The Importance of Mary Magdalene in the Gnostic Gospels

Gheorghe Tattarescu - Magdalena,

Gheorghe Tattarescu – Magdalena, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of us have grown up knowing Mary Magdalene, but with not enough information about her part in the Christian story. In the New Testament, she has a relatively minor role beyond her witnessing the resurrected Jesus in the Gospel of John, but in the Gnostic Gospels, her role is much more important. In them, she not only is the witness to the Resurrection, but an important disciple of Jesus, and possibly his lover or wife.

Evidence in the Gnostic Gospels for Mary Magdalene’s important role in the Jesus story ranges from the Pistis Sophia to The Gospel of Mary, which was named after her. In the Pistis Sophia, she plays the role of catechizer to Jesus when he gives his secret teachings to his disciples. One example of this is when she asks him “’My Lord, will then the men of the world who have received the mysteries of the Light | be superior to the emanations of the Treasury in thy kingdom?’” (The Second Book of Pistis Sophia, Chapter 85, verses 188-189). This example shows her to be an eager student of Jesus’ teachings, and also capable of and eager to help the other disciples learn his teachings, not to mention her knowing his essence.

The Gospel of Mary also shows her importance in the Christian story, in this case where the Resurrection is concerned. It also shows the opposition she received from most of Jesus’ male disciples, especially Simon Peter and Andrew: “When Mary had said this, she fell silent, since it was to this point that the Saviour had spoken with her. But Andrew answered and said to the brethren, Say what you wish to say about what she has said. I at least do not believe that the Saviour said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas. Peter answered and spoke concerning these same things. He questioned them about the Saviour: Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us? Then Mary wept and said to Peter, My brother Peter, what do you think? Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Saviour?” (The Gospel of Mary, Chapter 9, verses 1-5).

This example shows her not only to have received new teachings from Jesus, it also shows the opposition and prejudice she faced from most of Jesus’ male disciples due to her being a woman. In the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day, women were considered to be and treated as inferior to men; therefore, it comes as no surprise that Mary Magdalene would be put down by most of the male disciples, and her presence would be opposed by them. This prejudice against women would later carry on in to Petrine/Pauline Christianity, which still today, in spite of progress made in such churches as the Anglican and Episcopal churches allowing women to take more leadership roles such as joining the priesthood, for instance, besets much of the Christian religion, ranging from the Roman Catholic Church’s continuing opposition to women joining the priesthood to fundamentalist Protestantism’s insistence on women’s only role being that of the stay-at-home wife and mother, and its continuing attempt to turn the clock back on women’s rights to an idealized 1950s in the United States.

As a result, Mary Magdalene’s true importance has been obscured, and is only starting to be realized today due to Biblical scholarship and the rediscovery of the Gnostic Gospels, especially with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts in Egypt in 1945. This importance has been speculated on as well, and includes the possibility she was Jesus’s lover or wife. This possibility is hinted at in The Gospel of Philip, with this verse: “And the companion of the […] (scholars put “Saviour is” here) Mary Magdalene. […] (scholars put either “Jesus” or “He” here) loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth.” (verses 117-118).

Also, The Gospel of Philip states: “There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.” (verses 70-71). According to Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene (2010), The Gospel of Philip is explicit about the nature of their relationship: she [Mary Magdalene] is his [Jesus’] “companion,” koinonos, a term whose meanings can range from consort to spouse, but which at any rate implies a committed partnership” (114-115).

With this kind of meaning at hand, one can easily guess, even in the face of lacunae and missing parts of the Gnostic texts, that Mary Magdalene played a very important role in Jesus’s life. In fact, her role as Jesus’s lover or wife has been speculated on by scholars and writers ranging from Bourgeault herself to Margaret Starbird, and has played an important role in one work of fiction, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

With all of the evidence for Mary Magdalene playing a more important role in the Jesus story than has been taught and believed for over 2,000 years, it is time to reevaluate her importance in the Christian story, in Christianity, in world religion, and in world history.

Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Meaning of Mary Magdalene. Boston: Shambala Publications, 2010. 114-15. Print.

Pistis Sophia, translated with commentary by G.R.S Mead. London: J.M. Watkins, 1921. N. pag. The Gnostic Society Library. Web. 13 May 2014. <>.

The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. The Gnostic Society Library. Web. 13 May 2014. <>.

The Gospel of Philip, part of the Nag Hammadi Library, translated by Wesley W. Isenberg. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. The Gnostic Society Library. Web. 13 May 2014. <>.

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