The Nag Hammadi library is a daunting read of over 800 pages and I am often asked “Where is the best place to start reading the gnostic gospels?”
My answer is to start with the Gospel of Mary – it is short but more significantly, the only gospel signed by a woman – Mary Magdalene.
Found earlier than and therefore not part of the Nag Hammadi Library, three fragmentary copies have been found in Egypt. The first is a version in Coptic, discovered in 1896 near the area of Achmim. Two additional fragments in Greek were later found on the rubbish heap near the regional capital of Oxyrynchus.
Sadly, less than eight pages have survived, as pages 1-6 and 11-14 are missing, but we still see a very different picture of Mary Magdalene than that portrayed by the New Testament.
It presents a radical interpretation of Yeshua’s teachings as a path to inner spiritual knowledge and challenges our romantic view of harmony within the first Christian groups. More significantly, we see Mary Magdalene not as a weeping submissive woman, but a strong, stable spiritual leader who, because of her understanding was privy to Yeshua’s private teachings.
As the first six pages are missing, the gospel opens in the middle of a post- resurrection appearance by Yeshua (referred to as the Saviour) to his disciples in which he answers their questions and offers a farewell discourse before commissioning them to go out to preach the gospel of the kingdom.
But the disciples do not go out joyfully to preach the gospel; instead controversy erupts. All the disciples except Mary have failed to understand the Saviour’s teachings. Inner peace is nowhere to be found – they are distraught and frightened that preaching the gospel may result in them suffering the same agonizing fate.
Mary steps in and comforts them and Peter asks Mary to recount teaching unknown to them that she had received in a vision. She agrees and tells them about the rise of the soul past the powers of Darkness, Ignorance, Desire and Wrath, who seek to keep the soul trapped in the world and ignorant of its true spiritual nature.
When she is finished, she stands in silence, imitating the soul at rest. But the peace is disturbed by Andrew questioning the ‘strangeness’ of her teaching. Peter challenges whether Yeshua would give private instruction to a woman, thus showing he actually preferred her to the other disciples.
Mary begins to cry at Peter’s accusation. Levi comes quickly to her defence, reminding Peter he is a notorious hot-head and now he was treating Mary as the enemy. He admonishes them instead to do as the Saviour instructed them and go out to preach the gospel. The story ends here but the controversy is far from over. Andrew and Peter have not understood the Saviour’s teaching and are offended by Yeshua’s apparent preference of a woman over them.
All early Christian literature bears traces of these controversies. The letters of Paul show that considerable difference of opinion existed about issues such as circumcision and the Jewish food laws.
History is written by the winners. Many voices were silenced through repression or neglect. The Gospel of Mary gives us information not recorded in the New Testament. It is not a question of right and wrong. The information we have been given was just incomplete.
Whether or not you choose to embrace the message from the Gospel of Mary is a matter readers will decide for themselves. The days of being told what to believe are over, thankfully.