A Book Review of Karen King's
The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle
(Polebridge Press, 2003)
by Jasmine Landry

About the Author

Karen L. King is the Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard University's Divinity School. Prior to this position, she was a professor of New Testament Studies and the History of Ancient Christianity. Her teaching and research specialties are the history of Christianity and women's studies, with special emphasis placed on religious identity formation, discourses of normativity (orthodoxy and heresy), and gender studies. She is a member of the International Association for Coptic Studies, among other groups. She received her BA from the University of Montana and her PhD from Brown University. Along with many articles, King has written four other books: Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism (ed.) (Fortress Press, 1988); A Revelation of the Unknowable God, with Text, Translation, and Notes to NHC XI,3 Allogenes (Polebridge Press,1995); Women and Goddess Traditions: In Antiquity and Today (ed.) (Fortress Press, 1997); and What is Gnosticism? (Belknap Press, 2003).

Part I: The Gospel of Mary

Part I gives a historical introduction to the text, a synopsis of the text, the text in translation, and a brief discussion of its structure.

Chapter One: Introduction
King's introduction describes the discovery and publication of the Gospel of Mary from the Berlin Codex and two third-century papyrus fragments. King also summarizes the gospel's plot: The Savior answers a question about the nature of sin, commissions the disciples to preach the gospel, and leaves. The disciples are fearful, Mary of Magdala comforts them, and (at Peter's request) relates previously unknown teachings she received from the Savior in a vision. Mary's teaching describes the ascent of the soul past malicious powers. Andrew and Peter then challenge her teaching and her character. Levi comes to Mary's defense, admonishes all the disciples and reiterates the Savior's command to go out and preach.

Chapter Two: Translation & Text
King notably translates "kingdom" as "realm," and "Son of Man" as "child of true Humanity." She acknowledges and explains her choices in chapter three (p. 33). Where there are multiple versions of the Gospel of Mary, the translation appears in parallel columns -- one for the Berlin Codex and one for the papyrus source. This facilitates comparison of the different documents. Pages 20-27 are photographs of the Gospel of Mary's Berlin Codex pages.

Chapter Three: Gospel, Revelation, Dialogue
Due to six missing manuscript pages, King points out that we are ignorant of how the Gospel of Mary actually begins. We do know that the work depicts a post-resurrection scene, which was a common setting for special teaching in early Christian writings. King describes the structure of the work: a series of dialogues and departures.

Part II: The Savior's Teaching in the Gospel of Mary

Part II contains the bulk of Karen King's interpretation and exegesis of the text. She organizes it by topic -- one per chapter.

Chapter Four: The Body & the World
"The Savior teaches that at death, the human body dissolves into the elements out of which it came; only the spiritual soul is immortal and lives forever." This soul is non-gendered -- neither male nor female, "but simply Human in accordance with the divine Image of the transcendent Good." Ultimately, the soul ascends to the Divine Realm to reside with the Good God. The Gospel of Mary has interpreted Jesus' words in a gentile, philosophical (Platonist and Stoic) context.

Chapter Five: Sin, Judgment, & Law
People produce sin by pursuing desires of their material selves instead of nurturing their spiritual selves. The Savior equates this sinful mixing of material and spiritual to adultery. Before departing, the Savior charges his disciples, "Do not lay down any rule beyond what I determined for you, nor promulgate law like the lawgiver, or else you might be dominated by it" (GMary 4:9-10). In its Gentile context, the Gospel of Mary shows a distrust of moral law systems because they can be abused as power structures. Spiritual advancement must come from within.

Chapter Six: The Son of Man
"In the Gospel of Mary, the 'Son of Man' is the child of true Humanity, the Image of the Divine Realm that exists within every person." The Gospel of Mary rejects apocalyptic eschatology: "the Son of Man is not the Savior Jesus, but the true self within." King supports this gender-neutral translation by reminding readers that in this text, God is never called Father, but only the (grammatically neuter) Good.

