In my undergraduate class on ancient Gospels and modern Jesus films this semester we looked at one of the truly intriguing but little known early Gospels, “The Gospel of Mary.” This second century does not claim to be written by Mary Magdalene, but she is the main figure in it – the one to whom Jesus gave a secret revelation about ultimate reality, much to the chagrin of the male disciples who can’t believe that Jesus would reveal the secrets of the world to a *woman* instead of them.
It is a Gnostic Gospel – by which I mean that it is based on “gnostic” myths about how humans are trapped here in their material bodies and need to learn the secrets about themselves, about the world, and about how to escape their physical prisons – all this through the secret “knowledge” (Greek = gnosis) that Jesus can provide.
We have no record of a Gospel according to Mary (Magdalene) from the early church, The book was, in fact, unknown until its discovery at the end of the nineteenth century. Despite the sensational nature of the find, the book was not widely known for many decades: its first publication did not come until 1955–a marked contrast to the treatment accorded other Gospels discovered in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter or the intriguing fragmentary collection of several Gospel passages called Papyrus Egerton 2. Some of these are of less inherent intrigue than the Gospel of Mary, but they all were published almost immediately upon discovery (well, Thomas was about a decade later, for various reasons). Whether the relative lack of scholarly interest in the Gospel of Mary was related to (a) the fact that this was a Gospel allegedly by, or about, a woman disciple, (b) the circumstance that it embodied a relatively complex gnostic cosmology rather than a more straightforward narrative, or (c) something else, is hard to determine. But the publication was also delayed by some mindboggling and frustrating events that I explain in my Introduction to the work in my book The Other Gospels (co-edited with my colleague Zlatko Pleše.)
Here is how I describe the book in that edition
The account s begins in medias res, with Jesus responding to a question from the disciples about whether “matter [will be] destroyed or not.” Jesus’ reply shows…
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