This is a cache of documents, widely regarded as Gnostic in character, discovered in a cave in Egypt in 1945 and made available in English in 1979. Revelation of the Unknowable God solidly establishes King at the leading edge of the new generation of Gnostic scholars.
In What is Gnosticism? Professor King addresses the issue broached in the controversial book by Michael A.Williams, Rethinking Gnosticism (1996), and largely endorses his argument that the term Gnosticism ought to be eliminated from scholarly discourse.
In the book here reviewed she declares,
These are of course matters to be debated by experts, and The Gospel of Mary of Magdala is a work written by a scholar for other scholars, but some matters are too important to be left to the recognized authorities. For a Magdalene scholar of Gnostic convictions like myself, it is both painful and alarming to watch from inside the field what King and others aligned with her are doing to Our Lady of Wisdom.
The issues raised by her book have huge
implications for the general perception of Magdalene in popular
culture and the collective imagination of our time.
The profusion of Marys in the New Testament is a puzzle to scholars and non-scholars alike. King resumes all allusions and presumed allusions to MM in the New Testament, but no coherent picture emerges. It remains impossible to determine if Magdalene can be placed among the women associated with Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, or among the women gathered on Golgotha to witness the Crucifixion.
Nor can she with certitude be identified with the woman from whom Jesus cast out seven devils, or the woman who on Maundy Thursday anointed Jesus feet and dried them with her hair. One single point of identification seems to be accepted.
The Gospel of John (20:15) indicates
that she was the first person to encounter Jesus on Easter Sunday,
apparently mistaking him (due to his resurrected state?) for the
The effect of this interpretation is to raise the status
of Magdalene by distancing her from that tawdry image and
underscoring her importance as a real-life player in the historical
formation of Christianity.
Whether intended or not, the effect of Kings study is to demarginalize Mary of Magdala so that she becomes more acceptable to mainstream christianity. She is no longer an outsider, no longer an exotic, threatening figure on the sidelines of the Passion. Instead, she is elevated to the rank of the first woman apostle, as the subtitle of the book declares.
This is preferable to seeing her as a
It depends also on how one understands Gnostic views of Jesus Christ, views condemned as heretical by early proponents of Christian doctrine.
If Mary of Magdala is regarded as a
faithful apostle of
revered in mainstream faith, the
Sunday school savior, what happens to the Magdalene of heresy, the
Gnostic consort of the other Jesus?
She is the koinonos, the consort of the Gnostic master, his most intimate accomplice in love and life. Gnostic texts make it clear that their complicity is both spiritual and sexual.
The French-kissing vignette in the
Gospel of Philip is a minor scandal compared to another text that
describes Jesus and Mary meeting for sex in the mountains and even
discussing techniques of oral intercourse (in the Questions of Mary,
a lost text paraphrased by Epiphanius: Edgar Hennecke, New Testament
Apocrypha, v. 1, p 328-9).
Well, if the popularity of Dan Brown's book is any measure of truth, we do appear to be in one of those odd moments.
King and scholars of her status may not agree, but this illicit and, to many, blasphemous liaison makes sense within a larger historical perspective than she considers. Gnostic and Biblical scholars rarely look outside their specialist genres, so they may be excused for missing the Tantric character of the alleged relationship between Jesus and Magdalene.
And scholars unacquainted with the
millennial traditions of Asian sexual mysticism (Hindu, Chinese,
Tibetan) would certainly not realize that in those ancient
practices, when practiced correctly, the female consort of the
master is the true master.
The Pagan schools of experimental mysticism existed all over the classical world from Ireland to Egypt, and their origins stretched to times far before the Christian era. The early Christian movement was set in the late Pagan world when the Mysteries still commanded tremendous influence.
As a telestes, Jesus is an ordinary mortal gifted with extraordinary knowledge, the flowering of gnosis, transcendent insight. He is a phoster, an illuminator who brings a message of freedom from error and illusion, not redemption from sin.
When Karen King declares that Gnosticism does not exist, she speaks as a scholar pronouncing her judgment on a categorical term, an -ism invented in the 19th century; but in doing so, she also risks discounting the concrete and undeniable religious and cultural phenomenon to which the label Gnosticism refers.