Chapter Seven: Vision & Mind
In her reported dialogue, Mary tells the Savior she had seen a vision of him. "Blessed are you for not wavering at seeing me. For where the mind is, there is treasure," the Savior responds (7:3-4). Mary asks whether one sees a vision with soul or spirit. The Savior describes the "tripartite composition of the true inner self": mind conveying vision, and mediating between spirit and soul. King then compares this description with Tertullian's A Treatise on the Soul (De anima). King also maintains that only spiritually advanced souls (such as Mary) have visions.

Chapter Eight: The Rise of the Soul
After four additional missing pages, "Mary is recounting the Savior's revelation about the soul's encounters with four Powers who seek to keep it bound to the world below." King examines each Power and how the soul overcomes it with wisdom. The missing pages must have included the soul's encounter with the first Power (probably named Darkness). The second Power is Desire, and the third is Ignorance. The fourth Power has seven forms, called the seven Powers of Wrath. After overcoming all four, the soul "finds rest in perfect silence." For comparison purposes, King then describes the soul's trials after death in the Apocalypse of Paul (based on 2 Corinthians 12:1-4), the Hermetic corpus, and the First Apocalypse of James. King concludes this chapter by interpreting the soul's ascent as a political allegory for overcoming unjust power and persecution, which can separate the soul from God.

Chapter Nine: Controversy over Mary's Teaching
King opens this chapter by recounting the controversy that follows Mary's teaching in the text. The text sides with Mary and Levi against Peter and Andrew, but King asks why the authors would question Mary's authority at all. Modern commentators, she relates, suggest the scene reflects real conflicts in which Peter and Mary represent different groups in early Christianity. King points out that the Gospel of Mary questions authority based only on claims of having been the Savior's disciple since some of the disciples clearly did not understand his message. However, Mary is portrayed as a model disciple, spiritually mature, wise, and steadfast. The text proposes that authority should be based on a preacher's spiritual character.

According to King, two issues concern the author of the Gospel of Mary, 1) rejection of teachings based on prophecy or private revelation, and 2) gender. The crux of the defense against the first issue is Mary's impeccable character and special intimacy with the Savior -- Levi states the Savior loved Mary more than the others. The second issue's defense is that gender distinctions exist only in the material world, so authority should be based only on spiritual maturity. "The Gospel of Mary takes two very strong positions concerning the basis of authority: that spiritual maturity, demonstrated by prophetic experience and steadfastness of mind, is more reliable than mere apostolic lineage in interpreting apostolic tradition, and that the basis for leadership should be spiritual maturity not a person's sex."

Part III: The Gospel of Mary in Early Christianity

Part III almost provides a crash course in early Christianity, giving broader, more comprehensive historical context to the Gospel of Mary. Chapter Eleven and Twelve offer comparisons of the Gospel of Mary to texts in the Christian canon.

Chapter Ten: The Jesus Tradition
This chapter begins by reiterating that the Gospel of Mary was written before the establishment of the canon. King explains that sayings of and stories about Jesus were passed on orally in the years closest to Jesus' actual ministry. King then undertakes a source criticism of the Gospel of Mary, comparing lines in the text to lines in other Christian texts. She finds thematic connections among the Gospel of Thomas, Dialogue of the Savior, and the Gospel of Mary. The chapter has an appendix that offers the criteria for determining literary dependence among texts. These criteria are exemplified with the beatitudes found in Matthew and Luke. King ends the chapter by summarizing her conclusions. Her most important conclusion is that no specifically redactional material from any known work is evident in the Gospel of Mary. It is unlikely that Mary was among the earliest Christian works, although there is evidence that its author was aware of other early Christian interpretations of the Jesus tradition.

Chapter Eleven: Paul
King responds to Ann Pasquier, who has found close connections between Romans 7 and the Gospel of Mary 3-4. Pasquier argues that Mary has transformed Paul's attempt to understand the value of Jewish law in the face of Christ's redemptive death and resurrection by placing his discussion within a cosmological setting, which alters Paul's' message considerably. King thinks it is not clear that the author of the Gospel of Mary consciously took this passage from Paul to transform its message. However, King wonders how the two works together would affect their meanings and impact. King then highlights key similarities and differences between Paul and the Gospel of Mary. The chapter ends with a discussion of death, immortality, suffering, and martyrdom.

