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Seven Stunning Gifts from the Gospel of Mary

by Dr. Hal Taussig

Saint Mary Magdalene, detail from a work of stained glass installed in Saint Severin in Paris, France

Detail from a work of stained glass installed in Saint Severin in Paris, France depicting Mary Magdalene

It’s way past time to claim the Gospel of Mary as key to who the early Jesus People were in the first two centuries. The discovery of this document has seldom been acclaimed for its crucial content about what it says. It’s a winner, but not well known.

Strangely, the introduction of this rich discovery to the public, the church, and scholarship itself has been weirdly tangled. The story and picture of the Gospel of Mary still lies at the edge of consciousness. More on the way it was bungled later. Now is the time to hear straightforwardly what the Gospel of Mary offers to all of us—spiritual seekers, fallen away alumni of the church, general public, and regular Christians.

Seven stunning gifts from the Gospel of Mary that are not in the Bible

  • It is a coherent and dramatic story of a woman leader of the Jesus movements. The story literally proclaims that Jesus himself loved Mary (probably Magdalene) more than all his other followers. This is not a romantic tale, but a clear picture of the two working together as colleagues and teachers.
  • This is the most powerful portrait of Mary Magdalene in the ancient world. After Jesus leaves for good she is clearly the smartest and most educated of the disciples. Her vocabulary is that of a Greek philosopher. There is no sense at all in the Gospel of Mary that Mary is confused with a prostitute. That incorrect image of Mary Magdalene was created in later Christianity.
  • A major part of the primary story in the Gospel of Mary portrays Mary being harshly criticized by the apostles Peter and Andrew. In the end, Mary is defended and her leadership is upheld. This is especially important since other writings in the New Testament command women leaders to be quiet. So, here the Gospel of Mary clearly supports women teaching men.
  • Mary tells the main followers of Jesus something that Jesus had only told her. This was a vision of the soul traveling to God. It is quite likely that this vision of the soul going to God is not a journey after death, but in the middle of someone’s life. It is like a New Testament vision of the Apostle Paul traveling to God while he is still alive and returning thereafter.
  • When Jesus followers panic after Jesus leaves them forever, Mary leaps into leadership and reminds them of Jesus’s inner presence, the idea that he is with them always, and turns their heart to the Good.
  • In the Gospel of Mary, Jesus teaches that “there is no such thing as sin.”
  • Jesus’s final summary teachings include: “Bear my peace within yourselves. …For the Child of Humanity is within you. Follow it. Those who seek it will find it. Go then and proclaim the good news of the realm. Do not lay down any rules…nor give a law…lest you be confined by it.”

A text for the 21st century

This text from the early second century sounds like it was written for the 21st century. What a surprise to have joint leadership of an independent woman leader who can counter the group’s panic and of a man leader who insists that the group stop making up rules and laws. It brings the bright freshness of openly gendered humanity that has so much promise in our time. Even as it carries such gendered aliveness of our time, it also keeps us aware of the dangers of toxic masculinity. As far as I can tell, there is not a better ancient book for people to claim for themselves in our time.

I suspect a few of you have heard of the Gospel of Mary, but have you ever thought about making it a steady friend? One can keep it close on less than two pages.

Here’s a bit more background. Mary and Jesus are the leaders of the group. The group is committed to holding onto each other and teaching the ways of the Child of Humanity (also translated ‘Son of Man’). Jesus was killed, comes back to the group to make sure they remember the principles they were taught, and then he leaves them.

How the Gospel of Mary finally got to the 21st century

The Gospel of Mary has been lost for at least 1500 years, but was found in the Egyptian desert a little over a hundred years ago.

I mentioned earlier that this gospel has had trouble becoming known over the past hundred years. It was taken to Germany in the early 1900s, but accidents and wars kept it from being translated into German until 1959, and then it took about twenty years to be translated into English, and another twenty years until it was available to the general public. The best book that contains the document is by Harvard professor Karen King. The gospel is clearly explained and translated well. Other books have focused on problems with the original Coptic manuscript and controversies raised by conservative critics. It is fairly easy to find the translation on-line, but there is still not a widely distributed book available to the public.

This gem is just barely 1300 words long. As noted earlier, anybody can carry it around in their pocket. My suggestion is to just put it there, or leave a few pages lying around in your place. Read it leisurely. Don’t rush through it, although don’t hold back.

One odd thing about it is that the first two or three paragraphs start in a funny place in the story. The first few times you read it, you may want to skip the first three paragraphs. A good place to begin would be the paragraph that begins: “When the Blessed One had said these things, he greeted them all.” That’s where the real story begins in which Jesus (called “the Blessed One” or the “Savior”) is reminding them of his most important teachings, and then leaving. This gets everybody else except Mary upset.

It won’t take you very long to read it. But since hardly anyone has read it, you may want to take a week or so to read it every two or three days, so that you get somewhat familiar with the story. Then, since it’s so short, you can take some time with what parts you like best.

If I’m right that it is a really good, short book from 1800 years ago, then you may want to just mull over what some parts of it mean to you. Or you could buy Karen King book, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, or read some things online about it to deepen your connection to it and your understanding of it. By and large, I think you’ll find it both more useful and inspiring than a lot of the Bible. My best wishes.