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Is the Gospel of Mary a Gnostic Text? Does It Matter?

by Shirley Paulson, PhD

A long wooden bridge over water

I’ll admit it up front: I love this text. Not because I’m a gnostic, a feminist, or a worshiper of Mary. But primarily because it says important things about life, truth, and love that are rarely discussed in the context of teachings from Jesus.

Since the word ‘gnosticism’ is both hotly contentious and ambiguous, I usually avoid using the word altogether. In a very broad sense, it seems to refer to just about anything that is not considered by somebody to be consistent with orthodox Christianity. The question about whether the Gospel of Mary is technically a gnostic text or not cannot be fully resolved in a single blog post, but I will say that the association of the Gospel of Mary with Gnosticism is so distracting and distorting, we often miss the inspiring and powerful message embedded in the heart of this remarkable text.

Understandably, feminists have latched onto the Gospel of Mary because it illustrates the strength and power of a woman close to Jesus’s inner circle of disciples. But other parts of the text are equally compelling to me, and they’re often overshadowed in the larger feminist and gnostic discussions.

The teachings of Jesus grab my attention

Before Mary actually says anything in the book, the teachings of Jesus grab my attention. I should mention, for those not so familiar with the text, that the first six pages are missing from the only two copies discovered in modern times. So it’s possible Mary speaks in the pages unknown to us now. Also, Jesus isn’t mentioned by name, but the ‘Savior’ throughout the text teaches and acts similarly to the way we see Jesus teaching and acting in other early Christ texts.

There are two key points the Savior makes and that the disciples ultimately put into practice:

  1.  we belong together;
  2.  sinning isn’t natural to us.

The rest of the text seems to be the author’s explanations for how these two things are possible. For example, the Savior teaches:

All natures, all forms, all creatures exist in and with one another (2:2).

This simple statement reminds me that life is always in relationship with the rest of the world. What happens to someone on the other side of the world matters to each of us because we can’t truly understand life without each other.

The Savior also teaches that sin isn’t natural. It’s when we disrupt the natural order that we create sin, but it is not a natural law within us. He says:

There is no sin, but it is you who make sin when you do the things that are like the nature of adultery, which is called ‘sin.’ (3:3)

Adultery may seem like an odd condition for identifying the meaning of sin. But Tchadar Hadjiev explains that the evil of adultery in the early Hebrew scriptures—which was familiar to Jews in Jesus’s time— was “more interested in the pollution that results from it, rather than in the honour of the cheated husband.” [1]  Adultery pollutes the boundary of the community, and in antiquity, that made it difficult for the local god to be responsible for the people identified in that community. Adultery, then, messed with the ability of the god to deliver protection and blessings.

Sin isn’t natural to humanity

Jesus implies that we “make sin” when we mess with the divine order of things. God set things right to start with, but sin is the blurring between the boundaries of right and wrong, between who belongs and who doesn’t (such as the effects of adultery), and between truth and error.

What’s intriguing about the ending of the book is the way the disciples put these two teachings into action. Jesus had bid them farewell, and Mary (one of the disciples) shared with them some of Jesus’s further teachings about how to maintain the integrity of one’s soul even after death. Almost immediately they began to argue over whether Mary should have had any special instructions beyond the rest of them.

But the disciple Levi points out that this was exactly the kind of situation where they should apply Jesus’s teachings. He said,

We should be ashamed. We should clothe ourselves with the perfect Human, acquire it for ourselves as he commanded us, and announce the good news (10:11,12).

Clothing themselves “with the perfect Human … as he commanded” indicates Levi’s memory of Jesus’s teaching that their perfect humanhood was the original order of being, when “all nature, forms, and creatures exist in and with one another.” Their sin at the moment was polluting that perfect community with jealousy and misogyny. The idea of “clothing ourselves” resonates with Paul’s teaching that “this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:53).

Levi persuaded his fellow disciples to act on these teachings:

After he [Levi] had said these things, they [all the disciples] started going out to teach and to preach (10:14).

Is that Gnosticism?

There simply hasn’t been a scholarly agreement on the definition of ‘Gnosticism,’ but Michael Williams has identified some of the more prevalent allegations against it to include:

  • A reversal of Scriptural values
  • A rejection of the material cosmos
  • Disinterest in society
  • Hating bodies
  • Either ascetic practices or debauchery [2]

None of these accusations appear in this Gospel of Mary. Even the rejection of the material cosmos doesn’t really work in this text. The only rejection would be the rejection of a sinful temptation, not the material cosmos. Based on this teaching that “it is you who make sin,” people shouldn’t excuse their sins by claiming they can’t help it.

The deeper interest in this text touches on the nature and value of living with truth and love. This is the kind of life that seems most consistent with Jesus’s other teachings, and the accusations against Gnosticism hardly apply to this text.

According to these teachings, Jesus would have endorsed Levi’s humble acknowledgement that the jealousy should make them ashamed. He would have been glad to hear of the disciples’ renewed commitment to clothe themselves with the perfection with which God made them, and of their willingness to announce the good news!

End Notes:

[1] Hadjiev, Tchavdar S. “Adultery, Shame, and Sexual Pollution in Ancient Israel and in Hosea: A Response to Joshua Moon.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 41, no. 2 (2016): 221. [back to text]

[2] Williams, Michael Allen. Rethinking “Gnosticism:” An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996. These characterizations are summaries from p. 5. [back to text]