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Mary Magdalene Revisited



So where does the Gospel of Mary stand among all those bearing the names of men?

I have to say that this intellectual pursuit of some way to restore the feminine principle has been a little frustrating. Who would have thought it would lead me to religion?

Well, not really, but at least to a look at Christian scripture. During a recent discussion about the feminine with friends, one mentioned a relevant book she had just read. It is about the possibility that Mary Magdalene played a much more important role in the life of Jesus than orthodox Christianity has ever allowed. 

I was immediately interested and ordered The Gospel of Mary Magdalene by Jean-Yves Leloup. After I had done that, I went to the Internet to find out what I could about the French author. As soon as I discovered his official site at www.jeanyvesleloup.com/ag/biographie.php I called my friend back. “I’m in love,” I said. What could be better than a handsome gentleman of enormous intellect who is the champion of a woman as the foremost apostle of Jesus Christ? Talk about enlightened. 

But seriously, this issue is definitely “up.” LeLoup’s book was published in French in 1997 and in English in 2002. Dan Brown may have had the benefit of that material in writing The DaVinci Code, which came out in 2003. The plot of that worldwide bestseller is based on the discovery that Mary Magdalene was actually the wife of Jesus. 

Then last fall, we had a storm of interest in a bit of papyrus, described as the size of a credit card. The fragment contains a reference by Jesus to “My wife.” The ink is currently being tested, but Professor Karen L. King of the Harvard Divinity School, who acquired the document and is one of the world’s foremost scholars of early Christianity, thinks it is authentic, whatever the truth of the relationship between Jesus and Mary. (King’s book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the Relationship between Jesus and Mary, was also published in 2003.)

The Gospel of Mary was discovered in 1896 and is probably a copy of a document that originated around 150 AD.  Leloup refers to it as one of the “founding and primitive texts of Christianity.” Pages 1 to 6 and 11 to 14 are unfortunately missing, but it contains teachings that Jesus supposedly shared with only Mary. 

Possibly Mary Magdalene by Leonardo da Vinci

Leloup’s interpretation of these teachings is complex to my untrained mind, but I did get his main point: Mary was probably chosen by Jesus as a special companion because she understood his teachings in a way that the men could not. The purpose of those teachings was to show the way to become “fully human.” This seems to involve confronting one’s shadow and balancing male and female polarities in order to follow the path to the luminous within. 

Very complicated, but there was a moment in my reading when I suddenly grasped the possible alchemy (my own term) between Jesus and Mary. The feminine was so repressed during this time, which made it remarkable that Mary could even present as a disciple. So how profoundly she would have been affected by the possibility that Jesus saw in her alone the ability to comprehend what he was saying. 

I am not a biblical scholar, but apparently her presence during the crucifixion when male disciples had fled is not in dispute, and it is accepted that she was the one to see his resurrection. There is a question, however, about what “seeing” means. Did she see him in the flesh, or did she “see” what becomes possible for only the fully human? Would his resurrection have even been possible in the absence of Mary’s ability to “see?” 

The impression of Mary that Leloup develops is of a person whose consciousness has evolved into a state of complete understanding and who thus can commune with Jesus even after his death. Leloup suggests that she could have become his foremost teacher if this had been permitted. However, the gospel itself foretells that impossibility. 

The text states that the Peter questioned her about what Jesus shared with her only, “because the Teacher loved you differently from other women.” After she responds, he becomes dismissive: “How is it possible that the Teacher talked in this manner, with a woman, about secrets of which we ourselves are ignorant? Must we change our customs, and listen to this woman?” 

Of course, the answer was no. Perhaps Mary did not want to be a teacher and preferred her solitary communion with the Divine. The story goes that she eventually moved to France and lived the last thirty years of her life among hundreds of miles of caves along the shore. Sounds symbolic to me. 

The truth is impossible to know, really. All the biblical texts were written decades at the very least after Jesus died, first in Greek, then translated into Coptic, then French in this case and on into English. The terrain of inconsistency and potential revision and error is huge. And then there is the problem that the “master story” of Christianity was established in about 325 AD by the Roman emperor Constantine I. The Roman Catholic Church subsequently created an orthodoxy that would not accommodate the discovery of later gospels as in that of Mary. 

So where does the Gospel of Mary stand among all those bearing the names of men? Leloup clarifies as follows: “It is witness to an altogether different mode of understanding that the masculine mind typically overlooks: a domain of prophetic or visionary knowledge that, though certainly not exclusive to women, definitely partakes of the feminine principle . . .”

Leloup’s overriding point seems to be that the feminine dimension is as essential as the masculine to the ability of each of us to become fully human. It stands to reason, then, that the feminine principle must be made to feel wholly welcome in our world. And when we get it right, perhaps looking at each other will be like looking at a welcome image in the mirror. I don’t know, of course. This is my thought of the moment.

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