Search SBL

SBL Forum Archive
<< Return to SBL Forum Archive Mary of Magdala in Early Christian Coptic Literature

Our knowledge of early Christian traditions about Mary of Magdala has been substantially expanded in the modern period by the discovery of works preserved in ancient Coptic manuscripts. The earliest find was a fourth-century parchment codex containing the Pistis Sophia, which was purchased by A. Askew in 1772 (Codex Askewianis). It presents extensive dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, including Mary of Magdala. In 1896, another important work appeared on the antiquities market in Cairo and was taken to Berlin (Codex Berolinensis 8502). It was a fifth-century papyrus codex in which two works with traditions about Mary were inscribed: The Gospel of Mary and The Sophia of Jesus Christ. The most extensive recovery of early Christian Coptic literature, however, was the find near Nag Hammadi in 1945, containing several works that mention Mary: The Gospel of Thomas, First Apocalypse of James, Dialogue of the Savior, The Gospel of Philip, and a second copy of The Sophia of Jesus Christ. Two of these new works have been supplemented by finds of early third-century fragments in Greek of The Gospel of Mary and The Gospel of Thomas.

Several excellent studies of the figure of Mary Magdalene in this literature have appeared, notably those by Antti Marjanen and Erika Mohri. Other studies on related topics have also been illuminating, especially those by Judith Hartenstein, Silke Petersen, Ann Brock, and the collection edited by F. Stanley Jones, as well as my own study of The Gospel of Mary of Magdala. Among the many recent volumes focused more generally on Mary of Magdala, the books of Esther DeBoer and Jane Schaberg include extensive consideration of this literature.

What have we learned from this newly recovered literature about Mary of Magdala? We surely don't need it to prove that the portrait of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute is pure fiction. It is already clear without turning to this literature that no evidence supports this portrait, either inside or outside of the New Testament canon, as Schaberg has charted so clearly. But the new finds can help us understand better why such a portrait may have been invented. The effect was twofold: to undermine appeal to Mary of Magdala as a warrant for women's leadership, and to undermine the theological positions being promulgated under her name and her apostolic authority.

We know that women's leadership was hotly debated in the early church. The newly discovered texts confirm that this controversy was widespread in the first three centuries, but they tend to offer examples that affirmed leading roles for women. Women, for example, were explicitly included in the commission to preach the gospel. In The Sophia of Jesus Christ, the risen Savior commissions seven women along with twelve men to go forth as apostles to preach the gospel (SoJsChr III 119:4-6; BG 126:12-15), and in The Gospel of Mary, the commission to preach apparently included at least one woman, Mary of Magdala. In First Apocalypse of James 40:22-26, the Savior advises James to turn to Salome, Mary, Martha, and Arsinoe for instruction, signaling that women could legitimately instruct men. This mysterious command tells us nothing about what it is James can expect to learn from the women, but even this brief mention of Mary shows a high regard for her spiritual understanding, along with that of three other women disciples. In The Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene takes over the role of the Savior at his departure and offers special teaching to other apostles, including men. Women, especially Mary, are frequently portrayed as prominent disciples of Jesus, asking questions and responding to teaching. In the Gospel of Thomas, for example, Mary questions Jesus and is one of only five disciples specifically named (logion 21).

In a second-century writing, Dialogue of the Savior, Mary again appears as a prominent disciple and is the only woman named. Moreover, in response to a particularly insightful question, the Lord says of her, "You make clear the abundance of the revealer!" (DSav140:17-19). At another point after Mary has spoken, the narrator confirms, "She uttered this as a woman who had understood completely" (DSav 139:11-13). In the third-century text Pistis Sophia, Mary again appears to be preeminent among the disciples, especially in the first three of the four books. She asks more questions than all the rest of the disciples together, and the Savior acknowledges that: "You are she whose heart is more directed to the Kingdom of Heaven than all your brothers" (PistSoph 26:17-20; see also 199:20-200:3; 232:26-233:2; 328:18-19; 339:8-9). Indeed, Mary steps in when the other disciples are in despair and intercedes with the Savior for them (PistSoph 218:10-219:2218:10-219:2). Her complete spiritual comprehension is repeatedly stressed. Other narratives contain little dialogue but still portray Mary as a prominent disciple. In the Gospel of Philip, for example, Mary Magdalene is explicitly mentioned as one of three Marys: "There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and (the) Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. For Mary is his sister and his mother and his companion" (GPhil 59:6-11). Mary of Magdala in particular appears in the role of eminent disciple of Jesus and as "an apostle to the apostles." This literature therefore confirms the suspicion that Mary of Magdala was a central figure around whom controversy over women's leadership swirled. Remaking her into a prostitute would therefore have had the effect of undermining appeal to her as a warrant for women's leadership, as several scholars have argued.

But the new literature lets us see that more was involved in her makeover than gender politics alone. In every case, the new literature associates Mary of Magdala with teaching that would later be deemed heretical. Some texts appeal to her as the apostolic guarantor of their teaching, much as other early works are attributed to Peter, Paul, or Thomas. In other cases, she merely appears as one among a set of Jesus' disciples who are given special teaching and are commissioned to preach the gospel. But while the theological positions of these works vary considerably and rarely show any direct literary connections with each other—and hence they cannot helpfully be subsumed under a single category like "Gnosticism" —none of these early works fit comfortably into the fourth-century Nicene definition of Christian orthodoxy. Hence it is very likely that slandering Mary's character by depicting her as a prostitute—however repentant—worked simultaneously to undermine the theological positions that were being purveyed under her name, presumably with her as their apostolic guarantor.

