Was Mary Magdalene, witness to the life and death of Jesus, “first among the apostles” of the Christ?
It is amazing that something so tiny could pack such a punch. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is tantalizingly brief—and frustratingly, two major sections are missing, reducing the original seventeen manuscript pages by more than half. Yet what remains is more than enough to radically overturn our traditional assumptions about the origins of Christianity. In four tightly written dialogues the gospel delivers powerful new revelations on the nature of Jesus’ teachings, the qualifications for apostleship, Mary Magdalene’s clear preeminence among the disciples, and the processes already at work in the early church that would eventually lead to her marginalization. Since it also contains a unique glimpse into the actual metaphysics on which Jesus based his teachings, this is a foundational text not only for devotees of Mary Magdalene but for all students of sacred wisdom.
The manuscript was not recovered among the Nag Hammadi trove. It first came to light in 1896, nearly half a century before the Nag Hammadi find, when it was discovered by a German collector in an antiquities market in Cairo. But due to a series of lengthy publication delays the first German scholarly edition did not appear until 1955. It would be twenty years longer before an English version appeared and still another twenty years before popular editions became available.
For all practical purposes, therefore, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene entered public awareness at the same time as the Nag Hammadi material, and since they clearly belong to the same spiritual stream, it makes sense to consider them together. Particularly with the Gospel of Thomas, there are striking overlaps in both content and theology.
The manuscript itself is a fifth-century Coptic (i.e., Egyptian) version of what had almost certainly been an earlier Greek or even Syrian text.1 In 1917 and then in 1938 two Greek fragments dating from the third century were indeed discovered, confirming the antiquity of the original text and the esteem in which it was held by the earliest Christian communities (only important manuscripts are recopied)…. Karen King assigns the original text to the first half of the second century. If her argument is correct, this would place the Gospel of Mary Magdalene within the earliest strata of Christian writings, roughly contemporaneous with the Gospel of John.
Unfortunately, the Greek fragments did not yield any new material to fill the holes in the Coptic version; barring some unforeseen miracle, what was written on those ten missing manuscript pages (pages 1–6 and 11–14) is lost to us forever. But because of the thematic and structural tightness of the remaining material, the second of these two holes lends itself easily to imaginative reconstruction, and depending on how closely one assumes that this text echoes the Gospel of Thomas, the first six pages of Jesus’ introductory metaphysical discourse can also be fairly well construed.
Entering the Text
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is in many ways much closer to drama than to narrative. It is constructed entirely in dialogue, and the exchanges are so lively that they lend themselves easily to a staged reading or even a full-fledged reenactment….2
The manuscript’s four dialogues (or “scenes,” if you prefer to think of them that way) lay out as follows:
(Pages 1–6 missing.)
1. Jesus’ final teachings and instructions to his disciples. (Manuscript pages 7–9)
2. Mary Magdalene’s words of encouragement to the disciples. (Page 9.)
(Pages 11–14 missing.)
3. Peter’s invitation to Mary Magdalene to share with them some of the “secret” teachings of Jesus, and her visionary recital of “the soul’s progress.” (Pages 10, 15–17)3
4. The dispute among the disciples and its resolution; Levi’s charge and words of dismissal. (Pages 17–19.)
There are several translations now available to choose from…. I will be working from The Luminous Gospels, a new translation of the gospels of Thomas, Mary Magdalene, and Philip prepared by Lynn Bauman, Ward Bauman, and myself, published in 2008.4 …
… [T]ell us about matter. Will it survive or not?
The Savior answered:
All of nature with its forms and creatures exist together and are interwoven with each other. They will be resolved back, however, to their own proper origin, for the compositions of matter return to the original roots of their nature. Those who have ears, let them hear this.
Then Peter said to him:
Since you have explained everything to us, tell us one more thing. What is the sin of this world?
The Savior replied:
Sin as such does not exist. You only bring it into manifestation when you act in ways that are adulterous in nature. It is for this very reason that the Good has come among you pursuing its own essence within nature in order to reunite everything to its origin.
