In my last post I mentioned Gospels that we know about because they are mentioned, or even quoted, by church fathers, but that no longer survive. A second, 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).
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).
Epiphanius claims to have had access to this, and the other, Phibionite books. But this one he actually quotes. If the quotation does indeed go back to an actual document, as opposed to Epiphanius’s fertile imagination, it is no wonder that the book never survived, as it recounts an episode in which Jesus himself engages in a sex act before a very bewildered Mary Magdalene.
For the Gnostic Phibionites, this text, and their corresponding rituals, related to their doctrinal views that humans represent divine sparks entrapped in human bodies, which need to escape. Human procreation perpetuates this state of entrapment, by providing an endless supply of bodies as prisons for the sparks of the divine. The “solution” to the problem, then, was to engage in non-procreative sex, as shown to Mary Magdalene by the Savior himself, one odd night on a mountaintop.
Here is the quotation of the text from Epiphanius. (The first sentence, obviously, is Epiphanius himself explaining what the book is).
For in the book called The Greater Questions of Mary (they have also forged one called the Lesser), they indicate that he [Jesus] gave a revelation to her [Mary].
“Taking her to the mountain he prayed and then extracted a woman from his side and began having sexual intercourse with her; then he gathered his semen in his hand, explaining that ‘This is what we must do in order to live.’ When Mary became disturbed and fell to the ground, he again raised her and said to her, ‘Why do you doubt, you of little faith?’”
Somehow I think this one never had much of a chance of getting into the New Testament…