This Sunday I finish my third series in our adult class on Mary Magdalene, "There's Something About Mary." You can view the powerpoints of the first two classes on the church's web page.
This week we look at the Gospel of Mary. Karen King of Harvard has written an excellent book on this gospel, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle.
The Harvard Gazette published an article about her work, Student of Early Christianities. Before she published her book, she wrote a preview about it and the importance of Mary for understanding Christian origins, Letting Mary Magdalene Speak.
One of the important implications of the discovery and publication of these other texts (such as the Nag Hammadi collection and the discovery of the Gospel of Mary in the 19th century) is that these finds force scholars (as well as the rest of us) to rethink Christian origins. King points out that the "master story" (her phrase) of Christian origins is like the Goldilocks and the Three Bears fable. The Goldilocks story of Christian origins goes like this:
- The apostles had the true teaching.
- Along come the heretics.
- The Jewish Christians had too much Judaism.
- The Gnostics had too little Judaism.
- "Orthodoxy" is "just right."
The writings we have in the canon represent the views of the writers. They are incredibly diverse within themselves (compare Paul and James, for instance). There was no rule of faith, no canon, no scripture. We don't know whose Paul's opponents really were or the opponents of the gospel writers or of the early church fathers except from what we could glean from them. Until now. Now we know some of these early writings in their own words. As King points out, we can see that categories such as gnostic or Jewish Christian were labels by the orthodox to distinguish heretics from the "true believers."
There was no gnostic belief system. There was no gnostic creed. There were different communities attempting to understand and communicate the historical Jesus in their various settings. For example, the Gospel of Mary was written in Egypt, far removed from Judaism and written in the philosophical setting of Plato and the Stoics. The writer of the Gospel of Mary would have thought of herself as Christian. In fact, there are great similarities between GMary and Paul as well as important differences. We won't be able to read and hear them accurately if we read their works through the lens of the Nicene Creed and canon.
What does this mean? For accurate history, and for the future of Christianity,
- I think it means that we ought to look at all of these early writings as early Christian texts.
- We should provide a critique of the "master story" of Christian origins as a theological fiction.
- We should remove false categories of "orthodoxy" and "heresy" when we read these texts.
- As all of the early Christian writers (canonical and non-canonical) sought to understand the Jesus movement in their social/political/philosophical contexts, we can do the same by drawing from the greater pool of early Christian literature to formulate an understanding of the transforming power of the mystery of Jesus in our time.