The Search for Mary Magdalene

This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 16, pp. 26-29, 2006. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The author reviews several books giving detailed information about Mary Magdalene with early historical information concerning her relationship with Jesus and the disciples.


Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle. By Ann Graham Brock. Harvard University Press, 235 pp.’ $25.00.

Mary Magdalene: A Biography. By Bruce Chilton, Doubleday, 206 pp., $23.95.

The Mary Magdalene Tradition. By Holly E. Hearon. Liturgical Press, 236 pp., $24.95.

The Gospel of Mary of Magdala. By Karen L. King. Polebridge Press, 230 pp., $20.00.

The Gospels of Mary. By Marvin Meyer. HarperSanFrancisco, 122 pp.’ $17.95.



In the late second-century text called the Gospel of Mary, the apostle Peter asks regarding Mary Magdalene, "Should we all turn and listen to her?" To judge by the marketing blitz these days, many readers would say yes (though that was not the answer Peter had in mind). Mary Magdalene has become popular enough to merit an Idiot’s Guide and her own shelf at Barnes and Noble.

Amid various modern fantasies about her, one can also find books by scholars. Marvin Meyer’s slim anthology provides readable translations of the basic texts from the New Testament and gnostic writings. Karen King offers a somewhat more erudite translation of the Gospel of Mary, with photographs of the original script, commentary on the work and comparisons to the New Testament texts. Ann Brock and Holly Hearon have turned their dissertations into quite readable discussions of traditions about Mary Magdalene. Brock focuses on disputes over women as leaders; Hearon, on the possibility that the canonical traditions reflect the activity of women story-tellers in the earliest communities.

The marketing money seems to be behind Bruce Chilton’s book. Like his biographies of Jesus and Paul, Chilton’s biography of Mary Magdalene combines idiosyncratic twists with historical reconstruction. He opposes the popular tendency to make Magdalene an "anti-Catholic Mary," and he agrees with the other authors in this group that the sooner the legends of Magdalene as lewd prostitute or as mother of a secret bloodline of Jesus’ descendants are debunked, the better.

But Chilton’s own book takes an odd turn. Rather than begin with Mary as representative of Jesus’ female disciples and first witness to his resurrection (as in John 20), he focuses on Luke’s story about Jesus driving demons out of her (8:2-3). He hypothesizes that Mary Magdalene was responsible for the stories about Jesus as an exorcist, and that the hostility shown toward Magdalene in church tradition was fueled by male clergy’s determination to retain control over exorcism and anointing.

However, it is Mary Magdalene’s visions of the risen Jesus that secured her title "apostle to the apostles" and formed the content of women’s storytelling. Hearon suggests that the opposition to women going from house to house in 1 Timothy 5:13 refers to the activities of such Christian women. The Christian women of the first century who repeated stories about Mary Magdalene in support of their own visions, prophecies and teachings would concur.

Until the late 19th century, historians interested in gnostic writings had to rely on summaries and quotations given by their orthodox Christian opponents. In 1896 a fifth-century Coptic codex was purchased for the Egyptian museum in Berlin. It contained three gnostic writings, which purported to present the teachings of the risen Jesus and part of an apocryphal work about Peter.

The three gnostic writings all take the form of dialogues in which the risen Savior appears to his disciples. The Gospel of Mary is the first work in the codex. However, its opening six pages and several pages in the middle are missing. The codex’s otherwise good condition led its first editor to suspect that its discoverers may have mutilated it. The opening pages must have included a notice about Jesus’ appearance and questions introducing a dialogue on the nature of matter and sin.

In this gospel, Jesus enjoins his followers to spread the "good news about the Kingdom." They are too frightened to do so, but Mary Magdalene steps in to encourage them. Peter asks her to relate to the others the teaching that she alone had received from Jesus. The introduction to that section indicates that she had seen the divine Savior in a vision. Her ability to remain unwavering in his presence would be a common description of spiritual perfection in both philosophical and religious circles at the time, as King notes. When her report of the vision concludes, a soul is ascending past the powers that seek to keep it imprisoned in the material world.

Instead of accepting Mary’s account, Peter and his brother Andrew turn against it, calling it a "strange teaching." Levi steps in to defend her and rebuke Peter, Peter remains in the grasp of anger, which his soul must overcome before it enters the heavenly realm, according to the vision-report.

Whoever compiled the writings in the Berlin Codex followed the Gospel of Mary with two more revelation dialogues, the Wisdom of Jesus Christ and the Secret Book of John. The Wisdom of Jesus Christ opens by describing a group of faithful followers composed of 12 disciples and seven women. Some questions are posed by "the disciples" or "the holy apostles," others by named disciples. One of the disciples named is "Mary," presumably Mary Magdalene.

