The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

By Jean-Yves Leloup
Trans. Joseph Rowe.Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 2002. Paperback, 178 pages.

At the turn of the twentieth to the twenty-first century, we are experiencing a Gnostic renaissance that might represent a parallel to the Hermetic-Humanistic Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Every year we find that the literature on this subject has grown by way of the publication of new books often containing exciting new translations of important Gnostic texts.

Only fifty years ago it was generally believed that Gnosticism was extinct and thus could be approached only historically. Today we know that this is not the case. In Iraq and Iran there lives a substantial religious minority known as the Mandaeans (from the word manda denoting Gnosis), ancient Semitic Gnostics who have survived since the early centuries of the Christian era. Until quite recently, the only available literature describing these fascinating folk were the scholarly and hard-to-obtain tomes of the pioneer researcher, Lady Ethel Stefana Drower, who in the first half of the twentieth century befriended members of the Mandaean community and described their beliefs, customs, and scriptures.

Edmondo Lupieri, an Italian university professor of the history of Christianity, has presented us with a singularly informative introduction to Mandaeanism. In addition to the kind of material that was familiar to some of us by way of the books of Lady Drower, Lupieri discloses many valuable accounts of the prolonged interaction of the Mandaeans with Western Christianity, primarily Italian missionaries, who documented their experiences with the Mandaeans. Many of these documents (beginning with chronicles written by Rocoldo da Montecroce, a thirteenth century monk) are in the archives of the Vatican. In addition to these unique historical sources, Lupieri presents much contemporary information, including the visit of a Mandaean delegation to the Vatican in 1990 and the presence of Mandaean priests at a noted conference dealing with their religion in Boston in June, 1999.

Lupieri's book is arguably the best work ever published on this remarkable remnant of ancient Gnosticism. The book is enriched by an extensive anthology of translated Mandaean texts in addition to the detailed historical study that constitutes its first part. Esoteric students need to keep in mind that the Mandaeans are the most likely source of the Gnostic connections of the medieval Knights Templar, and thus they may very well be the mysterious "Christians of Saint John" referred to in Templar and Masonic lore. Students of the Gnostic tradition ought" to feel grateful for this readable and insightful introduction to an important branch of the ancient, but still extant, Gnostic movement.

The most renowned of all Gnostic scriptures is the treatise known as Pistis Sophia, contained in the Askew Codex, which turned up mysteriously in London toward the end of the eighteenth century. Several scholars have prepared translations of this remarkable text, not the least of whom was the Theosophist, G. R. S. Mead, whose fine translation, published in the last years of the nineteenth century remains the most accessible of all translations.

The myth of Sophia, "Our Lady Wisdom," is one of the most important myths of the Gnostic tradition. It tells the story of a feminine emanation of the Deity, who at a certain point in her career falls from her high throne and becomes subject to numerous afflictions and indignities until she is rescued and restored to her original place of glory. Contemporary writers on the feminine principle, including students of C. G. Jung, have often referred to Sophia as a mythic representative of the fate and predicament of the human soul in general and of the feminine psyche in particular.

Like so many scriptures of Gnostic provenance, the Pistis Sophia is a complex work, filled with repetitious passages, difficult sentence structure, and imagery that may appear incomprehensible to one not familiar with Gnostic scriptures. Now, for the first time, a highly skilled translator has given us a version of this treatise that is simplified and freed from some of its obscurities, while retaining its essential content and poetic form. Violet MacDermot is one of the most insightful and sympathetic contemporary scholars of Gnostic literature. Her earlier monumental translations of several codices are well known. Trained as a medical doctor, she became an Egyptologist and scholar of Coptic texts. In many ways this latest work is her finest gift to her readers.

One of the historically significant discoveries in Gnostic studies was the Akhmim Codex, which in the latter part of the nineteenth century came to repose in the Berlin Museum. This work has received less attention than the Pistis Sophia, perhaps because it is less voluminous, although it contains three separate treatises. Two of these, The Gospel of Mary and The Act of Peter have appeared in a fine new translation appended to the now classic work, The Nag Hammadi Library in English, edited by James Robinson (4th ed. 1996). Now a new and somewhat peculiar translation and treatment of the first of these treatises has appeared, under the title The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. The translation of the text is written in a style rather more cumbersome than the one in The Nag Hammadi Library. As to the commentaries, they are likely to bewilder anyone who has some familiarity with the content and especially the context of this scripture.

Beginning with Carl Schmidt's first treatment of this scripture in 1896, every authority has acknowledged that this is a Gnostic scripture. It would therefore appear to be obvious that any interpretation of the text ought to take into account the Gnostic context of the material. Such, however, is not the case when it comes to this work by Jean-Yves Leloup. The commentaries attached to the translated passages reflect much modern theological and philosophical speculative thought, which appears to be projected onto an ancient Gnostic text, where it obviously is out of place. Nowhere do the commentaries even intimate the Gnostic spiritual ambience of the scripture in question. In fact this treatment comes very close to falsifying its intent. This circumstance is particularly tragic in view of the increasing popularity in literature of the figure of Mary Magdalene and of her relationship to Jesus. A number of years ago, the sensational book Holy Blood, Holy Grail convinced many naïve readers of the unsubstantiated story of Mary Magdalene's children sired by Jesus. Now we find ourselves confronted with a Jesus and a Mary Magdalene harnessed to modern and post-modern agendas.

The book is further rendered suspect by the content and more particularly by the bibliography in the lengthy preface by David Tresemer and Laura-Lee Canon. This bibliography lists, along with a few reputable works, several revisionist fantasies masquerading as history, mainly inspired by the "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" theories, which are characterized as "extremely well researched." No more needs to be said.


May/June 2003