She Who Anoints
Disciple or Lover?Although Mary Magdalene cuts a vivid figure in European folklore (see also my review of The Da Vinci Code), the conventional Gospels tell us precious little about her life or person. The profusion of Marys in the New Testament is a puzzle to scholars and non-scholars alike. King resumes all allusions and presumed allusions to MM in the New Testament, but no coherent picture emerges. It remains impossible to determine if Magdalene can be placed among the women associated with Lazurus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, or among the women gathered on Golgotha to witness the Crucifixion. Nor can she with certitude be identified with the woman from whom Jesus cast out seven devils, or the woman who on Maundy Thursday anointed Jesus feet and dried them with her hair. One single point of identification seems to be accepted. The Gospel of John (20:15) indicates that she was the first person to encounter Jesus on Easter Sunday, apparently mistaking him (due to his resurrected state?) for the gardener.
So, finally, what kind of portrait can be made from the textual clues? Reviewing the evidence from non-Gnostic sources, King profiles Magdalene as an early and important disciple of Jesus and a leader in the early Christian movement (p. 149), and distinguishes this respectable figure from the repentant whore of folkloric tradition. She asserts that the Gospel of Mary (the Berlin Codex, BG 8502, the main source material for her book) presents Magdalene in a role closer to her actual position in early Christian history (p. 149) closer, that is, than the repentant prostitute. The effect of this interpretation is to raise the status of Magdalene by distancing her from that tawdry image and underscoring her importance as a real-life player in the historical formation of Christianity.
All this seems to bode well for Magdalene, but does it really? Whether intended or not, the effect of Kings study is to demarginalize Mary of Magdala so that she becomes more acceptable to mainstream Christianity. She is no longer an outsider, no longer an exotic, threatening figure on the sidelines of the Passion. Instead, she is elevated to the rank of the first woman apostle, as the subtitle of the book declares. This is preferable to seeing her as a prostitute.
But how is this enticing and troubling woman, a mysterious figure that has haunted the Western imagination for centuries, affected by being made into a faithful apostle of Jesus? The answer depends, of course, on what one thinks of Jesus and the message attributed to him. It depends also on how one understands Gnostic views of Jesus Christ, views condemned as heretical by early proponents of Christian doctrine. If Mary of Magdala is regarded as a faithful apostle of the Jesus revered in mainstream faith, the Sunday school savior, what happens to the Magdalene of heresy, the Gnostic consort of the other Jesus?
And who is that other Jesus?
According to a Gnostic text, the Gospel of Philip, Jesus is an enlightened sage who shows open affection for his lover, Mary Magdalene (also called Miriam), kissing her on the mouth in public, much to the dismay of his male entourage. She is the koinonos, the consort of the Gnostic master, his most intimate accomplice in love and life. Gnostic texts make it clear that their complicity is both spiritual and sexual. The French-kissing vignette in the Gospel of Philip is a minor scandal compared to another text that describes Jesus and Mary meeting for sex in the mountains and even discussing techniques of oral intercourse (in the Questions of Mary, a lost text paraphrased by Epiphanius: Edgar Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, v. 1, p 328-9).
King remarks laconically, the notion of a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene has surfaced at odd moments throughout Western history and is still capable of arousing a good deal of public ire. (p. 153) Well, if the popularity of Dan Brown's book is any measure of truth, we do appear to be in one of those odd moments. King and scholars of her status may not agree, but this illicit and, to many, blasphemous liaison makes sense within a larger historical perspective than she considers. Gnostic and Biblical scholars rarely look outside their specialist genres, so they may be excused for missing the Tantric character of the alleged relationship between Jesus and Magdalene. And scholars unacquainted with the millennial traditions of Asian sexual mysticism (Hindu, Chinese, Tibetan) would certainly not realize that in those ancient practices, when practiced correctly, the female consort of the master is the true master.
The Denial of Gnosis
In Gnostic terms Jesus is a telestes, an initiate of the Mysteries. The Pagan schools of experimental mysticism existed all over the classical world from Ireland to Egypt, and their origins stretched to times far before the Christian era. The early Christian movement was set in the late Pagan world when the Mysteries still commanded tremendous influence. As a telestes, Jesus is an ordinary mortal gifted with extraordinary knowledge, the flowering of gnosis, transcendent insight. He is a phoster, an illuminator who brings a message of freedom from error and illusion, not redemption from sin.
The Gnostic Jesus is an inspired teacher
who does not claim to be a divinity capable by his death of redeeming the
world, changing the nature of human suffering, and altering the course of history.
Most, though not all, Gnostic texts firmly reject the resurrection and some
passages in the NHL even ridicule belief in salvation by attachment to the name of a dead man (The Apocalypse of Peter 74:13-21).