Her curt dismissal of Gnosticism verges on a denial of Gnosis, the illuminist path of Pagan spirituality, as if such a path never existed, or if it did, is irrelevant. But a rich and long-enduring tradition of pre-Christian spirituality akin to Asian mysticism culminated in the phenomenon labeled by that now dispensable term, Gnosticism.
And the legacy Gnosis carries for
humankind may not be wisely or so easily discounted.
But considerations of this sort are not made by Karen King.
In other words, Magdalene is acceptable in support of doctrinal belief of the apostolic succession.
Thus, King not only rejects the term
Gnosticism, but also gives an anti-Gnostic spin to the central
feminine model of Gnosis.
In this skilful and seamless feat of scholarly co-optation, King assimilates Magdalene to the whole agenda of Salvationist values and quasi-magical attributes, including the trump card, the redemptive value of suffering.
By evaluating Magdalene (even in a seemingly positive light) against the standards of a non-Pagan creed, King makes it difficult for anyone not versed in Gnostic texts and thought to realize how Magdalene may represent an entirely different set of values, such as honor, self-love, independence, beauty of character and person, moral and physical courage, and willingness to accept suffering as an inevitable fact of human existence, not as a transcendent device.
Suffering to be born with dignity rather than despised as a divine curse in need of redemption by a higher power. Imagine that: Mary Magdalene as a paragon of Pagan virtues.
But there are no Pagan
virtues (as we all know, because we are told so), just as there are
no Gnostic teachings worthy of the name. Or, apparently, this
scholar would have it.
In the spin applied here, Mary Magdalene is important for contributing to the patriarchal dominator system, even when she empowers women to seek leadership roles within or against that system. (Few women I have known who identify with Mary Magdalene find acceptance within the dominator system to be their calling.)
As for the penitent whore who immolates herself and burns out every delight she has in her body, I suggest that this image is wickedly confounded with that of countless women who were immolated for being witches, burned for burning with loveliness and delight, for adoring their own sensuality, for learning from natures mysteries, for teaching the sacredness of the Earth and healing by its powers, and precisely for not denying the delight in their bodies, and the wisdom that plays in that delight, but living it out, sharing and celebrating it.
To many women today, this is the inspiring example of Mary of Magdala.
It is also the interpretation of her
personality consistent with much of the Gnostic teaching. There is
no hint of such a woman in Kings book.
Four fragmentary versions are extant, but even the longest one, Berolinensis 8502, known as the Berlin Codex, is missing the first six pages. Kings translation of several compiled variants does not fill five pages of her book.
She skillfully uses brief passages and
even single words from the Berlin compilation to extrapolate the
person and mission of Mary of Magdala as the first and most faithful
apostle. In her inventory of textual references or supposed
references to Magdalene, she largely ignores Gnostic materials that
could be cited to profile her subject along quite different lines.
Regardless of what scholars think, Mary
of Magdala carries a mystique that surpasses textual and historical
discussion. This woman is numinous. In Kings work what might be
called the mythic dimension of Magdalene's personality (in Jungian
terms, her archetypal power) has been demolished, along with the
Gnostic and Pagan background against which she can best be measured.
In the Dialogue of the Saviour, the Gnostic master, presumed to be Jesus but not so named, declares that Magdalene is the one who reveals the truth of the revealer.
In Kings set-piece, the Gospel of Mary, the Lord, not identified with Jesus, speaks like a Buddhist master, telling her:
But if the presumed Jesus of Gnostic
tradition speaks in this way, so can Magdalene, for she is regarded
as the woman who knows all, whose word and wisdom are equal to that
of the Lord.
All this pertains to heretical views of Jesus and Magdalene, derived from schools of Gnostic illuminism so detested by early christians that they demolished every evidence of the Mysteries, destroyed innumerable writings of Pagan spirituality, and, if they did not murder them publicly, as they did with Hypatia of Alexandria, hounded Gnostics into exile and extinction.
Kings exegesis of the Gospel of Mary
belongs to this legacy of suppression.