Moreover, the new literature supports the view that the invention of Mary of Magdala as a prostitute came relatively late historically, probably in the fourth-sixth centuries CE. No evidence of this position can be found here, even to refute it. On the other hand, the literature does show that the tradition of a special relationship between Jesus and Mary was early, and considerable evidence points to it as the source of controversy. The jealousy and antagonism of the other disciples, especially Peter, is repeatedly raised. In GPhil 63:33-64:9, Jesus is kissing Mary Magdalene and the disciples ask Jesus why he loves Mary more than them. In the Gospel of Mary, Peter affirms that the Savior loved her "more than other women," but he refuses to believe that he loved her more than the male disciples. He and Andrew challenge Mary's teaching, charging her with inventing stories claiming that the Lord had given her special teaching withheld from the others. Levi defends her, pointing out that Peter is angry and jealous merely because in fact the Savior did love her more than them. In the Gospel of Thomas, no special relationship between Jesus and Mary is presented, but Peter tries to exclude Mary from their group claiming that "women are not worthy of the life." Jesus rebukes him, saying that he will "make her male" and she will be able to enter the kingdom.

In the Pistis Sophia, Mary is the one to complain, telling the Savior that she is frightened because Peter has been threatening the women. Again the Lord affirms her right to speak and interpret his teachings. Ann Brock has shown that this controversy extends deep into the earliest Christian writings, but here the trope of Mary and Peter in conflict consistently confirms the right of women disciples to speak and even to teach the male apostles. Thus in this literature, the theme of a special relationship between Jesus and Mary is frequently tied to stories about contentions among the disciples and especially the issue of women's place in the group. These texts tend to be ascetic, so the special relationship of Jesus and Mary is generally depicted as spiritual. Moreover, while we already knew that women's leadership was a contested issue in early Christian communities, the newly discovered literature lets us see more of the arguments in favor of the position that generally lost out. The Gospel of Mary in particular argues that women and men should exercise leadership based on their spiritual development not their gender identity. It suggests that the motivation for opposing women's leadership is jealousy and ignorance.

That the figure of Mary Magdalene was frequently at the center of literary portrayals of this controversy may be an indication of the historical role she actually played both as a favored disciple of Jesus and as a leader in the early Christian movement. However historians may judge the evidence, as with the other apostles, the legends about her grew to vast proportions well beyond anything that she may have done as an historical figure, such as speculating about the sexual nature of her relationship to Jesus, making her into a repentant prostitute, or inventing her extensive adventures in France, etc.

Moreover, because Mary Magdalene increasingly figures in feminist arguments supporting women's leadership in our own day, it is important to emphasize that not all of the texts that portray Mary as a prominent disciple of Jesus give a correspondingly high valuation to femininity or to women generally. For example, The Dialogue of the Savior praises Mary "as a woman who had understood completely" (139:12-15), yet it also admonishes readers to "destroy the works of womanhood," taking an ascetic position that identifies the feminine with sexuality and procreation (DSav 144:15-22). Similarly, however one interprets Jesus' suggestion that women can be saved by "becoming male," his statement hardly sounds like an argument for women's equality or women's leadership. Even in the case of The Gospel of Mary, which does promote women's leadership, its theology is based on a rejection of the body and sexual identity as factors important to human selfhood—positions which many feminists would find seriously problematic.

Much of what the new literature tells us confirms points that we already knew or at least suspected: that Mary was not a prostitute but an important disciple of Jesus and that she was a central figure (whether historical or literary) in the controversy over women's leadership. But it does offer new insights as well. We can understand better how the portrait of her as a prostitute not only undermined women's claims to apostolic authority, but also functioned as a tool in the battles of orthodoxy and heresy. The tradition that Jesus and Mary had a special relationship is shown to be quite early, and moreover was often connected to the theme of conflict among the disciples. More generally, these works let us see more of the dynamic diversity of early Christianity and frequently they let us hear alternative voices that have been marginalized in the tradition. Thus they merit our careful analysis and critical-constructive engagement.

Karen L. King is an SBL member and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History, The Divinity School, Harvard University.


Brock, Anne Graham. "Setting the Record Straight—The Politics of Identification: Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother in Pistis Sophia" in Which Mary? op. cit., pp. 43-52.

Brock, Anne Graham. Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority. Harvard Theological Studies 51. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Hartenstein, Judith. Die zweite Lehre. Erscheinungen des Auferstandenen als Rahmenerzählung frühchristlicher Dialoge. Texte und Untersuchungen. Akademie Verlag, 1998.

Jones, F. Stanley (ed.). Which Mary? The Marys of Early Christian Tradition. SBL Symposium Series 20. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.

King, Karen L. The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, forthcoming November, 2003.

King, Karen L. What is Gnosticism? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Marjanan, Antti. The Woman Jesus Loved. Mary Magdalene in the Nag Hammadi Library and Related Documents. Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies XL. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996.

Mohri, Erika. Maria Magdalena: Frauenbilder in Evangelientexten des 1. bis 3. Jahrhunderts. Marburger theologische Studien 63. Marburg: Elwert, 2000.

Petersen, Silke. 'Zerstört die Werke der Wieblichkeit!' Maria Magdalena, Salome und andere Jüngerinnen Jesu in christlich-gnostischen Schriften. Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies 48. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her. A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroad, 1985.

Scholer, David. Nag Hammadi Bibliography (2 vols.). Nag Hammadi Studies. Leiden: Brill, 1971, 1997 (with annual updates in Novum Testamentum).

Citation: Karen L. King, " Mary of Magdala in Early Christian Coptic Literature," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Dec 2003]. Online:


© 2020, Society of Biblical Literature. All Rights Reserved.