Friday, September 21, 2012

V. +++ O.G. eXcerpt: KAren King on The GoSpeL of MARy & tHe CUlt of tHe MAGdalenE

As crucial as Karen King’s labor has been on Gnostic studies, she is probably best known for her 2003 book, the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, which created and expanded interest in this text from both scholastic and religious circles. This is very remarkable, since the Gospel of Mary was discovered over a hundred years ago!

The interview spotlighted her research and insights on the Gospel of Mary, but naturally it had to overflow into other nascent Gnostic and Christian ideologies. We also discussed the Gospel of Judas and many other apocryphal texts. No Judeo-Christian manuscript materialized or evolved untouched within the simmering stew of Middle East religiosity after the death of Christ.

King took a less black-and-white approach than the other guests in this book when it came to Gnosticism and Christianity, sharply disagreeing with Birger Pearson and Marvin Meyer in our respective interviews. In her book, What Is Gnosticism?, she even argues that the term “Gnosticism” itself has several flaws and perhaps should be discarded.

To wit, Christianity spread out like a puddle of fluid theological speculation and never rose like a rock-solid institution, as tradition states. The Nag Hammadi library itself is a treatise on dozens of varied and often contradictory creeds. Even the Gospel of Mary, according to King, cannot be pigeonholed into any exact category other than “alternative Christianity.”

From   Voices of Gnosticism Pg. 153:

