Maria Magdalene also appears in some apocryphal texts. There is even a Gospel of Maria. You’ll find more details below.
Apocryphal texts in Nag Hammadi
The Bible isn’t the only source on the background of Mary Magdalene.
In 1945 at Nag Hammadi, in southern Egypt, two men came across a sealed ceramic jar. Inside, they discovered a hoard of ancient papyrus books. Although they never received as much public attention as the Dead Sea Scrolls1, these actually turn out to be much more important for writing the history of early Christianity.
The Nag Hammadi texts tell us about early Christians. They were written in Coptic, the language of early Christian Egypt. As most ancient Christian texts have been lost, this discovery was exceptional.
The discovery includes the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and the Acts of Peter. None of these texts were included in the Bible, because the content didn’t conform to Christian doctrine, and they’re referred to as apocryphal2. They tend to concentrate on things that one doesn’t read about in the Bible. For example, New Testament gospels report that after the resurrection Jesus spent some time talking with the disciples, but you don’t learn much about what he said. In the gospels of Nag Hammadi you can read what he said.
Although they’re not Biblical texts, experts still believe that they give us significant insights into Christian history. In these apocryphal texts we might have genuine traditions about Jesus that for one reason or another didn’t make it into the New Testament.
Prominent disciple or key figure
They are also (for the first time in hundreds of years) a new source of information about Mary Magdalene.
She appears very frequently as one of the prominent disciples of Jesus. In certain texts where Jesus is in discussion with his disciples, Mary Magdalene asks many informed questions. Whereas the other disciples at times seem confused, she is the one who understands.
One of the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi is the Gospel of Philip, in which Mary Magdalene is a key figure.
It has been the cause of one of the most controversial claims ever made about her.
During their long burial in the desert, some of the books were attacked by ants. In this Gospel, the ants made a hole in a very crucial place. The text says:
“And the companion of the […] Mary Magdalene. […] loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her […]. The rest of the disciples […]. They said to him “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes, then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.“
The lacuna, or gap, which hides where Jesus kissed Mary has tantalised scholars for decades.
Were Jesus and Mary Magadalene lovers?
Some scholars have interpreted the kiss in a more spiritual sense and see kissing as a symbol for an intimate reception of teaching of the word of God, of learning. The image of Jesus and Mary as engaged in mouth-to-mouth closeness suggests not necessarily sexuality, but the transmission of divine knowledge.
Mary Magdalene appears in this text also not only as the disciple he loved most, but also as a symbolic figure of heavenly wisdom. These stories of Mary – as Jesus‘ closest companion and a symbol of heavenly wisdom – are in sharp contrast with the Mary Magdalene of popular imagination.
“Apocryphal” took on very negative connotations, especially in comparison to the Bible. It often means that it’s not to be read, not to be taken seriously, not to be considered, not true. The contents of these books are regarded by many people as legends. So can we believe the Gospel of Philip? Was Mary really Jesus‘ closest companion?
Well, there is other evidence for this, and some of it is even in the Bible itself.
The Bible says that Mary Magdalene was present at the two most important moments in the story of Jesus: the crucifixion and the resurrection. Mary Magdalene was a prominent figure at both these events. We’re told that she was one of the women who kept vigil3 at Jesus‘ tomb.
It was customary at this time for Jewish women to prepare bodies for burial. Corpses were considered unclean, and so it was always a woman’s task to handle them.
When Mary goes to the tomb, Jesus‘ body is no longer there. The fullest account of Mary’s role after discovering the empty tomb, is in the Gospel of John. She is in a state of shock and runs to where the disciples are gathered to tell them the news. When she reports to the disciples, she is not believed.
Peter and another disciple return with her to the tomb, to see for themselves. When they enter, Peter reacts to the sight of the discarded linen burial cloth with anger and dismay. But the other disciple understands what has happened and concludes that Jesus must have risen from the dead.
The two of them leave without a backward glance at Mary. Then, something even more extraordinary happens.
It is Mary Magdalene’s biggest moment.
Mary is alone when someone asks her why she’s crying. She believes it’s the gardener, and says, “they have taken my lord’s body and I do not know where it is“. The figure says her name. And then she sees Jesus. She is overwhelmed and says “Master!” and goes forward to reach out to him, but he stops her. He says “don’t touch me“. Instead, she must go to the others and tell them that he has risen from the dead. It’s an awesome moment. Jesus stands before her, yet he’s beyond her reach. We cannot say if Jesus really stood before her resurrected, or if Mary simply believed she had seen him. But either way, in this one moment, Mary’s experience took the movement in an important new direction.
A new concept developed, which had nothing to do with what Jesus himself was preaching. It is the concept that Jesus didn’t die – or he did but he was raised from the dead. The movement is not a failure. It is in fact a great success and the person who declares this is Mary Magdalene!
Jesus‘ resurrection was the turning point for Christianity. This was when it changed from a small movement to a whole new religion. And Mary Magdalene was a key figure in this event.
You might think, then, that at the very least Mary would be recognised as an apostle – one of the early missionaries who founded the religion – as she seems to meet all the criteria set out in the Bible.
The Gospel of Mary
The reason why she is not, perhaps lies in another long lost apocryphal text.
