Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Gospel of Mary of Magdala is a work of Gnostic Christianity. Very simplistically, Gnostics believed that the soul was good and anything material, that is, having to do with this world, was flawed. King makes the important point that there were not people who called themselves “Gnostics.” Rather, the term was coined in hindsight as a definition of a philosophy that was declared a heresy by the Catholic Church. King states that Gnosticism was merely Gentile Christianity as opposed to Christianity evolving from Jewish tradition. As a result, it was deemed less important in establishing the early Church.

Regardless, Gnostic ideas are evident in the Gospel of Mary: gender, a quality that exists only in this world, is minimized, and the teaching of Jesus involves only the soul. King makes the argument that the Gospel of Mary has much to teach about the various strains of thought in early Christianity. She maintains that in an era of primarily oral tradition, early Christianity was not a homogenous religion. The Council of Nicaea in the fourth century defined many doctrinal issues for the Church, but up to that point, these topics were still being debated.

King also delves into the role of Mary Magdalene in the early Church, as well as the roles of women in general in preaching the good news. The notion of a woman being an apostle and having a Gospel attributed to her is a rarity. However, even the early Church Fathers referred to Mary Magdalene as “Apostle to the Apostles.” This image of Mary was lost in the Western tradition, although it continued in Eastern Christianity. Yet even in her Gospel, Mary’s authority to witness is called into question because of her gender and the strangeness of the ideas that she conveys. While the text clearly seeks to illustrate that the requirements for evangelization should be based on the quality and faithfulness of the spirit, it is apparent that the writer of this Gospel (King suggests it may have been a woman) was very aware that gender was an issue in the early Church.

As the Church continues to struggle with the role of women, King’s discussion in The Gospel of Mary of Magdala brings valuable insight into how the early Church community faced some of the same concerns.