MC: What is the basic plot of the Gospel of Mary, Professor King?
KK: The beginning, as you know, is lost. That’s unfortunately part of
the text that was marred, so we don’t know how it begins. But when it
opens, Jesus is in the middle of a dialog with his disciples, and they’re
asking him questions and he’s giving them answers. From what we hear
later in the text, it appears that this is a conversation he is having with
the disciples after the resurrection. So we think of it as a post-resurrection
dialog. After the disciples have asked these questions and been
given the answers, Jesus disappears. He goes away and his disciples are
weeping and afraid saying, “What will happen to us, look what happened
to him?” And Mary Magdalene seems to be the only one who’s
not upset. She steps forward and says, “We should turn our thoughts
to the savior and do as he told us,” so Peter then asks her, “Well, since
the savior loves you more than other women, perhaps you could tell us
what he said to you that we don’t know.” And she tells them about the
discussion she had with him in which Jesus told her about the rise of
the soul after death.
When she’s finished, shockingly enough, the disciples object. Andrew
says, “Look, I don’t know about the rest of you, but these are really
strange teachings, and I don’t believe them.” And then Peter comes and
says, “Surely the savior wouldn’t have spoken with a woman, and not us,
and spoken privately with her”. And Mary at this point is very upset
and she’s crying and she says, “Surely you’re not accusing me of having
lied, of having made all this up?” And Levi steps forward and says,
“Peter, we’ve always known that you have been a hot head, and now
we see you contending on the side of the adversaries. Surely the savior
loved her and he must have talked of these things.” And so at the end
of the gospel they all go forth and preach the gospel. But of course we
don’t know what kind of gospel it is that these disciples would preach,
whether they have really understood Jesus’ teaching or not.
MC: And do you believe that the Gospel of Mary represents a schism
between two sides of early Christianity?
KK: I think that really overstates things. Clearly, what we see in Christianity
from the earliest literature we have, which are the letters of Paul,
is that there are controversies among Christians. If you look, for example,
at the Letter to the Galatians, Peter and Paul are already having
a conflict over the question about whether gentiles who accept Jesus
need to be circumcised or not, and whether or not they need to observe
the purity laws of the table. And should we call this a division, a schism
between Peter and Paul? Well, of course, these are the two great founders
of Christianity who are understood as part of the great movement.
What we see in the Gospel of Mary, the question is, is the controversy
there such that it requires us to see a schism there, a real deep divide and
separation into two groups, or even into two different kinds of Christ-
anity, or as some people would say two different religions. I think that’s
probably overstating it, because the issues that are at stake there in the
Gospel of Mary have to do with, how do we understand the teachings
of Jesus? Who really understood the teachings of Jesus? And who is
able to go forth and preach the gospel? And is it possible for women
to understand Jesus’ teachings and to be leaders in the early Christian
movement? Those were issues that were being debated throughout the
first, the second, third, fourth centuries and perhaps, I would say, even
onward to today.
MC: And I’ve always thought that it’s a very curious line when Peter
goes, “If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?” Was he talking
about martyrdom, or why exactly did he say that?
KK: I think it shows one of the early characteristics of the Gospel of
Mary , because in the Gospel of Mark 13, Jesus says, “You will stand before
governors,” and so forth, and “don’t worry about what you will say.”
But the notion there is that the discipleship is the suffering discipleship,
and those Christians who go out and preach the gospel are very likely
to suffer for it, to be beaten, to be thrown in prison, to be killed; and the
disciples are pointing this out and they’re saying, “Look at what happened
to him.” So, yes, I do think that is exactly the issue here, but those
who go out and preach the gospel are really putting their lives instead,
and the disciples are rightly distressed by this. As Christians in the
second century when this gospel was written surely would have been.
MC: And another thing that I always thought was odd is the last thing
we see of our heroine is her weeping. Why do you think that’s the last
thing we see of the main apostle?
KK: Yeah, that always bothers me. Sometimes I think that her grief as a
kind of negative thing is kind of a misunderstanding. Peter has accused
her of lying, and it shows, I suppose, her distress at the division amongst
the apostles because she has been, in some ways, the one who has been
bringing them together and unifying them around the teachings of the
savior, and she is being falsely accused of lying. Other than that, of
course, the last we see of her in the Gospel of John is Mary weeping in
the garden because they’ve taking Jesus. It doesn’t end there, of course,
because then the savior appears to her and she goes and tells the disciples,
“I have seen the Lord.”
MC: And another thing that has always been curious, and you see that
in the Nag Hammadi library, is that a lot of these gospels don’t call him
Jesus, but call him the savior, and of course this falls into the mythicist
case, that he was some kind of Joshua God or some other rising dying
godman. Why do you think a lot of these scriptures refer to him as the
KK: Well, we find a lot of difference in the terminology that’s used to