This cosmological motif is certainly the origin of the prostitute image attached to Magdalene. She was not a sole embodiment of Sophia in the sense of a divinity made flesh, once and once only, but a good-enough reflection in human terms (to borrow a term from the developmental psychology of D. W. Winnicott).
In the mythologized morality that uniquely marks Gnostic teaching, Jesus is a wise man who teaches the way of the Anthropos, the authentic human spirit, and Magdalene is a wise woman who does the same. Their teachings are complementary.
In the Gnostic view, the true and entire teaching on humanity has to come from both sides, both genders.
The role of the Gnostic Magdalene is not
one of female authority equal to man in expounding scripture and
inculcating moral dogmas, it is a model of balanced spirituality.
Dr. Crossan is either incapable of comprehending the Gnostic profile of MM, or simply refuses to acknowledge it.
He dismisses the current debate on the sexuality of Jesus (started with Holy Blood, Holy Grail in 1981, and now revived by Dan Browns bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, slated to become a film) as an insult to Magdalene, and insists that she is not important as Mrs. Jesus.
But even if Jesus and Magdalene were married - an unlikely prospect in the Gnostic-Tantric version of the story - the point is that they were gender counterparts who co-created a message about and for humanity. The ideal humanity presented by the human Jesus, and elevated into an ideological phantom as Christ, is incomplete without its feminine half.
outrageous connection between Jesus and Magdalene is sexual and
theological, ethical and cosmological, exactly as Gnostics
She cites Mary saying of the Lord,
This is specific Gnostic terminology from the Mystery Schools, lifted from its source without acknowledgement.
can be translated as ultimate humanity, ultra-human, or even
initiated humanity. It refers not to a special status of being, but
a self-awareness that comes through exceptional insight (gnosis)
into the Anthropos, the authentic spirit of humanity.
It is a
potent archetypal model, though perhaps a pathological one. The spin
into pathology is inherent in the story of Jesus ordeal, for the
story says that he is unjustly murdered, and by so dying becomes the
divine victim whose death redeems the world. The Pauline ideology of
the glorified victim was specifically targeted by Gnostics who
warned of deviant ideas coming from a clever man and his manifold
dogma. This warning occurs in the Gospel of Philip, cited by King
(p. 166) who concurs, as most scholars do, that it likely refers to
King says nothing to the contrary, nothing to obviate such
assumptions. This being so, we are left with the impression that
Mary of Magdala, now elevated to the rank of the first apostle, must
have expounded Pauline doctrines or, at the very least, faithfully
repeated the teachings of Jesus, whatever they might have been.
She concludes her book by stating:
Apparently she means that Mary of Magdala represents someone who appropriates Jesus message but does not propound the ideological doctrines attached to the Jesus/Christ hybrid. But what aspects of Jesus message does Magdalene embrace, and how does she represent his message in a uniquely feminine way?
Kings study throws no light on
these issues, even though her identification of Magdalene as the
first apostle clearly raises them.
The problem is insurmountable as long as the belief persists that the ideals of humanity must be dictated to us by a model of ideal humanity, the superhuman god-man. But if it is not impossible ideals we need, but attainable humane values and ways to actualize them, and if there is no ideal humanity to teach this, but only the divine wisdom potential in us, our Gaian endowment to unfold, then this belief is erroneous and will be extremely harmful.
As a human or good-enough
reflection of Sophia, divine wisdom, Magdalene represents a resource
within both men and women, the force of that precious insight
(gnosis) by which human potential can be nurtured. This is her
anointing of the Christ within, if such a term be allowed.
cosmos we have taken our stand, and to the world we are transparent.
These are her words from the Dialogue of the Savior. Transparency of
the message as well as the messenger is a Gnostic criterion.
According to the Newsweek article, Magdalene presents a model that inspires women of today to find a place in the modern church, correct the male misreading of key texts, and legitimate the female contribution to religious history. But the male misreading of sacred texts may be no worse than the female misreading, especially where Magdalene is concerned.
The trouble with all such exhortation is
that women still end up in church, bound to the scriptures, locked
in the dominant belief-system and identified with the history of the
dominator culture where Jesus comes first: i.e., dominates,
represents for men and women alike the option to break away from
religious control by taking the path of spiritual insight that goes
beyond belief: Gnosis.
