Stephen Fitch

Heretics and Saints


Text Analysis Paper

In the first few centuries CE in the Ancient Near East, early Christianity was blossoming with vitalization, diversity, austerity, and complexity.  Before any New Testament Canon, Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, or even established Church authority, various sacred texts and eclectic theologies emerged, flourished, and competed. One of these early Christian writings, out of what many scholars label the “Gnostic” tradition, is The Gospel of Mary (i.e. Mary Magdalene). Glittering within its few extant pages, an intriguing and unique picture of early Christian ideology surfaces, both supplementing and sharply contrasting that of New Testament thought. Here, Mary is curiously presented as the archetypal heroine, capable of leading the first Apostles. Thus, this brief Gospel, developed out of the early second century CE,  makes a progressive case for legitimating matriarchy, especially within the Church.

Mary is rendered here as a leader among the Apostles in virtue and faith.  At the opening lines of the short and incomplete narrative of the extant text, as the Resurrected Savior had finished his admonition and departed, he exhorts the Apostles: “Peace be with you.  Receive my peace unto yourselves… Go then and preach the gospel of the Kingdom” (4:33,37).  Immediately after, the Apostles “were grieved. They wept greatly, saying, How shall we go to the Gentiles and preach the gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of Man? If they did not spare Him, how will they spare us” (5:1)?  The first member to follow Jesus’ previous teaching, “Mary stood up, greeted them all, and said to her brethren, ‘Do not weep and do not grieve nor be irresolute, for His grace will be entirely with you and will protect you’” (5:2). Interestingly, while the Apostles subsequently doubted their intention or ability to ‘preach the gospel’ as Jesus had just instructed them to in fact do, Mary alone is merited with obedience: she remembered the peace he granted.

Furthermore, the Apostles mention twice Mary’s close rapport with Jesus, assuming her elevated faithfulness and divine status. First, in the Apostles’ response to Jesus’ monologue, Peter states, “Sister we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of woman” (5:5). Here, he is acknowledging her astounding credibility with Jesus as the most loved woman; even more, he then shockingly requests, “Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember which you know, but we do not, nor have we heard them” (5:6). It is significant to note that Peter, questionably Jesus’ closest companion, or at least among the inner circle of the Twelve, according at least to the Canonical Gospels, was mentioned in Matthew as the “Rock of the Church” (Matt 16:18). Thus, one of the very most prominent leaders in early Christianity is here desperately asking Mary, a mere woman of first century Palestine, what instruction the Savior may have uniquely given to her. Later in the narrative, after she retells her vision, Levi possibly espouses the most controversial line of all in this discussion: “Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us” (9:8b,9a) (italics mine for emphasis).  Not only then is Mary morally upright and spiritually mature like the other Apostles, but she is, according to Levi, even closer in union with and loved more by Jesus than the rest.

Not without perfect acceptance, indeed some the Apostles are also equally critical of Mary, perceiving her and the scenario writ large as a threat to their power. Instructing the Apostles by the request of Peter, Mary explains her vision. While the group listened attentively, Andrew attempts to disqualify her, questioning the validity of her statements and her honesty. Similarly, Peter also invokes his characteristic egotism and chauvinism, asking “Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us” (9:4)? Naturally, there would be resistance to probably both the controversial ideas of feminine leadership, as Mary was in fact doing in teaching them, as well as Mary’s prominence as on-par or superior in acumen and rank to the Apostles themselves.

Abruptly the discussion becomes oppositional, providing the reader a glimpse into this culture’s ancient debate of feminism. Just as the Apostles’ were varied in background, so their responses were varied in tone and intention.  Ultimately, Levi essentially rebuts both Andrew and Peter, affirming Mary’s truthfulness and authority, demanding “But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?” (9:8a).  But, not only does Levi reassert Mary’s legitimacy here, he also engages Peter directly in the broader question of gender and class: “Peter you have always been hot tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries” (9:6b-7). Levi, knowing Peter previously as an impassioned friend, sees the deeper issue here: Peter is deeming Mary, as a woman currently fulfilling a leadership role, not only as a possibly dishonest individual but as a representative of a resented class. Peter, in Levi’s eyes, may be viewing Mary precisely as a dangerous splinter in his worldview of patriarchy.  Seeking to eradicate that impulse, Levi not only restores equilibrium among the group, but may also provides an affirmation of some degree of feminine leadership in the Church, at least headed Mary herself, to develop.

Logically then, along with righteousness, Mary is also regarded in this Gospel as imbued with specific divine authority over even the first Apostles.  First, as discussed, she is mentioned as both more loved and intimately acquainted with Jesus than the rest of the women, and in Levi’s opinion, the Apostles too.  She then relays her teachings received from Jesus, a role mostly reserved for male prophets, priests, or rabbis at the time. Through the commotion, Levi calms the aggressors and the text ends with Levi saying, “let us be ashamed and put on the perfect Man, and separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said” (9:9b); and then the Apostles “heard this they began to go forth to proclaim and to preach” (9:10).  Although much of the surviving text is missing, such as Jesus’ and Mary’s full teachings, it is clear that the lasting note resounding after the end of the Gospel is Levi’s plea for impartiality, reconciliation, and faithfulness. Humbly, he perceives Mary as both of a higher status than the Apostles in regard to the Savior, and as deserving adherence.  It is ambiguous if the Apostles merely heeded Levi’s command to go and preach, or if they also heeded his appeal for Mary’s leadership.  However, it is clear that this lurking question would lead readers then and now to ponder the appropriateness both of Mary and of all women in leadership positions and in equal standing as men.