The Gospel of Mary
SoF member Wayne Crich reviews The Gospel of Mary of Magdela by Karen King (Polebridge Press 2003).
(Reviewed March 2004)
This is the first book of Karen King’s that I have read and I must say I am impressed by her eye to detail and careful examination of the ancient tests. The book gives a wonderful insight into the early Christian church. I once thought that the study of non-canonical books would be of little help in understanding the Christian faith. Elaine Pagels convinced me otherwise, with her insightful writing on the early church. King has a similar interest in the nature of the early church’s approach to Jesus and the meaning of his life.
King argues in this book that it is only when we look at the range of beliefs expressed by the early church about Jesus that we will fully understand just how fluid and varied the responses of Christians were and how far from any fixed position they were. It is exploring this fuller and richer picture of early Christianity that King sees as one of the key tasks of scholars of the early church.
Mary of Magdela is divided into three sections, the first of which provides a complete translation of all known manuscripts including variant readings. There is no complete record of this gospel, but more than enough remains to paint an interesting picture of both Jesus and his ministry and of the role of women within much of the early church.
The second section outlines the actual teaching contained in the gospel and it should come as no surprise that it does not follow orthodox lines. King explains how the focus is on inner transformation. This occurs not through outward forms of the law but through the inner development of the spirit. Jesus as the Son of Man represents the full potential of humanity and acts as a guide for all to follow in achieving their own inner potential.
The final section of the book puts these ideas into the context of the early church: the role of women and the changes it has undergone, the various stories about Mary and her role and the notion of a Gnostic point of view. In the end King feels that labels such as Gnostic have served to create groups within the early church that, simply put, did not exist. She paints a portrait of complex beliefs that are developing and competing with one another and she sees the various texts as samples of the range of these beliefs.
I really enjoyed this book, partly because of the picture it portrays of the early church but also for the possibilities it opens up. If the early church was all about interpreting the meaning of Jesus, then why cannot we today do the same thing: interpret Jesus for our own age? The Gospel of Mary of Magdela seems to have been copied for a length of time and then for whatever reason was copied no more. Perhaps it was no longer seen as relevant. Now, as orthodoxy as we have known it becomes increasingly unacceptable, perhaps the earliest Christian writings can point the way to the future.
Thank you for yr post. I will try to get hold of this book. I have done a lot of reading across different religions (Judaism, Buddhism, Sufism, Christianity and other spiritual texts - eg, Ruiz & Ruiz, The Fifth Agreement). Noetic Science pulls them all together, it seems, and this SOFIA website was like coming across a whole new library. Yeay.
Posted by Lynn