Editor’s note: With this post, we introduce summary reports on the “Classics” presentations. The original announcement post remains below.
Christopher Wright’s program on Mary Magdalene for Classics in Religion was among the best attended in many months. He got our attention immediately with a recent quote from Monica Lewinsky: “Throughout history, women have been traduced and silenced.” After explaining what “traduce” means (to slander, to malign, in order to ruin another’s reputation), Christopher went on to provide his audience a step-by-step case study of Mary Magdalene’s story through the so-called Gnostic gospels.
Discovered in Egypt in 1945, this library of 52 texts from the earliest years of Christianity escaped the destruction visited on most pre-Christian writings during the fourth century. They present the view of a community that was immersed in esoteric teachings by none other than Jesus Christ, many of them brought out by his beloved disciple Mary Magdalene.
Raised in a French Catholic tradition, Christopher explained that although most Abrahamic religions regard the Magdalene (hereafter simply “Mary”) as a figure of reverence, Roman Catholic authorities have profoundly disagreed until recent decades. In 591 CE Pope Gregory definitively tarred Mary’s reputation by being the first to officially link the woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears to the woman who was his supporter and whom he had healed of serious illness. In so doing, Gregory branded Mary as a “repentant prostitute” for centuries to come. That was her legacy until she was cleared at last and made a saint in 1969.
The Gnostic texts describe early Christianity as an egalitarian movement. Jesus is depicted as having 12 male disciples and seven female disciples. These ancient documents portray Mary as an outspoken leader and visionary of the early Christian movement, a woman of “superior understanding” whom Jesus often complimented in terms not applied to the male disciples. She is recognized as being the first witness to the Resurrection, of being the most important of the women who followed him, and the only one of his disciples who truly understood his message. These writings also describe a deep tension between Mary and the apostle Peter, who is recorded as telling Jesus “we can’t suffer this woman anymore.”
To clarify Mary’s role, Christopher presented pieces from the Pistis Sophia, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Thomas, the Dialogue of the Savior, and the Sophia (Wisdom) of Jesus Christ. Each of these texts is no doubt worthy of continued exploration in the Classics series.
Relevant context in understanding why and how Mary Magdalene’s contribution was dismissed for so long lies in the language of the day. Christopher explained that the custom was to regard anything female as “physical and worldly,” while the “spiritual and heavenly” was always exclusively male. But Mary spoke for the ages when she said “Women will never be obliterated.”
Because the story of Mary Magdalene was well known by early Christians, the Church couldn’t get rid of her entirely. Besides, the early movement needed women. The campaign of the Church against its own members was that of a mission of conquest, in which the vanquished would be reduced, removed, repressed, and rebranded. Fortunately, her story survived, with as many implications for the present as it had for the first years.
Thanks, Christopher, for a stimulating and informative presentation!
Note: The Gnostic Gospels found in the Nag Hammadi Library are available online at Gnosis.org.
Note date correction: Monday November 19, in the Classics in Religion series. This group is open to all and meets Mondays at 11 a.m. at the Penn Yan Public Library.
The figure of Mary Magdalene has intrigued religious scholars since the earliest years of Christianity. She is introduced as a woman beset with serious illness who was cured by Jesus the Nazarene, teacher and healer from the ancient Near East as described in the Bible. After being cured, she devotes herself and her resources to his movement. She is the only identified non-family woman who not only attended his execution but was the first to see the risen Christ and the one to announce this to his other followers.
Mary Magdalene is the second-most mentioned woman in the New Testament, after Jesus’s mother. In the early years of the movement, she appears in a number of significant documents; by the Middle Ages she is represented by several national cults. In both literature and art, she can be seen as the most vocal disciple, a repentant prostitute forgiven by Jesus, and most recently as his wife and the mother of his child. We shall see that two of these are fictions but that the other is found in period documents.
Because of the volume of material relating to Mary Magdalene, for this meeting the group will focus on the period books written of and about Jesus’s teaching in which she is prominent. After an introduction to the material, attention would next be drawn to the socio-political environment of the time and its implications for community then and now.
Facilitator: Christopher Wright
Christopher Wright lives in Penn Yan and enjoys following topics in religion and in photography.