Wednesday, June 14, 2006

gospel of mary magdalene

Now that I've been out of school for about a month it's time to get back into reading academic stuff. I have three academic goals for the summer (besides my internship, which I guess is technically academic): 1) keep translating Greek & Hebrew each week so I can remember them when I go back to school (so far I've done Mark 1 & 2 and Ruth 1); 2)read a bunch of non-canonical gospels to see what didn't make it into the canon and what else is out there; 3) meet every week or two with my friend who graduated from seminary a couple years ago and discuss a book we're reading together, a staple work in feminist theology called "Sexism & God Talk" by Rosemary Radford Ruether. So I'm really excited about all these goals, and so far I'm doing pretty well, although my friends think I'm a big nerd. Of course they're right.

One of my friends loaned me a translation and commentary on the Gospel of Mary Magdelene (original translation and commentary by Jean-Yves Leloup, English translation by Joseph Rowe, 2002). It's really interesting! You can read the full text here, just scroll down a little ways. It's not very long because the first 6 pages and pages 11-14 are missing from the manuscript. It's called a Gnostic gospel, because it was found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 with other Gnostic texts (although portions were found earlier). There isn't much in the Gospel of Mary as we have it that seems Gnostic as opposed to orthodox Christian, except the part about Jesus treating Mary similarly to how he treated the disciples, imparting new information to her after the resurrection as he did to the disciples in the canonical works. The things she reports Jesus saying to her don't seem out of bounds from orthodox Christianity although she says them in different words, but they seem to fit the teaching of Jesus as well as most things in the canonized Gospels. So there's just that issue of the message coming through a woman that the church couldn't handle by 325 AD, when canonization began to occur.

There's a lot of stir about Mary Magdalene right now because of "The DaVinci Code," and it is an interesting prospect. It seems from some of the non-canonical gospels that there was a very early tradition of Mary Magdalene and Jesus being married, and there are several allusions to Jesus having a special sort of relationship with Mary compared to other women (although they don't all connote a sexual relationship). Mary is recognized by Mark, Matthew and John as the first person to see Jesus resurrected, so why wouldn't he have given her further teaching as he did with the male disciples?

The commentary that I have is amazing and thought-provoking and I'll have to write about it another time, but one of the things that stood out to me from the text of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene itself is this:

There is no sin. It is you who make sin exist, when you act according to the habits of your corrupted nature; this is where sin lies. This is why the Good has come into your midst. It acts together with the elements of your nature so as to reunite it with its roots. (7:15-22)

If you just took the first sentence this would be definite grounds for throwing it out of orthodox Christian circles, but it doesn't stop there. The point isn't that there isn't corruption in the world, but that apart from humans and our actions, sin doesn't exist. It doesn't exist as a concept of itself. This goes a long way in helping us understand the age-old problem of why and how evil can exist in a world created by a wholly good God.

See, in theology there's this problem of sin: where did it come from? Did God create it? If so, God has to have the capacity for evil and can't be totally good. If not, where did it come from? This creates a dualism, because then there are two things that have existed eternally, good and evil. Good could never overcome evil in this kind of dualism, because it would have to overcome another eternal reality. But in this case, sin/evil doesn't exist on its own, but only through our actions. It wasn't created. It's a product of our choices and habits. God created the freedom to choose; we cause evil when we choose to ignore that which is infinite (God or the Good) in place of what is finite (ourselves and the created world, our false securities).

I find this to be really helpful in clarifying what sin is and what our role in it is. Of course it doesn't completely overcome the problems of why bad things happen to good people and all that, but it gives a different perspective that's helpful. It would be interesting if this work had been canonized to see what the theological idea of "sin" would be now.

I don't know if this work should have been canonized or not. I trust that God has the power to get into the canon what is supposed to be there, but I also trust that God can speak through things other than what's been canonized. For me, having grown up a Christian, it's refreshing to read things from the same era with the same characters, but using different words. It's a fun exercise to read the things which weren't canonized and to think about what in them is true and what in them is not. But it's nice to have new thoughts to mull over, because the familiarity of the Bible can cause me to not really read it, only to look at the words and remember the same old stories. The Spirit can still illumine things, yes, but the Spirit can also illumine truths I may have missed reading the same familiar texts.


Lovin' Life Liz said...
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forrest said...

Couple things. You just came over & said howdy on my blog. & I'm wondering if you and friendly skripture study would enhance one another, though I feel like the odd duck on that one at the moment...

Sin, 'problem of evil,' etc. One of those paradoxical nonproblems that truly puzzle us. Two thoughts:

Julian of Norwich. Read much by her?

Ursula Le Guin, specifically _The Lathe of Heaven_. (If that first page looks way too poetical, it is, but you can skip it. She ends up... well much like the old Jewish saying, that you can have justice, or you can have the world continue, but if you insist on the world being ideal, it can't endure. But there's much more than "ending up" there.)

Lorcan said...

I think ... the idea of sin as evil and a separate force, is an innovation in Christianity, brought by the increase of Greek and Roman ideas as Jesus' life was translated and interpreted. The notion of original sin in Judaism, according to a number of writers, Harold Bloom being one of them, is that sin is about acts which separate us. It is very like the notion of sin I was raised to understand in a Hicksite meeting, before we joined with a Wilberite meeting. That we all sin, or have the potential to sin, is not, in this understanding, because we are born to corruption, in the definition of corruption as evil, but that healthy corruption which is part of the consumption of life. To eat a thing, means another has not eaten that, and so we must atone, atone by acts of understanding, planting and sharing, and we are separately called to forgive those who consume or use that which we don't have. These acts of atonement and forgiveness are separate and not dependent on each other.

I think what is canonical often speaks to the growth of a human institution, which came to oppress Yeshua (Jesus') own tribe and likely came to overwrite much of his ministry.

My wife is Catholic. She is also an attorney, born to defend, a sort of American Irish Catholic Horace Rumpole... destined to defend when she first heard the story of Judas. "I new there was something wrong ... it didn't fit, I was sure he was framed." Well, when a nearly complete text of the gospel of Judas was discovered, she was overjoyed, buoyant for weeks. By the way, her comment on my faith is... "No, I don't want to go to meeting, Lor, if I am not doing anything I might as well work!"

All the best,
and adding thee to my links