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A new look at the Magdalene: The Gospel of Mary

From the July 2006 issue of The Christian Science Journal

IMAGINE A GOSPEL NAMED AFTER A WOMAN—and one no less than Mary Magdalene. In fact, the Gospel of Mary is actually the only known Gospel to be named after a woman. The discovery of this text has the potential to significantly affect the way we think about Mary Magdalene. In popular culture, she has been assigned two distinct roles: the repentant prostitute who washed Jesus' feet and the wife of Jesus, most recently featured in the widely read book The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Doubleday, 2003) . However, nothing in the Gospel of Mary or in the New Testament indicates that she fit either of those labels. In the Western orthodox tradition, Mary Magdalene became associated with the woman described in the book of Luke. See Luke 7:36–50 . This woman, however, is nameless. We don't know who she was. The Western Church simply associated her with Mary Magdalene, and she became an example of a repentant sinner. In the Gospel of Mary, this Mary appears as a close disciple of Jesus and as a leader of an early group of Christians.

Only partial copies of the Gospel of Mary have been found. The beginning and middle sections are missing. The first fragmented copy was discovered in the late 19th century in Egypt. This papyrus is written in Coptic and dates from the 5th century. It is currently housed in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, Germany. In 1917, another fragment of the Gospel of Mary, written in Greek and dating from the third century, was discovered. This fragment was also found in Egypt, near Oxyrhynchus, and is in the Rylands Library in Manchester, England. Although this fragment did not add any new passages, it did provide some variant readings. Another third-century Greek fragment was found near Oxyrhynchus and resides in the Ashmoleon Library at Oxford University. All three fragments appear to be independent copies of earlier manuscripts, copies of the original.

The original Gospel of Mary was probably written sometime in the second century, a century or so after the first disciples had gone out to share the gospel. The Mary Gospel is probably not intended to be literal, but rather to represent the tradition of a group of Christians who looked to Mary Magdalene as their leader. Mary may have initiated a Christian community.