Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Gospel of Mary: An Assessment of Its Historical Value

Many of us are familiar with the canonical gospels of the life of Christ, but less so with the non-canonical "lost gospels". The Christian canon of Scripture was settled some time ago. These days the question is being revisited: was that question decided appropriately? Were legitimate witnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus excluded? This post will examine the historical value of the Gospel of Mary, both in terms of knowing the history of Jesus and in terms of its own value as an ancient text related to Christianity.

The events recorded in the Gospel of Mary
The Gospel of Mary as we have it survives only in part. The surviving parts relate a conversation between the Savior and several disciples, then a vision of Mary and her comments on the revelation, which occupy much of the text. At the end we have a discussion among Peter, Andrew, Levi, and Mary on how Mary's vision and revelation will be received.

Identifying the people discussed
The named characters in the text that we have are Mary, Andrew, Peter, and Levi. Another main character, the Savior, is not identified by name in the surviving text, though there is no serious doubt that Jesus is intended. The other characters -- Mary, Andrew, Peter, and Levi -- are not introduced in the text that we have; what we know of them is mainly their names. Possibly the missing earlier pages identified the people with more certainty or gave them some background, or possibly the readers are expected to be familiar with these people already.

Identifying the time and place of the events
The text is short of clues for determining the time and place of the conversations and vision recorded. No dates or physical places in this world are mentioned. It is debatable whether a time and place are actually significant for visions, which are typically ahistorical in their focus.

Identifying the culture
One striking feature for readers already familiar with the canonical gospels is the lack of Jewishness of the Gospel of Mary. There is no mention of the names of Abraham or David or Moses, no mention of previous written Scripture or the prophets, nothing of the historical consciousness of the Jewish people that is so familiar from the canonical gospels. There is no mention of towns or cities in Israel, the Temple, the synagogue, the annual feasts, the Jewish priesthood, or anything that would locate the speakers firmly within a Jewish context. There is no mention of dates, places, or events that would locate the speakers in the first century, unless we accept as given from other sources about Jesus that it is enough to name these people, likely already well-known by the time this document came to be written.

There are, to be sure, a few ideas with obvious Jewish references, particularly sin, law, and the Son of Man. Other ideas may be the shared intellectual property of many cultures. The reference to the Jewish concept of law is brief, as the Savior is reported to say early in the surviving text: "See that you do not give any law like the lawgiver lest you be constrained by it." A similar idea is repeated towards the end of the text. It is difficult to be certain whether or not the author(s) of the text had an understanding of the Jewish concept of law. The material on such things is so brief that it is difficult to assess. At any rate, ideas such as sin and law are minor in this text in comparison to the ideas which are more emphasized.

Besides the text's striking lack of Jewish context and culture, some of the sayings of Jesus seem foreign, not only to our expectations based on canonical Scriptures, but foreign to the Jewish mindset. We find the Gospel of Mary's Savior saying, "The nature of matter is resolved into the roots of its nature alone" followed closely by the familiar refrain, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." While on a few occasions the Gospel of Mary presents familiar phrases, there are many phrases which seem out of place not only to those familiar with the canonical gospels, but also with those expecting a phrase at home within Second Temple Judaism. The concern with resolving the nature of matter seems more reminiscent of non-Jewish philosophy. The Gospel of Mary's Savior does not speak of lost sheep and breaking bread, but speaks of philosophical abstractions. The words "God" and "Father" never appear in the surviving text. "Nature" and "matter", "roots" and "forms" play a significant part in the Gospel of Mary. These clues may eventually allow us to identify with more certainty the cultural or intellectual background behind this text. At any rate it seems out of step with first-century Judaism.

The nature of the vision and the revelation
The vision and revelation occupy a good portion of the text we have, though that too is interrupted by missing pages in our best surviving manuscript. We have portrayed a soul's ascent past a series of obstacles. The soul ascends apparently alone and on the way meets hostile powers. An excerpt gives the flavor of the material here: "When the soul had overcome the third power, it went upwards and saw the fourth power, which took seven forms." Here we see a familiar mystical pattern of assigning exact, typically symbolic, numbers to the metaphysical abstractions or spiritual manifestations being discussed. Along the way, the soul meets foes such as the Power of Ignorance and the Power of Wrath, which are overcome by the pilgrim soul, alone, by means of a wise answer. After passing the final obstacle on the pilgrim way, at the end of the journey, the soul was "released from a world, and in a type from a heavenly type, and from the fetter of oblivion which is transient. From this time on will I attain to the rest of the time, of the season, of the aeon, in silence."

Again, this may take an adjustment for those accustomed to visions from a Jewish or first century Jewish-Christian context. At the end of the journey here, the soul finds no vision of God, nor of the world restored, nor of paradise, nor of a restored Temple. The soul hears no voice from God and has not even an angel for a companion. The consummation of the vision is apparently an aeon of silence. Again, comparative studies may eventually allow us to locate the cultural or religious background in which a mystical vision would climax in an aeon of silence.

