Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Gospel of Mary: Setting expectations on its authors' terms

This continues the review of various documents both inside and outside the Bible in order to look at the author's point of view and message based on their presentation of material. 

The Gospel of Mary -- in the surviving portions that are known to us at this point -- is the shortest of the documents being reviewed. The document comes down to us in such a fragmented form that I'd urge some reserve about drawing too many conclusions from such partial information. The material seems to have been divided into nine chapters, some of which are currently lost to us. Based on the chapter divisions used in the remaining text, it is likely that the remaining text represents not quite half the material in the original document. This post will review the material that we have, while acknowledging that we cannot be sure if the remaining material is a fair representation of the whole. Because of the relatively small amount of remaining text, there's both an ability and almost an obligation to go into more depth than I have in the longer documents available to us, and to take a fairly close look at what we have left. I've kept myself here to what will not exceed the fair length for a blog post.

Analyzing a Document's Contents : The Gospel of Mary

The remaining text in the Gospel of Mary is in three sections which I'll refer to as the Savior's farewell conversation, Mary's vision, and the argument among the brethren*.

The Savior's farewell conversation

The Gospel of Mary begins as a fragment in the middle of a conversation; we do not know whether the time and place were introduced in missing portions of the document, or whether the speakers were introduced. The speakers in this early conversation are called the Savior (never named in the surviving text) and Peter. Other people are presumed to be present at the conversation based on Peter's use of the phrase "tell us" and based on later parts of the document. The conversation is structured so that "the Savior" is teaching and others are listening, or in Peter's case asking questions. Some of the sayings attributed to the Savior are known to us from Jesus' sayings in the Biblical gospels, such as "He who has ears to hear, let him hear". Other than such calls to pay attention and think, at times the words of the unnamed Savior seem fairly philosophical, such as "All nature, all formations, all creatures exist in and with one another, and they will be resolved again into their own roots. For the nature of matter is resolved into the roots of its own nature alone." At the end of this section (chapter 4), having told them to go preach the gospel, the Savior leaves.

Mary's vision

After the Savior leaves, those left behind are distressed, and we first hear from Mary. This is generally taken to be Mary Magdalene, though the surviving text never explicitly says so. She takes a leading role in reassuring those who remain, and in directing their thoughts back to Jesus. Peter asks what Mary may remember that the Savior said, and Mary immediately begins to recount a vision.
And she began to speak to them these words: I, she said, I saw the Lord in a vision and I said to Him, Lord I saw you today in a vision.
The vision begins with a conversation between Mary and the Savior (who remains unnamed). Very soon after this begins, there are several missing pages. The material after the missing pages seems consistent with the themes introduced before the lost pages, so I'm here using the working premise that it is a continuation of the same vision. If the missing pages come to light, we could gain more certainty whether that's the case. After the missing pages, the material is still presented as a conversation, now taking on an ethereal character with speakers being identified as "desire", "the soul", "the third power, which is called ignorance", and "the fourth power, which took seven forms". The visionary conversation seems arranged around a series of spiritual obstacles, in which "the soul" handles itself well in conversation, advances through hostile powers by answering wisely, and emerges victorious: 
"What binds me has been slain, and what turns me about has been overcome, and my desire has been ended, and ignorance has died. In an aeon I was released from a world, and in a Type from a 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."
The argument among the brethren

At the conclusion of this vision, an argument follows whether they should really believe this vision as being an authentic message from the Savior. Some people speak that we have not heard to this point: Andrew and Levi, in addition to Peter and Mary. From a reader's point-of-view, I find this the part of the document with the most human interest. We have Andrew raising a reasoned point:
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.
We have Peter completely undercutting Andrew's reasonableness by being a hotheaded chauvinist with undertones of jealousy: 
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?
We have Mary playing the weepy female, sad at being disbelieved: 
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 Savior?
And we have Levi as the final word of that conversation:  

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 separate as He commanded us and preach the gospel, not laying down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said.

The material concludes with them going forth to preach.

The Gospel of Mary - What is the main focus?

Again, we know that the information we have is not the whole, so we will draw what conclusions we can while staying mindful that our knowledge of this will grow if the missing portions come to light. 

The surviving material that references the Savior in his earthly form comprises a single conversation; it's possible there was more material on the Savior in his earthly form in the earlier lost chapters 1-3. The Savior - presumably Jesus - does not appear in his earthly form in the surviving text after chapter 4, while the document seems to end at chapter 9. Based on what we have, the Savior is not the main focus of this document. More than that, based on the chapter divisions in the Savior's last appearance in chapter 4 out if 9, it seems likely the Savior was not precisely the main focus in the original full-length document either.

Much of the document is devoted to Mary's vision. Here we see Mary presenting things not known to his closest followers who had listened to him teach. We also see Mary presenting things that Mary herself had not heard while the Savior was with them in person; she presents things heard in a vision. 

The final chapter presents an argument among the brethren about whether to accept the legitimacy of these things. It advocates for the legitimacy of teaching things in the Savior's name that nobody heard from the Savior directly, things that were heard in a vision rather than during his time on earth. 

I'm interested in the repeated warning -- mentioned both in the Savior's farewell and when the brethren set out to preach -- not to lay down any other rule or other law beyond what the Savior said. I'd be interested what we know about the date of original writing to see if there was a discoverable reference there.

The Gospel of Mary stands in contrast to some documents we have reviewed, though there is a chance the missing sections might have contained material that would give a different overall context to the parts that remain. In those parts: 
  • almost all the action consists of conversations
  • we do not see the name "Jesus" but we hear from "the Savior"
  • times and places have not been recorded
  • much of the action takes place in a vision with speakers who are fairly symbolic such as "desire" and "ignorance". 
Because of that abstraction, I find myself wondering to what extent "Peter" here is meant literally and to what extent he becomes a personification of the established narrative about Jesus, specifically the narrative about Jesus that insists on being anchored to / tethered by things he was known to have said in person while he walked this earth. If that's the case, then "Mary" also may shade over into a personification of the visionaries and alternative interpretations where all see the Savior in their own way, separate from Jesus as he was known by specific people in a specific place and time.

* "Brethren" - the translation that I am using identifies the group as "brethren". In keeping with the general method of seeing each document from its own point-of-view, I'm not introducing the word "disciples" or "apostles" for the group, for consistency with the document's point-of-view.