talk about Jesus. Sometimes he’s called Jesus, Jesus Christ, sometimes
the savior, sometimes the Lord, and I don’t think it’s necessarily tied to
the distinction between seeing Jesus as human and seeing him as divine.
In the Gospel of Mary, calling him the savior is a reference to the role
that he plays, or to call him teacher or rabbi is the same thing again, to
refer to the role he plays rather than calling him by name. We have to
ask ourselves, what are the conventions of calling someone by name?
We find, for example, in the Gospel of Judas that he’s called Jesus, and
in other texts. So it’s not as sharp a distinction as it might be made out
to be. In other words, one needs to look at more than just how Jesus
is addressed in order to understand what the text’s attitude is towards
Christology, to understanding what Jesus was and why he was important.
In reading the church fathers writing against the other Christians
whom they consider to be heretics, who lots of people these days call
Gnostics, in writing against these folks he says that they were docetics.
They believed that Jesus only seemed to have a body. But if we look
at the Nag Hammadi texts, for example, let’s say the Letter of Peter to
Philip , it talks about Jesus coming in the body, and truly suffering and
truly dying. So the question is in some ways, yes, the question of who
Jesus was, but the question of who Jesus was is the question of what it
means to be human.
I think that is central to the debates that early Christians were having.
To be human, does that mean that we are physical bodies and
physical souls, as Tertullian would have it, that the soul was a wholly
corporeal entity? Or is it the case that physical bodies are not our true
selves and at death dissolve back into the rest of the universe? Is the
soul or spirit the incorporeal spiritual entity that will ascend to live with
God? And depending on how they answer that question, this is how
they portrayed Jesus. If he was a soul in a body, then when he died his
body was dead and it was Jesus as God, as the divine part, that would
live for ever, and so would human beings. So, if Jesus rose from the dead
physically, so everybody will, or Christian believers at least will; and in
some texts everybody will raise to eternal life, physically, both the good
and evil. But many of these early Christians didn’t think that. They
thought that what would endure and live forever was the spiritual self,
and therefore it was the spirit that needed to be attended to. So even
in a text like the Letter of Peter to Philip, which argues that he came in
a body, he truly died, he did that to show that the body is not the self,
that the self that rises to be with God is the spiritual self, and it may be
that is the position that the Gospel of Mary takes.
MC: Jane Schaberg likes to point out that she believes that there
was a widespread bona-fide Maryan following in the first and second century.
Do you agree with this?
KK: Well, I think Jane Schaberg’s work is absolutely first rate, and her
book on the resurrection of Mary Magdalene is just superb. And she
really is asking that question about the historical Mary Magdalene. It’s
one that I haven’t really addressed much in my own work, but I think
that the Gospel of Mary shows that there were some Christians who
were following the gospel and took their apostolic authority from Mary.
And that already is very interesting. Whether or not we can talk about
a widespread Maryan following in the first and second centuries, I’m
less clear about. But Mary is portrayed in many of these newly discovered
texts as an important disciple of Jesus, and even as an apostle,
sometimes the favored disciple, that is clear. Can we then say that some
Christians were following her in her name? That’s less clear to me. The
second problem for me in this is: is this notion valid that Christians
were picking a single disciple out to follow, so to speak, that there were
Pauline and Petrine Christians, and so forth. I think we’re in a period,
especially in the first and even in the second century, where Christians
didn’t have the New Testament, they didn’t have all these texts that
we do, and it’s difficult for us to know what they would have called
themselves. We do have Paul saying, “I have the gospel,” and he’s saying
that the gospel is from Jesus Christ. If there were people following
specific disciples by the second century, we have very little evidence of
that. What’s fascinating here is that some people are calling upon Mary
Magdalene as a kind of apostolic authority for the teachings they have,
that have been passed down, and I think that’s very important.
MC: And, moving on to the 800 pound gorilla, why don’t you think
that the Gospel of Mary is Gnostic in character?
KK: Well, see, the answer to that question depends how you define
Gnostic. It’s clear that the term Gnosticism, as such, with the -ism on
the end was not invented until the 18th century. And it’s a term that’s
used to cover a whole set of different kinds of early Christian beliefs
and movements, and so forth, that were basically regarded in the early
church as heretical. I think that the term is not helpful for us, because
it basically is a way of just reiterating that certain of these texts, certain
of these ideas, certain of these groups were wrong, and were the wrong
Christians, and were not even Christians at all. When people argue
that Gnosticism is a non-Christian religion, that may have taken over
or gotten mixed up with Christianity, but it’s fundamentally not Christian,
it’s that position that I oppose. Because I think that what we see
in these early centuries is the formation of Christianity. Already in the
first century we see Christians in conversation, in controversy with each
other about very basic kinds of issues. What do the teachings of Jesus