The drama
The most interesting point of the Gospel of Mary is not so much the words of Jesus which are frequently of stock philosophical material though not of Jewish stock, nor the vision, which again seems of conventional material. The most interesting point is the confrontation which ensues when Mary has delivered this material to the disciples.

The first to speak is Andrew. "Say what you wish to say about what she has said, I at least do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are strange ideas." Andrew responds that these ideas are strange; but where would the Gospel of Mary's Andrew get an idea of what is strange? Unless the early missing pages turn up, we may not know the basis for his statement. But if he is meant more as an "everyman", then possibly these ideas were considered strange compared with the things Jesus was known to have taught from other sources. At any rate, regardless of how Andrew's comments are to be taken, there is at least a kernel of accuracy there: the ideas revealed by the Gospel of Mary's Savior are by and large unJewish, foreign concerns from a Savior now transplanted to foreign lands. Andrew's words go largely unnoticed because at that moment, someone else says something truly asinine.

The next to speak is Peter. "Did he really speak with a woman without our knowledge and not openly? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?" At this Mary, predictably, dissolves into tears, making a brief speech of the "Don't you believe me?" variety.

The last to speak is Levi. "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. This 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."

The drama is nicely done. The Gospel of Mary's Peter had it coming: his inexcusable rudeness and appalling pettiness is soundly put down by Levi, the damsel in distress is defended, and they all proclaim the gospel boldly ever after.

The Gospel of Mary and the Historical Jesus
The Gospel of Mary portrays the Savior as a philosopher interested in the abstract, one without Jewish context. There is a tendency throughout the Gospel of Mary to the abstract. Not only is Jesus interested in the abstract of resolving the roots of nature, but Jesus himself is abstracted. He is no longer Jesus from the town of Nazareth. In the surviving text, he has no ties to "Jesus" or "Nazareth", he is simply -- and abstractly -- the Savior. Unfortunately, we will not gain any fresh insights into Jesus of Nazareth from the surviving text as we have it.

The Gospel of Mary and Early Christianity
Fortunately, the Gospel of Mary is not without historical value. It shows us an early stage in the formation of Christianity in which Christ was first transplanted into foreign cultures. Here Jesus has no Jewish context, and makes himself understood in a foreign land with foreign ideas. We see Jesus at a stage when his Jewishness may have been viewed with suspicion by other nations, not always at peace with the Jews. In comparing this text to other gospels, we see a struggle over the identity of Jesus at a time when religion often went hand-in-hand with ethnic identity. Was it possible for a non-Jew to have a Jewish savior? In this text, at this stage in the battle over the identity of Jesus, Jesus has almost entirely lost his Jewish identity.

It would be tempting to comment on the battle of the sexes in the Gospel of Mary, but that aspect has already been thoroughly discussed. I will say this: the battle of the sexes is probably the most human part of the Gospel of Mary, which otherwise tends to dwell in a world of abstractions. Without Peter acting the part of the insensitive macho, Andrew's objections might well have stood, and the whole Gospel of Mary might have been lost to us.


Tony-Allen said...

After reading this I went to read the gospel for myself, courtesy of Ancient Christian writings:

It's listed under the gnostic gospels, which seems accurate with the tale of Mary proclaiming a hidden truth kept secret from everyone else, saying, "What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you." It's fascinating to read, but I don't know if I can take it seriously.

Weekend Fisher said...

I'm with you there as far as the historical Jesus goes, or even whether any of the named characters were actually involved. But I wanted to pinpoint exactly what "felt wrong" about it, and it turned out to be the lack of Jewish cultural background, the presence of a non-Jewish philosophical background, the fondness for abstractions, and that even the vision had a flavor that made me relatively certain that a first-century Jew would have had a different vision. All of which boils down to that your instincts are right, I wouldn't take it seriously for information about Jesus or Mary, Peter, Andrew, and Levi.

But I think it shows that the early non-Jewish portion of the church struggled with Jesus' Jewishness at least as much as the early Jewish portion of the church struggled with the Gentiles non-Jewishness.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

SeekWisdom said...

Dear Weekend Fisher:

Just stopped by here to say I'm not "avoiding" you, but busy - probably for a while.

And especially to say, I googled "SeekWisdom" - and I'm not those other people also posting as "seek wisdom." Apparently this is a somewhat popular "nickname" I've found. The only "me" - pretty much - is the one whose posts come up here - if you google. I "disown" all those other posts - they're not me!

Peace to you and to your work.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Seeker

Hope all is well.

I'm not surprised on the "seekwisdom" thing. I'm not even the only "WeekendFisher", though as far as I can tell the others talk about fishing ... ;)

Take care & God bless -- & don't work too hard.
Anne / WF