Then he continued:
This is also the reason for sickness and death, because you embrace what deceives you. Consider these matters, then, with your spiritual intellect.
Attachment to matter gives birth to passion without an Image of itself because it is drawn from that which is contrary to its higher nature. The result is that confusion and disturbance resonates throughout one’s whole being. It is for this reason that I told you to find contentment at the level of the heart, and if you are discouraged, take heart in the presence of the Image of your true nature. Those with ears, let them hear this.
Having said these things, the Blessed One addressed them:
Peace be with you. May my peace reside within you. Guard carefully that no one misleads you saying, “Look, he is here,” or “He’s over there,” for the Son of Humanity already exists within you. Follow him, for those who seek him there will find him. Go forth, now, and proclaim the Good News concerning the Kingdom. Beyond what I have already given you, do not lay down any further rules nor issue laws as the Lawgiver, lest you too be dominated by them.
Having said this, he departed.
As we enter this dialogue, we are literally joining a conversation in midstream. From textual clues in this dialogue and the one following, it appears that the conversation takes place in temporal history sometime between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension—the Gospel of Mary Magdalene’s version of the “upper room” appearances in John and Luke.5 In this energy-charged encounter Jesus gathers his students around him once again to reflect on the meaning of his passage through death and to leave them final instructions and encouragement before his departure from physical form.
The teaching style is clearly sohbet: “spiritual conversation” between a master and his students. This is a classic Near Eastern teaching style that even today is a mainstay in many schools of Sufism. In contrast to the “Socratic” method more familiar to those of us in the West, sohbet is not merely intellectual discourse, but rather it is a deep meeting of hearts and minds that also includes a direct energy transmission. For those familiar with the art form, the context of this first dialogue is unmistakable and speaks once again to this gospel’s probable Semitic origins.
As manuscript page 7 opens, a student is clearly asking Jesus a question about the permanence of matter, and Jesus responds with a brief but remarkable metaphysical statement—something that occurs nowhere in the canonical gospels and offers a fascinating glimpse into the theoria(theoretical knowledge) on which his practical wisdom rests. The student’s question is probably not theoretical; it follows directly from the resurrection appearance itself with all its inherent paradoxes and consternation. Is Jesus really here? Is this material body in which he stands before them a solid reality or merely a veil that will soon dissolve? Jesus responds by affirming very strongly that the origin of nature (i.e., the material world) does not lie within this earthly plane. What we take for solid reality is a mixtus orbis, a “mixed” (or “mixed up”) realm in which everything is “interwoven” (a statement that contemporary physicists and metaphysicians would heartily applaud). At the end of their physical term, the forms of matter return to the original “roots of their nature.” But by this, we will learn shortly, he does not mean they dissolve into their component atoms, quarks and/or humors. Instead, they return to an original template—or “image”—whose place of arising is in another realm.6
Peter immediately jumps in with the next question. What is sin? This is, of course, the classic Jewish philosophical preoccupation; you will find it vividly imprinted on nearly every page of Old Testament prophetic and wisdom teaching and as the driveshaft of the Pauline metaphysics upon which orthodox Christian theology rests. Whose fault is it that suffering and evil came into the world? Who is to blame? How is it atoned for? Jesus rejects that question out of hand: “Sin as such does not exist.”
