In honour of Mary Magdalene’s Feast Day, I offer an extract from Band of Angels about the Gospel of Mary’s indignant account of the apostle Peter’s attack on a disciple named Mary. Those curious to learn how at least two different ‘Mary’s in the New Testament were merged into the medieval saint we know as Mary Magdalene can read a different essay on that topic here.
Perhaps the most contentious of the early Christian sources which were not included in the New Testament are the non-canonical gospels: narratives which claim to remember the story of Jesus and his community through the eyes of disciples other than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The dates of many of these ‘other gospels’ are uncertain. Some preserve first-century traditions, while others seem to have been written afresh in the second or third century.
One of the most important of these ‘other’ gospels is the enigmatic Gospel of Mary, which tells how Jesus imparted some of his most precious teachings to a female disciple and how she struggled to convince the male apostles to listen to what Jesus had told her. Many scholars believe that the ‘Mary’ in the text is Mary Magdalene.
The Gospel of Mary was written in the first or second century. It was forgotten for centuries, and only rediscovered at the end of the nineteenth century. The text as we know it today is incomplete, surviving in three overlapping fragments of different lengths.
An early third-century papyrus fragment, now in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, preserves an important segment of the narrative. In the Manchester fragment, Mary speaks to three of the male disciples, revealing what the Saviour has told her in private, and the men react with uncertainty to her revelation. The passage expands on a memory also preserved in Luke’s Gospel, that after his Resurrection, Jesus spoke first to the women. Both Luke and the Gospel of Mary agree that when the women tried to tell the male disciples what had happened, they were met with disbelief, the only marked difference being that in the Gospel of Mary, Mary is not with the other women.
According to this gospel, Peter and Andrew were disturbed by Mary’s revelation that Jesus had entrusted her with a message for the disciples. Andrew believed that what she had to say must be false, because he and the other men would have recognized any genuine teaching of Jesus. He was sure that true teaching would strike them as familiar because they knew his way of thinking. Peter’s objection was more personal. He did not like the fact that Jesus had spoken privately to Mary, when he could just as easily have addressed the gathered group. However, he does not directly accuse Mary of telling a falsehood. Instead, he takes the dismissive tactic of suggesting that, by definition, anything Jesus said in private to a woman could not be important. But the third man, Levi, defended the idea that Jesus could have chosen Mary to deliver a particular teaching.
“Levi says to Peter, ‘Peter, thy angry temper is ever with thee and even now you question the woman as though you were her adversary. If the Saviour deemed her worthy, who are you to despise her? For He, who knew her well, truly loved her. So let us be ashamed, and, acting like proper men, let us do what has been commanded, to preach the Gospel without making rules or laying down laws other than the Saviour gave.’ When he had spoken in this way, Levi left, and began to preach the Gospel according to Mary.“
Clearly, Levi represents the writer’s own point of view here. The anonymous writer acts as Mary’s champion and defends her teaching against Peter’s hostility.
The argument between the four disciples seems to be our anonymous writer’s way of exploring the different positions being taken by the men and women of his own day on the question of an alternative tradition being handed down by women. But he is also expressing his concern that the Church is changing, and not for the better. In his eyes, Peter seems to represent the voice of a faction in the community which wants to ‘make rules or lay down laws other than the Saviour gave’ – in other words, a group that wants to develop an institutional structure to replace the more fluid and informal movement of the early decades. This was clearly a topical warning after the death of the disciples who had known Jesus. Levi thinks that the new rules are a way of drawing the community away from fulfilling its task of preaching the gospel. The anonymous writer seems to be using Levi to suggest that too much emphasis on authority from the ‘Peter faction’ is stifling the Church.
The date of the Gospel of Mary is uncertain, but what is clear is that it was written at a time when the structures of authority in the churches were beginning to be more formal, or perhaps when a debate was emerging about whether the structures ought to become more formal. This offers a contrast to the Gospel of Luke, which is dated to the late first century. Luke sees roles in the community as fluid, including the position of women. He sometimes offers women as an example of morally attractive humility and single-minded devotion to Jesus; at other times he sees them as flawed in just the same way as men. So, for example, Mary of Bethany and the Prodigal Son both demonstrate a heightened devotion to Jesus despite their lack of standing within the family, while Martha and the Prodigal’s older brother are asked to be generous from their own position of acknowledged leadership.
We do not know whether the debate between Mary and Peter really took place, or whether it was a story invented or embroidered later on in order to symbolise a debate taking place in the later churches. It is likely that the debate reflected in the Gospel of Mary was, among other things, a matter of growing pains. Christianity had begun as a loosely structured movement growing organically out of existing friendships and family networks. But by the end of the first century it had begun the long transition to a more institutional structure, and the centrality of women would be challenged as a result (This extract has been edited.)