In a Cairo bazaar in 1896, a German scholar happened to come across a curious papyrus book. Bound in leather and written in Coptic, this was the Gospel of Mary. Like the books found at Nag Hammadi, the Gospel according to Mary Magdalene is also considered an apocryphal text.
The story it contains begins some time after the resurrection. The disciples have just had a vision of Jesus. Jesus has encouraged his disciples to go out and preach his teachings to the world, but they are afraid to do so because he was killed for it, and they say “if they killed him, they are going to kill us too“. It’s Mary who steps forward and says: don’t be worried, he promised he would be with us to protect us.
Apostle to the Apostles
At this point Peter asks Mary to tell them some things that she might have heard, but which the other disciples haven’t. She says “Yes, I will tell you what has been hidden from you“. She talks about a vision she had of Jesus and a conversation that she had with him. As the Gospel tells it, Mary then relates the details of this conversation, which is to do with spiritual development and the soul’s lifelong battle with evil.
At this point controversy arises, and Andrew steps in and says “well, I don’t know what the rest of you think, but these things seem very strange to me, and it seems that she’s telling us teachings that are different from the Saviour.”
Peter then chimes in and he says, “Are we supposed to now all turn around and listen to her? Would Jesus have spoken privately with a woman rather than openly to us? Did he prefer her to us?”
Matthew defends Mary and quells Peter’s attack on her. In the text, Peter’s problem seems to be that Jesus selected Mary above the other disciples to interpret his teachings. Peter sees Mary as a rival for the leadership of the group itself.
Peter need not have feared. Most people think of Peter as the rock upon which the church was established. He is the main or major disciple figure, and Mary Magdalene is a kind of side figure in the cast of characters.
One of the absolutely fascinating things about the Gospel of Mary is it really asks us to rethink that story about Christian history: did all the disciples get it? Did they really understand and preach the truth? Perhaps the Gospel of Mary was just too radical. It presents Mary as a teacher and spiritual guide to the other disciples. She’s not just a disciple; she’s the apostle to the apostles.
“Mary Magdalene is among Jesus’s early followers,” says Robert Cargill, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. “She was named in the Gospels, so she obviously was important. There were apparently hundreds, if not thousands, of followers of Jesus, but we don’t know most of their names. So the fact that she’s named is a big deal.”
After Jesus’s crucifixion—which she witnessed along with several other women from the foot of the cross—and after all his male disciples had fled, Mary Magdalene also played a key role in the story of the Resurrection. According to the gospels, she visited Jesus’s tomb on Easter Sunday, either alone (according to the Gospel of John) or with other women, and found the tomb empty. “The women are the ones who go and tell the disciples,” Cargill points out. “They are the ones that discovered that he had risen, and that’s significant.”
In the Gospel of John, Jesus actually appears to Mary Magdalene alone after his Resurrection, and instructs her to tell his disciples of his return (John 20:1-13).
“There are many scholars who argue that because Jesus empowered women to such an extent early in his ministry, it made some of the men who would lead the early church later on uncomfortable,” Cargill explains. “And so there were two responses to this.
One was to turn her into a prostitute. By turning [Mary Magdalene] into a prostitute, then she is not as important. It diminishes her in some way. She couldn’t have been a leader, because look at what she did for a living,” Cargill says.
“Of course, the other, second, response was actually to elevate Mary. Some argued she was actually Jesus’ wife, or companion. She had a special status.”
Maria Magdalene as Jesus’ wife
While some early Christians sought to downplay Mary’s influence, others sought to accentuate it.
The Gospel of Mary placed Mary Magdalene above Jesus’s male disciples in knowledge and influence. She also featured prominently in the Gospel of Philip, where she’s referred to as Jesus’s companion and claimed that Jesus loved her more than the other disciples.
Most controversially, the text stated that Jesus used to kiss Mary “often on her ____.” Damage to the text left the last word unreadable, though some scholars have filled in the missing word as “mouth.”
Then in 2012, the Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King unveiled a previously unknown papyrus fragment she believed to be a copy of a second-century gospel, in which Jesus referred to Mary Magdalene as “my wife.” After defending the document’s authenticity against a barrage of criticism, King eventually changed her stance, concluding that the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was probably a forgery.
“Mary appears to have been a disciple of Jesus,” Cargill concludes. “What’s important is that Jesus had both male and female disciples in his ministry, which was not necessarily common at the time.” The prostitute and the wife theories may have been around for centuries, but they are legends and traditions that grew up long after the fact, he emphasizes: “Neither of them [is] rooted in the Bible itself.”
1 The Dead Sea Scrolls (also the Qumran Caves Scrolls) are ancient Jewish and Hebrew religious manuscripts first found in 1947 at the Qumran Caves. More on this subject elsewhere on this site.
2 Apocrypha (Ancient Greek: the hidden [things]) are the biblical books received by the early Church as part of the Greek version of the Old Testament, but not included in the Hebrew Bible, being excluded by the non-Hellenistic Jews from their canon. Their position in Christian usage has been ambiguous. There are several levels of dubiety within the general concept of apocryphal works in Judeo-Christian biblical writings. Apocrypha per se are outside the Hebrew Bible canon, not considered divinely inspired but regarded as worthy of study by the faithful.
3 To keep vigil: to stay in a place and quietly wait, pray for a period of time.