His answer would initially seem to place him solidly within what we would nowadays identify as an “Eastern” rather than a “Western” mindset: not sin, but ignorance of one’s true nature, is to blame for the sufferings of this world. But we must listen carefully to where he is headed in his comment. He does not go on to state that sin is therefore an illusion, the typical Eastern thought progression. To the contrary, he affirms that sin does indeed come into existence—that is, it becomes objectively real—when one acts in ways that are “adulterous in nature.” And within his particular frame of reference, acting in ways that are “adulterous in nature” will prove to have a very specific meaning. It signifies a failure to stay in alignment with origin: with that mysterious “root” (or template) of one’s nature he has already alluded to, which, while arising beyond this realm, seeks its full expression here.7
He quickly assures his students that this world is valuable and precious; indeed, this is the very reason the Good has come among them in the first place—“pursuing its own essence within nature [i.e., within this transitory realm] in order to reunite everything to its origin.” There is important integrative work to be done here. But it all depends upon keeping a right alignment along what wisdom tradition typically refers to as the “vertical axis”: the invisible spiritual continuum that joins the realms together. Nearly sixteen centuries later the German mystic Jacob Boehme would express this cosmological insight with poetic precision and beauty:
For you must realize that earth unfolds its properties and powers in union with Heaven aloft above us, and there is one Heart, one Being, one Will, one God, all in all.8
When the realms are in spontaneous resonance—“one Heart, one Being, one Will, one God, all in all”—the music of the spheres bursts forth. When they are not, disease and disharmony inevitably ensue. As he quickly points out (again, with a contemporary feeling to the teaching), “Confusion and disturbance resonate throughout one’s whole being,” and sickness and death are the inevitable result….
Seeing with the Heart
The remedy Jesus sets forth for this cosmic malaise is to “find contentment at the level of the heart … in the presence of the Image of your true nature.” The key to deciphering this all-important instruction lies in recognizing that the word “heart” is being used here in a highly specific way. In the wisdom traditions of the Near East, the heart is not the seat of one’s personal emotional life, but an organ of spiritual perception. I have spoken about this extensively … so I will be brief here, but the essential point is that the heart is primarily an instrument of sight—or insight, as the case may be (“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”). Its purpose is to navigate along the vertical axis and stay in alignment with “the Image of one’s true nature.” Itself a vibrant resonant field, it functions like a homing beacon between the realms; and when it is strong and clear, it creates a synchronous resonance between them.
“Those with ears, let them hear this,” Jesus continues—his characteristic “heads-up.” But as we remember our primary topic of interest …, Mary Magdalene, his warning is particularly well-timed: because how well you are able to grasp his teaching is exactly how well you will be able to grasp the basis of their relationship. To say that their hearts are intertwined is not at all to speak sentimentally. Rather, it is to affirm that Mary Magdalene has fully understood this principle of spiritual alignment through the heart and has been able to personally corroborate it within herself. This will directly explain her ability to stay present when he appears to her in visions and her ability to go about her earthly business with the serene confidence of one whose life is always flowing within that greater life.
The Unitive Ground
How would I characterize this teaching of Jesus? It definitely belongs to the wider stream of sophia perennis in its acknowledgment of many and more subtle realms of being whose energies impact our own—a concept traditionally known as “the great chain of being.”9 But it parts company from classic Gnosticism (and even classic sophia perennis) by refusing to claim that this world is illusion, or fall, or error; or that its density places it at the tail end of the chain. We are not in Plato’s cave. Rather, this world is good, worthy, and fully inhabited by the divine energies—“the Good comes among you”—so long as it stays united with its root. The blending of incarnational and Platonic elements is a distinctive mix, which I believe is Jesus’ original contribution to the metaphysics of the West. It presents itself as a profoundly incarnational, warm-hearted, and hopeful path, where the realms support and interpenetrate each other and divine fullness is accessed simply by keeping the heart in natural alignment with its invisible prototype. Unfortunately, his teaching went right over the heads of nearly all his followers, both then and now.
The subtlety of Jesus’ metaphysics remains largely unknown to Christians—and sadly so, for it is the missing ingredient that makes his path comprehensible and doable. It is no secret that Jesus’ teachings resonate with an extraordinary trust in the divine abundance and generosity, and Christians are asked to emulate that trust. But to try to do so without seeing what it is founded on is a bit like asking an elephant to fly, and Christians find themselves frequently caught in the gap between the incredibly high spiritual ideals of this path and their own ability to carry them out. In reality, the secret is simple. When the heart is aligned with its eternal image, abundance cascades forth from that place of origin, infinitely more powerful than the scarcity and constriction of this world. It is not a matter of believing in flying elephants so much as of purifying the heart.