King claims that in the first centuries of the Common Era Christian community constituted a new humanity, in the image of the true Human within. (p. 189)
This will come as a fine reassurance to many, but an outrageous pretence to others. The notion that early Christians discovered the meaning of humanity unknown to anyone before them is typical of the arrogance of religious creed, most especially of monotheism. The mere suggestion that Christians, then or now, represent the human species in some unique manner, better and more deeply than other people, does not belong in the careful exegesis of a scholar.
on the true Human within is not the monopoly of Christianity or its
kin belief-systems, Judaism and Islam.
This teaching was suppressed, co-opted and finally consigned to oblivion by self-declared representatives of Christianity. Pagan intellectuals in the time of Jesus viewed the doctrine of the redemptive value of suffering as horrific superstition. Now Magdalene herself is updated and touted at a faithful instrument of this anti-Pagan, trans-human and, in the end, inhumane creed.
(No scholar has observed that a transhuman
ideal attached to an inhumane creed can throw the entire human
species into a schizophrenic spin, but radicals such as D.H.
Lawrence and R.D. Liang have done so with great lucidity.
Lawrence's Apocalypse, published in 1931, says more about Christian
origins than a dozen Professor Kings, and in The Politics of
Experience Liang explains how our very capacity to experience can be
destroyed by schizophrenic double-binds as seen in the
Judeo-Christian ideology of salvation.)
Perhaps she is not sorry for what she did, but
for what we are doing to ourselves.
Gender warfare lies at the heart of christianity, the authors of the Newsweek article rightly tell us, but gender harmony lies at the heart of Gnosticism. To the extent that Pagan religions reflected the ethics of the Goddess-oriented societies from which they derived, they were tolerant and egalitarian. Gnostic teachings were the exotic flower of Pagan spirituality.
The alleged new image
of humanity discovered by early Christians (as the dominant version
of history tells us) did not, and still largely does not, tolerate
other views on what it means to be male or female or for that
matter, to be human.
As Dolores LaChapelle writes, referring to deep ecology:
Well, the same could be said of Gnosticism, which might be defined as the deep ecology of the human soul.
Its roots long precede the complex of beliefs initially formulated in Middle Eastern political agendas slimly disguised as religion, agendas that now support the global machinations of the pathological dominator system (to borrow Ralph Metzners term).
The plague of the global society today that is, religiously legitimated terrorism or defence against it, framed in the same righteous preachments - has arisen from the fusion of the Abrahamic creeds with the highest idealism of the Hellenistic Era, transmitted down the ages through Platonic rationalism and Athenian pedagogy.
But, as D.H. Lawrence said many years ago,
Magdalene belongs to the older and deeper roots of our story. She was before Christ and the Prophets.
The mother of Jesus is but a version of the Great Mother, Gaia, who indwells the planet. Before Magdalene was the consort of the Gnostic master, she was the heirodule, the Pagan priestess who anointed kings and theocrats.
groundwork studies of Merlin Stone, Barbara Walker, Monica Sjoo, and
a large team of other women scholars involved in Goddess reclamation
bring into high relief the ancient image of the mysterious
empowering woman, the sacred prostitute.
The amygdala is a region of the cerebellum that releases intoxicating nectars in mystic states of heightened awareness. To produce this awareness in a man and guide him with it through states of higher knowing was the sacred work of the initiating priestess: she who anoints.
The consort is the true master. By steeping the royal candidate in ecstatic revelations of the Goddess, she qualified him for kingship. The hieros gamos of priestess and king modeled sexual equality for pagan theocracies.
The wanton attributes of the sacred prostitute were inherent to her wisdom-bestowing powers.
As free agents
commanding respect for their sexuality, the priestesses of Sophia,
the Whore of Wisdom, were beyond approbation and condemnation alike.
They modeled woman's autonomy in the gylanic (sexually and
spiritually balanced) social systems they helped to establish.
Any study of Magdalene that does not
take her whorish manners seriously into account is cheating us of