Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Mary Magdalene is in the News Again

photo (c) Karen King

Mary Magdalene is in the news again. Previously labeled by the Church as the ever-so-repentant prostitute, her story has been reevaluated in recent years with the discovery of several apocryphal texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Mary—all of which date to between the 2nd and 4th centuries. Combining what’s found in these sources with what’s mentioned of her in the New Testament, a new picture emerges—that of a beloved disciple, favored by Jesus because of her innate wisdom and her deep understanding of his teachings.

There are suggestions in these texts that may imply she was more than that—that she was quite likely his most important apostle, his spiritual partner, and may have even been his wife.

And that’s why she’s been in the news again recently. On Sept 18th biblical scholar Karen King announced that she had obtained a papyrus fragment, dated to the 4th century, in which Jesus referred to Mary Magdalene as “My wife.” 

This is the first known definite reference to Jesus being married.

The text is in Coptic, an Egyptian language, and Professor King thinks that it may be a copy of a text originally written in the 2nd century, probably in Greek. Of Mary, it also states in the next line, “She will be able to be my disciple.”

Almost immediately the naysaying started. People threatened by the thought of a non-celibate Jesus immediately began calling it a fake. Within a few days the Vatican, which had never actually seen, touched, or examined the papyrus, declared it to be a fake or forgery. And of course, if it turns out that Jesus actually had been married, then all the arguments about celibacy and a male-only priesthood that the Catholic Church uses to deny spiritual authority to women would go right out the window.

[ Vatican Says Papyrus Referring to Jesus' Wife is Probably Fake ]

One important thing about this new discovery is that Karen King is a very conservative biblical scholar who has never believed that there was any real evidence that Jesus was married. So for her to use the word wife in the translation of this papyrus is significant. The Coptic word used was hime, sometimes rendered as shime. Professor King went to great lengths to have the papyrus properly authenticated and dated (though more testing is yet to be done on the ink) before releasing the news about it to the world just before she attended a conference of Coptic language scholars in Rome on Sept 18th. So it was only after much consultation and very careful thought that she came to a conclusion about how to translate the words on the papyrus.

At issue here is the word hime, or shime, which is found in the 4th line. When I first read the details of the papyrus I consulted a couple Coptic dictionaries online and discovered that the word is the generic term for woman but can also mean wife; the meaning may often be determined by the context in which it is used. The context in this papyrus is that in the previous line, the 3rd line, we find the following:  

“.....deny. Mary is worthy (or not worthy) of it.” while in the 5th line Jesus says, “She will be able to be my disciple.” 

This exchange sounds very much like Jesus defending Mary, his wife, to his disciples and telling them that she is indeed worthy of being his disciple (or not worthy of their criticism, if you read the line’s translation to be “not worthy,” rather than “worthy”)

This is reminiscent of the exchange between Jesus and Peter found in Logion 114 of the Gospel of Thomas:

Simon Peter said to him, "Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven." 

The Greek word used here for male was anthropos, which actually means “perfected human being,” rather than one is who is physically male. (1)

In the Gospel of Philip, which was written in Greek, the term used to describe Mary Magdalene’s relationship to Jesus was koinonos, which means companion, but in the sense of an intimate companion. (2)

“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.” 

It can also mean partner, or associate; a closely related word is koinonia--which is frequently translated as fellowship, but it can also mean mating.

The Gospel of Phillip says, “Jesus loved Mary more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her on her....” The text drops off here and it is not known whether he kissed her on her mouth, her cheek, her forehead, her hand, or another part of her body.

But by these mentions we can tell that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were very close. He loved and respected her very much, and apparently displayed this in front of his disciples at a time when such public displays of affection were fairly scandalous.

The Gospel of Mary tells us that even after his death Jesus continued to visit Mary in vision, to teach her. The disciples knew this, and the Gospel of Mary records a conversational exchange wherein they ask her to tell them what the Savior has taught her. But when she does so the disciples, especially Peter and Andrew, are upset and jealous that he didn’t impart such a valuable teaching to them, but rather to her, a mere woman. 

The apostle Levi (Matthew) comes to her defense saying,

"Peter, you have always been hot-tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That is why He loved her more than us. Rather let us be ashamed and put on the perfect man and acquire him for ourselves as He commanded us, and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said." 

So while the word hime on this papyrus undoubtedly means woman, does it also mean wife, or  female companion, or female spiritual partner? I think a good case can be made for all three. But since no one’s ever likely to find a marriage certificate, we may never know.

And perhaps it doesn’t actually matter. Whether wife, close companion, or spiritual partner, it is clear that Jesus held her in high regard, loved and respected her, and entrusted her with his most special esoteric teachings—at a time when women had no real power in society or spirituality. That fact may tell us all we really need to know.

(1) Leloup, Gospel of Mary Magdalene, 171

(2)  Who's Afraid of Married Jesus  Forbidden Gospels Blogspot

Stained glass window by Stephen Adams, Kilmore Church, Scotland, Isle of Mull