“Lay Down No Further Rules….”
In the final lines of his discourse Jesus reinforces this teaching yet again. His parting instruction to his disciples opens with the plea that they remain present within themselves rather than chasing after mirages in the outer world, for “the Son of Humanity already exists within you … and those who seek him there will find him.”10 To remain in continuous union—the kind that Mary Magdalene will shortly demonstrate—is a matter of releasing the outer clamor and tuning in again and again through the homing beacon of the heart.
Then, as if knowing already that this is somehow beyond them, he adds a final practical caution: “Do not lay down any rules beyond what I have given you, lest you be dominated by them.” From a textual criticism point of view, as Karen King rightly observes, this instruction situates the Gospel of Mary Magdalene at an early stage in the history of Christianity, when the contours of externally imposed hierarchy are just beginning to become visible in the dawning light of a brave new Christian world. From an artistic standpoint, it moves us directly into the second dialogue while at the same time setting the stage for the gospel’s surprising and decisive conclusion.
His students grieved and mourned greatly saying:
How are we to go into the rest of the world proclaiming the Good News about the Son of Humanity’s Realm? If they did not spare him, how will they ever leave us alone?
Mary arose, then, embracing them all and began to address them as her brothers and sisters saying:
Do not weep and grieve nor let your hearts remain in doubt, for his grace will be with all of you, sustaining and protecting you. Rather, let us give praise to his greatness which has prepared us so that we might become fully human.
As Mary said these things their hearts opened toward the Good and they began to discuss the meaning of the Savior’s words.
In this second and crucial dialogue, the predictable happens. The subtlety of Jesus’ teaching is lost on his disciples, who return quickly to their conviction that Jesus is gone and that they are in extreme danger. They have completely missed the point of what he has just said.
As Mary Magdalene steps forward to encourage them, she demonstrates that she has fully understood what Jesus is saying and can apply it to her own life. “Do not let your hearts remain in doubt,” she says, cutting immediately to the spiritual chase. For a heart in doubt—in two-ness and self-sabotage—becomes useless as that organ of alignment. To reconnect to the grace he has promised them is as simple a matter as opening to his presence right then and there in their inmost depths—“for those who seek him there will find him.” And as she pointedly reminds them, “He has prepared us for this.”
Becoming Fully Human
In fact, her actual words are, “He has prepared us so that we might become fully human.” “To become fully human” is a modern translation of the words “to become an anthropos,” a completed human being. Both here and in the Gospel of Thomas this notion is at the very heart of Jesus’ vision of transformation.
In modern psychological parlance building on a Jungian foundation, the concept of anthropos is generally interpreted in terms of an integration of the opposites within oneself—specifically, a bringing together of the male and female principles within the individual human psyche….
Obviously, there is far more at stake here than simply integrating masculine and feminine principles within one’s finite humanity. The integration takes place on a cosmic scale and is accomplished through learning how to anchor one’s being in that underlying unitive ground: that place of oneness before the opposites arise. Some traditions would call this the “causal level.”11 However one defines it, its origin is on the vertical axis, in a realm and mode of perception far more subtle than our own. It has less to do with what one sees than with how one sees; it amounts to a fundamental shift in perception.
When this level is attained, either by sudden spiritual insight or by a long, tough slog through the mine fields of ego, a person becomes “a single one” (in Aramaic, ihidaya: one of the earliest titles applied to Jesus): an enlightened or “fully human” being. The union of opposites Jesus is speaking of really pertains to the union of the finite and infinite within oneself, or the bringing together of the vertical axis with the horizontal so that there is “one Heart, one Being, one Will, one God, all in all.” When this happens, the world does not pass away, but one is able to live in it as master, re-creating its external forms (“making one image supersede another”) out of the infinite generativity of the One.