Like the Gospel of Mary, the Secret Book of John recounts the revelation granted to a single disciple -- in this case, not Mary but John, the son of Zebedee. The concluding sentence asserts that John later conveyed this revelation to his fellow disciples.

In 1946 more Coptic codices appeared on the Cairo antiquities market. Material used in the covers indicates that the volumes were produced in the mid-fourth century. Many of the texts included in these codices contain gnostic teaching. Because they also promote ascetic detachment from bodily pleasures and passions, these writings may have appealed to the monks in the region, whose letters were found along with the texts.

An additional copy of the Wisdom of Jesus Christ and three copies of the Secret Book of John were found in these codices. Nag Hammadi Codex II includes three other works in which Mary Magdalene appears as an enlightened member of Jesus’ circle of disciples -- the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and the Dialogue of the Savior.

Unfortunately, the Nag Hammadi collection did not produce any additional copies of the Gospel of Mary that might have supplied the missing pages. However, the thousands of Greek papyri discovered in the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus over a hundred years ago have yielded two selections that parallel the surviving Coptic text. King presents this material in parallel columns. This evidence that two separate Greek versions circulated in the early third century pushes the likely date for the composition of the Gospel of Mary back to the late second century.

The Coptic translation remained very close to its Greek original, but there are some significant differences. The Greek version asserts that Jesus’ love for Mary was "steadfast," while the Coptic insists that Jesus ‘loved her more than us" (King’s translation). The Coptic version modifies the split between Mary and Peter. In that version, Levi’s defense of Mary is more successful, and the whole group of disciples goes out to preach the gospel. The disciples’ display of unity in the Coptic version suggests a recognition of Mary’s superior spiritual status.

Mary’s status among the disciples is also reflected in the reference in the Gospel of Philip to Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene. Despite modem speculation about this reference, it has nothing to do with a sexual relationship.

The Gospel of Philip identifies Mary Magdalene with wisdom. When the disciples ask Jesus, "Why do you love her more than us?" he responds with a parable contrasting sighted and blind people: in the dark, they are the same. When light comes, the sighted can see, but the blind cannot.

The Gospel of Thomas ends with Peter asking Jesus to exclude Mary because "females are not worthy of life."

Jesus refuses. Mary will undergo the same experience of recovering the original image of divine humanity as will the male ascetics in this tradition. Jesus promises to "make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males."

A similar phrase in the Gospel of Mary suggests that Jesus had to transform the disciples. Mary reminds the frightened group that "he has prepared us and made us human." Levi exhorts the disciples, "We should be ashamed and put on perfect humanity." The motif of conflict between Peter as spokes-person for male disciples and Mary Magdalene as an enlightened interpreter of Jesus’ teaching continued to be played out in gnostic circles in the fourth century.

Meyer provides a very brief selection from the rambling volumes of a revelation dialogue from the third century, Pistis Sophia ("Faith Wisdom"), in which Mary is quick to interpret the Savior’s words -- evidence of the Spirit working in her. Peter is hostile and jealous after being upstaged by a woman. The Savior mediates. He asks Mary to permit the male disciples to offer their interpretations but also affirms her spiritual perfection.

Meyer concludes the selections in his anthology with a lovely Manichaean hymn based on John 20:11-18: The 11 have dropped their allegiance to Jesus and returned to fishing. The Lord sends Mary to gather these lost sheep, saying, "Use all your skill and knowledge until you bring the sheep to the shepherd." The Manichaean author refers to Peter as a traitor for convincing the others to return to their old occupation. The risen Jesus gives Mary a special message to get Peter to comply with the summons.

These second-and third-century texts which challenged emerging orthodoxy reflected popular imagination. The dramatic story of Mary’s encounter with Jesus outside the tomb in John 20:11-18 probably circulated orally among women, as Hearon suggests. That story is the foundation for her reputation in the second and third centuries as the follower who possessed special insight into the teachings of the Savior. However, the gnostic texts attribute no special content to the revelations to Mary. Comments about the nature of matter and sin as well as Mary’s revelation about the soul’s return to the heavenly realm depend on non-Christian sources. Therefore readers who pick up the Gospel of Mary expecting to read a secret life of the historical Jesus are in for disappointment.

Despite the almost universal tendency to treat the second- and third century materials as evidence that the authors of the canonical Gospels ruthlessly suppressed traditions about Mary Magdalene, the truth may be simpler: the canonical Gospels preserve all the early traditions.

With his superb eye for giving voice to female disciples, such as the Samaritan woman and Martha and Mary, the Fourth Evangelist tells the story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus outside the empty tomb. Without that detail, gnostic Christians of the second century would never have cast her as the enlightened companion of the Savior. In short, the later traditions about her reflect a growth in women’s spiritual independence and imagination, not the fact that she was erased from the first-century record.