In Jesus Interrupted I talk about how the problems with the Bible led me to become a liberal Christian. And in God’s Problem I talk about how I moved to become a non-believer, an agnostic; that’s where I deal with the problem of suffering and how it affecgted my faith; and it’s the closest thing I’ve come to explaining “what to do with it.”

  2. Avatar
    maxhirez  November 15, 2012

    What does it mean that he “…extracted a woman from his side…”? In my imagination Jesus has a parasitic twin sister in this telling…

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 15, 2012

      I think the image is of Adam and Eve (she came out of his side). But it is indeed bizarre

  3. Avatar
    dallaswolf  November 15, 2012

    You’re in a feisty mood today! Pretty funny, though…

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    ZachET  November 15, 2012

    what are your reasons that jesus did not see himself as the son of man, surely in matthew 8:20 he is saying the son of man HAS no place to lay his head so the son of man must have already been there.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 15, 2012

      It’s a *very* long story, but the precis is that there are indeed a lot of son of man sayings in the Gospels in which Jesus clearly refers to himself. In others he does not. And as with all sayings of Jesus, one has to figure out which ones actually go back to Jesus and which were put on his lips by his later followers. Short version: I think (for a variety of reasons that would take a while to spell out — but see my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium) that the ones in which Jesus appears to refer to someone else are the ones he actually said (a cosmic judge of the earth); and that Christians later who thought that Jesus himself was the son of man (the cosmic judge of the earth, soon to return in glory), altered his sayings so that he began to refer to himself that way.

  5. Avatar
    Gerhardt  May 22, 2020

    It would be fun to see a complete forgery/Gnostic fan fiction of The Greater Questions Of Mary, not something that would try to fool scholars, but for fun, by someone who knew enough about the material to say, “If the Phibionites had a gospel, then this is what it might have said, or (more realistically?), if Epiphanius created such a document out of thin air because he hated the Gnostics so much, then perhaps this is what it might have said.”

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