Chapter Twelve: The Gospel of John
Intertextual relations between the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Mary are examined due to the roles given to Mary of Magdala. In his farewell discourse (John 14-16), Jesus comforts the disciples like Mary does in the Gospel of Mary. Both gospels also affirm that Mary saw the Lord and gave special revelation to the other disciples. However, John subordinates Mary's authority by "limiting her commission to bear witness only to the other disciples." The chapter ends by examining ancient archetypal patterns for recognizing a hero by his wounds.

Chapter Thirteen: The Apostles
This chapter offers information about the four named characters in the Gospel of Mary, Levi, Andrew, Peter, and Mary of Magdala. King pulls information from many early Christian sources, providing the best composites she can. Her description of Mary is understandably the longest and most in depth. Along with compiling information about Mary from various sources, King discusses female sexuality and the practice of discrediting women with accusations of impurity. She outlines how the portrayal of Mary historically shifted from that of a devoted disciple (accurate) to one of a reformed prostitute (inaccurate).

Chapter Fourteen: The History of Christianity
The point of this chapter is to caution readers about terminology. King emphasizes that in antiquity, there was no religion called "Gnosticism." These typologies were established in hindsight and can be limiting because "the enormous theological variety of literature classified as Gnostic gets harmonized into an overly simplified and distorting monolithic ideology." King describes the most widespread view of early Christian beginnings as "the master story," that implies a unified, pure church surrounding Jesus' ministry. King asserts that "the early churches were diverse communities in which difficult choices were made, compromises formed, and persuasion exerted." The chapter re-examines the conflict in Mary and the real-world conflicts could it have represented. It discusses the problem of "true" and "false" prophecy in early churches. It explains different roles women played in early Christian communities. In conclusion, King writes, "The historical importance of the Gospel of Mary lies in letting us see the contours of some crucial debates over the authority of apostolic tradition, prophetic experience, and women's leadership."

An analysis

Weaknesses in the book

  1. Repetition. King reiterated that salvation in the Gospel of Mary comes from nurturing and following the "child of true Humanity" within oneself over and over again. Additionally, the assertion that Mary was an ideal disciple who deserves authority based on her spiritual maturity came again and again. While I realize these points are critical, I read them so often that I was annoyed.
  2. Over-extension. In Part II of her book, King performs in depth exegesis and interpretation of the Gospel of Mary. While her interpretations are valid, she asserts them with too much confidence. It is possible the Gospel of Mary taught and supported the things King suggests, but it is far from certain. After all, the original intentions and understandings of the canonic gospels are uncertain, even though they are larger works with centuries of study to their credit. In chapter ten, King does say, "We can never be sure precisely what the author knew or intended," but this should've been noted in Part II.
  3. Personal beliefs. I got the feeling that King was describing a theology that she herself could embrace. While I certainly don't think she concocted any elements, I think she was reluctant to find faults -- especially gender bias -- in the Gospel of Mary itself. Mary is not chauvinist or misogynistic, but I'm not sure it's as feminist as King interprets it. Some of the ideas King found in Mary, are ideas I read in my Feminist Theology seminar. I don't know from where these ideas came. It is possible that feminist theologians found them in the text and subsequently embraced them; it is also possible that feminist theologians developed this theology and anachronistically found it in the text.

Strengths in the book

  1. Comprehensiveness. The numerous references to and comparisons with other Christian texts give King's work an impressive breadth. Her knowledge is expansive and her expertise convincing. Not only are her tie-ins interesting, they allow the reader to see the author's thought process concerning various facets of the Gospel of Mary.
  2. Self-awareness. King addressed her unconventional translations of "kingdom of heaven" and "Son of Man" head on. Her scholarship is honest. I never got the sense that King was trying to "pull the wool over my eyes" or force her beliefs on to me.