(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

A fragmentary copy of the Gospel of Mary dating from the fifth century was discovered in the late 1800’s. It was written in Coptic, a late-stage Egyptian language still used in liturgical services by Egyptian Christians. Two additional Greek fragments of the Gospel of Mary, from the early third century, were discovered in the twentieth century. However, at least half of the original gospel is considered to be still lost. The eight pages of papyrus manuscript that are extant provide a radically different view of Jesus’ teachings and of the role of Mary of Magdala than is presented in the scriptures that constitute the Christian Bible.

In The Gospel of Mary of Magdala, Karen L. King, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Harvard Divinity School, provides a full translation of all the fragments, as well as a history of how the various scrolls were found and eventually published. She then compares the Gospel of Mary to other early Christian writings, including the four New Testament Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and noncanonical gospels, such as the First Apocalypse of James and the Dialogue of the Savior.

The Gospel of Mary contains a post-Resurrection scene in which the risen Jesus imparts special knowledge and then sends the disciples, including Mary, into the world to preach the good news. Knowledge obtained through a vision of the risen Lord was considered to be of the greatest value within the early Church. In the Gospel of Mary, Jesus teaches that the human body ceases to exist at death and that only the soul goes on to experience eternal life. He also describes a God without gender: God is simply called “the Good.” There is no sin and no hell, only inner transformation. Jesus then directs his followers to spread the good news that the path to salvation exists within us.

After Jesus’ departure, the other apostles are frightened and unsure of what to do. At this point the apostle Mary of Magdala comes to the forefront. She encourages the other apostles to be resolute and have faith. Peter then asks her to reveal any special teaching that Jesus may have shared only with her. She then relates the content of a vision she had with the risen Lord. Much of the...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Haskins, Susan. Mary Magdalene: Myth and Metaphor. New York: Riverhead, 1995. A very thorough treatment of Mary Magdalene, exploring how she has been portrayed in art, literature, and history.

Meyer, Marvin, and Esther de Boer. The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary of Magdalene, the Companion of Jesus. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004. An investigation into all the references to Mary Magdalene in early Christian writings, both canonical and Gnostic, in an effort to discover her true role in the early Church.

Publishers Weekly. Review of The Gospel of Mary of Magdala. 250, no. 41 (October 13, 2003): 76. A brief but insightful review that suggests the impact of The Da Vinci Code created interest in both Gnosticism and Mary.

Welborn, Amy. De-coding Mary Magdalene: Truth, Legend, and Lies. Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 2006. A historical analysis of Mary Magdalene that provides an opposing viewpoint, arguing that she has always been viewed as a role model.