Gnostics who protested the rise of Christianity warned that by blind faith
of this kind people will become greatly defiled and fall into error, even into the clutch of evil and they will be perversely overwhelmed (Ibid).
When Karen King declares that Gnosticism does not exist, she speaks as a
scholar pronouncing her judgement on a categorical term, an -ism invented
in the 19th century; but in doing so, she also risks discounting the concrete
and undeniable religious and cultural phenomenon to which the label Gnosticism
refers. Her curt dismissal of Gnosticism verges on a denial of Gnosis,
the illuminist path of Pagan spirituality, as if such a path never existed,
if it did, is irrelevant. But a rich and long-enduring tradition of pre-Christian
spirituality akin to Asian mysticism culminated in the phenomenon
labelled by that now dispensable term, Gnosticism. And the legacy Gnosis
for humankind may not be so confidently or easily discounted.
sort are not made by Karen King. Instead, she asserts that the early
church fathers, who vehemently opposed Gnostic teachings, present her [Magdalene] in a consistently favourable light. She is usually mentioned to support points they are trying to make about the reality of physical resurrection or the nature of the soul. (p. 149) In other words, Magdalene is acceptable in support of doctrinal belief of the apostolic succession. Thus, King not only rejects the term Gnosticism, but
also gives an anti-Gnostic spin to the central feminine model of Gnosis.
King sidelines the penitent whore, as noted above, only to reintroduce her as a model of human weakness:
By evaluating Magdalene (even in a seemingly positive light) against the standards of a non-Pagan creed, King makes it difficult for anyone not versed in Gnostic texts and thought to realize how Magdalene may represent an entirely different set of values, such as honor, self-love, independence, beauty of character and person, moral and physical courage, and willingness to accept suffering as an inevitable fact of human existence but not as a transcendent device. Suffering to be born with dignity rather than despised as a divine curse in need of redemption by a higher power. Imagine that: Mary Magdalene as a paragon of Pagan virtues. But there are no Pagan virtues (as we all know, because we are told so), just as there are no Gnostic teachings worthy of the name. Or, apparently, this scholar would have it.
The Mystique of MM
King builds her impressive case on the slim textual evidence of the Gospel of Mary, a non-NHL text that surfaced in 1896 in Berlin. Four fragmentary versions are extant, but even the longest one, Berolinensis 8502, known as the Berlin Codex, is missing the first six pages. King's translation of several compiled variants does not fill five pages of her book. She skilfully uses brief passages and even single words from the Berlin compilation to extrapolate the person and mission of Mary of Magdala as the first and most faithful apostle. In her inventory of textual references or supposed references to Magdalene, she largely ignores Gnostic materials that could be cited to profile her subject along quite different lines.
King's book is an outstanding piece of scholarly exegesis on her chosen
text, but an extremely narrow and misdirecting treatment of Magdalene. If the
messenger of enlightenment, not a messiah whose suffering redeems the world,
attributed to the figure of the penitent whore may hold a different meaning. Regardless of what scholars think, Mary of Magdala carries a mystique that
surpasses textual and historical discussion. This woman is numinous. In King's work what might be called the mythic dimension of Magdalen'es
personality (in Jungian terms, her archetypal power) has been demolished,
along with the Gnostic and Pagan background against which she can best be
A Gnostic WarningKing emphasizes the paramount importance of the Greek theological term, Anthropos, but astonishingly without allusion to its Gnostic provenance. Reaching for a humanistic tone, she translates uios tou anthropou as the child of true Humanity rather than as Son of Man, the conventional term. She cites Mary saying of the Lord, "We should praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us true Human beings" (5:7-8). King adds: "The notion of the perfect Human (Coptic ptome ntelios; Greek teleion anthropon) refers to the Saviour's earlier admonition to find the child of true Humanity within" (p. 60-1). This is specific Gnostic terminology from the Mystery Schools, lifted from its source without acknowledgement. Teleion anthropon can be translated as ultimate humanity, ultra-human, or even initiated humanity. It refers not to a special status of being, but a self-awareness that comes through exceptional insight (gnosis) into the Anthropos, the authentic spirit of humanity.
The Anthropos doctrine was central to the Gnostic worldview, as all scholars admit. It was co-opted and turned into the divine humanity of the hybrid, Jesus/Christ, by Christian ideologues. The doctrine of the God-man presents an ideal that no human can match. It is a potent archetypal model, though certainly a pathological one. The spin into pathology is inherent in the story of Jesus ordeal, for the story says that he is unjustly murdered, and by so dying becomes the divine victim whose death redeems the world. The Pauline ideology of the glorified victim was specifically targeted by Gnostics who warned of deviant ideas coming from a clever man and his manifold dogma. This warning occurs in the Gospel of Philip, cited by King (p. 166) who concurs, as most scholars do, that it likely refers to Saint Paul.