It is important to keep this wider definition of the anthropos firmly in mind because it is the key to everything in this gospel. Mary Magdalene moves among the other disciples as one who has “become fully human.” She does not merely parrot the Master’s teaching back to them, flaunting her specialness. Rather, she serves the situation. Flowing through the spiritual energy of her own alignment is a baraka—a grace that is able to actually shift the other disciples’ emotional state. She is able to “turn their hearts to the good.”
This short dialogue is the thematic epicenter of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene: the apostolic moment par excellence. “Apostle is as apostle does,” one might say, and it is clear that in both her words and her deeds—her ability to comprehend, to calm, to convey blessing—Mary Magdalene has just proven herself an apostle: not just “first among the apostles,” but in fact, the only one of them to authentically merit the title.
As we move into the challenging (and decimated) dialogue 3, it is important to keep firmly centered on this point. If Mary Magdalene does, in fact, enjoy a privileged access to the Master, she has certainly earned it: not because she is his special favorite (as Peter will shortly imply), but because she has been able so deeply to absorb and integrate his spiritual methodology. She has learned the secret of unbroken union with him across the realms, and she teaches from the same fount of living water that flowed in him—in fact, still flows in him, only now in a different energetic form. And thus, doing as real apostles do, she is able to lift her brethren out of their psychological paralysis and focus them once again on “the meaning of the Savior’s words.” Dialogue 2 ends on a note of strength and unanimity; for the moment, all is once again well….♦
1 For more on this point, see Karen King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003), 184.
2 We in fact did exactly this as a project of the Aspen Wisdom School during the winter of 2008 and in Collegeville, Minnesota, the following summer. The results were rewarding and in some cases enlightening, clarifying interpretive difficulties that could not be resolved by textual analysis alone….
3 It is more typical of modern editors (including Lynn Bauman) to extend dialogue 2 to include all the text up to the second set of missing pages. But Mary Magdalene’s opening words about meeting Jesus in a vision seem so clearly to belong to the third dialogue—in fact, they furnish its underlying theme—that I have divided the sections accordingly….
4 Lynn Bauman, Ward Bauman, and Cynthia Bourgeault, The Luminous Gospels (Telephone, TX: Praxis Institute Publishing, 2008).
5 These appearances take place immediately after the resurrection and are recorded in John 20:19–29 and Luke 24:36–43.
6 In this idea of the “interwoven” material world unraveling at the end of its term into its elemental components, there are fascinating resonances with the teachings of Empedocles and Parmenides as laid out by Peter Kingsley in his remarkable book Reality (Inverness, Calif.: Golden Sufi Center, 2005). Kingsley proposes a radical revisioning of the origins of Western philosophy as lying not in intellectual speculation, but rather in the sacred practices of a long wisdom lineage of shamanic healing. There are distinctive overlaps between this tradition and the teachings and spiritual practices of Jesus….
7 Jean-Yves Leloup perceptively paraphrases: “when you act according to the habits of your corrupted nature.” In his The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002), 25.
8 Jacob Boehme, Confessions (Kila, MT: Kessinger, n.d.), 41.
9 For more on the great chain of being, see Ken Wilber’s voluminous writings, particularly The Eye of the Spirit (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, 1997), 39–40.
10 This instruction is repeated almost verbatim in the Gospel of Thomas, logion 3. See Bauman, The Gospel of Thomas, 10.
11 That is why one is able to make “one image supersede another”: because one has accessed the level from which the images originally arise….
Unless otherwise noted, all major gospel citations are from The Christian Community Bible (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications/Claretian Publications, 1995). Short gospel citations and all epistle and Old Testament citations are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
Adapted from “The Meaning of Mary Magdalene,” by Cynthia Bourgeault, ©2010 by Cynthia Bourgeault. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com.
From Parabola Volume 40, No. 1, “Sin,” Spring 2015. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.