Scholars Speak: Magdalene as Teacher, Preacher & Healer

Scholars Speak:
Magdalene as Teacher, Preacher & Healer

by Deborah Rose ©2001

I had the good fortune of hearing two of the leading Magdalene scholars - Karen King and Francois Bovon – speak at an alumni event at Harvard Divinity School.

Karen King is one of the key people working with the translation of the long buried Egyptian texts, often referred to as the Gnostic Gospels. These texts give a dramatic new understanding of early Christianity, particularly the role of Mary Magdalene. In this very early literature of the emerging Christian movement there is evidence of women’s leadership -- and also strong opposition to women’s leadership right from the beginning and every century since.

At the Divinity School lecture King focused on The Gospel of Mary, one of the primary texts where Mary Magdalene’s leadership is seen to arise and be instantly challenged by none other than Peter, the Rock upon whom the Christian Church was built.

The content is this: The risen Savior imparts teachings to the group of disciples, commissions them to preach and then departs. The disciples are greatly distressed at his departure and begin weeping.

Mary Magdalene alone remains calm. She stands up and speaks words of strength and encouragement. Initially she is invited by Peter to share teachings she alone has been privileged to receive. She teaches “what has been hidden” based on a vision she had of the Lord.  The response of the disciples is mixed. Andrew does not believe her; Peter is competitive and full of male pride (“Are we to turn around and listen to her? Did he choose her over us?”). Only Levi takes Mary’s side, reprimanding Peter for his wrathfulness and reminding the group that Jesus loved Mary more than the others.

The document is remarkable in many ways. Mary steps directly into leadership with the disciples. This is not a timid woman. Clearly she has developed great inner strength that allows her to assume power and responsibility in a time of group need.

Then there is Mary’s vision ... she had a direct experience of the risen Christ who trusted her with secret knowledge. In another Gnostic text called the Dialogue with the Savior, Mary Magdalene is given advanced teachings and is called “a woman who understood completely.”  In yet another text called Pistis Sophia Jesus names Mary Magdalene and John “the virgin” as the greatest of the disciples.[1]

In The Gospel of Mary, Mary’s spiritual maturity contrasts sharply with the character of Peter who is impulsive and wrathful.

Given the direction taken by the emerging Church, it is not surprising that The Gospel of Mary and other similar texts were placed in hiding. It is remarkable that after more than 1500 years, the texts were accidentally discovered in the present time period when an expanding feminist consciousness has been able to receive and acknowledge the importance of women’s leadership in the earliest stage of the Christian movement. If the texts were Tibetan Buddhist instead of Christian they would be called “terma,” meaning mind teachings that are deliberatively hidden and destined to be revealed when the cultural climate is more receptive.

Mary the Mother vs. the Magdalene

In The Gospel of Mary only the name Mary was used. When Karen King was translating the text, a primary issue was identifying which Mary was speaking as. How do we know this is the Magdalene - not Mary the Mother? The twice-repeated comment that this Mary is the woman Jesus loved more than the others strongly suggests Mary Magdalene. In other Gnostic texts, Mary Magdalene is named as his companion and the one he kissed often. In regards to Mary the Mother, Karen said that the stories and traditions of the Virgin Mary appear at a later date in the history of the early Church. When Mary the Mother “arrives” it is to emphasize motherhood and submission. According to King, the earlier tradition of Mary Magdalene contests gender.

Explaining what she meant, Karen said that Gnostic teaching posits the irrelevance of the body. The divine is “the good” and matter is not. Instead of critiquing this dualism as inherently sexist, Karen argued that the irrelevance of the body opens up a non-gendered leadership based not on maleness or femaleness but spiritual character and receptivity to Jesus’ teaching.


The Work of Francois Bovon

Francois Bovon also presented at the Harvard Divinity School lecture. A year before, a friend who knew of my interest in Mary Magdalene sent a clipping from the Harvard Magazine describing Bovon and his work.  In 1974 Bovon and a colleague discovered a fourteenth century Greek copy of a fourth century text based on second century traditions. This text, The Acts of Philip, is the most complete yet found and describes a heretical Christian community in Asia Minor devoted to ascetic practices. Women served alongside men on all levels. A woman named Mariamne is mentioned frequently in the document. She is said to be a sister to the apostle Philip. Bovon believes this person is Mary Magdalene. The Hebrew translation of Mariamne is Miriam, which translates to Maria in Latin. For support for this theory, Bovon cites the third century writer Origen who uses the similar name Mariamme to refer to Mary Magdalene. As to the use of the word “sister” he says it was common for missionary partners in the early Church to be paired as “sister and brother.”

Assuming that Mariamne was Mary Magdalene, there are accounts in The Acts of Philip about her radical activities: as a preacher she went out into the streets and called out to be listened to; as a spiritual doctor she entered the city and founded spiritual clinics; as a miracle worker her saliva was used by Philip to cure a man who had been blind for 40 years. Mary baptized women while Philip baptized men.

It took Bovon and his colleagues 25 years of scholarship to translate The Acts of Philip from Greek into French. The English language edition will take a few more years.

Final Words … a Marriage?

At the end of the lecture a member of the audience asked if Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus. Karen King acknowledged that many theories have arisen about a possible marriage because The Gospel of Philip speaks explicitly about Jesus kissing Mary.

Based on available historical evidence she said there is no way to know but added, “It would be nice either way.”

Karen King served as consultant and featured presenter for the A&E documentary  “Mary Magdalene: The Hidden Apostle” and also the ABC Frontline special  Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci.” Her book  The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, Jesus and the First Woman Apostle” was published in November of 2003. See Reading for ordering info.



[1] A very good and brief overview of the passages referring to Mary Magdalene in both the Canonical and Gnostic texts can be found on page 120-123 in Women in Scripture, ed Carol Meyers, Houghton Mifflin Company, NY.


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