The Pauline Jesus Christ is not the Gnostic Anthropos, and Magdalene is not a woman who would teach such doctrines. Yet King says that she was a prominent Jewish disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, leaving us to assume that the Jesus in question was presumably historical and can be, if we so wish, identified with the Christ of Paul. At least King says nothing to the contrary, nothing to obviate such assumptions. This being so, we are left with the impression that Mary of Magdala, now elevated to the rank of the first apostle, must have expounded Pauline doctrines or, at the very least, faithfully repeated the teachings of Jesus, whatever they might have been.
Down to the last page of her book, King is deeply ambiguous on the distinction between the religious ideology attached to Jesus, the Son of God, and the ethical message of Jesus, the spiritual teacher. She concludes her book by stating: "The Gospel of Mary and other works argue energetically that the appropriation of Jesus teachings points the way to true discipleship and salvation" (p. 190). Apparently she means that Mary of Magdala represents someone who appropriates Jesus message but does not propound the ideological doctrines attached to the Jesus/Christ hybrid. But what aspects of Jesus message does Magdalene embrace, and how does she represent his message in a uniquely feminine way? Kings study throws no light on these issues, even though her identification of Magdalene as the first apostle clearly raises them.
Going Beyond Belief
It is always the same problem with Christianity, this split between what Jesus himself said (the true message) and what was said about him and his teachings (the ideological program). The problem is insurmountable as long as the belief persists that the ideals of humanity must be dictated to us by a model of ideal humanity, the superhuman god-man. But if it is not impossible ideals we need, but attainable humane values and ways to actualise them, and if there is no ideal humanity to teach this, but only the divine wisdom potential in us, our Gaian endowment to unfold, then this belief is erroneous and will be extremely harmful. As a human or good-enough reflection of Sophia, divine wisdom, Magdalene represents a resource within both men and women, the force of that precious insight (gnosis) by which human potential can be nurtured. This is her anointing of the Christ within, if such a term be allowed.
The Anthropos, authentic humanity, was presented by Gnostics in the Mysteries
centuries before the Christian era, and is clearly reflected in the Purusha of
Asian mysticism, ante-dating the Abrahamic creeds by millennia. This teaching
was suppressed, co-opted and finally consigned to oblivion by self-declared
representatives of Christianity. Pagan intellectuals in the time of Jesus viewed
of the redemptive value of suffering as horrific superstition. Now Magdalene
herself is updated and touted at a faithful instrument of this anti-Pagan,
trans-human and, in the end, inhumane creed. (No scholar has observed
that a transhuman ideal attached to an inhumane creed can throw the entire
species into a schizophrenic spin, but radicals such as D. H. Lawrence and
R. D. Liang have
done so with great lucidity. Lawrence's Apocalypse, published in 1931,
says more about Christian origins than a dozen Professor Kings, and in The
Politics of Experience Liang explains how our very capacity to experience
can be destroyed by schizophrenic double-binds as seen in the Judeo-Christian
ideology of salvation.)
For some today, Gnosticism is not an obsolete term but a living experience. Gender warfare lies at the heart of Christianity, the authors of the Newsweek article rightly tell us, but gender harmony lies at the heart of Gnosticism. To the extent that Pagan religions reflected the ethics of the Goddess-oriented societies from which they derived, they were tolerant and egalitarian. Gnostic teachings were the exotic flower of Pagan spirituality. The alleged new image of humanity discovered by early Christians (as the dominant version of history tells us) did not, and still largely does not, tolerate other views on what it means to be male or female or for that matter, to be human.
Text-bound to history, and claiming to be the main moral shaping force in history, Judeo-Christian-Islamic religion has not delivered positively on sexual mores. On the contrary, it has produced centuries of shame, repression, misogyny, and sexual apartheid (the last, particularly in Islam). But the message of Gnosis reaches beyond history and the historical conditioning of sexual stereotypes. AsDolores LaChapelle writes, referring to deep ecology:
the same could be said of Gnosticism, which might be defined as the
deep ecology of the human soul. Its roots long precede the complex of
slimly disguised as religion, agendas that now support the global machinations
of the pathological dominator system (to borrow Ralph Metzners term).
The plague of the global society today that is, religiously legitimated
terrorism or defence against it, framed in the same righteous preachments
-- has arisen
from the fusion of the Abrahamic creeds with the highest idealism of
the Hellenistic Era, transmitted down the ages through Platonic rationalism
and Athenian pedagogy.
But, as D. H. Lawrence said many years ago, The gospel of salvation
through the Ideals and escape from the body coincided with the tragic
human life. Salvation and tragedy are the same thing, and they are both
now beside the point. (Cited by LaChapelle, ibid.)
JLL: March 2004
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.