Fri 2 Sep 2005
There is a tendency among modern scholars and theologians to find in the ancient sources sentiments and views which accord with their own. This is especially the case when it comes to issues of gender and the evaluation of women’s place within certain varieties of Christianity. Thus, for instance, Dennis MacDonald’s study of the Acts of Paul and Thecla tends to cast Thecla in terms familiar from modern feminism (The Legend and the Apostle) . Yet a closer analysis of details in the story provides a more complex picture of how the author of that document viewed what we would call issues of gender. While there is no doubt that the Christians who used the story of Thecla were advocates of women’s leadership (Thecla is charged to go and preach the word of God by Paul, after all), there are also other elements such as the clear hints of Thecla becoming man, so to speak, in order to achieve her mission, as when she cuts her hair (25) and when she donnes a man’s cloak (40). This manly requirement is something other than what moderns consider women’s liberation.
There is a sense in which this is echoed, though in a different way, in the Coptic Gospel of Thomas‘s saying 114, in which Mary of Magdala (Mary Magdalene) is addressed by Jesus as follows: “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven” (trans. by H. Koester in J.M. Robinson, The Nag Hammadi Library. Revised ed. SanFrancisco: HarperCollins, 1990).
A very different sentiment (in terms of gender issues) and portrayal of Mary’s relation to Jesus is presented in the Gospel of Mary (of Magdala), a dialogue gospel written sometime in the second or early third century. There Mary is presented as the recipient of secret teachings from Jesus to which she and no other disciple was privy. After Jesus makes a final appearance to his disciples, teaches them about the coming dissolution of matter, and that the means to overcome matter was within them, he calls on them to go and preach the good news of the kingdom (8:20). Then as the disciples are in distress at the Saviour’s departure, Mary takes a leading role in comforting them and in sharing with them the secret teachings that she alone had received from the Saviour. The content of the message focuses on the ascent of the soul, which needs to overcome the Powers of the material realm in order to reach its proper home in the spiritual kingdom. The disciples’ response is less than receptive, as Thomas complains that these are awfully “strange” teachings (17:10-15). Peter goes further in jealously dismissing the whole thing based on gender: “Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge and not openly? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?” (17:15-20).
Mary’s reaction is great disappointment, and Levi chimes in appropriately calling Peter a hot-head. Levi says, “if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?” (18:10). The result is that they do go out and preach, evidently accepting Mary’s revelation. The male disciples learning from Mary the true revelation of salvation is quite different than requiring that Mary be a man in order “to enter the kingdom of heaven.”
There is now a very useful and popularly accesible study of the Gospel of Mary: Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2003. This will give you a more balanced look at Mary Magdalene in myth and reality than something like the DaVinci Code, as you might imagine.