mean? Who should be in charge? What should be the role of women
and slaves? What does it mean to be saved, what is salvation? What is
the nature of the body and sexuality, and so forth? All these kinds of
issues that are quite frankly very much alive today were hotly debated
in the early church.
In those centuries it wasn’t clear who was going to come out on
top, so to speak. What views—not one single view, what coalition of
views—would become dominant, and which ones would be set aside?
And so, I think that this term Gnosticism already makes it sound like
that’s been settled from the beginning. It doesn’t let us feel the dynamic
of the way in which an early Christianity was formed, and it introduces
a foreign term into the debate by calling the Gospel of Mary Gnostic. So
again it depends on what one means by that. I think that it’s much more
helpful to try to describe what the Gospel of Mary says, and to try to
place that into that matrix of developing early Christianity than to call
it Gnostic and preclude immediately it having anything to contribute
either to the understanding of authentic Christianity in antiquity or to
theological kinds of discussion today.
MC: But Marvin Meyer speaks of several sects that referred to themselves
as the gnōstikoi. You don’t have a problem with these sects falling
under the Gnosticism umbrella
KK: Well, it’s very interesting because in all of the Nag Hammadi literature
we have all other texts that were written by these so-called Gnostics
and they don’t call themselves that. The word gnōstikos does not
appear as a name for the group. They call themselves the true believers,
they call themselves other kinds of things, but they don’t call themselves
Gnostics. That kind of language only comes from opponents who
were writing against them, and Irenaeus, who is a church father writing
in the second century, is the one who talks about the gnōstikoi in his
work Against Heresies, and he mentioned them a couple of times. Interestingly
enough, not all of the groups that contemporary scholars call
Gnostic, but a very specific group, or a very specific set of ideas, and he
contrasts them with the Valentinians. He said that Valentinus took his
ideas from the gnōstikoi. So the Valentinians, for him, would be different
from the sect of the gnōstikoi. Irenaeus also talks about those who
call themselves Gnostics. That’s the one reference we have. We don’t
have Gnostics calling themselves Gnostics, we have their opponents
calling them that, and in this case just Irenaeus. Clement of Alexandria,
who is also writing in this period, second and third century, talks about
people who are calling themselves Gnostics. And then we have three
non-Christian writers, Porphyry, Celsus and Prodikos, who are writing
about people who profess to be Gnostics.
MC: Doesn’t Plotinus reference them as well?
KK: There’s a treatise that Porphyry writes called Against the Gnostics,
and he talks about them up as being a member of the haeresis—a heresy,
a sect—only in the book he wrote, the Life of Plotinus. But then, Clement
of Alexandria calls himself a Gnostic, and talks about the Gnostics
and the church, but he did not mean what contemporary scholars mean
by it, he means himself and his group. So this larger question about
who the Gnostics were in antiquity—did they call themselves that?—I
agree with Bentley Layton that there may have been some of these early
Christians who called themselves gnōstikoi, and then it may be possible
to separate out who they are, and if so then they come very close to the
group we call the Sethians. But again, it wouldn’t be as big an umbrella
term for all of these groups that are labeled Gnostics, and that’s prob-
ably true with Plotinus as well. His ranting Against the Gnostics, people
have argued that it looks like he’s writing against the Sethians.
MC: And what about the Valentinians, would you call the Valentinians
the next step to the Sethians?
KK: It’s quite clear that Valentinus and some of his followers, they’re
Christians, and they have ideas in common with, let’s say, the Apocryphon
of John . They have the fall of Sophia, they have a distinction between
the demiurge who created this world and the true god of Jesus,
and so forth. So there’s lots of important similarities there but of course
there’s lots of important similarities between what Valentinus is teaching
and the Gospel of John as well.
MC: So it’s safe to throw Marcionites, Mandaeans and even Manichaeans
out of the Gnostic world view and into their own denomination
or religion?
KK: Well, I think what we need to do is...

The rest of this interview, as well as other interviews with the greatest experts on Gnosticism and Early Christianity, can be found in  Voices of Gnosticism, available at several retailers and formats that can be located at our Voices of Gnosticism Homepage.  Or you can just download the audio for this specific interview, Aeon Byte #84--The Gospel of Mary.

Also read our other excerpts:

Stevan Davies on The Gospel of Thomas & The Secret Book of John
Bruce Chilton on the Aramaic DNA of Primal Christianity
David Fideler on the Hellenistic DNA of Primal Christianity
Bart Ehrman on the Development of the Christian Canon & Empire
Birger Pearson on the Origins of Gnosticism
John Turner on the Alien Savior and the Sethians
Einar Thomassen on Valentinus and the Valentinians
Jason BeDuhn on Mani and the Manichaeans
Elaine Pagels on Understanding Gnosticism

Karen King is the author of Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (with Elaine Pagels), The Secret Revelation of John, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, What Is Gnosticism? and Revelation of the Unknowable God, as well as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, Massachusetts.

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