NYTimes.com Article: Op-Ed Columnist: Peter, Paul, Mary . . . and God
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Op-Ed Columnist: Peter, Paul, Mary . . . and God
February 28, 2004
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
For a provocative look at the emergence of Christianity two
millenniums ago, skip Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ"
and examine instead some of the fascinating recent
scholarship on the early church.
Interest in the early church has blossomed because of
"Passion" and the "Da Vinci Code" thriller. But "Passion"
and especially "The Da Vinci Code" take great liberties
with history, while serious research has gotten much less
Consider the newly published "Gospel of Mary of Magdala."
It offers a new translation by Karen King, a Harvard
Divinity School professor, of the obscure Gospel of Mary,
which was lost for 1,500 years before two fragmentary
versions were found.
The Gospel of Mary offers a proto-feminist recounting of a
scene in which the resurrected Jesus tells the disciples to
preach, and then leaves them. The disciples are emotional
and tearful - until Mary Magdalene takes charge and bucks
"Do not weep and be distressed," she tells them, and, sure
enough, they pull themselves together. Then Mary begins to
relate Jesus' private teachings to her, saying, "I will
teach you about what is hidden from you."
But the disciples rebel at being instructed by a woman.
Andrew and Peter virtually accuse Mary of making it all up,
and she starts crying. Levi intercedes, scolding: "Peter,
you have always been a wrathful person. . . . Assuredly,
the Savior's knowledge of her is completely reliable. That
is why he loved her more than us."
Bibles, like history, are written by the winners. There
were innumerable early gospels and teachings (some 85
percent of Christian literature from the first two
centuries has been lost). Some won approval and entered the
New Testament, and the rest were condemned as heresies or
died out on their own. The Gnostic Gospels and other early
writings suggest that initially the role of women was hotly
debated, but ultimately the idea prevailed that men should
"God's pattern is for men to be the leaders, both in the
church and in the family," Pat Robertson writes in his
best-selling book "Bring It On." He cites I Timothy: "Women
should listen and learn quietly and submissively. I do not
let women teach men or have authority over them."
Likewise, Paul wrote to the Corinthians: "Women should be
silent during the church meetings. It is not proper for
them to speak."
That view is hard to square, though, with other accounts
that portray Mary Magdalene as a favorite of Jesus'. The
"Pistis Sophia" scripture quotes Jesus as telling Mary
Magdalene: "You are she whose heart is more directed to the
Kingdom of Heaven than all your brothers."
And the Gospel of Philip says of Mary Magdalene: "She is
the one the Savior loved more than all the disciples, and
he used to kiss her on her mouth often. . . . The rest of
the disciples . . . said to him, `Why do you love her more
than us?' "
These gospels aren't necessarily suggesting a romance
between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and in any case their
value is much debated - traditionalists argue that they are
prized to make ideological points rather than to clarify
history. The Gospel of Mary was written in her name but not
by her, and apparently was written in the early second
century, long after the events it describes.
Still, the dispute over the role of women can be seen
raging in many early Christian writings. The Gospel of
Thomas even quotes Simon Peter as saying, "Let Mary leave
us, for women are not worthy of life."
Susan Haskins, in her history of the idea of Mary
Magdalene, says that egalitarian principles in the New
Testament initially prevailed in the first-century
Christian community. But then, she writes, Christianity
gradually returned to the traditional patriarchal system of
That suppression of female leadership may be behind the
labeling of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, starting with a
sermon by Pope Gregory the Great in 591. And recent
scholarship has established that Junius, whom Paul calls
"distinguished among the apostles," was actually Junia, a
woman whose name was made masculine by later translators.
How should we regard these alternative versions of Biblical
events? They are a reminder that there were competing
strains in the early Christian church, and that different
outcomes were possible. My guess is that the ordination of
women would not have been controversial if Mary Magdalene,
rather than St. Peter, had emerged as the first pope.��
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