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Magdalene of the Gnostics

02 November 2006

THE early Church, says Teabing, a character in The Da Vinci Code, "needed to convince the world that the mortal prophet Jesus was a divine being. Therefore, any Gospels that described earthly aspects of Jesus had to be omitted from the Bible. Unfortunately for the early editors, one particularly troubling earthly theme kept recurring in the Gospels. Mary Magdalene. More specifically, her marriage to Jesus Christ."

Legend after legend grew and blossomed about Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the second and third centuries CE. Some groups among Jesus's followers, in these years, incorporated Jesus into a strange but compelling story of spirit, soul, and physical matter. Their claims were the subject of fierce disputes; divisions in the Church are not new. Some - but only some - of these groups called themselves "Gnostics".

When we nowadays speak of Gnostics, we are speaking of many different teachers and groups that we (not they) have declared to be a single movement. Teabing tells of the Gnostic Gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in the 1940s: in these, he says, Jesus is spoken of in very human terms.

Quite the opposite is true. The Gnostics spoke only of the ethereal Jesus, already risen from the dead; they ignored the Jesus who, according to the churches, had suffered and died. The Gnostic Jesus who loves Mary Magdalene is the heavenly Jesus; he is no human being like you and me.

For the Gnostics, this physical world of ours is a squalid mistake, the work of a minor deity, arrogant, ignorant, and afraid of any rivals to his power. Most individuals are so sunk in spiritual sleep that we need, so the Gnostics claimed, to be woken up to the knowledge of who we really are. The individual, once woken, longs to be reunited with the realm of the Spirit. That realm is embodied in Jesus, longing to reunite the individual with himself. How could the Gnostics speak of such a mutual yearning for unity and completeness? Only one form of language could be adequate: the language of sexual love.

According to the Gnostics, none of us can find our way to be back at one with the realm of the Spirit without the Saviour's help. To yearn for knowledge is to yearn for the Saviour, the Spirit; to know the Saviour is to know the Spirit in ourselves. This knowledge will unite us with ourselves.

For the Gnostics (as for all philosophers in the ancient world), men were rational, orderly, spiritual, and strong, and women were emotional, disruptive, earth-bound, and weak. What name, then, did Gnostics give to the Saviour, the beloved in this longed-for union? Jesus. And what name did they give to the individual, beleaguered in this coarse world and passionate to clasp and receive the Saviour? For some Gnostics, one name stood out, to denote men and women alike: Mary Magdalene.

Some Gnostics developed a ritual of the Bridal Chamber. Was it a celebration of sexual love and union? No, it was a celebration of the spiritual union that would reveal and transcend the sad illusions of bodily, worldly love.

The Gnostics did not stop here. Women had two other indisputable and invaluable qualities: they were life-giving; and they had access to forms of wisdom to which most men were blind. (This wisdom was a powerful version of what we call "female intuition".) Any such distinction, drawn so starkly, is of course misleading: each individual is both rational and emotional, orderly and erratic, strong and weak. But such contrasts, however refined, allowed different Gnostics to view women in two ways: they could emphasise the supposed weaknesses of women, or the strengths of women's insight. Let's follow each of these two routes, in turn.

First: were women intrinsically and unavoidably weak, earth-bound and emotional? If so, the consequence for the Gnostics was clear: within any individual, the Female had been found wanting, and must be absorbed into the Male; individuals, ran the argument, became the people they should be when they allowed the Male within them to prevail. What, then, must women themselves do to overcome the weaknesses intrinsic to their sex? They must become like men.

The most famous of the Gnostic texts is the Gospel of Thomas: a Coptic translation of a Greek text (which might itself have been translated from Syriac). The Gospel of Thomas turns twice to the relation between the sexes. Here is the Gospel's final saying - in every way, its last word:

Simon Peter said to them: "Let Mary go out from among us, because women are not worthy of the Life." Jesus said: "See, I shall lead her, so that I will make her male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven."
(Gospel of Thomas, Saying 114)

How strange it is that in our generation the Gospel of Thomas - so deeply misogynist - has become popular among those most keenly determined to modernise belief, and to free it from the Churches' dull, patriarchal oppression.

But second: what of the power of women to see what men so rarely see? Almost all people - even almost all Christians - were, in the Gnostics' view, blind to the knowledge offered by Jesus. Most dangerous of all were the leaders of churches who used their power to denigrate the Gnostics themselves.

We have seen who took, in some Gnostic stories, the role of the Gnostic, loving and longing for the beloved Jesus, and drawn upwards by Jesus back to the spiritual realms where the Gnostic belongs: Mary Magdalene, the first person to whom Jesus appeared on Easter Day. So who shall take the role of the blind leaders, enemies of the spirit? The male disciples of Jesus.

There were clearly some Gnostic communities whose members recognised the power of prophetic or visionary women; and there were clearly, in or around those communities, powerful men who deeply resented the women's privilege.

Teabing speaks of the Gnostic Gospel of Mary. In it, we overhear voices raised in a real dispute of the second or third century CE.

Here, Mary Magdalene personifies the privileged, prophetic women in these communities; and Simon Peter personifies the resentful men, anxious at this challenge to their power. Jesus commissions his disciples to preach to the Gentiles. Then he leaves them. They are frightened. Mary stiffens their resolve:

Peter said to Mary, "Sister, we know that the Saviour loved you more than the rest of women. Tell us the words of the Saviour which you remember - which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them."

Mary duly relates the teaching of Jesus on the nature of spiritual visions; but she gets no thanks for her pains.

Andrew answered and said to the brethren, "Say what you wish to say about what she has said. I at least do not believe that the Saviour said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas." Peter answered and spoke concerning these same things. He questioned them about the Saviour: "Did he really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?"

Then Mary wept and said to Peter, "My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Saviour?"

Levi answered and said to Peter, "Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Saviour made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Saviour knows her very well. That is why he loved her more than us."
(Gospel of Mary, second century,  from 10.1-8, 17.7-18.20)

What are we to make of the Gnostics? For Leigh Teabing in The Da Vinci Code, the Gnostics alone preserved the memory of the human Jesus who lived and who loved and who knew the value of women.

On the contrary: some Gnostic groups did defy the conventions of the ancient world - and of the patriarchal churches - and acknowledged the special gifts of knowledge with which the prophetic women in their communities, their Mary Magdalenes, were endowed.

Other such groups imagined every Gnostic, male and female, as a Mary Magdalene, intimately bound in knowledge and love with the heavenly Jesus. But no such Magdalenes glorified sexual love; they transcended it. Teabing encourages Sophie: in the Gnostic records she will find an open enjoyment of sex. No, she won't.

Whatever happened bodily in this world was, for a Gnostic, only a shadow, cast by the real drama of the spirit. The Gnostics' Saviour did not save this physical world; he saved the Gnostic from this world.

The Gnostics thought deeply, what is it to be human? They asked, 1800 years ago, searching questions about the Male and Female which we have only recently learnt to ask again. Such Gnostics stand as an inspiration. But they stand as a warning too. They asked powerful questions; and reached dark, world-denying answers.

It was not just the Gnostics who asked those questions. The larger churches asked them, too; and within those churches some leaders came to answers, different but just as dark and, over the course of centuries, far more damaging.

This is an edited extract from "The Da Vinci Code" and the Secrets of the Temple by Robin Griffith-Jones (Canterbury Press, £4.99 (CT Bookshop £4.49); 1-85311-731-5).


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